The Tudor Dynasty

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Henry VII

The First Tudor King
The First Tudor King Portrait of Henry VII by Michael Sittow, c. 1500. Public Domain

A History in Portraits

The Wars of the Roses (a dynastic struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York) had divided England for decades, but they finally seemed to be over when the popular King Edward IV was on the throne. Most Lancastrian contenders were dead, exiled, or otherwise far from power, and the Yorkist faction was making an attempt at maintaining peace.

But then Edward died while his sons were not yet in their teens. Edward's brother Richard took custody of the boys, had their parent's marriage declared invalid (and the children illegitimate), and took the throne himself as Richard III. Whether he had acted out of ambition or to stabilize the government is debated; what happened to the boys is more hotly contested. In any case, the foundation of Richard's rule was shaky, and conditions were ripe for rebellion.

Get an introductory history of the Tudor Dynasty by visiting the portraits below in order. This is a work in progress! Check back soon for the next installment.

Portrait by Michael Sittow, c. 1500. Henry is holding the red rose of the House of Lancaster.

Under ordinary circumstances, Henry Tudor would never have become king.

Henry's claim to the throne was as the great-grandson of a bastard son of a younger son of King Edward III. Furthermore, the bastard line (the Beauforts), though officially "legitimized" when their father married their mother, had been expressly barred from the throne by Henry IV. But at this stage in the Wars of the Roses, there were no Lancastrians left who had any better claim, so opponents of the Yorkist king Richard III threw in their lot with Henry Tudor.

When the Yorkists had won the crown and the wars had grown particularly dangerous for Lancastrians, Henry's uncle Jasper Tudor had taken him to Brittany to keep him (relatively) safe. Now, thanks to the French king, he had 1,000 French mercenary troops in addition to the Lancastrians and some Yorkist opponents of Richard.

Henry's army landed in Wales and on August 22, 1485, met Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard's forces outnumbered Henry's, but at a crucial point in the battle, some of Richard's men switched sides. Richard was killed; Henry claimed the throne by right of conquest and was crowned at the end of October.

As part of his negotiations with his Yorkist supporters, Henry had agreed to marry the daughter of the late King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York. The joining of the House of York to the House of Lancaster was an important symbolic move, signifying the end of the Wars of the Roses and a unified leadership of England.

But before he could marry Elizabeth, Henry had to overturn the law that had made her and her brothers illegitimate. Henry did this without allowing the law to be read, giving Ricardian historians reason to believe the princes might have still been alive at this time. After all, if the boys were legitimate again, as a king's sons they had a better blood right to the throne than Henry. They would have to be eliminated, as many other Yorkist supporters were, to secure Henry's kingship -- if, that is, they were still alive. (The debate continues.)

Henry married Elizabeth of York in January of 1486.

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Elizabeth of York

Queen and Mother
Queen and Mother Portrait of Elizabeth by an unknown artist, c. 1500. Public Domain

Portrait by an unknown artist, c. 1500. Elizabeth is holding the white rose of the House of York.

Elizabeth is a difficult figure for the historian to study. Little was written about her during her lifetime, and most mentions of her in historical records are in relation to other members of her family -- her father, Edward IV, and her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, who each negotiated for her marriage; her mysteriously missing brothers; her uncle Richard, who was accused of murdering her brothers; and of course, later, her husband and sons.

We have no idea how Elizabeth felt or what she knew about her missing brothers, what her relationship with her uncle was really like, or how close she may have been to a mother who has been depicted through much of history as grasping and manipulative. When Henry won the crown, we know little about how Elizabeth regarded the prospect of marrying him (he was King of England, so she may have liked the idea), or what went through her mind at the delay between his coronation and their wedding.

Much of the life of late medieval young ladies could be a sheltered, even isolated existence; if Elizabeth of York led a protected adolescence, that could explain a great deal of the silence. And Elizabeth could have continued her sheltered life as Henry's queen.

Elizabeth may or may not have known or understood anything about the numerous threats to the crown from Yorkist malcontents. What did she understand about the uprisings of Lord Lovell and Lambert Simnel, or the impersonation of her brother Richard by Perkin Warbeck? Did she even know when her cousin Edmund -- the strongest Yorkist contender for the throne -- engaged in plots against her husband?

