Henry VIII (1491-1547) was king of England from 1509 to 1547. As a consequence of the Pope's refusal to nullify his first marriage, Henry withdrew from the Roman Church and created the Church of England.
The second son of Henry VII, Henry VIII was born on June 28, 1491, at Greenwich Palace. He was a precocious student; he learned Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian and studied mathematics, music, and theology. He became an accomplished musician and played the lute, organ, and harpsichord. He composed hymns, ballads, and two Masses. He also liked to hunt, wrestle, and joust and drew "the bow with greater strength than any man in England."
On his father's death on April 21, 1509, Henry succeeded to a peaceful kingdom. He married Catherine of Aragon, widow of his brother Arthur, on June 11, and 13 days later they were crowned at Westminster Abbey. He enthused to his father-in-law, Ferdinand, that "the love he bears to Catherine is such, that if he were still free he would choose her in preference to all others."
In short order Henry set course on a pro-Spanish and anti-French policy. In 1511 he joined Spain, the papacy, and Venice in the Holy League, directed against France. He claimed the French crown and sent troops to aid the Spanish in 1512 and determined to invade France. The bulk of the preparatory work fell to Thomas Wolsey, the royal almoner, who became Henry's war minister. Despite the objections of councilors like Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, Henry went ahead. He was rewarded by a smashing victory at Guinegate (Battle of the Spurs, Aug. 13, 1513) and the capture of Tournai and Théorouanne.
Peace was made in 1514 with the Scots, who had invaded England and been defeated at Flodden (Sept. 9, 1513), as well as with France. The marriage of Henry's sister Mary to Louis XII sealed the French treaty. This diplomatic revolution resulted from Henry's anger at the Hapsburg rejection of Mary, who was to have married Charles, the heir to both Ferdinand and Maximilian I, the Holy Roman emperor. Soon the new French king, Francis I, decisively defeated the Swiss at Marignano (Sept. 13-14, 1515). When Henry heard about Francis's victory, he burst into tears of rage. Increasingly, Wolsey handled state affairs; he became archbishop of York in 1514, chancellor and papal legate in 1515. Not even his genius, however, could win Henry the coveted crown of the Holy Roman Empire. With deep disappointment he saw it bestowed in 1519 on Charles, the Spanish king. During 1520 Henry met Emperor Charles V at Dover and Calais, and Francis at the Field of Cloth of Gold, near Calais, where Francis mortified Henry by throwing him in an impromptu wrestling match. In 1521 Henry joyfully received the papally bestowed title "Defender of the Faith" as a reward for writing the Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, a criticism of Lutheran doctrine. He tried to secure Wolsey's election as pope in 1523 but failed.
Catherine was 40 in 1525. Her seven pregnancies produced but one healthy child, Mary, born May 18, 1516. Despairing of having a legitimate male heir, Henry created Henry Fitzroy, his natural son by Elizabeth Blount, Duke of Richmond and Somerset. More and more, he conceived Catherine's misfortunes as a judgment from God. Did not Leviticus say that if a brother marry his brother's widow, it is an unclean thing and they shall be childless? Since Catherine was Arthur's widow, the matter was apparent.
The Reformation proceeded haphazardly from Henry's negotiations to nullify his marriage. Catherine would not retire to a nunnery, nor would Anne Boleyn consent to be Henry's mistress as had her sister Mary; she grimly demanded marriage. A court sitting in June 1529 under Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio heard the case. Pope Clement VII instructed Campeggio to delay. When the Peace of Cambrai was declared between Spain and France in August 1529, leaving Charles V, Catherine's nephew, still powerful in Italy, clement revoked the case to Rome. He dared not antagonize Charles, whose troops had sacked Rome in 1527 and briefly held him prisoner.
Henry removed Wolsey from office. Actually, Wolsey's diplomacy had been undermined by Henry's sending emissaries with different proposals to Clement. Catherine had a valid dispensation for her marriage to Henry from Pope Julius II; furthermore, she claimed that she came a virgin to Henry. She was a popular queen, deeply hurt by Henry's forsaking her bed in 1526. Henry's strategy matured when Thomas Cromwell became a privy councilor and his chief minister. Cromwell forced the clergy in convocation in 1531 to accept Henry's headship of the Church "as far as the law of Christ allows."
