Today, King Henry VIII is known as the king who went through wives like Taylor Swift went through famous boyfriends. But in reality, the Henry Tudor of the first half of his life was much different than the Henry we have all come to know. In his youth, Henry was charismatic, athletic, and extremely handsome (a hit with all of the ladies!). He was also intelligent and celebrated for his military prowess – everything a king was expected to be. But as Henry got older, this kingly image began to fade into that of an obese man with an unpredictable temper, violent streak, and poor ability to make decisions that would change the course of history in England.
Henry Tudor was the second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and his older brother Arthur was expected to eventually take the throne. In 1502 when Henry was 11, Arthur tragically died (possibly from a plague-type illness), leaving behind a young wife and the future throne of England. Arthur’s widow was Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the king and queen of Spain (or what was Spain at the time) and Henry declared his intent to marry his former sister-in-law and take her as his future queen. It was a noble gesture, but presented many problems. England was a strict Catholic kingdom and this marriage was against the teachings of the church, because Henry would be sleeping with his brother’s wife. But Catherine was adamant that the marriage between her and Arthur was never consummated during their brief time together. But not everyone was convinced she was telling the truth (in fact this is still a debate today). For the next seven years the engagement was debated back and forth between England and Spain, making it impossible for them to marry until Henry’s father died in 1509, making him Henry VIII and able to decide for himself who would be his wife. That year, Henry and Catherine were finally married….and crowned the new King and Queen of England.
Out With the Old, In With the New
Catherine of Aragon was beloved throughout the country, known for her kindness and religious devotion. Catherine and Henry had a very happy marriage in the beginning, but something was missing – a child. Specifically, a son. Catherine gave birth to six children but only one, Mary Tudor survived. Henry began to see his inability to have a living son with his wife as a sign that their marriage was not approved by God. So the marriage was already on the rocks around 1527, when one of the most famous women in history entered the picture – Anne Boleyn. Henry had had many mistresses by this point (including Anne’s own sister!) but Anne was different. Henry fell madly in love with her and Anne’s refusal to sleep with him only made him even more intent on having her. Henry knew by now that he was not going to have a son with Catherine, so he began to seek an annulment that would free him to marry Anne and conceive a legitimate male heir. To do so, he needed the approval of Pope Clement VII, the head of the Catholic Church in Rome.
For six years (I can’t even get a guy to commit to me for six days, much less six years…) Henry fought with the Pope for an annulment on the grounds that his marriage to Catherine had been unlawful because she had in fact consummated her marriage to his brother Arthur. Henry may have been able to convince Clement of his case, except for the fact that Catherine’s nephew was the current King of Spain, which was a powerful Catholic country. Granting Henry his divorce would have brought great shame to Catherine, and Clement risked angering Spain and setting a dangerous precedent for monarchs in the future. The longer Henry had to wait, the angrier he got, and the easier it was for those surrounding him to convince him that he didn’t need the Pope. In 1533, Henry and Anne went ahead with their wedding and Henry declared his marriage to Catherine as “null and void”. Less than nine months later, Anne gave birth to a child. “Henry had believed that the birth of a son would offer evidence of divine approval for his actions” (Tudor: The Family Story, 187), but alas it was another girl – the future Elizabeth I. Even though he was disappointed, there was no turning back now.
Off With Their Heads!
In 1536, at the age of 45, Henry fell off of his horse during a jousting tournament, and was knocked unconscious for several hours (one of several serious head injuries he suffered in his lifetime, including at least two other documented cases during his 30s). This is the moment in time where most historians point to a drastic change in Henry’s mood and behavior. It also emphasized Henry’s mortality – while he lay unconscious, panic set in as to who would succeed to the throne if he were to die. Without a son, the choices were two daughters: Mary and Elizabeth. The country was split over who was the rightful heir, based on their opinions on the legitimacy of Henry’s divorce from Catherine.
