Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Tudor Rose King Henry VIII of England

King Henry VIII | Biography | Works | Portraits | Six Wives | Essays | Films | Bookstore | Posters | Links | Discussion Forum



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



The Life of King Henry VIII (1491-1547)

KING HENRY VIII of England and Ireland, the third child and second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born on the 28th of June 1491 and, like all the Tudor monarchs except Henry VII, at Greenwich Palace. His two brothers, Prince Arthur and Edmund, Duke of Somerset, and two of his sisters predeceased their father; Henry VIII was the only son, and Margaret Tudor, afterwards Queen of Scotland, and Mary Tudor, afterwards Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk, were the only daughters who survived. Henry VIII is said, on authority which has not been traced farther back than Paolo Sarpi, to have been destined for the church; but the story is probably a mere surmise from his theological accomplishments, and from his earliest years high secular posts such as the viceroyalty of Ireland were conferred upon the child. He was the first English monarch to be educated under the influence of the Renaissance, and his tutors included the poet Skelton; he became an accomplished scholar, linguist, musician and athlete, and when by the death of his brother Arthur in 1502 and of his father on the 22nd of April 1509 Henry VIII succeeded to the throne, his accession was hailed with universal acclamation.

He had been betrothed to his brother's widow Catherine of Aragon, and in spite of the protest which he had been made to register against the marriage, and of the doubts expressed by Pope Julius II and Archbishop Warham as to its validity, it was completed in the first few months of his reign. This step was largely due to the pressure brought to bear by Catherine's father Ferdinand upon Henry VIII's council; he regarded England as a tool in his hands and Catherine as his resident ambassador. The young king himself at first took little interest in politics, and for two years affairs were managed by the pacific Richard Foxe and Warham. Then Cardinal Wolsey became supreme, while Henry was immersed in the pursuit of sport and other amusements.

The meeting of Henry VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, 1513.
The Royal Collection.

He took, however, the keenest interest from the first in learning and in the navy, and his inborn pride easily led him to support Wolsey's and Ferdinand's war-like designs on France. He followed an English army across the Channel in 1513, and personally took part in the successful sieges of Therouanne and Tournay and the battle of Guinegate [i.e. The Battle of the Spurs] which led to the peace of 1514. Ferdinand, however, deserted the English alliance, and amid the consequent irritation against everything Spanish, there was talk of a divorce between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (1514), whose issue had hitherto been attended with fatal misfortune. But the renewed antagonism between England and France which followed the accession of Francis I (1515) led to a rapprochement with Ferdinand; the birth of the lady Mary (1516) held out hopes of the male issue which Henry so much desired; and the question of a divorce was postponed.

Ferdinand died in that year (1516) and the emperor Maximilian in 1519. Their grandson Charles V succeeded them both in all their realms and dignities in spite of Henry VIII's hardly serious candidature for the empire; and a lifelong rivalry broke out between him and Francis I. Wolsey used this antagonism to make England arbiter between them; and both monarchs sought England's favour in 1520, Francis at the Field of Cloth of Gold and Charles V more quietly in Kent. At the conference of Calais in 1521 English influence reached its zenith; but the alliance with Charles destroyed the balance on which that influence depended. Francis was overweighted, and his defeat at Pavia in 1525 made the emperor supreme. Feeble efforts to challenge his power in Italy provoked the sack of Rome in 1527; and the peace of Cambrai in 1529 was made without any reference to Wolsey or England's interests.

Meanwhile Henry VIII had been developing a serious interest in politics, and he could brook no superior in whatever sphere he wished to shine. He began to adopt a more critical attitude towards Wolsey's policy, foreign and domestic; and to give ear to the murmurs against the cardinal and his ecclesiastical rule. Parliament had been kept at arm's length since 1515 lest it should attack the church; but Wolsey's expensive foreign policy rendered recourse to parliamentary subsidies indispensable. When it met in 1523 it refused Wolsey's demands, and forced loans were the result which increased the cardinal's unpopularity. Nor did success abroad now blunt the edge of domestic discontent. His fate, however, was sealed by his failure to obtain a divorce for Henry VIII from the papal court.

