Henry VIII, King of England

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Reigned, 1509 to 1547; b. Greenwich, June 28, 1491;d. Windsor, Jan. 28, 1547. Details of his early life are sparse, and not until his accession to the throne can he be seen clearly as an 18-year-old youth who was intelligent, handsome and confident, accomplished in sports (tennis, jousting, wrestling), a fine horseman, fluent in several languages, gifted in music and dancing, and set on a throne so well secured by his father that one could scarcely have begun a reign more propitiously.

Henry did not inherit his father's interest in the day-to-day business of government. Yet throughout his reign he was usually well informed and perceptive in his judgments. Moreover, he was the ultimate source of the major policies of his reign (which is not to deny that other people's ideas and outside events did much to shape them). He was a man with grandiose plans, but without the energy and, perhaps, the skill to execute them. Certainly he had not the character to apply himself to continuous hard work, and hence easily lost interest in business, excepting his own marriage problems. Henry was no working monarch; for two long stretches of his reign (c. 151329 and c. 153240), first Cardinal Thomas wolsey and then Thomas cromwell held sway, and royal government was virtually shed by the king and placed upon the chief minister. Henry always retained ultimate control and could make decisive, sometimes unpredictable, not to say impetuous, interventions. But he had no interest in letter writing; he quickly tired of reading long dispatches and did not worry about accounts. He was therefore a most difficult master to servenow enthusiastic, cooperating with his servants; now suddenly intervening to halt or reverse a policy; now stricken with headache, bored with government, or absorbed in hunting, miles away from ministers and ambassadors.

Early Years of his Reign. Throughout his reign, but especially as a young man, Henry was hungry for glory and titles. He had been brought up in the chivalrous world of the tournament and the joust, and saw himself first of all as a warrior king. In 1512, the earliest that circumstances would permit, he led England back into her past and reopened the dynastic quarrels with France that had never really been settled in that interminable contest known as the Hundred Years' War (13371453). In 1513 he took a large army to Calais to repeat the exploits of Henry V, but won only a few trifling successes. To make war, to assert his title to the throne of Francethis was a deep instinct. It came to the surface in the early years of his reign, again in the early 1520s (and after the French collapse in 1525 he seemed to be in sight of huge victory), and finally in the mid-1540s.

But Henry was restless, able and anxious to play several roles. Besides, he was not particularly brave and probably found the victory march more agreeable than the battlefield. By late 1516 he had given up fighting and was ready to appear as peacemaker of Europe, going so far as to preside in London (1518) over an elaborate bit of treaty-making intended to make war impossible. Several other projects occupied his mind. In 1519 he made what was, at least for a while, a serious attempt to be elected Holy Roman Emperor, an extraordinary episode owing as much to his rivalry with Francis I of France as to his taste for the flamboyant. In 1520 he was back in France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, not this time to fight, but (as befitted his new role) to embrace his French brother and to match the chivalry of England and France in feasting and tilting.

Religions Policies. In 1521 and 1523 Henry was enthusiastic to have Wolsey elected pope. Henry, so to speak, had turned dévot; he had also turned theologian. In 1521 he completed a book against Luther, the Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Doubtless, he received much help with it; but it was truly his book, that is, put together and shaped by him. The stir caused by the book led Rome to confer upon him the title of defender of the faith, which he had been seeking for years. Perhaps the book was simply an intellectual exercise, for it is unlikely that Henry's Catholicism was ever more than nominal. That he heard at least three Masses a day, was generous in his offerings, dutiful to the Holy See and so on, proves little. It seems clear that his religion was formal, external, and ritualistic. Probably Henry would have come into some sort of conflict with the Church even if the problem of his marriage had not arisen. From about 1528 to 1529 he began to put forward growing claims to a responsibility, vested in him as king, for the spiritual welfare of his people. These pastoral claims later grew into the Royal Supremacy and owed their existence more, probably, to his appetite for title and the influence of Protestantism than to the so-called divorce. The divorce was a powerful additional cause of conflict, of course, but the influence of the writings of such men as William tyndale and the example of Protestant princes must not be forgotten.

The Divorce Proceedings. In 1527 Henry made the first move to have his marriage to catherine of aragon, whom he had married 18 years previously, declared null. This was not a question of "divorce" in the modern sense of the word. He wanted to be rid of Catherine because she had not producedand now never would producethe son whom, as he earnestly and understandably believed, the dynasty and the nation required. For a while he toyed with the idea of bringing forward an illegitimate son, the duke of Richmond, but he recognized that this would not have been a successful venture. Nevertheless, Henry had a second reason for wanting to get rid of Catherine: he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn.

