12 Most Royally Right Ways to Lead (Lessons from Henry VIII)

12 Most Royally Right Ways to Lead (Lessons from Henry VIII)

Henry VIII has been an irresistibly fascinating figure for more than 50 years. He went from a young king who was considered handsome, athletic, and the hope for the future to a six-times married obese man who had to be carried from room to room.

People remained nearly obsessed with him — he is often the lead in Renaissance festivals, his image is found all around us, and the Normandy Hotel in Minnesota even sports a Henry VIII burger on its menu. As a king, he got many things wrong. However, he does provide these royally right leadership lessons:

1. Assemble a good team

Henry relied too much on Thomas Wolsey at some points in his reign, and he learned from this. Later, he assembled a team of leaders, separating the political and the religious leadership under Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. He also involved his friend and recognized intellectual leader Thomas More. By including several voices (who happened to all be named Thomas!) in his leadership team, Henry was able to make significant progress over a few short years.

2. Create inspirational work environments

With a court that consisted of more than 1,000 people, having a suitably large and modern working space was an ongoing challenge. For health reasons, the king and court shifted locations every few months to allow palaces to be cleaned. Henry acquired and renovated more than 55 palaces over his lifetime, some of which he turned into truly magnificent environments for the work (and play) of his entire court. He acquired York Place to replace Westminster in 1530, redesigning and extending the building to include a recreation center with a bowling green, indoor tennis court, a pit for cock fighting, and a tiltyard for jousting. Likewise, Henry expanded Hampton Court Palace to accommodate his large court, quadrupling the size of the kitchens and adding a Great Hall.

3. Be an excellent student

Henry was described by those who knew him as speaking fluent French, Latin, and Spanish. As a young boy, he enjoyed a strong classical education. Thomas More and Erasmus, acknowledged in their day as some of the brightest scholars in Europe, met Henry when he was only ten years old. Both of the men were impressed by and commented on Henry’s intellectual abilities. At his brother’s death, he became heir to the throne and was schooled in politics and state matters. His scholarly interest included writing books and music. He was an accomplished musician and was the author (at least the acknowledged author) of a best-selling book, In Defense of the Seven Sacraments. The Pope was so pleased with this book he named Henry “Defender of the Faith.”

4. Support the education of others

Henry insisted upon a fine education for all three of his children, including daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Although declared officially “illegitimate” for most of their childhoods, the king provided tutors and teachers for his daughters. This prepared them well for their own reigns. Henry also supported public education. He founded Trinity College at Cambridge University in 1546. He also took over Cardinal College at Oxford University and made it King Henry VIII’s College in 1532, re-founding it as Christ Church as part of the reorganization of the Church of England in 1546.

5. Hold the throne

Henry was well aware of his family’s tenuous hold on the English throne. After years of civil war, his father had taken the throne from Richard III by force. Several alternate rulers were still hanging around the kingdom, posing a real threat to Henry’s reign. Henry suspected many of high social birth and large land holdings, especially those who disagreed with him on any issue. After the creation of the Church of England, nobles and families in the north rebelled against Henry’s position as Supreme Head of the Church. In the face of all these challenges, Henry worked hard to maintain his position. He also turned the kingdom upside down in his quest for a son to secure a smooth succession. Although his methods were frequently suspect, his goal of holding the throne and avoiding civil war ultimately served the kingdom well.

6. Know the competition

Henry’s interest in foreign policy was focused on Western Europe, which saw a shifting pattern of alliances around powerhouses Spain and France. Henry was especially interested in conquering France and created an Anglo-Spanish alliance that he thought would benefit Spain. However, when this failed, he attempted an allegiance with Francis I, king of France. He was always aware of what his fellow monarchs were doing and what allegiances they were pursuing so he could position himself well.

