The Tudors: Henry VIII & The English Reformation (1509-1547)

Was he the delightful “Bluff King Hal,” famous Renaissance Prince? Or instead was he a bloated and arrogant tyrant who sacrificed the common good for his own vanity? Do we remember him fondly as an intellectual purveyor of freedom, or rather as a self-seeking opportunist who opened the door to radical change? Who is the true Henry VIII? His persona is at once captivating and elusive. Henry VIII wore many hats throughout his lifetime, but surely his reign as King of England is at once the most infamous yet alluring of all the English monarchs. Today, we see him proudly standing forth, clad in bright and exuberant colors, dressed as a peacock, donning extravagant Turkish costumes, bombastically shunning clerical Orthodoxy, founding his own church, marrying six different women, executing friends and foes alike. Henry VIII’s legacy remains bold, his stature towering, his life the stuff of legend, his reign consequential beyond a doubt. As a young man he was tall, handsome, athletic, cultured, sunny, gregarious, and romantic -in a way Henry VIII was the supreme symbol of Tudor England. As an aging monarch in his later life, he grew rotund, tempestuous, insufferable, greedy, and yet he was still unceasingly confident in himself through and through.

Henry was born in 1491 at Greenwich Palace. He was the second son of King Henry VII. As a boy, he was a glamorous and robust youth. He was a lover of the joust yet also renowned for his keen intellect (even the legendary Renaissance humanist, Erasmus, made note of Henry’s extraordinarily inquisitive mind). In 1515, a Venetian diplomat named Sebastian Giustinian described the young Henry as “the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes upon: above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and light, with auburn hair… and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being rather long and thick.” Another contemporary, George Cavendish who was the biographer of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, described the young king as “natural, young, lusty, and courageous… entering into the flower of pleasant youth.”

While Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, was being groomed for the kingship, Henry was instructed in the finest arts of his day -theology, philosophy, Latin, French, Italian, poetry, literature, art, and music. He was raised at Eltham Palace beside his mother and sisters who idolized their brother’s remarkable confidence. It was a charmed childhood. Meanwhile throughout the kingdom there were murmurs of a degraded kingship under Henry’s father, Henry VII. The elder King’s court was run like a profit-seeking business. It was filled with drudgery, miserly taxation, and landlord billings to pad the crown’s coffers. The court of Henry VII was also burdened with an unpopular mercenary war in France. Young Henry was well aware of these concerning developments, even as a young boy.

Suddenly in 1502, tragedy struck the Tudor family when Henry’s older brother and heir to the throne, Arthur, unexpectedly died. Arthur’s death was followed shortly thereafter by the death of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth. The dream of a new Arthurian age was instantly wiped away for the Tudors. Henry was now the sole heir to the throne. The future of a stable kingship depended on this young boy -a notion that greatly concerned King Henry VII. In remembering the recent civil wars over succession, Henry’s father, a fiercely protective man who had now lost his wife and first-born son, was not willing to allow his only remaining son to risk the future of the crown. Young Henry was forbidden from participating in jousting tournaments and other manly, vigorous activities. In the eyes of Henry VII, the inheritance of Bosworth Field was not worth risking over a mere child’s game. These prohibitions greatly angered young Henry.

As years passed, while the old king lay slowly dying, his court became split between the nobility and the churchmen on the one hand, and the commoners and lawyers on the other. The latter were the agents of Henry VII’s fiscal tyranny, while the former sought revenge for what they understood to be avarice among the king’s men. Only moments after the old king had passed, a quiet rebellion began with William Warham, Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury. He looked back fondly upon bold predecessors: Anselm, Becket, and Langton. Warham kept the recent death of the king a secret while one day surprising the two principal lawyers on the late king’s council, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Warham arrested them and before they knew it, both men were were locked in the Tower, charged with treason, and beheaded the following year in August 1510. The era of Henry VII’s painstaking system of taxation had come to an end. Now, traditional taxation was moved back to its rightful place: in the halls of Parliamentary consent.

