Henry VIII was the second Tudor King of England, and reigned from 1509 to 1547. He looms large in the popular imagination of England and has received massive attention from historians, the degree of which is shared amongst his dynasty perhaps only with Elizabeth I (to whom he passed many of his qualities). Like Elizabeth, he was a precocious and intellectually gifted child who studied grammar, theology and classical literature under Humanists. His interests spread to embrace mathematics and astronomy, and Erasmus was said to be impressed by the child's accomplishments on a visit in 1499. It has been claimed that Henry VII was planning to groom his son for the Church before the death of Prince Arthur1.
Henry VII, patriarch of the upstart Tudor dynasty, had assured his dynasty's safety by a policy of marriage alliance and isolation. By marrying Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon he entered into alliance with one of Europe's superpowers and ensured that he would be taken seriously by a Continent on which he was by rights a minor power. England had but three million subjects, no standing army and no centralised state - Henry VII had been lucky in that his reign saw the European center of gravity switch to Italy and Spain. Since 1492 France had been paying him tribute to stop him interfering across the Channel whilst they busied themselves in the carving up of Italy. When Prince Arthur died of consumption in 1502, Henry was betrothed to Catherine and made Prince of Wales. He was due to marry her upon his fourteenth birthday, but Henry VII continued to intrigue with Ferdinand of Aragon over the payment of the dowry until his death. They were married shortly thereafter.
Henry VIII was very much the figure of the powerful, manly King - for in a time when the old system was disintegrating and the vestiges of Medievalism dissapearing from the Continent, the ruling and martial classes harked back more than ever to the 'Golden Age' of chivalry. Physically he was very powerful, and the Venetian Ambassador thought him "a great deal handsomer than the King of France". He hunted with such vigour that he would tire eight or ten horses before himself succumbing, and he could reportedly draw back a bow with more strength than any other man in England. If he had inherited these qualities from his grandfather Edward IV, he also inherited his love of luxury - he was fond of eating, dancing and gambling (which he deigned to lose with royal grace whilst abroad). In the latter stages of his reign corpulence and love of luxury would become his defining characteristics, but it is most unfair for them to have defined his reign in the way they often are taken to.
Accession to the throne
"Marriage is as a stratagem of war, in which a man may err but once."
~ Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520 - 1598)
Henry VII died on April 21, 1509. He left behind him a Kingdom finally free from the vicissitudes of civil war and one with a cowed nobility. This did not make the matter of his son's accession entirely straightforward, for in establishing his authority the King had made enemies and suckled parvenus who would now bear the brunt of his enemys' wrath2. Under pressure from the Council, the King recanted some of his father's more tyrannical financial measures and had Empson and Dudley, the figureheads of the Council Learned of the Law, imprisoned. The Council Learned had been instituted by the former King so that it might set his finances in order by Machiavellian application of every law and precedent available. Through clever manoeuvre he was able to retain the stability his father had brought about but disassociate himself from the most unpopular actions. He rescinded some of the bonds sold by his father (leaving the vast majority intact) and had Empson and Dudley executed on trumped-up charges which nevertheless acted as a sop to their victims.
It is reported that initially Henry had some doubts about the propriety of marrying his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. Although Arthur had once boasted that it was "hot work spending the night in Spain", Pope Julius II had provided a dispensation on grounds of non-consummation in 1503. They were married on June 11, 1509 and crowned together at Westminster Abbey on the 24th. The marriage was generally happy and fruitful, but Henry was increasingly frustrated by Catherine's inability to produce a male heir, or in fact any living heir at all. Catherine bore Henry six children, five of which died - and had he known how the reign of the survivor, Mary I, would turn out, he would have had no more reason to be joyous. As the 1520s progressed it seems Henry became increasingly worried that he was in fact living in sin and that the Lord would never give him children, for Leviticus 20:21 states that "if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless." This would later kick off the English Reformation.
The young King often seemed more occupied with the hunt than with state business. His father had brought him up in a very sheltered environment and at first he seemed somewhat inexperienced to his advisors. Henry prided himself on listening to advice at least once, even if he didn't want to hear it, but apparently nothing irked him more than someone insisting repeatedly on something he disagreed with. He was also very assertive when he had an idea in his head, and would uncompromisingly take the reigns of power over things that were important to him - mostly invading France and dealing with his women problems. Nostalgia for the Hundred Years War running high, he invaded France in 1513.
