HENRY VIII  1509 - 1547  (H8)  Lived 1457 - 1509

xxxxxHenry VIII is probably the best known of English kings, if only because of his six wives and how he disposed of some of them! This portrait of him is by the German artist Hans Holbein. The major event of his reign was undoubtedly the Reformation - a movement aimed at reforming the Roman Catholic Church which ended up with a Protestant break-away. Started on the continent - initially by Martin Luther - Henry added considerably to the movement in 1534 when, having been excommunicated by the pope, he formed the Church of England and put himself as the supreme head.

xxxxxIt must be noted, however, that this break with Rome was one of convenience. Henry was not a Protestant at heart. Indeed he had written a treatise attacking Luther in no uncertain terms, and his Statute of Six Articles, issued in 1539, upheld the basic tenets of the Roman Catholic faith. Thus while leading Catholics like Thomas More were being executed for refusing to recognise his leadership of the English Church, Protestants were being put to death for refusing to abide by the Six Articles!

xxxxxIn England, the Reformation was the result of Henry's need to safeguard the succession. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon (illustrated) had given birth to a son in 1512, but the child had died within months. He sought a divorce and when his trusted Cardinal Wolsey failed to obtain it, he sacked him and took what he saw to be the only course open to him. It worked. His Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, sanctioned the divorce, despite papal opposition, and Henry married his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She bore him a daughter, and when she fell from favour, his third wife, Jane Seymour, gave him the son he so desperately needed. Furthermore, his break with Rome, confirmed by the passing of the Act of Supremacy in 1534 - the work of his new Chancellor Thomas Cromwell - brought some fringe benefits. As head of his own Church, he now decided to dissolve (close down) all the Roman Catholic monasteries and nunneries. He seized their treasures and confiscated their land. Churches too were ransacked and deprived of their valuable statues and ornaments.

xxxxxHenry needed the money. He was determined to build a strong navy. This would be costly, but he knew that at some time the powerful Roman Catholic states, Spain and France, would be seeking to bring England back into the Catholic fold. In addition, Henry was a great spender on the good life. A larger-than-life character, confident and high-spirited, he was quickly getting through the money his father had so carefully hoarded.

xxxxxIn the early years of his reign Henry pursued an active foreign policy, advised in the main by Cardinal Wolsey, and for a time this certainly improved England's standing among the other European states. Taking advantage of the rivalry between Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, England was able to hold out the promise of support to either monarch, thus gaining an importance beyond the nation's true status. In 1513, during a campaign in northern France the English gained a victory over the French at the Battle of the Spurs, and followed this up with a crushing defeat of the Scots (allies of France) at the Battle of Flodden. Thusxwhen Francis I came to the throne two years later he felt it necessary to seek Henry's favour. In 1520 the two monarchs met on the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" near Calais (illustrated), where they staged a magnificent display of friendship. The very next month however, Charles met Henry at Gravelines near Calais, also anxious to keep on good terms with England. This delicate balancing act collapsed completely, however, when in 1522 Henry decided to come down on the side of the Emperor. Three years later, Charles roundly defeated the French at the Battle of Pavia and English support was no longer needed or, more to the point, valued.

xxxxxAs a young man, keen on sport, well-educated, and highly patriotic, Henry had gained much public support and affection, but towards the end of his reign his popularity waned. He embarked once again on military campaigns and, despite a victory over the Scots at Solway Moss in 1542 and some success against the French, these wars proved costly. Furthermore, the execution of loyal subjects and friends, like Thomas More, together with his ruthless suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace - a rebellion in 1536 - lost him a great deal of support. And personally, his later years were clouded by serious illness. He became bloated and disfigured, and this significantly tarnished his earlier image.

xxxxxIt must be said, however, that for most of his reign he showed himself to be an astute administrator and, as a result, the power of the crown was considerably increased. He was a harsh man, even judged by his own times, but as a man of culture and learning he entertained scholars and artists, including the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, and can rightly be regarded as a true Prince of the Renaissance.

xxxxxIncidentally, Henry's naval programme, aimed at building a fleet of fighting ships armed with powerful cannons, received a set-back in July 1545 with the sinking of the Mary Rose, the pride of his fleet. The king witnessed the tragedy while watching his ships sail out of Portsmouth harbour to do battle with a French fleet moving up the Solent. The cause of the accident is not known, but it is believed that the ship was caught by a sudden gust of wind, some of the guns broke loose, and the ship heeled over, sinking within a minute. The shipwreck was located in 1971 and raised in 1982. It is now on display at Portsmouth harbour, together with Nelson's flagship, the Victory. It is well worth a visit.


The Mary Rose


Henry VIII comes to the throne, aged 19, and marries his brother's widow Catherine of Aragon. Well-built, cultured, and fond of sport and hunting, great things are expected of him.

The satire, In Praise of Folly, is written by the Dutch scholar and humanist Desiderius Erasmus. His writings make him one of the leading figures of the Renaissance.


After working for four years, the Italian Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance, completes his famous frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

In West Africa, Askia Muhammed I, King of the Songhai, conquers the Hausa states (in modern Nigeria) and begins to weld the central parts of western Sudan into a single empire.


The Prince, a guide to rule by despotism, is written by the Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli. The model for this autocratic ruler was almost certainly Cesare Borgia.

The English soundly defeat the Scots at the Battle of Flodden. The King of Scotland, James IV, is killed during the fighting, together with many of his senior nobles.

The German, Albrecht Durer, the outstanding painter and graphic artist of this period, completes his Knight, Death and the Devil, one of his greatest copperplate engravings.

From his settlement in Darien the Spanish explorer Balboa crosses the Panama Isthmus and becomes the first European to reach the east coast of the Pacific Ocean.


