From a young age I had always been obsessed with history and in particular two historical eras: The Tudors and Ancient Egypt. I marveled at the grand gowns and gasped at the political intrigue, as one by one each historical reigning monarch became partial to bloodlust and thirst. But there was one monarch who piqued my interest most of all and that was Henry VIII. From his cruel treatment of his six wives- the poor souls- to putting anyone who dared defy his counsel on the chopping block, its safe to say that that Henry VIII always got what he wanted. Feared as much as he was hated Henry VIII is one of the most intriguing monarchs in the English history books. His complex love life and transformation from a handsome, fun-loving king into a power-crazed, obese tyrant has thrilled and horrified kids and adults alike. From his reincarnation in the ‘sensuous drama’ that was the Tudors, to being rated as the sixth ‘best’ UK monarch by History Extra, he might have caused heads to roll but he did a bloody good job at piquing contemporaries interest. Besides as any good storyteller knows, it is the stories that don’t have a happy ending that make the best narrative. Am I right?
But why on earth am I talking about Henry VIII on my blog I hear you ask? Well those who follow me on Instagram might have seen my Instagram stories on my bookshelf, where 95 % of the books are centered around Tudor and Medieval history. But when it comes to Henry VIII, there is more to him than meets the eye. For a start, not only did he propel the very beginnings of the reformation movement, but he also divorced not once, but twice and even made himself head of state and church, causing him to be excommunicated from Rome, a very rare punishment, during those God fearing days. Of course now as an aethiest I can be open about my lack of religious convictions but in those days, speaking out against religion or ‘creating your own’ meant that you would be roasting in the warm fires of hell for the rest of your days, a belief that the royal folk and townspeople very strongly believed in. For me though, it was his juicy love life that kept me hooked and in fact my favourite historical figure is Anne Bolyen, his second ill fated headless wife, but more on her later…
Henry VIII: The Early Years
Henry’s older brother, Arthur, was heir to the English throne. He married Catherine of Aragon at the tender age of 15 but died shortly after the marriage. While there were rumors that Catherine and Arthur had slept together and were in love, in order to be able to marry the future heir of England-Henry- she had to claim that she was still a virgin, but it took seven long years for Henry VIII to be wed, when he was aged 17. For a while the young couple were in love, but Henry being Henry was a spoilt brat and his eyes began to wander. He cheated openly with various mistresses, including Bessie Blount who had his son, Mary Boleyn and Madge Shelton and poor Catherine had to turn her head away and pretend that she was totally cool with her douchbag of a husband being such a ‘player’. Henry VIII never saw his behavior as wrong and in fact claimed he would ‘seek enjoyment elsewhere’ because she had only given him a girl and he needed a boy to run his kingdom after he died. Little did he know that his female children would be the monarchs that everyone would remember and the boy that he had longed for would die aged 15, after only six years as King.
Luckily for Henry VIII, Catherine was busy with affairs of the court, allowing Henry to have plenty of illicit affairs behind the scenes. As King, Henry could sleep with whoever he wanted and by goodness he did. He didn’t care if you weren’t interested, he was king and you would jolly well have to do what he said, even if you were already betrothed to someone else or courting another gentleman.
So when Henry met Anne Boleyn, he was keen to make her his mistress, but unlike the others she said no. She wasn’t going to be another mistress rallying on the sidelines, oh no this lady was not about that life. Besides she was secretly betrothed to Henry Percy and there was no way that she was going to give up loves young dream. Luckily for her the king didn’t know what the word no meant and got Cardinal Wolsey to do his dirty work for him and break them up. What a douche. But how on earth could he make her ‘his’ if she didn’t want to sleep with him? One word:marriage.
The Church of England
Desperate times caused for desperate measures and eager to marry the one woman who said no to him, he set about doing all he could do in his power to divorce his ‘Constant Princess’ and the Queen of his people, Catherine. But as powerful as he was, there was an even more powerful obstacle in his way and that was Pope Clement VII. Unluckily for Henry VIII it just so happened that the Pope’s ‘boss’ was Catherine’s nephew the ‘Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’, who refused to annul the marriage. Henry was furious and claimed that his marriage with Catherine had never been legal in the first place, and their ‘childless marriage’ ( I mean there was a girl, ya know MARY?) was caused by him marrying his brothers widow. But what relevance does that have to Henry trying to seek a divorce? Well according to Catholic teaching, a validly contracted marriage is indivisible until death, and thus the pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. What it meant was in order to marry his brothers widow he had to seek out special admission which could not be disolved until death. But when Anne feel pregnant, he took matters into his own hands. As Anne began to teach him more about Anglicanism, he realized that he did have the power to make himself head of state and when Thomas Crammer was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, they were ushered into secret marriage-with his permission in 1532.
