Renaissance Prince or terrible Tudor? Who was the real Henry VIII?
Henry VIII’s reign (1509-47) is usually remembered for the King’s six wives and his legendary appetite. Infamously, he sent two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, to their deaths on the executioner’s block at the Tower of London. But it is too easy to think of Henry VIII simply as the terrible monster of his bloated old age, shuffling painfully though Hampton Court Palace.
Henry was once a vivacious little boy, his mother's favourite, adored and indulged until his elder brother Arthur’s death placed a huge, unexpected burden on this second son. Two years later Henry’s beloved mother Elizabeth of York died and his paranoid father Henry VII kept his precious heir cossetted and restricted.
Many of his actions as king still resonate today. It could be said that in many ways Henry VIII made our modern world. The break with Rome, the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries had profound and lasting effects. He was a paradox: a strong ruler, yet an anxious, insecure man. Henry was a ‘golden youth’ before a great series of losses and misadventures took their toll. Perhaps these go some way to explain his behaviour and gradual decline.
Henry VIII’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon lasted for over 20 years. After that, the King married five more times in a little over ten years!
Henry Tudor, Henry VIII’s father, was one of the last surviving heirs of the ‘House of Lancaster’, one of two powerful medieval royal families who fought over the throne for generations, during the Wars of the Roses.
Henry VII seized the throne at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, defeating Richard III, the last monarch from the ‘House of York’, the Lancastrians’ great rivals.
As Henry VII, the new king sought to bring an end to war by marrying Elizabeth of York, while his clever political and financial management returned England to some sort of stability.
Henry VII, The Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 404743
Henry was born at Greenwich Palace on 28 June 1491. He had an elder brother Arthur (1486-1502), and two sisters, Margaret (1489-1541) and Mary (1496-1533).
All hopes for a Tudor dynasty rested on the elder boy Arthur. Henry was a bonus and destined for a pleasurable life as a prince.
Both of Henry VIII’s sisters became queens: Margaret married James IV of Scotland in 1503 and Mary married Louis XII of France in 1514. When he died, she married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon c1503-9. The painter included Henry's siblings who died at birth or soon afterwards. © Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 401228
While Henry VII and Elizabeth of York would have been pleased to have another male heir, the infant Henry was just the spare. Little official attention was given to his birth, compared to his elder brother Arthur. At five, Arthur was growing into a fine boy, clever and sporting.
Little is known about the relationship between the brothers, although it is known that Henry kept his late brother’s Garter robes throughout his life. They were raised mostly apart. Soon after Henry’s christening he was sent to join his sister Margaret at Eltham Palace to be raised in a predominantly female household, presided over by his doting mother.
In 1501, when Henry was 10, Arthur married Katherine of Aragon. As younger brother, Henry escorted the young Spanish princess, who he later described to his father as ‘a beautiful creature’.
Suddenly, Arthur fell ill and died on 2 April 1502. Henry was 11.
Life changed overnight for Prince Henry. He ceased to be in an all-female household. His father appointed several new male attendants to help prepare the boy for his new role. Henry’s mother seldom visited. She was expecting another baby although the pregnancy was not progressing well.
In February 1503 Elizabeth of York gave birth prematurely at the Tower of London. Within a few days, both she and her infant daughter died, plunging the family into fresh grief. An illuminated manuscript from the time, once belonging to Henry VII, shows Prince Henry weeping into the sheets of his mother’s empty bed.
Elizabeth of York by an unknown artist, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1500. @ National Portrait Gallery, London
Two years later, just before his 13th birthday, young Henry joined the royal household. But rather than encouraging his son’s independence, his paranoid father kept him cossetted and restricted, scrutinising every aspect of his upbringing. Whenever the Prince wished to go out to hunt or joust he had to be accompanied at all times.
This must have been as frustrating for the young Henry as it was for others at court. The Spanish ambassador complained that no-one could see the Prince, and that he was ‘kept like a girl’.
But as he grew into a young man, Henry flourished. Charming and accomplished, he wrote music and poetry and threw himself into all the sports of the Tudor court – hunting, jousting, wrestling, swordplay, hawking and tennis. He was described as ‘a golden prince’ and a ‘universal genius’.
Portrait of Henry VIII (1491-1547), c1509, The Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum, USA / Bridgeman Images
Henry VII died in April 1509. Henry VIII was only 17, but his youthful vigour and his dual Yorkist and Lancastrian blood made him the physical embodiment of a new beginning for the English nation.
As was the custom, set by generations of medieval monarchs, Henry spent the night before his coronation at the Tower of London, before processing to Westminster Abbey. The Tower was the nation's oldest and most symbolic royal residence. Taking control of the Tower meant taking control of the country.
Henry would be the first adult prince to inherit the throne peacefully from his father in almost 100 years.
Henry was 1.87m tall (6ft 2in). The average Londoner measured 1.70m (5ft 5in).
Virtually Henry’s first act as king in 1509 was to marry the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon. After her brief marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur in 1501, Katherine had been left stranded in England while wrangling over the final part of her unpaid dowry continued.
At 23, she was over five years older than Henry, and we know little of what they felt for each other. Perhaps they were in love, perhaps they had a mutual affection based on their new freedoms, released from the restrictions imposed by Henry’s controlling father. Certainly, Katherine’s family connections were an asset for a young king intent on making his mark in Europe.
Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536), first wife of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), © Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
On midsummer’s day 1509, Henry and Katherine were crowned before a multitude of adoring Londoners in Westminster Abbey.
The streets of London were decorated with tapestries and cloth of gold, and the magnificent spectacle set the tone for Henry’s reign. Henry and Katherine spent the next few months in a constant round of parties, tournaments and feasts.
As partners, Henry and Katherine were well-matched. They shared a similar education and piety, loved finery and display, rode and hunted together.
Everywhere he went, Henry surrounded himself with rich displays of gold and silver. ‘He is the best-dressed sovereign in the world: his robes are the richest and most superb that can be imagined.’ [Sebastian Giustinian, Venetian Ambassador, 1519]
Naturally, Henry's armour made a powerful statement, too. This Tonlet armour (pictured) was put together in a very short space of time by the armourers at Greenwich for the King to wear at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. The masterful armourers adapted a number of existing pieces and created this beautiful suit.
Etched decorations include figures of St George, the Virgin and Child, and Tudor roses. The armour also reflected Henry's fashion sense; the shape of the breastplate and tonlet (skirt) mimic the jerkin with flared skirt popular during his reign.
Henry VIII's tonlet armour, © Royal Armouries
Henry believed he could even rekindle England’s ancient claim for the throne of France.
In 1513, Henry VIII led an army across the Channel and captured the French town of Thérouanne and city of Tournai.
Yet Henry VIII also appreciated the value and importance of peace treaties.
He believed rulers should provide justice and prosperity for their people, and strive to establish peace between nations.
Henry VIII is pictured here leading a cavalry charge against the French army. Except Henry wasn’t actually there: the King’s Council refused to let him take part.
The Battle of the Spurs (detail), a painting commemorating Henry VIII's early military triumph in France in 1513. Henry VIII is depicted on horseback at the centre of the melee. The French Chevalier Bayard kneels before him in surrender. This was probably painted for Henry VIII. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 406784
If Henry could not seize the French crown by force, he could instead place England, and the Tudors, ‘at the heart of Europe’. In 1520, Henry and Katherine travelled to France for a two-week European summit with the new young French king, Francis I. The ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ was one of the most expensive festivals in history, with lavish temporary palaces and golden tents, jousting tournaments and choreographed mock battles, indulgent banquets and wine fountains.
The Field of the Cloth of Gold (detail), c1545, British School, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 405794
This astonishing painting depicts the King setting sail from Dover to Calais on 31 May 1520 to meet the French king Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold. More than a commemoration of a single event, it is a celebration of one of Henry’s most outstanding legacies; the establishment of the Royal Navy, the building of new warships and the creation of Royal Dockyards. Here, we can see 15 large warships, including five shown in the foreground.
