Henry VIII’s Stained Memory and Parting Mercy

Sooner or later, everyone has to face up to the fact that life is limited. What will we leave behind us?  Those who achieve fame through high office or great deeds leave memories and enduring consequences. Those who have children pass on a genetic potential that can flower in later generations.

Henry VIII of England was lucky enough to be a king, and he could seek both fame and children with all the power at his command. He endures today in histories, novels and movies, though probably not as he would have wished. The first thing that springs to mind about him are his wives and divorces, a pattern of death and broken promises that stains his memory.

When Henry was born, his older brother, Prince Arthur, was the heir to the throne. At fifteen, Arthur married a princess from Spain, Katharine of Aragon. She was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile, joint monarchs who had reconquered all of Spain from the Moors and ruled over Sardinia, Sicily and Naples as well. Through her mother, Katherine claimed descent from the Duke of Lancaster, an English connection that strengthened Arthur’s own lineage. But Arthur fell ill and died, and the marriage was never consummated. Katherine became a widow. Her brother-in-law, Henry, was destined to be king.

On April 22, 1509, the old king died and Henry VIII, almost 18 years of age, was proclaimed. He was handsome, strong and intelligent, gifted in languages and music. He quickly decided to marry the widowed Princess Katherine (right), but there was a hitch. Church law generally prohibited a man from marrying his brother’s widow, although if the previous marriage was childless and unconsummated, both the Bible and Church precedent could permit a dispensation. The Pope himself authorised Henry and Katherine to marry. It seems the marriage was successful, and on Katherine’s part entirely faithful. Coming from a foreign kingdom, she was free of any English family who would have expected royal favours. When Henry went away to war in France in 1513, he trusted her to act as regent. She faced a Scottish invasion, but rallied her troops and had the joy of a great victory. Unfortunately, despite six pregnancies, Katherine gave birth to only one healthy child, Mary (later to be the Queen). Her four male babies were stillborn or short-lived.

In 1519, Henry had a mistress who bore him a son. Far from being embarrassed, Henry openly acknowledged the boy as his own with the surname, Fitzroy, traditionally given to illegitimate royal sons. (Fitzroy was later made a duke and Lord Lieutenant in Ireland but died in 1536.) The King went on to have other mistresses.

About 1525, he became infatuated with Anne Boleyn, but she insisted that only marriage would bring her to his bed. In 1527, Henry began discreet inquiries about having the Pope annul his marriage to Katherine, now 40 years old and no longer able to bear children. Church law did not recognise divorce, but did provide that if a true marriage had never taken place, because of some impediment, then the man and the woman were free to part and marry others, with children of an annulled marriage remaining legitimate.

Henry’s discreet inquiries yielded nothing, but he was determined to bring the matter to a head. In 1529 he agreed to a formal hearing in London before his own Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and the Pope Clent VII’s nominee, Cardinal Campeggio. To succeed, Henry had to show that the Pope’s 1509 dispensation was invalid. He cited the general Biblical prohibition on marrying a brother’s wife in Leviticus, but left out the exception in Deuteronomy:25:5. He also claimed Katharine and his elder brother, Arthur, had consummated their marriage, the opposite of what the Pope had been told back in 1509[1].

Katherine opposed annulment, and at the hearing challenged Henry to his face to deny her virginity when she married him. He did not. She refused to participate further unless the case was heard in an unbiased court, and with benefit of her own legal advisers. Under pressure from Katherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the Pope recalled the case to Rome. For reasons that had nothing to do with Katherine, an army of Charles V had besieged Rome in 1527, sacked the city and held the Pope prisoner. Pope and Emperor were now reconciled (below), but Charles opposed any annulment. As the most powerful prince in Europe and chief defender of the Christian world against the invading Ottoman Turks, he was persuasive[2]. Cardinal Wolsey’s failure to get an annulment cost him his office, his wealth and ultimately his life. He was sent away to the north, but in 1530 summoned back to answer a charge of treason. He died while returning to London.

Meanwhile, Clent had forbidden Henry to marry Anne Boleyn until the case was decided. Argument and inquiries dragged on. The Pope delayed a decision, hoping Henry might let the matter drop and avoid a split between Rome and England. In December 1532, Henry grew tired of waiting and married Anne, first secretly but then publicly in January 1533. He appointed her chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer convened a church court which retrospectively annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine and validated Henry’s marriage to Anne. The Pope and his cardinals responded by publishing their own judgement upholding Katherine’s marriage and rejecting Henry’s new one.

