Life, Reign & Death of Henry VIII of England

Henry the 8th

The Early Life, Reign & Death of Henry VIII of England

From 1509 to 1547, Henry VIII was the king of England. After a series of high profile marital scandals and turmoil, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church about two decades into his reign. Stark obsessed with producing a male heir, Henry went on to marry six different times. By the time he got to the sixth wife, Henry VIII had executed two former wives on charges of adultery and treason.

A strong-willed Tudor, Henry VIII’s 37 years on the English throne helped catapult England from an obscure kingdom to one that rubbed shoulders with colossal empires such as Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and France. His reign saw Wales become part of England under the Laws in Wales Act of 1535. Also, he became king of Ireland.

Owing to his overindulgent lifestyle of drinking and junk food, as well as the jousting accident of 1536, Henry VIII spent the remainder of his reign morbidly obese. After his death in 1547, he was succeeded by his not-so-strong but intelligent son, Edward VI.

Henry VIII’s legacy gets cemented in the annals of British history because of his initiation of Protestant Reformation in England. In effect, Henry was the first king of England to hold absolute power in both the Church and the State.

Early Life and Education

Born on June 28, 1491, to the first Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII was the second son of Henry VII. His exact place of birth was at the Palace of Placentia, located in Greenwich, Kent.

At the time of his birth, Henry was second in line to the English throne – behind his older brother, Prince Arthur. Henry’s father, Henry VII, was the first Tudor to rule England. His mother was the beautiful Elizabeth of York.

All in all, he had six siblings; however, just three of them made it to adulthood. His three surviving siblings were Arthur Tudor (Prince of Wales – 1486 -1502), Margaret Tudor (later Queen Consort of Scotland), and Mary Tudor (later Queen of France).

Two years after his birth, his father bestowed on him the title of “Constable of Dover Castle”. He was also made the “Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports”. Shortly after that, he received the titles of “Earl Marshal of England”, “Lord Lieutenant of Ireland”, and “Knight of the Bath”.

Henry received all those titles because his father wanted to have a controlling hand in virtually every aspect of the kingdom, without having to let other members of the royal family have a say.

Prince Henry, the Duke of York, was educated by prominent tutors in religious studies, music, languages and horse riding. As it was typical of many royal children in 15 century England, he gained fluency in Italian, Latin, and French at a very young age.

He spent his childhood in relative obscurity because his older brother Prince Arthur, the Prince of Wales, hoarded all the attention. As a result of this, Henry gravitated slightly into religious studies in his childhood years.

When Henry was 10 years, his older brother and heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur died on April 2, 1502. Henry was then moved to first in line to the English throne. With this, he was honored with a new title, the Duke of Cornwall.

Henry VIII marries Catherine Aragon

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife

Catherine of Aragon was the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. At an early age, she was betrothed to Prince Arthur in a purely political move.

With both Ferdinand II and Henry VII bent on maintaining a strong relationship, Catherine of Aragon (widow of Prince Arthur) was married off to Henry in 1503.

Ascension to the English Throne as Henry VIII

About six years after he was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, Henry inherited the English throne from his father, Henry VII. The king had passed away on April 21, 1509.

At the time of his coronation, in 1509, Henry VIII was 17 years. His coronation was none like any other ceremony that England had witnessed in the past. The ceremony was held at Westminster Abbey. That same year, he sealed a frim union with Spain by officially taking Catherine of Aragon as his wife. The exact date of their wedding was on June 11, 1509, at Greenwich.

Early Reign

As king, Henry VIII’s first action was to get rid of major elites of the old regime. He took into custody powerful men like Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. The two men were given death sentences in 1510 on the charge of treason.

So frequent were those executions that the young king became a force to be feared. Henry VIII did everything that he could to consolidate power. This was not an uncommon phenomenon. It was typical for any new monarch to stamp his authority by getting rid of the old guard.

As the years rolled by, Henry’s relationship with Catherine of Aragon got strained. This was primarily because Queen Catherine failed to give birth to a male heir. She also had several miscarriages and stillbirths.

