One of the most infamous monarchs to rule any country anywhere in the world, there can be few people who know nothing about Henry VIII of England. Everyone knows about his famous 'six wives' - Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr - but was Henry nothing more than a serial philanderer, or was his womanising a practical and logical extension to his own desires for longevity?
The Young Prince Henry
The young Prince Henry became heir to the English throne in 1502 aged 11, following the death of his older brother, Arthur, possibly from smallpox or maybe tuberculosis. In those days, things were never quite that clear cut and all we really know is that it was called a 'sweating sickness.'
It was Arthur that was married to a Spanish princess who went by the name of Catherine of Aragon, and Prince Henry was very keen on keeping things in the family, as was his father who had his eye on the large dowry paid by Catherine's parents.
When King Henry VII died in 1509, his son inherited the throne and he became King Henry VIII.
Henry VIII may be considered to be the first truly all powerful monarch of England as the Wars of the Roses, finally ended by his father, had more or less destroyed all the great barons and their families' ability to raise armies. The only truly powerful noble family left was the Tudors and they outlawed the practice of raising private armies, instead creating a national army. So everyone was under the King's protection now, not their local lord's. This also changed the face of the English countryside as rich families could now build swish palaces rather than craggy castles. There was no longer any need to fortify one's home. This of course gave Henry license to do more or less as he pleased.
Catherine of Aragon
Contrary to popular belief, the new King was tall and athletic. He became a little more portly later in life when he was injured in a jousting accident and his leg became ulcerated. It's believed he suffered from gout and syphilis. It's also said that he enjoyed playing many musical instruments, and most certainly the lute. Some historians argue that he wrote the lyrics to Greensleeves, some dispute it. We'll never know for certain.
Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII were already a couple, and married as soon as Henry VII died and the new king was crowned. She would be just the first of his six wives and at first helped to keep the peace between Spain and England.
Their marriage did last for 14 years, during which time Henry would become ever more desperate for a male heir to the throne, after the death of Prince Henry in 1512, just a month after his birth.
While waiting for an heir, however, Henry oversaw the completion of the Mary Rose and embarked upon a programme to dramatically expand the navy. In 1513 Scotland attacked England and Henry engaged King James IV in the Battle of Flodden and defeated him. Henry also attacked France with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Peace was established soon after and Henry married off his sister, Mary, to the French King Louis XII.
That same year, in 1514, a man named Thomas Wolsey became the Archbishop of York. Just one year later he would be made a Cardinal by the Pope and Lord Chancellor by Henry. Wolsey is probably most famous for initiating the building of Hampton Court Palace. He would be just one Thomas out of many that would cross Henry’s path.
In 1519 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian died. His grandson, Charles, used a bit of bribery to ensure he became the next Holy Roman Emperor because being King of Spain just wasn't enough. So Charles, Catherine of Aragon's nephew, went to war with France with the help of King Henry VIII. His first target was northern Italy, which was controlled by France. That same year Henry Fitzroy was born, the only illegitimate child Henry ever acknowledged, though it's believed he had several.
Defender of the Faith
In 1521, Pope Leo X bestowed the title Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, on Henry for writing a theological tract defending the Catholic Church against Martin Luther. You can still find the initials FD on British coins. To this day the monarch of the United Kingdom is still called the Defender of the Faith.
Towards the end of the 1520s Henry already has his eye on wife number two, Anne Boleyn, and had announced he wanted to end his marriage in 1527. He also decided to sign a treaty with France. That same year the Holy Roman Emperor besieged Rome and, inside it, Pope Clement VII and it was to the Pope that Henry had to appeal to for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. So, Henry made friends with France, making Charles, Catherine's nephew and the man effectively controlling the Pope, pretty unhappy. An annulment was not likely.
By 1530 Henry's patience was running out and he had Wolsey arrested for treason over his failure to find away of getting rid of Catherine. He died on the way to his trial. Thomas More replaced Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. Henry desperately wanted an annulment from Catherine because he was desperate for a male heir. In their years of marriage she had six children including three boys, but all had died except the daughter who would become the future Queen Mary I.