Henry VIII in 1509

Meanwhile the teenaged Henry had grandiose visions for his kingship. He looked to the heroic warrior kings of Arthurian legend and the conqueror of France, Henry V, while building a lavish and brilliant court. Above all, Henry desired glory. Henry VIII was crowned on June 24, 1509 at the age was 17. He inherited a mostly stable regime, without a breath of opposition, and Englishmen of the time felt a coming Golden Age across the isle. Privately, Henry was just as ruthless and calculating as his father, but publicly he cultivated a carefully crafted image as a man of the people. His succession to the crown was greatly benefitted from his father’s financial thriftiness and Henry spared no expense in demonstrating the crown’s splendor. It was the first peaceful transition of power since the Wars of the Roses and finally, it seemed, the crown had reached its summit. Among the nobility, far and wide, there was great cause for celebration. Lord Mountjoy, a baron of Derbyshire and pupil of Erasmus wrote: “Heaven and earth rejoice, everything is full of milk and honey and nectar… avarice has fled the country, our king is not after gold, or gems, or precious metals, but virtue, glory, immortality.” Sir Thomas More, the great scholar and lawyer whose life and death would become intertwined with the Tudors, famously said: “This day is the end of our slavery, the fount of liberty; the end of sadness, the beginning of joy.”

Henry became the darling of Europe. His court was filled with opulence and magnificence: there were twice weekly jousting tournaments and competitions, the king himself led hunting parties, and Henry was renowned for his defense of the Church against the growing “heretical” doctrines of Lutheranism. His court bore the mark of an insatiable appetite for martial entertainments and it dazzled all of Europe. It also signaled Henry’s future intent: the conquest of France. Toward that end, one of Henry’s first acts was to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who was six years his senior. While Henry publicly doted upon his wife, the marriage had obvious foreign policy implications -an alliance between England and Spain against France.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

In his early years, Henry was not much of a governor for the affairs of his own kingdom. Fortunately, from 1511 onward Henry benefitted from the able administration of Thomas Wolsey, the son of an Ipswich butcher who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful men in his day. In 1514, Wolsey became Cardinal Archbishop of York and he quickly curried favor with the new king. He received an appointment to the king’s council and passionately defended Henry’s desire for war against the elder conservative statesmen who lingered at the king’s court from the reign of Henry VII. In 1515, William Warham was pressured to resign and in his stead Henry VIII appointed Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor of England (the highest ranking adviser to the king). Wolsey found great success in orchestrating the king’s foreign policy, but his downfall eventually came amidst Henry’s marital turmoil.

On the Continent, the early European state system was beginning to emerge. Across the Channel, France was greatly strengthened and unified after the Hundred Years War. The House of Valois entered the new century triumphant as King Louis XI and his son Charles VIII were no longer the mere heads of a loosely scattered principate. Instead they now ruled a united land that stretched from the Channel to the Mediterranean. In 1515, the great Renaissance patron, Francis I succeeded his relatives, Louis XI and Charles VIII, to the throne of France. Meanwhile the embattled Holy Roman Empire remained a formidable opponent, unified by the Hapsburg family under Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

Abroad, unlike his father, Henry was disposed toward throwing his weight in Europe. He saw himself as a rival of the growing empires of Valois France and the Hapsburg Empire. In France, Francis I was caught up in a struggle for dominance in Europe (especially in Italy) against Charles V, the Hapsburg ruler of Austria, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Naples (Charles V became Holy Roman Emperor in 1519). Henry was determined to remain involved in the growing conflict. As a measure of his ambitions, Henry viewed himself as a candidate for the rulership as Holy Roman Emperor and his trusted ally, Cardinal Wolsey, as a candidate for the Papacy. Such grand ambitions find their historical analogs among the likes of Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte.

French and English relations deteriorated quickly, particularly when the French king (at the time Louis XII) insulted English ambassadors and threatened to depose Pope Julius II over the anti-French “Holy League.” In 1511, an enraged Henry got the approval of his Council for a moral justification for war, thanks to the passionate leadership of Cardinal Wolsey. On June 28, 1513 the English army crossed the Channel in defense of Henry VIII and the Pope. It was the first time England had campaigned in Europe since the Hundred Years War (Henry’s late father preferred to simply hire mercenary soldiers). Parliament raised taxes for the most impressive army since Agincourt. It was a holy war, and it was the height of the relationship between England and Rome under Henry’s reign. In battle, Henry modeled himself on his hero, Henry V. There was much celebration when France was defeated in August 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs -so called because the French knights quickly fled the battlefield. The victorious Henry took a slew of prisoners and captured two French cities. It was not a conquering of France, but it did elevate the English army back to one of the big three European powers. Despite the English victory, Henry did not pursue a 1514 campaign in France, in part because the Hapsburgs were not keen on Henry extending his power and so they did not lend support, but also the English coffers were drained and a new Pope came to Power (Leo X) who lobbied for peace with France, unlike his predecessor. Additionally, in the coming years three young rulers came to dominate nearly all of Europe. By 1516, Henry was no longer the young darling of Europe. There was a new warlike king, in Francis I in France, and an even younger emperor in Charles V of the Hapsburgs (ruling Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and most of Italy). Europe was governed mainly by a triad of young men. Meanwhile there was growing tension between the two empires, Hapsburg and France. Conflict was inevitable. How would England respond?

