Henry VIII was king in the Tudor dynasty who ruled over England, Wales and Ireland. Born in June 1491, he came to power in 1509 upon the death of his father, Henry VII. King Henry, although involved with historically relevant wars and politics during his reign of power, is perhaps more widely known for his extravagance, marital and personal issues and, most notably, his quest for a legitimate male heir.

These issues played a significant role for a good portion of his life. Over the course of his time Henry VIII would marry a total of six times, executing two of his wives. His pursuit of a male heir and desire to enter different marriages to fulfill this goal ultimately contributed to the break of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

Henry VIII portrait
Credit: Accessed via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain image https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Holbein,_the_Younger,_Around_1497-1543_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_of_England_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Henry VIII Marries Catherine

Henry's brother, Prince Arthur, died in 1502. Arthur left behind a widow, Catherine of Aragon, who was the daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. Henry pursued and received papal permission from Pope Julius II to marry his brother's widow (in the 16th century, the impediment of affinity included a deceased spouse's siblings; in that era in-laws were viewed much like siblings are in modern times).

Henry married Catherine in 1509 and this was the first of many marriages during his lifetime. Several years after Henry and Catherine married, he suddenly announced a realization that marrying Catherine was a grave sin since she had been his brother's wife before Arthur passed away. Despite the fact Catherine said she and Arthur never consummated their marriage (which is plausible since Arthur was ill and died so young, shortly after the marriage to Catherine took place) this appears to have been of little consequence to Henry.

Henry's real motives seem tied to the fact he and Catherine had never been able to produce a son during their marriage (they did deliver three sons, but were stillborn or did not survive infancy). While their union did bring them a daughter, this was not enough for Henry. Henry was desperate to have a male heir, and Catherine had refused his request to dissolve their marriage.

Catharine of Aragon pleading her cause
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Image title: "Catharine of Aragon pleading her cause"

Henry asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine. Since Henry had already previously sought papal permission to be granted to marry Catherine in the first place, the Pope was not keen in granting this request as it would weaken the Pope’s position. In essence, Henry was asking the Pope to admit the Church had been errant in issuing him permission to marry Catherine in the first place because Henry was now claiming his union with Catherine was “incestuous” since she was his brother’s widow.

Additionally, there was the fact Catherine’s nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had control of Rome at that time. This would hugely play into the denial as well. The Pope was not going to risk himself, so continued to postpone Henry’s request. Henry's request was eventually denied.

Katherine of Aragon Denounced Before King Henry VIII and His Council
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Despite the Pope's unwillingness to allow Henry to dissolve his marriage to his wife, Henry continued to pursue Anne Boleyn. Image title: "Katherine of Aragon Denounced Before King Henry VIII and His Council"

Henry Seeks Divorce to Marry Anne Boleyn

During his pursuit of a divorce, Henry VIII had his eye on Anne Boleyn, who was almost half Catherine's age; history notes the king had hoped to conceive a son with her. Anne had become pregnant, bringing the matter to a head, and Henry had to marry her. Henry secretly married Anne around 1532-33, and this union produced another daughter, Elizabeth. 

When denied annulment by the Pope, Henry decided to pursue the dissolution to his marriage to Catherine anyway. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury,  declared the marriage as invalid in 1533; this declaration was made against the wishes of the Pope.

In time, Henry became disillusioned by Anne and, to extricate himself from the marriage, he accused her of adultery and incest, had her arrested and sentenced to death.

Anne Boleyn
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Anne Boleyn

Separation From the Catholic Church

After the Pope had denied his request, Henry VIII, as noted, he had continued to pursue his goals of breaking his marriage to Catherine. His reasons for separating from the Roman Catholic Church were not due to differing religious beliefs, but rather because those beliefs did not suit his fancy.

In 1534 the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy and Act of Succession at Henry's request. This issuance implemented Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. While Henry had a "habit" of changing wives at his whim, his faithful minister, Thomas Cranmer, was at his side in support of the establishment of a separate church. The Reformation in England was to declare freedom from the Pope's governing. As part of this separation, Henry closed monasteries and redistributed their properties to English nobility. This was done to gain their support in the reformation cause and to increase the Crown's financial strength. Many monks were executed for refusing to recognize Henry as Supreme Head of the Church.

People in England followed Henry's movement for various reasons. One of the attractive attributes of supporting this movement was the local control without papal interference. Another reason was they did not want to resist the king because they feared his powerful presence. While Henry broke with the Catholic Church, he was still a staunch believer in Catholicism. Yet, the Reformation was “closely bound up with Henry’s personal affairs”.  [7]

Henry VIII's Children

History indicates Henry likely had a number of illegitimate children, some acknowledged, some not. During his marriage to his third wife, Jane Seymour, Henry was finally given the legitimate son he so desperately sought, Edward, who became his heir. Henry VIII went on to marry three more times after Jane’s death (Aside from wife #6, Jane was the only one not divorced, annulled or executed, but she died a little over a year after they were married). Wife number four was Anne of Cleves (divorced approximately after six months of marriage) and number five was Kathryn Howard (executed, just under two years after the marriage). His last wife was Catherine Parr; it was a longer marriage and Henry was still married to her at the time of his death. She outlived Henry by one year.

Edward's life was cut short and Henry's daughter with Catherine, Mary, eventually took control of the crown in 1553. Queen Mary had wanted to reinstate connections with the Pope, but didn't receive widespread support. She ruled for five years and became known as "Bloody Mary" during her short reign because of her religious persecutions of Protestants and the executions of hundreds of subjects. Mary died in 1558.

When it came time for her half-sister, Elizabeth, to take the throne (1558 and would rule until her death in 1603), any progress Mary had made to restore England's ties to the Catholic Church were reversed. Elizabeth was quite successful in dismantling Mary's efforts and put together her own Protestant laws. These laws became known as the Elizabethan Settlement and permanently established the Anglican Church in England. This newly established religion was a cross between the Protestant and Catholic religions. Henry had embraced and put forward this change, but it was his daughter Elizabeth who was the one to really refine it and bring the movement to fruition.

Portrait of Elizabeth I
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Portrait of Elizabeth I hanging at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Henry VIII's personal issues resulted in much historical change in the religious sector, and the Elizabethan Settlement remained a strong presence throughout the rest of western history and culture, both in England and in America, carrying on to the current day.


Additional reference: The West: Encounters & Transformations, Volume 1, Concise Edition, (chapter 2), Levack, Muir, Maas & Veldmanv

[ Related Reading: Documentary Review - Inside the Court of Henry VIII (2015) ]