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Biography of Henry VIII


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HENRY VIII, King of England, second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born in 1491. On the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, he became heir-apparent to the throne. In his twelfth year, he was betrothed to his brother's widow, Catharine of Aragon, sister of Philip I of Spain, thus early commencing a union afterwards fertile in evil fortune. His reign is of historical importance as marking the overthrow of the papal power in England.

On his father's death in 1509, Henry was found to possess many accomplishments with no practical ability. He indolently allowed his ministers to manage everything for him, even his marriage to Catharine. For the first twenty years of his reign, England had no reason to be dissatisfied. The period indeed was not an eventful one. Wolsey was then minister; and from 1515, when he was made Archbishop of York and Chancellor, till his fall in 1529, he is wholly responsible for the government, and it was the best governed portion of Henry's reign. In 1521, Henry published a book against the doctrines of Luther, thus earning from the people the title of Defender of the Faith.

At length Henry grew weary of Catharine, who was older by six years than he was, and for whom he had at no time felt more affection than was due to a bride selected for him by others. He desired to marry Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court, for whom he had formed an attachment. He accordingly applied to the pope for a divorce, in the year 1527, on the ground that his marriage to his brother's widow had been illegal. Clement, unwilling to offend Charles V of Germany, who was a brother of Catharine, hesitated and delayed from year to year. Henry grew impatient. Wolsey, who looked with disfavor on the projected alliance with Anne, and who was suspected of having thwarted the divorce, was displaced, and was succeeded as chancellor by Sir Thomas More. The chief adviser of the King was Wolsey's old servant Sir Thomas Cromwell. The pope still delaying to pass upon the question of the divorce, Henry, with the aid of parliament, took measures to abridge the power of the church, declared himself the head of the church in his own dominions, and denied the right of the Bishop of Rome to interfere. In the beginning of 1533, he was privately married to Anne Boleyn. Within three months afterwards the marriage was made public; and to complete matters, Cranmer, recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, held a court, as the highest ecclesiastical authority in England, and pronounced sentence of divorce, declaring the marriage of Henry and Catharine to have been null from the beginning. Soon after the English parliament met, and under Cromwell's guidance, pressed for an act entirely abolishing the papal authority within the realm.

Meantime Sir Thomas More, finding his influence powerless to restrain the advancing tide of secularism, had resigned his office, and a new ministry had been formed, with Cromwell at its head.

Henry now proceeded with great cruelty against those of his subjects who were disaffected by these changes. Minor victims fell unheeded, but all Europe was shocked when More and Fisher (Bishop of Rochester), were put to death for refusing to acknowledge the new succession, and to admit the King's right to the head of the church. The worst effect of the cruelty was the alienation of the German Protestants, who ever afterwards held aloof from Henry, in spite of all Cromwell's efforts to cement an alliance. After this, and other similar acts, which were not unfrequent, it may be said that Henry never again received human sympathy.

The state of the monasteries having long been a public scandal, Cromwell, in 1535, sent a commission to examine them. Acting on the reports of the commission, parliament abolished the smaller monasteries. A rebellion followed, which was with some difficulty put down. The supression of this rebellion was followed in 1537, by the dissolution of the larger monasteries.

In the midst of these civil commotions, two events took place, both bearing on the Reformation, but of very different import. An order in council appointed the English translation of the Bible to be placed in every church, that all might read it. But as if to correct the idea that every one was to have the right of judging for himself in religious questions, an act of uniformity was passed. Certain articles of religion were drawn up, and after some modifications, were framed into those known as the "bloody six articles." The doctrines were substantially those of the Roman Catholic Church. Whoever denied the first article (that embodying the doctrine of transubstantiation), was to be declared a heretic, and burned without opportunity of adjuration; whoso spoke against the other five articles should, for the first offence, forfeit his property; and whosoever refused to abjure his first offence, or committed a second, was to die like a felon. To this act, Cromwell himself fell a victim. He had been silent in face of the combination which carried it; but having secretly used all his influence as a member of government, to thwart its execution, by staying proceedings and granting pardons, he lost Henry's confidence and was put to death.

Henry died on the 28th of January 1547, unhonored and unmourned. The mere recital of the occurrences of his private life is sufficient to justify most of the infamy which tradition has attached to his name. The divorce of Catharine and the marrying of Anne Boleyn have already been told. Within a short time after the birth of the princess (afterwards Queen) Elizabeth, Henry's affection for Anne ceased. He suspected her of adultery, and after a hurried trial had her condemned and executed. On the day after her execution, he married Jane Seymour, who died in 1537, in giving birth to Edward VI. The story of Anne of Cleves follows. The marriage, a political one, arranged by Cromwell to connect Henry with the German Protestants, was unfortunate from the beginning. Henry was deceived as to her personal attractions, and in 1540, obtained a divorce to free himself. His fifth wife, Catharine Howard, was within a few months divorced and executed on a charge of adultery. His sixth wife, Catharine Parr, survived him, and so the catalogue ends. Passing from the domestic circle to his immediate associates, he is found as incapable of friendship, as he was of either feeling or evoking love. He had three great ministers - Wolsey, More and Cromwell - all men of high talent and worth, and all on terms of the closest intimacy with the King, yet all in the hour of need thrown aside. If such were the mercies he vouchsafed to those who were with him, it may easily be imagined how he dealt with those who were against him. It may safely be admitted that tradition has exaggerated Henry's cruelties, but after allowing for everything, enough remains to explain the universal detestation in which Protestant and Catholic have combined to hold his memory.