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King Henry the Eighth and His Children

King Henry the Eighth was 17 when he ascended the throne and, although he only reigned for 38 years, he probably deserves a whole course in his own right. Six wives, the establishment of the church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries, the creation of the Royal Navy, and a tendency to behead those he fell out with, means that his reign was an extremely active one.

His first act was to marry Catherine of Aragon. She had been briefly married to Henry's older brother Arthur in 1501, but he died a few months later. Catherine remained in England and served as the Spanish Ambassador to England – the first female ambassador in European history.

Between 1510 and 1515, Catherine had three stillborn babies and a son who died 7 weeks old. Finally, in 1516 she gave birth to Mary. By 1525 the couple had become estranged, with Henry frustrated at the lack of a male heir. Henry became obsessed with the 25-year-old Anne Boleyn. She refused to become his mistress, and Henry began to plan how to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

In 1527 the Pope refused to annul the marriage. Further attempts to gain the pope's consent also failed. Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, and Cranmer worked with the King to enact the divorce. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 allowed Henry to be declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. It marks the beginning of the English reformation.

King Henry the Eighth, aged 41, married Anne Boleyn in 1532. Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1533, and Catherine's daughter Mary was declared illegitimate.

However, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was not a happy one, and by 1534 he was considering leaving her. Catherine of Aragon died in January 1536, and Anne had a miscarriage in the same month. Anne and some of her confidantes were arrested on trumped-up charges, and Anne Boleyn was beheaded in May 1536.

King Henry, by now 46 years old, married the 28-year-old Jane Seymour on 30th May 1536, just days after Anne Boleyn's execution. In October 1537, Jane gave birth to a son Edward, but died shortly afterwards from an infection. The newborn Edward was declared next in line for the throne, while both Mary and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate.

In order to cement relationships in Europe, King Henry was betrothed to Anne of cleves in 1539. They were married in January 1540, but Henry never liked his new bridge, and the marriage was never consummated. She was asked to leave Henry's court in June 1540, and the marriage was annulled soon after. The failure of this marriage also contributed to the downfall of Thomas Cromwell, who was executed in July of the same year.

Anne of Cleves was given a generous allowance and retained high status. She outlived all of Henry's wives and died in 1557 aged 41.

One of the new lady's in waiting in Henry's court was the 17-year-old Catherine Howard. Henry married her in July 1540, barely six weeks after his marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled. Henry was 49.

Catherine Howard embarked on an affair soon after the marriage. This was later exposed, along with other accusations of indiscretion. She was imprisoned in November 1541 and beheaded in February 1542.

Starting in 1536 until around 1541, King Henry authorised the disbanding of the monasteries, convents, and priories in England, Wales, and Ireland. He appropriated their wealth and assets. As many as 900 religious houses were dissolved, and 12000 religious adherents in those institutions were thrown out – although many were granted a small pension and others were permitted to continue as parish priests.

Vast wealth accumulated to the crown. The loss of religious houses had a tremendous impact on the poor and sick who had traditionally been cared for in religious hospitals. There is evidence to suggest that there was a significant rise in the number of beggars in the later Tudor society.

King Henry planned to invade France and sought to eliminate its ally Scotland first. He defeated the Scots in 1542 and planned to unite the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, but this was not achieved for another 60 years. Henry invaded France in 1544, but the campaign was unsuccessful and bankrupted England.

Henry married his last wife, Catherine Parr, in July 1543. She helped reconcile Henry to his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and they were restored to the line of succession after his son Edward.

By this time, Henry was overweight and ill with a wound that could not be healed. He died aged 55 in January 1547. Catherine Parr died in 1548, aged 36.

Henry the Eighth's only son Edward was crowned Edward the Sixth in February 1547.

If you remember, Edward the Fifth had never been crowned but had been imprisoned and murdered in the Tower of London aged 12 by Richard the third.

Edward was 10 years old when he acceded to the throne. He reigned for only 6 years, dying of illness in 1553. Although his father, Henry the Eighth, had severed the English church's connection to the Papacy, the Catholic ceremony had continued in the Church of England. Edward was the first protestant monarch and encouraged reformation in the Church of England, including the abolition of the Mass and the ending of clerical celibacy.

Not wishing to be succeeded by his elder sister Mary, who remained a devout Catholic, Edward declared Lady Jane Grey, an enthusiastic protestant but somewhat distant relative, to be his heir.

Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen in July 1553 but was never crowned. She reigned for 9 days. Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry the Eighth, rallied considerable support, and most of those supporting Jane switched their allegiance to Mary. Lady Jane Grey was arrested. Parliament was declaring Mary the rightful successor of Edward in September 1553. Lady Jane Grey was an innocent caught up in the power politics of the day. She was beheaded in February 1554.

Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry the Eighth and Catherine of Aragon, was crowned Mary the First of England in July 1553. She was 37, reigned for 5 years, and spent her time trying to reverse the protestant reformation and return England to Catholicism. Over 280 religious dissenters were burnt at stake during her reign, and many others fled into exile. In 1554 she married Philip of Spain and passed legislation that he was to be titled King of England. The marriage was a purely political one – there was no love between the couple, and Philip spent little time in England.

Mary's religious policy of imposing Catholicism by force and her marriage to the Catholic Philip of Spain was unpopular in the country. A brief conflict with France in 1557 resulted in the loss of Calais – England's only remaining possession on the continent of Europe. The English crown would never again rule a territory in France.

Mary fell ill in 1558 and died in November of that year. Before her death, she acknowledged that her half-sister Elizabeth was her lawful successor.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we cover the reign of Elizabeth the first.

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Written by

Ross Maynard