The reformation movement, aided by his very intelligent new Queen Consort Anne Boleyn, naturally created a schism between the Church of Rome and the Church Of England and a few days later, after Anne was made Queen Consort, Henry and Crammer were excommunicated from the Church of Rome.There are many Henry VIII facts out there in the public domain, but one thing is certain: Henry didn’t like being told what to do by anyone, least of all the Pope. Anyone who rebelled against Henry’s reformation of the Church was executed. Heads rolled on Tower Hill and even his own childhood friends like Thomas Moore got the chop for not having the ‘decency’ to change his religion. After all in Henry’s eyes it did not matter whether you were his friend or lover, if you disagreed with him, your ass was being sent to the tower.
Anne Boleyn, a temptress; a seductress; a woman destined to hold power over men; hungry for attention. Anne Boleyn, a mother, leader of reform and a woman intelligent beyond compare. Two different representations, but how far do these representations merge into one another? Is Anne a figure of rebellion, striving for freedom, equality and knowledge? Or is she the six fingered witch capable of casting a spell over all mankind? It is hard to separate the myths from the facts, when contemporary accounts from the time outlandishly described her sexual and incestuous exploits. If every account puts forward the same argument does it mean they speak the truth? Or is it propaganda against a woman that rejected feminine norms and expectations, refusing to bow down to male patriarchy? Epic, intelligent, provocative and hugely entertaining, Anne Boleyn presents a compelling case for a much-maligned woman ahead of her time.
Unfortunately for Anne, Henry was on the warpath and set out to eliminate anyone who he saw as a threat to his so-called dominant patriarchy and devised a plan to get a new Queen in his bed-Jane Seymour. Henry had fallen out of love and when she failed to produce a male heir, he had her imprisoned on trumped up charges of adultery. Poor Anne, gracious to the end, protested her innocence, but it was no good. Henry had already lined up her successor and within 24 hours of Anne’s execution, he married Jane Seymour. Reports shows that while his second wife was getting the chop, he was playing tennis and rejoicing, just like when him and Anne celebrated the death of his first wife Catherine of Aragon. They do say that karma is a bitch but on this occasion, I happen to wish that Henry VIII had some sort of oracle that would show him how successful Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I would be during her reign. But then again , would Anne have been such an explored figure in history without her martyr death? Maybe not.
Jane and Henry were also happy, at least for a while. Jane finally gave birth to Henry’s son and heir and the country celebrated. Finally, they said no more Queens getting their heads chopped off. The townsfolk might have been a bloodthirsty lot but even they quailed at Anne Boleyn, who was meant to be his wife and the mother of his child being accused of incest and killed for something she didn’t do in the first place. Oh how wrong they were, wait until wife number 5 I cry! But for now the King and Queen had a real life son; the Queen however contracted sickness and two weeks later died, aged 28. Henry was genuinely heartbroken. The one wife who had actually given him the son he longed for had died and he mourned the passing of his favourite wife for three years before deciding it was time to hunt for wife number four.
We all know the saying, “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. In Henry’s case, it was true. Back in his day, Tinder hadn’t been invented. If it had, he probably would have swiped left when he saw Anne of Cleves’ profile.
Sadly, Henry’s official portrait painter was wearing rose-tinted spectacles when he painted Anne – in real life, she was a lot less attractive and Henry cast her aside after six months. But while official reports stated that she was ‘unattractive and smelled bad’, anecdotal reports suggest that Henry had re-written history after being embarrassed by her public humiliation of him. Henry VIII used to love to take part in masquerades and on this occasion he dressed up, but everyone around him knew it was the king. For this young Anne of Cleves though, she was horrified by this man who in her eyes was ‘balding, fat and looked like he was homeless’, nothing like the grand ‘Holbein image’ that she had seen. So when he tried to kiss her and give her a love token which he said was from the king, she refused to believe him and his precious male ego was bruised. Luckily, since he was still Head of State, he was able to divorce her without a problem and six months later they were divorced. Anne of Cleves should count herself lucky, not only did she outlive all of the 5 other wives but she also gained a generous settlement and the title of the King’s sister. Mind you I don’t know how she stayed calm after him slandering her appearance and telling everyone that she smelled- although in those days hygiene was not a ‘big thing’ and Queen Elizabeth I was considered clean for having four whole baths a year! Jeesh.
