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King Henry VIII. (Ann Longmore-Etheridge / Flickr)

The Complicated and Disturbing Life of King Henry VIII


King Henry VIII was the second monarch of England and reigned during the 16th century. Henry ruled his kingdom for almost 40 years, and he seems to have had a promising start at the beginning of his long reign. As time went on, however, Henry grew increasingly unpopular, and in the final years of his rule, both his physical and mental health severely declined.

Today, Henry is infamously remembered for his six wives, as well as for his initiation of the English Reformation. Nevertheless, there are also other aspects of King Henry’s life and reign, both positive and negative, that are often overshadowed by these two well-known issues.

The family of Henry VIII, an allegory of the Tudor succession. Source: Qp10qp / Public Domain.

Early Life of King Henry VIII

Henry VIII was born on the 28th of June 1491 in Greenwich, near London. He was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His father was the first Tudor king of England, while his mother was the daughter of Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England. Henry had an older brother, Arthur, who was born in 1486.

At the age of three, Henry’s older brother was made Prince of Wales. In other words, Arthur was designated to be the heir to the English throne and was thus groomed to be king. Henry, on the other hand, was steered towards a career in the church, and his education included lessons in theology, music, and poetry.

In 1502, Arthur contracted the sweating sickness (some modern scholars believe it to be hantavirus) and died. As a result of this, Henry became the new heir to the English throne.

In 1509, Henry VII died and Henry VIII became the new king of England. Six weeks after his coronation, Henry married Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother. Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile and was betrothed to Arthur when he was just two years old.

18-year-old Henry VIII after his coronation in 1509. (P. S. Burton / Public Domain)

This arrangement would benefit the newly established Tudor dynasty. The marriage of Arthur to a princess of the well-established Trastámara dynasty would serve to increase the prestige of the Tudors in Europe. A marriage treaty between the English and Spanish sides was achieved in 1496, and a proxy marriage between Arthur and Catherine took place.

The couple later got married in 1501. After Arthur’s death, Catherine became the Dowager Princess of Wales, and was received into the household of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth of York. Catherine was later betrothed to Henry and married him when he became king.

Henry VIII as King of England

When Henry became king, great things were expected of him. At this point of his life, Henry was a dashing young man. He was 6 feet tall (1.83 meters) and had a powerful build. He excelled as an athlete, a hunter, and a dancer.

Those around him were not disappointed, as the king kept a festive court, frequently held hunts and jousts, and patronized musicians. Henry not only appreciated music but was also an accomplished musician himself. One of the songs he wrote, ‘Pastime with Good Company’, was popular throughout Europe.

Henry VIII on a royal hunt. (William Maury Morris II / Public Domain)

The king did not disappoint the rest of the kingdom either. In order to consolidate his dynasty’s rule, Henry’s father was energetic in his pursuit of royal rights, which did not go down so well with his subjects. In order to increase his approval by the people, Henry got rid of some of these institutions, as well as some of his father’s former ministers. The king soon realized, however, that it was necessary for these unpopular institutions to exist, as they helped to govern the kingdom, and therefore had them reinstituted.

The festivities of Henry’s court drained the modest royal reserves. This, however, was not as bad as the king’s desire to participate in military engagements overseas. In Continental Europe at that time, the French and Spanish were at loggerheads with each other, primarily over territory in Italy. In 1512, Henry decided to lend support to his father-in-law, Ferdinand II of Aragon, against the French king, Louis XII, in the War of the League of Cambrai (known also as the War of the Holy League).

This decision was opposed by the king’s older councilors, but Henry went ahead anyway. The king was also hoping to use the occasion to make territorial gains in northern France, but ultimately failed to do so.

Ferdinand died in 1516, and was succeeded by his grandson, Charles, who is considered to be the first king of Spain. Incidentally, his mother, Joanna of Castile, the daughter of Ferdinand, was nominally co-monarch. Three years later, the Holy Roman Emperor and Charles’ paternal grandfather, Maximilian I, died, and Charles inherited Austria, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry VIII with Charles V and Pope Leon X. (World Imaging / Public Domain)

Moreover, Charles inherited the Netherlands and Burgundy when his father, Philip of Habsburg, died in 1506. Charles V, as he is known to history, was the most powerful ruler in Europe at that time, and only the French king, Francis I, was formidable enough to oppose him. Eventually, war broke out between the two rulers, and Henry initially took the side of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Shortly after Francis was defeated and captured at Pavia by Charles in 1525, Henry withdrew support for the latter, and concluded a peace treaty on his own with the French. Among other things, this switch in alliances affected the English cloth trade with the Netherlands, which in turn caused the king to lose some of his popularity.

King Henry VIII’s Quest for an Heir

In the meantime, Henry was having other problems back home in England. Although Henry and Catherine were married for many years by now, they did not have a male heir to inherit the English throne. The only child that Catherine had who grew to adulthood was a daughter, the future Mary I of England. The rest of the children she had with Henry were either stillborn or died not long after their birth.

This became a problem, as there was the threat of a succession crisis when Henry died. Additionally, no one was particularly keen on the idea of having a woman on the throne, which was unprecedented back then. To make matters worse, Henry was infatuated with one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second queen. (EMStephens / Public Domain)

Although it was possible for Henry to take Anne as his mistress, the children produced by her would be considered illegitimate, and therefore would not solve the succession crisis. Therefore, starting in 1527, Henry was pre-occupied with what became known as the ‘king’s great matter’, which basically was his quest for a successor. Henry had several options available, but decided in the end to divorce Catherine, and marry Anne, with the hope that his new wife would produce a male heir for him.

