King Henry VIII Timeline, Personality & Historical Importance

A brief discussion of his personality and historical importance

How can one adequately describe Henry’s personality? Imagine yourself as Henry VIII, the second son suddenly yanked into the spotlight by your older brother’s death. Sheltered and smothered by a father suddenly aware that he has just one heir left; handsome and intelligent and, by turns, both recklessly indulged and then denied. Any of us would have emerged as a mass of contradictions and frustrations. So Henry VIII, crowned king at the prime of his life, just eighteen years old and physically magnificent with more enthusiasm and energy than most of his contemporaries, became a conflicted and confused man. But it is a shame to let the last twenty years of his life color the interpretation of his entire life. One should not see him as simply an ogre king who beheaded two wives, divorced two others, and rejected another in one of the most humiliating ways possible.

His personality was quite amazing; his intelligence, learning, and curiosity impressed even the world-weary ambassadors who littered his court. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable, though it never became the near-mania that haunted Philip II. Henry VIII didn’t spend his declining years surrounded by slips of paper detailing the most minute occurrences in his realm. But he did spend his entire reign reading dispatches, scribbling notations, meeting with diplomats and politicians. Very little occurred in England that escaped his attention; indeed, very little occurred in Europe that escaped Henry VIII. He prided himself on this and well he should; the Spanish ambassador reported that Henry knew of the fall of Cadiz before the Holy Roman Emperor.

He was usually genial company. He loved music and wrote his own. He enjoyed dancing and entertainment. He held countless banquets and tournaments. He enjoyed all physical activities and excelled at most of them. Hunting, archery, tennis, jousting – the king made his court into an endless round of competition and celebration. When he grew older, these former pleasures became torments; like most former athletes, Henry became fat as he aged and the once-loved pastimes became bitter reminders of the ravages of time. And he ruled over a country where almost half the population was 18 years old or younger! Youth was everywhere, staring the old king in his face. We can imagine the effects. Quite naturally, he sought reassurances – from women, his courtiers, his council. Affairs could distract him, but love affairs were never his grand passion. Despite his licentious reputation, Henry VIII was really a 16th century sexual prude; among his European contemporaries, he philandered the least. State affairs indulged his taste for war and glory; family affairs gnawed at his conscience and pride. But Henry VIII did not want distractions. He wanted a grand mission, a defining statement. In the end, he got his wish, though in the most improbable way possible.

sketch of Henry VIII as a toddler

sketch of Henry VIII as a toddler

He began life as a second son, destined for the church. It was the dream of Henry VII for his eldest son, Arthur, to be king and for his second son, Henry, to be the highest churchman in England. And so, for the first ten years of his life, Henry was a student of theology. And for the next thirty years of his life, he remained a dutiful son of the church. It is ironic, then, that his most significant historical achievement was the destruction of the Roman Catholic faith in England. The impact of the Henrician reformation forever altered the course of English history. Henry VIII, who had indulged in endless diplomatic squabbles and foreign wars, left no grand achievement beyond his own borders. Vast amounts of money were spent on these foreign entanglements – and many lives lost – but, in the end, nothing changed in the European balance of power. England, constantly pulled between the two great continental powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire, nearly bankrupted itself in an attempt to become respected and feared.

Why did Henry ultimately fail in those tasks normally reserved for monarchs? Ultimately, he was a victim of his times. The 16th century was a confusing mess of changing loyalties, betrayals, near-constant fighting, and most importantly, a rising skepticism of that great institution of the fading medieval world, the Roman Catholic church. With the advent of the printing press a century before, literacy and intellectual debate grew rapidly. The High Renaissance in Italy occurred during the first 20 years of Henry VIII’s reign. It was a time of unparalleled scientific experiment, intellectual fervor, and spirited debate. In such a time, traditional views of kingship were bound to change for both the ruler and those he ruled.

