Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

King of England, born 28 June, 1491; died 28 January, 1547.

He was the second son and third child of his father, Henry VII. His elder brother Arthur died in April, 1502, and consequently Henry became heir to the throne when he was not yet quite eleven years old. It has been asserted that Henry's interest in theological questions was due to the bias of his early education, since he had at first been destined by his father for the Church. But a child of eleven can hardly have formed lifelong intellectual tastes, and it is certain that secular titles, such as those of Earl Marshal and Viceroy of Ireland, were heaped upon him when he was five. On the other hand there can be no question as to the boy's great precocity and as to the liberal scope of the studies which he was made to pursue from his earliest years.

After Arthur's death a project was at once formed of marrying him to his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, who, being born in December, 1485, was more than five years his senior. The negotiations for a papal dispensation took some little time, and the Spanish Queen Isabella , the mother of Catherine, then nearing her end, grew very impatient. Hence a hastily drafted Brief containing the required dispensation was privately sent to Spain in 1504, to be followed some months later by a Bull to the same effect which was of a more public character. The existence of these two instruments afterwards caused complications. Owing, however, to some political scheming of Henry VII -- who was trying to outwit his rival Ferdinand -- Prince Henry, on attaining the age of fourteen, was made to record a formal protest against the proposed marriage with Catherine, as a matter arranged without his consent. Still, when his father died in 1509, Henry carried out the marriage nine weeks after his accession, he being then eighteen, and showing from the first a thorough determination to be his own master. Great popularity was won for the new reign by the attainder and execution of Empson and Dudley, the instruments of the late king's extortion. Besides this, it is unanimously attested by contemporaries that the young sovereign possessed every gift of mind and person which could arouse the enthusiasm of his people. His skill in manly sports was almost equalled by his intelligence and his devotion to letters. Of the complicated foreign policy which marked the beginning of his reign no detail can be given here. Thanks partly to Henry's personality, but still more to the ability of Wolsey, who soon took the first place in the council chamber, England for the first time became a European power. In 1512 Henry joined Pope Julius II, Ferdinand of Spain, and the Venetians in forming the "Holy League" against the King of France. Julius was feverishly bent on chasing the "barbarians" (i.e. the French and other foreigners) out of Italy, and Henry cooperated by collecting ships and soldiers to attack the French king in his own dominions. No very conspicuous success attended his arms, but there was a victory at Guinegate outside Therouanne, and the Scotch, who, as the allies of France, had threatened invasion, were disastrously defeated at Flodden in 1513. During all this time Henry remained on excellent terms with the Holy See. In April, 1510, Julius sent him the golden rose, and in 1514 Leo X bestowed the honorific cap and sword, which were presented with much solemnity at St. Paul's.

The League having been broken up by the selfish policy of Ferdinand, Henry VIII now made peace with France and for some years held the balance of power on the Continent, though not without parting with a good deal of money. Wolsey was made a cardinal in 1515 and exercised more influence than ever, but it was somewhat against his advice that Henry, in 1519, secretly became a candidate for the succession to the empire, though pretending at the same time to support the candidature of Francis, his ally. When, however, Charles V was successful, the French king could not afford to quarrel with Henry, and a somewhat hollow and insincere renewal of their friendship took place in June, 1520, at the famous "Field of the Cloth of Gold", when the most elaborate courtesies were exchanged between the two monarchs. The prospect of this rapprochement had so alarmed the Emperor Charles that, a month before it took place, he visited Henry in England. In point of fact a continuous game of intrigue was being played by all three monarchs, which lasted until the period when Henry's final breach with Rome led him to turn his principal attention to domestic concerns. Meanwhile the strength of Henry's position at home had been much developed by Wolsey's judicious diplomacy, and, despite the costliness of some of England's demonstrations against France, before the French king became the emperor's prisoner at Pavia, the odium of the demand for money fell upon the minister, while Henry retained all his popularity. Indeed, whatever disaffection might be felt, the people had no leader to make rebellion possible. The old nobility, partly as a result of the Wars of the Roses, and partly owing to the repressive policy dictated by the dynastic fears of Henry VII, had been reduced to impotence. In 1521 the most prominent noble in England, the Duke of Buckingham, was condemned to death for high treason by a subservient House of Peers, simply because the king suspected him of aiming at the succession and had determined that he must die. At the same period Henry's prestige in the eyes of the clergy, and not the clergy only, was strengthened by his famous book, the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum . This book was written against Luther and in vindication of the Church's dogmatic teaching regarding the sacraments and the Sacrifice of the Mass, while the supremacy of the papacy is also insisted upon in unequivocal terms. There is no reason to doubt that the substance of the book was really Henry's. Pope Leo X was highly pleased with it and conferred upon the king the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith ), which is maintained to this day as part of the royal style of the English Crown. All this success and adulation were calculated to develop the natural masterfulness of Henry's character. He had long shown to discerning eyes, like those of Sir Thomas More , that he would brook contradiction in nothing. Without being guilty of notable profligacy in comparison with the other monarchs of his time, it is doubtful if Henry's married life had ever been pure, even from the first, and we know that in 1519 he had, by Elizabeth Blount, a son whom, at the age of six, he made the Duke of Richmond. He had also carried on an intrigue with Mary Boleyn which led to some complications at a later date.

