Henry VIII 1491–1547 King of England

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Henry VIII
King of England

The reign of Henry VIII marked the true beginning of the Renaissance in England. During his younger years, Henry appeared to be the ideal Renaissance monarch—handsome and dashing, fond of sports and pageantry, well educated, and a supporter of the arts and learning. However, less attractive features appeared during the later years of his reign, when he faced increasing troubles in his married life and economic and social strains within his kingdom.

Early Rule. The second ruler of the Tudor dynasty, Henry was the younger son of Henry VII. His brother Arthur, the heir to the throne, died in 1502, a year after marrying the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Henry took the throne upon his father's death in 1509 and married his brother's widow in hopes of continuing friendly relations with Spain.

Henry and Catherine remained happily married for 18 years. During this time, Henry was devoted to the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy*. He joined the pope's Holy League, an alliance aimed at preventing France from gaining territory in Italy, and he supported the papacy against the Protestant ideas of Martin Luther. The pope gave Henry the title "Defender of the Faith" in thanks for his support.

By 1527, however, Henry had become concerned about the lack of a male heir. Catherine's childbearing days were over, and their only surviving child was a daughter named Mary. The king feared that the English would not accept a female ruler. Determined to continue the Tudor dynasty, he tried to end his marriage to Catherine. He planned to take Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine's attendants, as his second wife.

The king and his chief minister Thomas Wolsey asked the pope to grant Henry an annulment* and permission to remarry. Normally, such a request would not have posed a problem. However, Catherine opposed the divorce, as did her nephew Charles V, the king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor*. The pope denied the divorce because he needed Charles's help in various political matters. In response, Henry summoned the so-called Reformation Parliament in 1529 and began taking steps to undermine the power of the Catholic Church in England.

The English Reformation. In 1533 Thomas Cromwell, Henry's new chief minister, proposed that England should break its ties with Rome. This would allow the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the English church, to grant the divorce. Thomas Cranmer, the new archbishop, supported the plan. Henry married Anne Boleyn in January, and a few months later Parliament passed a law denying the papacy any authority in England. Cranmer then granted Henry his divorce and legalized his marriage to Anne. In September, Anne give birth to Henry's second daughter, Elizabeth.

Parliament continued to reshape the English church. It passed laws that named Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church, cut off all payments to the papacy, regulated church doctrine, and closed all the Catholic monasteries in England. Although many English people were unhappy about these actions, others welcomed the reform of a church they viewed as corrupt.

In 1536 Henry came to believe that Anne Boleyn had been unfaithful. She was charged with adultery and beheaded. Soon afterward, Henry took his third wife, Jane Seymour, who provided the king with his long-awaited son, Prince Edward. Jane died from complications of childbirth. Henry married three more times, but none of these wives bore him any children.

Troubles both at home and abroad marred the later years of Henry's reign. Following the break with Rome, Henry and his advisers feared that Catholic powers in Europe would wage war on England. The government spent vast sums of money on building up the nation's military defenses. In addition, after about 1536 the members of Henry's government were divided over the issues of further reforms in the church and in social policy. The country also faced economic and social strains. One major source of tension was the growing practice of enclosure, which involved converting open fields into pasture for sheep. This movement pushed many rural laborers from their homes and led to social unrest.

Henry and the Renaissance. Renaissance ideas had begun to trickle into England during the reign of Henry VII. Under Henry VIII, these ideas spread more rapidly and widely. Sir Thomas More, Henry's lord chancellor, led a group of humanists* at the court who promoted Renaissance learning. One of More's followers, Sir Thomas Elyot, wrote a treatise* that examined Renaissance ideas on political thought and education. Elyot also helped revive ancient medical teachings and produced the first English dictionary of classical* Latin. In addition, More's circle included the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who painted several portraits of the king and some of his wives.

After Henry's break with Rome, religious debates and divisions drew public attention away from humanist studies. But Renaissance ideas had taken hold, and they grew in popularity and importance during the reign of Henry's daughter Elizabeth I and her successor, James I.

(See alsoArt in Britain; Edward VI; England; Mary I; Protestant Reformation; Scotland. )

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* annulment

formal declaration that a marriage is legally invalid

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome