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Henry VIII
1509-47 AD


King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Henry VIII, born in 1491, was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The significance of Henry's reign is, at times, overshadowed by his six marriages: dispensing with these forthwith enables a deeper search into the major themes of the reign. He married Catherine of Aragon (widow of his brother, Arthur) in 1509, divorcing her in 1533; the union produced one daughter, Mary. Henry married the pregnant Anne Boleyn in 1533; she gave him another daughter, Elizabeth, but was executed for infidelity (a treasonous charge in the king's consort) in May 1536. He married Jane Seymour by the end of the same month, who died giving birth to Henry's lone male heir, Edward, in October 1536. Early in 1540, Henry arranged a marriage with Anne of Cleves, after viewing Hans Holbein's beautiful portrait of the German princess. In person, alas, Henry found her homely and the marriage was never consummated. In July 1540, he married the adulterous Catherine Howard - she was executed for infidelity in March 1542. Catherine Parr became his wife in 1543, providing for the needs of both Henry and his children until his death in 1547.

The court life initiated by his father evolved into a cornerstone of Tudor government in the reign of Henry VIII. After his father's staunch, stolid rule, the energetic, youthful and handsome king avoided governing in person, much preferring to journey the countryside hunting and reviewing his subjects. Matters of state were left in the hands of others, most notably Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York. Cardinal Wolsey virtually ruled England until his failure to secure the papal annulment that Henry needed to marry Anne Boleyn in 1533. Wolsey was quite capable as Lord Chancellor, but his own interests were served more than that of the king: as powerful as he was, he still was subject to Henry's favor - losing Henry's confidence proved to be his downfall. The early part of Henry's reign, however, saw the young king invade France, defeat Scottish forces at the Battle of Foldden Field (in which James IV of Scotland was slain), and write a treatise denouncing Martin Luther's Reformist ideals, for which the pope awarded Henry the title "Defender of the Faith".

The 1530's witnessed Henry's growing involvement in government, and a series of events which greatly altered England, as well as the whole of Western Christendom: the separation of the Church of England from Roman Catholicism. The separation was actually a by-product of Henry's obsession with producing a male heir; Catherine of Aragon failed to produce a male and the need to maintain dynastic legitimacy forced Henry to seek an annulment from the pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey tried repeatedly to secure a legal annulment from Pope Clement VII, but Clement was beholden to the Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of Catherine. Henry summoned the Reformation Parliament in 1529, which passed 137 statutes in seven years and exercised an influence in political and ecclesiastic affairs which was unknown to feudal parliaments. Religious reform movements had already taken hold in England, but on a small scale: the Lollards had been in existence since the mid-fourteenth century and the ideas of Luther and Zwingli circulated within intellectual groups, but continental Protestantism had yet to find favor with the English people. The break from Rome was accomplished through law, not social outcry; Henry, as Supreme Head of the Church of England, acknowledged this by slight alterations in worship ritual instead of a wholesale reworking of religious dogma. England moved into an era of "conformity of mind" with the new royal supremacy (much akin to the absolutism of France's Louis XIV): by 1536, all ecclesiastical and government officials were required to publicly approve of the break with Rome and take an oath of loyalty. The king moved away from the medieval idea of ruler as chief lawmaker and overseer of civil behavior, to the modern idea of ruler as the ideological icon of the state.

The remainder of Henry's reign was anticlimactic. Anne Boleyn lasted only three years before her execution; she was replaced by Jane Seymour, who laid Henry's dynastic problems to rest with the birth of Edward VI. Fragmented noble factions involved in the Wars of the Roses found themselves reduced to vying for the king's favor in court. Reformist factions won the king's confidence and vastly benefiting from Henry's dissolution of the monasteries, as monastic lands and revenues went either to the crown or the nobility. The royal staff continued the rise in status that began under Henry VII, eventually to rival the power of the nobility. Two men, in particular, were prominent figures through the latter stages of Henry's reign: Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. Cromwell, an efficient administrator, succeeded Wolsey as Lord Chancellor, creating new governmental departments for the varying types of revenue and establishing parish priest's duty of recording births, baptisms, marriages and deaths. Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, dealt with and guided changes in ecclesiastical policy and oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries.

Henry VIII built upon the innovations instituted by his father. The break with Rome, coupled with an increase in governmental bureaucracy, led to the royal supremacy that would last until the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth one hundred years after Henry's death. Henry was beloved by his subjects, facing only one major insurrection, the Pilgrimage of Grace, enacted by the northernmost counties in retaliation to the break with Rome and the poor economic state of the region. History remembers Henry in much the same way as Piero Pasqualigo, a Venetian ambassador: "... he is in every respect a most accomplished prince."



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