Why Henry VIII is not a medieval monarch.

I have joined a Facebook group entitled British Medieval History, its guidelines state that the medieval period, for this group. is defined as 5th century to 1500, basically from Romans leaving Britain to Battle of Bosworth. Yet every few days someone will post something about the Tudors!  Whilst Henry VII did not die till 1509, and can be viewed as within the period, his son and grandchildren are definitely outside. After years of over exposure to the Tudors here are my thoughts on Henry VIII.

Why Henry VIII is not a medieval monarch.

There is an old music-hall song that was also featured in the film ‘Ghost’.

I’m Henry the Eighth I am,

Henry the Eighth I am, I am,

I got married to the widow next door

She’s been married seven time befor’

And everyone was a Henry, (Henry)

She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Stan

I’m ‘er eighth old man,

I’m Henry, Henry the Eighth I am, I am

Henry the Eighth I am

(Last verse, same as the first)

It sounds best sung with a cockney accent and is supposed to be humorous. It has nothing to do with the Tudor monarch but demonstrates the strong presence of this King in the British mindset. The Tudor period has been taught in British schools as it holds one of the important defining events of British history which has nothing to do with fighting on battlefields; the separation from the Church of Rome. William Shakespeare, unfortunately, never attempted a play on Henry VIII, he was Elizabeth’s father and, at that time, you did not upset your sovereign if you liked living. However, in the last century Henry has been resurrected in several TV series and a number of films. The drama of the politics behind the events provides interesting material, plus, for the more secular of us, the settings and costumes are normally visually pleasing too.

Henry was Henry VII’s second son, it is said he had not been reared to rule, but given the background of previous reigns I feel that is unlikely. He was well-educated and spoke French, Latin and Spanish, (although whether latter was after marriage I am unsure as his brother did not speak Spanish when he married), he was musical and loved dancing, he was also deemed as athletic and intelligent. The Tudor Dynasty was not a secure one and his father executed all threats to his throne, with the exception of George, Duke of Clarence’s daughter, Margaret Pole (however, Henry VIII had the, by then, old lady executed in his reign). Henry was raised as a Catholic and in the belief that it was by God’s will that his father was King.  The only power on earth that was greater than a King’s was the Pope.

Shortly after Arthur, Henry’s older brother, married Catherine of Aragon he became ill and died aged only 16. Arthur’s death was an unexpected shock to his family and there is speculation of its cause.  As Prince of Wales Arthur’s home at this time was Ludlow Castle, therefore he was away from London and the Royal family, causes have included TB, sweating sickness, the latter gained credence as Catherine was also ill around this time. Whether the marriage was actually consummated or not is another matter for debate.

Henry must have considered that this twist of fate was God’s Will as he inherited both his brother’s destiny and his wife! Before marrying a dispensation had to be obtained from the Pope. The agreement was attained as Catherine stated the marriage was unconsummated, it is likely that the main reason for Henry to marry Catherine was to retain her dowry, his father would have been very reluctant to provide a refund!

His father died seven years later and Henry became King at just eighteen, with Catherine as his Queen. Unfortunately, although Catherine had several pregnancies her only surviving child was a female. Like his father Henry VIII feared for the future and he knew he had to produce a male heir to carry on the dynasty. The devout couple had taken pilgrimages, Henry, had even, walked barefoot through Canterbury to pray at the tomb of St Thomas Becket, but God had not provided him with a legitimate son, although he had bastard son.  Catherine was older than he was and as her child-bearing years ended, Henry sought to annul the marriage so that he could marry again.

It is this problem which is the centre of all dramas concerning Henry VIII. Henry needed a reason to petition the Pope for a divorce, his advisors decided the grounds should be that the original dispensation to marry should not have been given as it was against Bible teaching and God had shown his displeasure to Henry by not allowing his sons to live.  Catherine however did not want a divorce and wrote to her bother, the King of Spain, asking him to intercede with the Pope on her behalf. The Pope was faced with the dilemma of two Kings with opposing requests. His decision to back the King of Spain was probably based on his view that of the two he was the more powerful, rather than any theological argument. Although asking to have the decision of a predecessor reversed was probably a wrong-footing to begin with. As the most powerful man in Catholic Europe the Pope’s decision should have been the end of the matter. Except, in Northern Europe people were already questioning the Church’s theological viewpoints believing that ordinary people had the right to read the word of God themselves, that transubstantiation  did not occur, that you could not ‘buy’ your way into heaven, that churches were too rich and its priests too secular. Different ways of coming to God were being investigated and with the power of the printing press more and more people were learning of them.