Such was Henry when, probably about the beginning of the year 1527, he formed a violent passion for Mary's younger sister, Anne. It is possible that the idea of the divorce had suggested itself to the king much earlier than this ( see Brown, "Venetian Calendars", II, 479), and it is highly probable that it was motivated by the desire of male issue, of which he had been disappointed by the death in infancy of all Catherine's children save Mary. Anne Boleyn was restrained by no moral scruples, but she saw her opportunity in Henry's infatuation and determined that she would only yield as his acknowledged queen. Anyway, it soon became the one absorbing object of the king's desires to secure a divorce from Catherine, and in the pursuit of this he condescended to the most unworthy means. He had it put about that the Bishop of Tarbes, when negotiating an alliance in behalf of the French king, had raised a doubt as to the Princess Mary's legitimacy. He also prompted Wolsey, as legate, to hold with Archbishop Warham a private and collusive inquiry, summoning Henry to prove before them that his marriage was valid. The only result was to give Catherine an inkling of what was in the king's mind, and to elicit from her a solemn declaration that the marriage had never been consummated. From this it followed that there had never been any impediment of "affinity" to bar her union with Henry, but only the much more easily dispensed impediment known as publicae honestatis . The best canonists of the time also held that a papal dispensation which formally removed the impediment of affinity also involved by implication that of publicae honestatis , or "public decency." The collective suit was thereupon dropped, and Henry now set his hopes upon a direct appeal to the Holy See , acting in this independently of Wolsey, to whom he at first communicated nothing of his design so far as it related to Anne. William Knight, the king's secretary, was sent to Pope Clement VII to sue for the declaration of nullity of his union with Catherine, on the ground that the dispensing Bull of Julius II was obreptitious -- i.e. obtained by false pretences. Henry also petitioned, in the event of his becoming free, a dispensation to contract a new marriage with any woman even in the first degree of affinity, whether the affinity was contracted by lawful or unlawful connexion. This clearly had reference to Anne Boleyn, and the fictitious nature of Henry's conscientious scruples about his marriage is betrayed by the fact that he himself was now applying for a dispensation of precisely the same nature as that which he scrupled about, a dispensation which he later on maintained the pope had no power to grant.

As the pope was at that time the prisoner of Charles V, Knight had some difficulty in obtaining access to him. In the end the king's envoy had to return without accomplishing much, though the (conditional) dispensation for a new marriage was readily accorded. Henry had now no choice but to put his great matter into the hands of Wolsey, and Wolsey, although the whole divorce policy ran counter to his better judgment, strained every nerve to secure a decision in his master's favour. An account of the mission of Gardiner and Foxe and of the failure of the divorce proceedings before the papal commissioners, Wolsey and Campeggio, mainly on account of the production of the Brief, has been given in some detail in the article CLEMENT VII, to which the reader is referred. The revocation of the cause to Rome in July, 1529, owing, no doubt, in part to Queen Catherine's most reasonable protests against her helplessness in England and the compulsion to which she was subjected, had many important results. First among these we must count the disgrace and fall of Wolsey, hitherto the only real check upon Henry's wilfulness. The incredible meanness of the praemunire, and consequent confiscation, which the cardinal was pronounced to have incurred for obtaining the cardinalate and legateship from Rome -- though of course this had been done with the king's full knowledge and consent -- would alone suffice to stamp Henry as one of the basest of mankind. But, secondly, we may trace to this same crisis the rise of both Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, the two great architects of Henry's new policy. It was Cranmer who, in the autumn of 1529, made the momentous suggestion that the king should consult the universities of Europe upon the question of the nullity of his marriage, a suggestion which at once brought its author into favour.