(As evidence of this confusion, one need only remember that Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor crowned by the Pope, led the brutal sack of Rome in 1527. Charles, supposedly the anointed defender of the papacy, actually ordered his imperial army to loot, pillage, and kill their way through Rome and the Vatican. The pope ended up fleeing to relative safety in his nightshirt.)
While reading any biography of Henry VIII, one must remember the flavor of his times and judge him, if at all, by sixteenth-century standards. It’s always amusing to read descriptions of Henry as the lustful tyrant torn between bedding and beheading innocent women; in truth, he blushed at dirty jokes and was more faithful than many 20th century husbands. He was married to Katharine of Aragon for over twenty years and had just a handful of mistresses. He waited years to physically consummate his relationship with Anne Boleyn, and despite being in the prime of his life, remained faithful to her until marriage. Was this sexual prudery a result of his early church training? Perhaps. Whatever the case, it was a hallmark of his life. Henry VIII was always an incurable romantic.
His personal and political decisions were always grandiose, melodramatic, and played for great effect. He loved pomp and pageantry, even as he loathed to deal with the consequences of his actions. Like his father, he was caught in the transition from medieval England to renaissance England. And like his father, he was well-versed in English history and desperate to continue the Tudor dynasty, to secure his claims to Ireland, Scotland, and France, to raise England to the status of its continental neighbors, and to expand his God-given right to rule all Englishmen. When reading about Henry’s political and dynastic ambitions, one is always struck by the wide scope of his desires. Though most came to naught in the end, he actually planned invasions of France, plotted to join Charles V’s invasion of Italy, and intended to seize the Scottish throne. The word ‘ambitious’ hardly does Great Harry justice.

His political ambitions failed and he bequeathed a woeful mess to his nine-year-old heir, Edward VI. His greatest achievement was a dubious one, and one for which he was often eager to distance himself – the Henrician reformation, the end of Roman Catholicism in England and the birth of the Anglican church. The king, for all his contradictions and failures, helped destroy the greatest institution in medieval Europe. Once Germany and England fell to the new heresy, its spread across Europe was inevitable and invincible.
In the biography of Henry at this site, I hope to capture both the king’s personality and assess his importance to history. Henry VIII’s reign was as tumultuous as the king himself. If nothing else, it makes for entertaining reading.

Henry Tudor, duke of York: 1491-1502
The second Henry Tudor was born on 28 June 1491 at Greenwich Palace in London. He was the third child of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, and his wife, Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of the Yorkist king, Edward IV. At the time of her second son’s birth, Queen Elizabeth was just 25 years old; her husband was 34, and had been king for almost six years. Those six years had been difficult ones. Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth had helped amass Yorkist support for his rule, but the English people were hardly enthusiastic about Henry, even as they had been noticeably ambivalent about his predecessor, Elizabeth’s uncle, Richard III. Elizabeth was popular with the common people; her young life had all the romance and tragedy necessary for sympathetic gossip and she was a classical fair beauty, possessing all the female virtues necessary for a queen. She was quiet, demure, and charming; she was also content to allow her formidable mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, assume a position of unprecedented influence over the king.

Elizabeth’s emotional attachment to her husband has been much-debated. In truth, she had known all her life that she would never marry a man of her own choice. In the end, her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, conspired with Margaret Beaufort for Elizabeth to marry Henry Tudor, exiled son of Henry VI’s half-brother. Henry was, by all accounts, grateful for the match. He appreciated its political implications. He also respected his new queen and was faithful to his marriage vows, an unusual trait in a king. Upon her marriage, Elizabeth entered a semi-retirement – she was queen and her duty was to produce as many heirs as possible. Nine months after her marriage, she gave birth to her first child at St Swithin’s Priory in Winchester, a prince named Arthur. Henry and Elizabeth had wed on 18 January 1486 at Westminster Abbey in London; Prince Arthur was born 20 September 1486. Three years later, Elizabeth gave birth to their second child, a princess called Margaret after Henry VII’s mother. She was born on 28 November 1489 at Westminster Palace in London. For the new king, the birth of a healthy second child, and his wife’s rapid recovery, were good omens. Even as he attempted to enforce his rule in the always troublesome northern England which had been Richard III’s base of support, Henry VII could rest assured that his dynasty was becoming secure. But it was only on 28 June 1491, when another healthy prince was born, this time at Greenwich Palace, that Henry VII could breathe a sigh of relief. This second son was a necessary insurance policy for the new Tudor dynasty. Childhood mortality was high and diseases such as small pox, the sweating sickness, and the plague were rife throughout England. A king needed as many healthy heirs as possible, and the birth of a second son was an occasion for celebration.

