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king henry VIII

Site statistics tell how people get to a website. Quite a few visitors came to this site via a search for "King Henry VIII". He was mentioned only in passing. So, to avoid future disappointment, here is a page about one of England's most famous monarchs.

As we know, this very English king has always had a bad press but let's be fair, most of them were pretty awful. For an exceptionally active man to be cripppled at the age of 44 would try a saint, and Henry was no saint. He must have had an extremely strong constitution to survive for a further 12 years. With such infections, other men at that time had died within weeks.

His Natal Family

Henry was born in 1491. Among those who survived beyond infancy, he was the youngest child and younger son of the Tudor King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. When his elder brother, Arthur, died in 1502 aged about 16, Henry became both the Prince of Wales and Heir-Apparent. He was then aged 11. His mother died not long after Arthur, and his father in 1509. Arthur's (virgin) widow, Katharine of Aragon, became the young King Henry VIII's bride in June 1509. They were crowned together later that month. She was 5 or 6 years his senior.

It was said that Henry's brother, Arthur, was their father's favourite and that King Henry was desperate to prove himself in his unanticipated role. Certainly he seemed to have been very close to his mother and adored his elder sisters. Perhaps it might explain the apparant harmony of his long marriage to his 1st Queen. Older than he was, she was much more interested in politics than Henry was then and he often asked her advice, treating her knowledge and opinions with great respect.

Young Henry

He was highly intelligent, scholarly in a range of subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, languages and music. Reports say that he had a phenomenal memory for details, which wouldn't, of course, mean that he had an analytical brain. His education was the sound, classical one considered appropriate for his social class.

He was known to have considerable charm and an affectionate nature. His tendency to be over-emotional, especially when thwarted, increased with age and infirmity. When a young king he was adored by his subjects, for his sporting and military prowess, as well as for his exceptional good looks. For the rest of his life he continued to be popular with his subjects. The following paragraph are the words of Piero Pasqualigo, a Venetian ambassador; Henry was then 24.

A Contemporary Description

"His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, his throat being rather long and thick. He speaks French, English, and Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from books at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvelously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince."

King Henry's Court

Henry's court was unusual for its decorum. He forbade drunkeness and brawling. An icon within Rennaisance culture, it was renowned for scholarship and the arts. Geographical exploration reached a new level. This would be further developed under the future Queen Elizabeth I.


There is no evidence that Greensleeves was King Henry's composition. However, he did compose a range of songs, including the excellent "Pastyme With Goode Company".

The Reformation in England

It had long been felt that the Catholic church needed reforming. Corruption and greed ran from the Papacy to the priests. Besides, King Henry needed money for wars and wives. Also, as King of England, he did not care for an inferior position to the Pope, feeling that his power derived directly from God (widely believed in then). The Dissolution of the Monasteries enabled him to sell the formerly Church's lands and properties.

Henry remained a Catholic and lived and died one. Protestanism gathered apace after his death, under his son Edward VI then his daughter Elizabeth I (by Anne Bolyn).


Belief in "The Divine Right of Kings" was widespread at that time. To be told that you are the most important figure in the land bar God (also widely believed in then), could give anyone a great sense of self-importance. Still, on many occassions the young Henry showed humility and a sweet and forgiving nature. While jousting as a young man he received a serious head wound when his opponent attacked too soon, against the rules of the sport. Henry shrugged it off as an accident. Today he'd have sued. In speeches to Parliament he rated any abilities or talent he might have as small and granted him by God (widely believed in then).


Compared to his father he was something of a spender. Wars (mostly against France, but against the Scots also) are expensive, as are marriages and divorces. His foreign policy is regarded as disastrous. On the other hand, Henry gave wonderful employment opportunities to lawyers both sacred and secular. Not to mention also to the military, tailors, dressmakers, teams of chefs, turnspits and the public executioner (over 300 executions).

Henry's Queens

The ladies are easy to remember: 3 Catherines, 2 Annes and 1 Jane. Here they are in order:

  • Catherine of Aragon
  • Anne Boleyn
  • Jane Seymour
  • Anne of Cleves
  • Catherine Howard
  • Catherine Parr

Please remember that kings often had to marry a lady without having seen her, let alone met her, so mistakes can happen.

Henry's Marriages

He was married for over 20 years to Catherine of Aragon, not at all a bad record of longevity and more successful than many marriages today. His other marriages were somewhat brief.

Here are the periods of Henry's marriages

  • June 1509 - annulled 1533
  • January 1533 - beheaded 1536
  • May 1536 - died 1537
  • January 1540 - annulled 1540
  • July 1540 - beheaded
  • 1546 - outlived Henry

Some of Henry's marriages overlapped, which was a bit naughty. Still, he was the king.


Henry didn't divorce any of his Queens: his marriages to Catherine of Aragon, mother of Mary (1) and Anne of Cleves were annulled. In Catholicism this means that the marriage was never valid, so it didn't really take place. This seems a nonsense in the light of Catherine's seven or so pregnancies; however, some legalese involving the prohibition of marriage to one's brother's widow got around that. This was unfair to Catherine, since it's pretty certain that her first marriage was unconsummated. Henry seems to have been quite generous to Anne of Cleves, giving her a nice castle as a reward for her hasty departure.

Only two queens were beheaded: Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth (I) and Catherine Howard. Infidelity to the monarch was treason; in the case of Catherine Howard, the trial appeared to be genuine; with that of Anne Boleyn, the jury is still out. Queen Jane died within weeks of giving birth to Edward (VI). Henry's last wife, the highly educated and rich widow Catherine Parr, outlived him and was a kind step-mother to Elizabeth, Mary and Edward.

The Tudors

Intelligence characterises the Tudor line. Henry's own three (legitimate) children were said to be writing letters in Latin to each other by the age of seven. They were also fluent in several languages. Henry had two other sons, Henry Fitzroy, by Elizabeth Blount, and (probably) Richard Edwardes, by Agnes Blewitt.

A Good King

Henry had his faults, as do we all. He did become a bit of a tyrant, hardly rare among monarchs of the past and all too common among certain heads of state today. His later years were miserable: crippled from an injury to his leg while jousting, in constant pain from the resulting infection, uncomfortable at his increasing girth, it's understandable that he got cranky and bad-tempered. In the absence of antibiotics he'd changed from a handsome and athletic youth into a rotting hulk in his prime.

Kings at that time were expected to live hard, drink hard and in general enjoy riotous lives. Mistresses were taken for granted as normal. Henry had few mistresses and did not humiliate his queens by flaunting them. Such consideration was unusual then. King Hal, as his people affectionately thought of him, was of his time and his class. To pass judgement on Henry and his ilk from our position more than 500 years later, is to disregard the context in which he lived and reigned.

An essential duty as monarch was to give his country an heir: this he strived to do for most of his life. He saw one legitimate son after another die in infancy. His favourite illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy Duke of Richmond, was to pre-decease him at age 17, on July l6th 1536. King Henry did not live to see the death of his sole legitimate son, the future Edward VI, at the age of 15 and probably of TB.

King Henry VIII has inspired authors, composers and artists. Donizetti's opera "Anna Bolena" is one of my favourites, though not in terms of its historical accuracy. Even in modern times he has been the subject of books and films. Our culture would be poorer without King Hal.


King Henry V111


Edward Prince of Wales, son of King Henry V111 and Jane Seymour, his 3rd Queen

anne of cleves

Anne of Cleves, briefly the 4th Queen to King Henry V111

© Mark Harden

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