Two main arguments were adduced against the validity of his marriage: first, he claimed that because Catherine

had previously been married to his elder brother Arthur (who had died without issue in 1502) and because the consequent impediment of affinity in the first degree collateral between him and Catherine rested on divine law, as he believed Leviticus showed, the dispensation he had received from Pope Julius II to marry her had been ultra vires and his marriage therefore an odious offense against the law of God. Such an argument, besides being intrinsically weak, immediately challenged papal jurisdiction and hence threatened the gravest consequences. It also exposed Henry to the devastating riposte that, since he had committed adultery with Anne's elder sister Mary, and since affinity sprang from illicit as well as licit union, he was related to Anne in exactly the same degree as he was to Catherine; and if he could not take Catherine to wife, no more could he take Anne.

So it was that a second, humbler argument was produced: Henry now claimed not that any papal dispensation of this kind was invalid but that this particular one, for a variety of reasons, was. The two arguments ran side by side for some time until, at the end, the first was paramount. Neither argument was particularly solid, but each precipitated a large volume of polemical literature written by theologians, canonists, and Scripture scholars, Jewish as well as Christian, from all over Europe.

The Papal Commission. Henry's "great matter" quickly became a complicated and, because Catherine was the aunt of the Emperor charles v, an international affair. Henry's original plan was to settle the case quietly in England and present the world with a fait accompli. But Wolsey and William warham were unwilling to take so grave a step and forced Henry to seek a special commission from Rome. At last, in 1529, a legatine court presided over by cardinals Thomas Wolsey and Lorenzo campeggio met at Blackfriars in London to hear the case. But this court failed to grant Henry his urgent desire; to make matters worse, the cause was revoked to Rome, in response to Catherine's appeal; and Henry was called to appear there in person or by proxy. In reply to this disaster, he began, from 1530 onward, to advance claims that the case belonged by law to English jurisdiction, that ancient privileges and customs of the realm forbade clement viii's action, and that he was an emperor, subject to no earthly jurisdiction. Pope Clement, caught between Charles and Henry, obeyed his instinct and procrastinated. Maddened by delay and what he assumed was wanton obstinacy, Henry grew bolder in his claims and began to bully the Church in England, partly to frighten Clement, partly to give flesh to those ecclesiastical ambitions already mentioned. For his failure, Wolsey was violently swept aside in late 1529 and shortly afterward the Reformation Parliament met. It began immediately to attack the clerical estate.

Henrician Reform. Brandishing the weapon of praemunire and with the anticlericalism of Parliament at his side, Henry set about bringing the English Church under his control. The first trial of strength came in 1531, and Henry was largely defeated; the second test in 1532 ended with the convocation of the english clergy yielding to him their legislative independence. This was a vital concession. At the same time, Parliament passed the first overtly antipapal legislation. In May 1532 Lord Chancellor Thomas more resigned, and a little later Archbishop Warham died, thus making room for Thomas cranmer. The following year Henry and Anne were married, in open defiance of Rome. In May 1533, fortified by a solemn judgment given by the English clergy in Convocation, Cranmer declared null Henry's marriage to Catherine. Just before this, Parliament had passed the act in restraint of appeals, which declared the "imperial" status of the realm and the king; that is, it had affirmed the jurisdictional self-sufficiency of the sovereign national state and brought to a climax the arguments that Henry had been advancing since 1530. The next year saw the breach with Rome completed.

As the Convocation declared, the bishop of Rome had now no more jurisdiction in England than any other foreign bishop. The supreme head of the Church of England, as it may now be called, is the king, upon whom God has directly bestowed a spiritual authority long usurped by popes but now at last recovered by its rightful owner. So declares the Act of Supremacy (1534). Christ's Church is an assembly of local churches, subject to the prince, who directs the life of his church, guards and declares its teachings, gives its bishops their jurisdiction, and corrects its people. Such is the Ecclesia Anglicana. The plenitudo potestatis and the potestas iurisdictionis have been conferred on the king by God. Parliament has merely declared this fact and laid down penalties for those who deny it.

