Henry VIII is an iconic king. He was a tyrant, engaged in serial monogamy, had mistresses and, in his quest for a male heir and desire to marry Anne Boleyn, caused the split with Rome. This ushered in the Act of Supremacy, the subsequent establishment of the Church of England, and the English Reformation. But how much do we know about the men who were closest to him? How did they serve and influence him? Since I have written about Henry's 'minions' in the first chapter of my thesis, and since I have been asked to review a book about Henry VIII, I thought it would be apt to post something about these fascinating men.
'Minions': privy chamber of Henry VIII (1509–1547)
This was a body of personal servants to the king, and was an institution whose importance has only recently been fully appreciated. Developments at the royal court from the mid-fifteenth century put in place new living arrangements for the king—a private suite known as ‘the privy chamber’. This led by the end of the first decade of the reign of Henry VIII to the appearance of a new category of gentle-born courtiers who alone attended the sovereign there and provided the social milieu in which he spent much of his time when away from the public eye. The benefits of belonging to the privy chamber circle meant that there was a constant pressure for growth in numbers; the ten of 1526 had more than doubled by the time of the king's death on 28 January 1547.The Most important member of the privy chamber staff was the groom of the stool, the king's most intimate body servant: Sir William Compton from 1509 to 1526, Henry Norris from 1526 to 1536, Sir Thomas Heneage from 1536 to 1546, and Sir Anthony Denny from 1546 to 1547. There were generally also one or two noblemen of the privy chamber, including George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, from 1530 to 1536, and Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, from 1536 to 1547. Most of the remaining staff were divided into gentlemen of the privy chamber and grooms, although over time the difference tended to elide. Nominal rank, however, was not the most important factor; indeed a number of men (whose numbers tended to grow) were appointed additionally, unpaid, while others in the charmed circle such as Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder enjoyed no official status at all. What mattered was royal favour, and a number of men were able to build major public careers on their privy chamber service. Among the most successful of these were Sir John Russell, later first earl of Bedford, and Sir William Herbert, later first earl of Pembroke.
The complete index of Henry's privy chamber circle has yet to be established, but its importance is not only to be measured in the effect on individual careers where, as the case of Sir William Brereton shows, an income equivalent to that of an aristocrat was a possibility. The privy chamber was of enormous importance politically. In the first place, not only might there be the opportunity to influence the king personally; court parties also operated with objectives both mercenary and political—something which explains the disasters that befell, among others, Brereton, Sir Nicholas Carew, and Norris. Henry, though, was not the prisoner of his courtiers and employed them in a direct executive role to give him independence against his leading royal servants, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas Cromwell. He used his intimates to carry out confidential missions. It was Russell and Norris who conducted the private communication that the king maintained with Wolsey after the cardinal's fall. The credence commanded by privy chamber status also made it possible for Henry to send many instructions by word of mouth. Privy chamber staff even possessed a surrogate royal authority. When Henry Percy, sixth earl of Northumberland, tried to arrest Wolsey the cardinal demanded to see his warrant. However, Wolsey surrendered to Walter Walsh [see below], a groom of the privy chamber, saying:
Ye be oon of the kynges privye chamber your name I suppose is [Walsh] I ame content to yeld unto you but not to my lord of Northumberland without I se his commyssion And you are a sufficyent commyssion your self in that behalfe in as myche as ye be oon of the kynges privy chamber Ffor the worst person there is a sufficient warraunt to arrest the greattest peere of this realme. (G. Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. R. S. Sylvester, 1959, 156)
An identity as a royal alternate meant that privy chamber staff were prominent in military operations. From 1536 to 1547 the lord high admiral was always a member of the privy chamber. The representative character of privy chamber service also meant that the gentlemen were heavily employed in diplomacy. Four or five ambassadors to France between 1520 and 1526 held the rank.It would, however, be wrong to assume that everyone in the privy chamber circle was high-profile.
