Henry VIII: 5 places you (probably) didn’t know shaped his life
The Tudor king Henry VIII (1491-1547) has secured his place in history and continues, more than 500 years after his death, to fascinate. His actions and marriages to his six wives not only gave us some of the most intriguing stories but have impacted on the religious and physical landscapes of England. Here, Philippa Brewell explores five places that were pivotal in shaping the man King Henry would become and how he would be remembered
Henry never visited Ludlow Castle and yet events there were to have the greatest and most irreversible impact upon his life.
In November 1501, Arthur Tudor, the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (and Henry’s VIII’s older brother), married the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon at old St Paul’s Cathedral. Following the wedding the new Prince and Princess of Wales moved to Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, seat of the Council of the Marches, where Arthur’s role at its head was considered to be good preparation for his eventual role as king. But it was not to be. Arthur died quickly and unexpectedly on 2 April 1502. The cause of death is uncertain but it was a shock to all.
Arthur's death was a huge personal, as well as political, tragedy for the Tudor family. With his older brother dead, Henry’s future was altered completely and irreversibly. He was now heir to the throne with all the expectation, pressure and duty that entailed, including the essential task of securing the Tudor line of succession.
One of Henry’s first decisions as king was to marry, and he chose his brother’s widow, Catherine. As time ticked by, and despite numerous pregnancies, the royal couple had not produced a surviving male heir. Henry found that his conscience was becoming troubled and he began looking for a reason why he and Catherine remained “childless” (as Henry saw it, despite having a living daughter, Mary). He turned to the Bible for answers.
Two passages from Leviticus, which refer to the taking of a brother’s wife, gave Henry reason to believe, with sincerity, that God was punishing him for marrying Catherine. His argument rested on his belief that Catherine was not a virgin when they married. Catherine herself maintained that she was “virgo intacta” and actively opposed Henry’s theory. Her steadfastness made it frustratingly difficult for Henry to convince others of his logic. The unsuccessful negotiations to secure an annulment of the marriage from Pope Clement VII ultimately led to Henry making the momentous decision to break from the church in Rome.
Catherine and Arthur had been married for six months – is it possible they had not had sex during that time? Would the pious Catherine have jeopardised her soul by maintaining a lie even on her deathbed? If only the ruined walls of Ludlow Castle could talk, they could tell us what really happened in the prince’s bedchamber!
As a child, Henry VIII had enjoyed a more relaxed, less rigid upbringing and education than his older brother Arthur. Being only the ‘spare’ and not the heir, Henry was not required to spend as much time in his father’s court and he therefore enjoyed more time in his mother’s company. As a result they had a very close relationship. It was unequivocally the most important relationship in terms of shaping the young Henry’s picture of what a royal wife and mother should be, and how she should behave. Much of their time was spent at the palace her father Edward IV had favoured, at Eltham, along the River Thames from London.
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It was here that Henry first met and impressed the scholar Erasmus, introduced to him by Thomas More. As king, Henry VIII invested a lot of money into Eltham and built a chapel there. He and Anne Boleyn visited on 24 November 1533 on their return from France where they had met King Francis at the famous ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, near Balingnem.
The relative peace that the country enjoyed under Henry VII can be attributed in part to his marriage to Elizabeth of York, which had effectively joined the warring Houses of York and Lancaster. That stability was threatened with the unexpected death of Arthur Prince of Wales in 1502.
With only one male child, Elizabeth of York was expected to perform her royal duty once again; this time, though, there were to be tragic consequences. Elizabeth fell pregnant but, following the premature birth of a baby girl within the White Tower at the Tower of London, she died on 11 February 1503, her 37th birthday. Henry was aged 11: old enough to be fully aware of events, young enough to truly feel the loss of a mother.
Some historians and writers have played down or even omitted to discuss the impact of Elizabeth’s death on Henry, potentially misunderstanding the strength of bond between mother and son. It is true that Henry had a ‘lady mistress’ who took care of him day-to-day, but we should not assume from this that he did not suffer the loss of his mother greatly. In 2012, an incredible discovery at the National Library of Wales revealed an illustrated manuscript containing a painting showing the 11-year-old Henry crying at the empty bedside of his dead mother. The painting indicates not only that Henry's grief was real but that it was recognised and accepted.
The impact of losing his mother, with whom he had built such a strong bond during the many hours spent with her at Eltham Palace, is worth consideration when thinking about Henry’s subsequent relationships with women, wives in particular. Was he subconsciously, maybe even consciously, looking for the perfect wife to emulate his mother?
