Henry VIII – King of England

Henry VIII by Hans Eworth after Holbein

England’s most famous (or infamous) king, Henry VIII, was born on June 28, 1491 at Greenwich Palace. The second surviving son of Henry VII and the Yorkist princess, Elizabeth of York, he would reign as the second Tudor monarch. Henry received a classical humanist education and his father endowed him with the titles Duke of York in 1494 and Duke of Cornwall in early 1502. Henry’s elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, was heir to the throne and married to the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon in 1501. Arthur died in April the following year and Henry consequently became of Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, as well as engaged to be married to Katherine.

Presentation page from the Vaux Passional, Peniarth MS 482D, f. 9r. The illuminated miniature depicts Henry VII enthroned; and in the background on the left Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and the future Henry VIII beside an empty bed in the aftermath of the death of Elizabeth of York.

In April 1509, Henry VII died. Henry quickly married Katherine of Aragon, and they were both anointed and crowned two weeks later. Just short of his eighteenth birthday, Henry was charming, charismatic and intelligent, physically imposing, tall, athletic and handsome, with red hair and a beard. He loved hunting and hawking, and had a reputation as a fine archer, horseman, and tennis player. He loved to organize and take part in jousting tournaments. His talents encompassed writing musical compositions and poetry, and he fancied himself to be a knowledgeable theologian.

Spending time on entertainments, along with athletic and intellectual pursuits, Henry left the work of ruling the kingdom to others. Thomas Wolsey, a butcher’s son, had made a name for himself in the last years of Henry VII’s reign and under his son, Wolsey would rise rapidly after proving to be an efficient administrator for the Crown and the church. Wolsey became Archbishop of York in 1514 and in the following year, the Pope granted him a cardinal’s hat. Not long after, Henry appointed him to the post of Lord Chancellor.

Young Henry VIII (Photo credit: The Freelance History Writer)

During Henry’s reign, the English had to navigate a delicate balance of foreign policy between France, ruled by François I, and the Hapsburg empire, ruled by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the nephew of Queen Katherine of Aragon. Henry joined the Holy League in 1511, consisting of England, Venice and Spain to defend the Papacy from its enemies and France with military force. Henry promised to attack and took troops to France in the summer of 1512, leaving Queen Katherine to act as Regent during his absence.

Suit of armor of Henry VIII in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (Photo credit: The Freelance History Writer)

Because of a long-standing alliance between Scotland and France, Henry’s brother-in-law, James IV, King of Scots, had to attack England. English and Scottish troops met at Flodden Field on September 9, 1513 with a resounding defeat for the Scots and the death of King James. Henry captured Thérouanne and Tournai in France before returning home. From 1515 to 1529, Henry delegated complete control of foreign policy and most state business to Wolsey. Wolsey’s greatest achievement was the organization of the summit held in the summer of 1520, and dubbed the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where Henry met in person with François I just outside Calais.

Field of the Cloth of Gold

Henry desperately pursued having a son to carry on the newly minted Tudor dynasty. Katherine became pregnant many times but bore no surviving children, save for one daughter Mary, born in 1516. Mary, the apple of her parent’s eye, was given a fine humanist education, mostly with the aim of marrying her to a royal prince. Never formally endowed with the title Princess of Wales, they gave her a separate household and she lived in Ludlow for some time. In 1519, King Henry had an illegitimate son named Henry Fitzroy with his mistress Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount. Fitzroy would be showered with many gifts and titles and also given his own household.

In 1521, the Pope endowed Henry with the title Defender of the Faith after he penned a defense of the Church against Martin Luther and the Reformation. It soon became clear Queen Katherine would bear no more children and Henry cast his eye about, looking for a new wife. He found his candidate in Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to the queen and sister of his former mistress, Mary Boleyn. Anne was the daughter of a diplomat and noblemen at Henry’s court and she had accompanied Henry’s sister Mary to France when she married King Louis XII. Anne, a dark beauty, had wit, intelligence and ingenuity, and Henry fell deeply in love.

