King Henry VIIILondon
1491-1547
(Henry Tudor)
 
 
 
 
The Tudor dynasty produced some of Britain’s most famous monarchs. Many visitor sites ranging from palaces to parks have some connection with the Tudors.
 
We have all read stories and seen TV films about King Henry VIII, a man portrayed as overweight, married six times with a penchant for beheading his wives and responsible for separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority.
 
This lurid portrayal does not really do Henry justice. The House of Tudor came to the throne following a disastrous Succession struggle culminating in the Wars of the Roses. As a result Henry VIII grew up knowing the importance of having male heirs to inherit the throne.
 
Katherine of Aragon 
As well, marriage was undertaken for political reasons to ensure alliances between countries. Henry’s older brother Arthur was promised and married to Katherine of Aragon at a very young age. This alliance united two Roman Catholic countries in a fight against the ‘eastern infidel’ which was in keeping with the Pope’s Holy League aspirations.
 
Unfortunately, Arthur was a sickly young man and died, leaving Katherine a young widow. She maintained that the marriage had never been consummated so was free to be married to younger brother Henry thus maintaining the political alliance.
 
Pope Julius II agreed and provided a special dispensation so Henry married Katherine and set about producing heirs. Henry was an extremely attractive young man, athletic, a fine horseman very well educated, a musician, a poet and very religious. The relationship between the English kings and the Catholic Popes was strong and cordial.
 
King at age 18 
When his father Henry VII died, young Henry came to the throne aged 18. Unfortunately, no male heirs from Katherine survived but his daughter Mary did. Henry was becoming more and more anxious about Katherine’s failure to produce a healthy boy. He decided that this was God’s punishment for marrying his sister in law. Even being created Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X did not settle his fears and in 1527 he petitioned Pope Clement VII to have the marriage annulled and a dispensation granted for him to remarry.
 
Eventually Henry had to entrust this job to his powerful Cardinal, Thomas Wolsey, a man whose resplendent lifestyle overshadowed the King’s. The Cardinal lived in style at Hampton Court Palace but even he could not bring about the divorce.
 
Anne Boleyn 
Henry desperately needed a legitimate heir so he looked for a new queen. He was besotted with Anne Boleyn, a young member of Queen Katherine’s court retinue. Her sister had been Henry’s mistress until she fell pregnant but Anne demanded Henry must marry her and make her Queen before she would allow him to touch her.
 
Break with Church of Rome 
Although it cost Henry dearly, he then separated the Church of England from papal authority and ultimately made himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. This allowed him to marry Anne Boleyn and divorce Katherine.
 
The break with Rome was catastrophic for Katherine and she died in exile. Henry was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England became the official Christian religion of England. Laws were passed to remove power and wealth from the Roman Catholic monasteries and priests ordered to follow the rules of the new Anglican Church. Those who refused were persecuted and executed.
 
Anne Boleyn was more than a match for Henry intellectually and enjoyed meddling in politics instead of being a submissive queen. She made a lot of enemies and was responsible for Cardinal Wolsey’s removal from power and the appointment of Protestant reformers to influential positions on Henry’s Council of Ministers.
 
At the same time she influenced Henry to pass laws of Succession making any heirs from previous marriages illegitimate. To criticise these laws was determined to be an Act of High Treason punishable by death.
 
Henry tolerated Anne’s interference so long as she could provide the much needed male heirs. She was a fiery redhead and mother to Elizabeth. Unfortunately, male babies were either stillborn or miscarried. At this time Henry had a very severe accident jousting and nearly died. He could no longer exercise properly and started to put on weight. His legs became ulcerated and it is probable that he was suffering from untreated Type II Diabetes.
 
Anne knew her position was precarious and the shock of Henry’s accident caused her to miscarry. The baby was a boy and a disappointed and enraged Henry decided to get rid of her. Henry declared that that his marriage had been the product of witchcraft and that she had committed adultery, incest with her brother and high treason. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London and beheaded on Tower Green in 1536. Her body is buried in the Tower parish church of St Peter ad Vincula.
 
Jane Seymour 
Only one day after Anne’s execution Henry became engaged to his pregnant mistress, Jane Seymour, a former lady-in-waiting to Anne, marrying her ten days later. The Laws of Succession were changed again making any children from the new marriage the legitimate heirs to the throne, and Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth made illegitimate. Queen Jane gave birth to a healthy boy, Prince Edward, later Edward VI.
 
Poor Jane died of birth complications some days later and Henry was inconsolable. He declared that Jane was his only “true” wife and chose to be buried beside her in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle when he died.
 
Anne of Cleeves 
But one male heir was not enough so he married again, this time to Anne of Cleeves. It was a Protestant political alliance but even Henry couldn’t bring himself to consummate the marriage or so his wife said. It was annulled and Anne of Cleeves was granted the title of "The King's Sister", and was given Hever Castle, the former residence of the Boleyn family.
 
Catherine Howard 
In 1540 Henry married again. Catherine Howard was a young lady-in-waiting and a member of the powerful Roman Catholic Howard family. Henry was delighted with his new young wife but some of his ministers including Thomas Cranmer were not so enamoured. They were worried about the monarchy coming under Roman Catholic control again and presented Henry with ‘evidence’ that his new queen was being unfaithful.
 
Henry allowed her to be questioned by her accuser, Cranmer, and he obtained a confession. Poor young Catherine was executed in 1542; we are unsure of her date of birth but she could have been only 17 or up to 22 years old.
 
Catherine Parr 
Henry married his sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, a year later. She was a wealthy widow and a Protestant reformer. She reconciled Henry with his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth and persuaded him to make them next in line to the throne if the male heir Edward died before having legitimate children.
 
Catherine Parr was an able queen, entrusted by her husband with regency powers while he was away fighting wars with France. Even so, her attempts at Protestant reforms made her husband suspicious and there were rumours that he was thinking of getting rid of her. She wisely drew back her demands and persuaded Henry that she only argued with him about religion to distract him from the pain of his ulcerated legs.
 
Henry’s health was failing and he eventually died on 28 January 1547, aged 55 without fathering further children.
 
The stage was now set for the turbulent, bloody and glorious reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.