Thomas Wolsey, in the King’s service since 1509, is appointed Cardinal and Lord Chancellor. He begins building his splendid Hampton Court Palace near London.



Utopia, the major work of the English scholar and lawyer Sir Thomas More, describes a land which, he claims, has an ideal form of government based on reason.

The German reformer Martin Luther, condemning the sale of indulgences, nails 95  notes of protest on the church door at Wittenberg and initiates the Reformation.

Selim I, having crushed the Safavids of Iran at Chaldiran, defeats the Mamluk army at Raydaniyah, near Cairo, and brings vast areas of the Middle East into the Ottoman Empire.



The Slave Trade begins in earnest. Charles I of Spain grants the first licence or Asiento de Negros to import 4,000 African slaves into the Spanish West Indies.

Following the death of Emperor Maximilian I, his grandson Charles I, already ruler of Spain and the Netherlands, is elected king of Germany as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes marches into Mexico and begins his conquest of the Aztecs. The Empire is overthrown within three years and the land taken over by Spain.


Henry VIII and Francis I of France meet at “the Field of the Cloth of Gold” just outside Calais. Held in splendid pavilions, it was a great show of friendship, but it was not to last.


A Spanish expedition, led by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, circumnavigates the globe, but only one ship completes the journey, and Magellan is killed on reaching the Philippines.


Hans Holbein, one of the most outstanding German artists of the century, paints a portrait of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus. He latter becomes court painter to Henry VIII.

The Italian painter Titian, noted above all for his splendid colour effects and harmonious composition, paints one of his major mythological works, Bacchus and Ariadne.


Following a three-year revolt under Gustav Vasa, Sweden gains its independence by the Treaty of Malmo, ending the Union of the three Scandinavian countries begun, as we have seen,  in 1397 (R2).


An English translation of the New Testament, the work of the English priest and reformer William Tyndale, is printed on the Continent and smuggled into England the following year.

After years of rivalry, particularly in Italy, the Holy Roman Empire wins a resounding victory over the French at the Battle of Pavia. The Sack of Rome follows two years later.

A vast Peasants' Revolt breaks out in central Europe, initially supported by Martin Luther. Castles and monasteries are looted across the south, but the revolt is eventually crushed.


Babur, the great grandson of the ruthless Mongol leader Tamerlane, invades northern India, overthrows the Sultan of Delhi at Panipat, and founds the Mughal dynasty of India.

The Ottoman Turks, led by Suleyman I, the Magnificent, win a crushing victory over the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs. King Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary is killed. But in 1529 he fails in his attempt to capture Vienna.


The Italian diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione publishes The Courtier, describing the perfect Renaissance gentleman and providing a first-hand account of Italian society.

The Order of Friars known as the Capuchins is founded by the Italian monk, Father Matteo di Bassi. The name comes from Capuche, the French word for a pointed hood.


The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, grants the King a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and officiates at his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the second of his six wives.

After killing its leader, Atahualpa, and taking the capital city Cuzco, the Spanish explorer and soldier Francisco Pizarro overthrows the Inca Empire and claims Peru for Spain.


Thomas Cromwell draws up the Act of Supremacy whereby Henry VIII becomes head of  the English Church. This marks the start of the English Reformation.

The French humorist François Rabelais writes The Life of Gargantua, his second satirical romance about two giants. In these works he ridicules the follies of contemporary society.

The Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, is founded by the Spanish soldier turned preacher, Ignatius Loyola. The Order soon becomes a powerful force in the suppression of heresy in Europe and in missionary work further afield.


During his second voyage of exploration, the French navigator Jacques Cartier sails up the River St. Lawrence, the first European to do so, and founds the city of Montreal.


Charles V attacks the Barbary Pirates, based along the north coast of Africa. He has limited success, and his fleet is defeated at the Battle of Prevez three years later.


The first edition of Institutes of Christian Religion, the single and most important statement of Protestant belief, is published by the French Reformation leader John Calvin.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, an insurrection in northern England against the dissolution of the monasteries and agrarian reform, is quickly suppressed and its leaders are executed.

Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and scientist, writes The Great Surgery Book in which he makes notable advances in medical knowledge and the role of chemistry in medicine.


The Grand Canyon on the Colorado River is discovered by an expedition led by the Spanish

explorer Francisco Coronado, but nothing is found of the "seven golden cities" of Cibola.


The Scots under James V, allies of the French, are routed by the English at the Battle of

Solway Moss. The following year the English invade Scotland, and burn Edinburgh.


In his major work, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus - contrary to accepted belief - declares that the earth revolves around the sun.

The Belgian physician Andreas Vesalius writes On the Fabric of the Human Body, an illustrated work which gains wide fame for its wealth of anatomical discoveries.


The Italian mathematician and physician Gerolamo Cardano writes his most important work,

Great Art, a book which substantially advances the knowledge and study of algebra.


The German scientist Georgius Agricola writes his treatise On Natural Fossils, a study of  minerals, organic remains and rocks which earns him the title of Father of Mineralogy.


Henry VIII dies in January, and is succeeded by his young son Edward VI. A council of sixteen regents is appointed, but the Duke of Somerset takes over as "Lord Protector".




























Henry VIII: after Hans Holbein the Younger (C1497-1543), 1536 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Catherine of Aragon: unknown artist – National Portrait Gallery, London. Cloth of Gold: detail from an engraving by the English artist James Basire (1730-1802), based on an oil painting in the art collection of George III. Marie Rose: date and artist unknown. Coat of Arms: licensed under Creative Commons. Author: Sodacan – https://commons.wikimedia






















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