King Henry VIIICredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                   King Henry VIII - Portrait by Hans Holbein - Wikimedia

Henry VIII is probably the most well-known King of England due to his escapades as well as his political manipulations to achieve his own wishes.  He ruled England for 38 years, from 1509 to 1547.


The PBS presentation “Inside the Court of Henry VIII” deals primarily with his feud with the Catholic Church which forbade his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1533.  Henry’s greatest wish was to have a male heir; Catherine had only one child, a female named Mary, who eventually became the Queen of England in 1553.

In the PBS film, Henry VIII is pictured as a paranoid despot as well as a religious fanatic.  He was young, clever, and highly educated.  He loved pageantry, music and dancing, and all sports of the day, mainly jousting and hunting.  Anything he did was golden.  Along with that, thousands lost their heads from his rage and ambition.  He had a huge ego, demanding that he be addressed as “Your Majesty.”

Henry had no interest in governing; he did not like spending time on government affairs, having an intense distrust of nobles.  He appointed Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the son of a butcher, as Lord Chancellor to run the government.  Wolsey was a genius at finance and administration, and was able to put the king back in the black.  He also had a knack for delegating.


Hampton CourtCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                         Hampton Court - Wikimedia

In 1514, the Cardinal acquired Hampton Court, adding more rooms with rich furnishings and tapestries, supposedly to enable King Henry to host state visitors.  He also outfitted it with private chambers for his personal use.  Wolsey was viewed as living an extravagant lifestyle, not befitting a man of the Church.

Divorce from Catherine of Aragon

There were many nobles who had viable claims to the throne.  They had sons; Henry had no sons.  When his wife Catherine reached the age of 40 and had not produced a son, Henry was desperate to divorce her.  He had his eye on young Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine.  Anne’s sister Mary had at one time been a mistress of Henry.  Anne refused to be his mistress.  Her wish was to be his Queen.

Not only did Catherine of Aragon refuse to grant Henry a divorce, but Pope Clement VII would not agree to annul the marriage.  This became the start of the break between Rome and the Catholic Church in England.  Anne Boleyn blamed Wolsey for the negative reply from the Pope.  She had a hatred for him from an earlier time in her life. Her rantings to Henry about him were responsible for Wolsey’s fall from grace.  He was forced to hand over Hampton Court to the king and was summoned to court.  Wolsey died before being tried by the court.

                                    Anne BoleynCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                                 Anne Boleyn - Wikimedia

Henry formally declared that his marriage to Catherine was invalid and married Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533.  He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church a short time later.  Anne was granted her wish and was crowned Queen of England the following June.  She was a strong advocate for Protestantism and schooled Henry in its tenets.  His break from Rome was sealed when he set up the Church of England.  Their daughter Elizabeth was born the following September.

The Monks of the Charterhouse (the Carthusians) refused to accept Henry’s reforms.  He therefore took over all of their monasteries, broke them up, and sold them off.  He became exceedingly rich through this action, and his kingship was on solid ground.

Jousting Accident

At this time, Henry had a serious accident during a jousting game.  He was thrown from his horse which fell on him, causing him to lie unconscious for several hours.  From this time on, he was overwhelmed with physical problems.  An ulcer on his leg never healed, ending his jousting career and contributing to his obesity which resulted in a weight of 392 pounds toward the end of his life.  It was also believed that the accident may have caused a brain injury, changing his personality into that of a ruthless tyrant.

Finally a Male Heir

Queen Anne lost a male child as a result of the stress from Henry’s accident.  She was accused by Henry of being an adulteress, and Henry had her executed, paving the way for his third marriage, to Jane Seymour, which took place on May 30, 1536, less than two weeks after Anne was executed.  Jane had served in the court during the reign of both Catherine and Anne.  She gave birth to a male heir, Edward, on October 12, 1537, and died less than two weeks after his birth, of post-natal complications after a long and difficult labor.  Jane Seymour was considered Henry’s favorite wife because she gave him a male heir, and upon Henry’s death, she was buried beside him.  Three years passed before Henry sought another wife.


Cardinal WolseyCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                          Cardinal Wolsey - Wikimedia

King Henry’s Advisors

Both the Duke of Norfolk and Thomas Cromwell supplanted Cardinal Wolsey as advisors to King Henry.  The Duke of Norfolk was an uncle to Anne Boleyn as well as Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and was instrumental in promoting their marriages to the king.   Norfolk was often in conflict with Cardinal Wolsey as well as with Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell was involved in suggesting a fourth wife for King Henry, Anne of Cleves.  Henry was presented with a picture of his future bride which he found acceptable.  Upon meeting Anne, Henry felt that she did not live up to her portrait and would have preferred not to marry her, but Cromwell urged him to continue rather than risk the ire of her German compatriots.  Supposedly, the marriage was never consummated, and was therefore annulled six months later, in July 1540.  Anne was given a generous settlement for not contesting the annulment, and she and Henry always remained good friends.  Thomas Cromwell, however, was executed for his part in the fiasco.


Catherine HowardCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                         Catherine Howard - Wikimedia

Another Execution

Three weeks after his annulment from Anne of Cleves, Henry married Catherine Howard, niece of the Duke of Norfolk.  Catherine was also a first cousin of Anne Boleyn.  Despite having a promiscuous past, Catherine was given a place at court during the time of Anne of Cleves.  Her indiscretions with men became well known, and like her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard was executed.  Her reign as queen had lasted only 16 months.  Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk was imprisoned for his part in promoting Henry’s fifth marriage.  He was slated to be executed, but was saved from that fate at the death of King Henry VIII in 1547.  He was kept in prison throughout the reign of King Edward VI, but was released finally through the graciousness of Queen Mary in 1553.

King Henry’s sixth and last wife was Catherine Parr whom he married on July 12, 1543.  Their marriage lasted until Henry’s death on January 28, 1547.  She had been widowed twice before she married Henry.  Rumors reached Henry that she was a heretic, but she denied it, and was able to avoid his wrath.

Henry, from his youth, had been a staunch Christian.  In spite of his break with Rome, his habits from his childhood prevailed, and he died clutching his Rosary.


The Wives of Henry VIII
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