A man called Thomas Cranmer suggested to Henry that King of England enjoyed a power similar to the first Christian Roman Emperors, making the Pope's jurisdiction over him illegal. In short, if the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed to an annulment he could have one. Well, the Archbishop didn't agree, but he wouldn’t live for much longer anyway.
In 1532 Henry started to take money and power from the priests, to help fund his wars, and it also sent a clear warning to the Pope that his power over England was under threat. In 1533 Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn, even though he was still married to Catherine and a new Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed. It was none other than Thomas Cranmer. As soon as the Pope confirmed the appointment, Cranmer dissolved the marriage between Henry and Catherine and the Church of England came into existence. A pregnant Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen of England in May 1533. Catherine of Aragon, now known as the Princess Dowager, died three years later.
Henry's need for an annulment and his subsequent actions are what we call the beginning of the Reformation. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy confirmed the break from Rome, declaring Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor and devout Catholic, refused to acknowledge this and he was executed. In 1935 Thomas More was recognised as a Catholic saint. Thomas Cromwell replaced him as Lord Chancellor. The Act of Succession was passed and the Pope excommunicated Henry, who had also approved the publication of the Bible in English instead of Latin.
1536 would be a year for royal deaths, because all Anne Boleyn had managed to produce was a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, and a stillborn boy. Henry still wanted that male heir and so it was time for wife number three to come on the scene. Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery with her own brother and four commoners and she, and the other accused, were publicly executed on 19 May, 1536. A month later Henry married Jane Seymour. Henry's illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, also died and he would also find time to unite England and Wales too.
Just a year into their marriage Jane Seymour had a son, Edward VI. Jane Seymour died 12 days after the birth and is the only Queen to share Henry’s grave in Windsor. It's said she was the only one of his wives that he actually had any affection for.
Anne of Cleves
By 1539 Thomas Cromwell had been looking for new brides for the King. He sent out Hans Holbein, a respected painter in the Tudor Court, to the Protestant Duchy of Cleves, where he painted a picture of a young lady called Anne. Henry chose his new bride from the portrait, and also because Cromwell saw the need to build up foreign allies who supported religious reforms. In January 1540 Henry and Anne of Cleves were married. Six months later she was out and the marriage was annulled. He allegedly complained she was ugly and smelly. Thomas Cromwell was also executed for his part in arranging the marriage.
Then, just 20 days after their marriage ended, Henry, now almost 50, married Catherine Howard, his fifth wife and the youngest of the lot. Sadly, Catherine was accused of having an affair with Thomas Culpepper. They were both executed in 1542, the same year that Scotland, again, attacked England.
The King was by now most definitely showing his age and his waistline was bulging. He had lost his physique as a result of the jousting accident and he wasn't in the best of health. Still, he thought he might as well give marriage one last try and, in 1543, he married his sixth and final bride, Catherine Parr.
An Unfortunate End
In the meantime the French, by now no longer friends, attacked the Isle of Wight. They were ultimately repelled by the English navy but the Mary Rose was lost, not to French guns but to a gust of wind that blew her over. By this time Henry's wars were proving expensive to the country, and he started to add more base metals to money. He was given the nickname Old Copper Nose, because over time the debased silver on the nose on the portrait of the king on the coin gradually wore off and went copper.
In 1546 Henry made his will, naming his son, Edward VI, as his successor. Catherine Parr looked after Henry until his death on 28 January, 1547. Her stepson, the ten year old Edward, became King, although Henry's succession plans wouldn't go as smoothly as he probably hoped. Indeed, Henry's funeral didn't really go as planned. He was to have been buried in Windsor, but his body was taken to Syon and left overnight. During the night it burst open and it's said that dogs were found the next morning licking up some of his remains. Some said this was divine judgement for his desecration of Syon Abbey.
It's worth pointing out that Henry was never actually divorced. His marriages to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard were all annulled. Jane Seymour died in childbirth and Catherine Parr outlived him. It's also worth noting that Henry did remain true to Catholic doctrines despite his excommunication and the creation of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, survived Henry VIII's reign and that of his son Edward. He went the way of his other namesakes when Mary I had him executed for heresy and treason.