1902 Encyclopedia > King Henry VIII of England

King Henry VIII of England

HENRY VIII. (1491-1547), king of England, was born in 1491, being the second son of Henry VII. and of his wife Elisabeth of York. On the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, he became heir apparent to the throne. As younger son Henry had been educated for the church, and it is said that his interest in theology was due to those early studies; but as he was only eleven when his brother died, they could not have been either extensive or profound. His training under the severe and methodical Henry VII. much have been a very careful one; he was deeply interest in the new learning, and was a most accomplished scholar. During his father’s lifetime we hear nothing of the young king except as the destined husband of Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother Arthur, a lady six years older than himself. It suited the plans of the old monarchs, their parents, that Catherine should be wedded to Henry, and so she remained in England during the seven years of her widowhood. Henry was only eighteen when the death of his father (1509) left the throne of England vacant, as well as set him free to shape his own career. His first important act was to fulfill the contract imposed upon him by his father to marry Catherine. His ministers, almost without exception, were in favour of the marriage. Henry expressed himself highly deligheted with his wife. Catherine was fond of him to excess. The disparity of years was not so marked at that early period; Catherine was amiable, accomplished, of the bluest blood in Europe, closely connected with the most powerful dynasties, a queen of whom England with her then diminished prestige might well be proud. For the time all went well, and no one saw in such a simple event the seeds of a great revolution.

Englishmen were not in the mood to anticipate evil at the accession of Henry. In the young king all the conditions requisite for a prosperous reign seemed to be combined in a rare degree. To the dull monotony, varied only Yorkist rebellions, to the greed suspicion, and jealousy which made the shady side of the previous reign, succeeded an era of splendour and enjoyment in which every free and generous impulse should have free scope. As Henry united in his own person the lines of the White Rose and the Red, there as no likelihood of a revival of the old broils. Those who grudged to see his Lancastrian father on the throne were well pleased to see it occupied by a son of Elizabeth of York. The hated avarice of Henry VII. had providing means for the popularity of his successor; and to Henry VIII. fell the easy and generous role of squandering the treasure which his father had amassed. Nor was this the only respect in which the young Henry entered on the fruit of other men’s labours. In the Wars of the Roses, and by the policy of Edward IV. And Henry VII., the old feudal nobility had been brought very low. When nothing more as to be feared from that quarter, it was HenryVIII’s easy task to gather round him the broken remnants, to attach them to his person, and to make them the ready instruments of his will, in short, to convert the representatives of a haughty feudal baronage into submissive courtiers. In character the young Henry was a king according to the people’s heart; even in his faults he was exceptionally fortunate. He was handsome, frank, extravagant of vast muscular strength, accomplished in all the manly exercises of the time and in the new learning; he was vain, thirsting for popularity, eager to retrieve the old renown of England, the enemy of France, and dreamt always of renewing the conquests of the Henrys and Edwards. It is not surprising that Henry excited the highest expectations in all chasses of his subjects, for his varied character offered an attractive side to all of them. The men of the new learning were charmed by his punctual performance of the duties of religion. All good men were delighted with the excellence and purity of his private life. A statesmen were struck by his capacity for business; his gaiety and frankness captivated the courtiers; the prospect of French conquest inspired the warlike and the ambitious. From the description of Henry by the Venetian ambassador, Giustiniani, in 1519, we can easily perceive what impression he must have made on England at his accession:—"His Majesty is twenty-nine years old, and extremely handsome. Nature could not have done more for him. He is much handsomer that any other sovereign of Christendon,—a good deal handsomer than the king of France,—very fair, and his whole frame admirably proportioned. On hearing that Francis I. wore a red beard, he allowed his own to grow; and as it is reddish, he was now got a beard that looks like gold. He is very accomplished, a good musician, composes well, is a most capital horseman, a fine jouster, speaks good French, Latin, and Spanish, is very religious, hears three masses daily when he hunts, an sometimes five on other days. He hears the office every day in the queen’s chamber,—that is to say, vesper and compline. He is very fond of hunting, and never takes his diversion without tiring eight or ten horses, which he causes to be stationed beforehand along the line of country he means to take; and when one is tired he mounts another, and before he gets home they are all exhausted. He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture." When we take all these facts into consideration, when we remember also that erelong he had raised England from a third-rate position to a level with the greatest powers of Europe, and that for twenty years nothing serious occurred to break the harmony of his reign, we cannot be surprised that Henry was a most popular king.

