Henry VIII

Henry VIII

Henry, the second son of Henry VII, was born in Greenwich, in 1491. Henry, who had become king in 1485, was determined that the Tudor family should rule England and Wales for a long time. To do this he needed to protect himself from those who had the power to overthrow him. His first step was to marry Elizabeth of York, a member of Richard Ill's family.

Henry was also worried that England might be invaded by Spain, the most powerful country in Europe. In 1488 Henry signed a treaty with King Ferdinand of Spain. By this treaty Henry VII agreed that his eldest son, Arthur, should marry King Ferdinand's daughter, Katherine of Aragon.

On 14 November 1501, Arthur, who was just fifteen, married Catherine at St Paul's Cathedral in London. Five months later Arthur died of tuberculosis. Henry VII was keen that England and Spain should remain united and arranged for his other surviving son. Henry, to marry Catherine. At that time, Christians believed it was wrong for a man to marry his brother's wife. Henry VII therefore had to gain special permission from the Pope before the marriage could go ahead.

In 1509 Henry VII died. His son Henry now became king of England. Henry was only seventeen but the English people appeared to be happy that they had a new king. For years Henry VII had been imposing heavy taxes on the English people. One of the first things Henry VIII did when he became king was to order the execution of the two men his father had employed to organise this taxation.

Henry was very fond of hunting, gambling and dancing and only spent about an hour a day on government business. He relied heavily on his Lord Chancellor and other government ministers to run the country. Henry VIII found this useful because if any of the policies were unpopular, he could blame his ministers. In some cases, he even arranged for these ministers to be executed although they were only carrying out Henry's orders.

It was very important to Henry that his wife, Katherine of Aragon, should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England. Catherine gave birth to six children but five died within a few weeks of being born. Only one child, Mary, survived into adulthood.

In 1526 Henry got to know Anne Boleyn, Katherine's maid of honour. She was a good musician and a talented singer. She was also extremely intelligent and her time in the French court provided her with a great deal of interesting conversation. One member of court claimed that "no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman". Henry seemed to find her very entertaining and was often seen dancing with her. One contemporary wrote that Anne was "not one of the handsomest women in the world" she had a "swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact had nothing but the king's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful and take great effect".

According to Hilary Mantel: "We don't know exactly when he fell for Anne Boleyn. Her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Perhaps Henry simply didn't have much imagination. The court's erotic life seems knotted, intertwined, almost incestuous; the same faces, the same limbs and organs in different combinations. The king did not have many affairs, or many that we know about. He recognised only one illegitimate child. He valued discretion, deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life. But the pattern broke with Anne Boleyn. She would not go to bed with him, even though he wrote her love letters in his own effortful hand. He drew a heart and wrote his initials and hers, carving them into the paper like a moody adolescent. In time favours were granted. She allowed him to kiss her breasts... She had made the man a fool."

Ever since 1524 Henry had been planning to divorce Katherine. Now he knew who he wanted to replace her with. Christopher Morris, the author of The Tudors (1955), has argued: "Henry found her not easily tamed, for it is clear that she had the strength of will to withhold her favours until she was sure of being made his queen... Henry's passion was genuine enough but it was strangely mixed with political calculation and with the qualms of a tormented, if elastic, conscience."

Henry wrote Anne a series of passionate love letters. In 1526 he wrote: "Seeing I cannot be present in person with you, I send you the nearest thing to that possible, that is, my picture set in bracelets ... wishing myself in their place, when it shall please you." Soon afterwards he wrote during a hunting exhibition: "I send you this letter begging you to give me an account of the state you are in... I send you by this bearer a buck killed late last night by my hand, hoping, when you eat it, you will think of the hunter."

Philippa Jones has suggested in Elizabeth: Virgin Queen? (2010) that this was part of Anne's strategy to become Henry's wife: "Anne frequently commented in her letters to the King that although her heart and soul were his to enjoy, her body would never be. By refusing to become Henry's mistress, Anne caught and retained his interest. Henry might find casual sexual gratification with others, but it was Anne that he truly wanted."

Anne's biographer, Eric Ives, has argued: "At first, however, Henry had no thought of marriage. He saw Anne as someone to replace her sister, Mary (wife of one of the privy chamber staff, William Carey), who had just ceased to be the royal mistress. Certainly the physical side of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was already over and, with no male heir, Henry decided by the spring of 1527 that he had never validly been married and that his first marriage must be annulled.... However, Anne continued to refuse his advances, and the king realized that by marrying her he could kill two birds with one stone, possess Anne and gain a new wife."

