Frequently asked questions
- Why is Henry VIII so famous?
- Who were the Tudors?
- Why were they called the Tudors?
- How long did Henry VIII reign?
- When was Henry VIII born?
- Who were Henry VIII's parents?
- Did Henry VIII have any brothers and sisters?
- How old was Henry VIII when he came to the throne?
- Why do you spell Katherine of Aragon with a 'K'?
- Who were Katherine of Aragon's parents?
- How old were Henry VIII and Katherine when they got married?
- How long were Henry VIII and Katherine married?
- How many children did Katherine of Aragon have?
- Why did Henry VIII divorce Katherine of Aragon?
- How did Katherine of Aragon die?
- How many times did Henry VIII marry and who were Henry's wives?
- Why did Henry marry six times?
- How long was Henry VIII with each wife?
- How old was Henry VIII at his weddings?
- Where did Henry VIII's wives come from?
- Why did Henry VIII behead his wives?
- How many mistresses did Henry have?
- Did Henry VIII have any children?
- Was Henry VIII really fanciable compared to other Tudor men?
- Did Henry VIII ever exercise?
- What illnesses did Henry VIII have?
- How big was Henry VIII?
- Did Henry VIII execute a lot of people?
- When did Henry VIII die?
- Who succeeded him?
Henry VIII is famous for two reasons – he was a larger-than-life character whose enormous bodyweight, extravagant lifestyle, ruthlessness and succession of wives have fascinated and horrified people ever since, and because during his reign, important political, economic and religious changes occurred which have shaped society ever since.
The Tudors were the ruling dynasty in England between 1485 and 1603. They were:
- Henry VII (1485-1509)
- Henry VIII (1509-1547)
- Edward VI (1547-1553)
- Lady Jane Grey (for nine days in 1553)
- Mary I (1553-1558)
- Elizabeth I (1558-1603)
Henry VII was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the son of Princess Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, and Margaret Beauford, who was a descendant of King Edward III through an illegitimate line. After his accession to the throne, following his defeat of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII promptly married Elizabeth of York to stifle any alternate claims to the throne. Henry VIII was their second son.
They were called the Tudors because Henry VII was otherwise known as Henry Tudor. He was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the son of Princess Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, and Margaret Beauford, who was a descendant of King Edward III through an illegitimate line. Henry Tudor became Henry VII when he won the throne from King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and his son and grandchildren continued the Tudor dynasty until 1603.
Henry VIII ruled for 37 years, 9 months and 6 days.
Prince Henry, later Henry VIII, was born at Greenwich Palace on 28th June 1491.
Henry was the 2nd son of King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York.
Henry VIII’s father, King Henry VII (or Henry Tudor), was born in 1457. He won the crown of England at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 where he defeated and killed King Richard III. This battle ended ‘the Wars of the Roses’. Henry VII was 28 when he became king and ruled for 24 years until his death on 21 April 1509, at the age of 52. Although he won the throne in battle, he became quite a ‘bureaucratic king’.
Henry VIII’s mother was a princess, Elizabeth of York (or Elizabeth Plantagenet). She was born in 1465. Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of an earlier king, Edward IV, the niece of Richard III, and the sister of ‘the Princes in the Tower’. Elizabeth married Henry VII in 1486. Their marriage created a union between the two warring houses of Lancaster (Red Rose) and York (White Rose). The Tudor Rose, which is red and white, symbolises this union. Elizabeth died in childbirth at the Tower of London in 1503 on her 38th birthday, when Henry was 11 years old.
Henry had seven siblings but only three survived infancy, and only his two sisters, Margaret and Mary, survived to see his accession in 1509.
His elder brother, Arthur, was born in 1486 and was Henry VII’s heir-apparent, the Prince of Wales. Arthur married the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon in 1501, when he was 15 and she was 14 but the marriage only lasted five months as Arthur died suddenly at Ludlow Castle in 1502, possibly of pulmonary tuberculosis.
Henry’s sister, Princess Margaret, was born in 1489. She became Queen of Scotland in 1504 when she married King James IV of Scotland and became the mother of King James V of Scotland in 1513. After James IV was defeated and killed by Henry VIII’s army at the Battle of Flodden (1513), Margaret married Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, in 1514. She divorced him (ironically) in 1527 and married Henry Stuart. Margaret died in 1541 at the age of 52.