The reign of Henry falls naturally into two periods, separated by the question of the divorce. During the first period Henry is the splendid and jovial king at home, abroad a figure of the first magnitude in the wards and international diplomacies of the time. Both in home and foreign affairs, but particularly the latter, Wolsey was the right hand man of the king, ready, as occasion served, either to transact the whole business of the government, or to be the humble instrument of the king, when the royal hand did actively interfere. In point of fact Henry always was master, and took a keen interest in business. The events provided of the first period were concerned chiefly with the foreign wars. At home, with the exception of the execution of Empson and Dudley, the instruments of his father’s extortion, who suffered, however, on a trumped-up charge of treason, nothing important occurred. There were Christmas revels, May festivals, tilting matches, in which Henry always shone victorious, and in which he squandered the treasures of his father. But the serious endeavours of the time were directed abroad; Henry joined his relatives Ferdinand and Maximilian in a league against France. Though Henry tool a personal share in the campaign in France of 1513, and won the easy Battle of Spurs, and though Surrey, his general, gained the great victory of Flodden, no substantial result was attained by the war. Henry was duped and then abandoned by his allies. When he was undeceived, he was undeceived, he made peace (1514) with France, which was cemented by the marriage of his youthful sister Mary to the old and worn-out Louis XII. Soon after, when Louis was succeeded by Francis I. (1515), and Charles V. entered on the government of his hereditary dominions (1516), the three monarchs who figure so conspicuously as the contemporaries of the Reformation, and whose doing s constitute so much of the history of the 16th century, found themselves face to face. With these two and with the successive popes Henry had to do during the rest of his life. Their relations at first were chivalrous and even friendly. Henry never had any chance of success in his canvass for the imperial crown. When it fell to Charles, it made him beyond a doubt the first monarch of the age; his success placed him in open rivalry to France; but to Henry, fortunate again, it gave the desirable prospect of being courted by the two rivals, and even of acting as arbiter in their disputes. Henry, however, descended from his lofty position to engage in quarrels which had no concern with the true interests of England. The chimera of French conquest again fascinated him and his people, so that when the false chivalry of the Cloth of Gold had degenerated into war, Henry took the side of Charles. In the campaign of 1523 the English forces advanced to within eleven leagues of Paris, but the war led to no durable and satisfactory result as far as Henry was concerned. The people grew sick of the heavy contributions they were called upon to make, and threatened revolt. After the battle of Pavia (1525), where the French were completely overthrown and their king made prisoner by the armies of Charles, the policy of Henry was completely disturbed. Till that event it had been clear enough. The commercial interests of the country, which were bound up with the Flemish dominions of Charles; the ambition of Wolsey, who founded his hope of the papal crown on the good-will of the emperor; the hereditary enmities and warlike instincts of the people, as well as the inclination of the king, coincided conveniently in requiring the imperial alliance. But now France was down, and the balance of power, already a working conception in politics, was destroyed, while Charles in his triumph ignored the claims of Henry, and had more than once disappointed the ambition of Wolsey. Under these circumstances English policy was forced out of its old groove, and an alliance was made with France. In a short time, moreover, interests and passions of a far mire momentous nature emerged. The dilettante politics of Henry’s early career were to be superseded by occupations of a tragically earnest nature. Adventurous enterprises abroad were to give place to real interests at home, and the jovial young king was to be transformed into the stern, self-willed, and often cruel revolutionary. The serious and important part of Henry’s life therefore is still to come: but before leaving the earlier period it is well to remark that it lasted twenty years, or more than half of his reign; that during these years Henry was popular in the highest degree; and especially that he has gratified the national pride of his subjects by restoring England to a leading position in Europe. This should not be forgotten during the troubled and more questionable events that were to follow.

The year 1528 may justly be fixed as the turning-point of Henry’s life. By that time the divorce had become a national and even a European question, and Henry had decisively committed himself to the course which was to result in the separation from Rome. It is not clear when the plan of a divorce began to take shape in Henry’s mind; it w as the slow result of a variety of causes which were not clear to the king himself. We know, however, that Anne Bolevn returned to the court of England in 1522; that she made quite a sensation there as soon as she appeared; and that among other admirers, married and unmarried, Henry soon expressed a decided preference to her. On the other hand, he seems to have been alienated from Catherine long ere the question of divorce became public; if we may trust a statement of his own, he had abstained from her bed since 1524, and his coldness for her increased with his love for Anne. That his scruples regarding his marriage awoke about the same time was certainly a very convenient coincidence. The danger, however, of a disputed succession in the absence of male heirs was a real one. The situation probably justified such an extraordinary measure as a divorce though we must recollect that the raising of a second family, rival to Mary the daughter of Catherine, might precipitate the very crisis which men feared. Still we must admit on the whole that the national interest and the inclination of Henry coincided, and that concern for his kingdom probably had a large part in the mixed motives which urged him to seek a divorce.

