A monarch of outsized proportions, passions and appetites, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ruled England for 36 years. His tumultuous personal life—including a series of six wives and many mistresses—led him to break with the Catholic Church to create the Church of England. Along the way, he fathered three future English monarchs: Edward VI, Mary I and the long-reigning Elizabeth I. Here are eight things you might not know about this legendary ruler.
In 1521 Henry VIII published a book-length excoriation of the German Protestant reformer Martin Luther, referring to Luther as “a venomous serpent, a pernicious plague, infernal wolf, an infectious soul, a detestable trumpeter of pride, calumnies and schism.” In recognition of Henry’s forceful piety, Pope Leo X awarded him the title “Fidei defensor,” or Defender of the Faith. But scarcely a decade later, Henry led a schism of his own, cleaving the Church of England from the wider Catholic Church after Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s 16-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Even after the newly-formed Church of England granted Henry VIII his annulment, Catherine of Aragon remained faithful to her former spouse, in part to secure the interests of their daughter, the future Mary I. In her final letter to the now-remarried Henry, the dying Catherine wrote, “‘Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. Farewell.” Following the January 1536 news of Catherine’s death, Henry and his new queen, Anne Boleyn, appeared publicly in all-yellow attire. Although some historians argue that yellow may have been a color of mourning in the Spanish court of Catherine’s birth, it seems likely that the royal couple were relieved at Catherine’s death and enjoyed the color’s more cheerful overtones.
Shortly after his coronation, Henry VIII wrote the words and music for the song “Pastime with Good Company,” which was a court favorite before became popular throughout England and beyond. The song is a celebration of the courtly life, which for the young Henry included, in the words of his contemporary Edward Hall, “shotyng, singing, dausyng, wrastelyng, casting of the barre, plaiying at the recorders, flute, virginal, and in setting of songes.” Henry wrote many other songs as well, though not, as is sometimes suggested, the English folk song “Greensleeves,” whose lyrics are in an Italian poetic form that only reached England after Henry’s death.
Before Henry VIII, English kings were addressed as “Your Grace” or “Your Highness.” After the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V began being called “Majesty” in 1519, Henry VIII, not to be outdone, adopted the term for himself.
During the English Reformation, Henry’s kingdom amassed great wealth and property by confiscating Catholic monasteries. Nonetheless, by the end of his reign Henry’s funds ran low and he was forced to lower the percentage of silver in British coinage, to the point where they were mostly copper with a silver coating that wore away from the relief image of Henry’s face, starting with the nose.
Considered by many to be among the most handsome rulers of his era, Henry VIII was always larger-than-life—he was well over 6 feet tall. But he only grew in girth after a 1536 jousting accident left him less and less able to exercise. Henry’s made-to-measure suits of armor chart the king’s expansion, with his final set, from around 1540, suggesting he weighed more than 300 pounds.
English schoolchildren remember Henry VIII’s daughter as “Bloody Mary,” an allusion to the more than 300 Protestants the staunchly Catholic Mary I had put to death during her five-year reign. In truth, though, Henry VIII was by far the bloodiest Tudor ruler, ordering tens of thousands of executions during the tumult of the English Reformation. (Henry’s most famous victims included his former top advisor Sir Thomas More, as well as two of Henry’s six queens—Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard).
Years before his death, Henry VIII made plans to build a monumental tomb for himself and Jane Seymour, his favorite queen and the mother of his only surviving male heir. Henry confiscated a black marble sarcophagus (originally intended for the powerful churchman Cardinal Wolsey) to be used at the center of the tomb, but during the tumultuous years after his death in 1547, the monument was never completed. Instead, Henry and Jane were left to rest in peace in what were supposed to be temporary lodgings in a crypt at Windsor Castle. Two and a half centuries later, Henry’s intended sarcophagus did become part of an ornate national monument when it became the final resting place of Horatio Nelson, the great British naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars.