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Henry VIII: the life and rule of the Tudor king, plus 5 surprising facts

Henry VIII (1491–1547), son of Henry VII, was the second king in the Tudor dynasty. He played a significant role in the English Reformation, instigating the Church of England's break from Rome in 1532 in order to marry his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The Tudor king is largely remembered as a bully who executed his opponents, oversaw the destruction of religious buildings and works of art, and killed off two of his six wives. But is this image wholly accurate?

A portrait of King Henry VIII
Published: July 14, 2022 at 12:35 pm
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Arguably England’s most famous monarch, the larger-than-life Tudor King Henry VIII is known for his overindulgence, his lifelong obsession with siring a son and his six wives – two of whom he sent to their deaths. But Henry – the second son who was never meant to be king – was far more than the obese, womanising monarch of film and fiction. He was the father of the English Reformation – the man who severed England from the Roman Catholic Church and permanently changed the nature, and role, of parliament.

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Henry began his rule as a great Renaissance king. He presided over a court that embraced the new ideas, art, architecture, learning and music of the era. But, as age, injury and ill-health took their toll, he became a suspicious, cruel and tyrannical leader.

Whether he is remembered as the golden prince of his youth, or the harsh despot of his later years, there’s no doubt that Henry’s reign was one of immense change – both constructive and cataclysmic. His 37-year rule laid the foundations for one of Britain’s longest-lasting dynasties and, despite his desire for a male heir, he will be remembered as the father of the nation’s most enigmatic queen: Elizabeth I.

Henry VIII: a brief biography

Born: June 28 1491, Greenwich Palace

Died: January 28 1547, Palace of Whitehakll | Read more about the death of Henry VIII

Reigned: 1509–1547

Parents: Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

Spouses: Henry VIII famously had six wives: Catherine of Aragon; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Katherine Parr | Read more about Henry VIII’s six wives – in order

Children: Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I – plus several illegitimate children, including Henry Fitzroy

Siblings: Prince Arthur, Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor

Succeeded by: His son, who succeeded as King Edward VI

What was Henry VIII’s childhood like?

Born the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on 28 June 1491, Henry Tudor was never destined for the throne. With his older brother, Arthur, already in line for the throne, it is probable that young Henry was destined for a career in the church. Little detail is known of Henry’s childhood, but he would have received an education fit for a prince with theology, languages, philosophy, music, arithmetic and literature all featuring. His schooling was administered by some of the leading tutors of the day, including Poet Laureate John Skelton, and Thomas More, who would later become Henry’s key counsellor. The Renaissance scholar Erasmus described Henry as possessing “a lively mentality which reached for the stars, and he was able beyond measure to bring to perfection whichever task he undertook.”

Henry VIII as a young boy.
Henry VIII as a young boy. Little detail is known of Henry’s childhood. (Image by Getty Images)

Naturally athletic, Henry received tuition in riding, dancing, jousting, tennis, archery and hunting, and had a passion for astronomy. His eye for detail and encyclopedic memory were recorded by many of his acquaintance. In appearance, he is said to have resembled his grandfather, Edward IV – broad-shouldered but slim – with auburn hair and fair skin.

Unusually for the time, Henry was raised with sisters, Margaret and Mary, in a predominately female household, and his mother and his paternal grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, exerted considerable influence over his daily life. Henry is said to have adored his mother, with some historians claiming that the similarity in their handwriting indicates that it was Elizabeth herself who taught him to read and write. Contact with his father and older brother is likely to have been limited.

Margaret Beaufort, who had given birth to Henry’s father at the age of 13, was devoted to her grandson. It is probably she who supervised her grandchildren’s education. Indeed, it was Margaret and not Elizabeth who was charged with the domestic arrangements of Henry VII’s household and enforcing the rules of the royal nurseries. Renowned for her piety and learning, it is most likely Margaret who instilled Henry with his strict religious beliefs.

As a small child, Henry shared a nursery with his siblings, but when Arthur was taken away to learn the ways of sovereignty, Henry was left with his sisters and close friends. Particular among these were Charles Brandon and William Compton. Brandon was the son of Henry VII’s standard-bearer at the battle of Bosworth, and eventually married Henry’s younger sister, Mary – to Henry’s displeasure.

Compton, nine years older than Henry, shared the prince’s love of sport and the two became close friends. He eventually took the post of Groom of the Stool, waiting on the king while he used the latrine – a role of great influence.

With monarchs deemed to have been chosen by God, physical punishment of royal children was out of the question, so a ‘whipping boy’ would have received Henry’s punishment instead. The two would have grown up together – seeing his friend receive beatings on his behalf was meant to deter Henry from future misdemeanours. We don’t know the name of Henry’s whipping boy, but we know that, as a child, he had a fool named John Goose, charged with keeping him entertained.

Until the age of ten, Henry would have lived something of a carefree life as a royal prince, enjoying many freedoms denied his older brother, who was being groomed for kingship by their father. Arthur’s sudden death in 1502, however, would change the course of Henry’s life, and that of the Tudor dynasty.

How did Henry VIII accede to the throne?

On 2 April 1502, Henry’s carefree existence came to an abrupt end, with the death of his 15-year-old brother. Any plans for Henry to enter the Church were discarded and the ten-year-old boy was proclaimed Prince of Wales in February 1503.

But, unlike Arthur, Henry did not receive the same training in kingship. Instead, he found himself under strict supervision, spending much of his time in a room that adjoined King Henry VIII's bedchamber, unable to leave the palace without chaperones and only by way of a private door into the park.

Henry, whose beloved mother had died in February 1503, was now under the sole influence of his father, who took care to keep him out of the public eye. Having lost two other sons, Henry VII may have been overly concerned for the safety of his one remaining heir. But other theories suggest the king was suspicious of his young, talented son. Spanish secretary Miguel Perez Almazan stated the King was “beset by the fear that his son might in his lifetime obtain too much power”.

When the future Henry VII had seized the crown from Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, he became the first monarch of the new Tudor dynasty. But his hold on the throne was far from secure and, despite his marriage to Elizabeth of York (a move designed to unite the houses of York and Lancaster) plots and conspiracies plagued his reign.

Keen to promote peace within a country that had seen years of uncertainty and warfare, Henry VII devoted himself to rebuilding the royal finances, avoiding war, promoting trade and enforcing taxes. He spent much of his time personally overseeing matters of government. Traditionally, he has been portrayed as shrewd, calculating and suspicious. Henry VIII, in comparison, acceded the throne in 1509 with no opposition, inheriting a wealthy and relatively peaceful kingdom.

Henry VIII painted beside his children in an allegory of the Tudor dynasty
Henry VIII painted beside his children in an allegory of the Tudor dynasty. (Image by Getty Images)

Contemporary sources reveal that Henry VIII was not close to his father, particularly after the deaths of Arthur and Elizabeth. His cousin Reginald Pole claimed the king had “no affection or fancy unto him”. Whether or not this is true, the two Henrys approached the throne with differing attitudes. Where Henry VII kept a thrifty court, Henry VIII came to the crown larger than life, full of youthful energy, and with a desire to spend and be admired. In an attempt to assert his own authority, Henry VIII quickly reversed many of his father’s policies and even executed some of the dead king’s most trusted servants.

But Henry VII did instil some lessons in his son, namely the importance of having a male heir, and a need for suspicion at court, a trait seen openly in Henry VIII later in life.

Henry VIII’s rule: what was he like as king?

From the beginning of his reign, Henry was viewed as the ultimate Renaissance ruler: educated, handsome, fearless, artistic, virtuous. He was Europe’s ‘golden king’ who ascended the throne as the Renaissance swept across Europe with new ideas on education, religion and the arts.

Determined to banish the impression of a thrifty English court instigated by his father, Henry VIII surrounded himself with the country’s brightest lights – handsome young men like himself who jousted, hunted, danced, spoke several languages (Henry himself spoke Spanish, French and Latin) and played music. Court festivities were grand, lavish, and carried out on a huge scale, while contemporary sources rave about the qualities of the Tudor king.

A portrait of Henry VIII as a young man
A portrait of Henry VIII as a young man. From the beginning of his reign, Henry was viewed as the ultimate Renaissance ruler: educated, handsome, fearless, artistic, virtuous. (Image by Getty Images)

Venetian Ambassador Giustinian, writing in 1515, describes Henry as “most excellent in his personal endowments, but... likewise so gifted and adorned with mental accomplishments of every soil that we believe him to have few equals in the world”.

“A most invincible King, whose acquirements and qualities are so many and excellent that I consider him to excel all who ever wore a crown”. So wrote papal nuncio Francesco Chieregato after witnessing Henry entertain a visiting embassy from France in 1517. At the event, Henry is said to have played every musical instrument available to him, no doubt impressing his audience and reasserting their belief in him as the epitome of a Renaissance ruler.

Henry’s musical talents are well recorded – he owned and played a number of musical instruments and was a highly respected musician and composer. The Henry VIII Songbook, compiled in c1518, features some 20 songs and 13 instrumental pieces ascribed to ‘The Kynge H viij’.

Henry was a keen patron of the arts and spent huge sums of money on new palaces, paintings, tapestries and other decorative objects over the course of his reign. One tapestry from 1537, which hung in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace, took three years to make and cost £2,000 – more than £600,000 in today’s money.

Henry’s desire to shine, combined with his love of luxury, also extended to his clothing and appearance. Keen to show off how many clothes he owned, Henry rarely wore clothes more than once for important occasions, and often gave garments away to members of his court.

The materials used to create his clothes were imported from all over the world: Henry insisted on being the first to see any new textiles and jewels being imported into the country. In a typical year, the king would spend at least £3,000 on clothing, often considerably more, and in 1519, he was described by Venetian Ambassador Guistinian as being “the best dressed sovereign in the world.”

Henry loved to accessorise his clothes with expensive jewellery – yet another way of displaying his wealth and power to those around him. At his death in 1547, he owned no less than 3,690 precious gemstones.

What did Henry VIII really look like?

In 1515, a contemporary described the king as being “above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg”. In appearance, he is said to have resembled his grandfather, Edward IV – broad-shouldered but slim – with auburn hair and fair skin. At the age of 23 he stood at an impressive 6’ 2” with a 42-inch chest, and he was said to have been an outstanding jouster, as well as a fine wrestler and tennis player.

Despite the dangers involved, Henry often took part in jousts, riding under the chivalric title of Sir Loyal Heart. One such event took place in 1511, to celebrate the birth of the king’s son, Prince Henry. It included a movable forest topped by a castle made of golden paper. Sadly the longed-for baby boy only lived 52 days. The king’s love of hunting is also well recorded. Contemporary sources state that Henry would often tire eight or ten horses before he himself was done with the chase.

A keen archer, Henry was said to have been able to hit a target at 220 yards, and, perhaps surprisingly, he also played football. The inventory of possessions drawn up on Henry’s death in 1547 listed a pair of football boots, ordered from the Great Wardrobe in 1526, in order for the king to participate in a Shrove Tuesday match. The hand-stitched leather boots cost four shillings and were requested alongside two pairs of shoes for fencing.

It was Henry’s penchant for sport that may have triggered his metamorphosis into the obese, cruel, tyrannical ruler of his later years.

In January 1536, Henry, aged 44, was unseated from his horse during a joust. He crashed to the ground, his fully-armoured horse landing on top of him, crushing his legs. Although he recovered from his injuries, Henry suffered from persistent headaches and his leg wounds became ulcerated. These were treated with a variety of different methods, including lancing with red-hot pokers, but they would plague him for the rest of his life. By 1543, the stench from his infected ulcers could allegedly be identified three rooms away.

