A Royal History of England: Henry VIII
Probably the most recognisable of all English kings, Henry VIII was truly a larger-than-life character. An imposing figure at over 6' 2" tall, with a girth that increased with age, the King was a man with a contradictory image. He was considered selfish, despotic and had no qualms about having those who crossed him executed. “Heads will fly!” was his claim whenever his authority was challenged and Charles Dickens concluded, “The plain truth is that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.”
Yet Henry was extremely popular with the English people and, after centuries of turbulence, his was a reign that brought largely peace and prosperity to the country.
Henry was born at Greenwich Palace on 28th June 1491, the second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Unlike his restrained father, Henry VIII was a showman. Paintings of him, particularly those by Hans Holbein, portray him as an imposing figure with velvets, furs and jewels aplenty. Even his hats were decorated with pearls and semi-precious stones. Maybe this enduring image of a powerful and majestic King of England is what endeared him most to his people. Before the reign of Henry VIII, English kings were addressed as “Your Grace” or “Your Highness”, but significantly he adopted the term “Your Majesty”.
As the second son, Henry was not expected to inherit the throne and the intention was for him to eventually become Archbishop of Canterbury. Kingship may not have been his anticipated path, but Henry was still of royal blood and honours were heaped upon him from a very young age. In October 1491, when he was a mere four months old, he was made a Knight of the Bath. In 1493 he was appointed Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports; in 1494 he was created Duke of York; in 1495 he became a Knight of the Garter and by February 1504 had been given the titles Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. The most significant title of all, however, came on 2nd April 1502 following the premature death of his elder brother, Prince Arthur, when Henry became Heir Apparent. It changed the course of his life.
At the age of just 10 Prince Arthur had married Catherine of Aragon. She was a daughter of King Ferdinand V of Aragon and so the marriage had formed an alliance with the powerful Spanish empire at this time. Two of Henry VII’S daughters married Kings of Scotland and France, which also helped secure peace for England. Following Arthur’s death, Henry VII advised his next son and heir to marry Catherine — essentially because he didn’t want to lose her large dowry! — which is how Henry came to be betrothed to his widowed sister-in-law.
Henry VII died on 21st April 1509 and his son and namesake succeeded him to become King Henry VIII. In compliance with his late father’s wishes, the new King quickly married Catherine at Greenwich Palace on 11th June 1509, and they were crowned jointly on 24th June at the coronation in Westminster Abbey.
Although we are very used to seeing the masterful, often bloated, image of the mature King Henry VIII, when he first came to the throne he was a tall, slim, handsome youth of 17. Clean shaven, with reddish brown hair, Henry was academically clever and spoke several languages, including French and Latin. He was a keen sportsman and excelled at archery, jousting, tilting (a medieval sport in which two mounted knights tried to knock each other off their horses with lances), real tennis and hunting. At the age of 30 it was said that Henry could still exhaust eight horses a day. He was a gifted musician and could play the lute and virginals, and was a good singer.
Although he is generally credited with having composed “Greensleeves” for Anne Boleyn when she initially thwarted his advances (“Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously”), the tune is based on an Italian-style melody that did not reach England until Elizabethan times and the first printed version of the lyrics was not produced until some 35 years after Henry’s death. But Henry was known to compose music and songs and a manuscript dating to around 1518 includes 20 songs and 13 instrumental pieces ascribed to “The Kynge H”. One particular song, “Pastyme With Good Companye”, celebrates the joys of princely life such as hunting, singing and dancing.
Unlike many of his predecessors Henry VIII acceded unopposed, so there was no family antagonism or dynastic conflict. His careful father had amassed a fortune of £1,500,000 and so Henry faced no financial worries when he became King. As a young, handsome and sporty youth, he was instantly popular throughout England. One of his first acts was to have two of the most ruthless tax collectors, Richard Empsom and Edmund Dudley, charged with high treason and executed, which added to his popularity. It was a time of peace in England too, so the country was contented with its new monarch.
With great wealth, Henry was able to
dress immaculately in the finest clothes, cutting the sort of glamorous figure that the 21st-century media would go wild to feature. One of Henry’s outfits was described by a contemporary as being made of white damask encrusted with diamonds and rubies.
