A British Monarch Like No Other
“King Henry VIII, to six wives he was wedded. One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded”.
Known as “the father of the Royal Navy” for building its fleet to more than 50 ships, Henry VIII was a bold and self-assured monarch of England. He ruled for 36 years from 1491 to 1547 presiding over sweeping changes that brought his kingdom into the Protestant Reformation.
In 1509, two years after his brother Arthur died, Henry VIII married his widow, Catherine of Aragon. Arthur, who was Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the throne occupied by his father King Henry VII, had left Catherine a young surviving wife at a mere seventeen years of age.
Both marriages had been strictly political unions. They allowed England to create a partnership with a strong and wealthy Spain during a time of a rapidly changing European political environment. However, Henry VIII and Catherine would not stay married as he wanted a male heir, one whom his wife could not give him.
After separating from Catherine, he embarked on a marriage spree starting with Anne Boleyn and involving four other women. While he was notorious for the abruptness and brutality by which he dispatched some of his wives, he was also known for radical changes to the English Constitution. Most importantly the idea of the divine rights of kings and the expansion of royal power.
During his reign he often used charges of treason and heresy to quell dissent. The accused were frequently executed without formal trials. He achieved many of his political initiatives through his chief ministers who were often banished or executed when they failed or fell out of favor. Today, we see his reign as tumultous and autocratic. Our perception of Henry VIII is justifiably that of an obese and bloodthirsty authoritarian.
However, this is not all we can learn about Henry VIII, one of the most colorful figures in the English monarchy. The following are 13 interesting and surprising facts about this monarch most people do not know.
#1 — He Was Not Expected to Take the Throne
Arthur, Henry’s older brother by five years was the heir apparent to the throne holding the titles of Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall. He was viewed by his contemporaries with great expectations as the one who would solidify the newly created House of Tudor. And hence, open the way for its descendants to become future monarchs.
Arthur married Catherine of Aragon in 1501 however, died of a mysterious illness five months later on April 2nd, 1502 at the age of 15. This left his younger brother as next in line to the throne. Henry became king upon Henry VII death on April 21, 1509 at the age of 17.
#2 - He Created the Church of England - Blame it on Anne Boleyn?
In 1509 Henry married his first wife Catherine of Aragon, the young widow of his recently deceased brother, Arthur. Upon his death Henry became first in line to the throne. When his father, Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, young Henry became king.
Although Catherine became pregnant seven times during her marriage to Henry VIII, only their daughter Mary survived. This, at a time when the possibility of a woman monarch was without established precedent and not generally accepted. Henry felt it was imperative to have a male successor that would cement the Tudor family name as future monarchs of England.
When in 1520 nineteen-year-old Anne Boleyn (one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting), cought Henry VIII’s eye, the king decided to seek a papal annulment in order to pursue marriage with his new enchantress. This set in motion a chain of events that led to England’s split with the Catholic Church.
Henry VIII’s rupture with the church in Rome is one of the most profound events in English history. In 1534 the British Parliament passed The Acts of Supremacy which placed the leadership of the Church of England on the hands of the reigning monarch. The act declared Henry VIII and his successors as the Supreme Head of the Church replacing the Pope. This action caused bitter division between Catholics and Protestants.
#3 - The Tudors Became Monarchs Not Through Blood Inheritance But Through Blood Spilled
It all started with the War of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought over control of the English throne in the mid-to-late fifteenth century. The struggle took place between two branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: Lancaster and York. The name War of the Roses emerged many years after the end of the hostilities and it represented the badges of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster.
The wars killed off a large portion of the top ranking males of the two dynasties, allowing the Tudor Famiy to inherit the Lancastrian claim. Consequently, Henry VII took the throne by right of conquest after defeating Richard III in 1485 becoming the first Tudor King.
Although he had been pronounced king, his ascension to the throne was through violence rather than lineage. This made Henry VII’s position tenuous putting pressure on his son Henry VIII to produce a male heir once he became king. This would ensure the continuation of Tudor monarchs.
#4 — He Was Relatively Thin for Most of His Life
Although most of the images of Henry VIII show a hefty girth and a stocky build, when young he was thin sporting an athletic frame. However, in his later life he weighed close to 400 pounds. A weight even in a man of 6 feet 4 inches as he, would be considered extremely obese.
Armor measurements from when he was a young man reveal a waist measurement of 36 inches. However, measurements from his final set of armor show a waist of 60 inches. It can be safely assumed Henry VIII gained close to 200 pounds from the time he was in his twenties until his death at the age of 56.
#5 — He Was Married to Catherine of Aragon Longer Than All His Other Wives Combined
Henry VIII shortest marriage was to Anne of Cleves. It took place on 6 January 6, 1540 and lasted only 6 months and 3 days before it was annulled. He was married to Catherine of Aragon the longest. This union lasted 23 years, 11 months and 12 days (from June 11, 1509 to May 11, 1533) before being annulled. This is longer than all five of his other marriages combined.
#6 — Two of His Wives Were Beheaded For Adultery
Boleyn and Howard lost their heads,
Anne of Cleves he would not bed,
Jane Seymour gave him a son — but died before the week was done,
Aragon he did Divorce,
Which just left Catherine Parr, of course!
As previously mentioned, Henry VIII’s second wife was Anne Boleyn. She gave birth to the future queen Elizabeth I. He became infatuated with her while she was one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. Part of his obsession for Anne was her resistance to becoming his mistress as her sister Mary Boleyn had been.
