King Henry VIII of England reigned from 1509 until 1547 and was constantly preoccupied with one thing: military success. Namely, Henry was obsessed with pressing his claim to the French throne. Through success and failure, at times of prosperity and of financial ruin, there was rarely a moment when Henry wasn’t thinking about invading France or wasn’t fighting in France himself. His interest in warfare was a testament to the King’s vanity and his obsession with preserving his public image. His father, Henry VII, had ended his reign with a controversial reputation, ruthlessly maintaining a grip over the laws of England and keeping its nobility on a tight leash. As a young man, Henry VIII wanted his reputation to be one of a warrior king.
As Henry grew older he became increasingly paranoid, afraid of threats lurking behind every corner. Henry VIII was not afraid to execute those who had previously been his closest friends and allies. Thomas More had been executed in 1535 for failing to adhere to Henry’s religious demands, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had died on his way to a trial which would have likely resulted in his execution, and on 28 July 1540 (only a few months after being given the earldom of Essex) Thomas Cromwell perished upon the scaffold. With Henry executing his friends left, right, and centre, was there anyone who he really trusted until the end?
The answer is yes. There are three notable people who Henry remained amicable with even when he was most suspicious of those around him. One is Francis Bryan, a sycophantic courtier who was half-cousin to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and who was nicknamed the ‘Vicar of Hell’ due to his lavish lifestyle — something he and Henry had in common. Another is William Sommers, his court jester, whose opinion and company Henry VIII always valued. The third is Anthony Denny.
That Denny had an intimate relationship with the King is entirely unsurprising, given his position as a groom of the chamber during the 1530s and Groom of the Stool from 1546–47. The Groom of the Stool was a position created under Henry VII as a part of a wider bureaucratisation of the privy chamber. On a basic level, the role consisted of aiding the King excrete. However, the position was actually much more important than that. The groom would have unrivalled access to the King at his most intimate. As such, many Grooms of the Stool were important figures. Hugh Denys, for example, helped manage Henry VII’s finances and Sir Henry Norris was at one point the closest friend of Henry VIII (although he would later be executed for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn).
Moreover, Denny and his brother-in-law John Gates controlled the ‘dry stamp’, which was used to sign off official documents (including Henry VIII’s will). By the final months of Henry VIII’s life, Denny had complete control of who had access to the privy chamber and did not squander his opportunity to influence court politics. A supporter of religious reform, he acted as a counterbalance to the influence of Stephen Gardiner and it is very possible that in the weeks preceding Henry’s death, Denny was likely influenced by the future Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, and William Paget to make amendments to the King’s will which caused the Regency Council to feature more religious reformers than it otherwise would have. Indeed, Denny shared what is arguably the most intimate experience possible with Henry VIII — the King’s death. It was Denny who informed the King in the days before his death that he should “prepare for his final agony”. John Foxe claims that it was to Denny that Henry VIII confessed his faith in Christ to whilst on his deathbed.
Clearly, Anthony Denny is a fascinating Tudor character. Although he never wielded the same power as Wolsey or Cromwell, he had the King’s ear in his final years. Denny’s friendship with Henry, which can justifiably be described as Henry’s closest, may at first seem like the trivial relationship between the King and a lowly servant (merely in charge of toilet duties), but within the context of Tudor court politics, Denny’s influence over the King would affect the make-up of King Edward VI’s council and thus the tide of religious policy-making for years to come.