Henry VIII was larger than life, famous for his seemingly insatiable appetite for women, war, hunting and food.
Henry’s Early Days
Henry VIII was born on June 28, 1491, in Greenwich, England. His parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, had two sons: Henry, and his older brother, Prince Arthur, who died in 1502.
In his youth, Henry was a keen scholar, musician and sportsman who never hunted “without tiring eight or ten horses,” according to a contemporary. As avid as he was about his intellect and athleticism, Henry was equally dedicated to his Catholic faith, often attending three Masses a day.
Sources in this Story
- The Official Website of the British Monarchy: Henry VIII
- The BBC: Henry VIII: Majesty with Menace
- The Catholic Encyclopedia: Henry VIII
- PBS: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
The Reign of King Henry VIII
Henry VIII took the throne in 1509 and reigned for nearly four decades. Everything he did, he did with gusto: according to University of Bristol professor Ron Hutton, Henry VIII “brought to the job an almost manic energy, fueled by a huge appetite for food and drink.”
His most famous act as king was splitting from the Catholic Church. He had been a devout Catholic; he was highly critical of Martin Luther’s ideas in his 1521 book “Defence of the Seven Sacraments,” for which he was awarded the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X.
His break with the church began when he attempted to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled after she had failed to bear a male child for him. Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment, but Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn regardless. Clement excommunicated Henry in 1533, prompting the king to declare himself as spiritual head of the Church of England. Parliament gradually gave him power over the church between 1533 and 1540.
Henry also presided over remodeling Britain’s financial system and incorporating Wales into the English administration. He also ordered the construction of numerous significant buildings. A lover of music and books, he established a personal library of nearly 1,000 works, many of which were embellished with his personal notes.
Henry VIII’s rule was marked by violence, not only against his enemies, but also against his loved ones: his wives were especially at risk, with two of them executed at the hand of the erratic king.
The Rest of the Story
King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547. His young and sickly son, King Edward VI, reigned for a mere six years, and Edward’s immediate successor, his cousin Lady Jane Grey, lasted a mere nine days before her execution.
Henry’s elder daughter, Queen Mary I, briefly returned the country to Catholicism. Her short rule of five years was followed by that of her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, whose 45-year tenure on the throne is widely regarded as a golden age of the British monarchy.