Eventually, Henry VIII agreed to marry Anne. He then requested an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon from Pope Clement VII, for which the pontiff refused. This refusal prompted Henry to declare himself head of the Church of England and deemed his marriage null and void. Anne Boylen married Henry VIII on May 28, 1533.
When Anne’s only son was stillborn, Henry grew tired of her and had their marriage annulled. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister devised a plot to execute her. She was accused of sexual crimes with men of the king’s privy chamber. These included her own brother, George, Lord Rochford, Sir Francis Weston, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton. The evidence presented before the courts were unconvincing, however she along with the other accused men were found guilty and beheaded on May 19, 1536.
Kathryn Howard, his fifth wife whom he married on July 28, 1540 was accused of adultery with Thomas Culpeper; her distant cousin, Henry Mannox, her previous music teacher; and Francis Dereham; a courtier. She was accused of treason for failing to disclose her sexual history prior to her marriage with Henry, and for illicitly meeting with another man during her time as queen. The three men were also charged and later executed for their alleged improprieties.
Known as “the rose without a thorn,” Kathryn was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper and cousin to Anne Boleyn. By the time she married Henry, he was forty-nine years old, while Katherine a young woman of 17. Some say she might have been as young as 15. Henry, no longer a young man, had become obese and suffering from a jousting wound on one of his legs.
Kathryn was executed on February 13, 1542.
#7 — Henry Was a Talented Musician and Composer
Henry’s passion for music was well known to the people of his time. He was a competent player of keyboard, string and wind instruments. However, his talents went beyond merely playing music as he also composed 33 musical pieces. These are found in The Henry VIII Manuscript which today sits in the British Library in London.
Although rumours have long persisted that the traditional English folk song Greensleeves was written by Henry for Anne Boleyn, this has proven to not be true. Scholars have asserted Greensleeves is based on an Italian style that only arrived in England well after Henry’s death.
#8 — He Was Also a Published Author
Before his schism with the Catholic Church, Henry VIII wrote a 30,000 word response to Martin Luther’s protestant Ninety-five Theses. In the book, he praises the Catholic Church for which the Pope declared him “Defender of the Faith.” The Pope rescinded this declaration some years later after Henry founded the Church of England and separated from the church in Rome. (No big surprise.)
#9 — He Is the Only English Monarch to Have Ruled In Belgium
He is the only English monarch to have ruled Belgium. He accomplished this after capturing the city of Tournai in 1513 ruling the Belgian territory for six years. Henry returned the city to France in 1518 following the Treaty of London.
#10 — Henry’s Nickname Was Old Coppernose
In an effort to raise funds for the wars against Scotland and France, England’s currency was debased by reducing the volume of precious metals in coins. The policy known as The Great Debasement took place between 1544 and 1551. It allowed the state to mint more money at a lower cost, increasing revenue to England.
However, the thin layer of silver or gold on the coins would often wear off revealing the image of the king’s nose in the cheaper copper. Hence, the sobriquet “Old Coppernose.”
#11 — Over 70,000 People Were Executed.
Henry VIII was notorious for his copious executions. It is estimated that over 70,000 people met their ends at the hands of the state.
The death penalty was typically meted out to those who disagreed with the king; were rivals to the throne; committed capital felonies; opposed the Acts of Supremacy; participated in the Pilgrimage of Grace; and of succession.
#12 — He Died in Debt
Henry squandered a great portion of his wealth until his death on January 28, 1547. He accumulated 50 royal palaces, gambled heavily, and spent vast sums on his collection of musical instruments and tapestries. Additionally, he spent millions in his wars with Scotland and France. By the time his son Edward VI became king, the royal coffers were all but depleted.
#13 — Jane Seymour Was the Only Wife to Receive a Queen’s Funeral
Henry was laid to rest at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle next to Jane Seymour, Edward VI’s mother. She was Henry’s favorite wife and was the only one to receive a queen’s funeral.
Resources and Further Reading
- The Musical Life of Henry VIII
- Who were Henry VIII Wives?
- Wives of Henry VIII
- Henry VIII of England
- Catherine Parr or Anne Cleves - The Real Survivor
- Jane Seymor
- Catherine of Aragon
- History of the English Penny
- The Great Debasement
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on October 03, 2021:
Thank you Maria.
MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on October 03, 2021:
As a history buff, I enjoyed your article about old Henry. I have always been fascinated with British history. It's such a shame that he didn't know it is the male who determines the gender of the child, but then, no one knew back then. Thanks for a great article.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on October 03, 2021:
Hello Pamela, Amara, Fran and Liz. Thank you for your kind remarks.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 03, 2021:
This is a fascinating article about King Henry VIII, JC. I didn't know he was a musician, author or that he ruled Belgium. I appreciate all that I learned from your article as it was so interesting. Thanks for sharing all this information.
Amara from Pakistan on October 03, 2021:
Interesting Hub sir. Thanks for sharing.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on October 03, 2021:
J.C. your article was very interesting. Henry was certainly one of a kind. Thanks for enlightening me about him.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 03, 2021:
Your article gives an interesting perspective on Henry Vlll. I have learnt much from reading it. It would be an interesting exercise to go back and see how many times the intended heir didn't live long enough to stay or get to the throne.