The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover c. 1520-40 (detail), British School, 16th Century, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 405793
Henry VIII established a royal armoury at Greenwich. The King’s suits of armour, for battle and for tournaments, combined the latest technology but were also stylish and elaborate, with engraved decorations in silver and gold. Fabulous gifts of armour from one ruler to another were a great way to flatter a potential ally. This famous 'horned helmet' (pictured) made by Konrad Seusenhofer is all that remains of a suit of armour given to Henry by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1514. It’s likely that the horns were added later.
© Royal Armouries
Along with his gift of a suit of armour and horned helmet, in 1514 Emperor Maximilian I also presented Henry VIII with an even more fabulously embossed horse armour, or bard. The embossing was probably done by Fleming van Vrelant. It features details from the Order of the Golden Fleece, which Henry was awarded in 1505, and the pomegranate badge of his wife Katherine.
Horse armour, also known as the Burgundian bard, 1510, of Henry VIII, by Guillem Margot, © Royal Armouries
Glorious victories on the battlefield and magnificent European summits were all very well, but Henry VIII needed a son and heir to ensure the future of the Tudor dynasty and to avoid ensuing bloody competition over the crown.
In a world dominated by war and men, countries ruled by women were considered vulnerable to being acquired by others through marriage. It was a king’s principal responsibility to secure the peace and prosperity of his realm by having a son – a king-in-waiting.
Katherine’s first miscarriage occurred early in her marriage. She then gave birth to a son, christened Henry, on 1 January 1511. However, the couple’s joy was brief; the baby prince died within weeks.
In 1516, Katherine gave birth to Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I, but at least five other pregnancies ended in a heart-breaking series of miscarriages and still-births.
King Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c1520, © National Portrait Gallery London
As time passed, hopes of an heir began to fade. There were also other changes in the once strong marriage. Katherine turned 40 in 1525. She withdrew from the lively court life that Henry still enjoyed, becoming increasingly pious and devout.
Henry began to worry that his marriage might be cursed, as he had angered God by marrying his brother’s widow. He became obsessed with a quote from The Old Testament: ‘If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless.’ [Leviticus XX,21]
Katherine of Aragon by an unknown artist, reproduced by kind permission of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners
In 1526, Henry VIII fell in love with a younger woman. Anne Boleyn was charismatic, self-confident and unobtainable.
The King may have desired her as a mistress, but Anne held out for a greater prize.
Henry would need to divorce Katherine of Aragon before he could have Anne.
Anne was seen by some as a key, and unwelcome, influence on the King. Henry VIII's chief minister and close advisor Cardinal Wolsey, called her 'the night crow', cawing into the King's ear in the intimacy of night.
Anne Boleyn by an unknown English artist, late 16th century, © National Portrait Gallery
However, while Henry may have been longing to marry Anne, he couldn't free himself as quickly as he hoped from his first marriage. It took seven years for him to rid himself of his first wife. So all-consuming was Henry's desire for a divorce that it became known as the King's 'Great Matter'. Katherine resisted, and without her consent, Henry needed the Pope to grant him a divorce.
Katherine’s nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the most powerful ruler in Europe, and Charles controlled the Pope. Only Henry VIII’s force of will and use of his executive royal power made it possible. Encouraged by Protestant reformers who denied the authority of the Pope, Henry declared his independence from Rome in a series of Acts passed between 1532 and 1534.
Pope Clement VII, about 1531, Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Running out of patience with the fruitless negotiations with the Pope, Henry announced that his marriage with Katherine had never been valid, because of her previous relationship with his brother, Prince Arthur.
Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister and right-hand man in the 1520s, lost Hampton Court to the King in 1529 after he failed to solve the King’s ‘great matter’. He died, stripped of all his royal offices the following year.
Henry married Anne Boleyn publicly in January 1533 after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was declared 'null and void' by the obliging Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. The following year, the Act of Supremacy declared Henry 'the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England'.
Katherine of Aragon was left bereft, forbidden even to see her daughter Mary. She died three short years later.
Title page of the second “Great Bible”, also known as Cranmer's Bible, London, 1540. This particular Bible with its coloured title page was very probably Henry VIII’s personal copy. © British Library Board, C.18.d.10
Henry by now felt himself unstoppable. He insisted all acknowledge him, rather than the Pope, as God’s representative on earth. All those who refused were destroyed, including his chancellor, Thomas More, who was executed at the Tower of London in 1535.
However, the King's volatile temper meant that even his supporters needed to be careful. As More warned: You often boast to me that you have the King’s ear and have fun with him, freely … This is like having fun with tamed lions – often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal. (Latin Poems, #162, "To a Courtier")
Sir Thomas More after Hans Holbein the Younger, based on a work of 1527, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Having finally achieved his divorce from Katherine of Aragon by taking England out of the Catholic Church, Henry began the even longer process of separation from Rome. The process speeded up when the Pope excommunicated him in December 1533.
This more complex ‘divorce’ cost the Catholic Church dearly. In addition to being the Supreme Head of the Church in England, the King set his sights on reclaiming the huge amount of wealth and property amassed by the Church over the centuries.
Between 1536 and 1540, under the ambitious first minister Thomas Cromwell, over 800 religious houses were ruthlessly destroyed after being accused by Cromwell’s inspectors of ‘manifest sin, vicious carnal and abominable sin’. Their riches and land were seized, and monks and nuns turned out.
Portrait of Henry VIII of England, After Hans Holbein the Younger, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 404438
Henry stored much of the vast fortune in the royal treasury, or gifted it to his new ministers, ensuring their loyalty.
He also used the money to develop England’s navy and build new dockyards; he improved the machinery of central and local government and patronised innovation in science and the arts.
Hampton Court became the visible expression of Henry VIII’s new wealth - a royal pleasure palace.
Henry VIII's most famous residence, Hampton Court Palace was devoted to pleasure, celebration and ostentatious display. When Henry finished his building programme in around 1540, Hampton Court was the most modern, sophisticated and magnificent palace in England. All of Henry's six wives came to the palace and most had new and lavish lodgings. The King rebuilt his own rooms at least half a dozen times.
The Gatehouse at Hampton Court Palace
Henry's last great building project at the palace, the Chapel Royal was begun in 1535. The most important change was the addition of the fantastical ceiling, which still survives. The ceiling's components were carved at Sonning, several miles further up the River Thames, before being transported to Hampton Court and reassembled there.
The Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace
A reconstruction of the Great Watching Chamber at Hampton Court Palace as it may have appeared during the 16th century.
The Great Watching Chamber got its name from its position beyond the Great Hall, were members of Yeoman of the Guard were stationed to ‘watch’ and control access into the more private royal apartments.
© Historic Royal Palaces
In 1529-30, the capacity of the Great Kitchen to serve the meals eaten in the Great Hall was doubled and a second serving-place was added to the south, allowing twice as many waiters as before to carry food up to the Great Hall. To its west three new small courtyards sprang up, surrounded by many specialised offices for boiling, pastry-making, fruits and spices. Confectioners worked in an upstairs room, producing delicate sweets and comfits on chafing dishes.
The Great Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace, © Historic Royal Palaces
In 1533, as building works for new royal apartments at Hampton Court progressed, Anne Boleyn’s first child – the future Queen Elizabeth I – was born at Greenwich on 7 September.
But three years later, Henry was still without a male heir. This imagined scene of Henry as a devoted father was painted by Marcus Stone in the 19th century.
The Royal Nursery, Forbes Magazine Collection, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images
Henry and Anne were so confident that their first child would be a son that they wrote the birth announcement in advance. Letters like this were sent out immediately after the birth of the future Elizabeth I on 7th September 1533, but with a vital amendment. Here God is thanked for sending the Queen good speed in the deliverance and bringing forth of a prince. Hastily an extra ‘s’ was added to announce the birth of a ‘princes'(princess), circled above.
Letter announcing Elizabeth I's birth, © The British Library Board, Harley 283
Anne’s ‘failure’ to produce a son became the fatal catalyst for her spectacular downfall.
Vicious rumours spread by surviving supporters of the old Catholic regime accused Anne of adultery and plotting the King’s death.
