In his youth he was educated in the new learning of the Renaissance and developed great skill in music and sports. He was created prince of Wales in 1503, following the death of his elder brother, Arthur. At that time he also received a papal dispensation to marry Arthur's widow, Katharine of Aragón. The marriage took place shortly after his accession in 1509.
Wolsey and Foreign Policy
As king, Henry inherited from his father a budget surplus and a precedent for autocratic rule. In 1511, Henry joined Pope Julius II, King Ferdinand II of Aragón, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and the Venetians in their Holy League against France. The campaign, organized by Henry's talented minister Thomas (later cardinal) Wolsey, had little success. A more popular conflict, which occurred during Henry's absence, was the victory (1513) of Thomas Howard, 2d duke of Norfolk, at Flodden over the invading Scottish forces under James IV.
Rapid changes in the diplomatic situation following the death of Ferdinand (1516) enabled Wolsey, now chancellor, to conclude a new alliance with France, soon expanded to include all the major European powers in a pledge of universal peace (1518). However, with the election of Ferdinand's grandson, already king of Spain, as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519, England's status as a secondary power was soon revealed. Henry joined Charles in war against France in 1522, but when Charles won a decisive victory over Francis at Pavia (1525), England was denied any of the spoils.
Henry and Wolsey tried to curb the alarming rise of imperial power by an unpopular alliance (1527) with France, which led to diplomatic and economic reprisals against England. Domestically, Henry had become less popular due to a series of new taxes aimed at providing revenue to bolster the depleted treasury. Despite the early advice of Sir Thomas More, one of Henry's councillors, Wolsey had remained the country's top minister, and by 1527 Wolsey had been forced to accept much of the blame for England's failures.
Divorce and The Reformation
Henry, determined to provide a male heir to the throne, decided to divorce Katharine and marry Anne Boleyn. English diplomacy became a series of maneuvers to win the approval of Pope Clement VII, who was in the power of emperor Charles V, Katharine's nephew. The king wished to invalidate the marriage on the grounds that the papal dispensation under which he and Katharine had been permitted to marry was illegal.
The pope reluctantly authorized a commission consisting of cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio to decide the issue in England. Katharine denied the jurisdiction of the court, and before a decision could be reached, Clement had the hearing adjourned (1529) to Rome. The failure of the commission, followed by a reconciliation between Charles and Francis I, led to the fall of Wolsey and to the initiation by Henry of an anti-ecclesiastical policy intended to force the pope's assent to the divorce.
Under the guidance of the king's new minister, Thomas Cromwell, the anticlerical Parliament drew up (1532) the Supplication Against the Ordinaries, a long list of grievances against the church. In a document known as the Submission of the Clergy, the convocation of the English church accepted Henry's claim that all ecclesiastical legislation was subject to royal approval. Acts stopping the payment of annates to Rome and forbidding appeals to the pope followed. The pope still refused to give way on the divorce issue, but he did agree to the appointment (1533) of the king's nominee, Thomas Cranmer, as archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer immediately pronounced Henry's marriage with Katharine invalid and crowned Anne (already secretly married to Henry) queen, and the pope excommunicated Henry.
In 1534 the breach with Rome was completed by the Act of Supremacy, which made the king head of the Church of England (see England, Church of). Any effective opposition was suppressed by the Act of Succession entailing the crown on Henry's heirs by Anne, by an extensive and severe Act of Treason, and by the strict administration of the oath of supremacy. A number of prominent churchmen and laymen, including former chancellor Sir Thomas More, were executed, thus changing Henry's legacy from one of enlightenment to one of bloody suppression. Under Cromwell's supervision, a visitation of the monasteries in 1535 led to an act of Parliament in 1536 by which smaller monasteries reverted to the crown, and the others were confiscated within the next few years. By distributing some of this property among the landed gentry, Henry acquired the loyalty of a large and influential group.
In 1536, Anne Boleyn, who had given birth to Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) but failed to have a male heir, was convicted of adultery and incest and beheaded. Soon afterward, Henry married Jane Seymour, who in 1537 bore a son (later Edward VI) and died. Meanwhile in 1536–37 Henry had dealt brutally but effectively with rebellions in the north by subjects protesting economic hardships and the dissolution of the monasteries (see Pilgrimage of Grace). In 1536, Henry authorized the Ten Articles, which included some Protestant doctrinal points, and he approved (1537) publication of the Bible in English. However, the Six Articles passed by Parliament in 1539 reverted to the fundamental principles of Roman Catholic doctrine.
Another temporary peace (1538) between France and the empire seemed to pose the threat of Catholic intervention in England and helped Cromwell persuade the king to ally himself with the German Protestant princes by marrying (1540) Anne of Cleves. However, Henry disliked Anne and divorced her almost immediately. Cromwell, now completely discredited, was beheaded. The king then married Catherine Howard, but in 1542 she met the fate of Anne Boleyn. He married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, in 1543.
In 1542 war had begun again with Scotland, still controlled through James V by French and Catholic interests. The fighting culminated in the rout of the Scots at Solway Moss and the death of James. Henry forced the Scots to agree to a treaty (1543) of marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and his own son, Edward, but this was to come to nothing. In 1543, Henry once more joined Charles in war against France and was able to take Boulogne (1544). The expensive war dragged on until 1546, when Henry secured a payment of indemnity for the city. When he died in 1547 he was succeeded, as he had hoped, by a son, but it was his daughter Elizabeth I who ruled over one of the greatest periods in England's history.
Character and Legacy
Henry was a supreme egotist. He advanced personal desires under the guise of public policy or moral right, forced his ministers to pay extreme penalties for his own mistakes, and summarily executed many with little excuse. In his later years he became grossly fat, paranoid, and unpredictable. Nonetheless he possessed considerable political insight, and he provided England with a visible and active national leader.
Although Henry seemed to dominate his Parliaments, the importance of that institution increased significantly during his reign. Other advances made during his reign were the institution of an effective navy and the beginnings of social and religious reform. The navy was organized for the first time as a permanent force. Wales was officially incorporated into England in 1536 with a great improvement in government administration there.
In 1521, Henry had been given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the pope for a treatise against Martin Luther, and he remained orthodox in his personal doctrinal views throughout his reign. However, the Six Articles were only fitfully enforced, the use of the English Bible was cautiously increased, seizure of church property continued, and the destruction of relics and shrines was begun. The way had been opened for Protestantism, and Henry presided over the dissolution of Irish monasteries and assumed (1541) the titles of king of Ireland and head of the Church of Ireland. At Henry's death, the council that he had appointed for the minority of Edward VI leaned toward the new doctrines.
See biographies by John Bowle (1965), J. J. Scarisbrick (1968), Carolly Erickson (1984), and Jasper Ridley (1985); H. M. Smith, Henry VIII and the Reformation (1948); J. A. Kelly, The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII (1976); David Starkey, The Reign of Henry VIII (1986).