The Savage King Henry VIII

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As an American I can’t explain my obsession with Tudor England, except that there’s so much scandal and murder involved. And y’all already know that I do love me some scandal and murder!

King Henry VII

King Henry VIII had only been the second of the Tudor dynasty; his father, Henry VII who had very few ties to the crown, won the throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 during the Wars Of The Roses. In order to unite the country, King Henry married Elizabeth of York whose royal blood could not be disputed. This union produced two male children: Arthur was the oldest, and Henry.

Arthur Tudor, Henry’s big brother

As the younger son Henry was never meant to be King. While Arthur was brought up extremely close to their father, had all of the best tutors, and was privy to the king’s teachings on how to rule an empire, Henry’s childhood had been quite different. The younger Prince was kept at home, with his mother and sisters. Unfortunately big brother Arthur became ill and passed away at just 15 years of age; when the King passed away in May of 1509, a 17 year old Henry VIII came to sit upon the throne of England.

One of Henry’s most beloved palaces, Hampton Court.

Henry VIII was actually much loved in the beginning of his reign; it was the first time a king had been coronated without upheaval in many years. Henry was said to have been the most handsome man to ever hold the English throne, he was fun to be around, generous to a fault, was active in athletic activities which most Kings were very unlikely to participate, and he was a skilled musician who has been rumored to have actually written the well know song “Green Sleeves” (likely to aid him in wooing a mistress, of course). He was also quite intelligent and remains one of the only English rulers to ever have written and published a book! Henry had been a huge supporter of the Catholic Church at first, so much so that he actually wrote a book on reasons for backing the religion; surely he came to regret this later on. In the latter part of his life there was a notable change in this King: he became a miserable tyrant who got off on watching those in his presence squirm. Henry is credited with having put to death more of his own people than any other monarch in history; it’s said that the tower of London was constantly jam packed with those he’d condemned.

Queen Catherine of Aragon

So, the Spanish Princess Catherine of Aragon had originally been Henry’s big brother’s wife; she had been wed to Arthur for a very short amount of time before his death. Since her first husband had been so sickly, the marriage had never been consummated. No matter which Tudor brother was to rule, Catherine was still seen as a great match, and there is evidence to prove that King Henry has been absolutely besotted with her. Matter of fact, it doesn’t appear that Henry ever had any real problems with Catherine at all, aside from the fact that she had not produced a living male heir. The Queen had suffered multiple stillbirths and miscarriages throughout the years; the couple’s first child had been a boy, but he had passed away in infancy. Their only surviving child would be Princess Mary. Queen Catherine had been 5 years older than Henry, and she was past her prime; Henry believed that she was likely too old to conceive. When one of the king’s many concubines gave birth to a healthy male, this proved to Henry that he was not to blame for lack of a son: the problem must lay with his Queen!

Mary & Queen Anne Boleyn

Cue the Boleyn girls, Mary and Anne. These young women had been raised abroad, amongst the royals; they were better educated than some of the men! The sisters had been to the French court, and were said to have learned the ways of love whilst there. In 1522 Mary and Anne came to the English court; Anne had been one of Queen Catherine’s lady in waiting, and Mary quickly became one of the King’s countless lovers. Henry soon tired of Mary, and turned his sights upon her sister. Anne was interesting, flirty, not at all hard on the eyes, and King Henry wanted her. But Anne had learned from sister Mary’s mistake; she absolutely refused to be intimate with the King unless she was his wife. Considering Henry had not been used to hearing the word “No”, the King was absolutely desperate to possess what he could not have.

King Henry VIII

Henry decided that he was going to marry Anne, and he asked the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine on the grounds that she had been his brother’s wife first. He cited a Bible verse, Leviticus 18:16, which damns the act of sleeping with your brother’s wife and states that those who do so will be childless. Henry took this to mean that he would be forever without a male heir, but the church absolutely disagreed. There were no grounds for ending the union, Catherine had been a good wife, a wonderful mother, and a great Queen! So, Henry did the unimaginable: he not only personally forsook the religion which he’d so vehemently supported that he’d even published a book in support of, but he forced the rest of the country to do the same! The Catholic religion and the Pope were condemned, the abbeys were shut down, and everyone was forced by law to follow the new Church Of England which was headed not by a man of God such as the Pope, but by the King himself!

