King Henry VIII biography



In Cardinal Wolsey, the king, Henry the VIII, found an adviser who was essentially a transition minister, holding a middle place between an English statesman and a Catholic of the old order. Under Wolsey's influence, Henry made war with Louis of France in the pope's quarrel, entered the polemic lists with Luther and persecuted the English Protestants.

Fish's famous pamphlet shows the spirit that was seething. He spoke of what he had seen and knew. The monks, he tells the king, 'be they that have made a hundred thousand idle, dissolute women in your realm.' But Wolsey could interfere with neither bishops nor monks without a special dispensation from the pope. A new trouble arose for the nation in the desire of Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon, who had been his deceased brother's wife, was six years older than himself and was an obstacle to the establishment of the kingdom. Her sons were dead, and she was beyond the period when more children could be expected. Though descent in the female line was not formally denied, no queen regent had ever, in fact, sat upon the throne; nor was the claim distinctly admitted, or the claim of the House of York would have been unquestionable. It was, therefore, with no little anxiety that the council of Henry VIII perceived his male children, on whom their hopes were centred, either born dead, or dying within a few days of birth.

The life of the Princess Mary was precarious, for her health was weak from her childhood. If she lived, her accession would be a temptation to insurrection; if she did not live and the king had no other children, a civil war was inevitable. The next heir in blood was James of Scotland, and gravely as statesmen desired the union of the two countries, in the existing mood of the people, the very stones in London streets, it was said, would rise up against a king of Scotland who entered England as sovereign.

So far were Henry and Catherine alike that both had imperious tempers and both were indomitably obstinate; but Henry was hot and impetuous, Catherine cold and self-contained. She had been the wife of Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII, but the death of that prince occurred only five months after the marriage. The uncertainty of the laws of marriage and the innumerable refinements of the Roman canon law affecting the legitimacy of children had raised scruples of conscience in the mind of the king. The loss of his children must have appeared as a judicial sentence on a violation of the Divine law. The divorce presented itself to him as a moral obligation when national advantage combined with superstition to encourage what he secretly desired.

Wolsey, after thirty years' experience of public life, was as sanguine as a boy. Armed with this little lever of divorce, he saw himself in imagination the rebuilder of the Catholic faith and the deliverer of Europe from ecclesiastical revolt and from innovations of faith. The mass of the people hated Protestantism as he, a true friend of the Catholic cult, sincerely detested the reformation of Luther. He believed that the old life-tree of Catholicism, which in fact was but cumbering the ground, might bloom again in its old beauty. But a truer political prophet than Wolsey would have been found in the most ignorant of those poor men who were risking death and torture in disseminating the pernicious volumes of the English Testament.

CATHERINE being a Spanish princess, Henry, in 1527, formed a league with Francis I, with the object of breaking the Spanish alliance. The pope was requested to make use of his dispensing power to enable the king of England to marry a wife who could bear him children. Deeply as we deplore the outrage inflicted on Catherine, and the scandal and suffering occasioned by the dispute, it was in the highest degree fortunate that at the crisis of public dissatisfaction in England with the condition of the Church, a cause should have arisen which tested the whole question of Church authority in its highest form. It was no accident which connected a suit for divorce with the reformation of religion.

The Spanish emperor, Charles V, gave Catherine his unwavering support and refused to allow the pope to pass a judicial sentence of divorce. Catherine refused to yield. Another person now comes into conspicuous view. It has been with Anne Boleyn as with Catherine of Aragon-both are regarded as the victims of a tyranny which Catholics and Protestants unite to remember with horror and each has taken the place of a martyred saint in the hagiology of the respective creeds. Anne Boleyn was the second daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a gentleman of noble family. She was educated in Paris, and in 1525 came back to England to be maid of honour to Queen Catherine and to be distinguished at the court by her talents, accomplishments and beauty.

The fortunes of Anne Boleyn were unhappily linked with those of men to whom the greatest work ever yet accomplished in this country was committed. In the memorable year 1529, after the meeting of parliament, events moved apace. In six weeks astonished Church authorities saw bill after bill hurried up before the lords, by which successively the pleasant fountains of their incomes would be dried up to flow no longer. The great Reformation had commenced in earnest.

The carelessness of the bishops in the discharge of their most immediate duties obliged the legislature to trespass in the provinces most purely spiritual and to undertake the discipline of the clergy. Bill after bill struck hard and home on the privileges of the recreant clergy. The aged Bishop of Rochester complained to the lords that in the lower house the cry was nothing but 'Down with the Church.' Yet, so frightful were the abuses that called for radical reform that even persons who most disapprove of the reformation will not at the present time wonder at their enactment, or disapprove of their severity. The king treated the bishops, when they remonstrated, with the most contemptuous disrespect.

