When we think of Henry VIII, most of us picture the iconic Holbein portrait of the old, obese tyrannical king. This was Henry VIII at the end of his reign. It all began so differently.
Unlike his father, Henry VIII did not usurp the throne from any previous dynasty. His father had ruled for 25 years in England—efficiently and peacefully, if not always fairly––and those who could remember the Wars of the Roses were all too willing to avoid any dynastic dispute. Nobles and peasants alike eagerly accepted Henry VII’s son as their legitimate English sovereign. For the first time in almost half a century, England had crowned a king without controversy.
And here was England’s eighth Henry––young, healthy and so different than his father. Beginning his reign as England’s Golden Prince, hope for his reign was great. Unfortunately, those early years belied the bloodshed that was to come.
The Second Son
Henry Tudor, son of Henry VII of England and Elizabeth York, was born June 28th, 1491 at Greenwich Castle. From the beginning he was robust, golden-haired, and larger than life. He was outgoing and inquisitive, and he most assuredly outshone Arthur, his older brother and heir to the throne.
Henry Tudor’s young life centered around the castles of Greenwich, Richmond, Westminster and Windsor. While each Tudor child had his or her own household (Henry VII was careful to bequeath many holdings and estates to his children instead of to distrusted nobles, thereby keeping England’s wealth in the family) the siblings were all close. They spent much time together playing in the open parks and hunting grounds owned by their family. Of
all his siblings, Henry was closest throughout his life to his younger sister Mary.
Henry was raised with Charles Brandon. Charles’ father had died in Henry VII’s service, and in gratitude, the king raised him in his own household. While Brandon came from country gentry not nobility, he was nevertheless raised with a prince and treated no differently than a son. Charles Brandon would remain a lifelong friend to Henry, and an important figure in his court—one of the few to not lose his head. Brandon would also eventually marry Henry’s younger sister, Mary.
Henry Tudor became heir apparent to the throne of England at the age of ten, when his older brother Arthur died of fever.
Heir to the throne of England. That was his older brother Arthur’s job. Deliberately named to invoke the Arthurian legend, Arthur was betrothed, at the age of 15, to Catherine of Aragon, solidifying an important treaty between England and Spain. The treaty gave little, isolated England an important ally in the ever volatile European landscape. Unfortunately, five months after their marriage, Arthur was dead from fever. No future prince had been conceived. This left the treaty, the succession, and Catherine’s fate in limbo.
Prince Henry’s fate, however, had just drastically changed. Henry was the second son, and had been destined for a career in the church, possibly Archbishop of Canterbury to his brother’s king. He had been raised under his mother’s care, and while he did receive a quality education—in particular a solid theological background––he had not been groomed in the arts of diplomacy, foreign policy, or kingship.
At any rate, Henry’s succession to the throne was not a given. Many felt this second son unfit to rule. Henry VII’s own Privy Council convened to discuss the issue––suggesting that there were other options. And there were. Descendants of Edward IV still lived in England. And Henry VII was not so popular that he held the love of the people. Had any one wanted to stage a coup, they might have found popular support to do so. Still, holding ground is easier than taking it. Henry VII had held power for 25 years and his longevity was the key to the Tudor dynasty. Those who remembered the War of the Roses did not want to repeat it. So with no dissension, England accepted Henry VII’s son as their anointed king.
For the first time in almost half a century,
England had crowned a king without controversy.
Prince Henry was 17 when his father died, and had had seven years with his father in training to be king. Henry embraced being king, and continued to show great interest in theological debates. But he was not interested in running the country. Henry was willing, in his first decade of rule, to leave much of the details of government in the hands of his council, in particular, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was much indeed interested in running the country, and was probably all too happy for a monarch that chose not to interfere.
Henry VIII Takes His Queen
Prince Henry was crowned Henry VIII of England at Westminster Abbey on June 24, 1509. His first act as king was to anoint his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, as queen of England. He had married her just two weeks before.
Catherine’s path since Arthur’s death had not been an easy one. She had been a pawn of international affairs––used as a bargaining chip by both her father and father-in-law. The logical thing to do was marry Prince Henry to Catherine and proceed with the treaty as originally planned. But nothing went easy with medieval kings, especially one as cunning as Ferdinand of Aragon or one as shrewd as Henry VII.
The politics of religion didn’t help either. Papal law forbade marriage to a brother’s widow. But if the stakes were high enough, these details could often be overlooked, as eventually they were in this case. Catherine of Aragon swore that her marriage with Arthur had never been consummated, the Pope believed her, and offered his dispensation—or exemption by divine order––for the marriage. The road was paved. Yet, after all these maneuverings, Prince Henry rejected her.
