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Henry Viii: England's Most Influential Kings

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 Henry VIII could easily be called one of England’s most influential kings. He is most widely known for beheading and divorcing five of his six wives. He was in charge of the Protestant Reformation, breaking from the Roman Catholic Church, creating the royal supremacy, and dissolving the monasteries. No king has left such a profound impact on his country or has been the focus of such controversial topics that have made lasting contributions to England. His means were immoral, but because of the greatness that he achieved, we look beyond his imperfection. Henry VIII’s life heavily influenced the course of English history and had a lasting impact on the country of England and the world.

King Henry was born January 28, 1491 in Greenwich, England, and was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth York. His brother, Arthur, was expected to assume the throne before Henry, so he was not trained in the art of ruling a country. Although Henry’s brother was the heir to the throne and had a higher status than Henry as The Duke of Cornwall, Henry was also appointed an important position in the kingdom. At a young age, Henry received a great education and became a talented musician, athlete, and jouster. His brother, Arthur, died in 1502 at age 15, which made Henry the heir to the throne and the new Duke of Cornwall. In 1509, Henry’s father fell ill from tuberculosis; his last wish was that Henry should marry Arthur’s widowed wife. Henry’s father died soon after and Henry VIII assumed to the throne. As soon as he was able, he took his brother’s wife, Catherine of Aragon as his queen. This transition of power from one individual to the next became the first peaceful succession since 1422. England’s state of peace domestically and abroad was perfect when Henry became king, so there was not much for him to worry about. Because of this, Henry was not sure what he wanted or needed to accomplish politically during his reign, so instead he focused on his image. Henry surrounded himself with the finest luxuries and ceremonies where his subjects had to glorify ‘his majesty’. He lived a careless life filled with parties and pleasures of every sort. He eventually tired of his wife and started having affairs with whomever he pleased. Although Catherine knew of his infidelity, she only treated him with kindness and prayed to God that he should stop and treat their marriage as sacredly as he once had.

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When it came to making political decisions, he relied heavily on Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal of the Catholic Church and his primary advisor. Although Cardinal Wolsey and the King’s councilors were working behind the scenes to govern England, Henry made it seem as if he was the only one in complete and total control. Henry trusted Wolsey above most other associates for advice, but he did not know that he was an ambitious and greedy man that was widely known for his corruption and hypocrisy. As a Cardinal of The Catholic Church, Wolsey wanted to gain more power by someday becoming the pope. In hopes of attaining his dream, Wolsey suggested that Henry should involve himself in affairs between Spain and France. He had hoped that the attempt would lead to a political alliance which would further strengthen his position of power in the church. However, Spain severely disliked England’s interference and blocked their access to the cloth trade. Due to the fact this was vital in England’s economy, it caused great anger among the people. After the incident, England’s financial stability rapidly decreased. In efforts to try to gain money back, Parliament agreed to raise taxes, but this proved so unpopular that Henry had to cancel them. Things became so bad that by 1527 they practically had no money left in the treasury.

Among all the chaos, Henry still had one major issue: despite the fact he and Catherine had a daughter Mary, he had no male heir to the throne. Although he had affairs with other women, their children died shortly after their birth. He convinced himself that since he married his brother’s wife, God was punishing him by stripping him of a son. He became obsessed with the idea that Catherine and Arthur’s marriage had not been sanctioned by the pope, which would make it null and void. He convinced himself that their marriage was a lie and he was committing a grave sin. A woman by the name of Anne Boleyn became the queen’s new lady in waiting. One day in court, she caught the King’s eye and he became infatuated with her. Anne teased him for years, with her father controlling her actions in hopes that the King would bestow more power upon the family. Although she was not supposed to, Anne truly fell in love with the King as he had fallen in love with her. Henry had had enough of being married to Catherine and wanted a divorce. Divorces were not allowed in the Catholic Church, so he demanded that Wolsey was to somehow convince the pope to make their divorce happen. Despite Wolsey’s best efforts, the pope was hesitant to initiate a divorce due to the fact it could upset Catherine’s nephew, who was The King of Spain and The Holy Roman Emperor. For years, Henry waited for an answer and none came. Furious and impatient, Henry had Cardinal Wolsey arrested. While Wolsey was on his way to prison, he died. Henry was disappointed that Wolsey could not persuade the pope to grant the divorce, so he appointed a lawyer named Sir Thomas More, the new Chancellor of England and Henry’s new primary advisor, to help him. Still, the pope refused to give him an answer, so Henry instead banished Catherine, deemed Mary as illegitimate, and married Anne in secret.

Anne had become pregnant by the time England passed a law stating the English church would make its own decision without appealing to the pope. This allowed an Archbishop to declare Henry and Catherine’s marriage as void. Henry and Anne’s marriage became legalized and once their daughter, Elizabeth I, was born Henry was excommunicated from the church by the pope and was not allowed to worship as a Catholic. In response to this, Parliament passed The Act of Supremacy in 1534 which made Henry the head of the Church of England, thus making England Protestant. Churches were closed and pillaged by Henry for valuable relics for money to support the monarchy. This act completely separated England from the Catholic Church and led to a revolution. Henry was concerned that his subjects’ loyalty towards him was slipping, which led to the prosecution and execution of anyone in England who spoke out against him. Once Henry had gotten rid of anyone in his way, he and Anne ruled happily together for a short period of time.

