In 1509, after the death of his father, Henry VIII married Catherine, Prince Arthur’s widow and daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. On June 24, 1509, the two were crowned at Westminster Abbey. Henry was only seventeen years old, then. Two days later, he arrested his father’s two most unpopular ministers, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. They were groundlessly charged with high treason and in 1510 were executed. This was to become Henry’s primary tactic for dealing with those who stood in his way.
From his father, Henry VIII inherited a stable realm with the monarch’s finances in healthy surplus. When Henry VIII took the throne, Parliament had not been summoned for supplies for five years. Henry’s varied interests and lack of application to government business and administration increased the influence of Thomas Wolsey, an butcher’s son, who became Lord Chancellor in 1515.
Henry VIII was known for his strong dedication to Christianity. In 1511, Pope Julius II proclaimed a Holy League against France. This new alliance rapidly grew to include not only Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, but also England. Henry decided to use the occasion as an excuse to expand his holdings in northern France. He concluded the Treaty of Westminster, a pledge of mutual aid with Spain against France, in November 1511 and prepared for involvement in the War of the League of Cambrai.
In 1513, Henry invaded France and his troops defeated a French army at the Battle of the Spurs. Then his brother-in-law James IV of Scotland invaded England at the behest of Louis XII of France, but failed to draw Henry’s attention from France. The Scots were disastrously defeated at the Battle of Flodden Field on 9 September 1513. Among the dead were the Scottish King and the battle ended Scotland’s brief involvement in the war.
In January, 1511, Catherine of Aragon gave birth to their first child, a son named Henry after his father. But the child died two months later, and was destined to be the first of many unhappy births the couple would suffer. Henry consoled himself by going to war against France, hoping to emulate his ancestors Edward III and Henry V. However, in 1516, Queen Catherine bore Henry one of his four children to reach adulthood, Princess Mary, who later reigned as Mary I.
All of Catherine’s children died in infancy except his daughter Mary. But Henry wanted a male heir, to avoid rival claims to the crown like those which had caused the Wars of the Roses before Henry’s father, Henry VII, became king. As Henry VIII became impatient with what he perceived as Catherine’s inability to produce the desired heir, he fell in love with a charismatic young woman in the Queen’s entourage, Anne Boleyn. Anne at first resisted his attempts to seduce her, and refused to become his mistress as her sister Mary Boleyn had.
Finally, Anne accepted Henry’s propositions as long as he acknowledged her queen. It soon became the King’s absorbing desire to annul his marriage to Catherine. It is possible that the idea of annulment had suggested itself to the King much before he noticed Anne, and it was most probably motivated by his desire for a male heir. Henry’s secretary, William Knight, was sent to Pope Clement VII to sue for the annulment. The grounds were that the bull of Pope Julius II was obtained by false pretenses, because Catherine’s brief marriage to the sickly Arthur had been consummated. Henry also petitioned, in the event of annulment, a dispensation to marry again to any woman even in the first degree of affinity, whether the affinity was contracted by lawful or unlawful connection. This clearly had reference to Anne.
But William Knight had difficulty in getting access to the Pope, for he had been imprisoned by Charles V during the Italian campaign. Henry now had no choice but to put the matter into the hands of Wolsey. Wolsey did all he could to secure a decision in the King’s favour. But as the Pope forbade Henry to proceed to a new marriage, Anne Boleyn maintained pressure until Wolsey was dismissed from public office in 1529. After being dismissed, the cardinal begged her to help him return to power, but she refused. He then began a secret plot to have Anne forced into exile and began communication with Queen Catherine and the Pope to that end. When this was discovered, Henry ordered Wolsey’s arrest and had it not been for his death from a terminal illness in 1530, he might have been executed for treason. His replacement, Sir Thomas More, initially cooperated with the king’s new policy, denouncing Wolsey in Parliament and proclaiming the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine had been unlawful. As Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More’s qualms grew.