Why Henry initially spurned Catherine is unknown––perhaps because she was several years older, perhaps because she had been Arthur’s wife first, or perhaps because Henry resented his father’s interference in his personal affairs.
When Henry VII died, he had not yet seen his son married or his long sought treaty with Spain solidified. Shortly after his father’s death, for reasons only he would ever know, Prince Henry decided to marry Catherine of Aragon afterall. With his father out of the way, he had nothing to rebel against.
The two were joined in marriage on June 11, 1509 and anointed together as king and queen of England on June 24, 1509.
A Festive Court
Fortunately, for England, the role of king came easily to Henry, the trappings if not the skills. He was young, healthy and spirited. In sharp contrast to his father, Henry loved pomp and pageantry at his court. He embraced ostentatiousness and encouraged his court to be a roving party. He introduced England to the Masque, a relatively new theatrical art form already fashionable in Italy. He loved music and was himself an accomplished musician. He was also fond of card playing and dice, and made gambling an ever-popular pastime at his court.
Out from underneath his father’s strict stewardship, Henry enthusiastically participated in sports of all kinds, everything from tennis to falconry to jousting. Every day was an occasion for a party and his court was undoubtedly the merriest. The sizable fortune his father so miserly collected during his 25-year reign, was all but spent in Henry’s first few years as king. The treasury was broke, which meant there was only one thing to do. Go to war.
Early War with France
Much of the king’s early years were consumed with England’s ancient enemy—France. Friendship with Spain was assumed because of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Catherine’s brother-in-law, Maximillian, was also the Holy Roman Emperor.
So, at behest of the pope (who had, after all, given Henry his dispensation to marry Catherine), Henry joined the Holy League, along with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, against France. Henry used this excuse to invade Northern France and reclaim territories lost after the death of Henry V.
Medieval warfare was not always about taking territory––because the logistics of holding territory was often far more difficult than taking it. Even after a place was captured a king had the ongoing problems of feeding and providing for a standing army, as well as subduing a hostile native populace. Not many monarchs had the resources to sustain such an effort, and fewer subjects had the will.
The Cost of War on the Populace
Prolonged warfare was disruptive to a nation’s prosperity. Not only were the nation’s monetary resources being used to fund the war effort, but the war itself drained a nation of its skilled labor force. All the best men were at war. Farmers could not tend their crops, industries could not produce their goods, families were left with out their wage earners, and sea trade routes were often disrupted…if contracts could be honored at all. While people loved national glory, drawn-out warfare would generally sour the public mood against a king.
Captives and Ransoms
Medieval battles, therefore, often had the simple goal of capturing land and prisoners that could be sold back or ransomed off for a profit. Such was the goal when Henry VIII marched off to France on his first martial campaign. It’s important to remember that after his victory at Bosworth, Henry VII never again engaged in warfare. His son, likewise, had not seen battle. When Henry VIII went to France, he and most of the nobles who went with him, were inexperienced soldiers.
Despite this, they managed a small victory at the Battle of Spurs, capturing the small French town. According to plan, they were able to ransom this and all prisoners of war back to the King of France for a good amount of money.
The Battle of Flodden Field
When Henry VIII left England for his escapade on the continent, he did an extraordinary and unprecedented thing––he named Catherine of Aragon as Regent of England in his absence. This was extraordinary for two reasons: 1) That he would leave a woman in charge, and 2) That he would leave a woman in charge knowing that his country was about to be invaded.
Threat from the North
France and Scotland had ancestral and diplomatic ties, and it was a bit of a tradition that the two worked in tandem whenever it came to conflicts with England. When English forces invaded France to the south, Scottish forces invaded England from the North.
Henry VIII was fully aware of this when he left Catherine in charge. But he knew Catherine was no ordinary queen. She was the daughter of Isabelle and Ferdinand, the Spanish kings who had defeated the Moors and driven them out of Spain. She had accompanied her mother on many battlefields, had spent her childhood in army camps, and had ridden with her mother and father at the head of the Spanish Army. While she never actually wielded a weapon in battle, she still had more martial experience than most of the men who went to France with Henry. Henry trusted her, and she lived up to that trust.
At Flodden Field, Henry scored the single biggest martial victory of his thirty-eight year reign, and he wasn’t even there for it. The credit goes to his wife and an attainted general.
The Queen and the Earl
When King James IV (ironically married to Henry’s sister Margaret) crossed the northern borders of England with his Scottish army, Catherine was ready for them. She had enlisted the aid of the attainted Earl of Surrey, Thomas Howard. An attainted nobleman was someone who had been stripped of his land and title because he had displeased the king. In Surrey’s case, he had fought for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth (the losing side). Henry VII (the winning side) had imprisoned him and stripped him of his title (Duke of Norfolk) and lands. He was later released and given the lesser title of Earl and a few holdings. He then faithfully served the Tudor cause. For Catherine, Surrey was an aged general who came with one great advantage. Unlike many of the English noblemen, the Duke was battle-hardened. Border raids between the English and Scots were ongoing, and Surrey had fought the Scots before. He was also anxious to prove his loyalty to the King and thereby have the attainder removed from his family name.
Once Again a Duke
Surrey knew what he was doing. He confronted the Scots at Flodden Field and despite being outnumbered, scored a decisive and bloody victory for England. Devastation among the Scots army was total, leaving many lords and nobleman dead in battle, including King James IV. The Scottish king was dead, their army disgraced. Catherine claimed victory as regent and had the bloody coat of James IV sent to Henry in France as proof of their victory. The title, Duke of Norfolk, was returned to Surrey as were his traditional family lands.
Henry had just scored the single biggest martial victory of his 38 year reign––and he wasn’t even there for it. The credit goes to his wife and an attainted general.
The Field of Cloth of Gold
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Henry’s mentor in his early years as king was his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon. His father, for good reasons, had never trusted Ferdinand. But Henry VIII found him a welcome father-figure. Ferdinand had even named his daughter as the official Spanish Ambassador at Henry’s court, so communication between the two courts was frequent.
But Henry would soon learn the lessons of his father. After disappointing diplomatic relations with Spain, and personal betrayals by Ferdinand, Henry’s resentment of his wife’s family began to deepen. He looked for friends elsewhere. And there just happened to be a new kid on the block.
The New French King
France had a new king. Francis I had succeeded to the throne of France after the death of his father-in-law, the old King Louis XII, Mary Tudor’s first husband. Like Henry, Francis was young, virile and charismatic, which made them natural rivals. Now, due to Thomas Wolsey’s diplomatic machinations, the two were about to meet.
In 1518, England and France, under the guidance of Wolsey, had signed a diplomatic treaty of mutual non-aggression. The Field of Cloth of Gold, held June 7 to June 24, 1520 was Wolsey’s brainchild in hopes of cementing and celebrating this treaty.
A (Temporary) Golden City
Held in Balinghem, France, near the English holding of Calais, the Field of Cloth of Gold was 18 days of feasts, celebrations and one-up-manship. The name was literal. Huge tents of gold cloth were assembled. Henry even had a temporary castle constructed, with a solid base and cloth sides and roof painted to appear like stone-work. Red wine flowed continuously from the two large fountains erected outside the castle. The celebrants even dressed in gold and silver to match the cloth of the tents.
Along with the celebratory banquets and parties, were the quite serious jousting matches and other athletic contests. Officially all was being done in the spirit of goodwill and brotherly love, but each king, and each king’s subject, wanted the other to know who was the better.
Henry and Francis
A diplomat present at the Field of Cloth of Gold was said to have remarked, “These two kings hate each other very well.” They called each other brother, and every official act was laced with courtly protocol, but there was no love between them. Each king knew he was facing a worthy and threatening adversary. It’s possible the two kings agreed to meet if only to size each other up and check out the competition.
The kingships of Francis and Henry are often bookmarked as a bridge between old medieval Europe, and Renaissance Europe. And indeed, both prided themselves on being Renaissance men, educated in the humanist tradition and proud patrons of great art, literature and architecture. Henry’s court harbored the likes of Erasmus, More and Holbein. Francis was the savior-patron of no less than Leonardo da Vinci. It was to the Court of France that da Vinci turned when he became a fugitive in his native Italy. The very grandiosity of the Field of Cloth of Gold was due to their need to out do each other with their “good taste”.
“These two kings hate each other very well.”
Despite Wolsey’s best efforts to keep the peace at all costs, there is a legendary story of Henry challenging Francis to a wrestling match toward the end of the festival. The English king was thrown and only the intercession of Wolsey and other courtiers that soothed the wounded English king’s pride saved the day from disaster. Humorously, this story cannot be found in any official English record. We know of it through French records and the corroborating papers of third-party diplomats.
Everything Old is New Again
In the end, the diplomatic motivations for this meeting were as much a façade as any of its temporary structures. Before and after his trip to France, Henry had secret meetings with Charles V, the new Holy Roman Emperor, who had recently replaced his deceased father, Maximillian. Shortly after the Field of Cloth of Gold, England signed a treaty with the Emperor against France.
In a sense, everything old was new again. The names of the kings had changed, but their politics remained the same. These young kings were falling into the same patterns of deceit and betrayal as had their fathers. The politics of Europe seemed unlikely to change. For Henry, however, matters at home were about to become much greater.
England’s Heir, Her Grace Princess Mary
Early in Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, she conceived and bore Henry a son. Named Henry as well, the boy was born on New Years Day 1511. The celebrations were loud, lively and long, but the joy was short lived. Not yet three months old, Prince Henry died, leaving his country heartbroken and his parents devastated.
The Caring Spouse
Henry was, in these early years with Catherine, a doting and caring spouse. And it was Henry, working through his own grief, who tried to cheer and comfort his wife. Catherine would recover, but Prince Henry’s death marked the beginning of a series of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths for the royal couple. Although Mary would conceive many times during her marriage, only one child, a daughter, would survive to adulthood.
The Loving Father
Mary Tudor was born February 18, 1516 at Placentia Palace. Her birth came relatively early in their marriage, and her survival was seen as a positive sign by King Henry. Catherine was still well within childbearing age, and the success of this pregnancy led all to believe there would be more.
Henry was a loving father and doted on his daughter. She was presented at feasts and Holy Days beside the king and queen, and by the age of five was betrothed to the dauphin of France. The two actually met as children at the Field of Cloth of Gold.
But Catherine bore no more children for Henry. And after another series of miscarriages and stillbirths, Henry gave up hope. He began to open himself up to other options.
One big option was that Henry had a living son.
Henry Fitzroy was born to Henry’s mistress, Bessie Blount, on June 15, 1519. Although born illegitimate, Henry was recognized by his father and had been raised in his own household supported by the crown.
In 1525, Henry Fitzroy was given the ancestral Tudor family titles of Duke of Richmond and Somerset. He was now landed gentry with his own income. But even more pivotal in Fitzroy’s eligibility for the crown, was the defeat of French forces later that year at the Battle of Pavia by the Imperial army. Killed in that battle was Edward de la Pole, known as the White Rose, who had been living in exile in France. Edward was the last living Yorkist heir to the English throne. He was now dead, which made crowning Fitzroy as heir even easier. While there was certainly no precedent for putting illegitimate offspring on the throne, Henry was no one to bow to precedent (as he would soon prove).
As it turned out, all these schemes were for not. Fitzroy died in 1536 of a plague at the age of 17, leaving Henry back where he started.
The King’s Great Matter
At the crux of what would become known as the King’s Great Matter was one simple fact––Henry wanted a male heir. Catherine had been a loving and faithful wife, a trusted advisor, and had magnanimously turned a blind eye to Henry’s roving one. But she had failed in her one official duty as queen—bearing sons.
In 1925 Catherine and Henry celebrated their 16th year of marriage, and out of this long union they had produced one surviving child, their daughter, the Princess Mary. Although surely disappointed that none of her male babies had survived, Catherine came from a tradition of female sovereigns, and fully expected Mary to be the heir apparent. After all, her mother, Queen Isabelle of Castille had driven the Moors out of Spain and had commissioned the first voyages of Columbus to the New World. But this was not Spain. England wanted kings not queens as their rulers. Or so Henry thought. He wanted to secure the succession for the Tudor dynasty. And he wanted to save England from a bloody civil war that likely would occur at a disputed succession. As he saw it, there was only one answer—bear a son.
It was clear Catherine could not give him the son he wanted, and whatever affection he once felt for her began to wane. Enduring her many fruitless pregnancies had taken its toll on her physically. Her beauty was fading and her body had become plump and misshapen. Additionally, Catherine’s royal connections in Spain and the Empire had not yielded any successful, long-term diplomatic advantages. Her father, King Ferdinand, had proved especially duplicitous and underhanded.
It is possible Henry considered divorce earlier, but in 1925, he began to take action.
Seeking a Medieval Divorce
Henry fully expected the Pope’s cooperation in obtaining a divorce. Divorce was a viable option for medieval kings and other high-ranking nobles. Henry set no precedent by asking for one; many before him had asked and received the same courtesy from the Pope.
Divorcing for Peace
The reason was simple and even logical: a peaceful transition of power meant continued peace in Christendom. A legitimate heir meant no civil war, and a stable government meant no foreign country would declare war trying to take advantage of a weakened state. It was a matter of national security for a king to produce an heir, and if a marriage produced no children, a dispensation was often given by the Pope to divorce one wife and take another. Legitimate or nefarious, reasons were easy enough to come by.
On top of this, Henry had previously written and published a tract, In Defense of the Faith, in retaliation to Luther’s attacks on the church. Luther, a German monk, had written his famous essay, Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, more commonly known as The Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. He led the reform effort in Germany and was labeled a heretic and excommunicated by the Pope. Nevertheless, his ideas were popular and gained wide support throughout Europe, especially in his home land of Germany, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.