Despite Eltham’s significance, only the great hall built by Edward IV, Henry’s Yorkist grandfather, survives. The palace fell into decline after the reign of James I and suffered grave damage when occupied by parliamentary troops during the Civil War in the 17th century. The ruined great hall, once splendid for court occasions, was even used as a cattle barn during the 18th century.
The Mary Rose
The Mary Rose, raised from the seabed in 1982, was the flagship of Henry VIII’s navy and now sits in her permanent home within Portsmouth Historic Dockyard along with a myriad of artefacts brought up with her from the bottom of the Solent.
She was built in around 1511, two years after Henry became king, and sank on 19 July 1545, two years before Henry died, thus her service spanned almost his entire reign. She is a physical representation of Henry’s navy and the people who served aboard her.
Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and consequential break with Rome produced a real and unrelenting threat of invasion from Catholic countries loyal to the Pope. Henry spent a fortune on ships and a series of land-based coastal defences to protect England from attack. His fears were realised in July 1545 when a French invasion force intent on landing on the English mainland gathered off the Isle of Wight. Henry travelled to Portsmouth to inspect his fleet, which included the 34-year-old Mary Rose. On 19 July the wind turned in favour of the English and the Mary Rose went into battle with the rest of the fleet.
There are a number of theories as to how the ship sank, one of which is that after firing at the French galleys she made a quick turn, at which point the wind caught her sails, causing her to bank so far over that water entered the gun ports which had not yet been closed. Whatever the cause, her demise was swift. Within minutes she was below the waves, taking the lives of the majority of her crew with her. From his vantage point on the battlements of Southsea Castle, where he was gathered with a land army, Henry saw all. He could hear the cries of the drowning men and exclaimed “Oh, my gentlemen! Oh, my gallant men!”
Henry went on regular pilgrimages to see the miraculous black cross at Waltham Abbey, an Augustine monastery north of London. According to records, he was here in 1510; again when sweating sickness ravaged London in 1528; in July 1529 and August 1532, when he was accompanied by Anne Boleyn during their summer progress.
The dissolution of the monasteries which, over four years, had altered the landscape, economy and social welfare system of the country, ended here in March 1540. A walk around the Abbey gardens today gives an impression of how vast the Abbey complex was and, from that, an idea of just how large scale the dissolution was both to individual abbeys and their communities. The presence of a screen, which separated the nave from the Canon’s building, allowed the local people to claim part of the Abbey as their parish church, and remains so to this day .
Henry’s actions – breaking with Rome, destroying the monasteries and declaring himself as head of the Church in England – has misled many writers and educators into assuming Henry had protestant sympathies or indeed had become a Protestant. But as far as Henry was concerned there was still only one form of Christianity, what we know today as Catholicism.
Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, “the survivor”, only narrowly avoided arrest when she became too bold in making her reformist religious views known. Fortunately for her she received word of her impending arrest and got to Henry first, successfully convincing him that she was merely putting forward alternative views in order to be instructed by him and benefit from his great learning and to distract him from his painfully ulcerated leg.
Among the splendour of the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world we find the final resting place of Henry VIII, who lies in St George’s Chapel under the Quire floor along with his third wife, Jane Seymour. They were unmarked up until the reign of William IV, who laid a marble slab to commemorate those buried there.
What Henry would make of this we can only surmise, although we can be sure that he did not imagine this as his final resting place. He had taken possession of Cardinal Wolsey’s sarcophagus after his downfall and planned to transform it into an elaborate tomb depicting himself and his third wife, Jane Seymour. The tomb, however, was not completed in Henry’s lifetime, or during the lives of any of Henry’s children, and his body was never moved.
Some have argued that Henry should now be moved and interred in a tomb more in keeping with his wishes. But the fact that this king, who had such a drastic and enduring impact, remains in a crowded and understated vault is significant. It is a fitting metaphor for his real legacy, compared to that which he expected to create.
Unusually for a monarch, more than half of Henry’s last will and testament is dedicated to setting out the succession. Despite attempts by his son Edward VI to alter the succession by naming Lady Jane Grey as his successor (which as monarch he was entitled to do), Henry’s vision became reality, with all three of his children succeeding him in the order he had set out: Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I.
Philippa Brewell is a historical trip writer and blogs at britishhistorytours.com.
This article was first published by History Extra in November 2016.