Henry VIII (28 June 1491-28 January 1547), King of England from 21 April 1509, and Ireland from 1542, until his death. He was, by all accounts, an attractive and charismatic man, educated and accomplished. He ruled with absolute power, perhaps the last English monarch to do so. His overwhelming desire to provide England with a male heir, partly from personal vanity, but also on the grounds that a female would not be strong enough to consolidate the Tudor Dynasty and the fragile peace that existed following the Wars of the Roses, led to the two things that Henry is remembered for today: his six wives, and the English Reformation that eventually made England a Protestant nation, contary to his intention. His public image is lustful, egotistical, deceitful, opinionated, and insecure, and his vast wasteful luxuries and useless wars depleted the treasury.
Henry was born on the 28th June 1491, the third child and second son of Henry VII (Henry Tudor) and Elizabeth of York. Henry was a second son and not the heir apparent to the throne; he was well educated because his father intended him for the church. The death of his elder brother Arthur (1502) made him heir apparent to the throne His father was a Tudor and heir to the Lancastrian claim to the throne, and his mother was the daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV. Henry thus symbolized in his person the union of the houses of Lancaster and York whose rivalry had caused the War of the Roses. Unlike his father, therefore, he could believe himself to be the unquestioned and unquestionable king of God's choice.
First marriage: Katherine of Aragon
His brother Arthur in 1501 married Katherine (1485–1536), the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. After Arthur's death in 1502, when Henry was ten years old, for reasons of state it was decided to marry Henry to his brother’s widow, who was several years his senior. This raised the question of whether it was moral and legal for Henry to married his late brother’s wife?
For her part, Catherine stated and always affirmed that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated and she was therefore able to marry Henry. Because her parents wanted the marriage, they did not want there to be any doubt and so they petitioned the Pope to grant a dispensation allowing Catherine and Henry to marry. These matters would be of great significance later.
Henry’s accession to the throne
By 1527 Henry had fallen for Anne Boleyn (1507–1536), whom he married in 1533 after the divorce. Anne failed to produce a son, but did have a daughter in 1533 (the future Queen Elizabeth I). In terms of shaping policy, Anne, who was strongly committed to Protestantism, was the most influential wife. Historians have vigorously debated explanations for the trial and execution of Anne in 1536. One school emphasizes contentious court factions in which Queen Anne was an innocent pawn. G. W. Bernard (1991) argues that she and the five men executed with her were probably guilty of incest and adultery as charged. Both points of view were also expressed by contemporary diplomats reporting from London, who may have been misled by rumors and deliberate government misinformation. Use of traditions of courtly love to explain Anne's relationship with the other accused (opening herself to slander) is speculative. Direct evidence for actual guilt is not convincing. Warnicke (1993) offers a controversial explanation: Anne gave birth to a deformed fetus in January, 1536, provoking in Henry, who learned of the miscarriage and its circumstances after some delay, both rage and fear, as well as a certainty of his consort's adultery and witchcraft, an explanation necessary not only to his psyche but to the preservation of the reputation of his kingdom and the schismatic church that he headed.
In 1536 the death of Katherine of Aragon freed Henry for an unquestionably lawful marriage. In 1536 he chose Jane Seymour (1509-1537), who died the next year of natural causes after providing a son, the future King Edward VI. In 1540, Thomas Cromwell's Protestant policy involved marriage to Anne of Cleves (1515–57), whom Henry disliked from the first and soon divorced. In August 1540 Henry made a love match with Catherine Howard (1521–1542); she was beheaded for adultery. Finally in 1543, he settled for a more placid consort in Catherine Parr (1512–48).
By 1540 the vigor had gone out of the reign (and Henry). The debacle of the Cleves marriage cost Cromwell his head and Henry his leading minister. Overconfidence drew the king once more into a continental and Scottish war (1542-1546), a war that gained no glory but whose expense ruined the English economy. In 1541 Henry became king of Ireland (previously he was "Ruler of Ireland.")
Highlights and paradoxes of Henry VIII’s reign:
- The births of Mary in 1516 and Elizabeth in 1533, both of whom would eventually rule England. Despite Henry’s best efforts, his only son Edward VI died young and the Tudor Dynasty ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter.
- Expansion of the Royal Navy. Henry is considered by some to be one of the founders of the Royal Navy, which went from 5 to 53 ships during his reign, largely as a result of his campaigns in Europe.
- Depletion of the treasury. Henry inherited a prosperous economy from his father, Henry VII, and despite additional gains from seizing the property of the church, the economy was ruined by the time Elizabeth came to the throne.
Henry started as a staunch Catholic and wrote Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, a treatise in which he defended the Church against Martin Luther and asserted the primacy of the Pope. The Pope gave Henry the title Fidei Defensor Defender of the Faith, a style still used by the English monarch today.
However, Henry broke with the Pope on two issues, the divorce, and control over the Church inside England, as he declared himself head of the Church in England. Disagreement with Henry on religious issues was a political affront, and he could not tolerate it. Some wealthy or intellectual Catholics fled to France; others stayed quiet. Moderate reform took place in the 1530s because Queen Anne and top aides Thomas Cranmer and Cromwell had the king's ear and carried out attacks on the old religion. Queen Anne patronized and promoted clergy and bishops of a reforming turn of mind; Cromwell (1485?–1540), the Earl of Essex, was a convinced reformer and in effect the ruthless and unpopular prime minister from 1532 until he fell from favour and was beheaded in 1540. Cranmer (1489–1556) was archbishop of Canterbury after 1533.  Henry persecuted those who still held to Papal Supremacy; he encouraged some Protestant ideas to flourish, but in general followers of the pope were executed for treason, those of Luther or Zwingli for heresy. Protestantism was officially established during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI.
Henry did not introduce Protestantism to England, but he strongly promoted some aspects of it and made religion a central theme of his rule. Protestantism grew out of reforms sought by disaffected Christians on the European continent and its doctrines were brought to England by priests and intellectuals, where they were embraced by English reformers also at odds with the Church’s excesses.
From 1514 to 1529 Thomas Wolsey (1473–1530), a Catholic cardinal, served as lord chancellor and practically controlled domestic and foreign policy for the young king. He negotiated the truce with France that was signaled by the dramatic display of amity on the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520). He switched England back and forth as an ally of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Wolsey centralized the national government and extended the jurisdiction of the conciliar courts, particularly the Star Chamber. His use of forced loans to pay for foreign wars angered the rich, who were annoyed as well by his enormous wealth and ostentatious living. Wolsey disappointed the king when he failed to secure a quick divorce from Queen Katherine. The treasury was empty after years of extravagance; the peers and people were dissatisfied and Henry needed an entirely new approach; Wolsey had to be replaced. After 16 years at the top he lost power in 1529 and in 1530 was arrested on false charges of treason and died in custody. Henry then took full control of his government, although at court numerous complex factions continued to try to ruin and destroy each other.
Elton (1962) argues there was a major Tudor revolution in government. While crediting Henry with intelligence and shrewdness, Elton finds that much of the positive action, especially the break with Rome, was the work of Thomas Cromwell and not the king. Elton sees Henry as competent, but too lazy to take direct control of affairs for any extended period; that is, the king was an opportunist who relied on others for most of his ideas and to do most of the work. Henry's marital adventures are part of Elron's chain of evidence; a man who marries six wives, Elton notes, is not someone who fully controls his own fate. Elton shows that Thomas Cromwell had conceived of a commonwealth of England that included popular participation through Parliament and that this was generally expressed in the preambles to legislation. Parliamentary consent did not mean that the king had yielded any of his authority; Henry VIII was a paternalistic ruler who did not hesitate to use his power. Popular "consent" was a means to augment rather than limit royal power.
Henry never formally repudiated most of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, but he declared himself supreme head of the church in England. This, combined with subsequent actions, eventually resulted in a separated church, the Church of England. The pope behaved more as an Italian prince involved in secular affairs, which often obscured his religious role. The Church treated England as a minor stepchild, allowing it one cardinal out of fifty, and no possibility of becoming pope. For reasons of state it was increasingly intolerable that major decisions in England were settled by Italians. The divorce issue exemplified the problem but was not itself the cause of the problem. As long as Cardinal Wolsey dominated the government the widespread sentiment for reform could go nowhere.
Henry's reformation of the English church involved more complex motives and methods than his desire for a new wife and an heir. Henry asserted that his first marriage had never been valid, but the divorce issue was only one factor in Henry's desire to reform the church. In 1536-37, he instituted a number of statutes-the act of appeal, the act of succession, the act of supremacy and others-that dealt with the relationship between the king and the pope and the structure of the Church of England. During these years, Henry also suppressed monasteries and pilgrimage shrines in his attempt to reform the church, though this also made him a lot of money. The king was always the dominant force in the making of religious policy; his policy, which he pursued skilfully and consistently, is best characterized as a search for the middle way.
Questions over what was the true faith were resolved with the adoption of the orthodox "Act of Six Articles" (1539) and a careful holding of the balance between extreme factions after 1540. Even so the era saw movement away from religious orthodoxy, the more so as the pillars of the old beliefs, especially Thomas More and John Fisher, had been unable to accept the change and had been executed in 1535 for siding with the pope against the king.
Critical for the Henrician reformation was the new political theology of obedience to the prince that was enthusiastically adopted by the Church of England in the 1530s. It reflected Martin Luther's new interpretation of the fourth commandment and was mediated to an English audience by William Tyndale. The founding of royal authority on the Ten Commandments, and thus on the word of God, was a particularly attractive feature of this doctrine, which became a defining feature of Henrician religion. Rival tendencies within the Church of England sought to exploit it in the pursuit of their particular agendas. Reformers strove to preserve its connections with the broader framework of Lutheran theology, with the emphasis on faith alone and the word of God, while conservatives emphasized good works, ceremonies, and charity. The Reformers linked royal supremacy and the word of God in order to persuade Henry to publish the "Great Bible," an English translation that was a formidable prop for his new-found dignity.
Dissolving the monasteries
England was covered with many medieval monastaries that owned large tracts of land worked by tenants. As a religious institution they were almost defunct and had become handicaps to the economy. Henry dissolved them (1536-1540) and transferred of a fifth of the England's landed wealth to new hands. The program was designed primarily to create a landed gentry beholden to the crown, which would use the lands much more efficiently.
Henry made radical changes in traditional religious practices. He ordered the clergy to preach against superstitious images, relics, miracles, and pilgrimages, and to remove most candles. The catechism of 1545, called the King's Primer, left out the saints. Latin rituals gave way to English. Shrines to saints were destroyed—including the popular one of St Thomas at Canterbury; relics were ridiculed as worthless old bones.
The reforms alienated pious folk who believed in the old rituals depended on the monasteries for religious devotions and helped provoke the great northern rising of 1536-1537, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. It was the only real threat to Henry's security on the throne in all his reign. Some 30,000 rebels in nine groups were led by the charismatic Robert Aske, together with most of the northern nobility. Aske went to London to negotiate terms; once there he was arrested, charged with treason and executed. About 200 rebels were executed and the disturbances ended. Elsewhere the changes were accepted and welcomed, as those who clung to Catholic rites kept quiet or moved in secrecy; they would reemerge in the reign (1553-58) of Henry's daughter Mary.
Public image and memory
Henry worked hard to present an image of unchallengeable authority and irresistible power. He executed at will, beheading more English notables than any monarch before or since. The roll of heads included two wives, one cardinal, twenty peers, four leading public servants, and six of the king's close attendants and friends, not to mention various heads of monasteries. In addition Cardinal Wolsey died in prison.
A big, strong man (over six foot tall and broad in proportion) he excelled at jousting and hunting. More than pastimes, they were political devices that served multiple goals, from enhancing his athletic royal image to impressing foreign emissaries and rulers, to conveying Henry's ability to suppress any rebellion. Thus he arranged a jousting tournament at Greenwich in 1517, where he wore gilded armour, gilded horse trappings, and outfits of velvet, satin and cloth of gold dripping with pearls and jewels. It suitably impressed foreign ambassadors, one of whom wrote home that, "The wealth and civilisation of the world are here, and those who call the English barbarians appear to me to render themselves such." Henry finally retired from the lists in 1536 after a heavy fall from his horse left him unconscious for two hours, but he continued to sponsor two lavish tournaments a year. He then started adding weight and lost that trim athletic look that had made him so handsome; Henry's courtiers began dressing in heavily padded clothes to emulate--and flatter--their increasingly stout monarch.
Henry loved palaces; he began with a dozen and died with fifty-five, in which he hung 2,000 tapestries. He took pride in showing off his collection of weapons, which included exotic archery equipment, 2,250 pieces of land ordnance and 6,500 handguns.
Henry was an intellectual; the first well-educated English king, he was thoroughly at home in his well-stocked library; he personally annotated many books and wrote and published his own book.
To promote the public support for the reformation of the church, Henry had numerous pamphlets and lectures prepared. For example, Richard Sampson's Oratio (1534) was a legalistic argument for absolute obedience to the temporal power as vested in divine law and Christian love ("obey my commandments"). Sampson cited historical precedents (now known to be spurious) to support his claim that the English church had always been independent from Rome.
At the popular level theater and minstrel troupes funded by the crown traveled around the land to promote the new religious practices and ridicule the old. In the polemical plays they presented, the pope and Catholic priests and monks were mocked as foreign devils, while the glorious king was hailed as a brave and heroic defender of the true faith.