The project was carried out as soon as possible with a lavish expenditure of bribes, and the use of other means of pressure. The result was naturally highly favourable to the king's wishes, though the universities which lay within the dominions of Charles V were not consulted. The answers were submitted to Parliament, where the king still kept the pretense of having no personal interest in the matter. He professed to be suffering from scruples of conscience, now rendered more acute by such a weight of learned opinion. With the same astuteness he persuaded the leading nobility of the kingdom to write to the pope praying him to give sentence in Henry's favour for fear that worse might follow. All this drew the king into closer relations with Cranmer, who was made ambassador to the emperor, and who, a year or two afterwards, despite the fact that he had just married Osiander's niece (his second wife), was summoned home to become Archbishop of Canterbury. The necessary Bulls and the pallium were obtained from Rome under threat that the law (referred to again below) for the abolition of annates and first-fruits would be made permanent. The vacillating Clement -- who probably hoped that by making every other kind of concession he might be able to maintain the position he had assumed upon the more vital question of the divorce -- conceded Bulls and pallium. But to benefit by them it was necessary that Cranmer should take certain prescribed oaths of obedience to the Holy See. He took the oaths, but committed to writing a solemn protest that he considered the oaths in no way binding in conscience, a procedure which even so prejudiced a historian as Mr. H.A. Fisher cannot refrain from describing as a "signal dishonesty." "If", asks Dr. Lingard, "it be simony to purchase spiritual office by money, what is it to purchase the same by perjury ?" The father of the new Church of England, and future compiler of its liturgy, was not entering upon his functions under very propitious auspices.

But the Church which was soon to be brought into being probably owes even more to Thomas Cromwell than to its first archbishop. It is Cromwell who seems to have suggested to Henry as a deliberate policy that he should abolish the imperium in imperio , throw off the papal supremacy, and make himself the supreme head of his own religion. This was in fact the course which from the latter part of 1529 Henry undeviatingly followed, though he did not at first go to lengths from which there was no retreat. The first blow was struck at the clergy by involving them in Wolsey's praemunire. Some anti-clerical disaffection there had always been, partly, no doubt, the remnants of Lollardy, as was instanced in the case of Richard Hunne, 1515. This, of late years, had been a good deal aggravated by the importation into England of Tyndale's annotated New Testament and other books of heretical tendency, which, though prohibited and burnt by authority, still made their way among the people. Henry and his ministers had, therefore, some popular support upon which they could fall back, if necessary, in their campaign to reduce the clergy to abject submission. At the beginning of 1531 the Convocation of Canterbury were informed that they could purchase a pardon for the praemunire they had incurred by presenting the king with the enormous sum of 100,000 pounds. Further, they were bidden to recognize the king as "Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England." Convocation struggled desperately against the demand, and in the end succeeded in inserting the qualification "so far as is allowed by the law of Christ." But this was only a brief respite. A year later Parliament under pressure passed an edict forbidding the payment to the Holy See of Annates or first-fruits, but the operation of it was for the present suspended at the sovereign's pleasure, and the king was meanwhile solicited to come to an amicable understanding with "His Holiness" on the subject of the divorce. The measure amounted to a decently veiled threat to withdraw this source of income from the Holy See altogether if the divorce was refused. Still the pope held out, and so did the queen. Only a little time before, a deputation of lords and bishops -- of course by the king's order -- had visited Catherine and had rudely urged her to withdraw the appeal in virtue of which the king, contrary to his dignity, had been cited to appear personally at Rome ; but though deprived of all counsel, she stood firm. In the May of 1532 further pressure was brought to bear upon Convocation, and resulted in the so-called "Submission of the Clergy ", by which they practically renounced all right of legislation except in dependence upon the king.

An honest man like Sir Thomas More could no longer pretend to work with the Government, and he resigned the chancellorship, which he had held since the fall of Wolsey. The situation was too strained to last, and the end came through the death of Archbishop Warham in August, 1532. In the appointment of Cranmer as his successor, the king knew that he had secured a subservient tool who desired nothing better than to see the papal authority overthrown. Anne Boleyn was then enceinte, and the king, relying, no doubt, on what Cranmer when consecrated would be ready to do for him, went through a form of marriage with her on 25 January, 1533. On 15 April Cranmer received consecration. On 23 May, Parliament having meanwhile forbidden all appeals to Rome, Cranmer pronounced Henry's former marriage invalid. On 28 May he declared the marriage with Anne valid. On 1 June Anne was crowned, and on 7 September she gave birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth. Clement, who had previously sent to Henry more than one monition upon his desertion of Catherine, issued a Bull of excommunication on 11 July, declaring, also, his divorce and remarriage null. In England Catherine was deprived of her title of Queen, and Mary her daughter was treated as a bastard. Much sympathy was aroused among the populace, to meet which severe measures were taken against the more conspicuous of the disaffected, particularly the "Nun of Kent", who claimed to have had revelations of God's displeasure at the recent course of events.

