Henry VIII (28 June 1491 -– 28 January 1547). The man with six wives. Every British person (and Anglophilic American) 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, Duke of Sussex (the former Prince Henry of Wales).
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 an impromptu wrestling match with the King of France, Francis I. Though very showy, it didn't accomplish anything, with Henry being ultimately thrown down.
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", or at least related to it.note ) 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 of royal marriages were fairly common at the timenote and it didn't seem like it would be a big deal. Furthermore — and somewhat ironically, given his later place in posterity — there is an argument that Henry appears to have been genuinely fond of and devoted to Catherine for much of their marriage; however, England had only fairly recently in its past experienced a great deal of political and military turmoil due to questions of legitimate succession, and Henry considered his wife's ability to produce a male heir more important to the stability of the kingdom overall than his feelings towards her.
However, Catherine wasn't having it (very likely because it would have rendered their daughter, Mary, illegitimate, and Catherine herself a whore for living with a man for so many years while unmarried) and refused to retire to a convent quietly, so Henry had to do it the hard way. 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).note
In the year of 1515, the only woman in his life who was allowed to defy him — his favourite sibling, Princess Mary, after whom his daughter was named the following year — did just that. She, having just been widowed and apparently having been so active in the bed chamber that her last husband (the elderly King Louis XII, who was all of thirty-four years her senior) apparently died of sexual over-exertion, convinced Charles Brandon to marry her and had consummated the marriage before Henry found out. He got a little angry and threatened to chop off many heads, but both survived (Charles Brandon actually became Duke of Suffolk and was basically invincible under Henry!) and Mary eventually died, around the time of Henry's divorce from Catherine, from what is believed to be cancer, the sweating sickness, or a combination of both.
His relationship to his other surviving sister, Margaret, was more frosty. She was married to King James IV of Scotland in an Arranged Marriage by their father. After James IV died in the Battle of Flodden, Margaret tried to consolidate power and rule as Regent. She made unwise alliances and was soon exiled from Scotland and her children. Henry gave her sanctuary and nothing else to her annoyance. Margaret soon annoyed Henry by getting an annulment from her second marriage on flimsy pretenses. Henry angrily sent a letter saying marriage was sacred. Margaret later returned to Scotland and her son and died peacefully.
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. At the height of The Protestant Reformation, he had every monastery in the kingdom closed and their possessions confiscated; monastic life would not return to England for over three hundred yearsnote . He also 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 miscarried their second child, a son. And Anne was 34 at the time. Middle-aged. When Henry had married Anne, she was 32, middle-aged even then. When they married, it was a secret ceremony and Henry was legally still married to Catherine of Aragon, however it couldn’t wait because Anne was already visibly pregnant.
As cruel irony would have it, during that last pregnancy, amid the scandals and court rumors of Henry being unable to "perform his royal duties", he decided that he would assert his masculinity in a tournament in 1536.
Disaster struck when a bad hit during a joust reopened a previous injury to his leg that the royal doctors were never able to heal. The king was also rendered unconscious for over two hours. The leg wound in effect made him unable to maintain the active, athletic lifestyle he had led, and as he didn't change his diet be became morbidly obese as the years progressed. Furthermore, in modern medicine, it is a major red flag for a head injury patient to black out for five minutes, leading modern doctors to speculate that the two hours Henry was unresponsive was a sign of massive brain damage, which likely resulted in his already short temper and impulsive behavior becoming even worse as the years went on.
But the worst result, as far as Henry was likely concerned, was how the shock apparently resulted in Anne miscarrying the baby, costing him the son he had broken away from Rome to attain. That being said, it might not have been the shock that caused Anne's miscarriage — just recently before that, Anne had walked in on her own lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, on her husband's knee.
Soon, Henry's advisors accused Anne of adultery and treason. Anne was almost certainly innocent of her charges, but nonetheless was sent to the Tower of London where she was convicted and sentenced to death. Anne could have been burned at the stake, but Henry decided instead she would be beheaded. Henry also, somewhat generously, ordered a professional swordsman from France come and execute Anne with a swift, speedy sword rather than a heavy, clumsy axe. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was then declared illegitimate like her poor half-sister had years before. Henry then married his latest mistress, Jane Seymour, just 11 days after Anne's execution; Anne was buried in an unmarked grave and rarely mentioned.