Despite her protestations of innocence, Henry ordered Anne to the Tower of London. After a sham trial, she was executed for treason on 19 May 1536.
Henry VIII allowed Anne Boleyn a small mercy for her execution. At her request, Anne was beheaded cleanly with a sharp sword, rather than an unreliable axe.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London by Édouard Cibot (1799-1877), © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
The King married Jane Seymour at Whitehall Palace only ten days after Anne’s death. In 1537, the future Edward VI was born in the early hours of 12 October at Hampton Court, and was christened three days later in the Chapel Royal.
Tragically, post-natal complications led to Jane’s death at the palace on 24 October. For Henry, the birth of a son validated all his previous political and religious choices. He now had God’s approval.
Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour (detail), by Remigius van Leemput in 1667 after the original by Hans Holbein in 1537. Commissioned by Henry to celebrate what he thought was his dynasty - Jane, painted after her death is bottom right, his parents are behind. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 405750
Henry's religious policies met with opposition in the wider country, which he ruthlessly crushed. In 1536, he had mercilessly executed the leaders of the reactionary ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, a social protest about the King’s religious revolution and its economic impact.
In 1539, the Act of Proclamations gave full legal authority to all his commands. Discriminatory laws were also passed against witchcraft and homosexuality, which had terrible consequences for many innocent people persecuted over the next two hundred years. Henry had become a tyrant.
Henry had an illegitimate son, born in 1519 to Elizabeth Blount, one of Katherine of Aragon’s maids. Henry Fitzroy, made Duke of Richmond and lavishly spoiled, died in 1536.
Despite the birth of Prince Edward, the King knew that the future of the Tudor dynasty remained fragile.
He needed spare heirs, and after Jane Seymour’s death, efforts were made by Henry and his courtiers to find him a fourth wife.
By 1539, Thomas Cromwell was promoting marriage with the German princess Anne of Cleves, who would provide England with new allies in Europe.
But the King was looking closer to home, and the more immediate delights of the teenaged Catherine Howard, one of Anne of Cleves' ladies-in-waiting.
Portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539, © Louvre, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images
The following events were a cataclysmic disaster. Henry rejected Anne of Cleves on first meeting but was forced out of political necessity to go through with the marriage anyway. He bought off the compliant Anne, had Cromwell executed, and hurriedly married 17 year-old Catherine Howard instead.
Over the New Year celebrations of 1541, Henry showered Catherine with presents, as he revelled in the attentions of a much younger wife. By the end of the year, the atmosphere had completely changed. In November, Thomas Cranmer anxiously presented the King with evidence of Catherine’s infidelity and adultery. Henry’s anger was, even for him, remarkable: some of his courtiers thought he had gone mad.
The Queen was arrested at Hampton Court and later taken to the Tower of London to be executed on 13 February 1542.
Portrait of a Lady, thought to be Catherine Howard, © Hever Castle Ltd, Kent, UK / Bridgeman Images
Ever since the break with the Church of Rome, reformers and conservative factions at court had argued about how far Henry VIII’s ‘reformation’ ought to go.
Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr, was a committed Protestant.
The King’s marriage to Katherine, at Hampton Court on 12 July 1543, heralded a three-year battle for the identity of the Church of England.
The conflict almost claimed Katherine’s life, accused by her opponents of heresy, but saved by her supporters and by an ageing king, who – for once – sided with his wife.
Twice-widowed Katherine was blessed with matrimonial experience and tact, essential qualities for managing an ailing and irascible king.
The summer of 1544 saw Katherine rule as regent while a re-energised Henry VIII led a final military campaign in France, capturing Boulogne.
Katherine Parr, attributed to Master John, circa 1545, @ National Portrait Gallery, London
But Henry was no longer the athletic ‘Renaissance Prince’. A bad injury in 1536, after he had fallen from his horse at a joust, and a recurring leg ulcer restricted him physically.
Some historians suggest that this accident, after which he was unconscious for over two hours, had long-lasting psychological effects on the King. They point to evidence of a change in his personality after 1536, and his increasingly tyrannical behaviour.
Henry appears to have suffered from some sort of depression, too, in the second half of his life, with a particularly bad bout in 1541. Did he woo the teenage Catherine Howard in some form of mid-life crisis?