When the demand for a divorce was first formally laid before the pope in 1527, no one anticipated that it would encounter so many difficulties. The great opponent of it was Charles V., who loyally supported his aunt, and who, as the vent proved, had the pope entirely in his power. But for the emperor, Clement would soon have arranged everything to the satisfaction of the English court. As it was, he sought safety in delay. Thus he declined giving any decisive answer himself, and when he delegated the case to Wolsey and Campeggio, he managed still further to defer the question and then to revoke it to Rome (1529). By that time Henry’s patience was exhausted. As early as 1528, and as if sure of a speedy decision in their favour, the king and Anne were living familiarity together under the same roof. Their disappointment was natural, and Henry soon began to take more active measures. He appealed from the pope to the universities. Notwithstanding his life-long services Wolsey was discarded, because he was supposed not to have been sufficiently earnest about the divorce. The same year (1529) a parliament was called, which proved to be the ready auxiliary of the king in his new policy. This parliament, which sat at intervals from 1529 to 1536, had little independent or substantive power; it was made up largely of the nominess and creatures of the court, and seldom move but at the royal initiative. Still it was well that the old forms should be recognized in the great changes that were that were coming, and significant that the strong-willed Tudor felt it safe to have the nation at his back. The changes themselves were gradual, and were by no means disagreeable to the advanced and influential part of the nation. Only a very small minority had any sympathy with the Lutheran movement; but many wished to see the church reformed, to have her power curtailed, and that England should take up a more independent attitude towards the pope. Under these circumstances Henry found it way to carry the majority, especially the active and progressive part, of the nation with him. In no case was the parliament of 1529 conscious of its destiny; what it contemplated was not a revolution but only some necessary reform; it, as well as Henry, would have been astonished to hear that they were working on the side of Luther. Yet the parliament soon proceeded to take some very decisive steps. In 1529 the probate duties and mortuaries (or burial fees) exacted by the church were curtailed; the clergy were prohibited from following secular employments; residence was enforced, and pluralities forbidden. In 1531 the clergy were laid under the charge of praemunire, which they bought off by the payment of £118,000, and the acknowledgement that the king was supreme head of the church. In 1532 the abuses of "Benefit of Clergy" were reformed annates abolished conditionally, and the independent legislative power gives up by convocation. Soon after the king took a step which was quickly followed by the publication in Flanders of a threat of excommunication from Rome. After this the Act of Appeals was passed, forbidding appeals from the English ecclesiastical courts to Rome, and Cranmer, in a court at Dunstable, declared the marriage with Catherine null and void. In the following year (1534) the papal authority in England was annulled, and by the Act of Supremacy Henry was declared supreme head of the English Church. The next step was a sad one; but it convinced the world that the king was in earnest. Sir Thomas More and Fisher, bishop of Winchester, the noblest champions of the old faith, two of the best and noblest Englishmen of the time, were executed for refusing to accept the Supremacy Act (1535). Such an event produced a deep sensation in Europe, but it was decisive; when the pope drew up the Bull of Deposition in 1536, which, however, was not published till 1538, the rupture with Rome was complete. In the same year (1536) the first Articles of religion, ten in number, were drawn up; in effect they were a great simplification of the old creed, though they gave little encouragement to Lutheranism. At the same time the Act for the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, which was based upon the report of a commission of inquiry, was passed, being the final important measure of the first Reformation parliament. With such events as the abolition of the papal power in England and the dissolution of the monasteries modern England begins; they inaugurate a fundamental change in the national policy and in the structure and habits of society. While the purpose, real or ostensible, of Henry had been merely to marry a younger woman and provide for the succession, he had effected the greatest revolution which England has undergone.