In an effort to quell tensions, in 1520 a lavish meeting between France and England was orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey. It was called ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ and it featured jousting and wrestling tournaments, as well as other great fanfare with the intent of forging a future alliance between the two kingdoms. However, the events ultimately failed to yield peace (especially when Henry VIII challenged Francis I to a wrestling contest and embarrassingly lost). An alliance was eventually made with France’s enemy, the Hapsburgs. In 1522, Henry raised taxes for a costly war against France at a moment when France seemed weakest against the Hapsburgs. In 1523, a poorly orchestrated cooperative alliance between Henry VIII and Charles V endeavored to invade France. Charles made gains in the so-called “Italian Wars” with France and he captured Francis I in 1525 in Pavia (the capital of Lombardy in northern Italy), but Charles refused to grant Henry his word, preventing Henry from conquering Paris and being crowned King of France. Henry attempted to go alone, but there was no popularity for taxes for war and riots broke out in England. Henry was forced to abandon his dreams of glory. Henry switched sides and pursued a peace treaty with France. His goal was to prevent either France or the Hapsburgs from gaining too much ground, so he opted for a balance of power in the region. As a result of the taxes, however, the English cloth trade with the Netherlands suffered dearly (at the time English agriculture and the cloth merchants had expanded to meet the demands of a growing population). To make matters worse, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, gained his strong influence over Italy and therefore also over the Pope at just the moment when Henry’s marital troubles were beginning to show.

Domestically, Henry was growing desperate for a male heir. Among his noblemen, there hung a lingering question of whether or not England would submit to a stand-alone Queen, but more importantly, Henry desired above all else to secure a steady, reliable succession of the crown. Fresh on the minds of all Englishmen were the hideous decades that comprised the Wars of the Roses. Henry needed to secure himself an heir and time had run out for his aging wife.

Early 18th century copy of a portrait of Catherine of Aragon

Henry’s first wife was Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Catherine initially married Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who died at age 15 one year following their marriage. The wedding was a key foreign policy tact of Henry’s father Henry VII -a uniting of Spain and England. However, in the wake of Arthur’s untimely death, Henry VIII married Catherine in 1509. She failed to produce a child that lived beyond infancy -she had several miscarriages and stillbirths- until 1516 when she gave birth to a baby girl, Mary. Queen Catherine continued suffering stillbirths and miscarriages which made Henry increasingly anxious about his hope for a male heir. As time passed, Henry maintained his youthful looks while Catherine did not. At six years his senior she had aged poorly, by all accounts, and the young king fell madly in love with another lady.

Late Elizabethan portrait of Anne Boleyn

Her name, Anne Boleyn, is now made famous in connection to Henry VIII’s foibles. By 1526, Henry had been considering a divorce with Catherine when he caught the eye of one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. He had previously taken Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister and also a lady-in-waiting, as a mistress but the charismatic Anne remained elusive. While Henry’s wife, Catherine, was now in her forties and showing signs of age after many failed pregnancies, in contrast Anne was young, bold, intelligent, sexual, enticing, and flirty. She was radically progressive in her day. She was a Lutheran sympathizer and she introduced Henry to all manner of heretical texts that his regime had staunchly forbidden, including flattering books like William Tyndale’s Obedience of the Christian Man which emphasized the God-ordained role of kings rather than priests. Henry begged Anne to be his mistress but she refused to give up her virginity to the king unless he married her. It was a daring, unthinkable proposition for a commoner to suggest such a thing to a married king. Nevertheless, Henry was lured and he devised a plan. His efforts to divorce Catherine became known as “the king’s great matter.” Henry conveniently recalled a Biblical injunction (Leviticus 20:21) that a brother should not marry a brother’s wife (and Catherine was previously married to Henry’s late brother, Arthur). On this basis, Henry requested an annulment of his marriage from the Pope but Henry’s many requests fell on deaf ears. Henry angrily blamed Cardinal Wolsey for the lack of progress in Rome. At the time, Cardinal Wolsey was treading a delicate balance between King and Pope (he was technically appointed to his position by both King and Pope -to whom would he submit?)