Henry sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Katherine had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. When Katherine discovered Henry's plans she informed King Charles (Carlos) of Spain and Emperor Charles (Karl) V of the Holy Roman Empire. Unwilling to have his aunt lose her position, Charles warned the Pope that he would be very angry if he granted Henry a divorce. The Pope knew that once he made a decision, he would upset one of these two powerful monarchs. In an attempt to keep the peace, the Pope put off making a decision about Henry's marriage.

Anne Boleyn had strong opinions about religion. She tried to persuade Henry to give permission for bibles to be published in English. Anne also introduced Henry to the books of Protestant writers such as William Tyndale. She pointed out that in Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale had argued that kings had authority over the church. Anne also became close to Thomas Cromwell, who supported the ideas of Tyndale.

Eric Ives has argued: "Henry remained doubtful about the validity of any annulment in defiance of Rome, and when in September 1532 Anne was created marchioness of Pembroke, the remainder was to her offspring, legitimate or not. But late in 1532 (probably in Calais in November where François I may have promised support, or on the leisurely journey home) Anne grew confident that if she became pregnant the king would now commit himself, and she thus began to sleep with him."

In January 1533 Henry discovered that Anne Boleyn was pregnant. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead. Thomas More, Henry's Lord Chancellor, was opposed to the king's plans to divorce Katherine of Aragon and resigned from office.

Henry hoped that Anne would provide him with a son. He was therefore disappointed when, in September 1533, Anne gave birth to a daughter called Elizabeth. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of Katherine were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne.

In March 1534 Pope Clement VII eventually made his decision. He announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed an act that stated that Henry VIII was now the Head of the Church of England. When Thomas More refused to support this move he was convicted of high treason. Still refusing to recant, he was executed at the Tower of London.

Two months later Katherine of Aragon declared that she would refuse to swear the oath recognizing Anne Boleyn's children as Henry's legitimate succession. This was an offence that carried the death penalty but Henry VIII, who described Katherine as "a proud and intractable woman" decided against taking action against her. Katherine became seriously ill in December, 1535. She died at Kimbolton Castle on 7th January, 1536. Her doctor claimed that she had been suffering from "slow poisoning". She was buried at Peterborough Abbey on 29th January 1536.

The author of The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2005), has argued: "Despite her delay in fulfilling what contemporaries saw as a wife's first duty, Henry's commitment to Anne remained firm. Since it was her challenging personality which had attracted the king in the first place, their marriage was at times stormy. Anne was no pale reflection of her husband. Nevertheless, on the personal level the relationship flourished until almost the end. What it lacked was the independent support which would have come from having a son: Anne had always to be aware that rivals might challenge for Henry's affections. Many of the stories about his supposed amours can be dismissed as rumour, often the wishful thinking of hostile critics, but there is no doubt that having begun as a relationship of passion, Henry's marriage to Anne was different in character from the arranged match with a foreign princess which was the norm for English monarchs. She knew that she had to hold Henry's affections."

Unfortunately for Anne Boleyn she fell out with one of her main supporters, Thomas Cromwell. As Eric Ives has pointed out: " The fundamental reason for this was disagreement over the assets of the monasteries: Anne's support for the redeployment of monastic resources directly contradicted Cromwell's intention to put the proceeds of the dissolution into the king's coffers. The bill dissolving the smaller monasteries had passed both houses of parliament in mid-March, but before the royal assent was given Anne launched her chaplains on a dramatic preaching campaign to modify royal policy.... Cromwell was pilloried before the whole council as an evil and greedy royal adviser from the Old Testament, and specifically identified as the queen's enemy. Nor could the minister shrug off this declaration of war, even though, in spite of Anne's efforts, the dissolution act became law."

In January 1536, Anne had a son but unfortunately he was born dead. What is more, the baby was badly deformed. This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Katherine and married Anne.

Henry approached Thomas Cromwell about how he could get out of his marriage with Anne. He suggested that one solution to this problem was to claim that he was not the father of this deformed child. On the king's instruction Cromwell was ordered to find out the name of the man who was the true father of the dead child. Anne was charged with having sexual affairs with Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and her own brother, George Boleyn.

Philippa Jones has pointed out: "Cromwell was careful that the charge should stipulate that Anne Boleyn had only been unfaithful to the King after the Princess Elizabeth's birth in 1533. Henry wanted Elizabeth to be acknowledged as his daughter, but at the same time he wanted her removed from any future claim to the succession."

Anne was clearly innocent of these charges. Only one of the men, Mark Smeaton, confessed after being tortured. Henry Norris refused the king's offer to pardon him if he would admit to adultery with Anne. The other men also refused to confess to having sex with the queen.

Anne went to the scaffold at Tower Green on 19th May, 1536. Her last words were: "Good Christian people... according to the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it... I pray God save the King, and send him long to reign over you... for to me he was always a good, a gentle, and sovereign Lord." She was beheaded by the executioner of Calais, brought over on purpose to use a sword in the French fashion, not an axe - a "mercy" allowed her by Henry. Ten days after Anne was beheaded, Henry married Jane Seymour. The following year, Jane died giving birth to Edward. Henry now at last had a male heir.

Henry VIII (c.1540)
Henry VIII (c.1540)

Although Henry continued to persecute English Protestants, he was now also hostile to those who remained loyal to the Pope. Henry was particularly worried that he did not have the full support of the monks and nuns in England. In 1535 Henry began arresting monks for high treason. As a warning to others, five monks were publicly tortured, before being beheaded. Later that year others were executed, together with several nuns.

In 1536 Henry gave permission for an English translation of the Bible to be published in England. He also ordered that a copy of this Bible should be placed in every church in his kingdom. Henry still considered himself to be a Catholic, but by taking this action, he began to move the Church in the direction of Protestantism.

In August 1535, Henry VIII sent a team of officials to find out what was going on in the monasteries. After reading their reports Henry decided to close down 376 monasteries. Monastery land was seized and sold off cheaply to nobles and merchants. They in turn sold some of the lands to smaller farmers. This process meant that a large number of people had good reason to support the monasteries being closed.

However, many people disagreed with the way Henry had stolen the property of the monks and nuns. This was especially true of people who lived in the north of England. A large army was formed in Yorkshire, and their attempt to win back monastic property was called the Pilgrimage of Grace.

After a meeting with the Duke of Norfolk, the leader of Henry's army, the rebels agreed to go back home in exchange for a meeting of Parliament to discuss their complaints. Henry had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain. He gave orders that "a good number" from every village and town that had taken part in the pilgrimage should be publicly hung drawn and quartered.

In 1538 Henry turned his attention to religious shrines in England. For hundreds of years pilgrims had visited shrines that contained important religious relics. Wealthy pilgrims often gave expensive jewels and ornaments to the monks that looked after these shrines. Henry decided that the shrines should be closed down and the wealth that they had created given to the crown.

The Pope and the Catholic church in Rome were horrified when they heard the news that Henry had destroyed St. Thomas Becket's Shrine. On 17 December 1538, the Pope announced to the Christian world that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic church.

Henry now had nothing to lose and he closed down the rest of the monasteries and nunneries in England, Wales and Ireland. All told. Henry closed down over 850 monastic houses between 1536 and 1540. Those monks and nuns who did not oppose Henry's policies were granted pensions. However, these pensions did not allow for the rapid inflation that was taking place in England at that time and within a few years most monks and nuns were in a state of extreme poverty.

After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry began to look for another wife. Holbein was sent to Europe where he painted the portraits of five potential brides. From these portraits. Henry picked the beautiful Christina, Duchess of Milan. However, Christina eventually decided against the marriage. She is reported to have said she was worried she might lose her head if she failed to provide Henry with a son.

His Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, wanted England to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. One way Henry could do this was by marrying Anne of Cleves, the daughter of the Protestant leader, Duke John Frederick. In 1539 Henry was sent paintings of Anne but he suspected that the artist had exaggerated Anne's beauty. Henry therefore sent Hans Holbein to Saxony to paint her picture. On the evidence of Holbein's painting. Henry decided to sign the marriage contract. However, when Anne arrived in England for the wedding Henry was very disappointed with her. Although he agreed that Holbein had captured her physical likeness. Henry did not like her personality.

Henry divorced Anne and in 1540 married Catherine Howard, a niece of the Duke of Norfolk. The following year she was charged by Thomas Cranmer of having sexual intercourse before her marriage with Henry Mannock, Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper.

In 1542 Catherine Howard and the three men were executed. In July 1543 Henry married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr. She was a good stepmother to Henry's two daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Catherine also helped to moderate Henry's religious persecutions. Henry VIII died in 1547.

Primary Sources

(1) Charles de Marillac was the French ambassador to England. In 1540 he wrote a letter to the King of France about Henry VIII.

Henry is so greedy that all the riches in the world would not satisfy him... to make himself rich he has impoverished his people. This King.... does not trust a single man... and will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts the people.