In 1531, Queen Catherine was banished from court and her old rooms were given to Anne. With Wolsey gone, Anne now had considerable power over government appointments and political matters. When Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, Anne had the Boleyn family’s chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, appointed to the vacant position. The breaking of the power of Rome in England proceeded little by little. In 1532, a lawyer who was a supporter of Anne, Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, brought before Parliament a number of acts including the Supplication against the Ordinaries and the Submission of the Clergy, which recognised Royal Supremacy over the church. Following these acts, Thomas More resigned as Chancellor, leaving Cromwell as Henry’s chief minister.
Henry attended a meeting with the French king at Calais in the winter of 1532, in which he enlisted the support of Francis I of France for his new marriage. Immediately upon returning to Dover in England, Henry and Anne went through a secret wedding service. She soon became pregnant and, as was the custom with royalty, there was a second wedding service, which took place in London on January 20, 1533. Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen, and Anne was consequently crowned queen consort on June 1, 1533. Later in September that year, Anne gave birth to a girl who was christened Elizabeth, in honour of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York.
Rejecting the decisions of the Pope, Parliament validated the marriage of Henry and Anne with the Act of Succession 1533. Catherine’s daughter, Lady Mary, was declared illegitimate, and Anne’s issue were declared next in the line of succession. Most notable in this declaration was a clause repudiating any foreign authority, prince or potentate. The papal nuncio was withdrawn from England and diplomatic relations with Rome were broken off, as Pope Clement launched sentences of excommunication against the King and Cranmer, declaring at the same time the archbishop’s decree of annulment to be invalid and the marriage with Anne null and void.
But the king and queen were not pleased with married life. The royal couple enjoyed periods of calm and affection, but Henry’s frequent infidelities greatly upset his new wife, who reacted with tears and rage to each new mistress. For his part, Henry disliked Anne’s constant irritability and violent temper. After a false pregnancy or miscarriage in 1534, he saw her failure to give him a son as a betrayal. As early as Christmas 1534, Henry was discussing with Cranmer and Cromwell the chances of leaving Anne without having to return to Catherine.
Opposition to Henry’s religious policies was quickly suppressed in England. A number of dissenting monks were tortured and executed. The most prominent resisters included John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, Henry’s former Lord Chancellor, both of whom refused to take the oath to the King and were subsequently convicted of high treason and beheaded at Tower Hill, just outside the Tower of London. These suppressions in turn contributed to further resistance among the English people, most notably in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a large uprising in northern England in October of the same year. Henry VIII promised the rebels he would pardon them and thanked them for raising the issues to his attention, then invited the rebel leader, Robert Aske to a royal banquet.
At the banquet, Henry asked Aske to write down what had happened so he could have a better idea of the problems he would ‘change’. Aske did what the King asked, although what he had written would later be used against him as a confession. The King’s word could not be questioned, as he was held as God’s chosen, and second only to God himself, so Aske told the rebels they had been successful and they could disperse and go home. However, because Henry saw the rebels as traitors, he did not feel obliged to keep his promises. The rebels realised that the King was not keeping his promises and rebelled again later that year, but their strength was less in the second attempt and the King ordered the rebellion crushed. The leaders, including Aske, were arrested and executed for treason.
The queen was pregnant again in January 1536, and she was aware of the consequences if she failed to give birth to a son. During her pregnancy the King was thrown off a horse and badly injured. When news of this accident reached the queen she was sent into shock and miscarried a male child that was about 15 weeks old. This happened on the very day of Catherine’s funeral. This personal loss was the beginning of the end of the royal marriage. As Anne recovered from what would be her final miscarriage, Henry declared that his marriage had been the product of witchcraft. The King’s new mistress, Jane Seymour, was quickly moved into new quarters. This was followed by Anne’s brother being refused a prestigious court honour, the Order of the Garter, which was instead given to Jane Seymour’s brother.
On May 2, 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. She was accused of adultery, incest with his brother, and high treason. Although the evidence against them was unconvincing, the accused were found guilty and condemned to death by the peers. George Boleyn and the other accused men were executed on May 17, 1536. On the morning of May 19 1536 at 8 o’clock, the queen was executed before the public. This was the first public execution of an English queen. Anne’s own brother was arrested, too, and executed.
after Anne’s execution in 1536 Henry became engaged to Jane Seymour, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting to whom the king had been showing favour for some time. They were married 10 days later. At about the same time as this, his third marriage, Henry granted his assent to the Laws in Wales Act 1535, which legally annexed Wales, uniting England and Wales into one unified nation. This was followed by the Act of Succession 1536, which declared Henry’s children by Queen Jane to be next in the line of succession and declared both the Lady Mary and the Lady Elizabeth illegitimate, thus excluding them from the throne.