Anne Boleyn

Now, all of these changes may not seem like too big a deal to us, but trust that this was monumental! Life expectancy was much shorter, pain and suffering were abundant, and life was often so very cruel. For these people religion was the foundation of their lives, it was their comfort, their reward; if they were good Catholics in life, there was the promise of something better coming. Without the Catholic religion, which they’d been taught was the only true religion, these people believed they would go to hell – the King had sentenced them all to burn for eternity! But Henry didn’t give a damn how his people felt about it, and the changes were made regardless. Catherine of Aragon, who had fought so hard to save her marriage, was finally divorced and banished from Court; their daughter, Mary, who had been brought up a princess was suddenly proclaimed an illegitimate bastard! The King legally married Anne Boleyn who had sworn to quickly give him a male heir, and that was that!

Princess Mary Tudor, aka Queen “Bloody Mary”. She was the daughter of King Henry and Queen Catherine

Anne Boleyn was the Yoko Ono of the Tudors, if you will; she was blamed for much of the changes in not only the King himself, but in the country. Many refused to accept her as Queen, for the little time she held the title. Within 1,000 days of wedding her king, Anne would be dead.

It appears that Anne had already been pregnant when she was legally wed to the King, but karma has her way of coming back on people. On Steptember 7th of 1533, Princess Elizabeth was born, and it’s definitely safe to say this was a massive disappointment. In the following year it was recorded that Anne was again pregnant; her belly had grown and the Queen showed all of the classic signs of pregnancy, but no baby ever came. Today it is believed that Anne had so desperately needed to give her husband a baby boy that she’d fooled her body into believing she was actually with child!

Then, on January 24th of 1536, King Henry was injured while jousting; he is said to have hit his head and been unconscious for a couple of hours. It was touch and go as to whether the man would survive it, and this is when that huge change in the King was noticed. He’d really hurt his leg, and it would never, ever heal; he would live with this big, smelly ulcerated wound from this day forth. Henry could no longer participate in the physical activities he’d always loved so dearly, it’s noted that his waist gradually went from being 32 inches to 52, and he was miserable. While the change in Henry’s physical appearance was slow, his personality change was very abrupt; today it’s believed that this was due to damage of the frontal lobe during that jousting accident. Henry was now quick to fly off the handle, grew suspicious of even his most trusted confidants, enjoyed striking fear into the hearts of those among him, and held very little regard for human life; hundreds of those who had disagreed with the royal change in religion were killed in the most horrific of manners. These people were often drawn and quartered, and their heads hanged in public where loved ones would be able to see them.

The Tower Of London where many executions took place.

At the time of this jousting accident, Anne had been pregnant again, but miscarried later that same month. Said fetus was developed enough to determine that it had been a male; the boy which Henry wanted so desperately was born deceased. These things were easily held against the woman back in those days, and you gotta wonder: had Anne been aware that she’d lost the one thing capable of saving her life? Very quickly Henry began seeing the woman who would become his next wife. Soon came the rumors that Anne had been sleeping around, and she was said to be guilty of envisioning the Kings demise!

Depiction of Anne’s beheading

Anne Boleyn was tried for these crimes, as were the 3 men with whom she was said to have been intimate with – this included Anne’s very own brother, George Boleyn! Today it’s commonly believed that they were all likely innocent of these crimes. It’s very possible that King Henry and/or his people had actually started the rumors themselves, to remove Anne from the equation without Henry going through another drawn out divorce. Anne and the others were all found guilty and quickly sentenced to death. Henry did have some mercy on the wife which he had moved heaven and Earth to be with: instead of having her head chopped off with an axe which often took multiple swings to complete, he hired a talented swordsman to swiftly do the job. As Anne knelt on the ground at the tower of London on May 19th of 1536, praying for mercy and proclaiming herself innocent of all charges, the executioner asked for the sword which was already in his hands; Anne likely never knew what hit her, which can not be said for the hundreds which died due in part to her carelessness. The story goes that Anne was not even given a proper burial; her remains were thrown into a bow chest and buried beneath an altar with several other beheaded women who had royally pissed the King off.

