Henry VIII

King of England. Second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, he was an intelligent boy who received a Renaissance education. On the issuance of a papal dispensation, in 1509 he married Catherine of Aragon, widow of his elder brother Arthur, thus continuing an alliance between the Tudors and the Spanish throne. He became king that same year, with Thomas Wolsey* managing the realm for him.

Shortly after the appearance of Luther’s tracts of 1520, Henry VIII with some help replied in 1521 with Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which resulted in the papal grant of the title “Defender of the Faith.” Toward the end of the decade Henry became increasingly concerned with his role as king in the spiritual welfare of his people, and with his inability to produce a legitimate male heir which could result in a civil war. The only surviving child of his marriage to Catherine was Mary Tudor. Wolsey thought he could arrange for a divorce and settle the “great matter,” but the special legatine court of 1529 presided over by Wolsey and Campeggio* failed to resolve the problem.

In 1529 Wolsey was removed from office and Henry began his assault upon papal control in England. With the death of Archbishop Warham and the resignation of Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More,* Henry moved quickly. Cranmer was named archbishop; the divorce was granted; Henry married Anne Boleyn. Parliament with the guidance of Thomas Cromwell* proceeded to pass a series of laws that placed England outside the sphere of Rome’s control. Appeals to Rome were forbidden, annates and Peter’s Pence were stopped, dissolution of monastic property was begun, and the clergy were required to submit to the throne. Protests arose in the Pilgrimage of Grace,* which was crushed, and in the objections of Thomas More and John Fisher, who were executed as a result.

With the birth of Elizabeth the succession question was still unresolved. Three years later Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and beheaded. Next day, Henry married Jane Seymour who did produce a son, the future Edward VI, but twelve days later the queen died. In 1540 Henry was enticed into marrying Anne of Cleves, but upon her arrival he was so displeased with her that the marriage was not consummated and was dissolved. He next married Catherine Howard, later charged with adultery and beheaded in 1542. Finally he married Catherine Parr, who survived him.

Henry apparently remained basically Catholic, unwilling to subscribe to many Protestant doctrines. The Six Articles* of 1539 mark a return to Catholic doctrine, as perhaps did his marriage to Catherine Howard. The last years of his reign did involve some effort to reform the church while maintaining the exterior of Catholicism. His reign not only started the Reformation in England, but through the use of the Star Chamber, the employment of parliamentary law to work the reforms, the establishment of a national church under direction of the Crown, and the restructuring of the councils of the north and west, he greatly strengthened the Tudor throne in England. Yet as Scarisbrick says: “Few kings have had it in their power to do greater good than Henry, and few have done less.”

Bibliography: J.S. Brewer et al. (eds.), Letters and Papers... of the Reign of Henry VIII (22 vols., 1862-1932); A.F. Pollard, Henry VIII (1951); C. Read (ed.), Bibliography of British History: Tudor Period, 1485-1603 (2nd ed., 1959); E. Doernberg, Henry VIII and Luther (1961); H.M. Smith, Henry VIII and the Reformation (1962); J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968); L.B. Smith, Henry the Eighth: The Mask of Loyalty (1973).