Henry’s mood became increasingly unpredictable and Anne’s inability to produce a healthy son (she had also given birth to a stillborn boy) meant trouble was brewing. Following his marriage to Anne, under the Act of Supremacy, Henry had declared himself “Supreme Head of the Church of England” (Britannica), getting himself excommunicated from Rome in the process. As Head of the Church, he had successfully rid himself of one wife and he could certainly get rid of another. With the help of his trusted minister Thomas Cromwell, Henry began to have a case built against Anne that would give him the freedom to marry yet again. And this case did not need to concern itself with the truth. Cromwell put forth evidence that Anne was an adulterer, and worse, that she had committed incest with her own brother. There were also suggestions that Anne had used witchcraft to seduce Henry. Only three years after the marriage that Henry had fought for so long to obtain, Anne was executed by beheading in 1536, along with her brother and two other men she had apparently slept with (some of the men were fortunate enough to receive a beheading, and the others were hung, drawn and quartered).
The Boy Who Lived
If Henry was upset about the loss of his second wife, he certainly didn’t show it. Ten days after the executions, Henry married Jane Seymour. Jane was a member of a prestigious English family who were descendents of King Edward III. It is believed that Henry met Jane at her family home in 1535, and she had also been a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. While married to Anne, Henry did not hide his interest in Jane, who was timid and reserved – “a stark contrast to his previous two wives” (Seymour Biography). In October of 1537 Henry finally received the validation he had been seeking – Jane gave birth to a son, the future Edward VI. And there could be no question as to his legitimacy, since Catherine had died the year prior. The kingdom celebrated, but the celebrations were short-lived. Jane died from complications following the birth, and Henry was plunged into a depression as he mourned the woman he would always claim was the true love of his life. The birth of Edward did, however, affirm Henry’s belief that his first two marriages had been against the will of God. Now there could be no doubt in his mind that he had taken the right path by splitting from Rome.
By 1538, Henry’s violent side had really started to rear its ugly head. In May of that year, “an Observant Friar was convicted of heresy for his traditional Catholic beliefs, and burned with exquisite cruelty over a slow fire” (Lisle, 219). But it wasn’t just Catholics who felt the wrath of the king – “he also burned evangelicals”. Although Henry had broken from the Catholic Church when he rejected the Pope’s authority, he actually was very much committed to the teachings of Catholicism. One of the most significant difference[s] between Catholics and Protestants was the issue of whether or not the bread and wine consumed during Mass was actually the real body and blood of Christ. Evangelicals who preached that it was not were just as likely to meet Henry’s fire as those who denied that he was the head of the Church in England.
The schism with Rome meant that England was in need of new allies, and the quickest way to make an ally was through marriage. And so the search began for a new wife for Henry. Thomas Cromwell set up a match with Anne of Cleves, mainly for the purposes of forming an alliance with her family who were Protestant Germans. Henry did not meet Anne before their engagement, and upon meeting her was not impressed. He is literally quoted in history as saying “I like her not!” But the marriage went ahead anyway in 1540, and lasted for a whopping six months before Henry had the marriage annulled. The marriage was never consummated (apparently on account of the fact that Henry was so unattracted to her) but Anne of Cleves remained at court for the rest of her life, referred to lovingly as the king’s “sister”. The failure of this marriage was the beginning of the end for Cromwell and he was executed in July of 1540. Even Henry’s most trusted ministers weren’t safe – “he had by now become truly dangerous: always secretive and suspicious, now he was beginning to show paranoiac tendencies. Convinced that he controlled everyone, [Henry] was in fact readily manipulated by those who knew how to feed his suspicions and pander to his self-righteousness” (Britannica). In fact, Henry later came to regret his hasty decision to have Cromwell killed.