On 27 February 1490, Prince Arthur was titled prince of Wales at Westminster Palace in London; this was the real beginning of a tradition that continues to this day. And in 1494, Arthur’s baby brother was titled duke of York, the traditional title of the king’s brother. At this early age, all we know of Prince Henry was that he was considered a handsome and precocious toddler, but one would expect such descriptions of the king’s son. He did not share his brother’s fair coloring or slight build. Prince Henry was a sturdy, strawberry-blond boy noted for his energy and temper. Just a year after his birth, his mother bore another daughter; this child was called Elizabeth and she died three years later. It was the first in a series of tragedies for the young queen. She and Henry VII were considered good and affectionate parents, but they never lost sight of the political importance of their children. Together they decided that Prince Henry, like most second sons, was destined for the church, and his early schooling was planned accordingly. This strong emphasis upon theology and its esoteric debates remained with Henry for the rest of his life and made him feel uniquely qualified to interpret religious law during the 1520s.

Heir apparent: 1502-1509
Henry’s position as the second son lasted only until 2 April 1502, just a few months before his eleventh birthday. It was on that day that his brother Arthur died at Ludlow Castle, the government seat of the prince of Wales. The insecurity of the Tudor succession was suddenly unavoidable. Elizabeth of York, despite repeated pregnancies, had not borne another healthy son; after Henry’s birth, there was just one more male child – a son called Edmund, born in 1499 and dead just a year later. The queen did become pregnant shortly after Arthur’s death but this eighth pregnancy proved to be her last. The child, called Katherine, was born and died on 2 February 1503. Elizabeth contracted an infection and died a few days later, on 11 February, her thirty-seventh birthday. So in the short space of a year, Henry lost both his older brother and mother. But the effects of these losses was felt even more keenly by Henry VII. His reign had proved to be neither peaceful or happy. He was beset by worries – constant diplomatic maneuvering, subjects who mocked him as a cold-hearted, tax-hungry miser, and now he had lost his son and wife.

Arthur’s death was more than a personal tragedy; it was a political tragedy as well. The young prince had been married to Princess Katharine of Aragon on 14 November 1501 at St.Paul’s Cathedral, London. The daughter of the ‘Catholic Kings’ of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Katharine’s marriage to the Tudor heir had marked the high point of Henry VII’s foreign diplomacy. His grip on the English throne had long been considered both illegitimate and untenable by most European powers, except in cases where it suited their interests to pretend otherwise. But a bond of marriage between the house of Tudor and the ruling dynasty of Spain gave Henry’s rule a stamp of approval. He was now allied with one of the most powerful ruling families in Europe. Prince Henry met his sister-in-law and future wife on this momentous occasion, heading the procession that led her to the cathedral. Later, he officially introduced her to the citizens of London.

With Arthur’s death, his teenage wife was trapped in England while Henry VII squabbled with her father over the remaining payments on her dowry. Henry VII was perhaps even then mulling over the idea of not letting the all-important Spanish alliance go to waste. Soon enough he was openly proposing that Katharine marry young Prince Henry, now the heir apparent and five years her junior. What did young Prince Henry know of these plans? Probably very little. After Arthur’s death, Henry VII became somewhat paranoid and tried desperately to protect his only son from any injury or illness. People who wished to visit the young prince had to receive permission from Henry VII, and this remained the case well into the boy’s adolescence. Such strict rules may have irked the heir but they did not interfere with his continuing education. While his older brother was in Wales learning the intricacies of government, Henry received a primarily classical education, mastering Latin and French and becoming an excellent and exuberant athlete. Contemporary sources make it clear that he was a happy child, fond of sports and spectacle, and equally proud of his intellectual accomplishments. In short, he possessed all the personality and charm his father noticeably lacked. Both his physical appearance and character were similar to those of his Plantagenet grandfather Edward IV. This fact was much remarked upon by those Englishmen who had lived through the last years of the Wars of the Roses.