Henry's Success. Those who did deny itJohn fisher, More, the Carthusians and the others, and later those taking part in the pilgrimage of grace were comparatively few. Henry carried the realm with him not because Englishmen did not understand or accept the papal primacy; they did, though they regarded Rome as the divinely appointed center of government of the Church, rather than as primarily the mouthpiece of the Church's growing understanding of revelation. Englishmen followed Henry into what was evident schism because the alternative was a cruel martyrdom or exile; because of national pride and the loyalty evoked by Tudor monarchy, which often came near to idolatry and was now a religious obedience; because Henry had moved slowly; because Clement had been provocative and negligent, giving neither guidance nor encouragement to his flock; because the case for the royal supremacy was ably backed by propaganda; because the breach with Rome might not be permanent. But above all Henry succeeded because he had allied himself with that discontent with the Church as an institution that was so obvious a feature of early Tudor life. Much of this anticlericalism may have been merely destructive and selfish. But some of it sprang from an altruistic idealism that was shocked by the condition of the Church, its wasteful absorption of so much energy and wealth, its privileges, its spiritual mediocrity (if not sterility) and an idealism that saw that a radical overhaul was necessary for the good of secular society as well as of the Church. Such anti-clericalism was a positive thing, not necessarily unorthodox (for it was present in Fisher and More), though the growing influence of Continental Protestantism would naturally tend more and more to make it so.

Henry had unleashed all this and placed himself at its head; and granted that he was a man of enlightenment, the breach with Rome, so it could be presumed, would not be merely a jurisdictional revolution but a major refashioning of the commonwealth. If Henry had set about cutting back this overgrown, ramshackle Church, there would have been brought back into fertile life an immense amount of wealth and manpowerwith which to provide new and small dioceses, schools, colleges, and perhaps a determined attack on poverty. Add to this the hope of a new kind of hierarchy and clergy that was zealous, well-trained, and pastoral; and one glimpses the sort of expectations that some, perhaps only a small minority, had of this climacteric in English history, and doubtless still entertained in 1536 when the first steps were taken toward the greatest transfer of landed wealth since the Norman Conquest, namely, the dissolution of the monasteries.

Meanwhile, the marriage with Anne Boleyn had not produced the much-desired son. Instead Anne had had several miscarriages and only a daughter, the future Elizabeth I, had lived. Anne did not survive this failure for long. In 1536 she was beheaded for witchcraft and adultery. Henry then married Jane Seymour. She bore a son, Edward, but she died 12 days later. This was in late 1537. Two years afterward, Henry made his fourth and least successful essay in matrimony to Anne of Cleves, who, when she arrived in England, was found so disagreeable that the marriage was not consummated. It was quickly dissolved. Anne was dispatched home and replaced by Catherine Howard, who was charged with adultery and beheaded in 1542. The next year Henry married Catherine Parr, who survived him.

Development of Henrician Reformation. During the late 1530s there had been signs that, encouraged by Cranmer and Cromwell, Henry was moving toward Continental Protestantism. The Ten Articles of 1536 and the Bishops' Book of 1537, both, but especially the first, Lutheran in places, were followed by a project for a full alliance with the Lutheran princes of Germany. But by 1539 Henry had retreated from such a step, as the Act of Six Articles of that year showed, and in 1540 Henry completed the démarche by destroying Thomas Cromwell. In his eight years or so of power, Cromwell had shown himself a statesman and administrator of outstanding efficiency and versatility. Henry thus removed not only a loyal servant of the Crown but also one who left a deeper imprint on English life than, perhaps, any other minister, by his direction of the Henrician religious revolution, by carrying out widespread administrative changes, but especially by shaping English political life according to a new philosophy of state that owed a good deal to marsilius of padua.

Final Years. The last seven years of Henry's reign, during which ministers of the stature of Stephen gardiner, rather than of Wolsey and Cromwell, were in power, were comparatively sterile. In the early 1540s Henry, who, thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries and heavy taxation of clergy and laity, enjoyed a huge income, returned to the war he had revived at the outset of his reign. In 1544 he made his last sortie to France and captured Boulogne. As in 1513, this invasion resuscitated the Old Alliance and England found herself engaged in large-scale war on two fronts. This was so expensive that the coinage had to be debased and further spoliation of the Church, especially of chantry lands was envisaged. The war with France lost momentum in 1546, however, and early the next year Henry died at Windsor. For a long time before his death there had been intense jostling for position when the old king should die and his son, a minor, come to the throne. When Henry's reign ended, power passed, according to his will, to a predominantly Protestant council, from which Stephen Gardiner and the duke of norfolk (now in the Tower) had been excluded.

Significance of Henry's Reign. Henry's great charm, his power to evoke loyalty (always dangerously close to the meanness and vindictiveness of the egoist), had for years been overlaid by truculence and fickleness. It is difficult to think of anything completely admirable about him at any time of his life, except, perhaps, his friendship with Cranmer; but beginning with the late 1520s, that is, after the divorce proceedings, he proved himself increasingly ruthless. Later on, illness made him yet more aggressive. Whether he suffered from syphilis, a brain disease, or, as lately suggested, gout, is not clear; but his decline seems beyond doubt. Perhaps the debate about his character will never end, but there can be no doubt about the significance of his reign. Henry may have lacked executive skill. He has been accused of being unoriginal and devoid of statesmanship. Though this may well be true and though the important ideas of his reign may have been intuitive or imitative or even supplied by others rather than born of deeply pondered strategy, he was nonetheless the prime mover of momentous change. The two provinces of the English Church had renounced their allegiance to Rome and their visible membership in a unitary Christendom, and had been united under the Crown. Monasticism had been abolished and the clerical estate humiliated.