The first loss to the royal couple came in 1510. Then, in 1511, Catherine gave birth to a child called Henry, only for him to die a few weeks later. Stillbirths in 1514 and 1515 proved too much for the king to bear.

There was a bit sigh of relief after Princess Mary (later Queen Mary I, Bloody Mary) was born in 1516. Mary survived into adulthood. Even though Henry welcomed Mary’s healthy growth with open arms, his obsession with getting a legitimate male heir remained unabated. This obsession would highlight Henry VIII’s remaining years on the English throne.

Away from his strained relationship with Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII was a vocal critic of Martin Luther’s Protestant movement. His strong criticism helped earn him praise from Pope Leo X, who later bestowed the title of “Defender of the Faith” on Henry.

Early Wars with France

On the international front, Henry’s first 15 years on the throne were characterized by a series of wars against France. Prior to his ascension, France and England were in an alliance, although fragile to a large extent. Henry even had decent talks and diplomatic relations  with Louis XII of France. However, his privy council considered this an outrage. Many of his advisers wanted him to sever ties with France. The king eventually caved in and entered into an alliance with other European powers to war against France. Their coalition was called the anti-French Holy League.

Henry also had dreams of one day ruling France.  He reasoned that his coalition with powerful men like Pope Julius II and Ferdinand II of Spain would help him take back the region of Aquitaine from France.  However, Ferdinand had a different agenda of his own. The Spanish monarch ramped up anti-French sentiments across Europe to advance his own selfish agenda, cementing Spain as a major power hub in Europe. Henry felt betrayed. Thereafter, the relationship between Spain and England retrogressed.

With talks of invading France ripe in 1513, Henry secured the full backing of the Pope. His appeal in England skyrocketed after significant wins at the Battle of Spurs in June 1513. He seized control of Thérouanne and Tournai after the battle. Songs of Henry bravely leading his men into battle were sang all across England.

However, there was trouble brewing back in England. Because Henry was away for such long periods abroad, James IV of Scotland, Henry’s brother-in-law, saw an opportunity that he could exploit. Conniving with Louis of France, James attacked England.

In the absence of the king, Queen Catherine took charge of defending England. The queen gathered whatever army was left in England and quelled James’s attack. On September 9, 1513, she famously defeated James’s army at the Battle of Flodden. James did not make it out alive. England had successively tamed its annoying northern neighbor, Scotland.

Militarily, Henry continued to chalk several successes across Europe. However, his wins came at a huge cost to the English coffers, forcing him to halt all aggressive moves against France and sign a peace treaty. The treaty was sealed with the marriage between Mary, Henry’s sister, and Louis of France. From 1514 to around 1521, relative peace prevailed between France and England.

Henry VIII’s Illicit Affairs and Children

The lack of any male heir, as well as the numerous miscarriages, placed a huge strain on King Henry VIII’s relationship with his wife, Catherine of Aragon. As early as 1510, it was rumored that Henry had gotten into the habit of having illicit affairs with several women. Bear in mind, this was 16 century England, the Queens of powerful monarchs had little to no say in curbing the excesses of ruling monarchs. The dutiful Catherine dared not raise any resistance to Henry VIII’s affairs.

The most famous of Henry VIII’s affairs was with Elizabeth Blount, sister of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. With Elizabeth, Henry fathered an illegitimate son called Henry FitzRoy. The king even bestowed the dukedom of Richmond on FitzRoy in 1525. Regardless of this, FitzRoy was in no way a legitimate claimant to the English throne. Hence, Henry VIII continued his search for a male heir.

Strained Marriages and Relentless Pursuit of a Male Heir

After about a decade and a half of Catherine’s inability to bear a male child, Henry got frustrated. The king had begun seeing Catherine’s chief maid, Mary Boleyn. He also had a romantic affair with Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn’s sister.

Henry’s impatience grew by the day. By age 34, he had abandoned any hopes of fathering a male child with Catherine of Aragon, who was 40 at the time. He was now faced with a dilemma – something that his courtiers called the “King’s great matter”.

