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Henry VIII
Henry VIII (1491-1547)

"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."
Charles Dickens, A Child's History of England

For the play by William Shakespeare, see Henry VIII.

'E's 'Enry the Eighth, 'e his!

The man with six wives. Every British person can remember what happened to them — "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived". Actually the "spare" to his elder brother Arthur, he ended up in line to the throne after Arthur died (marrying his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, the first 'Spanish' Princess, the realms of Aragon and Castile having been united (temporarily, people thought) by the marriage of her parents). He was only 18 when he came to the throne and engaged in some Wacky Fratboy Hijinx in his early years as King (he and some male buddies once burst into the Queen's bedchamber dressed as Robin Hood and his Merry Men). A redhead, he does remind one of his contemporary namesake, Prince Henry of Wales (Prince Harry).

He was far more extravagant than his miserly father — responsible for quite possibly the most extravagant diplomatic summit in history, the Field of the Cloth of Gold. There he proceeded to have a wrestling match with the King of France, François I. Though very showy, it didn't accomplish anything.

Henry restored English control over most of Ireland by a system of 'surrender and regrant', bringing Ireland back under proper royal jurisdiction — prior to this point English power in Ireland had been in decline for centuries and was purely nominal outside the immediate surrounds of Dublin, an area known as 'The Pale'. (Yes, this is the origin of the phrase "beyond the Pale".) Once this process was complete he declared himself King of all Ireland in 1542, a title English (and later British) monarchs would hold for four centuries, and still hold in part i.e. Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it's called).

Henry was a devoted Catholic and remained so (at least in his own mind) until death. Working with Thomas More — a close friend and one of his best servants — he published an essay ('In Defense of the Seven Sacraments') in 1521 attacking Martin Luther's teachings, for which the Pope gave him the title Defender of the Faith — a title the British monarchy has retained to this day.

It's therefore perhaps ironic that he's arguably best known for establishing royal control over the Church in England because he wanted a divorce (technically an annulment - as in, he insisted the wedding was invalid, after more than 20 years of what was, by all accounts, a loving relationship) so he could marry his mistress. That's the gist of it, anyway. Anyway, annulments were fairly common and it didn't seem like it would be a big deal. Problem was, Catherine's nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Castile and Aragon (i.e. Spain) had been fighting with Francis I of France and Clement VII, the Pope, over northern Italy. After winning the latest war against France and the Vatican, Charles' mercenaries had run amok, sacking Rome and taking the Pope hostage. This was sufficient to intimidate Clement into stalling over the annulment for a further six years to avoid provoking anyone. Looking back on the issue, it almost seems as if the Pope wanted Henry to take care of it himself: Henry was only excommunicated (cut off from the Church) in 1537, three years after he made himself head of the English Church (i.e. when it was clear that he had left the Roman fold and wasn't coming back).

After seven years of legal stalling tactics, Henry decided he'd had enough and outlawed the Pope's authority in 1533. He turned his divorce settlement over to Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, married Anne Boleyn in January of 1533, and made himself Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1534. He forced almost every literate man in England to swear an oath upholding the new succession and his new title; those who wouldn't, including his "close friend" Thomas More, ended up on the chopping block.

Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen in May of 1533 to widespread apathy and gave birth to Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) that September. Anne was a very controversial figure in the court, apparently more willing to argue with her husband and Thomas Cromwell (Henry's right-hand man at the time) than either man liked. She was beheaded for adultery on trumped up charges once Henry tired of her. It didn't help that after giving him a healthy daughter, Anne suffered one stillbirth and at least two miscarriages, the last of which was said to have been of a male child.

Many Catholics hoped that Anne's death signaled the end of Henry's split with Rome. They were shocked to discover that it had been Henry all along who had been against them. This became crystal clear when Henry, who had married the conservative, Catholic, and unassuming Jane Seymour eleven days after Anne's death, gave the order to close every religious house in England. This Dissolution of the Monasteries was wildly unpopular in the North and led to the largest and most dangerous rebellion of Henry's reign: the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry pretended to concede to the rebels' demands, not having enough troops to put them down by force. When a further uprising began, Henry VIII considered himself absolved of the whole deal and brutally retaliated. The leader of the rebellion, Robert Aske, was sentenced to death and begged to be fully dead before being dismembered. Henry agreed and instead hanged him in chains— that is sticking him in a gibbet while still alive.

Some months later, Jane Seymour finally gave him the son he craved, the future Edward VI. Her death twelve days after Edward's birth has been said by some writers to have devastated Henry; contemporary reports, however, have Henry only mildly upset that Jane's death had disrupted his hunting plans. Certainly the search for a fourth wife began within days of Jane's death. Perhaps Jane's religious and personal connections to the Pilgrimage (Robert Aske was her cousin) had soured Henry on Jane; no matter the reason, however, Henry affected in later years grief at Jane's death that he apparently never expressed at the time of her death.