The king's hopes of male issue had been disappointed, and by 1526 it was fairly certain that Henry VIII could have no male heir to the throne while Catherine remained his wife. There was Mary, but no queen regnant had yet ruled in England; Margaret Beaufort had been passed over in favour of her son in 1485, and there was a popular impression that women were excluded from the throne. No candidate living could have secured the succession without a recurrence of civil war. Moreover the unexampled fatality which had attended Henry's issue revived the theological scruples which had always existed about the marriage; and the breach with Charles V in 1527 provoked a renewal of the design of 1514. All these considerations were magnified by Henry VIII's passion for Anne Boleyn, though she certainly was not the sole or the main cause of the divorce. That the succession was the main point is proved by the fact that Henry's efforts were all directed to securing a wife and not a mistress. Wolsey persuaded him that the necessary divorce could be obtained from Rome, as it had been in the case of Louis XII of France and Margaret of Scotland. For a time Clement VII was inclined to concede the demand, and Cardinal Campeggio in 1528 was given ample powers. But the prospect of French success in Italy which had encouraged the pope proved delusive, and in 1529 he had to submit to the yoke of Charles V. This involved a rejection of Henry's suit, not because Charles cared anything for his aunt, but because a divorce would mean disinheriting Charles's cousin Mary, and perhaps the eventual succession of the son of a French princess to the English throne.

Wolsey fell when Campeggio was recalled, and his fall involved the triumph of the anti-ecclesiastical party in England. Laymen who had resented their exclusion from power were now promoted to offices such as those of lord chancellor and lord privy seal which they had rarely held before; and parliament was encouraged to propound lay grievances against the church. On the support of the laity Henry VIII relied to abolish papal jurisdiction and reduce clerical privilege and property in England; and by a close alliance with Francis I he insured himself against the enmity of Charles V. But it was only gradually that the breach was completed with Rome. Henry had defended the papacy against Luther in 1521 and had received in return the title " defender of the faith." He never liked Protestantism, and he was prepared for peace with Rome on his own terms. Those terms were impossible of acceptance by a pope in Clement VII's position; but before Clement had made up his mind to reject them, Henry had discovered that the papacy was hardly worth conciliating. His eyes were opened to the extent of his own power as the exponent of national antipathy to papal jurisdiction and ecclesiastical privilege; and his appetite for power grew. With Cromwell's help he secured parliamentary support, and its usefulness led him to extend parliamentary representation to Wales and Calais, to defend the privileges of Parliament, and to yield rather than forfeit its confidence. He had little difficulty in securing the Acts of Annates, Appeals and Supremacy which completed the separation from Rome, or the dissolution of the monasteries which, by transferring enormous wealth from the church to the crown, really, in Cecil's opinion, ensured the reformation.

The abolition of the papal jurisdiction removed all obstacles to the divorce from Catherine and to the legalization of Henry VIII's marriage with Anne Boleyn (1533). But the recognition of the royal supremacy could only be enforced at the cost of the heads of Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher and a number of monks and others among whom the Carthusians signalized themselves by their devotion (1535-1536). Anne Boleyn fared no better than the Catholic martyrs; she failed to produce a male heir to the throne, and her conduct afforded a jury of peers, over which her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, presided, sufficient excuse for condemning her to death on a charge of adultery (1536). Henry VIII then married Jane Seymour, who was obnoxious to no one, gave birth to Edward VI, and then died (1537). The dissolution of the monasteries had meanwhile evoked a popular protest in the north, and it was only by skilful and unscrupulous diplomacy that Henry VIII was enabled to suppress so easily the Pilgrimage of Grace. Foreign intervention was avoided through the renewal of war between Francis and Charles; and the insurgents were hampered by having no rival candidate for the throne and no means of securing the execution of their programme.

Nevertheless their rising warned Henry VIII against further doctrinal change. He had authorized the English Bible and some approach towards Protestant doctrine in the Ten Articles. He also considered the possibility of a political and theological alliance with the Lutheran princes of Germany. But in 1538 he definitely rejected their theological terms, while in 1539-1540 they rejected his political proposals. By the statute of Six Articles (1539) he took his stand on Catholic doctrine; and when the Lutherans had rejected his alliance, and Cromwell's nominee, Anne of Cleves, had proved both distasteful on personal grounds and unnecessary because Charles and Francis were not really projecting a Catholic crusade against England, Anne was divorced and Cromwell beheaded.