Henry VIII was a devout Catholic, but he was also a King who needed to secure an heir to his throne. His father had killed all rivals in England.  Henry VII’s sister had married the King of Scotland and Henry could have named her son as his heir. Yet he named Mary, his legitimate daughter.

Henry was not a faithful husband, however even Edward IV, who married for love, was not faithful to his Queen. His affairs were publicly seen as a demonstration of his virility and increased his image as a powerful king. His affair with Anne Boleyn would be a turning point in British history. He already had a son by her sister. Advisors desperate to appease the king and secure a divorce looked to a means around the Pope; with theologians already arguing for a break with Rome, the idea of England breaking away so that Henry was the direct link between his people and God grew. Religious orders already existed who could take over the church services and provide the people with a link to God.  Ironically, the Pope had already bestowed the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ on Henry after the King had written, and published, a book attacking Martin Luther and supporting the Catholic Church.

Whereas originally Henry’s choice seemed to be to accept the Pope’s decision or face excommunication; the advisors had presented a path which gave Henry the power to turn his back on the Pope, and the King of Spain, and obtain his own divorce. This sudden unexpected gain of power would have had resonances with Henry’s raise in status on his brother’s death and he may even have viewed it as God’s Will.

Henry even exercised the power he had seen his father use, the power to decide if a man could live or die.  The removal of the Catholic Church from England did not occur overnight and they were many opponents, including men he respected. Henry was not the first king to order the deaths of people who opposed his will but he did seem to distance himself from the deed like his father had done. Whereas Edward IV had killed his rival to the throne in the ground of Tewkesbury Abbey, Henry’s died on the scaffold on his command, but now also by God’s Will. Not that his word was enough to just condemn a person, a fair trial had to be held where evidence was submitted to support claims of guilt and innocence. Although the collection of evidence was not always obtained by ‘fair’ means.

Henry was not only King of England, he was Head of the Church of England only God’s authority was greater than his. The birth of another daughter would have been a shock to Henry and would have cause him to question himself.  Once more his advisors needs to pacify him and provide a solution to the situation which was theologically acceptable to the devout Henry. Henry had turned his back on Rome believing he was following God’s Will but God had not given him a son. His doubts for the future of England and fears for his immortal soul meant his advisors needed a solution which would show the King to be strong and powerful.

Anne Boleyn was expendable. Henry already blamed her for the gender of the child, old beliefs stated strong woman weaken the male seed and produced girls. Others at court disliked her and her family’s influence.  However, she was again pregnant and until her child was delivered Anne was safe. Unfortunately for Anne the child, a boy, was stillborn, with Henry’s advisors against her and the King no longer interested in her, once more Henry showed his god-like power over life and death.

For Anne, Henry had turned his back on his wife and the Pope believing in doing so he would obtain a son for England. However, whether it was God’s Will or just fate the promised child was not successfully delivered. Yet Henry never sought to be reunified with the Catholic Church, there are of course many reasons why this option was probably never contemplated; the money from the church and its lands was now filling the Royal coffers, Henry would have had to admit being mistaken, it would have damaged his and England’s reputation within Europe. Instead Henry married a quiet, Protestant girl.

At last, with Jane Seymour, Henry had the son and heir he believed his realm needed. He must have felt very powerful and relieved. However, Jane only survived the birth by nine days. Henry was devastated at her loss and, probably, mindful that only God truly had the power of life and death. To ensure his son would continue the new faith all Edward’s tutors were Protestant.

Although Henry remarried three more times none of these marriages produced children. As Henry had been a second son I believe he would have preferred to have left a second male heir to strength his dynasty. England continued to be Protestant with Henry at his head. On his deathbed he is supposed to have sent for the Archbishop, by the time Crammer arrived Henry could not speak but squeezed his hand in response to a sign that he believed in the power of redemption through Christ.  No last rites, no masses, no offerings for redemption from purgatory.

I do not view Henry as a medieval monarch. The world he inhabited had changed, it was not the soldiers who weld the greatest strength of change but the intellectuals that surrounded him. Most of the past monarchs of England would have taken part in physical battles, apart from the ‘Cloth of Gold’ in France, the future of Tudor England was not decided on the battlefields but within the Court by advisors who were often trained in legal work. Nor do I see Henry VIII as a particularly good King, for the most part he allowed others, who he selected and could coerce, to administer the country on his behalf. I believe that he was very image conscious and used others mercilessly in order to obtain what he believed he needed. Although all his children ruled England none had children to succeed to the throne. The dynasty Henry, and his father, manipulated for did not outlast three generations.


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