(2) In 1540, Robert Hilles, an English merchant, wrote to a friend in Europe while he was visiting Frankfurt Fair in Germany.

It is no novelty among us to see men slain, hung, quartered, beheaded... for comments that were... interpreted as having been spoken against King Henry.

(3) Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, in conversation with his son-in-law, William Roper (1525)

I believe he (Henry VII) favours me more than any other subject in England... However... I have no cause to be proud, for if my head could win him a castle in France it should not fail to go.

(4) Henry VIII, orders given to the Duke of Norfolk about what should happen to those who took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace (January, 1537)

Cause such dreadful executions upon a good number of the inhabitants hanging them on trees, quartering them, and setting the quarters in every town, as shall be a fearful warning.

(5) Hilary Mantel, Anne Boleyn (11th May, 2012)

When she first appeared at court she was about 21 years old, lithe, ivory-skinned, not a conventional beauty but vital and polished, glowing. Her father Thomas Boleyn was an experienced diplomat, and Anne had spent her teenage years at the French court. Even now, Englishwomen envy the way a Frenchwoman presents herself: that chic self-possession that is so hard to define or imitate. Anne had brought home an alluring strangeness: we imagine her as sleek, knowing, self-controlled. There is no evidence of an immediate attraction between Henry and the new arrival. But if, when she danced in that first masque, she raised her eyes to the king, what did she see? Not the obese, diseased figure of later years, but a man 6' 3" in height, trim-waisted, broad-chested, in his athletic prime: pious, learned, the pattern of courtesy, as accomplished a musician as he was a jouster. She saw all this but above all, she saw a married man...

We don't know exactly when he fell for Anne Boleyn. Her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Perhaps Henry simply didn't have much imagination. The court's erotic life seems knotted, intertwined, almost incestuous; the same faces, the same limbs and organs in different combinations. The king did not have many affairs, or many that we know about. He recognised only one illegitimate child. He valued discretion, deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life.

But the pattern broke with Anne Boleyn. She would not go to bed with him, even though he wrote her love letters in his own effortful hand. He drew a heart and wrote his initials and hers, carving them into the paper like a moody adolescent. In time favours were granted. She allowed him to kiss her breasts. Her "pretty duckies", he called them. She had made the man a fool.

This, at least, was the view of most of Europe. No one dreamed that Henry would put aside a princess of Spain for the daughter of a mere gentleman. Nor could the English aristocracy credit what was happening. Long after the break with Rome, they remained revolted by Boleyn pretensions and loyal to Katherine and the pope. Anne did have the backing of a powerful kinsman, the Duke of Norfolk; her father had been lucky enough to marry into the powerful Howard clan. But for some years, the situation was deadlocked. There were two queens, the official one and the unofficial one: the king was sleeping with neither. Wolsey had been fortune's favourite, but failure to obtain the divorce cost him his career. He was exiled from court; though he died a natural death, it was under the shadow of the axe. Anne moved into his London palace. Still she kept Henry at a distance. She was, and is, credited with serpentine sexual wiles, as well as a vindictive streak that ruined anyone who crossed her. The truth may be more prosaic. Henry had decided at some point that Anne was the woman who would give him a healthy son. He wanted that son to be born in wedlock. It may have been he who insisted on self-control, and Anne who simmered and fretted.

(6) Henry VIII, letter to Anne Boleyn (1526)

I send you this letter begging you to give me an account of the state you are in... I send you by this bearer a buck killed late last night by my hand, hoping, when you eat it, you will think of the hunter.

(7) Statement made by Anne Boleyn just before she was executed.

Good Christian people... according to the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it... I pray God save the King, and send him long to reign over you... for to me he was always a good, a gentle, and sovereign Lord.

(8) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984)

According to Holinshed, who wrote 25 years after Henry's death, 72, 000 thieves and vagabonds were hanged during his reign. It is over 2 per cent of the 2,800,000 inhabitants of England, which equals the proportion of the 6, 000,000 Jews exterminated by Hitler.

(9) John Bowle, Henry VIII (1964)

His rule was humane, his executions sporadic... he never killed anyone with his own hand... The number of victims... was not large.

(10) H. Amold-Forster, A History of England (1898)

Henry VIII... was very fond of having his own way... those who suffered most... were his ministers and the great nobles... But to tell the truth, the common people in England were often not sorry to see the great nobles who lived among them lose their heads or their properties, as long as King Henry... did not tax them too heavily. Whatever may have been his faults, and he had many, there can be no doubt that by far the greatest number of the people in England loved him.