He pondered the possibility of quickly giving his daughter Mary out for marriage. Perhaps she could produce a male child who would then succeed him. However, that thought was quickly discarded. Mary was in her early teens and it would have taken a sheer miracle for her to get pregnant in time before Henry died.

In the end, he decided to take a bold decision. He was going to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. This move by Henry was bound to raise heavy opposition from the Catholic Church and the Pope himself.

The King’s Great Matter

Henry, someone who was once described as the Assertio Septem Sacrementorum (Defense of the Seven Sacraments) and Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by many devout Catholics around Europe, was about to renounce his allegiance to the Catholic Church. His thirst for a legitimate male heir had consumed him to the point of insanity.

He argued that his marriage to Catherine, his brother’s widow, flew against everything that the Catholic Church stood for. Hence he implored Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage because it was sinful to marry the wife of one’s brother. The pope strongly opposed Henry’s claims.

Behind the scenes, Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor), Catherine’s nephew, was in some way pulling the strings of the Pope. By 1529, the verdict was out – Henry VIII could not divorce Catherine of Aragon. This came as a huge blow to Henry’s reputation in England. The blame was chiefly laid at the doorstep of his trusted adviser and Lord Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The cardinal was even charged with treason in 1530 and sentenced to death; however, he died of natural causes long before the execution could be carried out.

Henry VIII’s Second Wife – Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was executed on charges of adultery

Unofficially, Henry and his mistress Anne Boleyn were living as partners in England. He had successfully got rid of Catherine by sending her out of the king’s quarters to the countryside.

Anne, on the other hand, was instrumental in getting Thomas Cranmer appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was her way of trying to force the Archbishop to go against the Pope’s authority.

Also, Henry secured the support of Francis I of France in 1532 in his planned marriage to Anne Boleyn. Later that year, Henry and Anne had an under the radar wedding. Anne’s pregnancy a few months later gave Henry the impetus to come out openly and officially marry her on May 23, 1533. Archbishop Cranmer gave his approval to the union a few days later.

Because there could only be one queen consort, Catherine of Aragon was forced to renounce her title as queen. Her daughter, Princess Mary, was also forced to accept the status of the king’s bastard daughter.

To Henry’s utter shock, the baby that Anne was expecting turned out to be  a girl – future queen of England, Elizabeth I, who was born on September 7, 1533.

Reformation Acts of the 1530s

Periodically, tensions flared up over Anne Boleyn’s legitimacy as queen consort. The Catholics in England felt insulted by Henry’s actions. In order to fully resolve the issue, Henry tasked Parliament to pass several Reformation acts that would legitimize his marriage to Anne. One of such acts was the Act of Succession passed in 1533. The act in effect declared Catherine “princess dowager” (widow of Arthur). The act also bastardized Catherine’s daughter Mary. Hence the only legitimate heirs to the English throne from there onward were going to be the children Henry had with Anne Boleyn.

Another very important act of Parliament was the Acts of Supremacy. Passed in 1534, the act made King Henry VIII the sole head of all religious activities in England. By so doing, church and monarchy had become one.

These acts infuriated Pope Clement. Rome was left with no option than to excommunicate Henry VIII from the Catholic Church in 1538.

The fallout, both domestically and abroad, was immense and damaging to Henry. He had to deal with all the angst the Catholics in England felt over his marriage to Anne.

Henry was decisive and ruthless; he had little tolerance for anyone that opposed his Protestant Reforms. He quickly tore down the traditions and buildings of the old church. In their place, he and Archbishop of Canterbury installed Protestant ideals and artifacts.

The most shocking act of Henry came when he dissolved the Lesser Monasteries in 1536. Several Catholic faithful and followers were imprisoned or executed.

Rather than getting the desired effect he sought out, Henry unknowingly made a martyr of those men, fueling even graver concerns in England.

Several Catholic shrines and monasteries were torched and pillaged. For example, the shrine at St. Thomas Becket, Canterbury, was pulled down. Both Cromwell and Henry went on a smearing campaign, tagging Catholic practices and rituals idolatry.