If the First Four Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
In case you have lost count, that is now four wives for Henry. But don’t worry, he wasn’t lonely for long. While in the process of dissolving his marriage to Anne, Henry had set his sights on 16-year-old Catherine Howard, a first cousin of Anne Boleyn. Less than a month after the official end of his marriage, Henry and Catherine Howard married. For a while they were happy (by a while I mean a year, a lifetime with Henry’s track record), but the spell was broken when Henry learned that Catherine had been in several sexual relationships, and possibly an engagement, before they were married. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Catherine was also accused of having an affair while she was married to the king. Again, there was no definitive proof but historians acknowledge that unlike the preposterous stories used to take down Anne Boleyn, there is a possibility that Catherine was guilty of some of these accusations. She had spent many years in a co-ed “group home” of sorts, with less supervision than most girls of her age and status. That is where it is believed these romantic trysts took place before her marriage. But who needs proof? Henry was so mad that he made up a new law that made it treasonous to marry the king if you weren’t a virgin, and unfortunately for Catherine Howard, she was not grandfathered in. In February of 1542, she became the second of Henry VIII’s wives to lose her head.
Henry no longer had his good looks and his good health, and was now showing signs of losing the military prowess that he had once been so celebrated for. In 1542, England was at war with Scotland and France, as England attempted to absorb Scotland into a unified Britain. Henry was initially successful in his campaign but “the Scottish dream quickly collapsed as Henry’s crude handling of that nation gave control to a pro-French party, determined to resist even an alliance with England” (Britannica). Even in his state of declining health, “Henry displayed amazing energy for so sick a man. But energy is not the same thing as competence. The war proved [economically] ruinous.”
The One That Got Away
At this point with everything else going on, most men would probably throw in the towel and give up on marriage, but not Henry. What a romantic. Now aged 52, Henry was severely overweight with a number of health issues, including a nasty leg wound that was constantly infected. What lady wouldn’t want a piece of that? In July of 1543, Henry married his sixth and final wife – Catherine Parr (I am sensing a Catherine fetish). Catherine Parr was twice the age of Henry’s last wife, and became very close with his three children Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward. She was even instrumental in helping to restore the girls to the line of succession. Henry and his final wife had a good relationship, but Henry was nearing the end of his life and his mental health in addition to his physical health was deteriorating. An incident in 1546 is often pointed to by historians as evidence of Henry’s instability. Guards arrived in Catherine’s rooms to arrest her (she had a number of enemies at court because of her Protestant sympathies) and Henry “launched into a tirade against the soldiers, having forgotten that he had given that order the day before” (Yale).
Although a deeply religious and intelligent woman, Catherine Parr’s greatest accomplishment would be remembered as outliving Henry. On January 28, 1547, King Henry VIII died at the age of 55. He was buried next to his third and favorite wife, Jane Seymour. Henry left behind a vastly different England than the one his father had ruled over. In the Middle Ages, religion influenced every facet of society, and Henry’s schism with the Catholic Church flipped the country on its head. Henry also left behind three children, all of whom would rule England in their own right. His son Edward inherited the throne upon Henry’s death, but only ruled for six years before he passed away. Next was Mary, who reigned for five years and earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for the extreme measures she took to bring England back to Catholicism. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth was made Queen and ruled for 45 years. She never married and when she died in 1603, so did the Tudor dynasty.
Elton, G. R., & Morrill, J. S. (2020, March 11). The breach with Rome. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-VIII-king-of-England/The-breach-with-Rome
Hathaway, B. (2018, January 29). Did Henry VIII suffer same brain injury as some NFL players? Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://news.yale.edu/2016/02/02/did-henry-viii-suffer-same-brain-injury-some-nfl-players
Henry VIII’s Deteriorating Health 1509-1547. (n.d.). Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Henry-VIII-Health-Problems/
History.com Editors. (2009, November 9). Henry VIII. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/henry-viii
Jane Seymour. (2019, June 27). Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.biography.com/royalty/jane-seymour
Lisle, L. D. (2014). Tudor: the family story. London: Vintage Books.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, May 15). Anne Boleyn. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anne-Boleyn
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, February 9). Catherine Howard. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-Howard
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, January 1). Catherine Parr. Retrieved May 27, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-Parr
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