Divorce was a viable option for medieval kings and other high-ranking nobles. It was a matter of national security for a king to produce an heir, and if a marriage produced no children, a dispensation was often given by the Pope to divorce one wife and take another.
For his public support, a grateful Pope had given Henry the title, Defender of the Faith, in 1521. Henry had been a special friend to the Papacy, offering military and monetary aid in its defense. All he wanted in return, was a divorce.
But time and circumstance had created a perfect storm of complications, creating a Great Matter out of what should have been a simple one.
Deuteronomy vs. Leviticus
The term divorce in Medieval Europe carries the same meaning as annulment does today. Henry wasn’t just trying to end his marriage with Catherine, he was trying to declare that it had never been valid in the first place.
Henry convinced himself that he and Catherine were without sons because their marriage was lawless in the eyes of God. At the heart of this argument was a Bible text from Leviticus 20:21 that stated:
If there is a man who takes his brother's wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother's nakedness. They will be childless.
New American Standard Bible
Henry had married his brother’s wife, and he now believed they were being punished for it. Unfortunately, (and as often happens) there was a conflicting Biblical text from Deuteronomy 25:5-7 which said:
When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. (A)Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.
"It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that (B)his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”
New American Standard Bible
It was this latter text on which the Pope had granted his original dispensation for the marriage back in 1509.
To complicate things, a new Pope had just been ordained. It was a bad time for the Pope to annul a dispensation given by a previous Pope. In Germany and other parts of Europe, the Lutheran movement was very strong. The misuse of papal authority was one of the things protested by the Lutherans. But even this wouldn’t have been enough for Henry to overcome had other forces not been at work.
Things Get Complicated
The Holy Roman Emperor
When the Emperor’s forces defeated France at the Battle of Pavia in 1525, Henry had celebrated France’s defeat. Edward de la Pole, the last remaining Yorkist heir to the throne of England had been killed in battle. At the time this had seemed like Providence. What Henry couldn’t have foreseen was that the power gained by the Emperor’s forces would be the final and unalterable blockade to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
The Sack of Rome
The Holy Roman army (how’s that for an oxymoron) had fought on behalf of the Pope. After the battle, the Papacy had failed to pay soldiers for their efforts. The result? In 1527, starving, unpaid and angry Imperial troops sacked Rome, destroying buildings, killing church officials, bishops, and besieging the Pope.
At the head of the Imperial army was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, nephew to Catherine of Aragon. Alive, but holed up in Rome, the Pope was Charles’ prisoner. The Pope surely didn’t want to anger his captor by allowing the King of England to besmirch his aunt’s honor.
So the Pope would not decree a clear cut divorce. Instead…he stalled.
Catherine of Aragon
When Henry decided to divorce Catherine of Aragon, he began reasonably enough…at least by the standards of the day. He offered her a quiet divorce and a comfortable estate. She would have received a generous financial allowance and still would have been considered a great lady of the land. When the Pope got involved through his emissary Cardinal Campegio, he suggested she live out her life in a nunnery, an accepted practice for divorced queens and queen dowagers. Either of these ideas would have made an easy solution for everyone involved…except one.
Henry, the Church, the Pope, and the English Privy Council forgot who they were dealing with.
Catherine of Aragon knew who she was. She was the daughter of kings--two of the greatest kings in Europe. She was born, if not to rule than to be royal, and would not be made less. She was not about to give up her stature in England, or surrender the rights of her daughter.
In other words, she put up a fight.
Seeking a divorce from Catherine of Aragon became known as The King’s Great Matter. He had a personal army of theologians and lawyers working on the matter, trying to find a legal way to obtain a divorce.
And, of course, Henry didn’t make it easy on them. Around this same time, he became enamored with a maid in Queen Catherine’s service, Anne Boleyn. By pursuing the other woman, Henry undermined his cause in the eyes of Europe. Henry’s infatuation with Anne and Anne’s own ambition, aided by the work of a clever lawyer and a compliant priest, began a series of events that would lead to the English Reformation, alienating most of Europe, and changing the course of western civilization.
The King’s Great Matter was about to become England’s Great Big Mess.
How to Get a Divorce, Henry VIII Style: Part 1
Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was one for the ages. It took eight years, several rolling heads—literally—and the creation of a new church. Throughout it all England held the world’s attention, but not in a good way. It also saw the demise of many great English men, and the rise of a few new upstarts. Three in particular were at the center of the drama: Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer.