Henry had indeed succeed in the task to which he had applied himself nine years before; but the enemies he had raised were formidable, and he was destined to many a bitter disappointment. He had excited the hostility of the pope and the emperor; worst of all, he had seriously hurt the feelings and prejudices of a large class of his subjects. The danger of foreign invasion was greatly increased by the discontent both in the north and west of England, where the love of use and wont in the church and in the national habits was strongest. The death of Catherine had indeed greatly relieved him, as it made reconciliation with the emperor practicable, and deprived the English opposition of a common centre. The rising in Ireland was suppressed without broke out in the Pilgrimage of Grace was a formidable danger (1536). It was averted more by skilful statesmanship on Henry’s part than by open show of force. The opposition in the west was nipped in the bud by the execution of its leaders, the marquis of Exeter and Lord Montagne (1538). These measures of the king and of his minister Cromwell sometimes appeared cruel and unjustifiable, but they kept the country united; Charles was convinced of the futility of an invasion; and the thunderbolts of the pope fell harmless to the ground. In all this crisis, when a wrong step or the appearance of vacillation might have occasioned a religious war, in which the conservatism at home would have been seconded by the armies of Spain, the energy and the commanding sagacity of Henry did more than aught else to save the country. To him the praise is chiefly due that this great revolution was comparatively free from blood and havoc.

Henry had defied the emperor and the pope, and he had suppressed the conservative Catholic discontent at home with a high hand; but he was never disposed to be a Protestant. Instead of following the lead of the advanced Reformers he impressed upon the English Church his own moderate and substantially Catholic theology. At thirty he had defended the seven sacraments against Luther; he as thirty-six when he took up the question of divorce, and he was forty are his relations to the pope had hardened into alienation and hostility. All his life he as orthodox from conviction as well as from traditional assent. Such a man could not be a revolutionary in theology. He repressed with a firm hand all excess in innovation, showing equal aversion to the iconoclastic mob and to iconoclastic preachers. The bill of the Six Articles, passed in the same year that saw the final dissolution of the monastic system of England, was the most remarkable exemplification of this spirit of Henry. It also proves that innovation in theology was a new thing to the mass of the English nation, and its penalties too clearly illustrate the fact that religion was not considered an individual and private matter, but a national interest, the violation of which was a capital offence. It is to the honour of Henry that the victims of the Bloody Statute were so few. Five hundred arrests were made by the eager Catholic party in a single fortnight after the passing of the bill; but the king interposed in time, and only twenty-eight suffered under the statute during the whole reign.

In the meantime Henry had been less fortunate in the matrimonial scheme which had been the occasion of all the changes and dangers we have noted. A few months after the death of Catherine, Anne Boleyn was sent to the scaffold. Anne may have been guilty of the crimes laid to her charge, but Henry himself had taught her to cast aside all feminine reserve and self-respect, and his fickle heart had been captivated by another, long before the disclosures which were the ground of her death. Henry married his new love, Jane Seymour, the day after the execution of Anne (1536). The birth of Edward in the following year gratified the king’s desire for a male heir; but the early death of Jane left him again without a queen. After an interval of more than two years Cromwell undertook to procure a suitable wife at the Protestant courts of Germany; but his ruin was not less complete than that of his patron Wolsey on a similar occasion ten years before. Anne of Cleves found no favour in the king’s eyes; she was divorced and pensioned off, while the enemies of Cromwell succeeded in sending him to the scaffold. Anne’s place was occupied by Catherine Howard, till she, really guilty, was also executed (1542). For his sixth and last queen Henry married (1543) Catherine Parr, who proved a patient wife and an excellent nurse. During the last few years of Henry’s reign home affairs and the question of the religious revolution ceased to be the exclusive subject of interest. England and the neighbouring powers were constrained to acquiesce for the time being in Henry’s arrangement of things. Even the emperor cultivated his alliance. His foreign politics ended very much as they began—with a war against Scotland and France. The former arose our of certain border quarrels; the Scots were beaten at Solway Moss, but defeated an English force at Ancrum Moor. After the death of James V. Henry’s course was to arrange a marriage of the infant queen of Scots with his own Edward. The plan tailed through Henry’s self-will, and Scotland was ravaged to no purpose. The war with France (1543-46) was equally fruitless. Its chief was a threatened invasion by a formidable French fleet, which for some time was master of the Channel.

At home the most important point of interest was the struggle between the two factions, Protestant and Conservative, which had now for some years confronted each other—Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner of Winchester being the leaders of the latter, while the queen, Crammer, an the earl of Hertford, uncle of young Edward, were at the head of the former. Cromwell had already fallen under the machinations of the Conservative party. Cranmer and even the queen were not quite safe form its attacks. The heads of that party now suffered at the close of the reign. Surrey was executed, and Norfolk was saved only by the death of the king. The effect of such measures was to make the prospects of Edward secure by confirming the power of his uncle Hertford.