And when her mother was disgraced and forced into a convent, was she upset? relieved? completely ignorant?

We simply don't know. What is known is that as queen, Elizabeth was well-liked by the nobility as well as the public at large. Also, she and Henry appeared to have had a loving relationship. She bore him seven children, four of whom survived childhood: Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary.

Elizabeth died on her 38th birthday, giving birth to her last child, who lived only a few days. King Henry, who was notorious for his parsimony, gave her a lavish funeral and seemed utterly distraught at her passing.

Next: Arthur

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Arthur Tudor

Prince of Wales
Prince of Wales Portrait of Arthur by an unknown artist, c. 1500. Public Domain

Portrait by an unknown artist, c. 1500, probably painted for his prospective bride. Arthur holds a white gillyflower, a symbol of purity and betrothal.

Henry VII may have had some difficulty keeping his position as king secure, but he soon proved adept at international relations. The old warlike attitude of feudal kings was something Henry seemed content to put behind him. His initial tentative forays into international conflict were replaced by forward-thinking attempts to establish and maintain international peace.

One common form of alliance between medieval European nations was marriage -- and early on, Henry negotiated with Spain for a union between his young son and the daughter of the Spanish king. Spain had become an undeniable power in Europe, and concluding a marriage contract with the Spanish princess gave Henry notable prestige.

As the eldest son of the king and the next in line for the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, was extensively educated in classical studies and trained in matters of administration. On November 14, 1501, he wed Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Arthur was barely 15; Catherine, not quite a year older.

The Middle Ages were a time of arranged marriages, especially among nobility, and weddings were often performed while the couple was still young. It was common for youthful grooms and their brides to spend time getting to know each other, and achieving a measure of maturity, before consummating the marriage. Arthur was reportedly heard to make a veiled reference to sexual exploits on his wedding night, but this may have been mere bravado. No one ever really knew what happened between Arthur and Catherine in their bedchamber -- except Arthur and Catherine.

This may seem like a minor matter, but it would prove considerably significant to Catherine 25 years later.

Immediately after their marriage, Arthur and his bride went to Ludlow, Wales, where the prince took up his duties in administering the region. There Arthur contracted a disease, possibly tuberculosis; and, after an extended illness, he died on April 2, 1502. 

Next: Young Henry

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Young Henry

Portrait of Henry VIII as a child by an unknown artist.
The Future King as a Child Henry VIII as a Child. Public Domain

Sketch of Henry as a child by an unknown artist.

Henry VII and Elizabeth were both grief-stricken, of course, at the loss of their eldest child. Within months Elizabeth was pregnant again -- possibly, it has been suggested, in an attempt to bring forth another son. Henry had spent a good portion of the last 17 years blocking plots to overthrow him and eliminating rivals to the throne. He was very much aware of the importance of securing the Tudor dynasty with male heirs -- an attitude he imparted to his surviving son, the future King Henry VIII. Unfortunately, the pregnancy cost Elizabeth her life.

Because Arthur was expected to take the throne and the spotlight was on him, relatively little was recorded about young Henry's childhood. He had titles and offices bestowed on him when he was still a toddler. His education may have been as strenuous as his brother's, but it's not known whether he received the same quality instruction. It has been suggested that Henry VII had intended his second son for a career in the Church, although there is no evidence of this. However, Henry would prove to be a devout Catholic.

Erasmus had taken the opportunity to meet the prince when Henry was only eight, and had been impressed by his grace and poise. Henry was ten when his brother married, and he served a prominent role by escorting Catherine to the cathedral and leading her out after the wedding. During the festivities that followed, he was notably active, dancing with his sister and making a good impression on his elders.

Arthur's death changed Henry's fortune; he inherited his brother's titles: Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, and, of course, Prince of Wales. But his father's fear of losing his last heir led to serious curtailment of the boy's activities. He was given no responsibilities and kept under close supervision. The ebullient Henry, who would later become renowned for his energy and athletic prowess, must have chafed at these restrictions.

Henry also appears to have inherited his brother's wife, though this was not at all a straightforward matter.

Next: Young Catherine of Aragon

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Young Catherine of Aragon

Young Catherine of Aragon
The Spanish Princess Portrait of Catherine of Aragon about the time she came to England, by Michel Sittow. Public Domain

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon about the time she came to England, by Michel Sittow

When Catherine came to England, she brought with her an impressive dowry and a prestigious alliance with Spain. Now, widowed at 16, she was without funds and in political limbo. Not yet having mastered the English language, she must have felt isolated and bereft, having no one to talk to but her duenna and the unlikable ambassador, Dr. Puebla. Furthermore, as a matter of security she was confined to Durham House in the Strand to await her fate.

Catherine may have been a pawn, but she was a valuable one. After Arthur's death, the tentative negotiations that the king had begun for young Henry's marriage to Eleanor, daughter of the duke of Burgundy, were set aside in favor of the Spanish princess. But there was a problem: Under canon law, a papal dispensation was required for a man to marry his brother's wife. This was only necessary if Catherine's marriage to Arthur had been consummated, and she swore fervently that it had not; she had even, after Arthur's death, written to her family about it, against the wishes of the Tudors. Nevertheless, Dr. Puebla agreed that a papal dispensation was called for, and a request was sent to Rome.

A treaty was signed in 1503, but the wedding was delayed over the dowry, and for a time it seemed there would be no marriage. Negotiations for a marriage to Eleanor were reopened, and the new Spanish ambassador, Fuensalida, suggested they cut their losses and bring Catherine back to Spain. But the princess was made of sterner stuff. She had made up her mind that she'd rather die in England than return home disowned, and she wrote to her father demanding Fuensalida's recall.

Then, on April 22, 1509, King Henry died. Had he lived, there is no telling who he'd have chosen for his son's wife. But the new king, 17 and ready to take on the world, had decided he wanted Catherine for his bride. She was 23, intelligent, devout and lovely. She made a fine choice of consort for the ambitious young king.

The couple were wed on June 11. Only William Warham, the archbishop of Canterbury, expressed any concern about the marriage of Henry to his brother's widow and the papal bull that had made the marriage possible; but whatever protests he had were swept aside by the eager groom. A few weeks later Henry and Catherine were crowned in Westminster, beginning a happy life together that would last nearly 20 years.

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Young King Henry VIII

Young King Henry VIII
The New King Portrait of Henry VIII in early manhood by an unknown artist. Public Domain

Portrait of Henry VIII in early manhood by an unknown artist.

Young King Henry cut a striking figure. Six feet tall and powerfully built, he excelled in many athletic events, including jousting, archery, wrestling and all forms of mock combat. He loved to dance and did it well; he was a renowned tennis player. Henry also enjoyed intellectual pursuits, often discussing mathematics, astronomy and theology with Thomas More. He knew Latin and French, a little Italian and Spanish, and even studied Greek for a time. The king was also a great patron of musicians, arranging for music wherever he might be, and was a notably gifted musician himself.

Henry was bold, outgoing, and energetic; he could be charming, generous and kind. He was also hot-tempered, stubborn, and self-centered -- even for a king. He had inherited some of his father's paranoid tendencies, but it manifested less in caution and more in suspicion. Henry was a hypochondriac, terrified of disease (understandable, considering his brother Arthur's demise). He could be ruthless.

The late Henry VII had been a notorious miser; he had amassed a modest treasury for the monarchy. Henry VIII was impetuous and flamboyant; he spent lavishly on the royal wardrobe, royal castles and royal festivities. Taxes were unavoidable and, of course, highly unpopular. His father had been unwilling to engage in war if he could possibly avoid it, but Henry VIII was eager to wage war, especially against France, and he ignored the sage advisors who counseled against it.

Henry's military efforts saw mixed results. He was able to spin the minor victories of his armies into glory for himself. He did what he could to get into and remain in the good graces of the pope, aligning himself with the Holy League. In 1521, with the assistance of a team of scholars who still remain unidentified, Henry wrote the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum ("In Defense of the Seven Sacraments"), a response to Martin Luther's De Captivitate Babylonica. The book was somewhat flawed but popular, and it, along with his previous efforts on behalf of the papacy, spurred Pope Leo X to confer on him the title "Defender of the Faith."

Whatever else Henry was, he was a devout Christian and professed an immense respect for the law of God and man. But when there was something he wanted, he had a talent for convincing himself he was in the right, even when the law and common sense told him otherwise.

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Thomas Wolsey

Cardinal Wolsey
The Cardinal at Christ Church Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church by an unknown artist. Public Domain

Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church by an unknown artist

No single administrator in the history of English government had wielded as much power as Thomas Wolsey. Not only was he a cardinal, but he became lord chancellor, as well, thus embodying the highest levels of both ecclesiastical and secular authority in the land, next to the king. His influence on young Henry VIII and on policies both international and domestic was considerable, and his assistance to the king was invaluable.

Henry was energetic and restless, and often could not be bothered with the details of running a kingdom. He gladly delegated authority to Wolsey on matters both momentous and mundane. While Henry was riding, hunting, dancing or jousting, it was Wolsey who decided virtually everything, from the management of the Star Chamber to who should be in charge of Princess Mary. Days and sometimes even weeks would pass before Henry could be persuaded to sign this document, read that letter, respond to another political dilemma. Wolsey nudged and badgered his master into getting things done, and carried out a large part of the duties himself.

But when Henry did take an interest in the proceedings of government, he brought the full force of his energy and acumen to bear. The young king could deal with a pile of documents in a matter of hours, and spot the flaw in one of Wolsey's plans in an instant. The cardinal took great care not to tread on the monarch's toes, and when Henry was ready to lead, Wolsey followed. He may have had hopes to rise to the papacy, and he frequently allied England with papal considerations; but Wolsey always put England and Henry's wishes first, even at the cost of his clerical ambitions.

Chancellor and King shared an interest in international affairs, and Wolsey guided the course of their early forays into war and peace with neighboring nations. The cardinal envisioned himself as an arbiter of peace in Europe, walking a treacherous course among the powerful entities of France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy. While he saw some success, ultimately, England did not have the influence that he had envisioned, and he could not make a lasting peace in Europe.

Still, Wolsey served Henry faithfully and well for many years. Henry counted on him to carry out his every command, and he did so exceedingly well. Unfortunately, the day would come when Wolsey could not give the king the very thing he wanted most.

Next: Queen Catherine

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Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon
Queen of England Portrait of Catherine of Aragon by an unknown artist. Public Domain

Portrait of Catherine by an unknown artist.

For a time, the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was a happy one. Catherine was as smart as Henry, and even more devout a Christian. He showed her off with pride, confided in her and lavished gifts upon her. She served him well as regent when he was fighting in France; he rushed home ahead of his army to lay the keys of the cities he had captured at her feet. He wore her initials on his sleeve when he jousted and called himself "Sir Loyal Heart"; she accompanied him to every festivity and supported him in every endeavor.

Catherine gave birth to six children, two of them boys; but the only one who lived past infancy was Mary. Henry adored his daughter, but it was a son he needed to carry on the Tudor line. As might be expected of such a masculine, self-centered character as Henry, his ego would not allow him to believe it was his fault. Catherine must be to blame.

It's impossible to tell when Henry first strayed. Fidelity wasn't an entirely foreign concept to medieval monarchs, but taking a mistress, while not openly flouted, was quietly considered the royal prerogative of kings. Henry indulged in this prerogative, and if Catherine knew, she turned a blind eye. She was not always in the best of health, and the robust, amorous king could not be expected to go celibate.

In 1519, Elizabeth Blount, a lady in waiting to the queen, delivered Henry of a healthy boy. Now the king had all the proof he needed that his wife was to blame for his lack of sons.

His indiscretions continued, and he acquired a distaste for his once-beloved consort. Although Catherine continued to serve her husband as his partner in life and as queen of England, their intimate moments grew fewer and and less frequent. Never again did Catherine get pregnant.

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Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn
Youthful and Vibrant Portrait of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist, 1525. Public Domain

Portrait of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist, 1525.

Anne Boleyn was not considered particularly beautiful, but she had masses of lustrous dark hair, mischievous black eyes, a long, slender neck and a regal bearing. Most of all, she had a "way" about her that attracted the attention of several courtiers. She was clever, inventive, coquettish, sly, maddeningly elusive and strong-willed. She could be stubborn and self-centered, and was clearly manipulative enough to get her way, though Fate might have other ideas.

But the fact is, no matter how extraordinary she may have been, Anne would have been little more than a footnote in history if Catherine of Aragon had given birth to a son who lived.

Nearly all of Henry's conquests were transitory. He seemed to tire fairly quickly of his mistresses, though he generally treated them well. Such was the fate of Anne's sister, Mary Boleyn. Anne was different. She refused to go to bed with the king.

There are several possible reasons for her resistance. When Anne first came to the English court she had fallen in love with Henry Percy, whose engagement to another woman Cardinal Wolsey refused to allow him to break. (Anne never forgot this interference in her romance, and despised Wolsey from then on.) She may not have been attracted to Henry, and unwilling to compromise her virtue for him just because he wore a crown. She may also have held a real value on her purity, and have been unwilling to let it go without the sanctity of marriage.

The most common interpretation, and the most likely, is that Anne saw an opportunity and took it.

If Catherine had given Henry a healthy, surviving son, there is virtually no way he would have tried to set her aside. He may have cheated on her, but she would have been the mother of the future king, and as such deserving of his respect and support. As it was, Catherine was a very popular queen, and what was about to happen to her would not be easily accepted by the people of England.

Anne knew that Henry wanted a son and that Catherine was approaching the age where she could no longer bear children. If she held out for marriage, Anne could become queen and the mother of the prince Henry so fervently desired.

And so Anne said "No," which only made the king want her all the more.

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Henry in His Prime

Portrait of Henry at about age 40
A Vigorous King in Need of a Son Portrait of Henry at about age 40 by Joos van Cleeve. Public Domain

Portrait of Henry at about age 40 by Joos van Cleeve.

In his mid-thirties, Henry was in the prime of life and an impressive figure. He was used to having his way with women, not only because he was king, but because he was a strong, charismatic, good-looking man. Encountering one who wouldn't leap into bed with him must have astonished him -- and frustrated him.

Exactly how his relationship with Anne Boleyn reached the point of "marry me or forget it" is not perfectly clear, but at some point Henry determined to repudiate the wife who had failed to give him an heir and make Anne his queen. He may even have considered setting Catherine aside earlier, when the tragic loss of each of his children, save Mary, reminded him that the survival of the Tudor dynasty was not assured.

Even before Anne entered the picture, Henry had been extremely concerned about producing a male heir. His father had impressed upon him the significance of securing the succession, and he knew his history. The last time the heir to the throne had been female (Matilda, daughter of Henry I), the result had been civil war.

And there was another concern. There was a chance that Henry's marriage to Catherine was against God's law.

While Catherine was young and healthy and likely to bear a son, Henry had looked to this biblical text:

"When brethren dwell together, and one of them dieth without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another; but his brother shall take her, and raise up seed for his brother." (Deuteronomy xxv, 5.)

According to this specific charge, Henry did the right thing by marrying Catherine; he had followed biblical law. But now a different text concerned him:

"If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless." (Leviticus xx, 21.)

Of course, it suited the king to favor Leviticus over Deuteronomy. So he convinced himself that the early deaths of his children were signs that his marriage to Catherine had been a sin, and that as long as he stayed married to her, they were living in sin. Henry took his duties as a good Christian seriously, and he took the survival of the Tudor line just as seriously. He was certain that it was only right and just that he receive an annulment from Catherine as soon as possible.

Surely the pope would grant this request to a good son of the Church?

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Pope Clement VII

Giulio de' Medici
Giulio de' Medici Portrait of Pope Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain

Portrait of Clement by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1531.