Luckily for Prince Henry, his father spent the last years of his reign establishing good relationships with other monarchs and avoiding expensive war; also, his fondness for extorting money from an unwilling populace never wavered. He left his son a king’s greatest gift – a healthy treasury. Ironically, one of Henry VIII’s first acts as king was to execute his father’s most productive, and hence most notorious, tax collectors. But Henry VII never really decided whether he wanted to marry Prince Henry to Katharine of Aragon. He kept the young princess in England for seven years while he toyed with the idea. Her living conditions steadily deteriorated; she was miserably unhappy, many of her Spanish attendants were sent home, she lacked money for even basic necessities. Food and adequate clothing were constant concerns. She struggled to bear her hardships with the serene and regal dignity that was ingrained in her character as a princess of Spain, and such calm in the face of deprivation impressed young Prince Henry. It is certainly true that even years later, in the midst of an acrimonious separation, he never lost his respect for Katharine. This respect was always tinged with a bit of fear. He was keenly aware of her great ancestry and extensive education, her self-deprecating wit and complete mastery of all feminine tasks. Even as queen of England, she took particular pride in sewing and mending Henry’s shirts.

portrait of Henry VIII, c1509

portrait of Henry VIII, c1509

They had little contact during the later years of Henry VII’s reign, only meeting occasionally at formal events. Henry was formally promised in marriage to Katharine on 23 June 1503; the treaty stated that he would marry Katharine on his fifteenth birthday, 28 June 1505, and that her parents send over 100,000 crowns worth of plate and jewels in addition to the dowry she had given when married to Prince Arthur. Henry VII was a stickler on the dowry issue, refusing to allow the marriage to be solemnized, much less celebrated and consummated, until the money arrived. But the Spaniards were as loathe to part with money as Henry. So 1505 came and went with no marriage though Prince Henry referred in letters to Katharine as his ‘most dear and well-beloved consort, the princess my wife’. But his father was still king, and his father refused to allow the marriage. To strengthen his bargaining power with the Spaniards, he had Prince Henry make a formal protest to Richard Fox, the bishop of Winchester, disowning the marriage contract. Both parties prevaricated – until 1509, when Henry VII suddenly died at the age of 52, and his headstrong son, chafing at his father’s authority, was free to make his own decisions. To the surprise of all, including the Spaniards, he promptly announced he would marry Katharine and crown her queen of England.
After years of being shut away from the world, he was now king. All of the boundless energy and enthusiasm of his character was unleashed. Perhaps out of chivalry, or adolescent affection, or, as he later claimed, out of respect for his father’s wishes, he wed his late brother’s wife. In light of future events, it is worth noting that the dowry had not been the only sticking-point in the marriage plans – there was the not insignificant fact that Katharine had been married to Henry’s brother, and her marriage to Henry would be regarded as incestuous and unacceptable to the church. As Henry VIII would later argue, Leviticus clearly stated that a man was forbidden to marry his brother’s widow. For her part, Katharine claimed, and her duenna, Dona Elvira, agreed, that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. The young prince of Wales had been suffering from consumption for months, even before the wedding, and their wedding night had passed uneventfully. If this was true, and it seems to have been (until it was in Henry VIII’s interests for it not to be), there was no barrier to her union with Henry. Both the English and Spanish courts sought the requisite papal dispensation. It was granted and the path to marriage was clear.

1509-1526: Katharine of Aragon, Cardinal Wolsey and Princess Mary
His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being rather long and thick…. He will enter his twenty-fifth year the month after next. He speaks French, English and Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England and jousts marvelously…. a most accomplished Prince.
the Venetian diplomat Pasqualigo in a dispatch, 1515

Henry was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on 23 June 1509. He had married Katharine on 11 June at Grey Friars Church in Greenwich and she shared his coronation. It was a splendid event and continued throughout midsummer with much celebration and spectacle. There is an account of the coronation at the Primary Sources section. It was soon clear that the young king, who turned 18 just a few days after his coronation, had little interest in the day-to-day business of government. While it is true that Henry was a vocal participant at council meetings, the early years of his reign were devoted more to enjoyment than the drudgery of administration. He was content to allow trusted nobles and ecclesiastics to rule in his name – William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey and later 2d duke of Norfolk, Bishop Richard Foxe, and, beginning around 1514, Thomas Wolsey.