Princess Mary was born in 1496. Mary was betrothed to the future Emperor Charles V in 1508 but their marriage never took place. Instead, Henry VIII married her to King Louis XII of France in 1514. Louis was aged 52 and Mary 18 but Mary was only Queen of France for three months as Louis soon died. Mary then quickly married Henry VIII’s close companion Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Their daughter, Frances, was the mother of Lady Jane Grey, ‘the nine day queen’. Mary died on 25 June 1533.
Prince Henry was 17 years old when he was proclaimed King Henry VIII on 22 April 1509.
In the 16th century, people were less hung up on spelling than we are today, and spellings were not standardised or fixed. This is why the names of Henry’s wives can be spelt in a variety of ways. Katherine of Aragon could be spelt ‘Catalina’, which was the Spanish version, or ‘Katharine’, which is written on her tomb at Peterborough. We chose to spell Katherine with a ‘K’ because everywhere her initial appears with Henry’s initial, ‘H’ – for instance in the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511, it says ‘H&K’.
Katherine of Aragon’s parents were King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile.
When Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon married on 11 June 1509 in the Franciscan church at Greenwich Palace, he was 17 and she was 23.
Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon were married for 23 years and 11 months, more than twice as long as all his other marriages put together.
Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon had only one surviving daughter, Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I (1553-1558), born on 18 February 1516 at Greenwich Palace. But Katherine gave birth to five other children who did not survive. They were:
- A daughter, miscarried or stillborn, many weeks premature on 31 January 1510
- Prince Henry, born on 1 January 1511 at Richmond Palace, but died on 22 February 1511, at Richmond
- A son, who was born and died in November 1513, at Richmond Palace
- A son, who was born and died, or stillborn, in November or December 1514
- A daughter, who was born and died on 9-10 November 1518
Henry annulled his marriage to Katherine of Aragon for two reasons:
- She was unable to bear him the son that he needed to secure the dynasty (see ‘Why did Henry marry six times?’)
- He fell head over heels in love with Anne Boleyn, who refused to be his mistress and would only accept him through marriage
But Henry said that he wanted to ‘divorce’ Katherine of Aragon because it had been wrong for Pope Julius II to grant him a dispensation to marry Katherine as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur.
According to Leviticus 18.16, the union of a man with his brother’s widow is contrary to the law of God and Henry argued that this remained the case, despite the papal dispensation (Henry overlooked Deuteronomy 25.5 which instructed a man to marry his brother’s widow).
Henry attributed their childlessness to this transgression of God’s law and on 23 May 1533, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry’s marriage to Katherine null and void. Princess Mary was declared illegitimate, and the marriage of Henry to Katherine was deemed never to have occurred.
Katherine became ill in late December 1535. She died about 2pm on Friday 7 January 1536 at Kimbolton, aged 50. The cause of her death may have been ‘a melanotic carcinoma’ but was diagnosed at the time as ‘slow poisoning’. Katherine was buried on 29 January 1536 in Peterborough Abbey.
By most measures, Henry VIII had six wives, two of whom he executed. They were:
|1. Katherine of Aragon||Married, 11 June 1509||‘Divorced’, 23 May 1533|
|2. Anne Boleyn||Married, 25 January 1533||‘Beheaded’, 19 May 1536|
|3. Jane Seymour||Married, 30 May 1536||‘Died’, 24 October 1537|
|4. Anne of Cleves||Married, 6 January 1540||‘Divorced’, 9-12 July, 1540|
|5. Katherine Howard||Married, 28 July 1540||‘Beheaded’, 15 February, 1542|
|6. Kateryn Parr||Married, 12 July 1543||‘Survived’|
However, technically, as his marriages to Katherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and Anne Boleyn were annulled (Anne Boleyn’s marriage was annulled before her execution), Henry VIII only had three wives.
Henry married for different reasons every time but a central motive for all his marriages was his search for an heir. Henry – and most people at the time – believed that one of his principal responsibilities as king was to produce an adult male heir (that is, aged 15-20) who could succeed him peacefully when he died to secure his dynasty.
Having daughters wasn’t sufficient because princesses were often married to other kings and princes, and Henry feared that if one of his daughters became queen then England would be ruled, or dominated, by a foreign power.