Sir Thomas More
Thomas More was one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors. He was a star in England’s rising reputation as a center of intellectual and artistic greatness. More was one of the leading intellectuals of his time. He had trained as a lawyer, was briefly a monk, and later went into public service as a member of the House of Commons. In Henry VIII’s reign his abilities were noticed and his stature rose. He became close friends with Erasmus, wrote the classic book Utopia, and was a leading proponent for the education of women. It was, unfortunately, a short-lived trend, but during the Tudor era, thanks largely to More, the education of well-bred women became an accepted and even encouraged practice. In return, England benefitted from the brilliance of Queen Elizabeth I, one of the benefactors of More’s influence.
After Wolsey’s death, Thomas More was appointed Chancellor of England.
Thomas Cromwell, like More, began life as a commoner and gained influence in Henry VIII’s reign through his legal gifts. After studying law, Cromwell worked for Cardinal Wolsey, played a role in Wolsey’s fall from grace, went on to become a member of the House of Commons, and later Chief Minister to Henry VIII. Politically ruthless, it was Cromwell’s duplicity that led to the death of Sir Thomas More, and later, to Anne Boleyn.
Thomas Cranmer was born to landed gentry, but nevertheless pursued a career in the church as his family did not have enough land or money for all three of their sons. Cranmer began studies at Cambridge and at some point garnered the attention of Henry VIII, possibly because Cranmer supported his right to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer was sent to Rome as ambassador during Henry’s early appeals to the Pope, and then later sent to Germany to study Lutheranism, something in which the king was conveniently developing an interest. Due to his support for Henry’s divorce, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Naïve to what was happening, the Pope approved his appointment. Cranmer thanked him by granting Henry VIII his divorce, marrying him to Anne Boleyn, and later by writing and supporting the Act of Supremacy, effectively ending the Pope’s influence over the English church.
All The King’s Men
At the time of the King’s Great Matter, Thomas More was serving as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. As the events of Henry’s divorce unfolded, More remained a loyal, if silent, servant of the king. More never publicly criticized the king. He never spoke on the king’s treatment of Catherine of Aragon, nor did he comment on his marriage to Anne Boleyn. What More had a problem with was Henry’s break with Rome and the subsequent Act of Supremacy. More could not reconcile to the theological heresy (his opinion) of supplanting the power of the Pope. Still, More did not criticize his king. Instead, he quietly resigned.
Unfortunately for Henry, More was one of the most respected intellectuals of his time, and his silence on this matter become known in Europe as The Silence Heard Round the World. Henry VIII wanted More’s approval as a friend, Even more, he needed his approval as a respected statesman to save face in the eyes of Europe. When he didn’t get it, Henry put More on trial, and later executed him for treason. More’s execution shocked Europe. And Henry was just getting started.
More’s death led the way for Cromwell’s ascension. He was appointed Chief Minister. Together, he and Cranmer would begin the formation of what was to become the Church of England.
How to Get a Divorce, Henry VIII Style: Part 2
With everyone opposed to the match either dead or silenced, the king was free to marry Anne Boleyn. Not only did he marry her, he had her anointed as Queen of England at Westminster Abbey in an elaborate ceremony (Anne and Catherine of Aragon were the only two of Henry’s wives to be anointed). Anne now had all that she had desired. She was the anointed queen of England, was married to the great Henry VIII, and was pregnant with his child. If the child had been a boy, it’s possible that everyone would have lived happily ever after. But the baby was a girl.
Henry was furious. Anne had promised him sons, and when she didn’t deliver, she found herself and her marriage already on thin ice.
Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. The Howard’s were an influential court family, and Thomas Boleyn used his wife’s connections to further his own career. He became a respected diplomat in Henry VIII’s service and managed to place his daughters in the greatest courts of Europe. Like her sister, Mary, before her, Anne eventually ended up at the court of France, in the service of Queen Claude.
It is in France where Anne gained her elegant manners, her quick wit, and her enviable fashion sense. All of these were to capture the King of England’s attention when she returned to England to serve as a maid in waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon.
Once the king began to notice her, the games began. Henry was already seeking his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, but having the “other woman” waiting in the wings diminished his credibility in the eyes of Europe. Their courtship would last nearly eight years, and for most of that time it was chaste. Anne was holding out for marriage. Her resistance made Henry want her more and he became increasingly frenetic in his efforts to persuade the Pope and get rid of Catherine. He finally took matters into his own hands (after some subtle manipulation by Anne and Thomas Cromwell) and declared himself head of the church of England. He gave himself a divorce. Problem solved.