Giulio de' Medici had been raised in the best Medici tradition, receiving an education fit for a prince. Nepotism served him well; his cousin, Pope Leo X, made him a cardinal and Archbishop of Florence, and he became a trusted and capable advisor to the pope.

But when Giulo was elected to the papacy, taking the name Clement VII, his talents and vision proved to be lacking.

Clement did not understand the profound changes that were taking place in the Reformation. Trained to be more of a secular ruler than a spiritual leader, the political side of the papacy was his priority. Unfortunately, his judgment proved faulty in this, as well; after vacillating between France and the Holy Roman Empire for several years, he aligned himself with Francis I of France in the League of Cognac.

This proved to be a serious error. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had supported Clement's candidacy for pope. He saw the Papacy and the Empire as spiritual partners. Clement's decision provoked him, and in the ensuing struggle, imperial troops sacked Rome, trapping Clement in the Castel Sant'Angelo.

To Charles, this development was an embarrassment, for neither he nor his generals had ordered the sack of Rome. Now his failure to control his troops had resulted in a grave affront to the most holy man in Europe. To Clement, it was both an insult and a nightmare. For several months he remained holed up in Sant'Angelo, negotiating for his release, unable to take any official action as pope and afraid for his very life.

It was at this moment in history that Henry VIII decided he wanted an annulment. And the woman he wanted to set aside was none other than the beloved aunt of Emperor Charles V.

Henry and Wolsey maneuvered, as they often did, between France and the Empire. Wolsey still had dreams of making peace, and he sent agents to open negotiations with Charles and Francis. But events slipped away from the English diplomats. Before Henry's forces could free the pope (and take him into protective custody), Charles and Clement came to an agreement and settled on a date for the pope's release. Clement actually escaped a few weeks earlier than the agreed-upon date, but he was not about to do anything to insult Charles and risk another imprisonment, or worse.

Henry would have to wait for his annulment. And wait . . . and wait . . .

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Resolute Catherine

Miniature of Catherine by Lucas Horenbout
The Queen Stands Fast Miniature of Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout. Public Domain

Miniature of Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout c. 1525.

On June 22, 1527, Henry told Catherine that their marriage was over.

Catherine was stunned and wounded, but determined. She made it clear that she would not agree to a divorce. She was convinced that there had been no impediment -- lawful, moral or religious -- to their marriage, and that she must continue in her role as Henry's wife and queen.

Although Henry continued to show Catherine respect, he forged ahead with his plans to obtain an annulment, not realizing that Clement VII would never grant him one. During the months of negotiations that followed, Catherine remained at court, enjoying the support of the people, but growing isolated from the courtiers as they abandoned her in favor of Anne Boleyn.

In Autumn of 1528, the pope ordered that the matter be handled in a trial in England, and appointed Cardinal Campeggio and Thomas Wolsey to conduct it. Campeggio met with Catherine and tried to persuade her to give up her crown and enter a convent, but the queen held to her rights. She lodged an appeal to Rome against the authority of the court the papal legates planned to hold.

Wolsey and Henry believed Campeggio had irrevocable papal authority, but in fact the Italian cardinal had been instructed to delay matters. And delay them he did. The Legatine Court did not open until May 31, 1529. When Catherine appeared before the tribunal on June 18, she stated that she did not recognize its authority. When she returned three days later, she threw herself at her husband's feet and begged for his compassion, swearing that she'd been a maid when they'd wed and had always been a loyal wife.

Henry responded kindly, but Catherine's plea failed to deter him from his course. She in turn persisted in appealing to Rome, and refused to return to the court. In her absence, she was judged contumacious, and it looked like Henry would soon receive a decision in his favor. Instead, Campeggio found an excuse for further delay; and in August, Henry was ordered to appear before the papal curia in Rome.

Furious, Henry at last understood he would not get what he wanted from the pope, and he began to look for other ways to resolve his dilemma. Circumstances may have seemed cast in Catherine's favor, but Henry had decided otherwise, and it was only a matter of time before her world would spin out of her control.

And she wasn't the only one about to lose everything.

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Snell, Melissa. "The Tudor Dynasty." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 26). The Tudor Dynasty. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Tudor Dynasty." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).