In the early part of his reign Henry enjoyed his pleasures and was happy to leave the burden of administration to three people: Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, who became the most powerful men in England and exploited their positions. Wolsey, for example, was the son of an Ipswich butcher, but went on to become Lord Chancellor of England and a Cardinal of Rome. He had houses built for himself that were as magnificent as the King’s, particularly Hampton Court and York Place in Whitehall. After Wolsey’s downfall, Henry took Hampton Court from him and then had York Place transformed into the splendid Whitehall Palace which then covered an area of 24 acres, although today only the Banqueting Hall survives.
Henry built imposing new palaces too, such as Richmond Palace on the River Thames and Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, which no longer exist today. St. James’s Palace and Greenwich Palace also became impressive royal residences at this time. During Henry’s reign many castles became palaces rather than fortresses. Gunpowder now greatly improved the use of cannons, which made England’s castles largely redundant as forms of defence, as cannons could blast through walls.
For a country that had been blighted by the Wars of the Roses in earlier reigns, Henry’s England experienced a period free of hostility or invasion. Henry, nevertheless, was fully prepared for warfare should the situation arise. He was the first monarch to draw a real distinction between the Army and the Navy and developed what would eventually become known as the Royal Navy. He is often called “The Father of the Royal Navy”. He established Deptford and Woolwich as Royal Dockyards as they were close to Greenwich Palace and he enjoyed being able to go and watch ships being constructed; he also expanded his father’s Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth, and increased the English fleet from just five ships at the beginning of his reign to around 60 ships.
Henry had the Great Harry built, then the largest ship that there had ever been at 1,500 tons, and the 600-ton Mary Rose. His warships had a combined might of over 2,000 cannons. Henry also created a great chain of coastal fortresses to defend England against the threat of invasion.
The King was keen to be seen as a military commander. In 1513, some three years into his reign, Henry invaded France as a member of the Holy League — founded by Pope Julius II to defend the Papacy from its enemies with military force. Henry led an English army with Austrian mercenaries and won cavalry action at the so-called Battle of the Spurs. Taking advantage of Henry’s absence, the Scots invaded England but were decisively beaten at Flodden Field. The Earl of Surrey killed King James IV of Scotland at Flodden, and as many as 12,000 Scots were slain. Thereafter, there was
peace between England and Scotland for almost three decades.
In Europe, Francis I of France and Charles V (the Habsburg ruler of Germany, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands and parts of Italy) were vying for supremacy. In 1519 Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor and a year later both he and Francis I tried to form an alliance with England. Henry first met the Emperor at Canterbury, then crossed the Channel to meet Francis at Guines, a summit that was intended to establish lasting peace in Europe and which subsequently became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The two monarchs were entertained lavishly at banquets and with jousting competitions over a fourweek period, each trying to outdo the other in grandeur. It was a hollow event for Francis, as Henry had already formed an allegiance with Emperor Charles.
Francis I and Charles V were soon at odds and in 1521 France went to war with Italy, a costly conflict that England joined in 1522. Peace did not come until 1525, making it known as The Four Years’ War and then only through diplomatic channels, rather than military success. In January 1528 the tables turned and this time England and France declared war on Charles V as part of Henry VIII’S quest for greater power in Europe. It proved detrimental to England, as it brought about an end to lucrative trade with Spain and the Netherlands.
Waging war in Europe depleted Henry VIII’S coffers and so he decided to debase the coinage in England. As funds diminished, he was forced to lower the percentage of silver in coins to the point where they were mostly copper with a silver coating. They were also smaller than the coinage that people had been used to and were not universally popular. Once in circulation, the silver coating gradually wore away from the relief image of Henry’s face, starting with the nose, resulting in the nickname “Coppernose” for the King.
Although Henry VIII had many achievements throughout his reign, there are two major matters with which he will be forever associated: marriage and the Church. In many ways the two issues were inextricably linked.
Even if people know very little about Henry VIII, everyone remembers that he married six times. Many schoolchildren learn a simple rhyme to recall the fate of his wives in the correct order: Divorced, beheaded, died, Divorced, beheaded, survived. Unchronological, a less well-known nursery rhyme dating from around 1750 tells us that:
Bluff Henry the Eighth to six spouses was wedded;
One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.
Because of his six wives, many have regarded him as an inveterate womaniser. Much as he enjoyed the company of women, at the root of it all Henry was desperate to father a male child: an heir who would secure the Tudor line for future generations. It was this extreme anxiety that led to so many marriages and caused him to break with the Church of Rome in the process.
In accordance with his father’s wishes, Henry married his first wife, 24-year-old Catherine of Aragon, within six weeks of becoming King. Whether the couple were happy or not, Catherine seemed unable to give him the one thing he craved. After several miscarriages and still births, a son was finally born on New Year’s Day 1511. There was great rejoicing and Henry held a tournament to
celebrate the arrival of his new heir. Named Henry after his father, sadly the baby Prince died at the age of six weeks. The King was devastated. Some five more years were to pass before Catherine delivered another child that survived — a daughter, who was named Mary. “By God’s grace, boys will follow,” Henry optimistically told an ambassador, but none did and the couple eventually separated.
This separation caused Henry’s first great conflict with the Church and his court, resulting in his break with the Church of Rome. From 1517 the Reformation had begun in Germany. Martin Luther highlighted the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church as a result of what he described as the “spiritual and moral depravity of the Pope and his Cardinals”. Reformers denied the spiritual pre-eminence of the Pope, holding up the Bible as the only guide to follow.
By 1527 Henry VIII had become involved. He wrote a pamphlet against Luther called Assertio Septem Sacromentorum — Defence of the Seven Sacraments. It was a work that Henry later came to regret, particularly because of his declaration that marriage was indissoluble! The booklet did, however, become a best-seller in its day and because of the stance he had taken about the Church, Pope Leo X gave him the title “Defender of the Faith” — a title our Queen still bears to this day.
When Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon because of her failure to provide him with an heir, he began to consider the theological implications. She had been the widow of his brother and Henry’s marriage to her was a union condemned by the Bible. In Leviticus, for example, it says, “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonoured his brother. They will be childless.”
Henry started to question the legality of his marriage and considered that his lack of an heir may be divine judgment. He asked Cardinal Wolsey to obtain a divorce for him, but he failed in his quest. Henry dismissed Wolsey from court in 1529 and charged him with high treason. The Cardinal died before he could be executed, with his position of power gone and his reputation in ruins.
Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief adviser, took over the issue and campaigned to secure Henry’s supremacy over the Church. When the Pope refused to grant a divorce and excommunicated the King, Henry broke away from the Church of Rome so that England could head in its own direction as a Protestant country.
It was a newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who eventually had Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon declared “invalid” on 23rd May 1533. Their only living daughter, Mary, was pronounced illegitimate and had her title removed. Catherine of Aragon died of natural causes, possibly cancer, on 7th January 1536, and was buried in Peterborough Cathedral.
On 25th January 1533 Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn, a former lady-inwaiting to Catherine of Aragon. Then aged 26, Anne was said to have “almondshaped eyes and raven hair”. Unusually, she had a sixth finger on her left hand. The marriage was made known and declared legal once Henry’s marriage to Catherine was officially annulled. In June 1533 Anne was crowned Queen Consort in Westminster Abbey. The Pope denounced the marriage and Henry VIII was excommunicated. Henry’s close adviser Thomas More refused to recognise the divorce from Catherine or accept Henry as Head of the Church, and so lost his head. On 15th January 1534 Henry was recognised by Parliament as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He began to exert his authority and in 1536 appointed Thomas Cromwell “Vicar General of England” and instructed him to dissolve the monasteries as part of a campaign against the Pope for his failure to grant a divorce. Some 800 Roman Catholic monasteries, abbeys and convents were closed down over a four-year period. Money, lands and estates were confiscated. Shrines were demolished. With the closure of Waltham Abbey in March 1540, there was not a single monastery left in England.
Although Henry VIII was a dogmatic Head of the Church, for example forcing Parliament to pass an Act of Six Articles which imposed punishments, even the death penalty, on anyone who did not follow the same Christian doctrines as the King, there were positive aspects. He created six new diocese: Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough and Westminster, and in 1539 Henry decreed that there should be an English Bible in every church so that it would be accessible to all and could be read easily.
A male heir was still very much on Henry’s mind, but in September 1533 Anne Boleyn gave birth to their only living child, a daughter (later Queen Elizabeth I). Henry quickly tired of Anne and within three years she was convicted of high treason, incest and infidelity. She was beheaded at the Tower of London on 19th May 1536 and was buried in the Royal Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower.
Parliament declared Henry’s first two marriages invalid. Henry’s engagement to Jane Seymour (a maid of honour or ladyin-waiting to both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) was announced within 24 hours of Anne’s execution! They married less than two weeks later on 30th May 1536 in the Queen’s Chapel,
Whitehall. Unlike her predecessors, Jane was never crowned Queen.
