Losing My Religion
The Protestant Reformation began spreading the seeds of religious change in Europe in 1517 before Henry ever had thoughts of dumping his wife. But because of Henry’s decisions as king, those seeds took root in England and his “reorganization of the church permitted the beginning of religious change” in his kingdom (Britannica). When Henry declared himself head of the Church of England, it sent shock-waves around the world. Here was one of Catholicism’s greatest defenders, and one of Rome’s most significant allies, making the Pope into an enemy overnight.
This was significant not just for religious reasons, but for political ones as well. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was not the church of today. Back then it was extremely wealthy, with top ranking church officials second only to monarchs in power and influence. In fact, Henry’s trusted adviser, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, “was often depicted as an alter rex (other king)” (Wikipedia) (Cardinals are leading Bishops within the Catholic Church – one of the high ranking officials that enjoyed power and privilege). The Pope could call upon the armies of Catholic nations to fight the Church’s wars, as it did for hundreds of years fighting the Crusades. So when Henry made an enemy of the Pope, he made an enemy of powerful Catholic countries like Spain and France, and spent the remainder of his reign in on-and-off conflicts with one or both countries. Henry also had it out for Scotland, England’s Catholic next-door neighbor that he wanted to absorb into his kingdom. Scotland wasn’t a fan of the idea, and so in 1542 he began a campaign that would come to be known as the “rough wooing”. It was an eight year war that was extremely violent and costly (hence the nickname), plunging England into debt with nothing to show for it by the time of Henry’s death. But with Henry increasing in violence and unpredictability as he grew older, it is perhaps not surprising that he was willing to go to such lengths to teach Scotland a lesson.
In spite of the schism with Rome, Henry was not willing to throw all of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church out the window (he actually hated Martin Luther, the “founder” of Protestantism). He did, however, make several changes that strengthened his new position as head of his new church. From 1536-1540 all monasteries across England were shut down and their funds were redirected to the Crown – and that was a lot of money! In 1539, Henry’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell, pushed forth the writing, publishing and distribution of the first Bible in English with his permission. This was significant because for the first time, the common person in England could read the word of God for him/herself, rather than depending solely on the clergy’s interpretation of Latin and Greek, the languages that the Catholic Church wrote in and spoke exclusively at the time.
50 Shades of Grey
For Henry, all of the changes sweeping England were directed towards the ultimate goal of having a male heir. A legitimate son would mean that when he died, there would be a peaceful transition to the next Tudor ruler.
Side note: Henry actually did have a bastard son, Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset. FitzRoy was the product of Henry’s affair with one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. The fact that he was able to father a healthy and living son added fuel to the fire of his belief that his marriages to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were cursed in some way. CLEARLY it could be no fault of his own, and FitzRoy was proof. Although FitzRoy was illegitimate, he was treated in every way as if he were a prince. He was acknowledged in court and made a Duke, given a yearly allowance and a good marriage. All of this was enough for people to wonder if Henry was toying with the idea of adding him to the line of succession. It was a matter of great concern for both Catherine and Anne until FitzRoy’s death at the young age of 17.
Ok, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth were of little comfort to him as possible successors – because they were women there would always be drama about whether it was in the best interest of the country for them to rule. So it was a great relief to Henry and to the realm when his legitimate son with Jane Seymour, Edward, was born, thus furthering the reign of the Tudor line. But sadly, Henry’s beloved son Edward died before his sixteenth birthday (possibly from tuberculosis) and was king for only six years. All of that drama and upheaval in England and in the end it was still down to Henry’s two daughters. And it wasn’t a straightforward choice. Both Mary and Elizabeth’s legitimacy were in question, with the country split between Team Catherine and Team Anne as Henry’s lawful wife. And if the situation wasn’t complicated enough, there was actually a third camp – those who believed that neither Mary nor Elizabeth were eligible rulers. Dun dun dunnnnn.