The king converted his personal desires into God’s laws, convincing himself that his marriage to Catherine was against divine law, due to the biblical injunction forbidding marriage to a brother’s widow. Furthermore, Henry saw the death of Catherine’s children as punishment for the transgression of God’s laws.

Therefore, Henry sought an annulment of the marriage from the pope. Unfortunately for Henry, Catherine was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was holding Pope Clement VII prisoner at that time. Naturally, Clement was not in a position to oppose Charles.

Moreover, if Clement were to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, he would be declaring illegal an earlier exercise of papal power, i.e. the approval for Henry to marry his brother’s widow in the first place. In the years that followed, Henry continued to hope that his marriage to Catherine could be annulled legally, with the approval of Rome.

At the same time, another option, a much more radical one, emerged – to break with Rome completely. Although the king occasionally entertained this thought, neither he nor his councilors knew how to achieve this idea.

In 1532, Thomas Cromwell became Henry’s chief minister and the Reformation arrived in England. It may be mentioned that Henry had been a staunch opponent of the Protestant Reformation and was even awarded the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo X for his 1521 theological work Assertio Septem Sacramentorium (Defense of the Seven Sacraments). Under Cromwell’s leadership, Henry was able to break away from Rome, and the Church of England was established.

Henry VIII used Reformation to achieve his personal goals. (Qp10qp / Public Domain)

Henry VIII as Head of a New Church

Henry, as ‘God’s deputy on earth’, was the head of this new church. The break from Rome occurred in 1533. In the previous year, a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed with the pope’s approval. Cranmer, however, was a supporter of the king, and annulled Henry and Catherine’s wedding in the following year. The pope responded by excommunicating Henry, and shortly after, the king broke away from Rome.

Despite all the trouble Henry went through to marry Anne, the king was to be disappointed once again. His new wife gave birth to a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Subsequently, Anne suffered several miscarriages, one of which occurred in 1536.

In an ironic twist of fate, Anne herself became a victim of Henry’s unfaithfulness. On the day of Catherine’s funeral in 1536, Anne found Jane Seymour, one of her ladies-in-waiting, sitting on Henry’s lap, and flew into a rage, causing her to miscarry a male child.

A few months later, Anne was tried for adultery, incest, and high treason, found guilty, and executed. Henry married Jane soon after and gave birth to the future Edward VI in the following year. As a result of postnatal complications, however, Jane died shortly after giving birth to her son.

Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn waiting in the tower to be executed. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

Henry married three more wives after Jane’s death. The first of these was Anne of Cleves, the Duke of Cleves’ sister, whom Henry married in January 1540. Cleves was a Protestant duchy in the Holy Roman Empire, and the marriage between Henry and Anne was a political one. Cromwell was hoping to form an alliance of northern European Protestant states to defend against potential attacks from France and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which were Catholic states.

Henry did not like Anne at all and the marriage was never consummated. Anne was divorced a few months later and the king married Catherine Howard almost immediately. Henry’s fifth wife was one of Anne of Cleve’s ladies-in-waiting and had caught the attention of the king.

This marriage lasted about two years, and did not end well for Catherine, as she was found committing adultery. Like Anne Boleyn (who, incidentally, was her cousin), Catherine was tried for adultery and treason, found guilty, and executed.

Henry’s sixth and last wife was Catherine Parr, whom he married in 1543. Interestingly, Catherine had been married twice before and once again after Henry’s death in 1547. By the time of Henry’s last marriage, the king’s health was deteriorating, and Catherine was not only his wife, but also his nurse.

The marriage was a harmonious one, though on one occasion, Catherine argued with the king about religion. This enraged Henry, who ordered her arrest. Learning of this, Catherine went to her bed crying, which so distressed the king that he retracted his order.

As Henry aged, his physical and mental health declined. He grew obese and suffered from a persistent leg wound sustained many years before during a jousting tournament. Mentally, the king became increasingly moody and paranoid, suspecting enemies (real or imaginary) lurking at every corner. Nevertheless, the king’s intellect remained intact, as he continued to attend to the business of government and was even able to destroy the powerful Howard family, whom he suspected was plotting to control the young Edward, who would be king once Henry was dead.

Henry VIII in 1540. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)

Henry VIII died on the 28th of January 1547 at the age of 55, and was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, who was nine years old at the time. In spite of all that Henry did to secure a male heir, the succession was ultimately a failure.

Till the very last, Henry had refused to make arrangements for Edward’s minority reign. Moreover, Henry could never have foreseen his son’s death at the age of 15, and the passing of the throne to his daughters, first to Mary, and later to Elizabeth.

Top image: King Henry VIII. (Ann Longmore-Etheridge / Flickr)

By Wu Mingren

References Editors. 2019. Henry VIII. [Online] Available at:

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Morrill, J., and Elton, G. 2019. Henry VIII. [Online] Available at:

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Wilde, R. 2019. A Profile of Henry VIII of England. [Online] Available at: 2019. Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales. [Online] Available at: 2019. Henry VIII. [Online] Available at: 2019. Henry VIII (r.1509-1547). [Online] Available at: 2019. Henry VIII. [Online] Available at:



Henry VIII was the second Tudor Monarch If he’d been the second monarch of England  he’d be Henry II at best. In fact there were 39 before him if we start with the Saxons. and the seconf English Monarch by that reckong would be AETHELWULF 839-858.
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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