Sir John Welsbourne (c.1498–1548), son of Thomas Welsbourne, possibly of Chipping Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, landowner, and his wife, Margery, daughter of Thomas Poure of Bletchingdon, Oxfordshire, was in many ways a typical courtier. Little is known of him before he entered the privy chamber in June 1519, the year in which Wolsey expelled the ‘minions’, Henry's group of favourites that included Carew and William Carey, and installed his own men there. Welsbourne was perhaps introduced to provide the menial service that Wolsey's group of distinguished careerists could not be expected to give. He was first appointed to the post of page of the privy chamber with an annuity of £10 a year. By 1521 he was a groom, and by 1523 he was so firmly established in the privy chamber that he was allowed to exercise his office of controller of custom in Bristol by deputy as ‘he has been retained as one of the grooms of the Privy Chamber’ (LP Henry VIII, 3.3214, no. 17).
[One reading of John Skelton's play Magnyfycence, the subject of the first chapter of my thesis, becomes plausible if we assume that it was written between 1517 and 1519. By 1517, King Henry VIII had added to the Privy Chamber a group of men younger than himself who treated the king in a very casual manner. This group of fashionable young men quickly became known as "the King's Minions" and were given an official place in court in 1518. Wolsey and other conservatives were alarmed at the way the "minions" treated the monarch, and had more than half the minions ousted by 1519. If the play is based upon the "ousting of the minions", it becomes a warning to the king with the Wolsey character based upon Redress. At any rate, the play does represent the vices as fashionable young men like the minions who encourage the prince to pursue his desires while showing favour to a select group of friends.]
In 1526 Welsbourne was expelled from the privy chamber. The minions had returned to the privy chamber in the early 1520s, and with Wolsey's appointees also serving there, its size had started to grow out of control. Wolsey therefore set about reforming the court, and in 1526 he issued the Eltham ordinances. This reduced the staff of the privy chamber, and Welsbourne was one of those to go. However, he did not leave empty-handed, for he was made an esquire of the stable. Two years later he was brought back to intimate royal service as an esquire for the body. From 14 March to 19 December 1530 he was sent as special ambassador to François I, the French king, receiving a diet of £1 6s. 8d. per day. There is no evidence that the mission was of great importance, but Welsbourne received his reward none the less, for by July 1531 he was restored to the privy chamber, now as a gentleman.Welsbourne continued to serve as a gentleman for the remainder of Henry's reign, attending the great occasions of state, such as the baptism of Edward, prince of Wales, in 1537, and the reception of Anne of Cleves in 1540. Throughout the 1530s he tried to win Cromwell's favour, and the principal secretary does seem to have found him useful, particularly in the dissolution of Abingdon Abbey, from which Welsbourne wrote many letters begging to be allowed to return to the royal presence. Welsbourne did, however, settle near the abbey with the help of several grants of land, and served as JP not only in Oxfordshire, but also Berkshire and Northamptonshire. In October 1537 Welsbourne wrote to Cromwell asking for help in obtaining land, trusting ‘in the goodness of the King to all those who are daily waiting on him’ (LP Henry VIII, 12/2). He was knight of the shire for Oxfordshire in 1539, probably through Cromwell's influence. Welsbourne survived Cromwell's fall and was knighted on 30 September 1544. On 1 February 1546 he obtained a licence to marry Elizabeth (d. in or after 1548), daughter of one Lawrence of Fulwell, co. Durham. They had two sons. He also had an illegitimate son. Despite his complaints, Welsbourne seems to have been a wealthy man when he died on 11 April 1548.