Following Henry’s long divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Anne married Henry in a secret ceremony in 1533. After waiting so long, the couple married in haste as Anne was already pregnant. That baby, a girl who would go on to become Elizabeth I, was a disappointment to nearly everyone, although it can be said that Henry did care for her and show affection. Nevertheless, his goal remained the same. When after a couple of miscarriages Anne failed to deliver the son she had promised, Henry—aided by Cromwell—trumped up charges of witchcraft, adultery and even incest (with her brother George, Viscount Rochford). Anne was tried and executed for treason, as were the five men accused of adultery with her, including her brother and her hapless lute player, Mark Smeaton.
Henry executed Anne on May 19, 1536. He married his third wife, Jane Seymour, just eleven days later on May 30, 1536.
Like Anne Boleyn before her, Jane Seymour was noticed by the king of England while she served as a maid of honor in the queen’s service. Queen Jane was everything Queen Anne wasn’t. Where as Anne was dark, intriguing and physically striking, Jane was fair, predictable and plain. She was a nice girl, suitably educated. She was also obedient and quiet, two traits that Henry no doubt found favorable after his tumultuous years with Anne.
Jane Seymour was not queen long enough to make much of a mark on English history, but for the singular distinction of bearing Henry VIII his longed for son. She was married to Henry VIII on May 30, 1536. Less than a year into their marriage, Jane was pregnant. In October of 1537, she gave birth to the future king, Edward VI. Twelve days after that, she was dead, most likely the victim of puerperal fever, a common 16th century post-birth infection caused by unsanitary conditions.
After Jane Seymour’s death, Henry remained single for over two years. He had secured the succession with a healthy son, and it was at this time that his health, following a riding accident and a severe injury to his leg, began to deteriorate. Still, Henry thought it unnatural to be single and soon began the search for his next wife. Cromwell came to the rescue.
Anna of Cleves
With the Reformation in England charging full speed ahead, and relations with most of Europe on shaky ground, England was in desperate need of allies. Being excommunicated by the Pope, an alliance with France or Spain was highly unlikely. Cromwell turned instead to the Protestant reform kingdoms of Germany. Cleves was a small nationality in the northern part of Germany. Although small, it was militarily strategic, and aligning with this principality helped establish common ties with other Reform kingdoms.
While Cromwell handled the negotiations, Hans Holbein, a respected portrait artist who painted many of the most famous Tudor portraits, including the iconic one of Henry himself, was dispatched to Cleves to paint the famous portrait of Henry’s prospect. Holbein was a trusted artist and one we can assume portrayed his subject honestly. Henry chose Anne over her sister, deeming her quite attractive. She was also most certainly submissive, having been raised in a male-dominated, almost Puritan household. Anne’s upbringing included no education, no music, no books and no entertainment other than needlework. German was the only language she spoke.
Anne made the arduous journey from her home to England, learning English and card games along the way. Henry, anxious to meet his bride, unexpectedly rode from London to Dover only to find himself disappointed in her appearance. His disappointment was obvious, probably much to the embarrassment of his bride. He married her anyway. Henry stuck it out for almost six months, but in addition to her displeasing physical appearance, it is likely Henry found her very dull. She was not educated or worldly as Catherine and Anne had been. He could not discuss books, theology or arts with her. It is unlikely the marriage was ever consummated, and after a brief marriage, Henry was ready to throw in the towel.
By this time, Henry knew how to get rid of a wife. He couldn’t accuse her of anything, so instead he offered her the same deal he offered Catherine of Aragon: a private estate with a generous annual income, and a title above all other women in the land with the exception of any future queen, as well as Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth. Anne wisely took the deal. She lived out her life in England, single, independently wealthy and happy. Henry often referred to her as sister and she was thereafter considered a friend of the family, attending family banquets, weddings and coronations.
Cromwell, the arranger of the union, didn’t fare so well. Henry seems to have taken out his disappointment on his chief advisor. Accused on trumped up charges of treason––which at this point just meant disappointing the king––Cromwell was executed on Tower Green, July 28, 1540, a fitting spot for someone who had paved the road for so many before him.
Out of site, out of mind for Henry. With Cromwell and Anne of Cleves out of the picture, he could concentrate on pursuing his latest infatuation…Katherine Howard. An orphan raised in her grandmother’s often permissive household, Katherine had been a lady in Anne of Cleves court. She was a cousin to Anne Boleyn and a member of the ancient, noble family, the Howards.
Two early romances, and even a possible engagement, were a part of Katherine’s past when she was chosen (due to her grandmother’s machinations) to become a part of the queen’s court. She immediately took to the fashion, food and social life available at court.
And she was pretty. Not all that well-educated, but certainly beautiful. And the king had an eye for beautiful girls.