Memorial dedicated to those executed/beaded at the Tower of London

Now, just before Anne Boleyn was killed, on January 7th of 1536, Queen (ex queen?) Catherine of Aragon passed away. Her daughter, Mary, was still considered a bastard, even the Princess’s jewels and gold plate were stripped from her; those who loved Mary and had fought for her birthright would be condemned to death. Look up Margaret de la Pole if you’re so inclined. The young woman now had nothing, only her mother’s forbidden religion and her own seething hatred to hold on to; her time would come for vengeance!

Jane Seymour

As for Henry, you know he didn’t remain
single long after Anne Boleyn’s death; he was kinda one track minded: Legitimate male heir, legitimate male heir, legitimate male heir… Henry promptly married his third wife, Jane Seymour. Jane had been not only Anne’s cousin, but also her lady in waiting; she’d been carrying on with the King a full month before Anne lost her head. Now Jane truly did try to bring peace back to the country; she’d begged the King, on her knees, to reinstate the Catholic religion throughout the land, but Henry refused. He warned this wife to never meddle in his affairs, and to “Remember Anne”. This was enough of a warning for Jane, she would be nothing but submissive to the King from then on. Not that she’d survive long anyhow: in October of 1537 Jane gave the King that male heir he’d been so obsessed with, then she passed away approximately ten days after Edward VI birth. Today it’s thought that the royal doctors had failed to deliver Jane’s afterbirth in full, causing her death. Either way, Henry never had the opportunity to turn on this one! The King did respect Jane for what she’d accomplished, and she is the only one of Henry’s 6 wives to receive a Queen’s funeral; Henry even waited a hot minute before remarrying, but not too long! What if something happened to Prince Edward? One boy simply wouldn’t do, Henry needed “an heir and a spare”!

Anne of Cleves

Our next batter up is Queen #4, Anne of Cleves. This Anne was a German princess who had been happily betrothed to another, but King Henry wanted what he wanted. Anne was not a big fan of her new husband; this marriage, which is said to never have been consummated, was annulled after only 6 months. This one somehow escaped with her life, she was fortunate. Though Anne and the King had not made the best of couples, they did become very close friends afterwords; as a matter of fact, she would become known as the king’s sister.

Catherine Howard
Jane Boleyn

So, Queen #5 was the very young and beautiful Catherine Howard, and her life didn’t end well at all. Catherine had been Anne of Cleve’s lady in waiting, and a cousin of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, with whom she would share a very similar fate. Catherine had been just 16 years old when she married the now 49 year old King; this marriage lasted but a year, and there were no children. This Queen was accused of not only cheating on Henry with Sir Thomas Culpepper, but of being intimate with a Francis Dereham long before she was ever even married! Sentenced to die alongside Catherine was her lady in waiting, Jane Boleyn, who had been married to Anne Boleyn’s executed brother, George Boleyn. Jane is remembered as a villain, she had testified against her husband and his sister Anne, which had ultimately lead to their deaths. Anywho, both Queen Catherine and Jane Boleyn lost their heads on February 13th of 1542. As far as Catherine’s lovers, the King took pity on Culpepper, he was given a quick death of beheading. Dereham was hanged, drawn, and quartered, then both of the men’s heads were placed on the London Bridge for all to see.