Walter Walsh (d. 1538) was the son of John Walsh and his wife, Elizabeth Blount, and was another courtier who was able to profit from his position as a member of the privy chamber. Unlike Welsbourne, Walsh seems to have entered the privy chamber as a result of the Eltham ordinances, probably becoming salaried at the same time. There is some confusion about his role in the privy chamber, for he is referred to as yeoman, page, and groom at different times during 1526–7. However, in December 1528 he is listed in the accounts of Sir Brian Tuke, the treasurer of the chamber, as a groom, and after this the title remains consistent. The best documented episode of Walsh's career is his mission, with Northumberland, to arrest Wolsey on 4 November 1530. On 22 November 1529 Walsh married Elizabeth or Werburga (d. in or after 1538), widow of Sir William Compton. This brought Walsh not only great riches, but also the life sheriffwick of Worcestershire, his own county. He seems to have lived out the remaining decade of his life away from court as a leading gentleman of Worcestershire and local agent for the government. The extent of Walsh's wealth is evident from the fact that Henry stayed three nights with him in 1535. Walsh died in March 1538, and even as he lay dying the fighting to obtain his offices had already begun.
Sir Richard Long (c.1494–1546) was the third son of Sir Thomas Long (1449–1508), landowner, of Draycot Cerne in Wiltshire, and his wife, Margery (d. in or after 1508), daughter of Sir George Darrell of Littlecote in Berkshire. He also gave long service to the crown from within the privy chamber. In 1512 Long was among the retinue of Sir Gilbert Talbot, who went as deputy to Calais. By 1515 he was one of the spears of Calais, a post that he seems to have retained for the remainder of his life. It is not clear how he came to be appointed to the court, but in December 1528 Long was listed by the treasurer of the chamber as working in the stables, and by 1533 he was certainly an esquire of the stable. By this time he had come to the attention of Cromwell, who arranged for him to be non-resident in Calais, except in times of war. In 1532 Long's brother, Sir Henry Long (b. in or before 1487, d. 1556), had already written to Cromwell to thank him for his favour to Richard.
In 1535 Long gained a position in the privy chamber as gentleman usher, possibly through Cromwell. He quickly gained the favour of the king and rose in prominence. In 1537 he was one of those who held the canopy over Edward at his baptism, and he was knighted on 18 October in the celebrations following, the same day that his kinsman Sir Edward Seymour (c.1500–1552) was created earl of Hertford. In 1538 Long was appointed master of the buckhounds and master of the hawks, and by 1539 he was a gentleman of the privy chamber. He was MP for Southwark in 1539. Long survived the fall of his patron, Cromwell, and became a prominent servant of the government throughout the 1540s.
During these years Long was one of the most senior members of the privy chamber and his intimacy with the king made him a useful agent for secret and covert affairs. In January 1541 he was sent to Calais to put its affairs in order, being described by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, bishop of Vienne, as ‘a person of authority and conduct’ (LP Henry VIII, 16.466). On his return he was instructed to arrest Sir John Wallop, a diplomat suspected of colluding with Cardinal Reginald Pole. This was a mission that required him to be discreet and wise, and its failure was blamed not on Long, but on his kinsman Hertford. He was still trusted enough later that year to work on various commissions and juries dealing with the treason of Catherine Howard. On 10 November 1541 he obtained the marriage settlement of Margaret (1508/9–1561), only daughter of John Donington of Stoke Newington in Middlesex and widow of Sir Thomas Kitson of London and Hengrave in Suffolk. They had one son and three daughters. The government also made use of Long's military experience. He was made governor of Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark in 1541, a post that he held until sickness forced him to retire in 1545, and in 1542 he was appointed captain of Kingston upon Hull, with a place on the king's council of the north. His marriage, together with many land grants, meant that like his fellow courtiers Welsbourne and Walsh, he was a rich man at his death on 30 September 1546. His widow married John Bourchier, second earl of Bath, on 11 December 1548. She died on 20 December 1561 at Stoke Newington and was buried at Hengrave on 12 January 1562.