As mentioned earlier, one of the first acts of Henry’s reign was a particularly brutal one, especially designed to benefit his popularity. He ordered the executions of his father’s most productive and hated tax collectors, Edmund Dudley and Sir Richard Empson. It was a bloody beginning for his reign and a taste of things to come. Certainly it pleased the English people for most tax collectors were hated, and Dudley and Empson had been particularly ruthless. But their efficiency had the complete support of King Henry VII, whose orders they followed. A problem had emerged for the new king – how could he execute the tax collectors when their only crime was to obey their king? He resorted, for the first but not the last time, to judicial murder, charging the men with ‘constructive treason’. It was a wholly fictitious charge which no one fully understood, even those at the trial. This cold-blooded act pleased the people and demonstrated Henry’s desire for popular approval. But it also revealed a ruthlessness to his character that grew more pronounced as the years passed. Many historians argue that Henry grew tyrannical only after Katharine of Aragon failed to provide an heir but the evidence proves otherwise. If someone could not be legally executed, the king simply invented a new charge. For example, in 1513, before leaving for war in France, he executed Edmund de la Pole, his Plantagenet cousin held prisoner in the Tower since Henry VII’s reign. A benign spirit, locked away for most of his life, Edmund was no threat to anyone. But Henry executed him to remind his subjects that, though he would be in France, any challenge to his authority would be met with grave displeasure.

portrait of Katharine of Aragon, c1525 by Horenbout

portrait of Katharine of Aragon, c1525 by Horenbout

His marriage to Katharine was very happy, at least during these early years. She had a more reserved character than her husband and blushed at his ribald jests, but she entered into the spirit of frivolity which pervaded their court. There was dancing and music, for Henry was a splendid dancer and musician; he composed songs and wrote poetry, most of which has survived and is quite lovely. He also enjoyed hunting, sometimes tiring ten horses during a single hunt, and jousting; by all accounts, he was the greatest athlete at the court. And he was a dedicated and affectionate husband. Everything he built was decorated with an intertwined H and K, and Katharine’s pomegranates were carved next to Tudor roses. He called himself the ‘Knight of the Loyal Heart’ and bowed before his queen after each grueling tournament. He also involved Katharine in the seemingly endless visits of foreign dignitaries, inviting the ambassadors to her apartments and openly seeking her advice and opinion. It was clear that they loved and respected one another, and those early years made his eventual disinterest all the more painful for the queen to bear.

Katharine bore their first child on 31 January 1510, just six months after their coronation. It was a girl, born too early to survive. The next birth, on 1 January 1511, was a far happier occasion. It was a boy, called Henry after his father and titled duke of Cornwall. The delighted father planned celebrations to rival his coronation. The boy was apparently healthy yet died about two months later. The cause was unknown, but it was an age of high infant mortality. The young parents were devastated. Henry consoled himself by waging war against France, courtesy of his father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon, and Katharine’s fierce piety led her to kneel for hours on cold stone floors in prayer. But Henry’s attempts to gain glory on the battlefield were misplaced. In June 1512, the marquess of Dorset sailed out of Southampton, bound for Gascony with 12,000 troops. They reached the port of Fuentarrabia, where they were to join the Spanish and attack Bayonne. But the Spanish troops never arrived. Ferdinand, without consulting his son-in-law, attacked and seized Navarre instead and then declared the ‘Holy War’ over. He had essentially used Henry’s troops as bait; when the French went off to fight the English, Ferdinand seized his chance and attacked Navarre. To top off his treachery, he also openly criticized the English soldiers who, without receiving his permission, had sailed home after waiting four months at Fuentarrabia. Henry was too embarrassed by his soldiers’ mutiny to call his father-in-law’s bluff.

