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Henry VIII (1509-1547)

The plain truth is, that he was a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England.
Charles Dickens, A Child's History of England

'E's 'Enry the Eighth, 'e his!

The man with six wives. Every British person can remember what happened to them -- "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived". Actually the "spare" to his elder brother Arthur, he ended up in line to the throne after Arthur died (marrying his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, the first 'Spanish' Princess, the realms of Aragon and Castille having been united (temporarily, people thought) by the marriage of her parents). He was only 18 when he came to the throne and engaged in some Wacky Fratboy Hijinx in his early years as King (he and some male buddies once burst into the Queen's bedchamber dressed as Robin Hood and his Merry Men). A redhead, he does remind one of his contemporary namesake, Prince Henry of Wales (Prince Harry).

He was far more extravagant than his miserly father -- responsible for quite possibly the most extravagant diplomatic summit in history, the Field of the Cloth of Gold. There he proceeded to have a wrestling match with the King of France, François I. Though very showy, it didn't accomplish much.

Henry restored English control over most of Ireland by a system of 'surrender and regrant', bringing Ireland back under proper royal jurisdiction -- prior to this point English power in Ireland had been in decline for centuries and was purely nominal outside the immediate surrounds of Dublin, an area known as 'The Pale'. (Yes, this is the origin of the phrase "beyond the Pale".) Once this process was complete he declared himself King of all Ireland in 1542, a title English (and later British) monarchs would hold for four centuries, and still hold in part i.e. Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it's called).

He's most famous for establishing royal control over the Church in England because he wanted a divorce (technically an annulment- as in, he insisted the wedding was invalid, after more than 20 years of what was, by all accounts, a loving relationship) so he could marry his mistress. That's the gist of it, anyway. Anyway, annulments were fairly common and it didn't seem like it would be a big deal. Problem was, Catherine's nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Castile and Aragon (i.e. Spain) had been fighting with Francis I of France and Clement VII, The Pope, over northern Italy. After winning the latest war against France and the Vatican, Charles' mercenaries had run amok, sacking Rome and taking the Pope hostage. This was sufficient to intimidate Clement into stalling over the annulment for a further six years to avoid provoking anyone. Looking back on the issue, it almost seems as if the Pope wanted Henry to take care of it himself: Henry was only excommunicated (cut off from the Church) in 1537, three years after he made himself head of the English Church (i.e. when it was clear that he had left the Catholic fold and wasn't coming back).

On an interesting sidetrack, Henry was actually a devoted Catholic, in private at least. Working with Thomas Cranmer -- a famous theologian and one of his best servants -- in 1521 he published an essay ('In Defence of the Seven Sacraments') attacking Martin Luther's teachings, for which the Pope gave him the title Defender of the Faith -- a title the British monarchy has retained to this day.

After seven years of legal stalling tactics, Henry decided he'd had enough and outlawed the Pope's authority in 1533 to turn his divorce settlement over to his chum, Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1534. A few years later the monasteries of England were dissolved and all their lands and property taken, not because he didn't like them but because he liked the money more. Most of the money was promptly spent on a series of forts and another war with France. Some money also went to founding a cannon foundry to provide cannon for his armies and a new institution, the Royal Navy.

The formal dissolution of the smaller Monasteries in 1536 worked together with bad harvests and an inheritance tax on the nobility to prompt a huge uprising by just about everyone in the North of England ('The Pilgrimage of Grace') later that same year. This was stopped by Henry appearing to concede to the rebels' demands, not having enough troops to put them down by force. When a further uprising began, Henry VIII considered himself absolved of the whole deal and brutally retaliated. The leader of the rebellion, Robert Aske, was sentenced to death and begged to be fully dead before being dismembered. Henry agreed and instead hanged him in chains-- that is sticking him in a gibbet while still alive.

After divorcing Catherine he married Anne Boleyn (who was very clearly pregnant at the ceremony). She gave birth to Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) and made two unsuccessful attempts to produce a male heir. Anne was a very controversial figure in the court, apparently more willing to argue with her husband and Cromwell than either man liked. She was beheaded for adultery on trumped up charges once Henry tired of her. It didn't help that after giving him a healthy daughter (Elizabeth I), Anne miscarried a baby boy, Henry's longed for heir.

He then married Jane Seymour who had a son, the future king Edward VI. However she died after childbirth, which caused Henry to sink into a deep depression from which some believe he never fully recovered.

Henry's fourth marriage was a political one to Anne of Cleves, arranged by Cromwell to bring England closer to the Protestant Schmalkaldic league in case of a war with Francis and/or Charles. Rumour has it that Henry's court painter had portrayed her as misleadingly beautiful, but it's possible that Henry's idea of beauty, being a King and all, probably matched our concept of Hollywood Homely. Once England's enemies started fighting each other again the alliance fell apart and Henry had another annulment for his latest unconsummated marriage. Anne gained a good settlement out of it and lived the rest of her life unmarried but quite happy as Henry's "beloved sister" in England.

Henry's next wife was Catherine Howard. At this point, his health was declining due to his weight (over 140 kilos/300 lbs) as well a nasty ulcerated wound on his leg and possibly gout. She had several affairs and was eventually executed for adultery.

Catherine Parr, a long time friend, was the sixth and last wife. Henry died before she did.

Generally speaking, historians and the establishment dislike him (see the page quote from Dickens) while he remains quite popular with the English people--largely because he, or rather his famous portrait by Holbein, is what people invariably picture when they think of an interesting King. The fact that the British history syllabus emphasises the Tudors probably helps too.

While he undoubtedly left England a much more powerful, wealthy and important nation than when he came to the throne, and though English protestants and others give him props for founding the Church of England (albeit for acknowledged selfish reasons), the fact that he built that wealth on looting the church monastries and Lords he didn't like (and bare in mind, the church at this time was largely responsible for education and health care, though he did reform the apothecaries to make up for this to an extent), combined with his bluebeard tendencies (granted, he only killed two of his wives, but thats still pretty bad), the butchering of many of his closest advisors, ministers and friends, and his disturbingly large body count (somewhere in the region of 10,000 people were executed during his reign, for heresy or trumped-up charges) and his habit of making enemies of every power in Europe for reasons of his own vanity, do not make him an endearing figure to most historical researchers.

Portrayals of Henry VIII in fiction: