*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Hours after the death of his father, Henry VII, one of the most famous monarchs in history, King Henry VIII of England took the throne on April 21, 1509. Though known for marrying six times in pursuit of a male heir and forcing a split with the Roman Catholic Church because he was willing to divorce in order to achieve it, he had an undeniable charm and sharp mind. During his nearly 38-year reign, Henry set England on a course that would define it as a nation for centuries to come.
Born the third child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Henry spent much of his youth in the shadow of his older brother, Arthur. Without the pressures of a first-born son, Henry was free to immerse himself in education and enjoy the trappings of royalty. All that changed in 1502, however, when Arthur died suddenly — the 10-year-old Henry was now in line to be king despite having received none of the upbringing associated with ruling. His father, perhaps eager to shield his son from the limelight, set up a sort of solitary confinement for his young son and avoided assigning him too many responsibilities.
From the start, he faced controversy: his brother’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, had been widowed after just five months of marriage, throwing the alliance between the English and Spanish into limbo. For three years, Catherine would have to wait for an answer — the two were prohibited from living together until Henry reached the age of 14 — and was heartbroken to learn she was not his choice when the time came. She remained in England as her father King Ferdinand II’s ambassador, holding closely to her Catholic faith and a belief that God wanted to see her wed to Henry.
On April 21, 1509, Henry took over from his father. Within three weeks, he reversed course on forming a marital alliance with Catherine, claiming he made a promise to Henry VII as he lay dying. Now 18 years old, Henry took on the role of king with all his might, opting for a private ceremony making Catherine his wife before throwing a massive coronation on June 23rd the new queen called a “continuous festival.”
Just two days after officially taking over, Henry gave England a severe demonstration of his methods for dealing with opposition: two members of his father’s court, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, were imprisoned and charged with high treason for allegedly extorting money from the people. They would be executed in August 1510 following farcical trials with dubious evidence.
With respect to foreign policy, the early years of Henry’s reign were a mish-mash of moves to build alliances. At first, the king chose to maintain a relationship with Louis XII of France, just as his father did. A few months later, he created a competing agreement with Ferdinand guaranteeing to fight the French. It became clear that, while solidifying his reign in England, Henry wished to regain the territory lost during the Hundred Years’ War. Working with Pope Julius II to form the Holy League in late 1511, he was soon at war in France while Catherine led an army against James IV of Scotland to defend their holdings. Within three years, Henry’s wide involvement on the continent bankrupted the royal treasury and gained relatively little in return.
On the home front, Henry and Catherine were trying desperately to conceive an heir. Their first child, a girl, was stillborn near the end of January 1510. A year later, the prince Henry craved deeply came into the world, but the younger Henry died at just seven weeks old. For the next five years, the two would continue making every effort possible — finally welcoming Princess Mary in February 1516 — but the problem remained: as of 1533, only Henry FitzRoy, the king’s illegitimate son from an affair, was male.
To Henry’s mind, only a boy would be able to grow up and solidify the Tudor family line. Frustrated by Catherine’s inability to give him the son he felt necessary if for no other reason than his own ego, he consociated with Anne Boleyn in 1525. In order to produce a true heir, he would have to annul his marriage to Catherine and start anew with Anne. He appealed to Pope Clement VII through two separate emissaries, hoping to maintain England’s standing as a Catholic nation while bending Church law to his will.
By 1531, Catherine had been supplanted by the younger Anne, with a wedding occurring in secret early in 1533. Almost immediately, Henry’s new queen began pushing a Protestant agenda: Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer and friend to Anne, proposed new laws establishing the monarchy as the primary power in England, granting the throne supremacy over the church.
Nine months later, Anne gave birth to a second royal daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Within days, the break with Rome accelerated when Parliament approved the king’s second marriage and declared Mary, Henry’s surviving child from Catherine, outside the line of succession. With orders of excommunication issued by Pope Clement VII against the king and his new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, it was only a matter of time before ties were cut altogether. Finally, with the Act of Supremacy in November 1534, Henry received confirmation that Parliament regarded him as “Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England” — subsequent laws made saying otherwise a crime punishable by death.
In a matter of just two years, problems between Henry and Anne surfaced: strong-willed and opinionated, she hardly fit the role of ceremonial queen and child bearer he wished for. Though pregnant in early 1536, the queen faced new pressure after word of Catherine’s death spread: the king could now marry anyone he chose if he opted to have Anne executed. When she suffered a miscarriage several weeks later, the door opened for Henry’s mistress Jane Seymour to sweep into the favored seat.
The following May, Anne and five men were arrested for adultery and treason, facing trial just two weeks after being arrested. On May 19, 1536, the six “traitors” were executed near Tower Green under circumspect convictions. As if to remove all doubt about his intentions, Henry proposed to Jane the following day and married her on May 30th. In October 1537, the queen gave birth to Prince Edward and died soon after. Henry felt the loss of his “true” wife deeply, yet immediately began searching for a replacement.
During the remainder of his life, Henry became increasingly paranoid. Cromwell, now a trusted adviser to the king, provided intelligence about various foreign and domestic challenges lurking in the shadows. Henry focused his efforts on finding a new wife to consolidate political power and solidifying England’s coastal defenses from attack. From 1540 until his death on January 28, 1547, he would marry three more times while bankrupting the English treasury once again through a series of continental conflicts which cost more than they would ever return.
Immediately succeeded by his 9-year-old son, crowned King Edward VI, Henry’s most enduring legacy might be the force of his will: he spent as he pleased, pursued the women he wished to and initiated a break with the Roman Catholic Church that would lead to religious isolation for England (and, in some ways, foretold the troubles with Ireland four centuries later). Those who followed him as monarch — particularly his younger daughter, the eventual Queen Elizabeth I — took charge of a nation with a new clout on the world stage, if not the finances to back it up.
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