In 1534, Henry’s ‘Reformation Parliament’ passed Acts of Supremacy and Succession that declared the King the ‘supreme head’ of the Church in England in place of the Pope, and declared royal daughter Mary a bastard. Katherine was degraded from Queen to ‘Princess Dowager’, and confined in various houses and castles in rural England until her death. It was made treason to deny the lawfulness of Henry’s new title in the Church, or the validity of his marriage to Anne or her own title as Queen. Those who would not take a solemn oath in support for these changes faced the most severe penalties. In 1535, Cardinal Fisher and Wolsey’s successor as Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, were executed for their refusal.

Henry’s new marriage, though proclaimed a sacred union for life was a short-lived contract. He made Anne a queen, and she had to make a son but proved unable to keep the bargain. She had only one surviving child, a daughter, Elizabeth (later the Queen after her step-sister Mary), and suffered several miscarriages. Henry’s love turned into hatred. In 1536, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell (left) contrived Anne’s trial, condemnation and execution for treason, along with five other men, including her brother, who had supposedly committed adultery with her, charges generally regarded as false[3]. The marriage was annulled for reasons never made public, and daughter Elizabeth was also declared a bastard. Henry was once again legally a bachelor. Royal marriage had become a game, described in the satirical book on English history 1066 And All That:

Henry VIII was a strong King with a very strong sense of humour. He invented a game called ‘Bluff King Hal’ which he invited his ministers to play with him. The players were blindfolded and knelt down with their heads on a block of wood; they then guessed whom the King would marry next[4].

Eleven days after Anne’s execution in May 1536, Henry married Jane Seymour who had been a maid of honour to Anne, and whom he had been courting for some time. Her demeanour was more reserved and formal and less extravagant than Anne’s. The following year, 1537, Jane bore Henry a son (to become Edward VI) but she died soon afterwards.

Henry remained unmarried for two years, although he started another game of ‘Bluff King Hal’ with his ministers around May 1538. Would he marry a noblewoman from France, the Habsburg Duchess of Milan or a lady from among the Protestant principalities and dukedoms of Germany? In 1539, Cromwell persuaded him to pick Anne (right), daughter of the Protestant Duke of Cleves, a duchy next to the Netherlands. Unfortunately for Cromwell, Henry quickly came to dislike her and to resent Cromwell’s overbearing influence. Cromwell lost the game and was executed for treason in 1540. Anne survived. By agreement, her marriage was annulled for non-consummation, which provoked speculation about Henry’s virility.

There were no children from Henry’s last two marriages. The fifth wife, Catherine Howard, aged about 19, was far younger than any of Henry’s other wives, with less education — and a secret unknown to the King. She had had a sexual relationship with a man called Francis Dereham before there was any notion of a royal marriage. After she married Henry, she made Dereham her secretary but only to keep him quiet about her past. Foolishly, she allowed one of the King’s courtiers who had become infatuated with her to visit her bedchamber without witnesses. Gossip spread. Archbishop Cranmer (left) found out the truth and broke the news to Henry. Catherine, Dereham and the courtier all denied adultery, but were still condemned and executed for intending to commit it. The noble lady in waiting who connived at the private visits to the bedchamber was also executed[5].

The sixth wife, Catherine Parr, tended Henry through his last years and re-united him with all his children. In 1544 Henry had a third Act of Succession passed which restored all the children of his marriages as princes and heirs: Edward first, then the two girls in order of age — Mary and Elizabeth. Yet even Catherine Parr survived only by the skin of her teeth. In 1546, Henry was veering back towards traditional religious views, and she quarrelled with him about it. Suspected of heresy, articles were drawn up against her and approved by the King. The day before her scheduled arrest, the charges were suddenly dropped when Catherine submitted herself humbly to her husband. 

Henry died In January 1547. Just to be rid of his wives, he had 13 people executed for treason, and one died charged with treason, though none of them was plotting to kill or to overthrow him.

The unravelling of Henry’s marriages revealed him at his worst. He began as a king, the source of justice and honour. To break his first marriage, he impugned his queen’s virginity but would not say so to her face. To end his second marriage, he permitted his wife to be cast as a serial adulteress, even with her own brother, in a case generally disbelieved by historians today and doubted even then by those who dared to freely speak their minds. His third marriage brought the longed-for legitimate son, but also the sudden death of Jane, his wife. The annulment of his marriage to Anne of Cleves showed a man not fulfilling his duty to his wife. Catherine Howard, his young and indiscreet fifth wife, saw Henry indulging in a foolish dream of youth and romance. His sixth marriage to a mature and intelligent woman better fitted his dignity, but was haunted by fear. In his marriages, the King was a faithless husband, a liar and a killer.

Of all the monarchs on the throne of England, Henry was the only one to renounce his marriages[1]. In the courts of France and the Holy Roman Empire, Henry’s behaviour was considered indecent and unworthy of a king. He was, in his day, the most married man in Christian Europe. For all that, his bloodline died out in the next generation. Edward VI died childless at the age of 15. Mary reigned after him and married Philip II of Spain, son and heir of Emperor Charles V, but they had no issue. Finally, Elizabeth I reigned for 47 years, married only to her kingdom and never to a husband.