Desperate to erase the memory of that military blunder, he planned a grand campaign for the spring of 1513. His ambassadors even secured the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. He joined the ‘Holy Alliance’ of England and Spain to attack France. But once again Ferdinand’s self-interest ruled the day. He went behind his allies’ backs to make a secret truce with Louis XII of France, and so he kept Navarre peacefully. This happened in March 1513 and suitably angered Henry. But the English king had learned a lesson from his previous blunder. His forces were launched from England’s only possession on the continent, Calais in northern France. The Spanish would not be involved. On 1 August 1513, about a month after he left England, Henry besieged the town of Therouanne. Two centuries before, Edward III had seized that city after the great battle of Crecy. With Maximilian by his side (actually as his subordinate; he allowed Henry command of his troops in exchange for paying their salaries), Henry won a victory within a fortnight. The capture of a duke, marquis, and vice-admiral fleeing the scene helped raise substantial ransoms. He gave the town to Maximilian as a gift and the emperor ordered it razed to the ground. Their next battle was one month later at Tournai. It surrendered after eight days and Henry decided it would become another English stronghold within France.

He had left Katharine in charge at home, officially titled Governor of the Realm and Captain-General of the Armed Forces, an honor never allowed his other wives. She had been resoundingly successful. France and Scotland had an ‘Auld Alliance’ against England, and James IV of Scotland, married to Henry’s sister Margaret Tudor, had responded to English aggression against his ally. He led his armies into northern England. Thomas Howard, the earl of Surrey, took the few English troops left in the nation to meet him. The armies clashed at Flodden Edge, between Berwick and the Cheviots. Three hours of fighting ended the Scottish threat. The evening of 9 September 1513 saw over 10,000 Scots dead, including most of their aristocracy. James IV himself was killed. Had Henry’s attention been focused on his own country, he could have seized a golden opportunity – with James dead and the high nobility of Scotland destroyed, he could have marched into Edinburgh and seized his sister Margaret and her infant son, now King James V. But instead he remained enthralled with dreams of European conquest, perhaps comparing himself to his hero, Henry V. And these dreams were encouraged by news that the Pope had, in secret, promised to recognize Henry as king of France if he could physically seize possession of the country. This generous offer had been inspired by French meddling in papal affairs.

During this triumphant time, Katharine lost another child. In November 1513, another prince, also called Henry, duke of Cornwall, was born and soon died. It was the third miscarriage in as many years. Was Henry worried? He was still young, as was Katharine, and had been king for just five years. He was naturally optimistic, though undoubtedly disappointed. Once again, the queen was on her knees in prayer. Perhaps she felt the losses more keenly. In letters to her father, she blamed herself. She clearly saw the dead children as a reproof of some sort, a failure to fulfill the most basic feminine role. But she was able to send Henry the bloody coat of the Scottish king; it may have been some consolation.
Still, in 1514, as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey extended his control of government, Katharine had reason to become wary. The golden happiness of the first years with Henry was wearing thin. Her father had betrayed her husband openly and scornfully, treating them both as little more than foolish children. She had been her father’s best ambassador, heedlessly pressing his claims upon Henry, using the natural affection between husband and wife to urge alliances with Spain. She felt the sting of her father’s betrayals. He had lied to her, misled her, and tricked her into betraying her husband. It was clear that her primary loyalty must be to Henry and the English people; she would never trust Ferdinand again. In 1514, the king returned home and his councilors told him that Henry VII’s great treasury was fast running low. War with France was too costly to continue. Henry had seized Tournai and made the competent Thomas Wolsey its bishop, but more extensive campaigning was out of the question. In this, the king surprisingly agreed. He had won his share of glory – at least for now – and it would be enough. And Ferdinand’s betrayal had been met with a suitable reply. Henry’s younger sister Mary, the most beautiful of the Tudor children, had been betrothed to Ferdinand’s nephew, the duke of Burgundy, but now Henry made peace with France and promised Mary to Louis XII, three times her age and suffering from gout.

