Who was Henry VIII?

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Key points

  • Henry VIII was a Tudor king who ruled England from 1509 - 1547. He is remembered for his six wives and his cruelty towards them.
  • Henry VIII sought to achieve military success and bring greatness to his kingdom.
  • One of the most significant events of his reign, which had a long lasting impact, was his decision to break with the Catholic Church and establish the Church of England.

Activity - who are you at the court of Henry VIII?

The Tudor Family

Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, was the founder of the Tudor dynasty. He took the throne in 1485.

During Henry VII’s lifetime, two branches of the English royal family fell into conflict with one another. They were fighting over who should take the English throne. This period is known as the . Henry VII became king towards the end of the Wars of the Roses.

Henry VII married Elizabeth of York and had a large family with her. Henry VII was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII, and then by his grandchildren, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The Tudors ruled from 1485 to 1603.

A simplified Tudor family tree showing Henry VII and Elizabeth of York at the top, their son, Henry VIII, his six wives and three children.
The Tudor family tree, showing Henry VIII's branch, with his six wives and three children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward

What were the Wars of the Roses?

The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars that were fought over the right to the English throne. The conflict was between the House of York and the House of Lancaster; it began in 1455 and lasted a little over 30 years. The House of Lancaster was represented by a red rose, and York by a white rose. Henry VII was distantly related to the royal House of Lancaster.

In 1455, Richard, Duke of York, took King Henry VI captive during a battle, and was appointed Lord Protector by Parliament. After around 4 years of relative peace, the fighting resumed, and many more battles took place. In 1485, the Lancastrian Henry Tudor won the throne from the Yorkist Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. While some have seen this as the end of the conflict, other historians have suggested that the Battle of Stoke Field, which was fought between Yorkists and Lancastrians in 1487, was the actual end of the fighting between the two houses.

Who was the young Henry VIII?

The future Henry VIII was the second son of Henry VII. This meant that Henry’s older brother Prince Arthur was raised as a future ruler, because it was expected that, as the eldest, he would be king. Prince Henry was brought up in a separate palace, alongside his mother and sisters.

Prince Henry was a very clever child. He was a good musician, enjoyed , and, like many royals, spoke several languages. His learning earned him the praise of one of the most well-known thinkers of the time, Erasmus, who was a Dutch scholar and philosopher. Erasmus found Henry to be very well educated and regal in his behaviour, even though the prince was only nine years old when they met.

In 1502, Henry’s brother Arthur died, followed a year later by their mother, Elizabeth of York. Following their deaths, Henry was made to live with his father. This was difficult for the young Henry. We know that, during these years, the prince rarely appeared in public and was supervised constantly.

Following the death of his father in 1509, Henry VIII became King of England. He had big ambitions. He quickly set about establishing a glittering court with his new wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had previously been married to his older brother, Arthur.

What was the young Henry VIII's court like?

The court is a name given to the group of people who were members of the monarch’s household. Courtiers, as they were known, were noble men and women who served the king and queen, and also supported the monarch in running the country.

The court lived in the palace alongside Henry. Henry owned many palaces, and every couple of weeks the court would move to a new palace while the last was cleaned.

The young Henry VIII wanted to create a magnificent court. He and his wife Catherine wore fine clothes, employed talented musicians and threw elaborate jousts and parties.

Henry VIII as a young man

Henry VIII's foreign policy

Henry wanted to be like a previous king of England, Henry V, and conquer France.

Henry’s initial invasion of France, in 1512, was a failure. He had been promised support by his father-in-law, Ferdinand II of Aragon. The support never arrived, and many of Henry’s troops became ill while waiting.

A second invasion, in 1513, saw Henry’s army defeat a band of French soldiers at the Battle of the Spurs. They also took the towns of Thérouanne and Tournai. Henry commissioned large paintings of this campaign, which can be seen today at Hampton Court Palace.

Henry’s wars with France continued throughout his reign. He also fought wars against Scotland, which was a traditional enemy of England, and France’s ally. Henry’s successive wars were very expensive, and he became desperate for more money. He fell into debt, and needed to raise more and more .