And so the courting began. Katherine was at least thirty years younger than Henry, and he was at this time in his life becoming obese and lame, due to his ulcerous leg. Henry must have been an old and unattractive figure to the vivacious young girl. Still, she married him. (How could she refuse?) The truth is, Katherine’s head was turned by the king’s attention. He lavished her with clothes and fashion and jewels. She reveled in it. And for their brief marriage, Katherine did bring a new spirit to both the king and his court. Her youth seemed to revitalize him. He finally took his long-promised progress to the north countries. He again hosted lavish parties and celebrations at court. Things seemed to be going well.
But Katherine’s past was about to catch up to her. In her Grandmother’s inattentive care, Katherine had lived a sexually promiscuous youth. She possibly even had a pre-contract for marriage with a secretary in her grandmother’s employ. Miffed at being left out of her retinue at court, past friends, who knew Katherine’s secrets, began to surface.
And as they did, her enemies at court—or rather the enemies of the Howard family--gained strength. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn before her, Katherine was accused of adultery. Unlike Anne, she was probably guilty. Katherine was in the bloom of her youth, sexually awakening, only to find herself married to an aging, sick, and most likely impotent man. And although he adored her and bought her beautiful gifts, its doubtful that he could satisfy her sexually. For this she turned to the dashing courtier, Thomas Culpepper. When the two were caught, they were both sent to the Tower and were eventually executed, as was Francis Derehem, the man with whom Katherine allegedly had a pre-contract for marriage.
A light went out in Henry after the Katherine Howard debacle. He most certainly thought he had found true love, and in a beautiful form. When Henry was forced to face reality, he reacted first with anger, but also sadness. After Katherine Howard’s conviction and execution, Henry began to shut down. Perhaps he began to recognize that his best years, at least physically, were behind him. He was no longer the Golden Prince, he was the aging monarch. He had a lone male heir, still very young, and Henry needed to concentrate on his legacy. He wouldn’t stay single. And he would not worry about youth or virginity. He would turn instead to a woman who was educated, courtly, religiously devout and universally kind. It is said that Henry was looking for a nurse to help him through his last years. But he was also looking for a companion. Someone who was his intellectual equal, someone who’s advice and support he could depend on, someone he could respect. Someone, perhaps, who reminded him of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who represented, after all, his only happy marriage.
He turned to the twice-widowed Catherine Parr, a lady in Queen Katherine Howard’s court.
Catherine Parr was from a respected court family, but not one of any great noble bearing. She had been married twice to much older men, and twice widowed. She served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine Howard, was a devout follower of the New Religion (as were many court ladies), and was a proponent of education for women. She herself was well educated and could communicate in several languages including Latin.
Henry VIII genuinely enjoyed Catherine Parr’s company. She was an able and patient companion and a qualified nurse for the aging Henry’s many ailments.
But being close to Henry never came without danger. As XXX wittily remarked, “Not a job many would want….” Even sweet, passive Catherine Parr was not above Henry’s wrath, or the devious schemes of those around him. One plot, instigated by the Catholic Bishop Stephen Gardiner, implicated Queen Catherine in a conspiracy with Anne Askew, a prominent Protestant voice who had run afowl of king’s tolerance. Catherine was able to defend herself, beg for forgiveness, and managed to keep her head.
While Catherine Parr did not bear Henry VIII any children, her great legacy is in reuniting Henry with his children, bringing them all together under one roof, and convincing Henry to reinstate his daughters to the line of succession to the throne of England. He did this with an act of parliament--he wasn't Henry VIII for nothing--so that it could not be tossed aside easily, and is truly the only reason the reign of Queen Elizabeth I happened at all.
Henry VIII’s Final Years
Much of the last ten years of Henry’s life were politically uneventful. There were no great military campaigns, no more open confrontations with the Pope (although religious strife certainly continued at home), and no memorable foreign treaties. If it weren’t for his always tumultuous personal life, he might have passed his last decade quietly. But his personal life was tumultuous and two great factors from this otherwise uneventful period, marked England’s future in ways he couldn’t have foreseen.
One was the creation of several port fortresses that would play an important role in England’s war with Spain during his daughter Elizabeth’s reign, and the second was the restoration of his daughters to the line of succession. That his second daughter, progeny of such a short and unhappy marriage, just one more disappointment in his quest for a son, third in line behind him, would become one of England’s greatest sovereigns would have astonished Henry.
Of Henry’s sixth wives, two were executed, one died in poverty and protest, one accepted a pretty nice divorce settlement, and one outlived him…barely.
Henry lived 55 years. He died January 28, 1547 at Whitehall Palace. He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI of England.