Children could not rule as monarchs by themselves. Instead their powers were given to individual ‘regents’ or to groups of councillors. Disputes over the regency or between councillors could be very bloody, endangering the security, peace and prosperity of the country.
For the 50 years or so before Henry VIII became king, England had been in an on-off state of civil war as Henry’s father’s and mother’s families fought over the crown. Henry VIII – and the country – wanted a secure line of princes to ensure this didn’t happen again.
Henry – and others – were worried that if he didn’t have one or more sons by his early thirties (at the latest) then he might die in his fifties without an adult male heir. So, when Katherine of Aragon seemed unable to bear a healthy, living son and had reached her forties, when further childbirth seemed unlikely, Henry was desperate to re-marry and secure his dynasty. Anne Boleyn also was unable to give him the son he needed, and her miscarriage of a boy child was undoubtedly an important factor in her fall from grace and subsequent execution.
His next wife, Jane Seymour, did give birth to a son: she was the mother of Edward, later Edward VI, but she died of puerperal sepsis soon after childbirth. One son was no guarantee of a smooth succession as they might easily die (like Henry’s elder brother, Arthur). To have more sons remained a political and national priority for Henry.
He married Anne of Cleves for this reason, for diplomacy and because he liked the look of her picture but she did not please him, and Catherine Howard had caught his eye. He was convinced that this young woman would bear him many more sons, but her infidelity led to her downfall. He married Kateryn Parr when she was 31-32 (the same age as Anne Boleyn had been when he married her) for her wit, wisdom and intelligence, as much as anything else. She didn’t bear him a child – but could have done: she had a daughter with her fourth and last husband, Thomas Seymour.
Henry was right to worry! His only son, Edward, was only 9 years old when Henry died and suffered from weak health, dying at the age of 15 in 1553.
The lengths of Henry’s marriages (in order of length):
|Katherine of Aragon||23 years and 11 months +|
|Kateryn Parr||3 years and 6 months +|
|Anne Boleyn||3 years and 3 months +|
|Katherine Howard||2 years and 6 months +|
|Jane Seymour||1 year and 4 months +|
|Anne of Cleves||6 months +|
This list shows the age that Henry was at each of his weddings, and the age of his bride.
|Katherine of Aragon (23)||Henry (17)|
|Anne Boleyn (31-32)||Henry (41)|
|Jane Seymour (26-27)||Henry (44)|
|Anne of Cleves (24)||Henry (48)|
|Katherine Howard (17-22)||Henry (49)|
|Kateryn Parr (31)||Henry (52)|
Katherine of Aragon came from Spain as she was the daughter of King Ferdinand V of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile.
Anne Boleyn was maid-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, and part of a court family. Her parents were Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Ormond and Wiltshire, and Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, the second Duke of Norfolk and sister of the third.
Jane Seymour was maid-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Her parents were Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall, and Margery Wentworth. Jane claimed royal blood through descent from Edward III.
Anne of Cleves was the daughter of the daughter of Johann III, duke of Juliers Cleves and Maria, heir of Juliers, from the Netherlands.
Katherine Howard was maid-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. She was Anne Boleyn’s cousin and daughter of Lord Edmund Howard (younger son of Thomas Howard, second duke of Norfolk) and his first wife, Elizabeth Tilney.
Kateryn Parr was maid-in-waiting to Princess Mary. She was daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal, Westmorland, and Maud Green, and was probably named after her godmother Katherine of Aragon. Her brother, William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, was one of three men who put Lady Jane Grey on the throne of England. She was married twice before Henry - to Edward Borough and to Sir John Neville.
Henry had two of his wives beheaded for infidelity which counted as high treason when committed by a queen.
Anne Boleyn was arrested for witchcraft, alleged adultery with Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton and incest with her brother, George, Lord Rochford on 2 May 1536 and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. It is very unlikely that she was guilty of any of these offences. Anne was beheaded (with a sword) at the Tower of London on 19 May 1536 - she was about 36.
Katherine Howard was arrested for her premarital sexual activity with Francis Dereham, and her alleged marital infidelity with Thomas Culpeper. She was not brought to trial. Instead she and her aide, Lady Rochford, were condemned under a bill of attainder introduced into the House of Lords on 21 January 1542, which received the king's assent on 11 February. She was beheaded on 13 February 1542 at 9am. The primary cause of her execution was arguably that she had not been courageous or wise enough to confess her illicit past to Henry when he proposed marriage.