Henry VIII by an unknown artist, based on a work of c1542, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Despite rallying somewhat after his marriage to the sensible Katherine Parr, Henry remained in constant pain from his leg ulcer, and continued to eat as though he was a fit young man. His weight ballooned to the stage where he needed a form of wheelchair – known as a ‘tramme’ to get about.
After a slow but remorseless decline, when he ‘waxed heavy with sickness, age and corpulence of the body', Henry VIII departed Hampton Court for the last time in 1546, a sick and prematurely aged man. The once handsome prince who had impressed Europe with his youthful agility, his brains and his looks, died at Whitehall Palace in the early hours of 28 January 1547 at the age of 55.
In his early twenties, Henry VIII’s waist measured 89 cm. By the age of 50, it had expanded to 137cm.
The day after Henry died Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth were told of their father’s death. They had been sent away from court when the King became fatally ill. Reportedly, the children, age 9 and 16, clung to each other weeping, fearful for their future.
Henry’s monstrously bloated corpse was conveyed to Windsor Castle in a solemn funeral procession, to be interred next to his favourite wife, and mother of his heir, Jane Seymour, in St George’s Chapel.
Henry had planned a splendid tomb for himself, but it was never built and he lies under a simple black stone slab.
As well as establishing the Church of England, Henry authorised the translation and publication of the Bible in English.
His dissolution of the monasteries created a land market and a source of economic prosperity for a new ‘middle class’ of lawyers and administrators.
His development of the navy would ultimately lead to a British ‘golden age’ of colonial expansion and imperial power.
On the other hand, Henry VIII was vicious, paranoid, self-pitying and vainglorious. Everything he did was motivated by self-interest.
Henry ruled by proclamation as well as through Parliament, and courtiers (and his wives) lived or died at his command.
The Church of England was not the achievement of a reforming visionary, but a political necessity, designed to secure him a new wife.
Five centuries later the controversy surrounding Henry VIII continues.
However, what is undeniable is his cultural legacy, in particular, the fabulous palaces he built and the astonishing artworks he commissioned.
Henry VIII's re-created Crown of State, © Historic Royal Palaces
Henry may have emptied the nation’s purse by building warships, fighting wars and pursuing pleasure, but he also left behind some staggering works of art, including the Abraham Tapestries, which can be seen in the Great Hall at Hampton Court today. These were the grandest of all the tapestries in the palace, and by commissioning this depiction of the stories of Abraham, father of his people, Henry wanted people to make a connection with him and the Tudor dynasty.
The Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace, © Historic Royal Palaces
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry became possibly the wealthiest monarch in English history. Hampton Court, in particular, was refitted with sumptuous interiors, and many of his public apartments can still be seen at the palace today. Most of Henry’s private apartments at the palace were swept away in the 16th century by Sir Christopher Wren's rebuilding for William III and Mary II, but research continues.
Aerial view of Hampton Court Palace, © Historic Royal Palaces
The Family of Henry VIII c1545 (detail). This important dynastic portrait of Henry VIII and his family shows the King seated in the centre beneath a canopy of state flanked by his third wife, Jane Seymour and Prince Edward, later Edward VI. On the left is Princess Mary, later Mary I, the King’s daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and on the right Princess Elizabeth, later Elizabeth I, his daughter by his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, RCIN 405796
Despite the massive religious upheavals of his Reformation, it comes as quite a surprise to know that Henry was actually quite conservative in his beliefs, and died a Catholic, if not a Roman Catholic.
Back in 1521, he had written a book attacking arch reformist Luther, which had earned him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the Pope.
The title is still used by the British sovereign and appears on our coins to this day.
The arguments between reformers and conservatives continued after his death.
The reigns of his three children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were riven by political and religious dispute and uncertainty.
Ironically, after all of Henry’s many efforts to secure a long-lasting royal line, the Tudor dynasty failed with the death of his daughter, the childless Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, with the crown passing to the Stuarts as James VI of Scotland became James I of England.
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537, purchased by the Walker Art Gallery in 1945