Henry VIII, king of England


Henry VIII, king of England
(reigned 1509-1547)
   Born the second son of Henry VII, the younger Henry became heir to the throne when his brother Arthur died. He also was married to Catherine of Aragon, the young widow of his brother, despite church laws forbidding such a marriage. A papal dispensation was secured on the grounds that the marriage of Arthur and Catherine had never been consummated and hence was not a legal impediment. Henry VIII is most famous (or infamous) for his many marriages. Although the first marriage seems to have been reasonably happy, the queen's failure to bear a male heir to the throne gradually made the king discontented. As only the second of the Tudor monarchs, in a nation that had experienced 30 years of dynastic civil war before their accession, Henry was desperate for a male heir. One child of Henry and Catherine survived infancy, the future Queen Mary I, but since no female heir had ever successfully claimed the English throne without a period of civil war, Henry had real cause to seek a divorce (under canon law, essentially an annulment).
   The failure of Pope Clement VII to approve Henry's petition for a dissolution led first to attempts by Henry to exert pressure on Rome and then to a decision to sever all ties between the church in England and the papacy and to make the king himself "under Christ, the head of the church in England." The upshot was the secession of England from obedience to the papacy and the gradual adhesion of the country to the Protestant side in the Reformation despite the king's personal preference for the liturgical practices and doctrines of the medieval Catholic church. Despite his own conservatism in religion, Henry VIII became a major figure in the history of the Protestant Reformation.
   After the break with Rome, Henry married not just one but a succession of wives. The second of these, Anne Boleyn, disappointed him yet again when she gave birth to another girl, the future Queen Elizabeth I. But the king later accused her of adultery, and she was executed. His third wife, Jane Seymour, did give birth to a son, the future King Edward I, but died in childbirth. Two more marriages were also unsuccessful. His sixth wife, a widow named Catherine Parr, outlived him.
   Henry was mainly interested in gaining military glory and playing an active role in European politics. The religious changes he introduced were very limited as long as the conservative king himself lived. Although he unwillingly played a major role in the history of the Reformation and willingly tried to play a major role in international diplomacy, his share in the development of Renaissance culture in England was rather limited. Humanists like Erasmus had expected him to be a patron of the new learning, but Henry soon demonstrated that he was far more interested in politics and war than in humanistic studies or thoroughing reform of the church. During his reign, humanistic studies became increasingly prominent in the universities and the better Latin grammarschools, but the king did relatively little to foster this development. Several persons close to him, such as the humanists John Colet and Thomas More, the physician Thomas Linacre, Thomas Cromwell (his principal adviser during the 1530s), and the royal secretary Sir Thomas Elyot, fostered the new learning, but their patronage was their own personal action and did not draw the king into a major role in promoting the Renaissance.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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