Sir Maurice Berkeley (c.1514–1581) was the second son of Richard Berkeley, landowner, of Stoke, and his wife, Elizabeth (d. in or after 1538), daughter of Sir Humphrey Coningsby (d. 1535). He had also been a client of Cromwell. The earliest that is known of Berkeley is that he was trained for a legal profession in the office of the protonotary of the common pleas. His stepfather, Sir John Fitzjames (c.1470–1538?), was chief justice of the court of king's bench, and in January 1535 he wrote to Cromwell asking that Berkeley might be appointed clerk to the assize. Berkeley never gained this office, but it seems that Cromwell recognized his abilities, for by 1537 he was a member of his household. There is no certain evidence that Berkeley was appointed to the court until being referred to as a gentleman usher of the privy chamber in 1539, but it is likely that he was the Mr Bark who ran at the tilt at Lord William Howard's wedding in June 1536, and that he was therefore familiar at court before his appointment. Berkeley's appointment may have been aimed at strengthening Cromwell's hold on the court, particularly once he had given up the secretaryship. Unlike Wolsey, who tried to undermine the privy chamber, Cromwell aimed to control it by packing it with his own appointments. Berkeley survived his patron's fall, and continued to serve as gentleman usher for the remainder of Henry's reign. Unlike Welsbourne, Walsh, and Long, Berkeley's activities were centred entirely on the court, for it was the gentlemen ushers who were responsible for the daily organization of the privy chamber, and many of the menial tasks. He was rewarded for this service in 1543 when he was given licence to hold a prebend at Ripon, despite the fact that he was married and a layman. His wife was Katherine (d. 1560), daughter of William Blount, fourth Baron Mountjoy (c.1478–1534), and widow of John Champernowne of Modbury in Devon. Berkeley accompanied the king to France for war in 1544 where he was knighted on 30 September, and in 1545 he succeeded his brother as chief banner-bearer of England. His service throughout the 1540s was rewarded by Henry, in whose will he received £133 6s. 8d. He continued to serve in the privy chamber under Edward VI, becoming a gentleman by 1550, and was MP four times between 1547 and 1572. Under Mary I he was excluded, though he notably arrested the rebel Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger; however, he was restored to the court under Elizabeth I when in 1562 he married one of the queen's gentlewomen, Elizabeth (d. after 1581), daughter of Anthony Sands. With his first wife he had three sons, including Sir Edward Berkeley (d. 1596) and Sir Henry Berkeley (c.1547–1601), and five daughters, and with his second wife two sons, including Robert Berkeley (1566–1614), and one daughter. Berkeley died on 11 August 1581.
Sir Thomas Paston (c.1517–1550) was the fourth but third surviving son of Sir William Paston (1479?–1554), landowner, of Caister and Oxnead in Norfolk, and his wife, Bridget (d. in or before 1554), daughter of Sir Henry Heydon of Baconsthorpe in Norfolk. He seems to have owed his career at court to his family's standing. The Pastons were a noted Norfolk gentry family, and Thomas Paston's brothers Clement Paston (c.1515–1598) and John Paston (c.1510–1575/6) were also able to find employment in the court. Thomas Paston first appears in the records as a gentleman of the privy chamber in February 1538, an office that he retained until his death in 1550. In December 1541 he was also appointed to the post of keeper of the gallery at Greenwich Palace, which contained the armoury. By 1544 he was married to Agnes (d. before 1590), daughter of Sir John Leigh of Stockwell in Surrey. They had two sons and a daughter; the younger son, Edward Paston, was a notable collector of music. Paston may have had some experience as a soldier, for he accompanied the king to France in 1544 where he was knighted with his fellow courtier Berkeley on 30 September. He was knight of the shire for Norfolk in 1545. Like Berkeley he received 200 marks under the king's will, and continued to serve in Edward's privy chamber. He also continued to serve as a soldier, fighting under William Parr, marquess of Northampton, against Robert Kett and his rebels in summer 1549. Paston died on 4 September 1550.