It was a difficult period for Henry. In his youth, he loved to hunt, joust, and enjoy physical activities, particularly when it involved the ladies. Unfortunately, a jousting accident left him with a serious leg wound that never healed and he became sedentary and bad-tempered. By the time he married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, he was corpulent and partial to rich foods, which did his health no favors whatsoever.
A Queen’s So Called Vanity
By 18, Catherine Horward would suffer the same fate as her first cousin Anne Boleyn and have her head chopped off, for ‘committing adultery’. Except unlike Anne who was actually innocent, Catherine had committed adultery by sleeping with Thomas Culpepper. But here’s the thing. History often labels ‘Catherine as being vivacious and vain’ when in actual fact, she was just a young girl forced to marry someone who was old enough to be her father. Sure she loved to receive ‘pretty trinkets’ but like Anne she was a pawn, in a very dangerous game of political intrigue. Pushed forward by the men in her life who wanted to profit from her success, she was forced to have sex with a man taking advantage of a younger girl. Even in her youth, evidence -that was later brought forward to put her up for execution- showed that she was sexually molested aged 13 by her music teacher, showing that Catherine was not the ‘flighty’ girl that history books portrayed her as. In fact she was vulnerable, young and often exploited because of the way she looked. Some could even say that her so called flightiness was a way of overcoming a past laced with abuse and distracted her from the deep psychological issues that she experienced because of it.
But people began to talk and the king didn’t care that Thomas was the love of her life and that she was so young. Oh no, despite barely making it to adulthood, what he once called his ‘rose without a thorn’ became another bloody murder of innocent whose only problem was that she had cheated on a man, who had forced into a marriage she didn’t even want.It was a fatal mistake. Henry’s ego was never going to countenance his young wife entertaining male companions on the side. Before long, Catherine was under investigation for adultery. It didn’t end well.
The End of an Era
Like many middle-aged men, Henry didn’t want to end his days alone, so he married again. His sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was smarter than her predecessor and managed to outlive her husband. But Catherine, despite being the educated, docile wife that he had always wanted was set to marry Thomas Seymour and while she never cheated on Henry, once again another woman was forced into marriage with a man that was more tyrant than ruler. But she knew her limitations and was for a while the ‘model wife’. She brought his kids back into favour and became a stepmum to his other dead wives children, she attended to Henry VIII’s wounds and stood by his side, no matter what. Rumors were circulating that the old Tyrant was becoming impotent and could no longer engage in sexual activity, but Catherine ignored the public and stayed dutiful to her husband until the end.
Although she was set to marry Thomas Seymour, the love of her life, once again the selfish king always got what he wanted and forced Catherine into marriage. She might have been in love with another man but she was always faithful and became the ‘obedient’ housewife that he craved in his later years. But there was one key issue that stood between Catherine and being sentenced to the chopping block and that was a matter of her faith. Court officials like Bishop Gardiner had reformed Henry VIII into returning back to Roman Catholicism and they didn’t need a ‘Protestant’ sympathizer like Catherine Parr to undo all their hard work. So when they found out that Catherine had published an anonymous book named ‘psalms and prayers’ which clearly demonstrated her affiliation with the Protestant faith, a warrant was drawn up for her arrest in 1545. It was almost certain that she was going to be found guilty and sent to the chopping block but apparently Henry VIII found his ‘humanity’ where had it been hiding all this time- and waived the arrest. He claimed that the ‘warrant’ was issued without his express permission and that the ‘officials’ had acted without royal orders. My guess is he thought ‘shit I’m going to die alone’ and wanted some comfort in his last days.
In 1574, the sun set on Henry VIII’s reign and the great tyrant was dead at last. Women breathed a sigh of relief and a new dawn was ushered in;His only surviving son, Edward ascended the throne, while Edward’s sisters, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, waited in the wings.
What Are Your Thoughts On Henry VIII?
Please note this is a collaborative post with London Pass but all research is my own. Images have been credited to respective artists.