In 1537, Jane gave birth to a son, Prince Edward, the future Edward VI. The birth was difficult and the queen died at Greenwich Palace on October 24, 1537 from an infection. After Jane’s death, the entire court mourned with Henry for an extended period. Henry considered Jane to be his "true" wife, being the only one who had given him the male heir he so desperately sought. He was buried next to her at his death.
In 1540, Henry desired to marry once again to ensure the succession. Thomas Cromwell, promoted to 1st Earl of Essex, suggested Anne, the sister of the Protestant Duke of Cleves, who was seen as an important ally in case of a Roman Catholic attack on England. Henry agreed to wed Anne. On Anne’s arrival in England, Henry is said to have found her utterly unattractive, privately calling her a Flanders Mare. Henry wished to annul the marriage in order to marry another. Queen Anne was intelligent enough not to impede Henry’s quest for an annulment. Upon the question of marital sex, she testified that her marriage had never been consummated. The marriage was subsequently dissolved and Anne received the title of the King’s Sister, and was granted Hever Castle, the former residence of the Boleyn family.
On July 28, 1540, Henry married the young Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn’s first cousin. He was absolutely delighted with his new queen. Soon after her marriage, however, Queen Catherine had an affair with the courtier, Thomas Culpeper. She also employed Francis Dereham, who was previously informally engaged to her and had an affair with her prior to her marriage, as her secretary. Thomas Cranmer, who was opposed to the powerful Roman Catholic Howard family, brought evidence of Queen Catherine’s activities to the king’s notice. Though Henry originally refused to believe the allegations, he allowed Cranmer to conduct an investigation, which resulted in Queen Catherine’s implication. When questioned, the queen could have admitted a prior contract to marry Dereham, which would have made her subsequent marriage to Henry invalid, but she instead claimed that Dereham had forced her to enter into an adulterous relationship.
Catherine was executed on February 13, 1542. She was aged 22 when she died. That same year, England’s remaining monasteries were all dissolved, and their property transferred to the Crown. Abbots and priors lost their seats in the House of Lords. Only archbishops and bishops came to comprise the ecclesiastical element of the body. The Lords Spiritual, as members of the clergy with seats in the House of Lords, were for the first time outnumbered by the Lords Temporal.
In 1543, Henry married his last wife, the wealthy widow Catherine Parr. She argued with Henry over religion as she was a reformer, but Henry remained a conservative. This behaviour nearly proved her undoing, but she saved herself by a show of submissiveness. She helped reconcile Henry with his first two daughters, the Princess Mary and the Lady Elizabeth. In 1544, an Act of Parliament put the daughters back in the line of succession after Edward, Prince of Wales, though they were still deemed illegitimate. The same act allowed Henry to determine further succession to the throne in his will.
The cruelty and tyranny of Henry became more apparent as he advanced in years and his health began to fail. Late in life, Henry became grossly overweight. was covered with suppurating boils and possibly suffered from gout. His obesity dates from a jousting accident in 1536 in which he suffered a leg wound. This prevented him from exercising and gradually became ulcerated. It undoubtedly hastened his death at the age of 55, which occurred on January 28, 1547 in the Palace of Whitehall. Henry VIII was buried in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, next to his wife Jane Seymour. Under the Act of Succession 1543, Henry’s only surviving legitimate son, Edward, inherited the Crown, becoming Edward VI. Since Edward was only nine years old at the time, he could not exercise actual power. Henry’s will designated 16 executors to serve on a council of regency until Edward reached the age of 18. The executors chose Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, Jane Seymour’s elder brother, to be Lord Protector of the Realm.
The Six Wifes of Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon: Married 1509 – 1533. Divorced.
Anne Boleyn: Married 1533 – 1536. Executed.
Jane Seymour: Married 1536 – 1537. Died after having given birth to Edward.