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Henry VIII is widely known as the king of England who transformed his country entirely, and he did it in more than one way.

Portrait of Henry VIII circa 1537 by Hans Eworth

Portrait of Henry VIII
circa 1537 by Hans Eworth

Henry was born on June 28, 1491, to Henry VII, king of England and his wife, Elizabeth of York. Before I tell about his son, Henry the VIII, a little background knowledge might be useful. Henry VII had taken the throne of England from the royal house of York, a sub-house of Plantagenet, and enemy of its other half, the house of Lancaster. For years these two dynasties fought for control of England, and eventually York won. However, the infamous Richard III, the current king from the house of York, was not a very popular king, and was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field by Henry, who was then proclaimed king.

Henry was from the house of Lancaster, thus giving him the claim to the throne he needed in order to legitimize his seizure of the crown, and married Elizabeth of York to unite the two houses that had been divided for over a hundred years. Henry united the coat of Arms of York (a White Rose) and Lancaster (a Red Rose) to create the Tudor Rose, creating the new Tudor dynasty to unite both houses. Henry gained a vast income, and left the throne to his son, who became king Henry VIII of England. Henry VIII was not the original destined heir; his elder brother Arthur died in 1502, before he could become king. Henry then married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, and assumed the crown. However, Catherine bore Henry no male hear, only a daughter, so Henry attempted to divorce her. There was one problem: Catherine was King Charles V of Spain’s cousin, now also Holy Roman Emperor, and Charles had the pope locked up. Without the Pope’s support, Henry could not divorce Catherine legally, so he did so by proclaiming himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thereby defying the Pope. Henry’s quest for a new wife was later called the King’s “Great Matter”, because it occupied him so much. After initiating the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry started also building a large fleet, and so began England’s triumph on the seas.

England then became Protestant, and Henry married Anne Boleyn. However, Anne bore him a daughter, not a son, and so was executed on trumped-up charges of treason. Jane Seymour then became Henry’s third wife, and bore him a son, but then died. After some mourning (which Henry did for none of his other wives), Henry married again: this time to Anne of Cleves, a dynastic match orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief advisor. It would prove fatal: Henry divorced Anne, the “Flanders’s Mare”, and executed Cromwell, a very capable prime minister. After another disastrous marriage to Catherine Howard, who was also executed, Henry settled for Catherine Parr, who took care of him in his last years. She remained his devoted wife until his death, which occurred on January 28, 1547. Henry’s dynasty would not last forever: none of his three surviving children had a child. Edward VI, the king’s only surviving son, was sickly and died without marrying, and his half-sister Mary I married, but had no children either. She was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” due to her attempts to brutally reinstall Catholicism in England, to no avail. Elizabeth I then became Queen, but did not marry. Her reign was very significant, but its end also ended its dynasty.

The fates of Henry’s wives can be easily remembered by a saying, “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”. The quest for a new wife was indeed the King’s “Great Matter”.

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