Jane Seymour gave birth to Henry’s only surviving son, Edward, on 12th October. She died less than two weeks later at Hampton Court. Henry was completely overcome with grief. She is his only wife to have been buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Henry left instructions that when he himself died, he was to be buried next to her. Jane had given him the one thing he had yearned for: a male heir.
Henry remained a widower for two years, before marrying Anne of Cleves on 6th January 1540. It was very much a political alliance with Germany, encouraged by Thomas Cromwell, rather than a love match and Henry had not even met Anne when he agreed to marry her. She spoke no English and he found her unattractive and not at all like the flattering portrait by Holbein that he had been shown. Henry referred to her as the “mare of Flanders” and the following year he divorced her on the grounds of non-consummation. For bringing about the marriage, Thomas Cromwell went to the scaffold.
Henry’s health was poor by this time. He had a painful fistula on one leg and had put on a great deal of weight. His early armour reveals that as a young man he had a waist measurement of 34 to 36 inches, indicating a weight of about 180 to 200lbs. The final suit of armour made for him shows a waist measurement of 58 to 60 inches, giving an approximate weight of 300 to 320lbs.
On 28th July 1540 Henry married Catherine Howard, a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. Like Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves, Catherine was never crowned. Henry’s health began to improve and he went on a royal progress as far as York. Although he had referred to Catherine as “a rose without a thorn”, on his return he was informed that she had been unfaithful to him. Catherine Howard was found guilty of high treason and was beheaded on 13th February 1542 for “disloyalty and indiscretion”. Henry declared that he had been unlucky in marrying “such illconditioned wives”.
Henry VIII was 51 when he took his sixth and final bride, Catherine Parr, on 12th July 1543 at Hampton Court. She was 20 years his junior, but had already been widowed twice. In 1544 he made her Regent. By this time Henry had the male heir he wanted and said he was really only looking for someone who could be a mother to his children and to care for him in old age. It was not a love match, but they were intellectual equals and enjoyed one another’s company. Catherine was to survive him and within months of Henry’s death had married Thomas Seymour. A year later she was dead herself, dying in childbirth.
Proud and relieved to have an heir in Prince Edward, when King James V of Scotland fathered a daughter, Mary, in 1542, Henry VIII decided that she would make an ideal bride for his son, but the Scottish parliament refused to accept the proposal. As a result, Henry went to war with Scotland to try and force the Scots to agree to the marriage. It was a conflict that was to go on for some eight years, continuing after Henry’s death, and became known as the “Rough Wooing” after George Gordon’s remark, “We liked not the manner of the wooing, and we could not stoop to being bullied into love.”
Although Mary succeeded as Queen of Scots as an infant, she never did marry Henry’s only son. His desire to subdue the Scots and make them loyal
to England was also doomed to failure.
King Henry VIII died at Whitehall Palace on 28th January 1547 at the age of 56. His doctors had been afraid to tell him that he was dying because the Treason Act forbade anyone from predicting the death of the King. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer came to the royal bedchamber at midnight on 27th January. Finding the King unable to speak, Cranmer asked him to give a sign that he trusted in Jesus Christ. Henry gripped his hand and died shortly afterwards at 2am. So corpulent had the King become that, rather gruesomely, his body exploded in the lead coffin prior to the funeral.
In accordance with his wishes, Henry was buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, with his fourth wife Jane Seymour. It took 16 strong Yeomen of the Guard to carry Henry’s coffin into the chapel and lower it into the vault in the choir. For a flamboyant monarch, Henry VIII’S tomb is surprisingly unostentatious and it was not until the early part of the 19th century that he was given a memorial slab. Somewhat surprisingly, just over a century after Henry’s death, Oliver Cromwell had the decapitated body of Charles I deposited in the same vault.
Henry had intended to have an elaborate tomb built, having appropriated the design and materials originally intended for Cardinal Wolsey. Work on the tomb was never finished and the black marble sarcophagus that was going to be used now forms the base of Nelson’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 2015 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired four bronze angels that had been made for Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb and would have stood at the four corners of Henry’s had it ever been completed. Four gilt-bronze candlesticks that would also have formed part of Henry VIII’S tomb are now at St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.
Despite the many marriages, his often tyrannical behaviour and the executions of those that displeased him — which according to the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed amounted to some 72,000 — Henry VIII remained a well-liked king with his people and he changed the course of English history by transforming England into a Protestant country. Leaving three children as heirs, he died knowing that the Tudor dynasty was secure. The recent success of the BBC television drama series Wolf Hall proves that the fascination with Henry and his court continues unabated.