Queen #6, Catherine Parr

Henry’s final wife, Queen #6 was yet another Catherine. They really didn’t get too creative with the names back then, did they? Catherine Parr was actually much respected by Henry, who had already been at the end stages of his life by this time. His leg was only getting worse, and Henry was so large (nearing 400 pounds) that he could barely even walk; the King had multiple wheelchairs, and they invented a lift/pully system to get him up the palace stairs. This Queen is credited with having reunited King Henry and both of his previously bastardized daughters, bringing them back into the fold, and adding them back into the royal succession. She did a world of good during Henry’s reign, and amazingly managed to survive though there were attempts to turn the King against her.

King Henry VIII with his wife & 3 children. Note that nobody posed for this painting, and that both of his daughters are standing a good distance away on either side of their father and brother.

After ruling England for 38 years, King Henry VIII did finally pass away; he had lived to be 55. He was laid to rest in the beautiful St George’s Chapel, at Windsor Castle, among other royalty. It’s said that his coffin was sealed much too tightly, so tightly in fact that the gases which naturally come along with the decomposition process could not escape. The story goes that the king’s coffin exploded, and the festering King Henry soup which landed on the floor was promptly licked up by opportunistic dogs. The horror of this likely brought a smile to the lips of the many who had been tyrannized by this King.

St George’s Chapel

That is the semi – quick history of King Henry VIII, but this story isn’t over, not by a long shot! Henry had been right about one thing: if he wanted to keep a blood born son of his own on the throne he really had needed not only that male heir, but also a spare! After ruling a mere 6 years, King Edward became ill and passed away at just 15 years of age; this left his once bastardized sisters and extended family to fight over who would rule the country! Henry’s oldest daughter, Mary, was rightfully angry as hell over what had been done to her mother and their religion, and her country would pay dearly for it; they didn’t call her “Bloody Mary” for naught! Then there’s all of the mystery surrounding her younger half sister, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. There are many interesting theories and stories as to why she never wed, some of them are real zingers! Plus you can’t forget about the deadly drama between Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots! Or we could go back in time to the very bloody Wars of The Roses. If anyone is interested, that is; I’m not real sure how this article will go over.

Queen Mary, often referred to as “Bloody Mary”, is up top. The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, is below.

*This is the best I can do with nailing King Henry’s reign down, but I feel compelled to do some explaining just in case anyone needs very accurate information. Some say the king’s jousting accident occurred in 1524, though it seems modern historians often go with 1536. Some accounts spell all of the different Queen Catherines names quite differently (Catherine, Katherine, Kathryn) as far as which spelling is truly correct, your guess is good as mine. I wrote this article last year, but I worked so hard on it and wanted to add it to my site so my apologies if you’ve already read this before. Also, I have yet to watch any of the popular series/movies about this time period which it seems all of my friends are really into; my information comes from books, documentaries, and articles. Since I have not watched, I’m not real sure how historically accurate the dramas are. Though I would love to get into one, especially during this quarantine. If you’re into any of them, which series would you recommend first?

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6 Replies to “The Savage King Henry VIII”

  1. I would stay away from Reign. I really like The Tudors show with Johnathan Rhys Meyers. On STARZ, their shows are pretty good – White Queen, White Princess, and the Spanish princess. I really like the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies too. I haven’t seen anything on Bloody Mary.

    1. I’ve heard a lot about Spanish Princess, they all sound good. I think I’ll try Tudors, thank you! Surprised they haven’t done anything on Mary yet, she was absolutely brutal!

  2. Don’t take The Tudors series too seriously though. There are so many historical inaccuracies in there! Same thing goes with Reign. With that said, those two are my favourite shows, i’ve watched them both multiple times. 😊

  3. Loved the Elizabeth movies and Tudors. Reign was definitely more for entertainment rather than trying to be accurate, but i still enjoyed the silliness of it.

  4. The White Queen Series on Starz, The White Princess on Starz, The Spanish Princess on Starz, also Mary Queen of Scots on HBO, along with Elizabeth on HBO, & Catherine The Great on HBO. I would stay away from Reign and the Tudors as they are more fictional. I absolutely love this era, if you have any questions at all, I would love to help, as I’ve spent many years studying about this Royal Era!

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