Sir Thomas More (1527) by Hans Holbein the Younger

By the late 1520s, Henry was failing: in peace, war, progeny, and in pursuit of his desired mistress. Anne Boleyn had refused his advances unless he agreed to marry her. In addition, events in Rome also soon changed things. The forces of Charles V sacked Rome and sent Pope Clement VII into exile in Castel Sant’Angelo under the care of Queen Catherine’s nephew (and Henry’s enemy). As the months stretched into years, Henry grew impatient with his ally Cardinal Wolsey. The maneuvers of Wolsely between London and Rome ultimately proved unmanageable and his failure to deliver cost him his job when Henry ordered Wolsey be brought to London and tried for treason. However, Wolsey never made the trip. While en route to the Tower for his expected execution Wolsey died, cursing Anne Boleyn all the way to his grave. Shortly before his death he is said to have muttered: “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” Wolsey was quickly replaced in 1529 by Sir Thomas More, a staunch Catholic. Thomas More was an influential academic who was elected to Parliament (eventually representing London) and he worked his way up through the ranks to serve at the court of King Henry VIII. More was knighted in 1521 after accompanying Cardinal Wolsey on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Empire. Needless to say, More was not supportive of Henry’s attempts to thwart Papal authority.

Thomas Cranmer (1545) by Gerlach Flicke

When all Henry’s efforts to push the Church to support divorce had failed, Henry appealed to England’s universities. By chance Thomas Cranmer, an obscure theologian from Cambridge, was introduced to Henry and Anne. Cranmer was linked to the Boleyn family and he was a supporter of Henry’s growing cleavage with the Pope. Henry was a notoriously private man, and he began surrounding himself with men like Thomas Cranmer, a man without the privilege of a wide circle of friends; and Thomas Cromwell, an attorney who was “ruthless, cynical, Machiavellian” according to Winston Churchill. With the help of Cranmer, Henry began pushing his way into the universities, beginning with Cambridge and then more reluctantly Oxford. Meanwhile, Catherine’s defenders were not few. In particular, there was a cleric named Thomas Abel who stood beside the legitimacy of the Queen. For this egregious stand, Abel was soon locked in the Tower (where he carved his name with a bell into the wall). He was later executed as a traitor in 1540. Henry’s infiltration into academia also began gaining steam, the authority of Rome was being replaced with the Bible and many nobles feared a rise of radicalism much like what had begun on the continent -as in the case of Martin Luther or John Huss in the Czech revolt (Huss was a defender of Wycliffe who was burned at the stake in 1415). By 1531, there was overwhelming royal pressure on the Archbishop of Canterbury to name Henry as ‘sole protector and supreme head of the Church in England.’ At this time, religious customs were rapidly changing in England and just when things were at a tipping point the Archbishop of Canterbury (then William Warham) suddenly died. Henry immediately appointed Thomas Cranmer to the position in October 1532 with the express purpose of rendering Henry’s first marriage null, and that same month, before he had the full support of Parliament, Henry and Anne apparently slept together. She quickly became pregnant and Henry married her in a secret ceremony in January 1533 despite still being married to Catherine. The following year Henry pushed through Parliament the controversial Acts of Royal Supremacy in November 1534. The Acts officially replaced the Pope with the King of England as the true religious authority. The break with Rome was thus made permanent. However, some leaders like Thomas More remained true to the papacy. He refused to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation, and declined to take the oath of support for Henry as supreme spiritual authority. He was imprisoned in the Tower and charged with treason. Sir Thomas More was executed by beheading on July 6, 1535 proclaiming himself “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”

Henry was emboldened, his power was dangerously absolute. He began declaring himself beholden to no earthly institution. His spiritual flip was complete from his early years. Recall that as a young king, Henry was well-liked by the Church -the Pope named him the “most Christian king” of Europe and dubbed him Fidei defensor (“Defender of the Faith”). Henry and Cardinal Wolsey had condemned Martin Luther as a heretic; in May 1521 Wolsey led a great book burning of Lutheran texts at St. Paul’s Cathedral; and Henry wrote the first book to be published by an English king since Alfred the Great (Henry’s book, a response to Lutheranism, was called Assertio Septem Sacramentorum or “Defense of the Seven Sacraments”). Despite these bona fides, in desperation for an heir, Henry sacrificed his deepest religious commitments and in doing so, he radically transformed the monarchy. It was a new era of English Reformation.

Of the English Reformation Winston Churchill writes: “Thus the English Reformation was a slow process. An opportunist King measured his steps as he went, until England was wholly independent of administration of Rome… He had to consider how far he would go. If there were a struggle could any of his bishops be trusted to forget the oath which they had sworn to the Pope at their consecration? Would there be a rebellion? Would the Emperor, Queen Catherine’s nephew, invade England from the Low Countries? Could the King rely on French neutrality?” (243). Churchill continues: “In the field of religious belief the Reformation brought profound change. The Bible now acquired a new and far-reaching authority. The older generation considered that Holy Writ was dangerous in the hands of the unlearned and should only be read by priests. But complete printed Bibles, translated into English by Tyndale and Coverdale, had appeared for the first time late in the autumn of 1535, and were now running through several editions” (248).

When Henry was declared Supreme Authority over the Church, it came with vast riches in some 500 monasteries scattered throughout the land. These riches were too tantalizing to be left alone. In 1536, the process of looting the monasteries had begun. Abuses were deliberately found, trumped up charges were leveled, and the monasteries were all dissolved and ransacked. It was a cataclysmic death knell for a way of life that had lasted for many centuries. By 1540 the last monastery was gone -all the monks were granted pensions and their former lands, churches, and riches were all confiscated. It was a massive religious desecration. Minister Thomas Cromwell dissolved the monasteries with astonishing efficiency -it was the greatest land ownership change since the Norman conquest in AD 1066.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1537–1547)

The mass desecration caused outrage throughout the country and it soon manifested in the form of rioting. In the worst crisis of Henry’s reign, in autumn 1536 a rebellion known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ spread rapidly across northern England from Lincolnshire. It was a revolt of peasants and noblemen alike, spurred on by fiery sermons delivered by recalcitrant priests. They demanded a return to the monastery system. The crowds grew and marched on London by the thousands, but they were persuaded that the injustice was actually caused by Henry’s advisors, like Minister Cranmer (Henry himself was still exempted from blame). Henry managed to quell the crowd by promising pardons, however a few months later when another minor revolt broke out in the north country, Henry used this opportunity to exact revenge. He was particularly harsh against clerical inciters, many of whom were taken to the Tower and hanged or beheaded. What began as a liberation from the yoke of Rome quickly degenerated into a tyrannical kingship.

Jayne Seymour (16th century) by Hans Holbein the Younger

During their few years of marriage, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, but no son. At the same time, Henry grew dismayed with his strong-willed wife. Both spouses distrusted each other. Henry openly engaged in several affairs, while Anne had a string of miscarriages, and Henry began courting another woman, Jane Seymour, a lady who served as maid of honor under the former Queen Catherine and later for Queen Anne. False rumors were spread about Anne being deformed and evil, and Henry’s court was almost unanimously convinced she was unfaithful to the king. In May 1536, after only three years of marriage, Henry had his wife, Anne, tried and executed on the basis of supposed charges of adultery, incest, and sexual perversion, but her real crimes were less exotic. She had never truly adjusted to her changing role, from dominant mistress to submissive wife, and most importantly, she did not give birth to a male heir. She was offered the chance to be burned at the stake or beheaded, and she chose the latter but with a sword in the French fashion, rather than the brutal English axe. On the fateful day of her death, she knelt down with her lady-in-waiting and said “pray for me,” and then while kneeling she repeated over and over, “God have mercy on my soul…” and with one fell slice the deed was done.

Within 24 hours of Anne’s beheading, Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour. They married some ten days later in May 1536. Jane was wholly different from Anne. She was conservative and demure. Whereas Anne was verbose and domineering, Jane was simple, passive, less educated, and more interested in embroidery than in politics. Henry and Jane spent a mostly happy eighteen months together and in October 1537 she gave birth to a healthy son, Edward (the future Edward VI). The labor was difficult and it lasted for an extended time (2 days and 3 nights). Sadly, Jane died a few days later as a result of postnatal complications at the age of 27 but Edward survived and became Henry’s pride and joy for years to come. Jane was the only wife Henry ever mourned. Upon her death, she was buried with full royal honors at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor. She was the only one of Henry’s wives who was honored with a formal, royal burial.