Today, we still wonder about what, if anything, of ourselves may survive our death, though we occupy a far less exalted state than Henry VIII. He did leave us something relevant to our question which has endured over the generations — the Anglican church. On Ash Wednesday this year, one of its priests stood in a pulpit to say:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. No equivocation, no typical polite Anglican sugar coating. There is no other moment in the prayer book of the Church that looks us more directly in the eye, that reminds us without equivocation that our time on this earthly journey is limited and will end.

For in words unspoken, but clearly heard, as the ashes are imposed, we are asked: what are you going to do with the time that remains for you in this journey? …For us, the good might well still prevail, and with it glimpses of heaven, if we will let it in[2].

Whether through this Church, left to us by Henry VIII and his heirs, or by another, we are offered a different path through death to survival and renewal.

Michael Dunn is a regular contributor


[1]  George, the Duke and Elector of Braunschweig-Lüneburg [Hanover], divorced his wife in1694, but twenty years before he inherited the English throne as George I. George IV tried to divorce Queen Caroline in 1820 but Parliament refused to permit it.

[2]  Fr Robert Ficks, ‘Sermon for Ash Wednesday’, Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney, 2020,


[1]  Philip Campbell, ‘The Canon Law of the Henry VIII Divorce Case’, thesis, Madonna University, Michigan, 2009 at

[2]  Geoffrey Parker, Emperor: a new life of Charles V, New Haven, 2019, pp.191-2

[3]  Diarmaid McCulloch, Thomas Cromwell: A Life, London, 2018, p. 339

[4]  W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1066 And All That, London, 1969 edition, pp. 61-2.

[5]  Gareth Russell, Young and Damned and Fair: the Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII, London, 2018

One thought on “Henry VIII’s Stained Memory and Parting Mercy

  • padraic says:

    An excellent summary of the marriages of Henry VIII. Henry VIII is an interesting historical personage both from a secular and religious perspective. From a secular perspective the Church was powerful in society in terms of wealth, privileges and its own legal system. At the time of Henry VIII the position of the Church in secular society was being questioned as well as its religious teachings. Henry, largely because of his various marriages and falling out with the Church’s legal system, was opposed to the secular power of the Church in the national fabric but was unwilling to challenge religious belief and was supportive of it.
    His father, Henry VII (1485-1509), had stabilised the Monarchy after the social and political instability that began with the Plantagenet Edward III (1461-1483) down to when he took over in 1485 and established the Court of the Star Chamber which he used to push through his policies. This approach was the basis of strong royal government in England that Henry VIII inherited. It sidelined the traditional courts, traditionally in the hands of the lawyers because the king chose whom he pleased to sit as judges. These included a few lawyers, but the bulk were officials and nobles who basically carried out the King’s wishes. The role of lawyers in our history is one often overlooked. They were sidelined in the early Tudor period but had become more prominent by the time the Stuarts reigned and were complicit in the beheading of Charles I. Belloc goes into great detail as to the role of lawyers during this period.
    As an Australian far removed from Merrie England I had only gained knowledge from the standard history texts. Some focused on the wives, others looked at the politics or religious differences of the time, but I found the most interesting account was in “A Shorter History of England” by Hilaire Belloc. Belloc paints a more comprehensive picture than most by bringing together the dry political and legal aspects as well as the health and personal behaviour aspects. He also goes into great detail of the labyrinth of who married who and why. I recommend it to anyone interested in the period from Edward III down to Henry VIII.
    Learning history from books is one thing but as someone whose family Australian national history goes back to only 1855 I found it fascinating when visiting England on various occasions that local communities still had their knowledge of what happened hundreds of years previously. Incredible. Some people I met in Greenwich could point out parts of Greenwich Park where Henry VIII had held what we would call today “wild parties”. In Canterbury, just up from Roper Road, there is a huge old wooden gate still standing. I found out that the gate was the entrance to the property of William Roper who was the husband of Margaret, the daughter of St Thomas More. The property was now full of houses. It was part of the Manor of St Dunstans, a classic old church not far away on London Road and which I visited. Prior to the visit one of the locals told me that the head of Thomas More, preserved in a jar, was kept in the crypt below and I could view it for a small donation to the parish. I declined the invitation but left some money in the charity box. The local story was that when Thomas More was imprisioned in the Tower she went to London and brought him his food daily until he was beheaded in June 1535. Normally they would have put his head on a pike on London Bridge, pour encourager les autres , but she bribed the relevant official and wrapped her father’s head in cloth and went back to Canterbury where it obviously received more honourable treatment for such a great person.

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