British Royalty: Henry VIII (1491-1547)

Figure 1.--Henry's visit to Herver Castle was a surprising event. Anne was kept securely locked in her bed chambers, but is depicted here watching the King's arrival through a window. The boy at left is her younger brother George.

Henry is probably the most famous of all English monarchs. It was Henry who made the Protestant Reformation possible in England. Henry is probably best known, for his many wives. He was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Thus he was the first English monarch with both Lancastrian and York blood. Henry after the untimely death of his older brother married Arthur's new bride, Catherine of Aragon (1509). When the union produced only a daughter, Mary, Henry divorced Catherinn and married the already pregnant Anne Boleyn (1533). Anne gave birth to another daughter, Elizabeth, but was tried and executed for trason (infidelity) (1536). Next he married Jane Seymour who died in child birth, but produced a male heir, Edward VI (1536). Henry then married Anne of Cleves after seeing a ratger flatering portrait by Hans Holbein. When Anne arrived in England, Henry was shocked at her actual appearance and never consummated the marriage. Henry next married Catherine Howard (1540). She was also executed for treason (infidelity) (1542). By this time Henry was notably aging. He married Catherine Parr (1543) who dutifully cared for the aging monarch and his children until he died in 1547. While it is all his wives that fire the public interest, Henry's role in the Reformation and laying the foundation for the Royal Navy mark him as one of the most important English monarchs.


Henry's father was Henry VII, who ended the War of the Roses between the Lancaster and York factions and the founder of the Tudor dynasty. His mother was Elizabeth of York. Thus he was the first English monarch with both Lancastrian and York blood.


Henry as a boy never expected to be king. It was his older brother Prince Arthur who was expected to inherit the crown. Henry was, however, created prince of Wales (1503) after the unexpected death of Arthur. Henry received a papal dispensation to marry Arthur's widow, Catharine of Aragón. Henry's sister Margaret was of considerable dynastic importance. Their father arranged for Margaret to marry King James IV of Scotland. This provided a dynastic link between the Tudors and Stuarts. When Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth died childless, the Tudor line became extinct giving the Stuart Scottish King James VII title to the English throne which he assumed as James I, launching the English Stuart dynasty.


We have little information on Henry's childhood at this time. We do know that Henry unlike his older brother was strong and athletic. We also do not know the details of the relationship between Henry and his older brother Arthur. We do know that Arthur and Henry were very closely supervised as boys. After leaving the nursery, Henry reportedly occupied rooms tht only could be reached through those of his father. He was not permitted to leave palace ground's without permission. This strict rotein continued even at 18 yers of age, until his father died and Henry became king. [Lofts, p. 19.] hat a chnge in his situation came with his father's death.


Both Arthur and Henrywere very well educated. Henry is known to have complained of a dull childhood and endless lessons. I do not know about their sisters are the extent to which they were educated together. Hery was not involved in any way with government.

Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536)

Catherine was born in 1485 at Alcala de Henares, Madrid. Her parents were the Famous Ferdinanbd and Isabella who dispached Colunbus on his fateful voyage. She was their fifth and yungest child. Her father was King Ferdinand V "The Catholic" of Aragon (1452- ). His parents were John II of Trastámara, King of Aragón, (1398- ) an Juana Enriquez (1425- ). Catherine's mother was Isabella "The Catholic" of Castile (1451- ). Isabella's parents were King John II (Juan II) of Castile, King of Castile & León (1405- ) and Isabella of Portugal (1428- ). Catherine was a devoted Catholic and extremely pious. Which does not mean that Catherine's court was dull. She loved fashionable clothes and jewlry and delighted in playing cards and gamble--for modest stakes. She selected fashionable accomplished young women to attend her. Catherine died in 1536 at Kimbolton Castle, probably of cancer. She is interred at Peterborough Cathedral.