Stripped off their seats and statuses in the society, several Catholic parliamentarians, priors, priests, and Lords plotted to unseat Henry. The predominantly Catholic lords in the Northern part of England took arms and tried to rebel in what would later be termed as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebellion, a 25,000-man force, was spearheaded by Robert Aske. After renegading on his promise of pardon, Henry arrested and executed Aske, along with hundreds of rebels. The king was in the driving seat, nipping in the bud every form of rebellion that came his way.

The reason why Henry VIII beheaded Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, unlike Catherine, proved too difficult for Henry to handle. She was not the submissive type. Her high intellect and outspoken character in some way or the other threatened the king.

Trumped charges were levied against the vivacious and independent Anne Boleyn. Henry also fueled rumors of her alleged affairs with courtiers. He  also got frustrated by her inability to quickly produce a male heir. In short, Henry had grown tired of Anne. Without a male heir, she was of no use to him. Amidst all that chaos, he continued his illicit affairs with several women in his court.

With the passage of time, Anne chalked up enemies from all spheres of upper echelons of the English society. Anne, in return, treated Catherine’s daughter Princes Mary very poorly.

A series of failed miscarriages cemented her as enemy number one to many royal members. Her chief-most critic was Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s senior adviser, and minister. In closed quarters, talks about annulling her marriage to the king were tabled. They accused her of adultery, witchcraft, and treason. Obviously, many of those charges were cooked up.

By early 1536, Henry had gotten close to Jane Seymour. He even moved her to his personal quarters. That same year, Anne Boleyn and her brother George Boleyn were accused of having an incestuous relationship. George was taken into custody and interrogated in the spring of 1536. Next to follow was Anne herself. The trial was a complete farce obviously; there was very little to no evidence to suggest that Anne and George were guilty of those charges.

In 1536, the two siblings were sentenced to death. Anne Boleyn was survived by her only child, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I).

Henry VIII’s Third Wife, Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, died a few days after giving birth to her son Edward, future King Edward VI

With both first and second wives gone, Henry was free to take himself a third wife, Jane Seymour. Approximately 10 days after the brutal execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry and Jane got married. Six months into their marriage, he finally got what he had always wanted – a male heir. Jane gave birth to a not so healthy baby boy, Edward, on October 12, 1537.

However, Jane Seymour did not live long enough to see her son grow. She had major complications during delivery. Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour died on October 24, 1537. Her body was buried at the Windsor grounds.

Slightly shocked, Henry made a dashing come back to full health and composure after the death of his beloved Jane Seymour. He was certainly above the moon over the birth of Edward (later Edward VI).  He showered Edward with care and attention. The young prince was put in the care of some of the best caregivers and tutors in England.

Henry VIII’s Fourth Wife, Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves

Upon the advisement of his trusted adviser, Cromwell, Henry decided to marry Anne of Cleves. She was the 25-year-old sister of the Duke of Cleves. A number of high-ranking courtiers spoke favorably of her.

Just like his previous marriages, Henry again sought to annul his marriage to Anne of Cleves. His reasons for doing so are still unclear to this day. What is known is that: Henry and Anne both came to a mutual understanding to annul their marriage. And because their marriage was not consummated, the annulment of the marriage was very much possible.  As Anne of Cleves parted company with Henry VIII, she was handsomely rewarded and given several titles.

Catherine Howard – Henry VIII’s fifth marriage

Catherine Howard

Henry VIII’s 5th wife – Catherine Howard

Historians believe that Henry was never enthusiastic about Anne of Cleves. His real target was the Duke of Norfolk’s niece, 17-year-old Catherine Howard.

With interest shown in his niece, the Duke of Norfolk’s power and reputation grew. In the end, there was no room for Cromwell. The charges that were leveled against him were treason and illegal trading. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, was executed. As the world said goodbye to Cromwell, Henry VIII and Catherine Howard were readying themselves to get married.

Catherine Howard and her family benefited immensely from the marriage to the king. However, the honeymoon days came crashing down when it was alleged that Catherine Howard was in an illicit affair with Thomas Culpeper, one of the king’s courtiers. Subsequent investigations also revealed that she and Francis Dereham were bedmates as well. With accusations moving back and forth among the trio: Catherine, Culpeper, and Dereham, the king decided to put all three of them to death. Catherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, was executed on February 13, 1542.