William Shakespeare together with (probably) John Fletcher wrote a favorable play about the king, The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth, originally called All is True, first performed in 1613.
Recent popular culture
Henry VIII is probably the most famous of all English kings, and has been portrayed n many ways. Charles Laughton's Oscar-winning Henry in "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (directed by Alexander Korda 1933) portrayed the macho, totally self-regarding, totally self-absorbed Henry; it created the popular notion that the Tudors had weak table manners. Laughton shows a lustful monarch, a cock among a bevy of sweet chicks, each with eyes on the royal bed; a man who sees women as objects. The same theme appears in the 1994 comedy "Carry On Henry." Television's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (1970) was more accurate Keith Michell's performance was deeper than Laughton's, but as the title shows, the focus was once again on Henry the married man.
- Gardner, James. "Henry VIII" in Cambridge Modern History vol 2 (1903), a brief political history online edition
- Ives, E. W. "Henry VIII (1491–1547)", in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), online at OUP, a good starting point
- Graves, Michael. Henry VIII (2003) 217pp, topical coverage
- Lindsey, Karen. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (1995) online edition
- Pollard, A.F. Henry VIII (1905) 470 pp; the first modern biography, accurate and still valuable online edition
- Scarisbrick, J. J. Henry VIII (1968) 592pp, a favourable scholarly biography; his Henry was "a formidable, captivating man who wore regality with a splendid conviction. But easily and unpredictably his great charm could turn into anger and shouting.... He was high-strung and unstable; hypochondriac and possessed of a strong streak of cruelty."
- Smith, Lacey Baldwin. Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (1971), a leading scholar writes the psycho-history of an egotistical border-line neurotic given to great fits of temper and deep and dangerous suspicions, with a mechanical and conventional, but deeply-held piety, and no better than a mediocre intellect to hold these contradictory forces in harness. online edition
- Weir, Alison. Henry VIII, King and Court (2001). 640pp a flattering portrait excerpt and text search
- G. W. Bernard, "The Fall of Anne Boleyn." English Historical Review 1991 106(420): 584-610. in Jstor; Retha M. Warnicke, "The Fall of Anne Boleyn Revisited." English Historical Review 1993 108(428): 653-665. Issn: 0013-8266 in Jstor
- After Henry's death Cranmer wrote much of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549, revised 1552), the centerpiece of the Anglican Church.
- G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (1962) online edition; Elton, Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558 (1977) is sharply hostile toward the king--an "ego-centric monstrosity," whose reign "owed its successes and virtues to better and greater men about him; most of its horrors and failures sprang more directly from himself." p. 43
- So far there has been only one English Pope, Adrian IV in the 12th century.
- A. F. Pollard, Henry VIII (1905) provides the classic statement of the Henrician position, esp. pp 230-38, noting that Spain and France stayed loyal because they controlled the papacy.
- G. W. Bernard, The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (2005)
- Richard Rex, "The Crisis of Obedience: God's Word and Henry's Reformation." Historical Journal 1996 39(4): 863-894. Issn: 0018-246x in Jstor
- M. L. Bush, "The Tudor Polity and the Pilgrimage of Grace." Historical Research 2007 80(207): 47-72. Issn: 0950-3471 Fulltext: Ebsco; Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace: The Rebellion That Shook Henry VIII's Throne (2003) excerpt and text search
- Steven Gunn, "Tournaments and early Tudor chivalry," History Today, (June 1991), Vol. 41, #6 in Academic Search Premier; James Williams, "Hunting and the Royal Image of Henry VIII" Sport in History 2005 25(1): 41-59. Issn: 1746-0263
- Simon Thurley, "Palaces for a nouveau riche king." History Today, (June 1991), Vol. 41, #6 in Academic Search Premier
- Jonathan Davies, "'We Do Fynde in Our Countre Great Lack of Bowes and Arrows': Tudor Military Archery and the Inventory of King Henry VIII," Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 2005 83(333): 11-29. Issn: 0037-9700
- Andrew A. Chibi, "Richard Sampson, His Oratio, and Henry VIII's Royal Supremacy." Journal of Church and State 1997 39(3): 543-560. Issn: 0021-969x Fulltext: Ebsco
- See Thomas Betteridge, "The Henrician Reformation and Mid-Tudor Culture." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 2005 35(1): 91-109. Issn: 1082-9636 Fulltext: Ebsco. Original documents are collected by the Centre for Research in Early English Drama at Victoria University, Toronto
- Wells, S and Taylor, G (eds) William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1986
- See Greg Walker, The Private Life of Henry VIII: A British Film Guide (2003) excerpt and text search; also DVD
- see DVD