A Brief History
On April 21, 1509, King Henry VIII of England ascended to the throne when his father, King Henry VII died. Henry VIII was the second of the Tudor monarchs of England and is best known for his 6 star crossed marriages and for taking England away from the Catholic Church and into the Protestant fold. Henry VIII was also the father of England’s next three monarchs, giving him a pivotal role in English History.
(Note: The premium cable television channel, Showtime, featured a 4 season series starting in 2007 called The Tudors, basically chronicling the reign of Henry VIII. Although a somewhat fictionalized program, the costumes and production values are movie quality and provide a highly entertaining way to get to know Henry and his wives and their contemporaries.)
Henry reigned for nearly 38 years, from 1509 until 1547. He ruled with an iron fist and made changes to the English Constitution to invoke “The Divine Right of Kings.” His reign was the backdrop for a major religious struggle for the souls of the English people between the Catholic Church and the Protestant movement. Henry was a big spender on all things extravagant and paid for his excesses with proceeds confiscated by his “dissolution of the monasteries” as part of his campaign to undo the Catholic Church in England. Henry waged war in an effort to enforce his claim on the throne of France and saw the union of England and Wales (1535 and 1542) and became the first English King of Ireland in 1542 upon adoption of the Crown of Ireland Act.
Henry is often depicted in his later years as a big fat glutton and lecher, but in his youth he was considered quite handsome and fit, a warrior King fond of jousting and dancing. Henry composed music and was known as an author, as well. It was a jousting injury that left his infected in 1536, a septic wound that never healed, causing pain, discomfort, unsightly open sores and a rotten smell. Perhaps this injury contributed to his obesity through reduced physical activity, or perhaps it was the onset of gout that slowed Henry down to the point of ever increasing weight gain. As he aged he got fat (a 54 inch waist) and developed painful and unsightly boils and sores on his body. The unfortunate jousting accident may have also caused a traumatic brain injury that altered Henry’s personality, resulting in precipitous mood swings.
In spite of important developments such as negotiations with Scotland over an attempt to unify the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, and the wars in France, as well as the unification with Wales and Ireland, it is Henry’s marriages that capture the popular imagination.
His first marriage to Catherine of Aragon from 1509 to 1533 (Spain), a devout Catholic, came in the wake of the death of Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had been married to Catherine in a political union between the thrones of Spain (Aragon and Castile) and England. (Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs that financed and authorized the Columbus voyages of discovery.) Henry’s father, King Henry VII eagerly desired Henry to marry Catherine to maintain the marital tie to Iberia, but the 14 year old Henry refused at first. Due to Henry’s youth (born 1491), the marriage to Catherine was delayed until Henry assumed the throne. Catherine bore Henry a son, but the boy died when only 52 days old. She bore daughter Mary (later to become Queen Mary I) to Henry in 1516 after having other failed pregnancies. Henry chafed under not having a male heir, and the marriage was never particularly joyful. Meanwhile, Henry dallied with at least a couple mistresses, although more are possible, including producing at least one illegitimate son. Henry became enamored of the younger sister of one of his mistresses, Anne Boleyn, and sought a way out of his marriage to Catherine.
The efforts by Henry to secure an annulment of his marriage to the now 40 year old Catherine through the graces of the Catholic Church led to disappointment, and it was this refusal to sanction such an annulment that led Henry to take England out of the orbit of the Catholic Church and establish the Church of England, with himself as “Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England.”
Next at bat for Henry was his mistress, Anne Boleyn, the younger sister of his previous mistress, one of Catherine’s hand maids. Henry secretly married Anne, who quickly became pregnant, and later married her again publicly (1533). Catherine became “Princess Dowager” and Anne became Queen Consort. Anne gave birth to the future Elizabeth I, one of England’s and Britain’s most notable Queens. Henry went about executing monks and destroying monasteries to consolidate religious power, while his marriage to Anne foundered. Once again, he had a wife that failed to provide a male heir. In 1536, Catherine died, Mary was declared illegitimate and Henry suffered his grievous leg wound while jousting. Henry became enamored of a new mistress and Anne was executed for adultery, possibly under false pretenses.