In both cases, Henry probably had them executed because having idealised them, their failures – to have a son or to love him – enraged him and brought out his cruel streak.
We know of only three mistresses.
Henry had an affair with Elizabeth Blount, a maid of honour to the Queen. Their son Henry Fitzroy (‘Fitzroy’ means illegitimate king’s son), later Duke of Richmond, was born in 1519 and was Henry VIII’s only recognised illegitimate child.
He also had a brief affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary Boleyn, who later became Mary Carey, in the 1520s. Finally, when Anne Boleyn was still Queen, Mary Shelton, Anne’s first cousin, became his mistress for about six months before Henry became interested in Jane Seymour.
Henry VIII had four surviving children.
- Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I, born 1516 to Katherine of Aragon.
- Henry Fitzroy, born 1519, to Elizabeth Blount.
- Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, born 1533 to Anne Boleyn.
- Prince Edward, later King Edward VI, born 1536 to Jane Seymour.
Find out more about Henry VIII's children
The answer, at least up until his 40s, seems to be a resounding yes. Henry was tall, well-built and athletic in his youth. He loved sport and was charismatic, energetic and charming. He was also good-looking: a medal of his profile from c. 1525 by Lucas Horenbout shows his aquiline nose and strong jaw-line. The attractiveness of men’s bodies in the sixteenth century was described by the beauty of their legs and Henry VIII was widely renowned to have a fine calf!
In the first twenty years of his reign, Henry was very athletic and spent a lot of time jousting, hunting, wrestling, shooting, dancing and playing tennis. He was incredibly fit and energetic. After his fall from his horse in 1536 and with his chronic leg ulcer, he was less and less able to participate in sport which was a factor in his increasing obesity in his later years.
Henry suffered an attack of smallpox in February 1514 and an attack of malaria in 1521 and occasionally thereafter, especially in 1541. He was prone to headaches, sore throats and catarrh.
He hurt his left foot playing tennis in 1527 and again in 1529. His greatest accident was in January 1536 when he fell from his horse whilst jousting. He was unconscious for two hours, and Anne Boleyn blamed her subsequent miscarriage of a male child on the shock at Henry’s fall.
Henry had a chronic leg ulcer, first mentioned in 1528 but possibly aggravated by his fall in 1536. The ulcer often became inflamed and Henry did not rest long enough for it to heal.
Towards the end of his life he had enormously swollen, dropsical legs, due to chronic heart failure and his obesity.
There is no evidence that Henry VIII was syphilitic. It is possible though that he suffered from some form of depression in the second half of his life, with a particular bout in 1541.
For more on Henry’s medical health, see, Milo Keynes ‘The Personality and Health of King Henry VIII (1491-1547)’, Journal of Medical Biography (2005), 13, 174-183.
He was a large man. He was 6ft 2” tall.
Aged 23 (1514), his chest circumference was 42 inches, and his waist 35 inches.
After 1528, he gradually became more stout and by 1536, his chest measurement was 45 inches, and waist 37 inches.
Yet, by 1541, aged 50, he had become enormous - with a chest measurement of 57 inches and a waist measurement of 54 inches.
Especially large horses had to be used to carry him, and by 1545, he started using a sort of wheelchair, a chair called a ‘tramme’ to carry him between his chambers, and a lift to lift him up and down stairs.
Estimates vary widely. Some suggest that as many as 72,000 people were executed during his reign, yet other estimates are much lower. It was a violent age and, compared to other monarchs, he was not considered particularly bloodthirsty. It was his daughter, Mary, who would earn the epithet, ‘Bloody’.
Henry VIII died early on Friday, 28 January 1547 at Whitehall Palace. He was aged 55. He probably died of chronic heart failure. He was buried in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle on 16 February 1547, next to his third (and favourite) queen, Jane Seymour.
Henry VIII was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, who reigned 1547-1553. Edward was followed by his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who reigned for nine days, then by his sister Mary, later Mary I, who reigned 1553-1558, and his sister Elizabeth, who became Elizabeth I, and ruled England until 1603. As Elizabeth did not marry or bear children, after her the throne passed to James VI of Scotland of the Stuart dynasty who became James I of England.