Anne's pregnancy in January 1533 brought matters to a head. In a fever of activity Henry married her on Jan. 25, 1533, secured papal approval to Thomas Cranmer's election as archbishop of Canterbury in March, had a court convened under Cranmer declare his marriage to Catherine invalid in May, and waited triumphantly for the birth of a son. His waiting was for naught. On Sept. 7, 1533, Elizabeth was born. Henry was so disappointed that he did not attend her christening. By the Act of Succession (1534) his issue by Anne was declared legitimate and his daughter Mary illegitimate. The Act of Supremacy (1534) required an oath affirming Henry's headship of the Church and, with other acts preventing appeals to Rome and cutting off the flow of annates and Peter's Pence, completed the break. Individual unwilling to subscribe to the Acts of Succession and Supremacy suffered, the two most notable victims being John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Thomas More (1535). Their executions led to the publication of the papal bull excommunicating Henry.
Although Henry allowed the publication of an English Bible (1538), the Henrician Reformation was basically conservative. Major liturgical and theological revisions came under his son, Edward VI. Henry's financial need, however, made him receptive to Cromwell's plan for monastic dissolutions via parliamentary acts in 1536 and 1539, in which the Crown became proprietor of the dissolved monasteries. The scale of monastic properties led to important social and economic consequences.
Anne's haughty demeanor and moody temperament suited Henry ill, and her failure to produce a male heir rankled. She miscarried of a baby boy on Jan. 27, 1536, 6 days after fainting at the news that Henry had been knocked unconscious in a jousting accident in which the king fell under his mailed horse. It was a costly miscarriage, for Henry was already interested in Jane Seymour. He determined on a second divorce. He brought charges of treason against Anne for alleged adultery and incest; she was executed on May 19. The following day Henry betrothed himself to Jane and married her 10 days later. Jane brought a measure of comfort to Henry's personal life; she also produced a son and heir, Edward, on Oct. 12, 1537, but survived his birth a scant 12 days.
Henry was deeply grieved, and he did not remarry for 3 years. He was not in good health. Headaches plagued him intermittently; they may have originated from a jousting accident of 1524, in which Charles Brandon's lance splintered on striking Henry's open helmet. Moreover his ulcerated leg, which first afflicted him in 1528, occasionally troubled. Both legs were infected in 1537. In May 1538 he had a clot blockage in his lungs which made him speechless, but he recovered.
The course of diplomatic events, particularly the fear that Charles V might attempt an invasion of England, led Henry to seek an alliance with Continental Protestant powers; hence, his marriage to the Protestant princess Anne of Cleves on Jan. 12, 1540. His realization that Charles did not intend to attack, coupled with his distaste for Anne, led to Cromwell's dismissal and execution in June 1540 and to the annulment of his marriage to Anne on July 9, 1540.
Cromwell's fall was engineered by the conservative leaders of his Council, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Bishop Gardiner. They thrust forward the 19-year-old niece of Norfolk, Catherine Howard, and Henry found her pleasing. He married Catherine within 3 weeks of his annulment and entered into the Indian summer of his life. He bore his by now tremendous girth lightly and was completely captivated, but his happiness was short-lived. Catherine's indiscretions as queen consort combined with her sexual misdemeanors as a protégé of the old dowager Duchess of Norfolk ensured her ruin. Inquiry into her behavior in October 1541 led to house arrest and her execution on Feb. 13, 1542, by means of a bill of attainder.
Henry's disillusionment with Catherine plus preoccupation with the Scottish war, begun in 1542, and plans for renewal of hostilities with France delayed remarriage. The French war commenced in 1543 and dragged on for 3 years, achieving a solitary triumph before Boulogne (1545). Henry married the twice-widowed Catherine Parr on July 12, 1543. Though she bore him no children, she made him happy. Her religious views were somewhat more radical than those of Henry, who had revised the conservative Six Articles (1539) with his own hand. During his last years he attempted to stem the radical religious impulses unleashed by the formal break with Rome.
No minister during Henry's last 7 years approached the power of Wolsey or Cromwell. Henry bitterly reflected that Cromwell was the most faithful servant that he had ever had. He ruled by dividing his Council into conservative and radical factions. When Norfolk's faction became too powerful, he imprisoned him and executed his son the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The King was unwell in late 1546 and early 1547, suffering from a fever brought on by his ulcerated leg. Before he died on Jan. 28, 1547, Henry reflected that "the mercy of Christ [is] able to pardon me all my sins, though they were greater than they be."
Appearance and Assessment
A contemporary described Henry in his prime as "the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg; his complexion fair and bright, with auburn hair … and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman. … He is much handsomer than any other sovereign in Christendom; a great deal handsomer than the King of France." Henry was "a capital horseman, a fine jouster," and "very fond of hunting," tiring 8 or 10 horses in the course of a day's hunting. "He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture."
Henry came to the throne with great gifts and high hopes. Ministers like Wolsey and Cromwell freed him from the burdensome chores of government and made policy, but only with Henry's approval. His relentless search for an heir led him into an accidental reformation of the Church not entirely to his liking. Ironically, had he waited until Catherine of Aragon died in 1536, he would have been free to pursue a solution to the succession problem without recourse to a reformation. His desire to cut a figure on the European battlefields led him into costly wars. To pay the piper, it was necessary to debase the coinage, thus increasing inflationary pressures already stimulated by the influx of Spanish silver, and to use the tremendous revenues from the sale of monastic properties. Had the properties been kept in the royal hand, the revenue could have made the Crown self-sufficient—perhaps so self-sufficient that it could have achieved an absolutism comparable to that of Louis XIV.
Though personally interested in education, Henry sponsored no far-reaching educational statutes. However, his avid interest in naval matters resulted in a larger navy and a modernization of naval administration. He brought Wales more fully into union with the English by the Statute of Wales (1536) and made Ireland a kingdom (1542). Through the Statute of Uses (1536) he attempted to close off his subjects' attempts to deny him his feudal dues, but this was resisted and modified in 1540. The great innovations came out of the Reformation Statutes, not the least of which was the Act in Restraint of Appeals, in which England was declared an empire, and the Act of Supremacy, in which Henry became supreme head of the Anglican Church. The politically inspired Henrician Reformation became a religiously inspired one under his son, Edward VI, and thus Henry's reign became the first step in the forging of the Anglican Church.
Henry ruled ruthlessly in a ruthless age; he cut down the enemies of the Crown, like the Duke of Buckingham in 1521 and the Earl of Surrey. He stamped out the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-1537), which issued from economic discontent, and set up a council in the north to ensure that there would be no more disorder. Though he had political gifts of a high order, he was neither Machiavelli's prince in action nor Bismarck's man of blood and iron. He was a king who wished to be succeeded by a son, and for this cause he bravely and rashly risked the anger of his fellow sovereigns. That he did what he did is a testament to his will, personal gifts, and good fortune.
Further Reading on Henry VIII
A. F. Pollard, Henry VIII (1902; new ed. 1913), the traditional interpretation of Henry VIII, has been challenged in recent years by G. R. Elton, Henry VIII: An Essay in Revision (1962), and J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968). Scarisbrick, unlike Pollard, does not view Henry as England's savior. He believes that Henry created England's difficulties and censures him for his lack of social responsibility. He also provides a detailed analysis of the technical aspects of the divorce. Lacey Baldwin Smith, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (1971), concentrates on Henry's last years and brilliantly portrays his personal despotism and naked pride and power. Melvin J. Tucker, The Life of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, Second Duke of Norfolk, 1443-1524 (1964), gives a good case study of Henry's relationship to his aristocracy. Joycelyne G. Russell, The Field of Cloth of Gold (1969), supplies an interesting analysis of the pageantry that accompanied state affairs. Lacey Baldwin Smith, Tudor Prelates and Politics, 1536-1558 (1953), effectively deals with conciliar factions. A variety of studies deal with the historical background: J. W.
Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (1928; 3d ed. 1951), ably handles political theory; S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1951), is a brilliantly written general survey and is good on economics; G. R. Elton, ed., The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary (1960), unravels complicated constitutional matters; A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1964; rev. ed. 1967), deals incisively with the Henrician Reformation; and R. B. Wernham, Before the Armada: The Emergence of the English Nation, 1485-1588 (1966), is essential on Tudor foreign policy.