A questionably accurate portrait of Anne of Cleaves by Hans Holbein the younger, 1539

Having lost his third wife, but finally securing the future of his dynasty, Henry turned his wandering eye toward pragmatic foreign policy when considering his next wife. Henry sought the hand of Anne (also called “Anne of Cleaves”), the eldest Princess of Cleves (Cleves was a principate in the Holy Roman Empire in present-day Western Germany). Their union was an effort to isolate the reigning Catholic monarchs of France and the Hapsburgs. However, it was only a short marriage lasting about 6 months and it was quickly annulled on the grounds that Henry claimed it was never consummated. Apparently, Anne of Cleaves was extraonardily unattractive and she accidentally snubbed Henry in unfamiliar English courtly traditions. It was not a romantic marriage. Anne was pensioned away and she lived the remainder of her life in England. She outlived all of Henry’s other wives, and she is the only wife of Henry VIII to be buried at Westminster Abbey (albeit tucked away in a corner near the tomb of Edward The Confessor).

Catherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger

At the time, Thomas Cromwell had gradually fallen out of favor with the king. His vacillation on the question of King and Church, and his orchestration of Henry’s failed betrothal to Anne of Cleaves, were the final straws. Cromwell was stripped of his honors. He was arrested and condemned to death without a trial. Cromwell was publicly beheaded on July 28, 1540 -Henry later regretted the death of Cromwell, even as Cromwell’s severed head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. A few days later Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. She was young and pretty but she had a wild streak and was not content to be the idle wife of a man thirty years her senior. Her reckless love for her cousin, Thomas Culpeper, was discovered and she was promptly executed in the Tower in February 1542 on the exact same spot as Anne Boleyn many years prior.

Catherine Parr (unknown)

Henry’s sixth wife and final wife was Catherine Parr, a 31-year old widow from the Lake District. They were married at Hampton Court on July 12, 1543 and remained married until Henry’s death three years later -she was granted the rare fortune of outliving the king. She was intellectual, graceful, and interested in theological questions. She also tended to Henry’s ulcerated leg in his later years, an injury he sustained while jousting, and she attempted to mend the thorny relationship between Henry and his daughter, Elizabeth. Catherine was well-liked by both Mary (daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn).

In the north, war with Scotland was fought along the border until a disastrous venture into England by the Scottish king, James V. The battle cost him his life and it left the crown of Scotland in the hands of an infant, his daughter the famous Mary Queen of Scots. She became the central focus of the struggle for Scotland -tensions between Catholic and Protestant, French and English, war and peace. Henry’s ventures in Scotland were equally as disastrous as were his late battles in France which left him with a mere siege of Boulogne and nothing more. Suddenly, late into Henry’s reign, England found itself without a single foreign ally. It was a perilous position.

In the latter years of his reign Henry strode about his kingdom like “an aging Colossus” according to David Starkey. In his eyes, he had found glory in his rule. He had produced an heir, and yet it cost him a deal with the devil -the new Lutheranism multiplied throughout England and upended the traditional orthodoxy. It was exactly the kind of change that Henry had feared and fought against so swiftly as a young king. In the coming hundred years the progressive Protestants would rebel, bring down the crown, and behead a king. For Henry VIII, at the end of his reign, he had six marriages, two divorces, two executions, and had produced three children by three mutually hostile mothers (as the rhyme goes regarding his wives: “divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived”). The mix of wives and children had led to an unhappy royal family. In an act of Parliament, Henry officially secured his succession. His son, Edward (a fervent Protestant) would succeed the throne, and if Edward had no heirs then Henry’s elder daughter Mary would succeed (Mary was a staunch Catholic), and if Mary had no heirs, she would be followed by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who would be left to reconcile the two religious extremes of her siblings. During his lifetime, Henry was left to moderate between these political diversions: the courtly conservative noblemen on the one hand who longed for a reconciliation with Rome, and the radical Protestants who pushed for a further upheaval of the Church in England. Henry was displeased with both extremes. He had attempted to maintain the old traditions while still lambasting the rule of the Papacy. It was a difficult balance to maintain.

Henry VIII 1540 by Hans Holbein the Younger

Henry VIII, the executor of his allies, breaker of the Papacy, notorious womanizer, and king who struggled all his life for a male heir, died on January 28, 1547 at the age of 55. The kingdom was left in the hands of a nine year old boy, but the real the question lingered. In a divided court who was to rule the day: the allies of Norfolk or Hetford? The parties of reaction or reform? Only time would tell.


Despite the voluminous works that have been written about Henry VIII, for this reading I mainly used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, and David Starkey’s Crown and Country.

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