Anne would not settle for just being a mistress like her sister and abstained from having sex with the king, holding out to be his wife. The ‘King’s Great Matter’ of having his marriage to Katherine dissolved turned into a seven-year project, with Katherine refusing to give up her position. About the time Henry appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment, the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome and took the Pope captive. The Pope could not afford to annoy Katherine’s nephew and negotiations dragged on. Wolsey convened a tribunal and the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio traveled to England to hear the case.

Katherine gave a magnificent speech in her defense, but no decision came from the tribunal. Henry lost patience and had Wolsey arrested. He would die before he could be punished, with Henry inheriting Wolsey’s magnificent palaces of Hampton Court and Whitehall. Sir Thomas More took the position of Lord Chancellor and Wolsey’s protégé, Thomas Cromwell assumed many administrative duties. By now, Henry had completely broken with the Catholic Church. Instead of being the head of the church in England, he was now the Head of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the king’s marriage to Katherine null and void and Henry wed Anne Boleyn, who was now pregnant. Their daughter Elizabeth was born on September 7, 1533 at Greenwich.

In November 1534, the Act of Supremacy passed in Parliament. Henry assumed the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England. They declared Princess Mary illegitimate and Princess Elizabeth heir to the throne. Thomas More disagreed with Henry’s break with Rome and resigned as Chancellor. More refused to swear the oath acknowledging Henry was head of the church, resulting in More being executed in 1535.

The year 1536 saw massive change in Henry’s reign. Queen Anne failed to produce the long-sought son and Henry tired of their turbulent relationship. One of Anne’s women, Jane Seymour, had caught Henry’s eye. Katherine of Aragon, long in exile from court and lodged in dilapidated manors, died in January. On the first of May, Anne Boleyn, accused of many trumped-up charges and imprisoned in the Tower, was beheaded on May 19. Henry and Jane Seymour were betrothed the next day and married ten days later. Henry Fitzroy died that summer. Wales became further integrated into the state organization of England, and English declared the official language in 1543. In 1541, Henry adopted the title of ‘King of Ireland’ where previous kings had called themselves ‘Lord of Ireland’.  

Thomas Cromwell began a large-scale program of church reforms, putting in motion the Dissolution of the Monasteries, with the spoils going to the Crown and Henry’s supporters. This ambitious campaign resulted in unrest with the people who relied on the monasteries for spiritual and economic support. Notable rebellions occurred in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where Catholics rose up in a protest called the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry would not tolerate any opposition, and one hundred seventy-eight protestors, as well as their leader Robert Aske, were executed in June 1537.

Henry approved the translation of the Bible into English in 1539. Although he allowed this, he never intended to reform the doctrine of the Church. He remained committed to traditional Catholic practices such as the mass, confession and clerical celibacy. However, the door to reform had been opened and there were many who professed Protestant and Evangelical doctrine and called for reforms. This state of affairs had lasting consequences beyond Henry’s reign. Cromwell proved very effective in using Parliament to forward the king’s religious and political agenda.

Henry’s long-awaited son, Prince Edward, was born in October 1537, but Queen Jane died a few days later. Devastated, Henry ordered a royal funeral full of ceremony and pomp and they interred Jane in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor. Henry did not seek another wife immediately, but his ministers were pressing him to marry again.

King Edward VI as a child by Hans Holbein the Younger

Beginning in 1542, Henry began a series of reforms of the currency in England which were collectively called “The Great Debasement”. The consequences of these moves lasted into the reign of his son and were not corrected until the reign of Elizabeth I. One of Henry’s greatest achievements was his creation of the Royal Navy. The fleet included the celebrated Henry Grâce à Dieu (“Great Harry”) and the Mary Rose, which would later sink in the Solent in 1545 while fighting the French, with five hundred sailors lost. Henry also has a reputation as the builder of fine palaces, including the revamping of Hampton Court and Whitehall and the construction of St. James’ in London and the fairy tale palace of Nonsuch. He lavishly decked out all of his palaces with fine tapestries, furniture, art, and gold and silver plate.

Nonsuch Palace

In June 1538, King François I and Charles V met with the Pope for mediation and signed the Truce of Nice, which ended years of war. This powerful Catholic alliance resulted in forcing Protestant England into isolation. Cromwell searched for a Protestant alliance to counterbalance European power and turned to the Germanic states within the Schmalkaldic League and its supporters, which included the Duchy of Cleves. Duke William had two sisters, Anna and Amalia, who were of the right age for a potential marriage with Henry.

