Friday, March 17, 2017

A Brief Overview of the Wives of Henry VIII-That Prick Henry

A Brief Overview of the Wives of Henry VIII is an eight part series outlining, you guessed it, the wives of Henry VIII. It updates every Thursday.

We can't really talk about Henry VIII's wives without talking about the man himself. It's unfortunate, but true. Henry VIII is one of my least favorite English monarchs, one of my least favorites figures in history really. If I had a time machine I would definitely use it to go back in time and fight him, maybe lecture him about basic human rights and how to be a good person -- before turning the time machine over to the people prepared to kill Hitler and Stalin of course.

That being said, I'm going to put aside my bias, and attempt to give you a good idea of what sort of man and king Henry was, because unless you understand Henry and the world he ruled, it's a bit difficult to sympathize with the women who married him.

Henry wasn't supposed to become king. Well, his parents hoped he wouldn't have to be king anyways. Not because Henry was in any way unworthy, but because he was the younger son. His older brother, Arthur, was supposed to be king, he was trained to be one, and his parents married him off to a Spanish princess to prove it. But unfortunately, as with so many young men and women of that era, Arthur was sickly and died. Which kinda sucked for Arthur, but was the making of Henry. With Arthur's death Henry became crown prince, and at age 17 his father, Henry VII died, and Junior became Henry VIII, King of England (and France?)

Henry had married Catherine of Aragon, his older brother's wife (pay attention to that bit, it's important), after his brother's death, so he had a pretty good start to the kingship business. His father had left the treasury full, he was already married, and England had enjoyed several years of peace, recuperating from the tumultuous War of Roses. And while Henry merrily waged war with France like every other English monarch before him, he is not known for his conquests, but what he did artistically and intellectually for England-- and, of course, having six wives.

Henry ushered in the English Renaissance. He entertained (and sometimes executed) Humanist thinkers at his court, such as Sir Thomas Moore, he patronized artists and musicians (Hans Hoblein anyone?), and generally turned the dull English backwater into a dazzling court.

Henry's biggest contribution, by far, is his zealous embracing of the Reformation, and his 'my way or the highway' methods of convincing all of England to deny Catholicism.

Don't think the English Reformation was really about religion though. It may have been for some, but for Henry the break with Rome had distinct financial, political, and personal advantages. It was a bit like dumping a bad boyfriend. By closing (and basically sacking, let's be real here) monasteries and other church orders Henry gained land, houses, and money. By denying the Pope's authority and proclaiming himself head of the English Church, Henry gained absolute control over the English people, and discarded the biggest check to his power. By denying the power of Rome, Henry could divorce his first wife, Catherine, and marry the captivating Anne Boleyn. And hopefully have a son. That was the real goal there.

The English Reformation, brutal though it was, was one of the great moments in history. I think it would be safe to say that had England remained a Catholic country, history would be completely different. The Elizabethan age would never have happened. England may have been taken over by the Spanish Armada. America may not have been settled by English explorers or religious refugees. The Bible may not have been widely printed in English. So much might be different. It's amazing really, how much the English Reformation has impacted modern life.

As a person, Henry was...difficult to get along with. He'd been raised expecting to get his own way, and was not used to hearing no. He had an over-exaggerated sense of his own grandeur, and he was mercurial to a fault. He was volatile, and quick to anger. Some historians suggest that this may have been caused by brain damage received during an accident in his youth. Of course, it could also be the power of an absolute monarch going to his head. Either way, displeasing him was a Bad Idea. Henry executed people who angered him (aren't you glad he isn't your boss?). He found it difficult to conceive sons, and he discarded the women who couldn't provide him with one, by whatever means necessary. He was a dangerous man to be married to, and you had to be clever to keep your head.

What do you think of Henry?

Part One   Part Two     Part Three    Part Four   Part Five   Part Six    Part Seven   Part Eight

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Sources
Henry VIII: The Charismatic King who Reforged a Nation by Kathy Elgin

Also this article, which has almost no biographical information on Henry, but is very interesting.




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