Henry’s new desire for peace with France, England’s traditional enemy, was encouraged by Spanish duplicity. But it was also due to the growing influence of Wolsey. Derisively called ‘Master Almoner’ by those jealous of his influence, Wolsey came from a humble background and, like most talented and ambitious men from poor families, he used the church to advance in society. He attended Oxford and showed such promise that he was made bursar of Magdalen College and then chaplain to Archbishop Deane. In 1507, in his thirties and now well-connected, he became chaplain to Henry VII. Upon Henry VIII’s accession, Wolsey received a seat on the council and was made king’s almoner. This position allowed him personal contact with the young, impressionable monarch. He accompanied Henry to France during the successful campaigns of 1513, where he was made bishop of Tournai, and their close relationship grew stronger. Henry appreciated Wolsey’s dedication to administrative detail and hard work. And both Warham and Fox, the two senior councilors Henry inherited from his father, regarded Wolsey as their protégé. They were quite happy to retire to their dioceses, leaving the younger man to deal with the headstrong and rash young king. One can easily sympathize with Warham and Fox since Henry VIII’s personality was quite different from his father’s. The most obvious difference was that he spent money with the same passion his father had collected it.

But it is important to remember that Henry VIII never completely abandoned his power to Wolsey, though court gossip believed otherwise. He carefully read the Cardinal’s dispatches and proved himself well-informed about domestic and foreign affairs when dealing with ambassadors. Also, Henry possessed a lifelong love of keeping his subjects, noble or common, on their toes; he enjoyed indulging his taste for surprises. In banquets, this showed itself in his passion for elaborate costumes in which his identity was hidden. His subjects would guess which costume hid their king, to the delight of all. Once, he and several courtiers dressed as Robin Hood and his band of outlaws and then broke into Katharine of Aragon’s apartments. The queen, used to such antics, wisely played along but several of her ladies were terrified. At the Primary Sources section, you can read about Henry’s first meeting with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves; he disguised himself at their first meeting, to the amusement of his nobles and the confusion of the lady. At times, this love of surprise – of keeping those close to him on an uneven keel – was downright cruel. He would later allow his councilors to plan Thomas Cranmer’s arrest, only to tell the archbishop their plan in secret. When the soldiers arrived, they were openly embarrassed and thwarted when Cranmer revealed his knowledge of the plan and the king’s pardon. And his sixth and final wife, Katharine Parr, was likewise surprised. Walking in her garden with Henry, she was accosted by soldiers intending to arrest her. Their warrant had been signed by Henry himself. But when they attempted to seize the queen, Henry cursed them, beat several of them about the head and shoulders, and demanded they beg Katharine’s forgiveness. One can imagine the guards’ confusion.
All of these instances serve to illustrate Henry’s desire to remain in control, to hold absolute power in his hands always. As king, he could give orders but it was also his privilege to immediately change his mind without bothering to consult anyone. His will was law. And so he demonstrated his power by doing exactly as he liked, oftimes choosing the perfect moment to throw everyone off guard and demonstrate his complete authority. It may have seemed irrational to his contemporaries, and also to us, but it was quite an effective policy. It meant that no one ever really knew where they stood with the king. And so, not knowing his true feelings, they were all the more eager to sycophantically fawn over him and seek his approval.

This strain of the king’s character was perhaps a bit more light-hearted in the early years of his reign but, like most of Henry’s good qualities, it soon developed an ugly cast. His mutability was certainly recognized by Wolsey, and famously by Sir Thomas More, and later led to the Cardinal’s downfall. But in the early years of their relationship, as Wolsey’s genius for administration and diplomacy led him to amass great titles and wealth, the men got along amazingly well. This continued for over a dozen years. In 1514, Wolsey was titled archbishop of York, and in 1515 he became a cardinal and lord chancellor, and in 1518 he was made papal legate. As archbishop of York, he lived at York Palace and to most outside observers this was the real seat of government power. Messengers rode constantly between York and Henry’s palaces.

portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

For a long while, both Wolsey and Henry were focused on foreign affairs. Wolsey was a Francophile and desired peace between the traditional enemies. He used Ferdinand’s treacherous behavior to encourage a marriage between Henry’s sister and Louis XII. This pro-France policy naturally placed him at odds with Katharine of Aragon. Though she recognized her father’s treachery and protected her marriage by no longer pressing Spanish claims, she was still the daughter of the Spanish king. Wolsey didn’t trust her, which certainly wasn’t surprising. Katharine developed a natural antipathy to the Cardinal as well. She was a deeply pious woman, growing more so as she aged. She thought Wolsey far too worldly to be a man of the church. She favored councilors like Thomas More and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, men whose dedication to the church was as passionate as her own. She was also peeved that her role as Henry’s confidante and advisor was slowly stolen away by Wolsey. Katharine was jealous of the Cardinal’s influence with her husband, particularly since it meant a subsequent decline in her own influence. The king no longer brought foreign ambassadors to her rooms and he no longer sought her opinions. It was as if her father’s betrayals implicated her. Wolsey was the consummate diplomat, skilled at flattering the queen when they met, but their mutual dislike was open knowledge at court.

In December 1514, Katharine suffered another miscarriage; it was her fourth, and the third son. It was particularly galling for her since earlier that year Henry had taken his first public mistress. He was not a lecher, and certainly less victimized by lust than his fellow monarchs, particularly Francis I of France. But kings take mistresses and around New Years’ 1514, Henry’s eye was caught by Elizabeth Blount. She was the cousin of Lord Mountjoy and one of Katharine’s ladies-in-waiting. Bessie was pretty and vivacious, and quite happy to bask in the king’s attention. And she had his attention for several years, which once more proves Henry’s monogamous streak. And he did not neglect his wife. On 18 February 1516, Katharine and Henry’s luck changed. Their only surviving child, a princess called Mary, was born. She was healthy and survived the difficult early months of infancy. Henry was proud, if disappointed, and told an ambassador: ‘We are both young. If it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow.’

One can easily understand Henry’s disappointment. He was a good father to Mary in those early years, proudly carrying her about and showing her off to visitors. But he was perhaps aware that time was running out for a male heir to be born. There are indications that he explored the idea of divorcing Katharine as early as 1518. An English courtier had supposedly visited the Vatican on an exploratory mission earlier that year. And gossip about Katharine’s miscarriages had spread through the English court as early as 1514.

Henry was still affectionate towards Katharine, and they remained intimate for several years after Mary’s birth, as evidenced by other pregnancies. But perhaps the bloom of the relationship had gone. His wife looked older than her years, her body worn out by ceaseless pregnancies and births. She was by nature a reserved and serious person; her mind dwelt constantly upon the failure of her most important duty as queen. On 10 November 1518, her last child – another daughter – was born, and died. Special doctors summoned from Spain arrived to help the queen conceive again. They were unsuccessful. Henry publicly vowed to lead a crusade against the miniature portrait of Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Turks if God granted him a son.

But it was not to be, at least not with Katharine of Aragon. In 1519, Elizabeth Blount, his young mistress, bore him a healthy son. Henry was ecstatic. Here at last was proof that the king could father sons. Henry named the boy after himself, giving him the last name ‘Fitzroy’, the traditional surname of royal bastards. He would soon lavish so many titles upon the boy that Katharine felt it necessary to remind him that Princess Mary was his heir. Henry publicly chastised her and, in a fit of spite, sent several of her favorite attendants back to Spain.

Now we come to an important moment in what came to be called ‘the king’s great matter’ (Henry’s attempt to annul his marriage to Katharine.) Fitzroy’s birth proved Henry could have a son, and no one could deny Katharine’s fertility. It is doubtful Henry ever blamed her for the failure to produce a male heir after witnessing the endless cycle of pregnancies and prayer. Yet why had he and Katharine been unable to produce a living son between them? Naturally enough, the king’s mind turned to God. It must be God’s will that they had no male heir. But what had he done to offend God? Henry searched for an answer and soon found it quite easily. In the Bible, Leviticus XVIII, 16 clearly stated ‘Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness’. And, later, in chapter XX, ‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless’.
What could be more clear? The Bible itself condemned his marriage to Katharine. The pope’s dispensation meant nothing; after all, he could not rewrite the Bible.

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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "King Henry VIII Timeline, Personality & Historical Importance", February 6, 2015