Published: March 17, 2018
In the roll-call of famous English kings, Henry VIII, who ascended to the throne on this day in history, looms large. Not only because he was a big man – over six feet (1.8m) tall, strong and broad in proportion – but because of the international impact he made on political and religious affairs.
Henry was a man with a mission: he desperately wanted a son and heir to succeed him as king and in pursuit of this goal he disposed of the first two of his six wives.
In the process he fell out with the Pope and in defiance set himself up as head of the autonomous Church of England resulting in his excommunication from the Church of Rome. He left a trail of bodies – usually headless – belonging to dissenting courtiers and clergymen.
While all this was going on Henry conducted wars against Scotland and France.
He was never supposed to be king but his older brother Arthur died of a sudden illness at the age of 15, leaving ten-year-old Henry in line to the throne.
About five months before his death Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess, to whom he had been betrothed since the age of two. Henry took the throne when he was 17, then married the widow Catherine six weeks later – a union that was to have major repercussions for both Henry and the country.
In all, Catherine bore Henry six children, including three sons, but all of her offspring died except one – their daughter, Mary.
Henry let it be known he believed his marriage had been cursed by God because of the Old Testament ban on marrying the widow of a brother and he decided to seek a papal annulment, freeing him to remarry.
The Pope refused, not only leading to Henry's split from Rome but to the dissolution of the monasteries, a cornerstone of papal authority in England. Vast amounts of gold and silver plate were transferred to the Crown while monastic land and buildings were sold to families who sympathised with Henry’s break from Rome.
Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry's marriage to Catherine null and void and in 1533 he married one of her entourage, Anne Boleyn. Their marriage produced a daughter, Elizabeth, who was to become Queen Elizabeth I.
But he soon tired of Anne, who failed to produce a male heir, and in 1536 she was beheaded, with other members of the court, for alleged treasonable adultery.
Henry immediately married Jane Seymour, another lady-in-waiting. To his immense joy she bore him a son, Edward, but tragically Jane died 12 days later from post-natal complications.
Henry, ever seeking new conquests, next gave the nod to German noblewoman Anne of Cleves after seeing a portrait of her by celebrated artist Hans Holbein. But when he saw the lady in person he recoiled at the sight of her and demanded his freedom – an end achieved by a quick divorce.
Now almost 50, Henry turned to 20-year-old Catherine Howard but within a year rumours of her adultery surfaced. One of the men involved, Francis Derehem, confessed, before exposing Catherine's relationship with courtier Thomas Culpepper.
Henry, consumed by one of the rages that characterised his erratic final years, had all three of them executed.
Catherine Parr was Henry's sixth and final wife, and outlived him. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Parr and his wife Maud Green, both of whom were at Henry's court in his early reign. Maud was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon and named her daughter after her. So Henry VIII’s last wife was named after his first.
Henry, who died in 1547 aged 55, was succeeded by his son, who became King Edward VI at the age of nine. It was a short reign, Edward dying – probably of tuberculosis – when he was 15.
Though he has been portrayed as a tyrant devoted to pleasure, King Henry VIII was devout and intelligent. He received an excellent education from some of the best tutors in Europe, became fluent in Latin and French and could speak Ancient Greek and Spanish.
In his youth he was a keen sportsman but in 1536 he was unhorsed in a jousting tournament and badly hurt his leg. He never fully recovered. It is thought that the injury may have contributed to his obesity and mood swings that characterised the latter part of his reign.