Arguably the most powerful and controversial ruler in British history, King Henry VIII’s 38-year reign was a turning point that shaped England’s history for ever. For all the ruthlessness and greed his kingship is associated with, the son of Henry VII will always be credited for freeing this country from deep-rooted shackles.
On 24 June 1509, only four days before he turned 18, Henry and his wife of two weeks, Catherine of Aragon, proceeded to Westminster Abbey for their coronation. Londoners had flooded the decorated streets to catch a glimpse of the dashing figure that would become their new monarch. The Venetian ambassador famously described him as the ‘’handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on.’’
The new king lost no time in stamping his authority on domestic affairs. He arrested two of his father’s ministers, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, before charging them with high treason and ordering their execution.
Diplomatically, Henry’s relationship with the Catholic Church had been in a remarkably rude health prior to the momentous English Reformation that was triggered not by a theological, but political dispute. In fact, the king was a devout Roman Catholic who heard up to five masses a day. He was even awarded the title ‘Fidei Defensor’ or Defender of the Faith, which monarchs retained to the present day.
The spiritual bondage between the Church of England and Rome began to deteriorate when Pope Clement VII refused the king’s request to annul his marriage to Catherine, which the king said was unlawful in the eyes of God. Catherine had been his brother’s widow, and her failure to produce him a male heir convinced him that this union could not last.
As separation was being debated in public, a marriage was being sealed in the background. In November 1532, Henry, now 41, and his mistress Anne Boleyn went through a secret wedding service, before the marriage was declared to be valid by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 23 May 1533.
The bitter conflict between London and Rome reached its climax the following year after the Parliament introduced a series of Acts that listed grievances against the Church and called for an end to its abuse of power. In November 1534, the Act of Supremacy pronounced Henry ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England’ which effectively resembled an official break with Rome and installed Protestantism as the country’s primary belief.
The ambition of the King of England and France, Defender of the Faith and Lord of Ireland- as he came to be known- continued to grow bigger as he set his sights on Scotland with the aim to unite the crowns, before invasion of France in 1544 saw the capture of Boulogne. The campaign abroad, however, had damaging ramifications, as England went into bankruptcy.
Henry’s last decade included four marriages, the first of which finally yielded a male heir. Jane Seymour died 12 days after giving birth to the future King Edward VI in October 1537.
Chief Minister and Earl of Essex Thomas Cromwell’s advice that the king wed sister of the Duke of Cleves, Anne, to consolidate an alliance against the Roman Catholics instantly backfired. The marriage was declared but never consummated. The king infamously complained that the bride had ‘’unpleasant body odour and sagging breasts’’. Cromwell was soon slapped with a raft of charges, before he was subsequently beheaded.
The warrior-king’s physical illness didn’t prevent him from marrying twice more. His obesity (his waist now measured 54 inches), coupled with an ulcerated wound he sustained during a jousting match, crippled his physical movement and exacerbated his mood swings.
The feeble ruler eventually surrendered to his illness. He died at the age of 55 in the Palace of Whitehall on 28 January 1547, and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward.
Henry VIII’s legacy continues to the present day. The reform-minded king cemented the House of Tudor’s position as one of the strongest households in British history. On a national level, Britain began to perceive herself as motherland of colonies and protectorates far beyond the European continent. It was the lynchpin of years of dominance.