7. Shore up weaknesses and strengthen infrastructure

One of Henry’s greatest contributions was his expansion of the Royal Navy. When he came to the throne, he inherited only 5 naval ships. As the political climate in Europe became more unstable over Henry’s reign, the king concentrated on building the Navy into a strong force. Eventually Henry built the Navy to 53 ships, providing the foundation for the tremendous success his daughter Elizabeth’s Navy enjoyed in their battle against the Spanish Armada.

8. Work the plan

Henry was sometimes shortsighted, stubborn, and unable to see beyond his immediate desires. But he knew how to work a plan through to its completion. When he decided to set aside his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, he faced extraordinary opposition from Katherine, his council, Parliament, his people, the Pope, and Emperor Charles V. He was determined to get his way, and he never let go. Ultimately, although he failed several times along the way, he managed to enact the Act against Annates, the Act in Restraint of Appealed, the Act of Supremacy, and Act of Submission of the Clergy, and the Act of Succession in order to get his way. He married Anne Boleyn in 1533, created the Church of England, and changed England forever.

9. Make bold choices

As part of the establishment of the Church of England, Henry directed the publication of the Bible in English. After years of resisting the publication of scripture in the vernacular and prosecuting would-be translators like William Tyndale, Henry shifted his position and commissioned the Great Bible — the first official English translation of the Bible — in 1595. The law required this Bible to be read aloud in the churches in England. This choice of Henry’s changed the nature of religion in England and was a significant step in the eventual publication of the King James Bible, a landmark in literary, cultural, and religious history throughout the world.

10. Cultivate and support the arts and humanities

Henry was a lavish patron of the arts, which he considered an integral part of a complete life. Among his fellow monarchs, Henry demonstrated considerable musical abilities, and was accomplished performing at the lute, the organ, and the virginals. He also sang and composed music. Henry surrounded himself with fine music. He sought out and employed some of the finest musicians in Europe to perform at royal ceremonies at court. The king also imported artists and sculptors from Europe to renovate and decorate his palaces. His support for the arts set a standard for his heirs and for the continent.

11. Leave a legacy

From the time he came to the throne, Henry was obsessed with producing a male heir to secure the succession. As the “spare” himself, he wanted more than one son to make matters even more definite. Considering English history, including recent years of civil war over “legitimate” claims to the throne, Henry took this responsibility very seriously. Much to his dismay, he had only one living son — and two daughters. He probably never would have imagined that all three of his children would sit on his throne, with his heirs ruling England for more than 50 years after his death. Furthermore, it was his daughter Elizabeth who led England’s “Golden Age,” fulfilling Henry’s desires to establish England as a political and cultural power in Europe.

12. Invest in your image

More than 500 years after his coming to the throne, Henry VIII is one of the most known historic figures in the world, recognizable from his profile: wide shoulders, hands on hips, feet apart. Henry carefully cultivated this after a very bad year in 1536, his first wife died, he had a terrible jousting accident that prevented him ever riding again, he was told his second wife had been unfaithful and ordered her execution, his illegitimate son died suddenly, and his subjects staged a rebellion. Over the next four years, he worked with painter Hans Holbein to create the powerful image that lasts to this day. The investment in this image paid off, as this is the image we recognize as Henry VIII even today.

There is no shortage of opinions on the character of Henry VIII. He’s often called a tyrant, a womanizer, and a murderer. Charles Dickens felt he was a disgrace to England. But others disagree. Church leader, Edward Lewis, called Henry a person of great wisdom and judgment. Edward Herbert, Baron of Cherbury, called him one of the most glorious princes of his time.

Whatever the overall assessment, some of his actions provide valuable lessons in leadership. What do you think? Do his good ideas matter more than his bad boy behavior?

Featured image courtesy of lisby1 licensed via Creative Commons.

Painting by Holbein.

Carol Ann Stanger


Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger believes in the power of communication to create a wonderful life. For more than 20 years, she has helped organizations throughout the Washington, DC area be more effective. Carol Ann recently launched her own company, Bright Torch Communication, to provide speaking, training, and consulting to help individuals and organizations communicate their way to success.

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