Henry after the untimely death of his older brother married Arthur's new bride, Catherine of Aragon (1509). By all accounts for several years it was a happy marriage. There was real affection between the two. Henry was romanbtically involved with Catherine. And Catherine for her part was a dutiful wife. She tried very hard to produce an heir. Catherine had several pregnancies, but only produced one child, the futyre Mary I. After Henry became king, there were a few indescretions, including one with Amme's older sister Mary. Surprising given his subsequent behavior there were fewer such indiscretionshat was common at the time. And Henry out of respect for Catherine was very discreet. One of these indecretions produced a boy, pehaps confirming in Henry's mind that the problem with an heir was with Catherine and not him and that another partner would result in the son that he craved. [Lofts, p. 41.]


The young Henry was educated as a Renaissance prince. This included not only academic study, but music and sports as well. The marriage took place shortly after his

Accession (1509)

Henry became king on the death of his father (1509). Henry was still a teenager at the time, but smart and exhuberant and ready to seek his place in history. He was much more outgoing than his father and at his accession was widely popular. He inherited a realtively small, but thriving kingdom. He inherited a full royal treasury with a budget surplus. He had learned from his father techniques for authocratic rule in a kingdom with a quarelsome nobility and a parliament limiting royal authority. It should be stressed that the young Henry VIII could not be more different than our concept of a lecheous old and corpulent. Henry is said to have been the most handsome prince in Christendom. He was 6 ft tall, unusual at the time. He was slim with a muscular body from exercise., He had auburn hair, clkaer blue eyes, and a rudy complexion. Not only was he a handsome figure, the educatin that his fathher had insisted upon left him left him one of the best educated and liberal European leaders. [Lofts, p. 13.] Upon becoming king, Henry was sudenly liberated from tge very strict routein that his father had imposed on him. A healthy, high spirited young man, Henry wanted to live. Wolsey who wanted to givrn saw to it that Henry got whatever he wanted andofered ti take care of the tedious dtails of government. Henry as a young maan was quite happy with that arrangement. [Lofts, p. 19.]

Early Diplomatic Challenges

The most pressing matters early in Henry's reign were diplmatic. and a precedent for autocratic rule. Henry joined an alliance including Pope Julius II, King Ferdinand II of Aragón (his father-in-law), Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and the Venetians in the Holy League against England's traditional enemy France (1511). The military effort coordinated by Henry's ambitious minister Thomas Wolsey achieved few gains, despite the considerable cost. While Henry was on the continent, King James IV of Scotland invaded England, but was deafeated at Flodden Field by an army commanded by Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk. The daeth of Ferdinand of Aragon significantly changed the diplomatic situation in Europe (1516) enabled Wolsey, who Henry had made chancellor, to negotiate an unprecedented alliance with France, but this was expanded to include all of the the major European powers in a pledge of universal peace (1518). Such a pledge was unrealistic at the time and an alliance of major alliance was actually no alliance at all. More importantly Ferdinand's grandson, already king of Spain, was elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519). With an inheritance that included Austria and other German provinces, the Netherlands (an incredibly rich province), Spain, and parts of Italy, Chrles virtually surrounded France and posed a mortal danger. Other key events occurred in 1517-19 affecting Charles. Cortez began the subgegation of the Aztecs and soon gold and silver in untold amounts was flowing into Charles' treasury. Also Martin Luther posted his "95 Thesis" on a church door in Witenberg launching the Protestant Reformation (1517). Charle's empire also affected England, because it included the Low Countries with which England conducted its wool trade. [Lofts, p. 20.] Henry guided by Wolsy tried to maintain good relations between both Charles, his wife's nephew, and Francis I of France. It was at this time that the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold took place between Henry and Francis (1520). The pope at this time conferred on Henry the title "Defender of the Faith" for a treatise attacking Martin Luther (1521), ironic considering that Henry was later to launch the Protestant Revolution in England. Although Henry was to break with Rome, he remained orthodox in his personal religious views. Despite the meeting pn the Field of a Cloth of Gold, England at France were soon at war (1522). Charles decisively defeated Francis at Pavia (1525), but refused to share the spoils of war with his junior partner Henry. Along with and Wolsey, Heney became increasingly uneasy with the growing power of Charles V and negotiated an Alliance with Francis which proved unpopular in England (1527). Charles retaliated with diplomatic and economic reprisals.

