Henry VIII. was born in 1491, and succeeded Henry VII. in 1509, his elder brother Arthur having died before his father. He began his reign by putting to death Empson and Dudley, the instruments of Henry VII.'s extortion, and entered upon a more active foreign policy. He joined the Holy League against Louis XII. of France, and defeated an incursion of his ally, James IV. of Scotland, at Flodden in the same year as the battle of the Spurs. At the peace which followed he received large sums in satisfaction of his claims, and gave his sister Mary in marriage to the French king. Another short war followed the accession of Francis I. (q.v.), and in 1519 Henry was a candidate for the Empire. From 1514-1529 Wolsey was Chancellor, and incurred all the unpopularity which the arbitrary means of raising money for the wars caused. For some years the alliance with the new Emperor, Charles V., who was nephew of Queen Katharine, continued; but Henry and Wolsey, though inclining to him, really preferred holding the balance between him and Francis. Thus the meeting at Ardres, called the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," was allowed to take place as well as the visit of the Emperor to Canterbury. In 1523 peace was made with Scotland.
After the battle of Pavia and the sack of Rome, England changed sides, and in 1528 war was declared against Charles V. Meanwhile, however, Henry, not having a male heir, had begun to wish for divorce from Catherine, and when he fell in love with Anne Boleyn was determined to obtain it at all costs. The Pope, however, overawed by the Emperor, granted only a joint commission to examine the demand, and then revoked the case to Rome. Wolsey was now disgraced, and died in the following year (1530).
The Reformation, which had begun in the Parliament of 1529, followed. In 1531 the clergy, who had been brought under the penalties of praemunire for acquiescing in the legatine authority of Wolsey, had to purchase their pardon by acknowledging Henry as supreme head of the Church. Annates were in 1532 provisionally withdrawn from the Pope, Henry was married to Anne Boleyn in 1533, and appeals to Rome were made unlawful; and in 1534 a definite separation from the Papacy was completed. In 1536 the smaller monasteries were visited and suppressed, and in 1539 the larger houses shared the same fate. The abbots lost their places in the House of Lords, and most of the ecclesiastical property was granted to the new nobility. It was next made high treason to question the royal supremacy or the change in the succession, and Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher suffered death on the former ground. In 1536 Anne Boleyn was beheaded, and a new change was made in the succession, the king marrying Jane Seymour, by whom he at length had a male heir, afterwards Edward VI.
There was a great deal of discontent at the recent events coupled with the agrarian changes. Risings took place in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire (the "Pilgrimage of Grace"), but were put down. The king, however, was not prepared for the doctrinal changes which his Chancellor and Vicar; general, Thomas Cromwell, favoured, and he showed his displeasure on the occasion of the marriage, negotiated by the latter, with Anne of Cleves. In 1539 the Anglo-Catholic party, led by the Duke of Norfolk, had obtained the enactment of the Six Articles, making penal a refusal to accept the chief Romanist doctrines, and in 1540 Henry repudiated his fourth wife, and assented to a bill of attainder against Cromwell, who was executed.
The king now identified himself with the reaction by marrying a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, who in 1542, and for similar causes, shared the fate of Anne Boleyn. In 1543 Henry married Katharine Parr, who survived him. The remainder of the reign was occupied in wars with France and Scotland. The alliance with Charles V. was renewed in 1544, but was never, owing to late events, very cordial; and Henry, abandoned by his ally, made peace two years later, receiving the promise of a pension from France. The Scots were unsuccessful in their raid in 1542, James X. being routed at Solway Moss; but the French still retained considerable influence in Scotland. Before the king's death the Protestant party gained influence over him, and Norfolk was imprisoned and his son beheaded in 1546.
Parliament had granted to the king the right of nominating his successor, so that when in 1547 Henry VIII. died the succession of his son was assured. Besides being politically able, he was a learned theologian, and it is probable that he really felt grave doubts as to the validity of the dispensation which allowed him to marry his brother's widow. [Wolsey, Cromwell, Thomas More, Reformation.]