Within a year, Anne had become pregnant again. Thrilled that he could finally have an heir to the throne, Henry threw a great party. When the time came for her to have the child, Henry got in a severe jousting accident and Anne gave birth to a stillborn. From that moment, Henry was not content with being with Anne anymore. He caught the eye of one of Anne’s ladies in waiting named Jane Seymour. Outraged, Anne decided that if the king could have affairs, so could she. Rumors surfaced of the queen’s infidelity and also of witchcraft. When Henry realized Anne was not going to give him a son, he spread false accusations of witchcraft, sexual affairs, and incest against her to get rid of her. Soon after, Anne was sent to the tower of England and was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Shortly after, Henry and Jane Seymour were married on May 30, 1536, despite his people’s anger of Henry’s quick succession of wives. Jane became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Edward. Despite her best efforts, Jane died during childbirth, which brought Henry great sadness for some time.

Thomas Cromwell eventually recommended that Henry should marry again, specifically to Anne of Cleves. Tensions between the now Protestant England and the Catholic Church had increased. The Duke of Cleves was Protestant, and the families were allied through a Lutheran ruler, which made the idea of marrying Anne of Cleves specifically attractive. Once plans were made for Anne and Henry to marry, Anne had to travel from Germany to England to meet her soon to be husband. Henry decided to surprise Anne by meeting her at Rochester dressed in disguise. Upon arrival, Henry was immensely displeased with Anne’s appearance and tried to break of the engagement. Despite his efforts, he was not able to and wed Anne on January 6, 1540. The morning after the wedding, he told his advisors that she was so unattractive, it left him unable to consummate the marriage. Political turmoil further complicated the King’s lack of interest in his new wife. The forces behind the German alliance shifted, Catholic powers began surfacing in England, and his wife no longer helped to strengthen his name. As time went by, their marriage went unconsummated and Henry began an affair with Katherine of Howard, a relative of Anne Boleyn. On July 9,1540 Anne of Cleves and Henry’s marriage was officially annulled. Anne moved out of the palace and was offered estates, large annual allowances, and a sisterly status by Henry. She accepted the state of affairs and resided in England with her marriage having only lasted six months. On July 28, 1540 Henry married Catherine Howard.

Astonishingly, Henry was about 30 years older than Catherine, which was not popular amongst the people. Their marriage was short lived, only lasting for two years, after Henry found out she was having an affair with another man name Thomas Culpeper. Henry sent Catherine to the tower of London to have her beheaded, but not before she professed her love publicly to Thomas. Queen Catherine Howard died on February 13, 1542. Since the King had beheaded yet another one of his wives, he was now looking for a new queen. Catherine Parr, a woman who lived in court, was in love with Henry’s late wife Jane Seymour’s brother Thomas Seymour. They wished to be married, but Henry insisted on marrying Catherine instead. Despite Catherine’s wishes, she accepted Henry’s offer after he sent Thomas off to war. They were soon married on July 12, 1543, only one year after Catherine Howard was beheaded. Catherine Parr became a true mother figure towards Henry’s daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. Unlike Henry’s previous wives, Catherine never did anything to displease Henry. She was true throughout her whole marriage with him, and they both truly loved one another.

As Henry got older, he became very sick with an increasingly bad temper. He was in denial that his reign would soon be over, and that his powerful legacy was coming to a close. Because of this, he still stayed heavily involved in government and political affairs while working to the best of his ability to seem like he was still strong and able enough to rule England. Henry had involved himself in a series of battles to further glorify his image, but it hurt the country. In 1542, conflict came about between Spain and France once more. In attempts to glorify himself, He became allies with Spain and encouraged Scotland to become allies with France. Once Scotland agreed, he invaded Scotland and eventually negotiated a peace treaty with the dead king’s daughter Mary Stuart, to marry Henry’s son Edward. The English Parliament refused to ratify the agreement and in response Scotland’s parliament changed their decision and rejected their Treaty. Henry was determined through the end of his life to make Scotland do what he wanted. This only resulted in further battles against Scotland and England and caused England to lose large sums of money that was supposed to support the future of England, causing economic distress. Due to this, The Scottish and French further strengthened their alliance, which later resulted in the arranged marriage of Mary and the heir to the French throne. During this whole ordeal, Henry worked hard, but only for his own personal gain. He was not able to fight other than on horse because he suffered from an ulcer on his left leg that never truly healed. When he returned home, Catherine convinced Henry to add Mary and Elizabeth to the succession, so they would be next in line to rule England after Edward. Henry was ageing quickly, and although he was aware, he covered his sadness with rage. Not long before his death, a painter came to paint an official portrait of King Henry VIII. The painter did a good job portraying Henry, but he portrayed his age which made Henry look weak. Henry was outraged and was convinced that the painter completely messed up and that he looked nothing like his portrait. Eventually, the painted suited his liking and he was satisfied. He died on January 28, 1547 in Whitehall Palace, Westminster, London.

Henry VIII’s reign also transformed intellectual and cultural life in England. A well-educated man, Henry surrounded himself with the most talented artists, writers, and musicians of the day. During the course of his reign, he expanded the Royal Navy from five to fifty-three ships. In addition to building new palaces throughout England, he lined the walls of his palaces with beautiful tapestries and works of art. By the time of his death, he had fifty-five palaces in all, contributing to the growing strain on England’s economy. Perhaps the most profound legacy of Henry VIII was the new church, which continued to be influential in and beyond England in the ensuing centuries. The separation from the Roman Catholic Church became known as the English Reformation and is considered part of the Protestant Reformation in that its legacy was the transformation of England from a Catholic to a Protestant country. From the Catholic Church, which was the largest property owner in Europe, Henry VIII seized both political and economic power, which facilitated England’s rise to one of the most powerful nations in the world. 

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