Henry VIII was one of the longest serving Tudor monarchs, being King of England from 1509 to 1547. Son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII fathered the final three Tudor monarchs with three of his six wives.
Youth and Early Years
Henry was born at Greenwich Palace on 28th June 1491. As a young adult George Cavendish described Henry as ‘young, lusty and courageous’.
He succeeded his father at the young age of seventeen – the lack of opposition shows how clearly his father had ended the political turmoil of the period of the Wars of the Roses.
His father had been detested for collecting heavy taxes, which allowed Henry to start his reign in a good financial position. However in a populist move he immediately arrested, charged with high treason, then a year later executed the two most unpopular tax collectors of his fathers reign, Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson.
Henry relied heavy upon advisors to help him run government. From 1511 Thomas Wolsey was at his service, becoming cardinal and Lord Chancellor in 1515.
Divorce & Break with Rome
His reign is perhaps best remembered for beginning the English Reformation. Beginning with a desire for a male child and heir he believed his wife, Catherine of Aragon, could not give him, the process went on to fundamentally change religious worship in Britain.
Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon in 1509, who was the widow of his elder brother Arthur who had died in 1502. Catherine’s parents were Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Isabella being aunt of Emperor Charles V. Together Henry and Catherine had several children who did not live beyond a few years until in 1516 Catherine gave birth to Mary. After Mary’s birth further pregnancies produces only still births and miscarriages, leading Henry to consider divorce by 1526 in order that he could produce a male heir.
Henry’s mind was further pointed towards securing a divorce by a liking of Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine who refused to considering sleeping with him until he was no longer married to Catherine.
Henry thus applied for a Papal Dispensation to divorce Catherine. This however was not going to come as Italy was heavily influenced by Spain and Charles V did not want a relative to be divorced by Henry. Henry appealed that his marriage was invalid Biblically due to it contradicting Leviticus 20:21 which prevents a man from marrying his brother’s wife. Indeed in order to marry Catherine in the first place, Henry had to receive a Papal Dispensation due to this. Attempts were made to mobilise academics and theologians across Europe to his cause, yet the Papacy did not shift its position. Thomas Wolsey was made the scapegoat for the failure by Henry.
In order to divorce Catherine therefore Henry had to break with the church in Rome. He appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury who declared the marriage to Catherine to be void, allowing Henry to marry Anne Boleyn.
Faced with opposition from some to the break with Rome as well as advisors who wanted to pursue religious changes, the church gradually changed course. Henry himself would not have liked the religious changes he caused to take place: he was strongly conservative and had even written a tract against Luther which had earned him the title of Defender of the Faith from the Pope prior to the split with Rome. Yet by excommunicating Henry, the Pope provided Henry with the anger required to make changes.
Thomas Cromwell, who had connections with Lutheranism, was placed in charge of putting the necessary bills to parliament which would establish Henry as the head of the church. The most significant of these was the 1534 Act of Supremacy which made Henry head of the church, and as such gave him control over religious policy.
Those with Lutheran views, including Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer as well as Cromwell gradually increased their influence in the early 1530s to the extent that Thomas More, who had replaced Wolsey as Lord Chancellor, resigned in 1532 and was executed in 1535 after being found guilty of denying the royal supremacy over the Church. Reforms such as the printing of an English Bible took place. Despite this, England’s reformation was hardly protestant in this period – the 1539 Act of Six Articles enshrined many Catholic worship practices that protestants had rebelled against into law.
The dissolution of the monasteries, which came in several waves in the 1530s up until 1540, was the biggest change in land ownership since the Norman Conquest. This saw lands of monasteries taken by the Crown and their abbeys dismantled to provide building materials. This provided the Crown with great wealth as it sold the lands to the wealthy.
The religious changes that took place were not without opposition, one of which almost succeeded in its goals. The Pilgrimage of Grace, starting in late 1536 in the North of England, was so popular that it forced Henry to negotiate with its leaders before he was able to demobilise it through other means.
The final five wives
Anne Boleyn was equally unsuccessful as Catherine before her at providing Henry with an male heir. She did however give birth to Elizabeth who was to later become queen. Henry wanted rid of Anne, so had Cromwell charge her with incest and adultery. She was found guilty and executed, allowing Henry to remarry.
Henry then married Jane Seymour, who gave birth to a male heir Edward VI. She however died two weeks after giving birth, depriving Henry of the only wife he continued to mourn until his death and the one he was buried next to when he died. Henry then remarried Anne of Cleves, a German princess, on Cromwell’s advice as the marriage was an attempt to build an alliance against both the Habsburgs and French. Cromwell had also told Henry of her beauty, which Henry himself did not see! The marriage did not last long, with Anne divorced. This was perhaps Cromwell’s downfall, and lead to him being executed.
The marriage was followed by one to Catherine Howard, however she was executed as Henry believe her to be adulterous. His final marriage was to Catherine Parr who survived his death.
Foreign Policy and War
One of the biggest drains on crown finances during the reign of Henry VIII was military adventures.
In 1522 Henry declared war on France in response to the French successes in Northern Italy. The war however proved to be a financial burden, and raising taxes proved difficult for the crown. The King of France, Francis I, was captured in 1525 at the Battle of Pavia and signed a peace treaty.
Later Henry tried to cement an alliance with Scotland by marrying Edward VI to a young daughter of James V of Scotland, who was to become Mary Queen of Scots. He ordered his army to march into Scotland in a campaign now know as the Rough Wooing. This however led Scotland to seek French help, and the French attack England’s southern coast. The subsequent war, lasting until 1546, was highly costly and depleted the crown of revenues raised from the dissolution of the monasteries. The most of the remaining former monastic lands were sold, the coinage debased (reducing the quantity of expensive metal in the coins of the country) leading to inflation.
Personal Life and Death
The young Henry was a skilled horseman and jouster. Henry played the lute, some attributing the writing of the famous Greensleeves song to him. He also wrote poetry and watched plays. In 1519 a Venetian diplomat Sebastian Giustiani wrote of him as a ‘accomplished and a good musicians’, that he enjoyed hunting and tennis and commented on he ability to speak Latin, French and Spanish.
The court under Henry was transformed as he attempted to match the courts of European royalty. Henry equally enjoyed dressing in expensive clothing, often embodied with jewels.
As he grew old, Henry had problems of ulcerous legs and other ailments, and may also have contracted syphilis. A wound dating from 1536 in the thigh from jousting also affected him, and he had become so fat his waist measured 54 inches! He died on 28th January 1547.
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