Henry’s court had always been prone to excess, and the monarch was known to have a massive appetite for meat, pastries and wine. Unable to exercise in the wake of his accident and reluctant to curb his appetite, Henry’s weight increased dramatically. In his 20s he is thought to have weighed around 15 stone, boasting a slim 42-inch waist; by the time of his death in 1547, he is believed to have weighed 28 stone and his waist had expanded to 52 inches.

Henry VIII’s politics, power and foreign policy

During June 1520, Henry and his court travelled to France in the hope of forging an alliance with its king, Francis I. The two men had long been rivals, both personally and politically. Francis, three years younger than Henry, was also revered as a great Renaissance ruler and the meeting was a chance for both to display the wealth and grandeur of their respective courts, as well as their personal talents.

On 8 June, Henry arrived at the designated meeting point – a valley near Calais known as the Golden Dale – accompanied by 500 horsemen and some 3,000 foot soldiers, and with no expense spared in terms of wealth displayed. When the two kings met for the first time, “they embraced each other in great friendship and then, dismounting, embraced each other again, taking off their hats…”

The event was more about vast displays of wealth than political talks, although these did take place. Pavilions of cloth gold (using real filaments of gold sewn with silk to make the fabric) and a huge temporary palace set on brickwork foundations was set up for the occasion. Men from Flanders and England were sent ahead to erect the structure, which comprised a timber framework with canvas walls and roof painted to make it look like a solid structure.

Henry VIII on horseback at the Field of Cloth of Gold
During June 1520, Henry and his court travelled to France in the hope of forging an alliance with its king, Francis I. The event was known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. (Image by Getty Images)

Eleven days of tournament games such as jousting, wrestling and archery took place, along with banquets and firework displays. Two monkeys covered in gold leaf were said to have caused Francis much amusement, while fountains of red wine were set up at the temporary palace.

The two kings were not meant to compete against each other during the event, but a night of feasting ended abruptly after Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match. The English king probably regretted his rash move after he lost to his French counterpart.

The three-week event was the talk of Europe and was referred to as the Field of Cloth of Gold. Politically, it did little to unite the countries. Just months after, Henry agreed a treaty with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was forced into conflict with the French the next year, after Charles V declared war on France.

Public reception

The arrival of the young, energetic Henry VIII to the throne in 1509 was greeted with excitement among his subjects. Here was a monarch who enjoyed eating, drinking and merriment and who would bring colour to the country. He stood in great contrast to his father, whose reign had been austere. Indeed, there was much celebration when Henry VIII executed two of the much-hated officials responsible for heavy taxation in Henry VII’s time: Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson. Reactions to Henry’s break with the Catholic Church after the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon seem to have been mixed.

A popular protest in 1536, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, saw around 30,000 people in the north of England rebel against the break, and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries, as well as other specific political, economic and social grievances, many the work of Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. What’s more, Anne Boleyn was not a popular choice of queen for many, and it was widely felt that the king’s first wife had been badly treated. But Anne’s execution in May 1536 did little to restore Henry’s reputation.

The monarch’s excessive spending also saw several attempts to debase England’s coinage to pay for expensive wars with France and Scotland. It earned Henry the nickname ‘Old Coppernose’: the layer of silver on coins became so thin it would wear off, revealing the copper below.

Henry VIII and parliament

Parliament was very active under Henry VIII but, unlike the King’s Council, which met annually, it was still very much an occasional institution. Henry’s 37-year reign saw nine Parliaments sit, for a total of 183 weeks – 136 of these occurred in the last 18 years of his reign and his break with Rome.

But it was the ‘Reformation Parliament’ (1529-36), that saw the nature of parliament change dramatically. Previously responsible for granting taxation and passing laws, Parliament under Henry VIII began making laws that affected all aspects of national life, including religious practice and doctrine. In 1530, Parliament transferred religious authority from the Pope to the English Crown – a groundbreaking move. Although Parliament could still only sit by the will of the monarch, Henry had learned that royal power was strongest when it was supported by parliamentary statute.

