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Power in the Figure of the King

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The character of Henry VIII of England can be represented in different ways throughout literature. It can be thought that one of the main representations was his tyrannical nature. Driving the new social revolution under Henry VIII to become political and religious, was the centralisation of power in the figure of the king and his court. This was accelerated and solidified upon Henry declaring himself the Supreme Head of a new, nationalised Protestant church. The role of the English monarch, no longer at the mercy of feuding aristocratic factions or smarting under the authority of the Pope, had come into its own. The problem was how to maintain these newfound powers. For Henry VIII, the solution lay in the strict enforcement of conformity and obedience amongst English subjects, something that could only be achieved through the suppression of any and all forms of resistance and dissent. Treason, Henry believed, was everywhere, and as the king’s powers grew, so did his penchant for unpredictable and paranoid behaviour towards those whose lives and fortunes now depended upon the whims of royal favour. Bernard writes, ‘most remarkable about Henry’s reign, indeed unparalleled, is how many of those who at some point were close to him and served him well suddenly found themselves not just out of favour but on trial for their lives and condemned to death’. One courtier who was at the centre of sensational treason scandals under Henry VIII’s reign was poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt.

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‘Who list his wealth and ease retain’ is one poem that Wyatt wrote whilst imprisoned. In the third stanza, the speaker declares, ‘These bloody days have broken my heart/ My lust, my youth did them depart’ alongside the ‘blind desire of state’, immediately showing the personal effects he suffered. Having witnessed the downfall of others, the speaker’s situation has now been changed irrevocably: his own heart is “broken”, a line that speaks succinctly to a sense of personal loss and tragedy amidst the general turmoil of the “bloody days” of 1536, while the abrupt departure of his “lust” and “youth” implies that the speaker’s experiences have aged him prematurely, leaving him without vitality. His acknowledgement that “blind desire of estate” has fled along with his youth hints at the perils of overreaching oneself in the deadly games of favour and rank in the Henrician court, tying the speaker’s own former desire to rise and the painful lesson he has been taught about the price of such ambitions into the poem’s overall theme of the value of an obscure and humble existence. Being one of the earliest Tudors to have suffered in this way, Wyatt left behind traces of these experiences in his writing. 

Through his work, one can explore both the material and psychological effects of imprisonment and treason for a courtier in Henrician England.

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