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King Henry VIII: The marriages and religious reformation in England (Fall 2012)

            The reign of King Henry VIII of England was immersed in the rise and fall of multiple wives as well as religious changes in England.   From the beginning of the Tudor’s hold on power in England, great importance was placed on securing the throne for future generations.  Having inherited this desire from his father, Henry VIII spent much of his time in power focusing on securing succession.  As a result, Henry VIII had six different wives over his lifetime while only being the father of three legitimate children.  While the role of specific individuals and religion permeated the reign of King Henry VIII, his multiple marriages were the focal point of his reign, and the marriages helped define not only religion in England but also a period of English history.

            Henry Tudor, also known as King Henry VIII, was born to King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on June 28, 1491 in Greenwich Palace.  King Henry VII won the English thrown in battle and became the first monarch of the House of Tudor; therefore, great importance was placed on securing an heir to the throne.  He and Elizabeth had six children three of which survived past the infant stage.  King Henry VIII was the second son in the family, so it was thought that he would join the church since his elder brother would take over the thrown.  This future expectation shaped his early education, which had a focus on theology.  Also, not a lot of information is known about his early childhood due to this expectation, yet it is known that Henry VIII had a Catholic baptism.  Although a future in the church was expected, the death of the first-born son Arthur, Prince of Wales just before Henry VIII’s eleventh birthday changed the course of his future.  Henry VIII, the second born son, then found himself as the successor to his father, the King of England.  Shortly after his older brothers death followed the death of Henry VIII’s mother.  Prince Arthur was married for only twenty weeks to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, prior to his death.  This was a major marriage bond that allied the monarchy with the powers of Spain and gave some legitimacy to the Tudor’s hold on the conquered throne.  Therefore, after the death of Arthur, there was a desire to preserve the important bond, so instead, it was planned to have Henry VIII marry Catherine.  This plan of action however involved a very delayed process in which there were disputes about a dowry.  In this specific matter, King Henry VII was unyielding.  However, when Henry VIII was just under 18 years of age, his father died and left the thrown to Henry VIII.  Now without the restrictions put on him by the past King of England, Henry Tudor officially had the power to make his own decisions.  After a peaceful succession process, King Henry VIII quickly married Catherine without his father standing in his way.  Both Henry and Catherine participated in the coronation to be the head of the English throne.  This union marked the beginning of a series of marriages that not only defined King Henry VIII’s reign but also the course of English history and specifically religion in the country.

            As noted, King Henry VIII’s marriages were a defining factor in the storied history of the Tudor monarchy and English throne in general.  His marriages were extensive, tumultuous, and controversial, and they were directly related to policy changes during his reign.  King Henry VIII’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon began in 1509 when he was just shy of 18 years of age.  Shortly thereafter the marriage, Catherine had a stillborn girl; however, a few months later baby Henry, named after the King, was born.  The healthy state of the newborn was met with celebrations, but seven weeks after the birth the baby died.  Catherine had another miscarriage and another infant death, but then in 1516, Princess Mary was born to the royal family.  After another bout of unsuccessful pregnancies, Henry VIII began having extramarital affairs with two known mistresses Elizabeth Blount and Mary Boleyn.  Elizabeth Blount also conceived Henry’s child, who was later given the title Duke of Richmond and died before having the opportunity to be possibly recognized to be next in line for the throne.  As he became more and more disillusioned with his current wife, King Henry VIII pursued Mary’s sister Anne Boleyn, who was in the service of Queen Catherine at the time.  

            This new relationship with Anne eventually developed into Henry’s second marriage.  However, in order to become married to Anne, his marriage with Catherine head to be annulled.  King Henry VIII appealed directly to Pope Clement VII claiming that Catherine and his brother consummated their marriage; thereby, Henry could not marry his brother’s wife.  Catherine denied such accusations, and discussions went on for many years where the Pope stated that a new marriage should not occur unless a verdict was given from Rome.  The pope chose not to annul the marriage right away.  During this period many changes occurred regarding the English policy of religion, which became a part of the English Reformation.  Without the guidance of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Anne, who was partial to Lutheran ideas, as well as others who were not supporters of the theology from Rome influenced King Henry VIII.  An occurrence of events followed that favored Henry’s supremacy of the church as well as evangelical ideas.  One action taken against the clergy in England forbade them from following orders from a foreign country or powers such as Rome.  Another event that happened was when Henry was granted Royal Supremacy so that canon law could not be made unless there was permission from the King.  Various other provisions were enacted that distanced the Church of England from Rome.  Most importantly, the Acts of Supremacy were made, which stated that King Henry VIII was the supreme head of the Church of England on earth as well as stated a further separation of ties with Rome.

            Disregarding the Pope’s rejection to annul the first marriage, Henry and Anne had a secret wedding.  Very soon after the wedding, Anne became pregnant, and the court in England voided Henry’s first wedding and legitimized the second.  The Pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating the King from the Catholic Church.  In 1533, Elizabeth was born to Henry and Anne, but shortly beforehand, the First Succession Act was passed by parliament, which declared Mary a bastard and Elizabeth the next in line for the English thrown.  However, Anne had miscarriages and was not successful at producing a male heir to the throne for Henry.  Around the same time, there was dissension regarding Henry’s new religious policies, yet the King was able to thwart the opposition.  The fact of Anne being unable to give Henry a son was a key factor in the beginning of Henry’s third marriage and end of his second.

            Henry’s third marriage occurred with one of Anne’s lady-in-waiting named Jane Seymour.  This marriage came about after many accusations were made against Anne as well as her brother and other men.  These charges involved incest, adultery, along with scheming to murder the King.  She was put on trial and sentenced to death.  About three years after becoming Queen, Anne was beheaded, and her marriage with Henry was said to be invalid.  Ten days after the execution of Anne, Henry married Jane.  Important to note was that the Second Succession Act was passed, which said that Jane and Henry’s children would be next in line for the throne and that both Mary and Elizabeth were illegitimate.  Importantly, Henry was also given the power to declare the line of succession to the thrown in his will.  Jane soon gave birth to Edward; however, she died in childbed, which led to the end of Henry’s third marriage.  

            At the end of Henry’s third marriage to Jane, a period of mourning occurred.  However, the King desired to marry for a fourth time to solidify the line of succession for the throne.  In order to secure an alliance with a country that was supportive of the reformation of the church, Henry married Anne of Cleves.  This marriage was key because the Duke of Cleves was thought to be between Lutheran Protestant and Catholic ideas.  Although Henry married Anne of Cleves, he soon sought to have an annulment on the grounds of not being attracted to his new wife as well as the threat to being pulled into a conflict with the Duke of Cleves and the Holy Roman Empire.  The split was amicable in which both parties agreed their marriage had not been consummated.  Furthermore, Anne was later called “The King’s Sister” and was given compensation in homes and money.  This event allowed for the final two marriages in a reign defined by the royal unions.
            King Henry VIII’s fifth marriage was to Catherine Howard.  Although there was about a 30-year age difference between the two, the marriage lasted about two years.  However, Catherine was accused of infidelity, and after investigations, there was evidence of promiscuity before the royal marriage as well as after the marriage took place.  Once found guilty, Catherine was executed.  This event found the twice-widowed Catherine Parr having the opportunity to marry the newly available King.  Catherine Parr married the King, and soon she made enemies in the court with her interest in religious reform.  Although there was a plot to have her arrested, Catherine smartly manipulated the King and was forgiven.  Additionally, Catherine had relationships with all three of Henry’s children.  During this period, an act was passed by Parliament that introduced Mary and Elizabeth back in the line of succession behind Edward.  Catherine Parr outlived the King, who died on January 28th, 1547 at the age of 55.  It is important to note that Henry was laid to rest next to his wife Jane Seymour, his only wife that gave him a son.

            King Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign dotted with unsuccessful marriages along with religious policy change was impacted by two major history forces.  One of the most important forces that impacted his reign was the role of specific individuals.  This force along with the force of religion were oftentimes intertwined and had an immense influence on King Henry VIII’s reign, marriages, and religion.  There were three clear examples of these forces working together to make an impact.  The King’s first wife Catherine of Aragon caused drastic changes to religion in England simply by proving unable to provide a male heir to the throne.  By being unable to produce a son, Catherine forced Henry to make changes to the religion in England that gave him more power as well as supremacy in the Church of England while lessening the hold that Rome had on the English church.  Catherine was one of the catalysts to the English Reformation.  A second example to how religion and a specific individual provided influence in Henry’s reign included Anne Boleyn.  Anne assisted in the downfall of Henry’s first marriage by attracting the King’s attention, and she also introduced new Lutheran ideas to the King during a period where great changes were happening in the English church.  Anne and her new religious ideas were pivotal in impacting Henry’s marriage as well as religion in England.  A third instance in which an individual as well as religion had an impact on Henry’s reign was with Anne of Cleves.  Because Henry wanted to align with powers that were supportive of a reformation of the Catholic Church, he married Anne of Cleves.  This union involved a fourth marriage as well as underscored how religious forces, which brought the marriage together, were imperative to the reign of Henry VIII.  Though the historical forces of specific individuals as well as religion were evident in King Henry VIII’s rule, his time in power was made distinct by the numerous marriages that induced many changes in religion of England.  King Henry VIII left not only a legacy of religious policy changes but also a legacy regarding his children and the impact they would eventually have on future generations in England. 


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