Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Henry VIII and his six wives

The family troubles of Henry VIII were to have a profound effect on England, in both religious and political affairs. Yet they had such profound effects only because England was changing and some have argued that Henry merely hastened changes that were inevitable.

Henry married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1509, the year he became king. It was a political marriage as an alliance with Spain against France was thought essential. Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, and special permission from the Pope had been necessary for the wedding to go ahead.

For many years the policy of friendship with Spain paid handsome dividends. Henry strutted the diplomatic stage as a powerful monarch whose friendship was to be greatly prized. In 1521 he reached his finest hour when he mediated between the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. The display of wealth and opulence Henry put on for the occasion caused the event to be dubbed the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

But in 1529 the European monarchs settled their differences and England became an irrelevance. Henry was not happy and he was further angered by the failure of his queen to produce a male heir, the only surviving child, young Princess Mary, being of no account in Henry’s eyes. Through his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry demanded that the pope granted a divorce. The Pope was friendly with Catherine’s relative the Emperor of Austria and refused. Henry’s determination on a divorce grew greater when he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, a young noblewoman.

In 1530 Wolsey was dismissed and replaced with Thomas Cromwell who promptly supported the king in his desire for his marriage to be annulled. Henry disavowed the Pope, made himself supreme head of the Church in England and promptly gave himself a divorce. In 1533 he married Anne Boleyn. The new queen quickly fell pregnant, but the child was a girl, Elizabeth. After at least one miscarriage, Henry decided to get rid of Anne. He charged her with treason on dubious grounds of adultery and had her executed in May 1536.

The break with Rome caused by the marriage to Anne Boleyn, however, was to last much longer and have profound effects. In 1536 Henry disbanded the monasteries and took their vast wealth for himself. The huge lands owned by the monasteries were sold off to the increasingly wealthy merchants who were making small fortunes under the benevolent economic measures of the Tudors. Many of the merchants were Protestants, religious objectors to the abuses and corruption of the Pope and his court. Although Henry himself was  a devout Catholic, and only split with Rome to get a divorce, his move encouraged his subjects to become Protestants. By the time of Henry’s death England would be well on its way to being a Protestant nation and twenty years later it would be firmly so. The break with Rome became permanent and continues to this day.

Meanwhile, however, Henry had married Jane Seymour, sister of the Duke of Somerset. The new Queen gave birth to a son, Edward, within a year of the marriage, but then died from an infection caught in childbirth.

Henry was by now 47 years old and had a son and heir. He decided it was time for a political marriage and ordered his minister, Cromwell, to find a suitable young bride among the rulers with whom Henry needed an alliance. Thomas Cromwell suggested that Anne of Cleves would be a suitable bride as she was the daughter of the powerful Protestant ruler, John Duke of Cleves, and moreover came with a substantial dowry.

Henry agreed to marry the German princess, but regretted the decision within days of the wedding. Anne turned out to be a remarkably plain lady and failed dismally to match the king in witty conversation. Henry demanded and, as Head of the Church, received an annulment just six months after the wedding. Cromwell was executed in 1540, partly due to what Henry saw as the monstrous mistake of recommending Anne of Cleves.

Next to marry the king was Catherine Howard, a startling beautiful girl who was niece to the powerful Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Henry was clearly infatuated with his new wife, marrying her only days after the annulment of his previous marriage. It therefore came as a great shock to discover that the new queen was secretly seeing a young man she had known and been close to before the marriage. Leaping to the conclusion, which may have been true, that Catherine was committing adultery, Henry ordered her execution. The marriage had lasted just two years.

The final queen of Henry VIII was Catherine Parr, a highly educated widow from the lesser nobility. The marriage took place in 1543 and seems to have brought stability and some happiness to Henry in his final years. Catherine was an expert on religious matters, though she did not always agree with Henry, and kept herself informed about various foreign affairs. Her main contribution to history was to persuade Henry to declare his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be legitimate. This meant glossing over the various dramas of Henry’s previous marriages and was a considerable achievement. It left the way open for the two girls to succeed to the throne after their younger brother died an early death.

This is an extract from 200 Things You Need to Know About the British by Rupert Matthews

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