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 reserved, shy and Catholic, 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.
Keep in mind that the death of Catherine of Aragon (which did purportedly lead to some tears when he read her farewell letter), the execution of Anne, the debilitating joust injury, the marriage to Jane Seymour, the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the death of Henry's acknowledged (and beloved) illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy all happened in 1536. A true annus horribilis.
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. The one woman who had given him a legitimate son had died. Henry wore black for three months after Jane's death, and didn't feel much need for a fourth marriage, however even he knew just one legitimate son was a danger. There was a high chance that, seeing as it was Tudor England, Edward might die young.note
Henry decided on a fourth marriage several years after Jane Seymour's death. However, unsurprisingly foreign princesses were not keen on marrying a notorious, wife-murdering Monarch. Eventually, an alliance was arranged with Germany. Henry sent Hans Holbein to paint portraits of Anne of Cleves, and her younger sister Amelie of Cleves. Cromwell arranged the marriage to help the Protestant Schmalkaldic league in case of a war with Francis and/or Charles. Rumour has it that Hans Holbein had portrayed her as misleadingly beautiful, and that she was in fact quite unattractive, but in truth it's thought that Anne looked quite similar to her portrait. Anne was said to be tall, slim and blonde. Also keep in mind that at this point, Henry was 48 years old and morbidly obese; with nasty stinking pus-spewing ulcers covering both legsnote and possibly gout. It's most likely Anne found Henry unattractive. It didn't help that at the time, Anne could only speak German, a language Henry couldn't speak. Additionally, when they first met, Henry was confident that Anne would fall in love with him on sight and disguised himself as a peasant. However, when the old, overweight stranger burst in on Anne, she was visibly surprised. Not only that, but Anne was a sheltered, reserved Proper Lady, who was only 25, meaning she was 23 years Henry's junior. Henry tried kissing her before he'd barely spoken, and Anne was horrified (not realising it was her fiancé). Henry was humiliated in front of his advisors and friends, as well as some of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. In a desperate bid to get back his respect, he declared that Anne was the ugly one, which is thought to have surprised his courtiers. Henry even gave her a cruel nickname, the "Flanders Mare" and gossip soon spread around court. Luckily for her, Anne hadn't learnt English yet, so she didn't understand the rumours about her.
England's enemies started fighting each other again and 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, having learned English in the meantime, was no fool, and gained a good settlement out of it and lived the rest of her life unmarried but quite a happy and wealthy woman as Henry's "beloved sister" in England, remembered for having a warm relationship with Henry's children and as a kind and easy-going mistress by her servants. Cromwell was arrested and executed shortly after the annulment. Henry later regretted executing Cromwell, one of the only known executions he truly felt guilt over.
Henry's next wife was Catherine Howard, a maternal cousin of Anne Boleyn who was most likely around 16 or 17 years old, but could have been as young as 15. Henry was 49, and while married to Anne of Cleves, was noted to have visited Catherine Howard's bedchamber frequently. After their wedding, Henry spoiled his beautiful young wife with new clothes, shoes and jewels. While Henry was doting on Catherine's childish desires, other men (most notably the handsome Knight Thomas Culpeper) were giving Catherine more mature desires. A year later, she was arrested under suspicion of adultery and treason (both for having imperiled the succession and for having imagined the King's death) and was eventually beheaded at approximately age 19. Unlike Anne Boleyn, the accusations against her were almost certainly true, but strangely Henry seemed to have been more upset over her premarital relationship with Francis Dereham (the former secretary at her grandmother's finishing school) than her adultery with Thomas Culpeper.note