Sir Henry Neville (c.1520–1593) was the second son of Sir Edward Neville (d. 1538), alleged conspirator, of Addington Park in Kent, and his wife, Eleanor, daughter of Andrew Windsor, first Baron Windsor, and his wife, Elizabeth. He came from noble stock, and it can be said that his appointment to the privy chamber was not because of this, but rather despite it. His father was the brother of George Neville, third Baron Bergavenny, and had been at one time a favourite of the king. However, he was executed on 9 January 1539 as a consequence of the Courtenay conspiracy. His children, though, did not suffer. Henry Neville, the younger son, was the king's godson and an annuity of £20 was granted to him in October 1539, only nine months after his father's execution. It is possible that he had been destined for a diplomatic career, for in March 1542 he was with the French ambassador. However, by 1546 he was a groom of the privy chamber—a considerable prize for the son of an alleged traitor. Neville seems to have been favoured by his royal godfather, for he was one of the grooms who witnessed Henry's will, and received £100 under its terms, and was also able to state at the trial of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, in 1551 that the king had felt a great hatred towards the bishop. Neville gained even more favour under Edward, particularly from John Dudley, earl of Warwick, who made him a gentleman of the privy chamber in 1550, along with his friend Henry Sidney. They were both knighted on 11 October 1551. Between 1551 and 1555 he married Winifred (d. in or before 1561), daughter of Hugh Loss of Whitchurch in Middlesex. They appear to have had no children. By 1561 Neville had married Elizabeth (d. 1573), daughter of Sir John Gresham of Titsey in Surrey. The couple had four sons, including the MPs Sir Henry Neville (1562–1615) and Edward Neville (b. 1567), and two daughters. In May 1578 Neville married his third wife, Elizabeth (d. 1621), daughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon, first baronet (c.1543–1624), and his wife, Anne, and widow of Sir Richard Doyley of Greenlands in Buckinghamshire. They had no children. Neville was knight of the shire for Berkshire five times between March 1553 and 1584. Under Mary he found it necessary to travel abroad because of his protestantism, but he returned under Elizabeth to spend the last thirty-five years of his life living as a prominent gentleman in Berkshire, holding various local offices. He died on 13 January 1593 and was buried in the church at Waltham St Lawrence in Berkshire.
Sir William Fitzwilliam (c.1506–1559) was the second son of Thomas Fitzwilliam of Baggotrath, co. Dublin, and his wife, Eleanor, daughter of John Dowdall and his wife, Margaret. He never served in Henry's privy chamber but throughout the 1540s was being groomed to serve Edward. Fitzwilliam's father was at one time sheriff of Dublin, and his family had a long history of serving in the Irish administration. He was possibly admitted to Gray's Inn in 1531. Fitzwilliam first came to prominence by his service to his namesake Sir William Fitzwilliam, later earl of Southampton. There is no evidence as to how he entered service with Sir William though it is possible that they were kinsmen. By 1536 Sir William Fitzwilliam was referring to him as his ‘trusty servant’, and he was his principal servant by 1539 (LP Henry VIII, 11.128). He may have sat as MP for Guildford in 1539 and certainly did so in 1542, through the patronage of his master. He was MP again three times between 1547 and 1559. By 1539 he had married Jane (d. after 1559), daughter and coheir of John Roberts of Cranbrook in Kent. They had four daughters.
LP Henry VIII, vols. 3–4, 11–13, 16 · D. R. Starkey, ‘The king's privy chamber, 1485–1547’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1973 · HoP, Commons, 1509–58, 1.418–19; 2.141–2, 545–6; 3.7–8, 68–9, 575–8 · HoP, Commons, 1558–1603, 1.432; 2.129–30; 3.124–5 · D. R. Starkey, ‘Intimacy and innovation: the rise of the privy chamber, 1485–1547’, The English court from the Wars of the Roses to the civil war, ed. D. Starkey and others (1987), 71–118 · S. Brigden, New worlds, lost worlds: the rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603 (2001) · CSP dom., 1547–53 · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/27, sig. 18; 11/31, sig. 18; 11/32, sig. 16; 11/33, sig. 25; 11/42B, sig. 53; 11/63, sig. 40; 11/81, sig. 1 · W. P. W. Phillimore, ed., The visitation of the county of Worcester made in the year 1569, Harleian Society, 27 (1888)