Henry was anxious to arrange affairs for the accession of his son, as he felt his own life waning away. Though only in his fifty-sixth year he was unwieldy with disease and corpulency, and required to be wheeled from room to room; an ulcer in the led had troubled him for many years. In this as in so many other respects the contrast between the beginning and end of his career is striking: the young athlete is transformed into a helpless invalid; the joviality, the enthusiasm, and the unanimity of his earlier reign gave place to a long period of gloom and contention, repressed only by the savage and imperious hand of the king. He died on the 28th of January 1547.

The character of Henry has long been a stumbling-block to historians, and will always be a puzzle to such as classify mankind under the two heads of good and bad without recognizing the intermediate gradations to which the vast majority belong. To many it is all the more inexplicable, because the contrast between his youth and declining manhood is so apparently complete. Yet it was a perfectly consistent, though a mixed character, and the later phases of it are only a natural development of the earlier. He was always strong-willed to excess, capricious, and fickle, with the sensuous part of his nature predominating. In his youth his baser tendencies were controlled by his love of popularity, his regard for his excellent wife, his own sense of duty, and the vigorous animal spirits which found congenial play in physical exercise and in foreign war. In his maturer years he was more self-reliant and therefore less dependent on popularity; after losing his regard for Catherine he fell into baser companionship; as his health began to fail his boisterous spirits declined. Worst of all, his constitutional fickleness took the form of disloyalty to his successive wives, and to his friends and ministers. In the time of Henry there was no acuter man than Sir Thomas More. His verdict may be accepted as final on this aspect of the king’s character. In the height of his favour with the king, after walking an hour with him in the garden at Chelsea, the king holding his arm about his neck, More confessed that he had "no cause to e proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France it should not fail to go." Such may have been the repulsive side of Henry. Much more important, howver, than the consideration of his personal character is the question as to the nature and tendency of the historic work in which he too the initiative. Was that the outcome merely of misguided self-will concealing itself under the guise of duty, or was it the true and durable expression of the claims and aspirations of the time? The passions of Henry had certainly too much to do with it; the work he did was, like his character, mixed with baser elements. But the best answer to such a question is to be found in the modern history of England. That history in its progressive spirit, in its gradual approximation to a sounder and better state of society, and in its liberal openness to the influence of truth, is only the continuation and development of the work of Henry. In his rupture with the pope, in his abolition of an idle and antiquated monasticism, and in his endeavour to establish a purified and simplied Catholism as the permanent creed of England, he was fighting on the side of truth and light and progress. The English Reformation was too much alloyed with baser elements to serve as an ideal example of a great historic change; yet it succeeded better than any other in appropriating the good both of the old and the new, in avoiding a violent rupture with the past, in keeping the nation unanimous, and in escaping those fatal religious wars which desolated Europe for nearly a century and in Germany delayed the progress of civilization for a century more. This desirable consummation was due first of all to Henry, whose sagacity and unfaltering resolution baffled the enemies of reform both at home and abroad, who repressed the hasty movements of either fanatical extreme in England, and who, with his real reverence for the teaching of the past, had a hearty contempt for its abuses. He was no hero, no ideal man or king, he shared fully in the coarseness and indelicacy of the age; he was fickle in his personal attachments, and did not shrink from destroying those who crossed his plans; but he had a real and lofty sense of his duty as a king; he had a true insight into the men and things he had deal with, and helped to lead the country into a new era.

Sources for the Life and History of Henry VIII.—State Papers during the reign of Henry VIII. (Record Commission); Calendars of State Papers, with introductions by Brewer, down to 1530 (Rolls series); Guistiniani’s Four Years at the Court of Henry VIII., 1515-1519; Erasmus’s Letters; Legrand’s Histoire du Divorce; Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey; Roper’s Life of More; Hall’s Chronicle.

Important Historical Works treating of Henry VIII.—Froude’s History of England, vol. i-iv.; Lingard’s History of England; Hallam’s Constitutional History, vol. i.; Burnet’s History of the Reformation; Seebohm’s Oxford Reformers, and his Era of the Protestant Revolution. (T. K)

The above article was written by Thomas Kirkup, M.A.; author of An Inquiry into Socialism.

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