Catherine Parr, an intelligent and twice-widowed veteran of the royal court, was his sixth and last wife. Catherine was upset when Henry proposed to her, as she was in love with the handsome, dashing Thomas Seymour. However, she could hardly say no to the King, and was won over. Catherine got along very well with all three of her stepchildren, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor and Edward Tudor, and like her godmother and namesake Catherine of Aragon capably served as regent when Henry was away on campaign in France. However, Catherine was a devout Protestant, while Henry identified as a Protestant but still held traditional Catholic beliefs. Catherine tried to get Henry to be more Protestant, however he was infuriated at the idea of his wife lecturing him. He ordered guards to arrest Catherine, but she managed to win him over just in time by insisting that she didn't mean to lecture him. Catherine managed to save herself just in time, as it was rumoured Henry had plans on marrying a seventh wife, Katherine Brandon, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk. Had it not been for Catherine aiming Henry's sympathy, their marriage may very well have ended in divorce, or even an execution. Henry died before she did. A few months after Henry's death, Catherine angered her royal stepchildren by marrying her sweetheart Thomas Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour), but they later forgave her. Catherine also took the young Princess Elizabeth into her household to be educated, along with Elizabeth's cousin Lady Jane Grey. Catherine later sent Elizabeth away after catching her having sex with her husband.note Catherine was also shocked and thrilled to discover she was pregnant, aged 35 or 36, as her previous 3 marriages had resulted in no pregnancies. Catherine died giving birth aged 36 or 37 to a daughter named Mary Seymour (named after Princess Mary, Catherine's eldest stepdaughter), whose fate is not known, but she probably died in infancy.
Somewhat ironically, considering all of the above, by then-contemporary standards, Henry appears to have been considered something of a romantic. While debate naturally exists over how much or little Henry truly cared about his wives beyond their ability to produce a male heir or otherwise please him, he appears to have insisted on marrying for love, or at least on having some kind of personal interest, attraction or connection with the woman he was marrying; one of his marriages, after all, ended largely because the couple just didn't click together romantically, a reason for divorce we take for granted today. In addition, numerous accounts suggest that, when things were going well at least, Henry could be a charming, considerate and affectionate spouse who valued his wives and enjoyed spending time with them. While many of these accounts have to be taken with a grain of salt — and we still have to remember that he ended two marriages via officially-sanctioned decapitation, which hardly puts him in the running for husband of the year — even meeting this baseline was incredibly rare in an age where most royal marriages were arranged purely for political or diplomatic advantage with little concern for whether the participants loved, liked or could even communicate with each other.note
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 him 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, 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 Edward VI would only reign under regents for six years before dying at age 15. It would be Henry's daughters, first Mary, then Elizabeth, to lead England for the next fifty years — and it would be his sister Margaret's line that would reign in England after his daughters' deaths, down to this very day.
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:
- In the fanfic Handmaid, Henry, at Katherine of Aragon's suggestion, decides to take Anne Boleyn as a handmaid, bearing his children on Katherine's behalf, in order to still produce heirs without the hassle of an annulment. This would change the course of English history and the fates of his wives and children. Henry and Anne's son Edmund becomes king on the death of Henry years later from what's implied to be natural causes. It's noted Katherine died around the same time and Anne a year later from what's implied to be a broken heart (she had come to care for Henry and was in love with Katherine). It's also noted that of Henry's other real-life wives, only Jane Seymour has an unhappy ending because of her Adaptational Villainy.
- Sid James played a Cockney version in the 1971 comedy Carry On Henry.
- His portrait gets a lingering look from Cate Blanchett in the 1998 film Elizabeth. Understandably, since she's his daughter.
- Charles Laughton played him in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Young Bess (1953). His depiction of Henry in the former film (which won him the Academy Award for Best Actor) has probably done more to define him in the popular imagination than any other portrayal, particularly the famous banquet scene. As a result, people tend to envision Henry as shorter (he was 6'2", Laughton was 5'8") and thinner (Laughton was by no means svelte, but Henry VIII weighed over 300 pounds towards the end of his life) than he actually was.
- He's a supporting character in When Knighthood Was in Flower, which is mainly about his sister Mary and her love affair with Charles Brandon.
- Henry appears as a supporting character in the first three of Philippa Gregory's Tudor Court novels: The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance; the novels chart his progress from boyhood to middle age through the eyes of his wives. He's played by Jared Harris in the 2003 TV adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl and Eric Bana in the 2008 film version.
- He is a recurring character in the Horrible Histories franchise even getting his own book and episode in the show where he's played by Rowan Atkinson.
- He briefly appears before his death in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, as the title Prince is his son Edward (later Edward VI). In the 1937 Errol Flynn film adaption he was played by Montagu Love; in the 1977 film adaptation, by Charlton Heston, and in the 2000 version by Alan Bates.
- In Sandra Worth's the Rose of York Series, a young Henry appears in the epilogue as a Creepy Child who unnerves his mother and resents her hidden affection for her long dead uncle. Only the fact that he hates his father more prevents him from telling on his mother.
- He was portrayed by Damian Lewis in the 2015 BBC2 adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall: a very human Henry, but with a colossal tantrum and a disturbing self-righteousness. The same book was adapted into a highly successful stage play starring Nathaniel Parker as Henry.
- Henry is the husband and father of the main characters in the first four books of the Young Royals, which focus on Mary, Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine of Aragon. His perspective is included alongside Catherine's in Patience, Princess of Catherine, which starts in 1501 when Catherine of Aragon goes to marry Arthur, but instead marries him.
- The Autobiography of Henry VIII (with notes by his Fool, Will Somers), by Margaret George. Obviously not a true autobiography, but written in first person from Henry's POV as if it were. A huge Doorstopper of a book, meticulously researched.
- Henry is a Posthumous Character in the 2022 series Becoming Elizabeth, as the series explores how his death impacted his daughter Elizabeth, her two siblings, his widow and various other scheming courtiers.
- Ray Winstone played an improbably Cockney-sounding Henry in the 2003 ITV drama simply called Henry VIII.
- Keith Mitchell played him in The Six Wives of Henry VIII; although the focus is more on the women in his life, it is by many considered the best and most accurate portrayal of Henry onscreen.
- Jonathan Rhys Meyers played him on The Tudors, albeit a slightly more attractive version (though it should be noted that Henry was considered handsome in his youth, when he was also very strong and fit).
- The 1948 play Anne of the Thousand Days is about Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. In the 1969 film adaptation, he's played by Richard Burton.
- The play Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare.
- The 1960 play A Man for All Seasons is about Thomas More's refusal to support Henry's divorce, and the ensuing conflict. In the 1966 film adaptation, Henry is played by Robert Shaw.
- While he never actually appears in Six: The Musical, the impact he left on his wives (the titular characters) is heavily discussed.
- Henry was a suspect in two murder cases in Criminal Case: Travel in Time.
- The first was Case #11, where Catherine of Aragon was the victim, eighteen years before she was supposed to have died naturally. When first interrogated by the player, he is mad that his wife was murdered. Then, the player found a threatening ode written to Catherine by Henry, who confessed he suspected his wife of having an affair with a visiting Frenchman, which she denied. He turned out to be innocent of the crime, and condemned the real killer to the Tower of London until he figured out what to do with her.
- The second murder he was a suspect in was Case #15, where the victim was a de Medici woman named Lady Fiore, to whom he had been betrothed after his first wife's murder. When first interrogated, he was upset that his fiancé had been killed, as it dashed hopes for an alliance with Florence and possibly a male heir. It was later revealed that Henry believed Lady Fiore to be infertile after a medieval fertility test (which was proved inaccurate by modern day medicine), and saw her death as a godsend from a fruitless marriage. Again, he was proved innocent. It was revealed that during the investigation of Lady Fiore's murder, sparks had flown between him and Anne Boleyn, and she took Fiore's place in the wedding as Henry's bride.
- In The Simpsons episode "Margical History Tour", which shows the characters in the place of famous historical figures, Homer appears as Henry. The segment escalates Henry's Bluebeard tendencies to comical extremes, as he kills all of his wives but the first (who he imprisoned and later murdered him) for failing to produce a male heir and punishes Thomas More (Flanders) by "canonizing" him (firing him out of a cannon). Henry is introduced stuffing his face while singing his own version of his namesake Herman's Hermits song.
I am Henry the Eight, I am
Henry the Eight, I am, I am
I've been eating since 6 AM
For dessert, I'll have dinner again
My name is synonymous with gluttony
I'll always eat a turkey or a ham