Henry's fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, was a political match arranged by Cromwell to bring England closer to the Protestant Schmalkaldic league in case of a war with Francis and/or Charles. Rumour has it that Henry's court painter had portrayed her as misleadingly beautiful, but it's possible that Henry's idea of beauty, being a King and all, probably matched our concept of Hollywood Homely. (Keep in mind that at this point, Henry was morbidly obese with nasty stinking pus-spewing ulcers covering both legsnote  and possibly gout.) Once England's enemies started fighting each other again the alliance fell apart and Henry had another annulment for his latest unconsummated marriage, this time without any resistance from his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Anne, no fool she, gained a good settlement out of it and lived the rest of her life unmarried but quite happy as Henry's "beloved sister" in England. Cromwell was arrested and executed shortly after the annulment.

Henry's next wife was Catherine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn who may have been as young as fifteen at the time of the marriage. A year later she was arrested under suspicion of adultery and treason (both or having imperiled the succession and for having imagined the King's death) and was eventually executed. Unlike Anne Boleyn, the accusations against her were almost certainly true, but strangely Henry seemed to have been more upset over her pre-marital relationship with Francis Dereham than her adultery with Thomas Culpepper.

Catherine Parr, a long-time friend, was the sixth and last wife. Henry died before she did, though she didn't last much longer, and was outlived by the aforementioned Anne of Cleves.

Generally speaking, historians and the establishment dislike him (see the page quote from Dickens) while he remains quite popular with the English people—largely because he, or rather his famous portrait by Holbein, is what people invariably picture when they think of an interesting King. The fact that the British history syllabus emphasises the Tudors probably helps too. In his time, his prestige generally allowed England to punch above its weight class, diplomatically—when he wished to marry Anne of Cleves and ally with the Protestant princes of northern Germany, said German princes were amazed that he was actually willing to talk to them. Furthermore, there is some historical evidence that King James V of Scotland missed out on their summit in the 1540s out of intimidation—another king was scared to meet with him.

While he undoubtedly left England a much more powerful, wealthy and important nation than when he came to the throne, and though English Protestants and others credit for founding the Church of England (albeit for acknowledged selfish reasons, and his Church was not Protestant in any way), the fact that he built that wealth on looting the church monasteries and Lords he didn't like (and bear in mind, the church at this time was largely responsible for education, welfare, and health care, though he did reform the apothecaries to make up for this to an extent), combined with his bluebeard tendencies (granted, he only killed two of his wives, but that's still pretty bad), the butchering of many of his closest advisors, ministers and friends, and his disturbingly large body count (somewhere in the region of 10,000 people were executed during his reign, for heresy or trumped-up charges) and his habit of making enemies of every power in Europe for reasons of his own vanity, do not make him an endearing figure to most historical researchers.

His reign has also engendered an astounding number of real life what-ifs that continue to be hotly debated by historians and writers. Suffice to say, they'll be debating Good King Hal's reign for centuries to come.


Tropes associated with Henry VIII include:

  • Abusive Parents: To Lady Mary, whom he had threatened with death, and kept her separate from her mother, Katherine, even when the latter was on her deathbed. (He forbade them to even exchange letters, but fortunately they had friends who smuggled correspondence between them.) Also neglected Elizabeth for a while after her mother's fall.
  • Adipose Rex: This man was colossal at the end of his reign and had been growing fatter since 1533.
  • Amicably Divorced: With Anne of Cleves.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Whenever his wives were pregnant or gave birth to a son.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: To Anne Boleyn. Henry disliked writing letters, but several written to her are testament to his desperate passion for her.
  • Arranged Marriage: Though Catherine of Aragon was arranged to become his bride by his father, he married her of his own free will after he became king himself.
    • Averted with his other wives, since he chose them himself. The fact that he chose most of his wives for personal reasons was highly unconventional for a king at that time. Only his grandfather Edward IV had done so before.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Especially when they were male. He believed in this to such an extent that finding the right, fertile wife dominated his politics.
  • Badass Beard: Averted in two cases. The first time he declared he would not shave before he met Francis I (but did so anyway because Catherine of Aragon did not like it). Left a beard when he was older to hide how corpulent he had become.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: You set up a new church, quarreled with several major players in European politics and ignored the disapproval of most your people to make Anne Boleyn Queen. Only to find out she was quite unsuitable to be one.
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: Henry and both his sisters had highly unconventional marriages, which would haunt Elizabeth I as she had to fend off their descendants.
  • The Bluebeard
  • Boisterous Bruiser: As a young king, he was noted for his strength and athletic prowess, particular at tennis.
  • Control Freak
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Often reassured those whom he was about to destroy.
  • The Conscience: Jane Seymour tried to be and he threatened her for it. It is often speculated that his mother would have been this for him if she had lived longer.
  • Corrupt Church: One of the justifications for the dissolution of the monasteries.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Under his leadership nobody could ever feel safe.
  • Domestic Abuser: Though there is no mention of him being physically or sexually abusive, his emotional abuse of Katherine of Aragon was horrific and continued well after the annulment of their marriage. He also shamelessly exploited the dread all his wives felt post-Anne Boleyn.
  • The Extremist Was Right: He was a tremendously bloodthirsty asshole with an ego larger than the land he ruled as king. He also left England a much wealthier and more powerful nation than he found it, a trend which would be continued by his daughter Elizabeth.
  • Fiery Red Head: Although the Holbein portrait doesn't show it, his hair was a bright red in his youth. But the fact that Elizabeth shared his hair color confirmed that she was his, even amid her mother's charges of adultery.
  • Genre Savvy: After the execution of Anne Boleyn, he was already seen as an undesirable spouse by French and Habsburg princesses. Catherine Parr was also wary of marrying him; when he first proposed, she said she'd prefer to be his mistress instead. When he sent an ambassador to feel out the Duchess of Milan as a wife, the Duchess, who was a niece of Katherine of Aragon, said:
    Tell His Majesty that if I had two heads, one would be at his disposal.
  • Glory Seeker: Why he invaded France twice.
  • The Heretic: Seen as this by many Catholics, though his beliefs remained quite conventional. He actually burned both those who were too catholic and too protestant in his eyes.
  • Heir Club for Men: Henry is a big believer in this, because he feared a return to civil war if there were no clear male heirs. The fact that his son died in his teens, after only six years as King, made a mockery of his long and tumultuous quest, and England stopped being part of the Heir Club for Men after their reigns. Hundreds of years later, in 2013, the law was changed to absolute primogeniture — the eldest child inherits, regardless of gender.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: He had two of his wives killed. They were arguably the two he most lusted after.
  • Irony: The son he vied for so intensely had a short reign and died in his teens. For bonus points, one of the daughters he had declared a bastard is considered the single greatest monarch England has ever had. Aside from Henry himself, Queen Victoria, and her namesake, the present Queen, she is the most famous.
  • It's All About Me
  • Karmic Death: As seen by many when dogs did lick his blood after his death. This has been prophecized by a friar fifteen years before.
    • This echoes the biblical account of the death of Jezebel, Queen of Israel, who the LORD allowed to be eaten by dogs in punishment of her defilement of the sacred religion and multiple blasphemies. A friar cast out by a King who in his eyes had fallen out of the true faith would know and be able to quote this precedent and call down poetic justice.
  • Love Ruins the Realm: Most of England and all of Catholic Europe viewed his pursuit of Anne Boleyn and its consequences that way.
  • May-December Romance: With Catherine Howard especially, but to an extent with all his wives save his first. To give an example....his last wife? Had been named in honor of his first.
  • The Mean Brit: Anne Boleyn had a bad case of this...it played an auxiliary role in what eventually happened. Henry was also known to indulge in this trope himself.
  • Modern Major General:
  • The Mistress: Had several, but was a lot more discreet about it than Francis I. The famous ones are Bessie Blount, mother of the only illegitimate child he ever acknowledged, and Mary Boleyn, sister of wife #2.note 
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Expressed regret after the execution of Cromwell.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits!: Henry was not pleased when the low-born Charles Brandon married his sister. Later, he accepted it. Rather amazingly, Brandon went on to be one of a small handful within Henry's early court to actually die a peaceful death.
  • Nouveau Riche: The Tudors were considered this to an extent, though his mother's blue blood made Henry already more acceptable than his father. In truth, the Tudors were at the very end of a long list of possible Lancastrian claimants, all of whom died before Henry VII even came of age.
  • Off with His Head!: And "off with her head. Off with everyone's head!" Henry is famous for this.
  • Only Friend: Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. The now-useless (but once extremely powerful) position of Lord President of the Council was created specifically so that Suffolk could exercise extensive control over the court in the King's absence.
  • Parental Favoritism: He favoured his son over his daughters. He wasn't unusual in this regard.
  • Parent with New Paramour: His children constantly had to adjust to new stepmothers. Luckily, most (but not all) were kind to them.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia
  • The Renaissance
  • Revenge by Proxy: Whenever he felt betrayed by Ferdinand of Aragon or the Emperor Charles V, he would take petty revenge on Catherine of Aragon, for being their relation and obvious supporter.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something
  • Strange Bedfellows: When he supported reformists during the rise of Anne Boleyn. Only a couple of years before he had famously traded insults with Martin Luther and had been proclaimed "Defender of the Faith" by the Pope. After Anne's execution, he retreated right back to basically being "Catholic-in-all-but-name." Persecution of Protestant reformers was a prominent feature of his later reign.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard at the ends of their marriages.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Henry's phobia was illnesses. He had the misfortune of ruling during the height of the "sweating sickness," a periodically occurring plague from 1485-1555 which would cause a sufferer to sweat profusely, and then die. Small wonder he was so paranoid; that kind of thing is terrifying.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Why Henry allowed Wolsey's enemies to tear him down.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Regularly fooled around while his wives were pregnant. He accused his wife Anne Boleyn of adultery, but she maintained her innocence, even at her final confession.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The Pilgrimage of Grace


Portrayals of Henry VIII in fiction:


Henry The ThirdAdministrivia/Useful Notes Pages in MainHindenburg

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