The new queen Catherine Howard represented the triumph of the reactionary party under Gardiner and Norfolk; but there was no idea of returning to the papal obedience, and even Catholic orthodoxy as represented by the Six Articles was only enforced by spasmodic outbursts of persecution and vain attempts to get rid of Cranmer. The secular importance of Henry's activity has been somewhat obscured by his achievements in the sphere of ecclesiastical politics; but no small part of his energies was devoted to the task of expanding the royal authority at the expense of temporal competitors. Feudalism was not yet dead, and in the north and west there were medieval franchises in which the royal writ and common law hardly ran at all. Wales and its marches were brought into legal union with the rest of England by the statutes of Wales (1534-1536); and after the Pilgrimage of Grace the Council of the North was set up to bring into subjection the extensive jurisdictions of the northern earls. Neither they nor the lesser chiefs who flourished on the lack of common law and order could be reduced by ordinary methods, and the Councils of Wales and of the North were given summary powers derived from the Roman civil law similiar to those exercised by the Star Chamber at Westminster and the court of Castle Chamber at Dublin.

Ireland had been left by Wolsey to wallow in its own disorder; but disorder was anathema to Henry's mind, and in 1535 Sir William Skeffington was sent to apply English methods and artillery to the government of Ireland. Sir Anthony St Leger continued his policy from 1540; Henry VIII, instead of being merely lord of Ireland dependent on the pope, was made by an Irish act of parliament king, and supreme head of the Irish church. Conciliation was also tried with some success; plantation schemes were rejected in favour of an attempt to Anglicize the Irish; their chieftains were created earls and endowed with monastic lands; and so peaceful was Ireland in 1542 that the lord-deputy could send Irish kernes and gallowglasses to fight against the Scots.

Henry VIII, however, seems to have believed as much in the coercion of Scotland as in the conciliation of Ireland. Margaret Tudor's marriage had not reconciled the realms; and as soon as James V became a possible pawn in the hands of Charles V, Henry VIII bethought himself of his old claims to suzerainty over Scotland. At first he was willing to subordinate them to an attempt to win over Scotland to his anti-papal policy, and he made various efforts to bring about an interview with his nephew. But James V was held aloof by Beaton and two French marriages; and France was alarmed by Henry's growing friendliness with Charles V, who was mollified by his cousin Mary's restoration to her place in the succession to the throne. In 1542 James madly sent a Scottish army to ruin at Solway Moss; his death a few weeks later left the Scottish throne to his infant daughter Mary Stuart, and Henry set to work to secure her hand for his son Edward and the recognition of his own suzerainty. A treaty was signed with the Scottish estates; but it was torn up a few months later under the influence of Beaton and the queen-dowager Mary of Guise, and Hertford was sent in 1544 to punish this breach of promise by sacking Edinburgh.

Perhaps to prevent French intervention in Scotland, Henry VIII joined Charles V in invading France, and captured Boulogne (Sept. 1544). But Charles left his ally in the lurch and concluded the peace of Crepy that same month; and in 1545 Henry had to face alone a French invasion of the Isle of Wight. This attack proved abortive, and peace between England and France was made in 1546. Charles V's desertion inclined Henry to listen to the proposals of the threatened Lutheran princes, and the last two years of his reign were marked by a renewed tendency to advance in a Protestant direction. Catherine Howard had been brought to the block (1542) on charges in which there was probably a good deal of truth, and her successor, Catherine Parr, was a patroness of the new learning. An act of 1545 dissolved chantries, colleges and other religious foundations; and in the autumn of 1546 the Spanish ambassador was anticipating further anti-ecclesiastical measures. Gardiner had almost been sent to the Tower, and Norfolk and Surrey were condemned to death, while Cranmer asserted that it was Henry VIII's intention to convert the mass into a communion service. An opportunist to the last, he would readily have sacrificed any theological convictions he may have had in the interests of national uniformity. He died on the 28th of January 1547, and was buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor.

