NO one, beholding the youth who mounted the throne of England in 1509, would have foreseen that he was to be both the hero and the villain of the most dramatic reign in English history. Still a lad of eighteen, his fine complexion and regular features made him almost girlishly attractive; but his athletic figure and prowess soon canceled any appearance of femininity. Foreign ambassadors vied with native eulogists in praising his auburn hair, his golden beard, his “extremely fine calf.” “He is extremely fond of tennis,” reported Giustiniani to the Venetian Senate; “it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture.”1 In archery and wrestling he equaled the best in his kingdom; at the hunt he never seemed to tire; two days a week he gave to jousts—and there only the Duke of Suffolk could match him. But he was also an accomplished musician, “sang and played all kinds of instruments with rare talent” (wrote the papal nuncio), and composed two Masses, which are still preserved. He loved dancing and masquerades, pageantry and fine dress. He liked to drape himself in ermine or purple robes, and the law gave him alone the right to wear purple, or gold brocade. He ate with gusto, and sometimes prolonged state dinners to seven hours, but in the first twenty years of his reign his vanity curbed his appetite. Everybody liked him, and marveled at his genial ease of manners and access, his humor, tolerance, and clemency. His accession was hailed as the dawn of a golden age.
The intellectual classes rejoiced too, for in those halcyon days Henry aspired to be a scholar as well as an athlete, a musician, and a king. Originally destined for an ecclesiastical career, he became something of a theologian, and could quote Scripture to any purpose. He had good taste in art, collected with discrimination, and wisely chose Holbein to immortalize his paunch. He took an active part in works of engineering, shipbuilding, fortification, and artillery. Sir Thomas More said of him that he “has more learning than any English monarch ever possessed before him” 2—no high praise. “What may we not expect,” More continued, “from a king who has been nourished by philosophy and the nine Muses?” 3 Mountjoy wrote ecstatically to Erasmus, then in Rome:
What may you not promise yourself from a prince with whose extraordinary talent and almost divine character you are well acquainted? But when you know what a hero he now shows himself, how wisely he behaves, what a lover he is of justice and goodness, what affection he bears to the learned, I venture to swear that you will need no wings to make you fly to behold this new and auspicious star. Oh, my Erasmus, if you could see how all the world here is rejoicing in the possession of 50 great a prince, how his life is all their desire, you would not contain your tears for joy. The heavens laugh, the earth exults.4
Erasmus came, and for a moment shared the delirium. “Heretofore,” he wrote, “the heart of learning was among such as professed religion. Now, while these for the most part give themselves up to the belly, luxury, and money,* the love of learning is gone from them to secular princes, the court, and the nobility.... . The King admits not only such men as More to his court, but he invites them—forces them—to watch all that he does, to share his duties and his pleasures. He prefers the companionship of men like More to that of silly youths or girls or the rich.” 5 More was one of the King’s Council, Linacre was the King’s physician, Colet was the King’s preacher at St. Paul’s.
In the year of Henry’s accession Colet, inheriting his father’s fortune, used much of it to establish St. Paul’s School. Some 150 boys were chosen to study, there, classical literature and Christian theology and ethics. Colet violated tradition by staffing the school with lay teachers; it was the first non-clerical school in Europe. The “Trojans,” who at Oxford inveighed against the teaching of the classics on the ground that it led to religious doubt, opposed Colet’s program, but the King overruled them and gave Colet full encouragement. Though Colet was himself orthodox and a model of piety, his enemies charged him with heresy. Archbishop Warham silenced them, and Henry concurred. When Colet saw Henry bent on war with France, he publicly condemned the policy, and declared, like Erasmus, that an unjust peace was to be preferred to the justest war. Even with the King sitting in the congregation Colet denounced war as flying in the face of the precepts of Christ. Henry privately begged him not to disrupt the morale of the army, but when the King was urged to depose Colet he answered: “Let everyone have his own doctor .... this man is the doctor for me.” 6 Colet continued to take Christianity seriously. To Erasmus he wrote (1517) in the spirit of Thomas à Kempis:
Ah, Erasmus, of books of knowledge there is no end; but there is nothing better for this short term of ours than that we should live a pure and holy life, and daily do our best to be cleansed and enlightened... by the ardent love and imitation of Jesus. Wherefore it is my most earnest wish that, leaving all indirect courses, we may proceed by a short method to the Truth. Farewell.7
In 1518 he prepared his own simple tomb, with only Johannes Coletus inscribed on it. A year later he was buried in it, and many felt that a saint had passed away.