Henry VIII’s foreign policy

Henry’s main rivals were France, under Francis I, and the Habsburg Empire, ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. At first Henry continued his father’s tactic of treading a careful neutrality with both rulers. That is, until moves to split with Catherine of Aragon raised tensions with Charles V (her nephew). Henry had to play a delicate diplomatic game with both men – to ally with one would create combined strength but antagonise the other. However, an alliance between Charles and Francis would have been devastating. Nevertheless, Henry went to war with France three times and allied with France against Charles V in 1526. Closer to home, Scotland was a permanent thorn in Henry’s side. The battle of Flodden, in 1513, was the largest conflict between the two neighbours. It was a decisive English victory that saw the death of Scottish King James IV.


5 surprising facts about Henry VIII

Here, historian Tracy Borman shares five surprising facts about Henry VIII...

1

Henry VIII was slim and athletic for most of his life

At six feet two inches tall, Henry VIII stood head and shoulders above most of his court. He had an athletic physique and excelled at sports, regularly showing off his prowess in the jousting arena.

Having inherited the good looks of his grandfather, Edward IV, in 1515 Henry was described as “the handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on…” and later an “Adonis”, “with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair…and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman”.

All this changed in 1536 when the king – then in his mid-forties – suffered a serious wound to his leg while jousting. This never properly healed, and instead turned ulcerous, which left Henry increasingly incapacitated.

Four years later, the king’s waist had grown from a trim 32 inches to an enormous 52 inches. By the time of his death, he had to be winched onto his horse. It is this image of the corpulent Henry VIII that has obscured the impressive figure that he cut for most of his life.

2

Henry VIII was a tidy eater

Despite the popular image of Henry VIII throwing a chicken leg over his shoulder as he devoured one of his many feasts, he was in fact a fastidious eater. Only on special occasions, such as a visit from a foreign dignitary, did he stage banquets.

Most of the time, Henry preferred to dine in his private apartments. He would take care to wash his hands before, during and after each meal, and would follow a strict order of ceremony.

Seated beneath a canopy and surrounded by senior court officers, he was served on bended knee and presented with several different dishes to choose from at each course.

3

Henry was a bit of a prude

England’s most-married monarch has a reputation as a ladies’ man – for obvious reasons. As well as his six wives, he kept several mistresses and fathered at least one child by them.

But the evidence suggests that, behind closed doors, he was no lothario. When he finally persuaded Anne Boleyn to become his mistress in body as well as in name, he was shocked by the sexual knowledge that she seemed to possess, and later confided that he believed she had been no virgin.

When she failed to give him a son, he plumped for the innocent and unsullied Jane Seymour instead.

4

Henry’s chief minister liked to party

Although often represented as a ruthless henchman, Thomas Cromwell was in fact one of the most fun-loving members of the court. His parties were legendary, and he would spend lavish sums on entertaining his guests – he once paid a tailor £4,000 to make an elaborate costume that he could wear in a masque to amuse the king.

Cromwell also kept a cage of canary birds at his house, as well as an animal described as a “strange beast”, which he gave to the king as a present.

5

Henry VIII sent more men and women to their deaths than any other monarch

During the later years of Henry’s reign, as he grew ever more paranoid and bad-tempered, the Tower of London was crowded with the terrified subjects who had been imprisoned at his orders.

One of the most brutal executions was that of the aged Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury. The 67-year-old countess was woken early on the morning of 27 May 1541 and told to prepare for death.

Although initially composed, when Margaret was told to place her head on the block, her self-control deserted her and she tried to escape. Her captors were forced to pinion her to the block, where the amateur executioner hacked at the poor woman’s head and neck, eventually severing them after the eleventh blow.

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This article was first published by HistoryExtra in January 2015 and updated in July 2022

Authors

Tracy Borman
Tracy BormanAuthor, historian, joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces

Tracy Borman is a best-selling author and historian, specialising in the Tudor period. She works part-time as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and as Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

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