His wives were Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Unprecedented in the history of Christian English monarchs, Henry married and remarried six times over the course of his reign. Two were divorced (Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves), two were executed (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), one died shortly after giving him a son (Jane Seymour) and his last, Katherine Parr, outlived him.
The 16th century was a time of great turmoil and strife for the all-powerful Catholic Church, which had for over a thousand years reigned supreme as the only religion of Western Europe. This all changed when, in 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther published a document named the 95 Theses, decrying many of the practices of the Catholic Church and giving birth to the Protestant school of thought, which advocated primarily for the abolishment of Rome’s hegemony over western Christianity. As the revolution of thought swept across Europe and a great many leaders found themselves sympathetic to the anti-Catholic teachings of Martin Luther, Henry took advantage of the situation to oppose the Pope, who would not grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had failed for twenty years to provide him a son, and so Henry desperately wished to remarry in order to secure for himself a wife who could provide him with a male heir. In 1534, he broke with the pope and declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
That is, until a jousting accident in 1536 seriously injured him and he was forced to retire from sport. However, for the majority of his life, the controversial king boasted a slim and athletic figure. He was a great athlete: participating in many popular sports, such as rugby, wrestling, javelin, double-axe fighting, tennis, hunting and archery. After his accident, he became more gluttonous and, without exercise to train his body, rapidly gained weight. This is not a commonly known fact, in large part due to many famous depictions and paintings of Henry portraying him as obese and unsightly in his later years.
Technically, there were more, however all were either stillborn or died very shortly after birth. All three children that outlived him, however, would go on to rule England after his death. Edward VI, who died shortly after his father of tuberculosis, Mary I (more popularly known as ‘Bloody Mary) who is best known for her vigorous attempt to reverse the English reformation, and the most celebrated, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth would rule for a long 45 years in what would become known as the Elizabethan era, and under her reign the country would prosper like never before. Known to history as one of England’s greatest monarchs, she far surpassed her father's expectations that England would never accept a female monarch.
Henry very much conformed to popular belief regarding the duties and responsibilities of men and women in society. He believed that women were inferior to men, and that a wife should always obey her husband. In fact, it is theorised by many historians that what sealed the fate of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s wife who he later had executed for high treason, was her willingness to stand up to the King. Other wives such as Jane Seymour, who died tragically after childbirth, and Anne of Cleves, were known for their extreme submissiveness and obedience, and were treated exceedingly well by Henry for this.
Unlike his father Henry VII, who was renowned for his strong work ethic, Henry VIII believed it was important for a king to lead a grand and joyous life composed of doing what he wished and fancied. He believed not only that this was his privilege as a king, but also that it was his duty and what his subjects wished of him. However, this is not to say that he was absent in matters of state - far from it, in fact, as he was noted to have understood many aspects of government and participated as needed.
His older brother, Arthur, who was the first husband of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragorn (though, allegedly, the marriage was never consummated, which made her an eligible bride for Henry) died at the age of 15 from illness. As a result, Henry would take the throne in 1509 at the young age of 17.
Henry’s favourite wife was Jane Seymour, who, out of the six he had married, was the only one able to provide him with a healthy son. When he died, he was laid to rest at St George’s Chapel next to his beloved Jane, the only wife of Henry’s to receive the funeral of a queen.
After Henry’s death, the royal coffers of England were left much emptier than they had been when he ascended to the throne. During his life, Henry pumped millions into endeavours that many historians consider to have been less than fruitful such as gambling, sports, and warring with Scotland and France, leaving the kingdom in much debt after his death.
In contrast to the policy of kings before him and the beliefs of many English governors and parliamentarians, Henry believed firmly in the divine right of kings, a doctrine that asserted his ultimate superiority in all matters of rulership. The basis for this was that the position of kingship was preselected by God before birth, and that in life, the king should be respected and worshipped as the harbinger of God’s will.
During the latter years of Henry’s reign, Wales was annexed to the Kingdom of England. Traditions, laws and the rules of English government were introduced and forced onto Wales, with the aim to create a single state. Henry’s dynasty, the Tudor dynasty, was descended from Welsh and French noblemen, which was considered as the main basis for these laws.
During his life, Henry composed a great many songs and hymns. He was highly respected for his skills in composing, and a manuscript known as the Henry VIII songbook, comprised of many of his works exists to this day. It includes thirty-three songs, twenty of which were vocal and thirteen of which were instrumental.
Described as one of the “most charismatic rulers to sit on the English throne”, his reign, while certainly controversial and wrought with drama, was extremely popular and influential. He asserted England’s superiority over the Catholic Church and engaged in many battles and wars which, while for the most part unrewarding, earned him the reputation of a martial warrior king.
While he is not known particularly for his martial leadership and his success in war, Henry fought many battles and wars during his lifetime. During his reign, he fought against the rebel lords of Ireland, Welsh and England, against the Netherlands, against France and against the invading armies of Scotland. While his warring made him more popular at times, Henry was not a good general and his efforts often yielded few positive results.
Fearing military threats and an invasion from overseas, Henry expanded and improved the Royal Navy considerably, and it is estimated to have grown roughly ten times under his reign and leadership. When his father, Henry VII died, there were five royal warships. By the time of Henry VIII’s death, this number expanded to more than fifty. Furthermore, he ordered the construction of a great many dockyards, storehouses and technical improvements for his warships.
During the very last years of his reign, Henry became practically immobile as a result of his obesity and likely gout. The origin of these problems is often traced back to the jousting incident of 1536, in which he suffered a permanent injury to his leg. As a result of his condition, Henry was unable to walk and required the assistance of mechanical devices and servants in order to move from his bed.
Henry’s VIII chief legacy is unquestionably the beginning of the English Reformation, which separated England from the Catholic Church in Rome and promoted the reigning monarch of England to the position of the newly founded Church of England. However, he is also remembered for his six wives, and the brutality with which he governed many of his subjects, especially in the later years of his reign. Both a monster of tradition and an influential reformer, he is regarded as one of most controversial English monarchs of all time.