Useful Notes / Henry VIII

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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.

In an Ironic twist, Henry's long sought after son would only reign for six years before dying. It would be his daughters, first Mary then Elizabeth, to lead England for the next forty years.

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.

He ended at #40 in One Hundred Greatest Britons.


Portrayals of Henry VIII in fiction:


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