Henry VIII’s Sixth Marriage to Catherine Parr

Catherine Parr

Catherine Parr

For a man that was quick to dispatch the heads of his wives, one would wonder why Catherine Parr got married to Henry VIII. It’s not as if she had a choice. After all, Henry VIII was the sovereign ruler of 16 century England and his words were final.

Catherine Parr was a wealthy widow of considerable beauty. She was more modest as compared to Henry’s five previous wives. However, she was not afraid to let Henry know her views about religion. The marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine Parr took place on July 1543.

Many historians believe that Catherine Parr was a calming influence on the king. With Catherine beside him, Henry delicately managed the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in his kingdom. Catherine Parr also helped the king get back together with his long-estranged daughters – Mary and Elizabeth. Parr came to be loved by many courtiers. She was described as gentle and loving.

Parr’s efforts were partly responsible for getting Henry to change his mind on the line of succession. The king decided to make Princesses Mary and Elizabeth second and third in line to the English throne, respectively. The act of Parliament in 1543 helped legitimize the princesses’ claims to the throne.

Henry the 8th’s Reign – from 1538 Onward

Henry VIII

Henry the 8th

With the exclusion of the deaths of all three wives of his, the 1530s witnessed England unite with Wales under the Laws in Wales Act of 1535.

The Second Succession Act of 1536 made Henry’s children with Jane Seymour’s sole legitimate heirs. His children with Catherine and Anne Boleyn were considered illegitimate. What this meant was that Mary and Elizabeth had no claim to the throne.

In 1539, tensions between Spain and England started to flare up. Charles of Spain, Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, was immensely outraged by Henry’s mistreatment of Catholics in England. As if the death of Catherine of Aragon was not enough, Henry was willy-nilly executing Catholics all across England.

In the latter part of 1542, Henry waged a war on Scotland. He handed the young James V of Scotland a swift defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss on November 1542. The defeat was too much to bear for James, and on December 15, 1542, James V died, leaving the kingdom to his infant daughter, Mary, Queen of Scot.

With England and Wales already united, Henry set his sights on Scotland after the death of James V. He devised a plan to marry his son Edward off to Mary, Queen of Scot. That way, Henry would have successfully united the two kingdoms.

Unfortunately, the Parliament of Scotland, particularly Catholic MPs, rejected this union. The arrangement collapsed and Henry was left fuming. He resumed hostilities towards Scotland. For the next eight or so years, England and Scotland were plunged into a very bloody war – the “Rough Wooing” as it was termed. The two nations never had a long-lasting peace for the remainder of Henry VIII’s reign.

The 1540s saw Henry hemorrhage a lot of resources during a series of wars with France. He also had to scramble his defenses against a French attack on England in 1545.


Death of Henry VIII

Henry VIII had always been a fat and bulky man. In his later years on the throne, he struggled to move about. His health got worse with every passing day. He suffered from gouts and sores. And ever since he had that 1536 jousting accident, he was condemned to a life of immense pain on the leg. The sores on it failed to heal.

The Henry of the 1540s was a physically weak monarch. The king often suffered intermittent bouts of depression. Some historians believe that his melancholy was caused by syphilis. Others say that Henry simply did not take care of himself while in his younger days. He feasted on fatty foods and drank profusely.

Regardless, the obese king’s final days grew nigh. On January 28, 1547, at the Palace of Whitehall, Henry VIII died. He was 55. He was buried at St George’s Chapel, close to his third wife Jane Seymour. Prior to his death, the dying Henry made it explicitly clear that the line of succession was to be: Edward, then Mary, and then Elizabeth.

Henry VIII's legitimate children

Successors of Henry VIII of England

Post Henry VIII’s Death

Edward VI

Edward VI was Henry VIII’s successor

Edward VI, Henry’s oldest legitimate son, ascended the throne after his coronation on February 20, 1547. The young king was just nine years old. In order to rule, 16 executors (appointed by Henry) helped him steer the affairs of the kingdom. At the helm of his cabinet was his uncle Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of England.

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