A Profile of Henry VIII of England

Portrait of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, and Prince Edwards in shades of gold and red.
Portrait of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour. and Prince Edward, The Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace.

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 to 1547. An athletic young man who famously grew much larger later in life, he is best known for having six wives (part of his quest for a male heir) and breaking the English church away from Roman Catholicism. He is arguably the most famous English monarch of all time.

Early Life

Henry VIII, born June 28, 1491, was the second son of Henry VII. Henry originally had an older brother, Arthur, but he died in 1502, leaving Henry heir to the throne. As a youth, Henry was tall and athletic, frequently engaged in hunting and sport, but also intelligent and academic. He spoke several languages and studied the arts and theological debate. As king, he wrote (with help) a text refuting the claims of Martin Luther, which resulted in the Pope granting Henry the title of "Defender of the Faith." Henry became king on the death of his father in 1509 and was welcomed by his kingdom as a dynamic young man.

Early Years on the Throne, War, and Wolsey

Shortly after acceding to the throne, Henry VIII married Arthur’s widow Catherine of Aragon. He then became active in international and military affairs, pursuing a campaign against France. This was organized by Thomas Wolsey. By 1515, Wolsey had been promoted to Archbishop, Cardinal, and Chief Minister. For much of his early reign, Henry ruled from a distance through the greatly capable Wolsey, who became one of the most powerful ministers in English history and a friend of the king.

Some wondered if Wolsey was in charge of Henry, but this was never the case, and the king was always consulted on key matters. Wolsey and Henry pursued a diplomatic and military policy designed to raise England’s (and thus Henry’s) profile in European affairs, which was dominated by the Spanish-Franco-Habsburg rivalry. Henry displayed little military ability in wars against France, living off one victory at the Battle of the Spurs. After Spain and the Holy Roman Empire became united under Emperor Charles V, and French power was temporarily checked, England became sidelined.

Wolsey Grows Unpopular

Attempts by Wolsey to change England’s alliances to maintain a position of importance brought a backlash, damaging vital income from the English-Netherlands cloth trade. There was upset at home, too, with the regime growing unpopular thanks partly to demands for more taxation. Opposition to a special tax in 1524 was so strong the king had to cancel it, blaming Wolsey. It was at this stage in his rule that Henry VIII entered into a new policy, one which would dominate the rest of his rule: his marriages.

Catherine, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s Need for an Heir

Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had produced just one surviving child: a girl called Mary. As the Tudor line was recent to the English throne, which had little experience of female rule, no one knew if a woman would be accepted. Henry was worried and desperate for a male heir. He had also grown tired of Catherine and fascinated by a woman at the court called Anne Boleyn, sister of one of his mistresses. Anne didn’t want to simply be a mistress, but queen instead. Henry may also have been convinced his marriage to his brother’s widow was a crime in God's eyes, as "proved" by his dying children.

Henry decided to solve the matter by requesting a divorce from Pope Clement VII. After seeking this, he decided to marry Anne. Popes had granted divorces in the past, but now there were problems. Catherine was an aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor, who would be offended by Catherine being shunted to the side, and to whom Clement was subservient. Furthermore, Henry had obtained, at cost, special permission from a previous Pope to marry Catherine, and Clement was loathe to challenge a previous papal action. Permission was refused and Clement dragged a court decision out, leaving Henry worried about how to proceed.

Fall of Wolsey, Rise of Cromwell, Breach With Rome

With Wolsey growing unpopular and failing to negotiate a settlement with the Pope, Henry removed him. A new man of considerable ability now rose to power: Thomas Cromwell. He took control of the royal council in 1532 and engineered a solution which would cause a revolution in English religion and kingship. The solution was a breach with Rome, replacing the Pope as the head of the church in England with the English king himself. In January 1532, Henry married Anne. In May, a new Archbishop declared the previous marriage voided. The Pope excommunicated Henry soon after, but this had little effect.

The English Reformation

Cromwell’s break with Rome was the start of the English Reformation. This wasn’t simply a switch to Protestantism, as Henry VIII had been a passionate Catholic and he took time to come to terms with the changes he made. Consequently, England’s church, which was altered by a series of laws and bought tightly under the control of the king, was a halfway house between Catholic and Protestant. However, some English ministers refused to accept the change and a number were executed for doing so, including Wolsey’s successor, Thomas More. The monasteries were dissolved, their wealth going to the crown.

Six Wives of Henry VIII

The divorce of Catherine and the marriage to Anne was the start of a quest by Henry to produce a male heir which led to his marriages to six wives. Anne was executed for alleged adultery after court intrigue and only producing a girl, the future Elizabeth I. The next wife was Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth producing the future Edward VI. There was then a politically-motivated marriage to Anne of Cleves, but Henry detested her. They were divorced. A few years later, Henry married Catherine Howard, who was later executed for adultery. Henry’s final wife was to be Catherine Parr. She outlived him and was still his wife at the time of Henry's death.

Final Years of Henry VIII

Henry grew ill and fat, and possibly paranoid. Historians have debated the extent to which he was manipulated by his court and the extent to which he manipulated them. He has been called a sad and bitter figure. He ruled without a key minister once Cromwell fell from grace, attempting to stop religious dissension and maintain the identity of a glorious king. After a final campaign against Scotland and France, Henry died on January 28, 1547.

Monster or Great King?

Henry VIII is one of England’s most divisive monarchs. He is most famous for his six marriages, which caused two wives to be executed. He is sometimes called a monster for this and for executing more leading men than any other English monarch on alleged charges of treason. He was aided by some of the greatest minds of his day, but he turned against them. He was arrogant and egotistical. He is both attacked and praised for being the architect of England’s Reformation, which brought the church under crown control but also caused dissension which would lead to further bloodshed. Having increased the holdings of the crown by dissolving the monasteries, he then wasted resources on failed campaigning in France.

Henry VIII's reign was the height of direct monarchical power in England. However, in practice, Cromwell’s policies enlarged Henry’s power but also bound him tighter to Parliament. Henry tried throughout his reign to enhance the image of the throne, making war partly to increase his stature and building up the English navy to do so. He was a fondly-remembered king among many of his subjects. Historian G. R. Elton concluded that Henry was not a great king, for, while a born leader, he had no foresight for where he was taking the nation. But he was not a monster, either, taking no pleasure in casting down former allies.


Elton, G. R. "England Under the Tudors." Routledge Classics, 1st Edition, Routledge, November 2, 2018.

Elton, G. R. "Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558." The New History of England, Hardcover, First Edition edition, Harvard University Press, January 26, 1978.

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Wilde, Robert. "A Profile of Henry VIII of England." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/henry-viii-of-england-1222000. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). A Profile of Henry VIII of England. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-viii-of-england-1222000 Wilde, Robert. "A Profile of Henry VIII of England." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-viii-of-england-1222000 (accessed May 31, 2023).