Henry VIII ruled England for 36 years, presiding over sweeping changes that brought his nation into the Protestant Reformation. He famously married a series of six wives in his search for political alliance, marital bliss and a healthy male heir. His desire to annul his first marriage without papal approval led to the creation of a separate Church of England. Of his marriages, two ended in annulment, two in natural deaths and two with his wives’ beheadings for adultery and treason. His children Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I would each take their turn as England’s monarch.
Henry was born in Greenwich, England, on June 28, 1491, the second son of Henry VII, the first English ruler from the House of Tudor. While his older brother Arthur was being prepared for the throne, Henry was steered toward a church career, with a broad education in theology, music, languages, poetry and sports.
As a young man, Henry displayed an admirable degree of intellectual curiosity, religious devotion and athletic achievement. One observer described a youth who “speaks good French, Latin and Spanish; is very religious; heard three masses daily when he hunted ... He is extremely fond of hunting, and never takes that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses ... He is also fond of tennis.”.
Catherine of Aragon
Henry’s brother and heir apparent Arthur had been betrothed since age 2 to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella. In November of 1501, the teenage couple were married.
Months later, however, Arthur died of a sudden illness. Henry became next in line for the throne and in 1503 was betrothed to his brother’s widow.
Henry VIII took the throne in 1509 at age 17, and married Catherine of Aragon six weeks later. Over the next 15 years, while Henry fought three wars with France, Catherine bore him three sons and three daughters, all but one of whom died in infancy. The sole survivor was Mary (later Mary I), born in 1516.
Henry as Monarch
Henry was an active king ruling over a prosperous realm in those years, and a leader in the English Renaissance. He lorded over a festive court while hunting, jousting, writing and playing music.
Henry issued a book-length attack on Martin Luther’s church reforms that earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X (a somewhat ironic accolade, given his eventual break with Roman Catholicism).
He made a significant investment in the Royal Navy, increasing its size from a mere 5 ships up to 53. But the lack of a male heir—especially after he fathered a healthy illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, in 1519—gnawed at the young king.
By the 1520s, Henry had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn, a young woman in his wife’s entourage. He also worried that his marriage to Catherine had been cursed by God because of the Old Testament ban on marrying the widow of one’s brother. The king decided to seek a papal annulment that would free him to remarry.
With the assistance of his powerful adviser Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII but was rebuffed due to pressure from Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Wolsey was forced from power for his failure and died in 1530 awaiting trial for treason.
With the backing of the British Parliament—led in large part by Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chief adviser—and the English clergy, Henry ultimately decided that he didn’t need the pope’s permission to rule on issues affecting the Church of England. In 1533 Henry and Anne Boleyn were married, and their daughter Elizabeth was born.
These actions linked Henry to the growing Reformation movement then sweeping northern Europe — they also earned him the enmity of Pope Clement VII. In response, the Vatican had Henry excommunicated in 1533.
Nonetheless, Henry’s other daughter Mary was declared illegitimate, and Elizabeth was named his rightful heir. Then, during the dissolution of the monasteries, England’s monasteries were closed and in most cases sold off to add to Henry’s wealth
In January of 1536 Henry was knocked off his horse and injured during a jousting tournament. When news of his accident reached the pregnant Anne, she miscarried, delivering a stillborn son. Henry then spurned her, turning his affections to another woman of his court, Jane Seymour.
Within six months, Henry had Anne executed for treason and incest. He then married Jane, who quickly gave him a son (the future Edward VI), although she died 12 days after giving birth.
Anne of Cleves
Henry’s fourth marriage bore similarities to his first. Anne of Cleves was a political bride, chosen to cement an alliance with her brother, the ruler of a Protestant duchy in Germany. The marriage only lasted a few days before Henry had it annulled. He then married Catherine Howard, but two years later she too was beheaded for treason and adultery.
In the last years of his reign Henry grew moody, suspicious and famously obese, hobbled by personal intrigues and by the persistent leg wound from his jousting injury. His final marriage, to the widow Catherine Parr in 1543, saw his reconciliation with Mary and Elizabeth, who were restored to the line of succession.
READ MORE: Who Were the Six Wives of Henry VIII?
Death and Legacy
Henry VIII died at age 55 on January 28, 1547. His 9-year-old son Edward VI succeeded him as king but died six years later. Mary I spent her five-year reign steering England back into the Catholic fold, but Elizabeth I, the longest-reigning of the Tudor monarchs, restored her father’s Protestant religious reforms.
Henry VIII (r.1509-1547). The Royal Family.
Facts about Henry VIII. Royal Museums Greenwich.
Henry VIII: Renaissance Prince or Terrible Tudor? Who Was the Real Henry VIII? Historic Royal Palaces.
Henry VIII, King of England (1491-1547). Royal Collection Trust.