‘Golden prince’ turned bloated bully. But was this infamous king all bad?
Henry VIII’s desperate desire for an heir drove him to acts of shocking cruelty and changed England’s religion. But he wasn’t always the obese wife-killer we think of today.
The popular image of Henry VIII marrying and discarding six wives in equally quick succession is not true. Henry was first married, aged 17, to his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, aged 23. They were married, apparently happily, for nearly 24 years. Henry’s desperation for a male heir drove him to finally divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn.
When Anne failed to produce a son she was dispatched within three years. Wife number three, Jane Seymour, successfully delivered an heir, dying in the process. Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled after six months. Marrying young Catherine Howard for love ended badly after just two years. Henry finally settled with Katherine Parr, who survived him.
Despite Henry’s womanising reputation, we know of only three mistresses, among them Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary.
Image: King Henry VIII, @ National Portrait Gallery
Who was the real Henry VIII? Discover more about Henry VIII and 16th-century England from leading experts.
Henry was once described as ‘the best-dressed sovereign in the world’. His outfits were more sumptuous versions of standard Tudor male costume, gown, doublet and hose. Descriptions still survive: an outfit he ordered in 1537 was ‘crimson velvet embroidered all over with damask gold and pearls and stones’.
Henry’s favourite Tudor bonnet was garnished with eight great rubies set in gold, garnished with diamonds and pearls. Henry’s nightshirts were silk and he had lots of shoes and slippers, even boots for playing Tudor-style football and special hunting boots.
On important occasions of state, Henry wore his ceremonial robes, made for his coronation in 1509. This fabulous outfit included a show-stopping, floor-length train made of gold brocade line with ermine.
Image: King Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger, © National Portrait Gallery
Henry wanted anyone who came to Hampton Court to be dazzled by his wealth and power. He made the palace even more magnificent after taking it from Cardinal Wolsey during the mid 1520s'.
The King hired Europe’s finest craftsmen and gardeners spent the equivalent of millions in today’s money extending and improving, creating magnificent apartments for his wives and his son.
He rebuilt the Great Hall and extended the Kitchens to cater for his huge court.
Henry also commissioned fabulous tapestries for his walls, woven with silk and gold thread that glittered in the candlelight.
Henry at 17, unusually tall for a Tudor, athletic and handsome. He won the admiration of both men and women, described as ‘the handsomest potentate’ and a ‘golden’ prince.
Henry began to wear a beard permanently in 1535. As a young man he wore his auburn hair in a long bob; however, at 44 he had it cropped short (to hide balding, perhaps?) and commanded all men at court to do the same!
This is a famous image Henry in his mid-40s painted by Holbein. His face is becoming more slab-like, his strong body starting to thicken. A bad injury in 1536 restricted Henry’s physical activity, while he continued to eat vast amounts, and he piled on the weight.
In his 50s Henry was massive and barely able to walk or climb stairs. The slender young man had become a truly monstrous monarch, who needed the help of a 'tramme' a Tudor wheelchair, to get about.
An English Church
When the Pope refused to grant the annulment he wanted from Katherine of Aragon, Henry separated England from the Roman Catholic Church. The controversial 1534 Act of Supremacy declared Henry head of the English Church. Today, the monarch is still head of the Church of England.
Henry was also the first English king to commission a translation of the Bible, and his Reformation ushered in sweeping changes to the religious life of the kingdom, spearheaded by his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. But he remained a Catholic himself.
Money from monasteries
Henry and Cromwell oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536-40. This changed the architectural and religious face of Britain. Hundreds of religious houses and monasteries were destroyed and their valuable contents confiscated by the crown.
The sale of monastic property created a land market in England, which enriched a rising new class of country gentlemen. Henry used Dissolution cash to found the Navy, building the warships which later defeated the Spanish Amada. He also invested in dockyards and strengthening coastal defences.
Henry patronised innovation in both the arts and sciences. He promoted parliamentary government; he established efficient tax schemes and substantial new government bureaucracy. And he won respect for England in Europe.
Less admirable are his set of discriminatory laws that curtailed personal freedom and punished ‘difference’. Among them was the first law against witchcraft, passed in 1542, which had terrible consequences for (mainly) women who were persecuted over the next two centuries. The Buggery Act made homosexual activity punishable by death.
Although Henry’s eldest daughter is known as ‘Bloody Mary’, it was Henry himself who was by far the bloodiest of all the Tudor monarchs. He sent more men and women to their deaths than any other monarch, and did not flinch from ordering the executions of even those closest to him – wives included.
Image: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017