Archbishop Cranmer now adopted a singular expedient. He advised Henry to invite expressions from all the chief learned authorities throughout Europe as to the right of the pope to grant him a dispensation of dissolution of his marriage. The English universities, to escape imputations of treason and to avoid exciting Henry's wrath, gave replies such as would please him, that of Oxford being, however, the more decided of the two. Most of the Continental authorities declined to pronounce any dictum as to the powers of the pope.

THE fall of Wolsey was at hand. His enemies accused him of treason to the constitution by violating a law of the realm. He had acted as papal legate within the realm. The parliaments of Edward I, Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV had by a series of statutes pronounced illegal all presentations by the pope to any office or dignity in the Anglican Church, under a penalty of premunire. Henry did not feel himself called on to shield his great minister, although the guilt extended to all who had recognized Wolsey in the capacity of papal legate. Indeed, it extended to the archbishops, bishops, the privy council, the two houses of parliament and indirectly to the nation itself. The higher clergy had been encouraged by Wolsey's position to commit those acts of despotism which had created so deep an animosity among the people. The overthrow of England's last ecclesiastical minister was to teach them that the privileges they had abused were at an end.

In February, 1531, Henry assumed the title, which was to occasion such momentous consequences, of 'Protector and only Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England.' The clergy were compelled to assent. Further serious steps marked the great breach with Rome. The annates, or first fruits, were abolished. Ever since the crusades a practice had existed in all the churches of Europe that bishops and archbishops, on presentation to their sees, should transmit to the pope one year's income. This impressive impost was now abrogated. It was a sign of the parting of the ways.

Henry laid his conduct open to the world, declaring truly what he desired, and seeking it by open means. He was determined to proceed with the divorce, and also to continue the reformation of the English Church. And he was in no small measure aided in the former resolve by the recommendation of Francis, for the French king advised him to act on the general opinion of Europe that his marriage with Catherine, as widow of his elder brother Arthur, was null, and at once make Anne Boleyn his wife. This counsel, so palatable to Henry, was administered at an interview between the two kings at Boulogne, in October 1532.

THE pope had trifled for six years with the momentous question and Henry was growing old. At the outset of the discussion the pope had said, 'Marry freely; fear nothing; and all shall be arranged as you desire.' But the pontiff, reduced to a dilemma by various causes, had fallen back on his Italian cunning, and had changed his attitude, listening to the appeals of Catherine and her powerful friends. And now he threatened Henry with excommunication.

Henry entered privately into matrimonial relations with Anne in November 1532 and the marriage was solemnly celebrated, with a gorgeous pageant, at Westminster Abbey in the following January. On July 24 the people gathering to church in every parish read, nailed to the church doors, a paper signed 'Henry R.,' setting forth that the Lady Catherine of Spain, heretofore called queen of England, was not to be called by that title any more, but princess dowager and so to be held and esteemed. The triumph of Anne was to last but three short years.

WYCLIFFE'S labour had left only the Bible as the seed of a future life and no trace remained in the sixteenth century of the Lollardry of the fourteenth. But now Protestantism recommenced its enterprise in the growing desire for a nobler, holier insight into the will of God. In the year 1525 was enrolled in London a society calling itself The Association of Christian Brothers, Its paid agents went up and down the land carrying tracts and Testaments with them and enrolling in the order all who dared risk their lives in such a cause.

The Protestants thus isolated were waiting for direction, and men in such a temper are seldom left to wait in vain. Luther had kindled the spark which was to become a conflagration, in Germany, at Wittemberg, on October 31, 1517, by his denunciation of indulgences. His words found an echo and flew from lip to lip all through Western Europe. Tyndale, an Oxford student, went to Germany, saw Luther and under his direction translated into English the Gospels and Epistles. This led to the formation of the 'association' in London.

The authorities were alarmed. The bishops subscribed to buy up the translations of the Bible and these were burnt before a vast concourse in St. Paul's Churchyard.

But Wolsey for two years already had been suppressing the smaller monasteries. Simultaneously, Protestants were persecuted wherever they could be detected and seized. 'Little' Bilney, or 'Saint' Bilney, a distinguished Cambridge student, was burnt as a heretic at the stake, as were James Bainham, a barrister of the Middle Temple, and several other members of the 'association.' These were the first paladins of the reformation and the struggle went bravely forward. They were the knights who slew the dragons and made the earth habitable for common flesh and blood.

As yet but two men of the highest order of power were on the side of Protestantism-Latimer and Cromwell. These were now to come forward, pressed by circumstances which could no longer dispense with them. When the breach with the pope was made irreparable and the papal party at home had assumed an attitude of suspended insurrection, the fortunes of the Protestants entered into a new phase. The persecution ceased and those who were but lately its likely victims, hiding for their lives, passed at once by a sudden alternation into the sunshine of political favour.

Cromwell and Latimer together caught the movement as it went by and before it was over a work had been done in England which, when it was once accomplished, was accomplished for ever. The conservative party recovered their power and abused it as before; but the chains of the nation were broken, and no craft of kings or priests or statesmen could weld the magic links again. Latimer became famous as a preacher at Cambridge and was heard of by Henry, who sent for him and appointed him one of the royal chaplains. He was accused by the bishops of heresy, but was, on trial, absolved and sent back to his parish. Soon after, the tide turned and the reformation entered into a new phase.

THOMAS CROMWELL, like Latimer, of humble origin, was the malleus monachorum. Wolsey discovered his merit and employed him in breaking up the small monasteries which the pope had granted for the foundation of the new colleges. Cromwell remained with the great cardinal till his fall. It was then that the truly noble nature which was in him showed itself. The lords had passed a bill of impeachment against Wolsey-violent, vindictive and malevolent. It was to be submitted to the commons. Cromwell prepared an opposition and conducted the defence from his place in parliament so skilfully that he threw out the bill, saved Wolsey and gained such a reputation that he became Henry's secretary, representing the government in the House of Commons and was on the high road to power.

The reformation was blotted with a black and frightful stain. Towards the end of April 1536 certain members of the Privy Council were engaged in secretly collecting evidence which implicated the queen in adultery, In connexion with the terrible charge, as her accomplices, five gentlemen were arrested-Sir William Brereton, Mark Smeton, a court musician, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and, the accusation in his case being the most shocking, Lord Rochford, the queen's brother. The trial was hastily pushed forward and all were executed. The queen, who vehemently and piteously appealed to Henry, passionately protesting that she was absolutely innocent, was also condemned and was beheaded in public on Tower Hill.

Henry immediately after the tragedy married Jane, daughter of Sir John Seymour. The indecent haste is usually considered conclusive of the cause of Anne Boleyn's ruin. On October 12, 1537, a prince, so long and passionately hoped for, was born; but a sad calamity followed, for the queen took cold and died on October 24.

IN 1539 monastic life came to an end in England. The great monasteries were dissolved; the abbey lands were distributed partly amongst the old nobility and partly amongst the chapters of six new bishoprics. On January 6, 1540, was solemnised the marriage of Henry with Anne, daughter of the Duke of Cleves and sister-in-law of the Elector of Saxony. This event was brought about by the negotiations of Cromwell. The king was deeply displeased with the ungainly appearance of his bride when he met her on her landing, but retreat was impossible. Though Henry was personally kind to the new queen, the marriage made him wretched, and no time was lost in dissolving it.

Cromwell's enemies speedily hatched a conspiracy against the great statesman. He was arrested on a charge of high treason, was accused of corruption and heresy, of gaining wealth by bribery and extortion and, in spite of Cranmer's efforts to save him, passed to the scaffold on July 28, 1540. For eight years Cromwell, who had been ennobled as Earl of Essex, was supreme with king, parliament and convocation, and the nation, in the ferment of revolution, was absolutely controlled by him.

CONVOCATION had already dissolved the marriage of Henry and Anne, setting both free to contract and consummate other marriages without objection or delay, The queen had placidly given her consent. Handsome settlements were made on her in the shape of estates for her maintenance producing nearly three thousand a year. In August of the same year the king married, without delay of circumstance, Catherine, daughter of Lord Edmund Howard.

Brief indeed was her reign. In November 1541 she was charged with unfaithfulness to her marriage vows. The king was overwhelmed. Some dreadful spirit pursued his married life, tainting it with infamy.

Two gentlemen confessed their guilty connexion with the queen. They were hanged at Tyburn and the queen and Lady Rochford, who had been her confidential companion, suffered within the Tower. Once more the king ventured into marriage. Catherine, widow of Lord Latimer, his last choice, was selected, not in the interest of politics or religion, but by his own personal judgement; and this time he found the peace which he desired.

Henry died on January 28, 1547. He was attended in his last moments by Cranmer, having sent specially for the archbishop.





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