The atrocity of many of Henry VIII's acts, the novelty and success of his religious policy, the apparent despotism of his methods, or all combined, have made it difficult to estimate calmly the importance of Henry VIII's work or the conditions which made it possible. Henry's egotism was profound, and personal motives underlay his public action. While political and ecclesiastical conditions made the breach with Rome possible — and in the view of most Englishmen desirable — Henry was led to adopt the policy by private considerations. He worked for the good of the state because he thought his interests were bound up with those of the nation; and it was the real coincidence of this private and public point of view that made it possible for so selfish a man to achieve so much for his country. The royal supremacy over the church and the means by which it was enforced were harsh and violent expedients; but it was of the highest importance that England should be saved from religious civil war, and it could only be saved by a despotic government. It was necessary for the future development of England that its governmental system should be centralized and unified, that the authority of the monarchy should be more firmly extended over Wales and the western and northern borders, and that the still existing feudal franchises should be crushed; and these objects were worth the price paid in the methods of the Star Chamber and of the Councils of the North and of Wales.

Henry VIII's work on the navy requires no apology; without it Elizabeth's victory over the Spanish Armada, the liberation of the Netherlands and the development of English colonies would have been impossible; and "of all others the year 1545 best marks the birth of the English naval power" (Corbett, Drake, i. 59). His judgment was more at fault when he conquered Boulogne and sought by violence to bring Scotland into union with England. But at least Henry appreciated the necessity of union within the British Isles; and his work in Ireland relaid the foundations of English rule. No less important was his development of the parliamentary system. Representation was extended to Wales, Cheshire, Berwick and Calais; and parliamentary authority was enhanced, largely that it might deal with the church, until men began to complain of this new parliamentary infallibility. The privileges of the two Houses were encouraged and expanded, and parliament was led to exercise ever wider powers. This policy was not due to any belief on Henry's part in parliamentary government, but to opportunism, to the circumstance that parliament was willing to do most of the things which Henry desired, while competing authorities, the church and the old nobility, were not. Nevertheless, to the encouragement given by Henry VIII, parliament owed not a little of its future growth, and to the aid rendered by parliament Henry VIII owed his success.

He has been described as a "despot under the forms of law"; and it is apparently true that he committed no illegal act. His despotism consists not in any attempt to rule unconstitutionally, but in the extraordinary degree to which he was able to use constitutional means in the furtherance of his own personal ends. His industry, his remarkable political insight, his lack of scruple, and his combined strength of will and subtlety of intellect enabled him to utilize all the forces which tended at that time towards strong government throughout western Europe. In Michelet's words, "le nouveau Messie est le roi"; and the monarchy alone seemed capable of guiding the state through the social and political anarchy which threatened all nations in their transition from medieval to modern organization. The king was the emblem, the focus and the bond of national unity; and to preserve it men were ready to put up with vagaries which to other ages seem intolerable. Henry VIII could thus behead ministers and divorce wives with comparative impunity, because the individual appeared to be of little importance compared with the state. This impunity provoked a licence which is responsible for the unlovely features of Henry VIII's reign and character. The elevation and the isolation of his position fostered a detachment from ordinary virtues and compassion, and he was a remorseless incarnation of Machiavelli's Prince. He had an elastic conscience which was always at the beck and call of his desire, and he cared little for principle. But he had a passion for efficiency, and for the greatness of England and himself. His mind, in spite of its clinging to the outward forms of the old faith, was intensely secular; and he was as devoid of a moral sense as he was of a genuine religious temperament. His greatness consists in his practical aptitude, in his political perception, and in the self-restraint which enabled him to confine within limits tolerable to his people an insatiable appetite for power.

The original materials for Henry VIII's biography are practically all incorporated in the monumental Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry (21 vols.), edited by Brewer and Gairdner and completed after fifty years' labour in 1910. A few further details may be gleaned from such contemporary sources as Hall's Chronicle, Cavendish's Life of Wolsey, W. Thomas's The Pilgrim and others; and some additions have been made to the documentary sources contained in the Letters and Papers by recent works, such as Ehses' Romische Dokumente, and Merriman's Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell. Lord Herbert of Cherbury's Life and Reign of Henry (1649), while good for its time, is based upon a very partial knowledge of the sources and somewhat antiquated principles of historical scholarship. Froude's famous portraiture of Henry VIII is coloured by the ideas of hero-worship and history which the author imbibed from Carlyle, and the rival portraits in Lingard, R. W. Dixon's Church History and Gasquet's Henry and the Monasteries by strong religious feeling. A more discriminating estimate is attempted by H. A. L. Fisher in Messrs Longmans' Political History of England, vol. v. (1906).

