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Henry VIII, one of the most famous monarchs in British history, is a figure shrouded in both fascination and controversy. As the second Tudor king, Henry’s reign spanned from 1509 to 1547 and was characterized by his quest for a male heir, his tumultuous personal life, and his impact on the English Reformation. With his larger-than-life personality and drastic transformations in both politics and religion, Henry VIII left an indelible mark on the history of England and the world. This introduction will delve into the life, wives, and legacy of this enigmatic king, exploring the key events and decisions that shaped his reign and forever altered the course of English history.
Who Was King Henry VIII?
Henry Tudor was the king of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. The son of Henry VII of England and Elizabeth York, Henry became king of England following the death of his father. He married six times, beheading two of his wives, and was the main instigator of the English Reformation. His only surviving son, Edward VI, succeeded him after his death.
Henry Tudor was born on June 28, 1491, at the royal residence, Greenwich Palace, in Greenwich, London, England. The son of Henry VII of England and Elizabeth York, Henry VIII was one of six children, only four of whom survived: Arthur, Margaret and Mary. As a young man and monarch, second in the Tudor Dynasty, Henry VIII exuded a charismatic athleticism and diverse appetite for art, music and culture. He was witty and highly educated, taught by private tutors for his entire upbringing. He loved music and wrote some as well.
A lover of gambling and jousting, he hosted countless tournaments and banquets. His father always envisioned Arthur as king and Henry as a high-ranking church official—the appropriate role at that time for his secondary birth order. As fate would have it, Henry instead inherited an entire peaceful nation after his father ended the Wars of the Roses.
Henry’s older brother Arthur was expected to take the throne. In 1502, Prince Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. After less than four months of marriage, Arthur died at the age of 15, leaving his 10-year-old brother, Henry, the next in line to the throne.
Upon King Henry VII’s death in 1509, Henry VIII took the crown at age 17. Henry was good-natured, but his court soon learned to bow to his every wish. Two days after his coronation, he arrested two of his father’s ministers and promptly executed them. He began his rule seeking advisers on most matters and would end it with absolute control.
From 1514 to 1529, Henry VIII had relied on Thomas Wolsey, a Catholic cardinal, to guide his domestic and foreign policies. Wolsey enjoyed a lavish existence under Henry, but when Wolsey failed to deliver Henry’s quick annulment from Catherine, the cardinal quickly fell out of favor.
After 16 years of power, Wolsey was arrested and falsely charged with treason. He subsequently died in custody. Henry’s actions upon Wolsey gave a strong signal to the pope that he would not honor the wishes of even the highest clergy and would instead exercise full power in every realm of his court.
In 1534, Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church of England. After Henry declared his supremacy, the Christian church separated, forming the Church of England. Henry instituted several statutes that outlined the relationship between the king and the pope and the structure of the Church of England: the Act of Appeals, the Acts of Succession and the first Act of Supremacy, declaring the king was “the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.”
These macro reforms trickled down to minute details of worship. Henry ordered the clergy to preach against superstitious images, relics, miracles and pilgrimages, and to remove almost all candles from religious settings. His 1545 catechism, called the King’s Primer, left out the saints.
Fully separated now from the pope, the Church of England was under England’s rule, not Rome’s. From 1536 to 1537, a great northern uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace took hold, during which 30,000 people rebelled against the king’s changes. It was the only major threat to Henry’s authority as monarch. The rebellion’s leader, Robert Aske, and 200 others were executed. When John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, Henry’s former Lord Chancellor, refused to take the oath to the king, they were beheaded at Tower Hill.
Henry VIII’s Wives
Henry VIII had a total of six wives, including Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.
Catherine of Aragon
At the age of 17, Henry married Catherine of Aragon, Spain, and the two were crowned at Westminster Abbey. Henry VIII’s father wanted to affirm his family’s alliance with Spain, so he offered his young son to Catherine, who was the widow of Henry’s brother Arthur. The two families requested that Pope Julius II officially grant a dispensation to Arthur and Catherine’s marriage. The pope conceded, but the official marriage of Henry and Catherine was postponed until the death of Henry VII in 1509.
Although Catherine gave birth to Henry’s first child, a daughter, Mary, Henry grew frustrated by the lack of a male heir and began keeping two mistresses at his beckon. His philandering ways were tame by the standards of his contemporaries, but they nonetheless resulted in his first divorce in 1533.
One of Henry’s mistresses during his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn, introduced him to her sister, Anne, and Anne and Henry began secretly seeing one another. Because Catherine was now 42 and unable to conceive another child, Henry set on a mission to obtain a male heir by configuring a way to officially abandon his marriage with Catherine.
The Book of Leviticus stated that a man who takes his brother’s wife shall remain childless. Though Catherine had borne him a child, that child was a girl, which, in Henry’s logic, did not count. He petitioned the pope for an annulment but was refused due to pressure from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew. The debate, during which Catherine fought mightily to maintain both her own and her daughter’s titles, lasted for six years.
In 1533, Anne Boleyn, who was still Henry’s mistress, became pregnant. Henry decided he didn’t need the pope’s permission on matters of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer, the new archbishop of Canterbury, presided over the trial that declared his first marriage annulled. Henry VIII and Anne married secretly in January 1533.
Inside the court, however, Queen Anne suffered greatly from her failure to produce a living male heir. After she miscarried twice, Henry became interested in one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. In an all-out effort to leave his unfruitful marriage, Henry contrived an elaborate story that Anne had committed adultery, had incestuous relations and was plotting to murder him.