Early war and diplomacy
"Dulce bellum inexpertis."
Henry joined the Holy League with Spain and organised by Pope Julius II in 1511. In this alliance can be detected both Henry's desire for good relations with his father-in-law and perhaps Cardinal Wolsey's desire to ingratiate himself to the Pope. Cardinal Wolsey was fast emerging as Henry's principal advisor, despite being of low birth (his father appears on his borough rolls for selling meat unfit for human consumption). Henry was keen to prove his glory and honour on the field of battle, and so the first English campaign on the Continent since the Hundred Years War was launched. If Henry thought he could defeat the French armies with the longbow as his forerunners had, he was sadly mistaken - Continental warfare had moved on and was now fought between mercenaries from Austria and Switzerland and professional infantry such as the Spanish tercios. Henry's armies thus suffered a humiliating defeat in the first campaign of 1512.
But in 1513, his armies went back - this time with the King at the head and accompanied by Austrian mercenaries, as advised by Ferdinand. Ferdinand had by this time decided to desist from the French campaigns, having captured Navarre, but Pope Julius II was of a quite different disposition. Having been besieged by French forces in Rome, he excommunicated the entire French army and grew an unfashionable beard, vowing never to shave it until avenged on the infernal Franks. At the Battle of the Spurs Henry proved his martial vigour, to his great delight. The victory was of little strategic value, but very pleasing to the King - and meanwhile, at Flodden Field, a very important victory was been won. The Scots, under James IV, having concluded a pact with their old allies the French, invaded England with 50,000 men. The English force, under the audacious command of the Earl of Surrey, marched right around the Scottish army and placed themselves between it and Edinborough. The armies met, both facing their homeland, and the English inflicted on the Scots a crushing defeat. 10,000 Scotsmen and their King died, and the infant James V ascended to the throne of Scotland. This removed the Scottish as a potential source of trouble for most of Henry's reign.
Wolsey concluded a peace with France in 1514 which was highly favourable to the English. But this collapsed after only nine months upon the death of Louis XII and the accession of Francis I, a young and arrogant King who Henry seemed to envy (before meeting him for the first time, he ruminated endlessly on whether he would look best bearded or shaven). Francis almost immediately crossed the Alps and won the Battle of Marignano against Switzerland and Milan. Wolsey's primary aim in his foreign policy was to make Henry look prestiguous, something he had to do with limited finance. In this sense the Treaty of London in 1518 was a marvellous coup de théâtre. It was a massive non-aggression pact which encompassed most of Europe, centered around London, with pledges of mutual protection should anyone break it. If the Venetian ambassador was right when he said that nothing pleased Wolsey more than to be called the arbiter of Christendom's affairs, this must have left him rapturous. Sadly the humanistic idealism of the Treaty could not last, and the instability caused by the death of Emperor Maximilian I in 1519 promised to plunge Europe into war again.
The most spectacular event of Henry's reign took place at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 - it was a meeting between Francis I and Henry VIII amidst a great chivalric festival. It dazzled Europe but failed to have a dazzling impact on English diplomacy. When Charles I of Spain became Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and France were again on the brink of war. Fearing that the Treaty of London would oblige England to enter war on the losing side, ie. France's, Wolsey tried to broker peace between France and Spain. Gradually England drifted into war with France, planning to dissect her in partnership with Spain. The campaigns achieved very little and continued to do so even when the Duke of Bourbon committed treason and agreed to help the English. Then, suddenly, news arrived in 1525 of Francis' defeat at the Battle of Pavia. Not only was Habsburg domination of Italy assured until the time of Napolean, but Francis was prisoner in Madrid. Henry and Wolsey were eager to finish off France and make good on Henry's title of King of France, but Charles had no wish to share his victory - he believed that not only had Henry not helped him as a true friend should during earlier campaigns, but that he had not even provided aid to the extent of his obligations.
Wolsey's attempts to raise finance at home for an invasion of France failed (see the Amicable Grant), signalling the beginning of the end of his ascendency. Given the new extent of Spanish power, he sought an entente with Frane. In 1527 Spanish troops mutinied and sacked Rome, making the Pope their virtual prisoner. Although he expressed great alarm at what had happened, Charles didn't seem to be particularly disgusted by the degree of authority he now wielded over the Pope. And as Henry now wished to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Charles' aunt, this was catastrophic for Henry.
The English reformation under Henry VIII
"God hath made the king in every realm judge over all, and over him there is no judge."
