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Henry VIII

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Illustration of Henry VIII by Jim GodfreyPart medieval tyrant, part renaissance prince, Henry VIII was famously married six times and played a critical role in the English Reformation


Henry and the Church in England

Henry, the second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born on 28 June 1491 at Greenwich Palace. He was an able athlete with a strong sense of fun, a fine horseman and a crack archer. He also wrote poetry and spoke French and Latin. After the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, Henry became heir to the English throne, and when Henry VII died in 1509, the popular eighteen-year-old prince, became King Henry VIII.

Soon afterwards he obtained a papal dispensation to allow him to marry his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. Their marriage was initially a happy one and she bore him six children, though only the future Queen Mary survived infancy. Henry, obsessed with the importance of a male heir to secure the future of the Tudor dynasty, fastened his lust and his hopes on the dark-eyed Anne Boleyn. However, to marry her he needed an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, and he tasked Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his Lord Chancellor, with obtaining it from Pope Clement VII.

The Pope, however, was unwilling to anger Catherine's nephew (the most powerful ruler in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and refused. This proved disastrous for Wolsey, who quickly fell out of favour with the king. He was stripped of his properties, including his new college in Oxford, Cardinal College, which Henry refounded as King Henry VIII's College in 1532 and again as Christ Church in 1546.

The wider consequence of the Pope's refusal was to transform the Church in England into the Church of England, though it was never Henry's intention to renounce the Roman Catholic Church. He was staunchly anti-Protestant and indeed in 1521 Pope Leo X had conferred the title of Defender of the Faith on him for his book 'Defence of the Seven Sacraments', which affirmed the supremacy of the Pope in the face of the reforming ideals of the German theologian, Martin Luther.


Henry and the Church of England

Cardinal Wolsey died in 1530 and his place at Court was taken by Thomas Cromwell who steered the separation of the English church from Rome through Parliament in the 1530s. Meanwhile Henry secretly married Anne in January 1533 and she gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth in September that year. Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534 declaring Henry supreme head on earth of the Church of England and the break with Rome was complete. The act also brought him much needed wealth through the dissolution of the monasteries: over four years Cromwell ordered that 800 monasteries be disbanded and their lands and treasures taken for the Crown.

After two further pregnancies ended in miscarriages, Anne was arrested in 1536 on trumped up charges of adultery and was publicly beheaded at the Tower of London. Henry's third marriage, to Jane Seymour, finally produced the son he so desperately desired with the birth of Edward in 1537. Jane, whom Henry was genuinely fond of, tragically died soon after childbirth.

In an attempt to establish ties with the German Protestant alliance, Thomas Cromwell arranged a marriage between the King and the German princess Anne of Cleves. However, the portrait Henry had seen of her, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, proved to have been far too flattering and Henry swiftly divorced her. Henry blamed Cromwell for this mismatch and soon afterwards had him executed for treason.

The final years of his reign witnessed Henry's physical decline. He suffered agonies from an ulcerated leg and grew so fat that he had to be pushed about in a specially constructed cart. In 1540, the ageing King married the teenage Catherine Howard. Their marriage was short lived however, and Catherine was executed for adultery and treason in 1542. Henry's final marriage to Catherine Parr, who acted like his nurse, was more harmonious and she would go on to outlive him. Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547, aged 55, and was succeeded by his son, Edward VI. He was buried next to his son’s mother, Jane Seymour, in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.


At Christ Church, a large portrait of Henry hangs in the Great Hall, and he appears in a corbel above the Dean’s stall in the Cathedral. He refounded and renamed Wolsey’s Cardinal College as King’s College in 1532, and renamed it again as Christ Church in 1546. His royal arms appear everywhere.