Henry charged three men on account of their adultery with his wife, and on May 15, 1536, he put her on trial. Anne, regal and calm, denied all charges against her. Four days later, Henry’s marriage to Anne was annulled and declared invalid. Anne was then taken to the Tower Green, where she was beheaded in private on May 19, 1536.
Within 11 days of Anne Boleyn’s execution, on May 30, 1536, Jane Seymour and Henry VIII formally wed. However, Jane was never officially coronated or crowned queen. In October 1537, following a difficult pregnancy, Jane Seymour produced the king’s long-hoped-for son, Edward.
Just nine days after giving birth, Jane died from a pregnancy-related infection. Because Jane was the only of Henry’s spouses to bear him a son, he considered her to be his only “true” wife. He and his court mourned for an extended period of time after her passing.
Anne of Cleves
Three years after the death of Jane Seymour, Henry was ready to marry again, mainly to ensure the succession of his crown. He inquired in foreign courts about the appearances of available women. Anne, the sister of the Duke of Cleves, was suggested. The German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who served as the king’s official painter, was sent out to create a portrait of her. However after the couple married, in January 1540, Henry disapproved of Anne in the flesh and divorced her after six months. She received the title of “The King’s Sister” and was given Hever Castle as ample residence.
Within weeks of his divorce to Anne of Cleves, Henry married the very young Catherine Howard, a first cousin of Anne Boleyn, in a private marriage on July 28, 1540. Henry, 49, and Catherine, 19, started out a happy pair. Henry was now dealing with tremendous weight gain and a bad leg, and his new wife gave him zest for life. He repaid her with lavish gifts.
Happiness would not last long for the couple. Catherine began seeking the attention of men her own age—a tremendously dangerous endeavor for the queen of England. After an investigation into her behavior, she was deemed guilty of adultery. On February 13, 1542, Henry had Catherine executed on the Tower Green.
Independent and well-educated, Catherine Parr was Henry’s last and sixth wife; the pair were married in 1543. She was the daughter of Maud Green, a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Maud named her daughter after the queen; thus Henry’s last wife was named after his first. Parr was a twice-made widow.
The most well-documented incident of Catherine Parr’s life was her effort to ban books, a truly horrible act under her husband’s leadership that practically got her arrested. When Henry came to admonish her for her brash actions, she submitted to him, saying she was merely looking to create a circumstance when he could teach her the proper way to behave. Henry accepted the sentiment, either true or devised, saving her from a brutal end.
King Henry VIII’s Children
Mary Tudor, Henry’s first child to survive infancy with Queen Catherine, was born on February 18, 1516. Following the death of her half-brother Edward in 1553, Mary became the queen of England and ruled until her death in 1558.
On September 7, 1533, Anne Boleyn gave birth to Henry VIII’s second daughter, Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth was born a princess, Henry eventually declared her illegitimate. After Mary Tudor’s death, Elizabeth was crowned as Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and remained on the throne until her death in 1603.
King Henry VIII’s only son, Edward, was born on October 12, 1537. Upon Henry’s death in 1547, Edward succeeded him as king at the tender age of 10 and ruled until his death in 1553.
Henry VIII’s Death
On January 28, 1547, at the age of 55, King Henry VIII of England died. As a middle-aged man, Henry became covered with pus-filled boils and possibly suffered from gout. A jousting accident opened a violent wound in his leg which ulcerated and left him unable to play sports. His eventual obesity required that he be moved with mechanical inventions. His habit of binge-eating highly fatty meats was perhaps a symptom of stress. A recent and credible theory suggests that he suffered from untreated type II diabetes.
Henry VIII was interred in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle alongside his deceased third wife, Jane Seymour. Henry’s only surviving son, Edward, inherited the throne, becoming Edward VI. Princesses Elizabeth and Mary waited in succession.
- Birth Year: 1491
- Birth date: June 28, 1491
- Birth City: Greenwich, London, England
- Birth Country: United Kingdom
- Gender: Male
- Best Known For: Henry VIII, king of England, was famously married six times and played a critical role in the English Reformation, turning his country into a Protestant nation.
- World Politics
- Astrological Sign: Cancer
- Death Year: 1547
- Death date: January 28, 1547
- Death City: London, England
- Death Country: United Kingdom
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- Article Title: Henry VIII Biography
- Author: Biography.com Editors
- Website Name: The Biography.com website
- Url: https://www.biography.com/royalty/henry-viii
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- Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
- Last Updated: April 23, 2021
- Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
- I beseech you now with all my heart definitely to let me know your whole mind as to the love between us; for necessity compels me to plague you for a reply, having been for more than a year now struck by the dart of love, and being uncertain either of failure or of finding a place in your heart and affection.”[Excerpt from a letter to Anne Boleyn during their courtship.]
In conclusion, Henry VIII was a complex and influential figure in English history. Although initially seen as a charismatic and ambitious leader, his reign was plagued by personal and political conflicts that ultimately shaped the course of the nation. Henry’s marriage choices, religious reforms, and break with the Catholic Church left lasting impacts on England, paving the way for religious freedom and the establishment of the Church of England. Furthermore, his reign marked the beginning of the English Reformation and the decline of the monarchy’s absolute power. Overall, the legacy of Henry VIII is one of controversy and transformation, forever cementing his place as a key figure in the annals of British history.
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