In the course of the next year the breach with Rome was completed. Parliament did all that was required of it. Annates, Peter's Pence, and other payments to Rome were finally abolished. An Act of Succession entailed the crown on the children of Anne Boleyn, and an oath was drawn up to be exacted of every person of lawful age. It was the refusal to take this oath, the preamble of which declared Henry's marriage with Catherine null from the beginning, which sent More and Fisher to the Tower, and eventually to the block. A certain number of Carthusian monks, Brigittines, and Observant Franciscans imitated their firmness and shared their fate. All these have been beatified in modern times by Pope Leo XIII. There were, however, but a handful who were thus true to their convictions. Declarations were obtained from the clergy in both provinces "that the Bishop of Rome hath no greater jurisdiction conferred upon him by God in this kingdom of England than any other foreign bishop ", while Parliament, in November, declared the king "Supreme Head of the Church of England ", and shortly afterwards Cromwell, a layman, was appointed vicar-general to rule the English Church in the king's name. Though the people were cowed, these measures were not carried out without much disaffection, and, to stamp out any overt expression of this, Cromwell and his master now embarked upon a veritable reign of terror. The martyrs already referred to were most of them brought to the scaffold in the course of 1535, but fourteen Dutch Anabaptists also suffered death by burning in the same year. There followed a visitation of the monasteries, unscrupulous instruments like Layton, Legh, and Price being appointed for the purpose. They played, of course, into the king's hand and compiled comperta abounding in charges of disgraceful immorality, which have been shown to be at least grossly exaggerated. In pursuance of the same policy Parliament, in February, 1536, acting under great pressure, voted to the king the property of all religious houses with less than 200 pounds a year of annual income, recommending that the inmates should be transferred to the larger houses where " religion happily was right well observed." The dissolution, when carried out, produced much popular resentment, especially in Lincolnshire and the northern counties. Eventually, in the autumn of 1536, the people banded together in a very formidable insurrection known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The insurgents rallied under the device of the Five Wounds , and they were only induced to disperse by the deceitful promises of Henry's representative, the Duke of Norfolk. The suppression of the larger monasteries rapidly followed, and with these were swept away numberless shrines, statues, and objects of pious veneration, on the pretext that these were purely superstitious. It is easy to see that the lust of plunder was the motive which prompted this wholesale confiscation. ( See S UPPRESSION OF THE M ONASTERIES .)

Meanwhile, Henry, though taking advantage of the spirit of religious innovation now rife among the people whenever it suited his purpose, remained still attached to the sacramental system in which he had been brought up. In 1539 the Statute of the Six Articles enforced, under the severest penalties, such doctrines as transubstantiation, Communion under one kind, auricular confession, and the celibacy of the clergy. Under this act offenders were sent to the stake for their Protestantism just as ruthlessly as the aged Margaret, Countess of Salisbury , was attainted by Parliament and eventually beheaded, simply because Henry was irritated by the denunciations of her son Cardinal Pole. Neither was the king less cruel towards those who were nearest to him. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, his second and fifth wives, perished on the scaffold, but their whilom lord only paraded his indifference regarding the fate to which he had condemned them. On 30 July, 1540, of six victims who were dragged to Smithfield, three were Reformers burnt for heretical doctrine, and the other three Catholics, hanged and quartered for denying the king's supremacy. Of all the numerous miserable beings whom Henry sent to execution, Cromwell, perhaps, is the only one who fully deserved his fate. Looking at the last fifteen years of Henry's life, it is hard to find one single feature which does not evoke repulsion, and the attempts made by some writers to whitewash his misdeeds only give proof of the extraordinary prejudice with which they approach the subject. Henry's cruelties continued to the last, and so likewise did his inconsistencies. One of the last measures of confiscation of his reign was an act of suppression of chantries, but Henry by his last will and testament established what were practically chantries to have Masses said for his own soul.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jeremiah 18:1-6
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh as ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 146:1-2, 2-4, 5-6
1 Alleluia! Praise Yahweh, my soul!2 I ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 13:47-53
47 'Again, the kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for July 31st, 2014 Image

St. Ignatius Loyola
July 31: St. Ignatius was born in the family castle in Guip˙zcoa, Spain, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter