article first appeared in October, 2008.
of the Modern World
— FIRST OF A SERIES —
June 28,1491 — April 21, 1509
Portrait by an unknown
Henry VIII at about the time he
became king at the age of 17 in 1509.
n the time of King
Henry VIII someone would have lost his (or her) head. The last great
medieval king of England, the Anglo-Saxon Renaissance man, the
consolidator of the United Kingdom has been snubbed by his no-longer
In 2002 the BBC polled their viewers to determine whom they
believed to be the 100 greatest Britons of all time. The British, bless
'em, have a keen sense of history. As you
might imagine given the long, nearly continuous monarchy of England,
several kings and queens placed high in this ultimate national
Queen Elizabeth I
— daughter of King Henry VIII — was the highest ranked monarch,
(right behind of scientist Isaac
Newton and immediately ahead of musician John Lennon).
Oliver Cromwell came in at #10. Cromwell,
while technically not a king, served regally as England’s
Lord Protector during the 17th
century interregnum known as the Commonwealth of England.
Alfred the Great reached #14, somewhat
surprising for a regional sovereign (he was King of Wessex
only: principally SW England), an
Anglo-Saxon from the Dark Ages (9th century). Alfred is revered as
a defender of England: he held
off the Danes.
England’s longest reigning monarch, Queen
Victoria, whose 63-year term stewarded the
the British Empire in the 19th
century, was voted in at #19.
Owain Glyndŵr (aka
Owen Glendower), the last all-Welsh Prince of Wales (early 15th century)
figurehead of modern Welsh
nationalism, made the top 25% of the list, placing at #23.
Elizabeth II (#24 in the BBC poll), the
current sovereign going strong with 56 years on the
throne, may eclipse her
great-great-grandmother as England’s longest reigning queen or king.
Coming in at #35 is another great British queen,
still better known at Boadicea), the
queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe
(of the area we identify today as East Anglia) who took on the Romans
shortly after the death of
most macho and domineering of English monarchs,
King Henry VIII,
the Tudor terror, he of six wives, various mistresses, a sickly son and
two powerful daughters, the man who declared himself God’s intermediary
for England and Ireland, who thumbed his nose at the two most powerful
men in the world —
the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor —
who personally led armies to victory against the French and won
jousting tournaments in full armor, and, we believe, helped invent the
modern world? How ironic that Henry VIII was voted only to #40 in the
reader’s poll, behind seven other British sovereigns (or
demi-sovereigns) including four women, a commoner and a Welsh rebel.
Henry the 8th, massive man with a massive ego, would have been livid!
Who was Henry VIII, and why might his legacy not be as revered among his
countrymen today as perhaps it once was?
Portrait by an unknown
King Henry VII at about
orn just 13 months
set off from Spain on his first voyage of discovery, Henry was the
second son and third child of
King Henry VII
(formerly Henry Tudor) and his wife
Elizabeth of York.
His older brother,
was Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. Young Henry, second in line
to the throne, prepared for a future as a kind of vice president: a
heartbeat away from the throne. His education was lavish, and
generalized, but with a concentration in religion. The Renaissance was
underway, and, like a young de' Medici, Prince Henry received
instruction in art, languages, science, religion, music, mathematics,
the classics, and geography.
Henry VII arranged for Arthur to marry the daughter of
King Ferdinand and Queen
Isabella of Spain,
Catherine of Aragon.
They married — he
was 14, she 15 — in
1501. Their marriage was designed as a political union between Spain and
England. At the time Spain —
having itself only recently become united by
the join monarchy
of Ferdinand of Aragon and
Isabella of Castile
— was a major European power looking to
bolster its power base through this alliance by marriage to the future
king of England. But Arthur was not a robust teenager, and he caught the
sweating sickness (a mystery disease that swept England with four
epidemics over fifty years) and died within six months of taking wedding
enry had two sisters,
19 months his elder, and Mary
almost 5 years younger. Because the practice of English royalty was that
a woman could not become sovereign as long as a male heir could be
found, Henry — and
not his older sister Margaret —
replaced his brother as Prince of Wales three months before his
eleventh birthday. The female children of royalty
— in England and Scotland as in Spain
— proved very useful politically
through arranged marriages designed to create alliances. Both of Henry’s
sisters served in this capacity. Margaret became Queen of Scots when she
King James IV of Scotland.
Mary Tudor — engaged
at 11 to marry the 5-year-old future
Emperor Charles V of the
Holy Roman Empire
— instead became Queen of France when
she married 52-year-old
King Louis XII
when she was 18.
older brother Arthur had died in 1502. When his mother,
Queen Elizabeth of York, died in childbirth in 1503, Henry’s father the
king did not forsake his dream of a marital alliance with Spain. If he
could get the Pope to agree to permit Arthur’s young widow
to be eligible to remarry, the king thought the Spanish princess
a good match for himself or for his son and
Portrait said to be of
elder daughter of King Henry VII and
older sister of Henry VIII. Married off
to King James IV of Scotland, she became
the power behind the throne after her
husband's death. She was mother of King
James V of Scotland, grandmother of Mary,
Queen of Scots, and great-grandmother
of King James I of England, founder of the
Stewart (Stuart) dynasty that followed the
Tudors upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
When Catherine swore that her marriage to Arthur had never been
consummated, the pope agreed to the annulment, and King Henry VII
quickly announced the betrothal of 13-year-old Henry to the 19-year-old
widow of his brother.
The marriage of
Ferdinand of Aragon
and Isabella of Castile in 1469
unified Spain into a major European
power. The Spanish co-monarchs hoped
to leverage an alliance with England by
marrying off their daughter, Catherine
of Aragon first to Arthur, Prince of
Wales, and, when Arthur died suddenly,
then to his brother
replacement heir to the English throne.
engagement continued for the next four years. King Henry VII and
Ferdinand & Isabella dragged their royal feet: Henry VII delaying paying
the required dowry for Catherine of Aragon and the Spanish co-monarchs
withholding the delivery of promised gold and silver wedding gifts. Then
in April 1509, England’s 52-year-old king suddenly died
— some say he had never recovered from
the loss of his wife and first-born son —
leaving his 17-year-old heir still unmarried and the alliance
with Spain uncertain. Teenaged King Henry VIII, sportsman, bon vivant,
and learned ecclesiast, found himself catapulted onto the throne facing
the same challenges that had consumed his father’s life: consolidating
the power of the English monarchy into the Tudor dynasty, establishing
England’s secure place among the powers of Europe, and producing a
healthy male heir to keep the kingdom united and civil unrest at bay.
— END OF PART I —
— Young King Henry, Renaissance Man