Domestic Policies

Henry's wars on the continent were costly. Henry using Wolsey's advise introduced new taxes which affected his popularity. Sir Thomas More, one of Henry's important advisers, wanted Henry to dismiss Wolsey, but Henry continued to depend heavily on him. Wolsey as a result began to be increasingly blaned for the continental wars and increased taxes.


Henry dispairing of having a son and enamored by Anne Bolyne decided to divorce Catherin (1533), but the Church considered marital vows sacred and rarely granted divorces and this was no simple divorce. Henry's marriage of his brother's wife, however, provided some grounds for equivocation. Divorce would require a papal dispensation. This might have been possible. Henry claimed that the papal dispensation that he had originally received to marry Catherin was invalid. Wolsey tried to obtain approval of Pope Clement VII. He might have been willing, had it not been for Charlss V, Catherine's nephew. Clement realized that to grant the divorce was to invite an invasion by imperial forces. Clemnet caught between two powerful princes, decided tp convene a commission consisting of cardinals to rule on the divorce. Wolsey and the Papal legate Campeggio argued the issue. Catherine refused, however, to recognize the jurisdiction of the court. As a result, Clement pressed by Charles adjourned the hearing and had it reconvened in Rome (1529). At this time there was a reconciliation between Charles and Francis. Henry dismissed Wolsey and decided on a rdical new approch. Here time was now critical. Anne was pregnant. Henry decided on an anti-ecclesiastical policy that he believed would force Clement to grant the divorce. This was to be the birth of the Protestant Reformation in England.

English Reformation

Almost independent of the German Refomation was the Reformation in England, but this proved to be crucial because of the future imperial role of England. Political rather than religious issues were to drive the Renaissance in England. It was the monarch the Church had called Defender of the Faith, Henry VIII that nade the Reformation possible in England. Henry VIII decided to divorce his wife, the Spanish princess Catherine. He was furious when Pope Clement VII refused to approve the divorce. In response he rejected papal authority over the Church in England. He did not, however, endorse Protestantism. Instead he founded the Anglican Church and set himself up as head of the new church (1534). Here he was aided by a new minister, Thomas Cromwell. While sparked by his personal life, the break with Rome had many advantages for Henry. One of the most important was the wealth of the Church was now at his disposal. Much of this he seized by closing the monestarires. Huge quantities of land were in the hands of the monestaries. By distributing the land and wealth, Henry essentially bought the support of the nobility and gentry which was at the time still largely loyal to the Catholic Church. The first tentative steps toward actual reformation was a liturgy in English and The Book of Common Prayer. Henry's lesser known and very devout Protestant son Edward VI played a major role in the success of the Reformation in England.


Henry was a monarch of considerble intelligence and political skill. These characteristics provided England with strong, energetic leadership. He was also extrodinarily gotistical. He persued policies to fulfill his personal without regard for the impact on England. Hedemanded absolute loyalty from his ministers, but gave none to them. Many were disgraced or even executed for promting policies that he approved.

Two Determined Women

Historians generally focus on Henry and his character. He may well be in the popular mind the classic male chavaunist of all time. The interesting fact is that in the male dominant 16th century this powerful prince who made and broke men was confronted with two amazingly strong and determkned women. Neither of which would do what he wanted. Anne a young woman who one would think would be easy to manipulate, steadfastly refused to yield to the King without marraige. And Catherine who has always obidiently deferred to her husband resolutely ressisted his demand that she agree to the annulment of their marriage. Henry came to her topersonally explain his decession. He assured her that she would be cared for and well treated as the Dowger Princess of Wales (Arthur's widow). Catherine was in tears, but beneath the tears was a steely resolution. She would not hear of it. Here her religious convictions were involved, but perhaps more importnt was the Princess Mary. If both parents agreed to her illegitimacy there would be no future for her. And Mary steadfastly rejected Henry's contention that Catherine had not produced an heir. Catherine's mother has ruled Castille and she saw no reason that Princess Mary could not rule England. Henry was astonished at Catherine's refusal to obey. On this issue the compliant wife was resolute until she died. Henry thus was placed beteen two of the most determined women in history. [Lofts, pp. 48-51.]