Henry’s new love was Jane Seymour, to whom he became engaged the day after Anne’s execution and married her 10 days later. Jane had been an attendant of Anne, and gave Henry his much longed for male heir, Edward, the future King Edward VI. Unfortunately, due to complications of a difficult birth, Jane died only 12 days after giving birth to Edward, having been the wife of Henry for only about a year. Jane was the only wife of Henry to be buried alongside him.
Not one to remain single for long, Henry was talked into marrying Anne of Cleves, sight unseen. Not a particularly good looking woman, Anne failed to arouse the interest of her new husband and the marriage was reportedly never consummated. The marriage of January 1540 was annulled in July of 1540, with Anne being given the title “King’s sister.” Thomas Cromwell, the man that arranged the marriage for Henry, was executed for treason, while 3 of his cohorts were burned as heretics!
Henry next turned to a rambunctious teen aged girl, Catherine Howard, another of Anne Boleyn’s ladies in waiting. They were married the same day Cromwell was executed (July 28, 1540). Catherine was discovered having previously had an affair with Francis Dereham, with whom she had entered an agreement to be married. The fact that Catherine had hired Francis to work for her became suspicious when their previous engagement was found out. Dereham was charged with having relations with the Queen, and he then revealed Thomas Culpeper, another courtier, was also having an affair with Catherine. The two men were executed, and on February 13, 1542, Catherine was beheaded as well.
Henry may have been in a foul mood in 1542 after the ignominy of having his Queen carrying on sexually without him, for he went about dissolving all the remaining monasteries in England. Meanwhile, attempts to subdue Scotland to Henry’s will floundered, and 8 years of war between the neighboring countries ensued. Henry waged war in France with mixed results, finally leaving the continent in 1546 after receiving monetary compensation for the disastrously expensive campaign.
Henry again married 15 months after the execution of Catherine Howard, this time to Catherine Parr. Catherine helped Henry achieve a sort of truce with his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and those daughters were placed back in the line of succession to the throne by an act of Parliament in 1543, with Prince Edward ranking first and Mary second.
Henry’s last years were marked by increasing obesity and decreasing health, with various illnesses speculated about by historians. A previously held belief that Henry suffered from syphilis has more recently been discounted, though a diet lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables may have contributed to his declining health. Henry died in 1547 at the age of 55, shouting “Monks, monks, monks!” on his deathbed. He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, only 9 years old at the time of Henry’s death. The new King was to be guided by a group of 16 executors named in Henry’s will until Edward reached the age of 18.
Edward never reached the age of 18 and died of illness after only 6 years on the throne. Edward named Lady Jane Grey as his successor, but Jane was deposed by Mary I only 9 days after assuming the throne. Mary, a Catholic, reversed much of Henry’s and Edward’s religious actions nullifying the Catholic Church and establishing a Protestant Kingdom, earning her the title “Bloody Mary” due to her executions of Protestants. Elizabeth I succeeded Mary I who had died at the age of 42 after a reign of only 5 years. Elizabeth I reigned for 45 years (1553-1608), making an enormous influence on the History of England. Elizabeth I was the last Tudor monarch in the dynasty, the end of Henry’s line.
We usually think of Henry VIII as depicted in his declining years, grossly obese and meting out death sentences with hardly a care, but the real man and King was much more than that, at least before his unfortunate jousting injuries to this leg and possibly his brain in 1536. His historical influence by taking England out of the orbit of the Catholic Church has had profound historical implications and his fathering of 3 heirs to the throne resulted in a period of over 50 years of the continuation of his direct lineage ruling England.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Henry a great king or a buffoon? Please tell us what you think of Henry and his accomplishments and policies. Feel free to offer whatever insight you may have into this interesting and eclectic man in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Frasier, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. Vintage, 1993.
Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Ballantine Books, 2007.
Weir, Alison. The Children of Henry VIII. Ballantine Books, 2011.