This group favored Lady Jane Grey. At this point you are probably asking yourself, “who is this bitch?” Jane was a niece of Henry VIII and the daughter of his youngest sister. She was only 15 years old when her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, persuaded a dying Edward to bypass his sisters and make Jane his heir. Shortly after agreeing, on July 6, 1553, Edward died and Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, and Northumberland declared her queen. But no matter how much debate there was about the legitimacy of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, one thing was for sure – Mary was Edward’s rightful “heir according to an act of Parliament (1544) and Henry VIII’s will (1547), [and she also] had the support of the populace” (Britannica). There were still many English people who remained loyal to her beloved mother, Catherine of Aragon. Suffolk and Northumberland’s mini-coup lasted all of nine days, earning Jane the title of the Nine Days Queen, as history fondly remembers her. With the support of everyone who mattered, Mary took back her throne and imprisoned Jane, Jane’s husband, and her father. In February of 1554, Mary had all three executed to eliminate any remaining threat – like father like daughter!
Saving the Best for Last
Mary Tudor was Queen of England for only five years before she died childless at the age of 42. Unlike the transition after Edward died, the transition between Mary and Elizabeth was without incident. But whereas Mary had been a staunch Catholic, determined to restore England to her mother’s cherished religion, Elizabeth was a Protestant. Her policies towards Catholics were not as extreme as her sister’s had been towards Protestants, which had earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary”, but under Elizabeth, it was clear that Catholicism was a thing of England’s past. Elizabeth was only three years old when her mother Anne Boleyn was executed, but she was well aware of her parent’s history and the events surrounding her mother’s death. Many historians point to this as one explanation for why Elizabeth never chose to marry – so that she would never be subjected to a man’s rule. For her entire 45 year reign, she was unequivocally in charge. That is not to say that Elizabeth was never in love, but in choosing not to marry, she was in effect making the decision that the Tudor line would end with her. Henry may have been disappointed that day in 1553 when Elizabeth was born, but she turned out to be the longest reigning Tudor monarch. Today, history looks back on the period of Elizabeth’s rule as England’s Golden Age, something no one has ever said about England in the time of Henry VIII.
Perhaps no other monarch’s decisions had as lasting an effect as those of Henry VIII. Although the Tudor line died with his children, his legacy did not. When Mary became queen, she revoked the Act of Supremacy that had declared her father the head of the Church of England and “renounced the spiritual authority of the Papacy” (royal.uk). When Elizabeth took the throne following her half-sister’s death, she reinstated the Act and was declared “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. Today her namesake, Queen Elizabeth II, is still referred to as “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England” – also a nod to Henry. Remember that Pope Leo X had named him Defender of the Faith when England and Rome were still pals. Perhaps the greatest evidence of Henry’s schism with the Pope all of those years ago can be found in some fine print of England’s succession laws – no Roman Catholics are allowed to succeed to the throne. Sorry William, it would have never worked out between us.
Can we blame Henry’s unpredictable behavior and his history-altering decisions on traumatic brain injury? It is hard to imagine that the happy child Henry was described as turned into the angry and paranoid ruler who killed two of his wives and discarded another two But the reality is, he was a king, and that meant everything in the world revolved around him. There was no such thing as the word “no”, and so it’s also not hard to imagine how Henry could have evolved into a narcissist who was easily persuaded and manipulated by those around him who constantly stroked his ego. Men like Thomas Cromwell had agendas of their own and took advantage of Henry’s instability – Cromwell was actually one of Anne Boleyn’s biggest enemies by the time that Henry had grown tired of her and no doubt was a major factor in persuading the king to seek the drastic solution of execution. We can’t ignore the great lengths Henry went to to father a legitimate male heir. He was hardly the first king to desperately wish for a son, but he was certainly the first and only to overhaul an established religion and marry six times in the pursuit. By the end of his life he was not a healthy man – either physically or mentally. We know from Riley’s diagnosis last week that Henry exhibited many signs consistent with Neurocognitive disorder, most likely as a result of several accidents that resulted in serious head trauma. Henry’s paranoia, anger, mood swings and violence, coupled with his desperation for a son and his position of power, created a perfect storm that today associates the name Henry VIII with a harem of unhappy and mistreated wives. But in the end it was a woman, his daughter Elizabeth, who resurrected the tarnished Tudor name. Who run the world? Girls.
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