Of the numerous paintings of Henry VIII none is by Holbein, who, however, executed the striking chalk-drawing of Henry's head, now at Munich, and the famous but decaying cartoon at Devonshire House. The well-known threequarter length at Windsor, usually attributed to Holbein, is by an inferior artist. The best collection of Henry VIII's portraits was exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1909, and the catalogue of that exhibition contains the best description of them; several are reproduced in Pollard's Henry (Goupil) (1902), the letterpress of which was published by Longmans in a cheaper edition (1905). Henry VIII composed numerous state papers still extant; his only book was his Assertio septem sacramentorum contra M. Lutherum (1521), a copy of which, signed by Henry himself, is at Windsor. Several anthems composed by him are extant; and one at least, O Lord, the Maker of all Things, is still occasionally rendered in English cathedrals.

(A. F. Pollard)

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol XIII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 289.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Queen Catherine of Aragon

Queen Anne Boleyn

Queen Jane Seymour

Queen Anne of Cleves

Queen Catherine Howard

Queen Katherine Parr

The Children of Henry VIII

Queen Mary I
"Bloody Mary"

Queen Elizabeth I
"The Virgin Queen"

King Edward VI
"The Boy King"

Henry Fitzroy
Duke of Richmond

The Advisors and Courtiers of Henry VIII

Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas More

Edward Stafford,
Duke of Buckingham

Thomas Howard,
Duke of Norfolk

Charles Brandon,
Duke of Suffolk

John Dudley,
Duke of Northumberland

Backto Luminarium Main
Backto Renaissance English Literature
Backto Henry VIII
Backto Elizabeth I
Backto Luminarium Encyclopedia

Site copyright ©1996-2024 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
  Created by Anniina Jokinen on August 11, 2006. Last updated on February 19, 2024.


The Tudors

The Parents of Henry VIII
King Henry VII
Elizabeth of York

The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Queen Catherine of Aragon
Queen Anne Boleyn
Queen Jane Seymour
Queen Anne of Cleves
Queen Catherine Howard
Queen Katherine Parr

The Children of Henry VIII
Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond
King Edward VI
Queen Mary I
Queen Elizabeth I

The King's Advisors
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cromwell
Sir Thomas More

European Monarchs
Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland
James IV, King of Scotland
James V, King of Scotland
Mary of Guise, Queen of Scotland

Mary Tudor, Queen of France
Louis XII, King of France
Francis I, King of France

Ferdinand II, King of Aragon
Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Pope Julius II
Pope Leo X
Pope Clement VII
Pope Paul III

English Nobility
Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
Edward Stafford, D. of Buckingham
Thomas Howard, 3rd D. of Norfolk
John Dudley, D. of Northumberland
Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire
George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford
John Russell, Earl of Bedford
Thomas, Lord Audley
Richard de la Pole
Thomas Seymour, Lord Admiral
Edward Seymour, Protector Somerset

Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio
Cardinal Reginald Pole
Bishop Stephen Gardiner
Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London
Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London
John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester
John Aylmer, Bishop of London
John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester
Archbishop William Warham
Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester
Edward Fox, Bishop of Hereford
William Tyndale
Hugh Latimer
William Grocyn
Thomas Linacre

Historical Events
The Battle of the Spurs, 1513
Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1520
Dissolution of Monasteries, 1536-40
Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536
The Siege of Boulogne, 1544
The Sweating Sickness

Tudor Legal System
Common Law
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Oath of Supremacy
The Act of Supremacy, 1534
The Act of Succession, 1534
The Ten Articles, 1536
The Six Articles, 1539

Royal Residences
Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace

Tudor Literature
See section
16th-century Renaissance English Literature

More at Encyclopedia

Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums | Search