Even if England had not subsequently undergone further theological change, what Henry accomplished would have left a profound mark on the mind, heart, and face of England. That country acquired a new political unity following the destruction of the greatest "liberty" in the land, namely, an independent Church. Between 1534 and 1536 Wales was incorporated into the political life of the kingdom; a determined attempt was made to do the same in Ireland; and the reshaping of the councils in the north and west of England was carried out under the direction of a reformed central government. Meanwhile, important things happened to Parliament. Neither Henry nor Cromwell invented Parliament or the statute; the latter was already the highest form of law-making in the land. But Cromwell proclaimed the omnicompetence of statute law and, whatever Henry may have thought about the matter, firmly placed secular sovereignty in king-in-parliament. And while this was happening, Parliament produced a body of statutes whose size and importance was not surpassed until the 19th or even 20th century. Henry's reign saw England become once more a major power in Europe and finally brought a profound transformation to the English navy.

Many of these things had caused bloodshed, uprooting, and discontent. One manifestation of this discontent was the Pilgrimage of Grace. The resumption of an aggressive European policy and the consequent wars against France and Scotland strike one today as retrogressive folly; they were certainly very costly. The debasement of the coinage necessitated by the wars at the end of the reign was a dubious tactic. Such was his preoccupation with Europe and his own domestic affairs that Henry showed no interest in the new worlds that Iberian ships were now opening up, and to which his father, albeit fitfully, had turned. As a result, when England at last entered this field later in the century, it found itself generations behind the Spanish and Portuguese. But above all Henry had failed to turn to good use the vast new powers and the wealth that the Reformation had brought him. Looking back on his reign one can see that, despite his alleged concern for the cura animarum vested in kingship, little was done to revivify the spiritual life of the English people or to cleanse the English Church. A few bishoprics were founded, and a few new professorships. Small endowments went to Oxford and Cambridge. These were steps in the right direction, but such small steps. Very little was done to raise the standard of the secular clergy or to purge the Church of its parasites. Henry had posed as a liberator of the English people from the bonds of the usurped and overbearing authority of the papacy, but the English Church found its new overlord far more exacting than the old and found royal taxation several times heavier than anything the popes had imposed. Worst of all, the great wealth of English monasticism, instead of being used, as some had hoped, for social and educational purposes, was squandered on war. Few kings have had it in their power to do greater good than Henry, and few have done less. Henry was not really interested in education, or social justice, or the spiritual well-being of his subjects and the Church over which he ruled as summus episcopus. He was scarcely touched by the ideals of the northern humanists or the reformers.

See Also: reformation, protestant (in the british isles).

Bibliography: j. s. brewer et al., eds, Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, 22 v. (London 18621932), basic work. g. r. elton. Henry VIII (London 1962); Tudor Revolution in Government (Cambridge, England 1959). a. f. pollard, Henry VIII (New York 1951); Wolsey (New York 1929). p. hughes, The Reformation in England, 3 v. in 1 (5th, rev. ed. New York 1963). d. knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 3 v. (Cambridge, England 194860) v.3. c. read, ed., Bibliography of British History: Tudor Period, 14851603 (2d ed. Oxford 1959), for a complete bibliog. j. d. mackie, The Earlier Tudors, 14851558 (New York 1952). j. w. allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (3d ed. rev. New York 1957). s. t. bindoff, Tudor England (Baltimore 1952). h. m. smith, Henry VIII and the Reformation (London 1948). f. m. powicke, The Reformation in England (New York 1941). k. pickthorn, Early Tudor Government: Henry VIII (Cambridge, England 1934). g. baskerville, English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries (London 1940). g. mattingly, Catherine of Aragon (Boston 1941). l. b. smith, Tudor Prelates and Politics, 15361558 (Princeton 1953). w. g. zeeveld, Foundations of Tudor Policy (Cambridge, MA 1948). f. hackett, Henry the Eighth (New York 1929), a psychological study. g. r. elton, Reform and Reformation: England 15091558 (Cambridge, MA 1977). j. j. scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley 1968). l. b. smith, Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty (Boston 1971). r. m. warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambrige 1989).

[j. j. scarisbrick]