~ William Tyndale
The English Reformation was a monumentous event in the nation's history. It had a huge effect on English law, brought about the largest redistribution of wealth since the Norman Conquest, and set the course of the forging of England's national identity. Henry first began to toss around ideas of "imperial Kingship" in the 1510s, when he was asserting his claim to the French throne (the French sneered that the English King was but a Popish vassal, an allusion to King John's homage to Innocent III in 1213). Wolsey himself had been tried and sentenced to death for praemunire, that is the introduction of a foreign authority into the realm of England. Henry VIII wished the Pope, Clement VII, to annul his marriage to Catherine - Clement refused. Henry set about accumulating as much evidence as possible to show that the dispensation granted by Julius II had not been valid, having both domestic and foreign Universities write papers on the subject. What eventually made the Reformation so revolutionary was the fact that Henry's quarrel with the Pope came at a time when social and intellectual forces were conspiring to dissolve the order of Christendom.
The Reformation Parliament which did the 'dirty work' of Henry and Thomas Cromwell's reformation was marked by anti-clericalism that drove it to act in a concerted manner never before seen in an English Parliament. Anecdotally this was caused by Bishop Fisher accusing the Commons before the Lords of lacking in faith, their laws consequently not worthy of keeping to. Representatives of the 'old school' feared that religious reform would bring social revolution in its wake - and were, of course, keen to protect their vested interests. Henry and the Commons began their assault on the Church regardless, slowly stripping away the perks which the Pope received from the English Church. Anne Boleyn was herself a reformer and surrounded by them, which raised many eyebrows over the question of the divorce - not only was Henry challenging the Pope's dispensing power, he was doing it so he could marry a reformer. The Boleyn faction had plans to use the divorce question to advance their radical ideas, which essentially amounted to a unilateral action by Henry to ignore the Pope.
Henry first expressed doubts about his marriage in 1527, and by 1531 he saw the Royal supremacy over the Church as a fact. His first Minister in taking the battle to Parliament was Thomas More, a man whose performance was perhaps marred by his complete opposition to the divorce case. Although Henry had once promised More that he wouldn't force him to act against his conscience, he sent him to both Houses of Parliament in 1531 to read out the tracts written by various European Universities in support of the divorce. He explained to them that he was there to prove that Henry was acting out of abstract principles, not selfish love of a woman. Evidently More still thought he could win the struggle within the King's Council over how to handle the divorce question, but he failed. Thomas Cromwell, through brilliant and ruthless manipulation of Parliament, engineered the formal submission of the clergy to the King. Convocation (the 'Parliament' of the clergy) had been fined hundreds of thousands of pounds already for complicity in Wolsey's praemunire, hence tying reform to fiscal benefits. Henry hadn't yet broken with Rome and achieved his divorce, but Parliament had granted him complete control over the Church in England. Now all that remained was to stop Catherine appealing to Rome when the divorce question came to be decided by ecclesiastical authorities in England.
This was achieved with Cromwell's Act in Restraint of Appeals, which was passed in April 1533. Henry had been sufficiently confident in January to marry Anne Boleyn in secret. Catherine didn't know about it yet, but the Act that had been passed meant that when she appealed, the upper house of Convocation would debate the matter without the Pope's intervention. For his part, Henry was now fully convinced that his first marriage had never existed in law, and Bishop Cranmer annuled it. Anne Boleyn was finally Crowned on June 1, 1533 and in July Pope Clement VII threatened Henry with excommunication. In 1534 Cromwell pushed a Succession Act through Parliament, meaning the Crown would pass to Anne and her issue, disinheriting Catherine and Mary. But when, on September 7, 1533, the future Queen Elizabeth I had been born, Henry was flung into a rage. Although he was afterwards determined to invest the succession in Anne's issue, he rode away from her immediately after the birth of the daughter to the domicile of Sir John Seymour, where he fell in love with Jane Seymour.
There followed the deaths of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. More was imprisoned because he refused to accept the Succession Act and because he refused to accept the principle that Parliament could enact laws which went against the principles of Christendom. He said the King sought to bind men's consciences against the common law of Christendom. He thus achieved a moral victory when forced to mount the scaffold. Anne miscarried in 1536, and Henry became convinced that God damned his second marriage also - meanwhile at Court it was claimed she had bewitched him, and that she had committed adultery. It was said to that two young courtiers and known libertines, Henry Norris and Sir Francis Weston had been seen entering her apartment on a Sunday and therein heard making love to her. She was charged with a multitude of things, including incest with her brother, and executed on May 19, 1536 (in the French fashion, with a sword). Five alleged lovers had been executed two days earlier.
His later years
Henry was now free to marry Jane Seymour, which he did so on May 30, 1536. She bore him his only legitimate male son, later King Edward VI, on October 12, 1537 ("a Pyrrhic victory", remarks John Guy, for she died of a Caesarean section). She was the wife for whom he mourned the most and who he seems to have loved most - unlike his previous two wives, she was submissive and caring. He is interred very close to her at St. George's Chapel. After this he married Anne of Cleves (who he called the "Mare of Flanders"), but divorced her almost immediately after actually meeting her. He then married Catherine Howard, a young cousin of Anne Boleyn, but she was found guilty of adultery and executed for treason. His last wife, the only one to outlive him, was the more mature Katherine Parr who was as much a nursemaid as a wife. Following a jousting accident in 1536, Henry was unable to take exercise and suffered from a painful ulcer which may have indirectly led to his death. This was the reason for his ever-expanding corpulence - during his latter French campaigns, he had to be put on his horse by a crane.
His marriage to Anne had been born of diplomacy - for in June 1538, the French and Spanish signed a treaty. Cromwell and Henry decided to look further afield for allies, and thus concluded a treaty with the German Schmalkaldic League. The French and Spanish treaty had come in the wake of Henry's excommunication by Pope Paul III, who was now actively encouraging the two to invade England and restore the authority of the Bishop of Rome. When France and Spain clashed again over Milan, Henry saw a way out of the Cleves marriage. He made Cromwell the scapegoat of it, capitalising on the increasingly unpopularity of Cromwell around Court, where he was been stereotyped as a Lutheran. Cromwell was executed on July 28, 1540. Although the most ostensible issue was the Cleves marriage, Cromwell had advanced the Reformation beyond a point which Henry VIII, a conservative Catholic in doctrine, felt comfortable with. Although not too radical, Cromwell had used his influence in Convocation to secure the appointment of reformers, and in publications such as the Institutions of a Christian Man he said that sacraments not expressly mentioned in Scripture were inferior to the three that were (Eucharist, penance, baptism).
After Catherine Howard's adultery, the King resolved to restore his honour through war. From 1542 to just before the end of his reign he was at war with France and Scotland. He concluded a peace with Charles V in 1542 and they agreed to invade France together in 1544. At the Battle of Solway Moss in 1541 the Scottish armies once again suffered a massive defeat, and the news killed James V and left Mary, Queen of Scots as heir. Henry tried to force a marriage between the young girl and Prince Edward, but the Scottish had plans to marry her to a French prince. Mary of Guise, Mary, Queen of Scots' mother, became regent of Scotland. Henry led his armies into France amidst much glitter and expense, but achieved very little. Both her and the Emperor suspected the other of trying to achieve their own selfish aims. He captured Boulogne, which he agreed he would hold until 1554, when the French would buy it back for £600,000. This would not cover the cost of garrisoning the town or the campaigns, however. Protector Somerset continued these wars despite the huge cost to the Crown.
Parliament passed an act restoring Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, although Edward VI came first. By 1546 Henry could barely stand due to his leg wound, and as his physical discomforts intensified he became increasingly paranoid about who he would trust. It is not known what exactly Henry died of, although it may have been heart failure or thrombosis in his leg. It has been debated endlessly whether his will was tampered with, but it seems likely its principal contents were authorised by him. He certainly did not intend the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I to go so badly, but the course of events after his death was quite obviously beyond his control. He had laid the foundations of a strong English state, something which foundered under his two immediate successors but was tended lovingly by Elizabeth I. He had avoided religious wars at a time when they were to shortly ravage much of Europe, and established the primacy of statute law. He is remembered as a strong King, who perhaps at time acted too strongly - as the executions of his wives and ministers is testament to.
1. This view was first posited by Lord Herbert of Cherbury in the 17th century and repeated, for instance, in Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples (vol. 2) - independent evidence, though, is lacking. Although Henry showed a huge interest in theology even before the Divorce Question, writing his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum against Martin Luther in 1521, the positions given to him by his father during his childhood were largely secular.
2. See Henry VII and the nobility
Churchill, Winston. History of the English-speaking Peoples vol 2.: Cassell, 1956
Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford, 1988.