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 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", 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. 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 1516, when his daughter was born, the only woman in his life who was allowed to defy him - his sister, Princess Mary - did just that. She, having just been widowed and apparently having been so active in the bed chamber that her last husband 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 Henry's divorce from Catherine, of what is believed to either be cancer or 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, and 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.
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 horribly 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 trauma. 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 resulted in Anne miscarrying the baby, costing him the son he had broken away from Rome to attain.
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.
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) bastard 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; 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 in truth she just didn't match the King's taste — he liked them youthful, boyish, and blonde; she was a mature-looking, curvaceous brunette. (Keep in mind that at this point, Henry was morbidly obese with nasty stinking pus-spewing ulcers covering both legsnote and possibly gout.) It didn't help that when they met for the first time, Henry decided to approach her in disguise and try to kiss her; she, having been raised a Proper Lady, wasn't having it and immediately started cussing him out in German. 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 and wealthy 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 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, a knight in his service. note
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.
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 like each other, 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 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 100 Greatest Britons.
Portrayals of Henry VIII in fiction:
- 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).
- 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 on screen
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- He briefly appears before his death in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, as the titular Prince is his son Edward. In the 1977 film adaptation, he's played by Charlton Heston.
- 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
- His portrait gets a lingering look from Cate Blanchett in the 1998 film Elizabeth. Understandably, since she's his daughter.
- 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.
- Ray Winstone played an improbably Cockney-sounding Henry in the 2003 ITV drama simply called Henry VIII.
- Sid James played another Cockney version in the 1971 comedy Carry On Henry.
- Henry 8.0 depicts Henry as living in a modern suburb, played by BRIAN BLESSED.
- The play Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare.
- He's the husband and father of the main characters in the first four books of the Young Royals.
- In 2015, he was portrayed by Damian Lewis in the 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 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 wifes 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 Fiores murder, sparks had flown between him and Anne Boleyn, and she took Fiores place in the wedding as Henrys bride.
- 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.
- While he never actually appears in Six, the impact he left on his wives (the titular characters) is heavily discussed.
- Henry is also 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.
- 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.
- The circumstances of his life and death are covered extensively in an episode of Oversimplified.