As well as fighting in France, Henry also wanted to increase England’s reputation in Europe as a peacemaker. The king thought that one way to do this was to try to bring the royal families of Europe together. Alongside his , Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, he organised peace summits between these royal families. One of the most famous of these summits was the Field of Cloth of Gold.

What was the Field of the Cloth of Gold?

In 1520, the Field of Cloth of Gold was a meeting to establish peace between England and France following Henry's invasions. However, it had the opposite effect. Instead, it became an opportunity for the rival kings, Henry VIII and Francis I, to show off their wealth and power.

A temporary city with palaces and over 2,000 tents was constructed for the event. Henry's court used twenty-seven ships to get to France, and tensions rose when Francis overpowered Henry to win a wrestling match. Henry invaded France once again in 1522, and he went to war with France several more times over the course of his reign.

Activity - the Field of the Cloth of Gold


Like many people during Tudor times, Henry VIII believed that men should rule the country. He wanted a son to reign after his death, but he and his first wife's only surviving child was a daughter, Mary.

In the 1520s, Henry attempted to have his marriage by the Pope. He claimed that marrying his brother’s widow had left him childless, despite the fact that he had a daughter. Henry believed that the Bible verse that inspired his views meant ‘sonless’.

The Pope allowed Henry to put his marriage on trial in England. The Pope sent a representative, Cardinal Campeggio, to help give a judgment on the marriage. After months of deliberations, the Pope refused to grant Henry his annulment.

Henry was disappointed and still wanted a male heir. He was inspired by books that questioned the power of the Pope, as well as reform-minded men and women at court who had read these books and were supportive of many of their ideas.

Henry he was eager to act. He formally married Anne in January 1533 and then created the Church of England. With the help of his ministers and , Henry made himself, not the Pope, the head of the English Church.

For more information about why the Pope refused to grant Henry his annulment, and the consequences of this decision, read our guide on the Reformation.

Government under Henry VIII

There is still much debate among historians about how Henry VIII governed the country and the amount of power he allowed his ministers and advisors.

At the start of his reign, Henry would spend his days hunting, jousting and attending parties. He wrote a song about his lifestyle, called Pastyme with Good Companye. He would spend some time on the running of the country after Mass each day. At the start of Henry VIII’s reign, a council advised the young king. Henry then began to rely on key men such as Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. They were known as ministers, and they helped Henry with the day-to-day running of the country.

Although he had Wolsey and Cromwell to assist him, Henry still had the final say. When his ministers failed him, they faced real danger. Wolsey died on his way to prison, after failing to get Henry his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cromwell was beheaded in 1540, having been declared a traitor. The list of charges brought against Cromwell was long and mostly focused on his support of religious radicals, though Henry’s failed marriage to Anne of Cleves, which was encouraged by Cromwell, could also have played a role. The downfall of both men came about because Henry was prepared to listen to their enemies at court.

As a result of the Reformation, Henry gained more power. Firstly, he became the Supreme Head of the Church of England, which was significant as so many people throughout the country were deeply religious. Secondly, he began to use Parliament to get what he wanted. In 1539, Henry passed an act called the Statute of Proclamations, which allowed him to make changes to how England was run simply by reading out orders instead of passing laws in the traditional way.

Marriages and children

Henry VIII is famous for having six wives, three of whom gave birth to heirs to the throne. Henry was cruel to his wives. This inspired the rhyme about their fates: ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’.

Scroll through the slides to learn more about these queens.

A portrait of Catherine of Aragon, who is wearing a black headdress with a white trim, and pearls around the edge.

Catherine of Aragon was a Spanish princess, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They had raised Catherine to be the future Queen of England. In 1502, she married Henry's older brother, Prince Arthur, following a long voyage from Spain. After Arthur's death, Catherine was stranded in England. She married Henry in 1509, and was his wife for 24 years. Though she became pregnant numerous times, only one child, Mary, survived. Catherine remained convinced that she was the true English queen until her death, in 1536.

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