Assess the importance of Faction at the Court of Henry VIII 1509-1529


A faction is defined as being, “an alliance whose target is an individual, which operates by seeking to put pressure on the ruler and which sought to exploit the mechanisms of court.” Henry’s court contained a lot of faction because of his personal style of monarchy. When a king remained aloof from his court, it was difficult for people to have influence over him and so faction stagnated. For example, Henry VII had a very impersonal style of ruling, he would watch the court but not participate in their activities. Henry VIII, on the other hand, was always at the centre of court, interacting with everyone, this made him more susceptible to influence than his father. Policy making during Henry VIII’s reign was dependant on access to the king, therefore, people like privy chamber members could be less influential than Henry’s wife, simply because his wife had greater access. It is difficult to get a clear picture on whether factions controlled Henry or Henry controlled factions as primary sources would be heavily biased according the author’s interpretation of events and their personal beliefs.


The key to understanding how influential faction was at court is understanding who influenced faction and who was influenced by faction. On this subject opinion is split. Starkey believes Henry’s form of government encouraged faction and his unwillingness to commit to either side enhanced this encouragement further. In contrast to this is Bernard who feels that that Henry was often the ‘plaything of factions’ and therefore believes that it was factions who controlled Henry. Vergil holds the belief that Wolsey controlled faction by controlling access to the king. If people couldn’t communicate with the king they could not influence him. It is possible for all three views to be correct at various different points in time between 509-1529, but they cannot all be correct at the same time.


If Starkey’s view, that Henry’s style of government encouraged faction, is correct then it is Henry who is ultimately in control of faction. It only flourished because he didn’t make decisions and therefore, if Henry wished to help or hinder a particular faction he would simply make the decision accordingly.


There was more faction in Henry VIII’s court than there was at Henry VII’s, whenever the ruler joined in at court, rather than ‘remaining aloof’, there was more faction. However, although Henry often didn’t commit to either side (and this ties in with Vergil’s view), when he did it caused problems for Wolsey who was accustomed to managing faction to suit himself. The best example of this would be the divorce. Henry was clearly supporting Anne over Katherine and so the factions were heavily weighted in Anne’s favour.


If the assumption is that Vergil is correct, and Wolsey controlled faction, not Henry, then it would also have to be said that Wolsey was a faction to himself. He attracted various ‘alliances’ and his main aim was to maintain his personal control over the king and through this control, his huge influence over policy. If Wolsey was his own faction then faction was hugely influential over the court and Henry. It was Wolsey who masterminded the downfall of Buckingham, it was Wolsey who shaped domestic policy, if people wished to be successful at court then they had to ‘woo’ Wolsey, many nobles did this by sending their sons to Wolsey’s household. It is Wolsey’s ability to manipulate faction that allows him to remain in power, until 1529 there is always a side that is better for Wolsey to join while Henry normally just followed his ‘first minister’s’ advice.


One of the reasons for Wolsey’s fall was the build up of faction that he couldn’t control and would lose no matter what. The ‘king’s great matter’ divided the court into two camps, the Boleyn camp and Katherine’s camp. For Wolsey this was a bad situation for more than one reason. Normally Wolsey only had to manipulate factions around Henry, but Henry wasn’t included in any of the factions. In this case it was different, the king was very clearly backing Anne, and this meant Wolsey had no choice but back the Boleyn faction. Wolsey couldn’t win whichever side he picked. Both Katherine