Dispatched to Cleves, the court painter Hans Holbein the Younger painted portraits of the two women. Henry seemed pleased with Holbein’s vision of Anna, and after contentious negotiations, they completed a marriage contract with a betrothal on September 4, 1539. Anna traveled to England, arriving in December. Henry, eager to meet his new wife, arrived in Rochester and, dressed as a private person with several men in attendance, met her on New Year’s Day. According to the two first-hand accounts of this meeting, it went well and Henry and Anna were married on January 6, 1540.

Cromwell had greatly miscalculated in making an alliance with the Germanic states. Anna’s brother, Wilhelm, had entered a dispute with Charles V over the ownership of the strategically located and economically important Duchy of Guelders. The claims of both men were tenuous and complicated, but the argument had reached the point where they were on the brink of war. Because of the Cleve’s alliance, Henry was about to be drawn into a conflict with the Hapsburg Empire.

A Secret Council convened to consider a legal basis for extricating Henry from the Cleves alliance and his marriage to Anna. They searched Cromwell’s house for the marital contract between Anna and Francis of Lorraine, an arrangement made before Anna’s betrothal and which she had renounced before she married Henry VIII. The Secret Council also considered how they would break the news to Anna. These proceedings were meant to protect Anna’s honor and extricate England from the looming debacle of war.

They agreed Cromwell would write a memorandum suggesting Henry did not like Anna, and declaring the marriage had never been consummated. Anna would confess to this and the annulment of the marriage would allow both parties to wed again. In addition, the marriage was legally null and void due the Anna’s pre-contract of marriage with Frances of Lorraine. With the execution of the plan of the Secret Council, Anna and Henry’s marriage was declared annulled, with Anna receiving a generous settlement. They arrested Thomas Cromwell not long after, found him guilty and executed him. The government from this point forward consisted of a Privy Council and would never again be dominated by a single, omnipotent minister.

King Henry VIII, Queen Jane and their son Prince Edward

Anna of Cleves remained in England as the ‘king’s beloved sister’ until her death in 1557. Henry married eighteen-year-old Catherine Howard, a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, three weeks after his marriage to Anna ended. A year and a half later, Catherine’s indiscretions before and after her marriage were discovered and revealed, and they executed her. By now, Henry was obese, had ulcerated legs, and had become cantankerous and tyrannical, a far cry from the handsome and charismatic king of his youth.

Henry needed a companion and he married Katherine Parr, a twice-widowed, childless, mature woman who subscribed to Evangelical teachings. Catherine soothed Henry, nursing him and reuniting his family. She was Henry’s intellectual equal and the first Queen in England to publish her own texts. Henry trusted her enough to name her as Regent when he invaded France in 1544. It was his last military expedition, and he successfully took Boulogne.

The Siege of Boulogne – 1544. Engraving made by Vertue for the Society of Antiquaries from a now destroyed painting at Cowdray House.

When he returned, his policy centered on marrying his son Edward to Mary Queen of Scots, and the campaign called the ‘Rough Wooing’ began with England making scorching raids into Scotland. They would send Mary to France to avoid the violence and betrothed her to the French Dauphin. Eventually, Henry became bedridden with various physical ailments, but his mind stayed clear until his death. Various men of the Privy Council engaged in machinations and jockeyed for power as he lay ill. There is some controversy over the surrounding men having possibly manipulated his will, signing it with the dry stamp of his signature without his knowledge. He died on January 28, 1547 at Whitehall Palace in London and was buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, next to Queen Jane Seymour, who had given him the coveted male heir who succeeded him as King Edward VI.

Further reading: “Henry VIII”, by J.J. Scarisbrick, “New Worlds–Lost Worlds: The Reign of the Tudors 1485-1603” by Susan Brigden, “Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty” by Lacey Baldwin Smith, “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” by Alison Weir, “The Wives of Henry VIII” by Antonia Fraser, “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII” by Karen Lindsey, “Henry VIII: The Life and Rule of England’s Nero” by John Matusiak, “The Last Days of Henry VIII” by Robert Hutchinson, “Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe” by John Julius Norwich, “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather R. Darsie