Protestant Wives

After Catherine, Henry married five more times. Two of thee wives he would have executed, one died in child birth, and another sent packing back to Germany. His final wife took care of him in his old age.

Anne Boleyn

Henry after divorcing Catherine married the already pregnant Anne Boleyn (1533). Anne gave birth to another daughter, Elizabeth (1536). Few understood at the time that this princess would prove to be one of the greatesy monarch's in English history. Henry himself was greatly disappointed that Elizabth was not a boy. In the months tha followed Anne failed to produce the boy that Henry so desired. She was then tried and executed for traeson (infidelity) (1536).

Jane Seymour

Henry next he married Jane Seymour who died in child birth, but produced a male heir, Edward VI (1536).

Anne of Cleves

An easing of tension between France and the the Empire put Henry endanger (1538). The two Catholic powers posed the possibility of intervention in England to restore the Catholic Church. Cromwell conceived the idea of an alliance with the German Protestant princes. One way of accomplishing this was marriage. Henry consented to a marriage with Anne of Cleves after seeing a flatering portrait by Hans Holbein. He married Anne (1540) after seeing a When Anne arrived in England, Henry was shocked at her actual appearance and never consummated the marriage. Henry divorced her, but was furious with Cromwell. It was Cromwell ho had loyally done the king's bidding in pdrsuing the divorce from Catherine and separating from Rome. Even so, he ordered Cromwell's execution.

Catherine Howard

Henry next married Catherine Howard (1540). She was also executed for treason (infidelity) (1542).

Catherine Parr

By this time Henry was notably aging. He married Catherine Parr (1543) who dutifully cared for the aging monarch and his children. This was extremely important. The bonds that the children formed here would be sorely tested after the death of their father. Mary in partivculsr came very close to executing Elizabeth. By this time Henry was grossly over weight and in ill-health. He was also increaingly paranoid.

Illegitimate Children

Henry's affair with Bessie Blount produced a son, the Duke of Richmond (1519). He died at 17, probably from tuberculosis.


The importance of Henry's reign is often lost in the discusion of his colorful personal life. Yet his reign was very important in development of modern Britain.


Cromwell and Henry's other ministers seemed to have obtained everything Henry desired from compliant parliaments. In fact the importance of paliament as an institution expanded significantly during his reign.

The Navy

Henry supported the development of a navy. While English seafarers are more commonly discussed during Elizabeth's reign, Henry gave considerable attention to building the foundation for a national navy. Under Henry the navy for the first time became a permanent force.


It was during Henry's reign that Wales became an integral part of the kingdom. The result was important improvements in government.


Henry also dissolved the Irish monasteries (1541). He took the title of king of Ireland and head of the Church of Ireland.

Final Years

Another war boke our with Scotland. Catholic King James V received support from France. James' army was devestated at Solway Moss and James killed. Henry forced the Scots to accept a treaty stipulating a marriage between James' daughter Mary Queen of Scots and his infant son Edward (1543). He hoped that a union would unite England Scotland just as his farher's marrige had united Lacastrians and Yorkists. Henry joined Charles in another war against France which had been backing the Scotts (1543). He managed to take Boulogne (1544), but the war continued for 2 more years at considrable cost. Finally Henry obtained an indemnity from the French for the city (1546). After his death he was succeeded by his son Edward (1547). The council Henry to rule England during the minority of Edward VI accepted the doctrines that he had promoted, but England was not yet a Protestant country. There was still considerable support for the old Church. The Six Articles were not strictly enforced, and the use of the English Bible was increasing but not yet universal. The seizures of church property was continuing and ther had been destruction of relics and shrines. The Reformation had been launched, but the Reformation had not yet been fully accepted throughout England. At the time of Henry's death the outcome of thge Reformation was still an undecided question.


Lofts, Norah. Anne Boleyn (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan: New York, 1979), 192p.


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Created: September 27, 2003
Last updated: 6:05 PM 10/15/2009