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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Rise And The Setting Of The Tudor Sun

I know it's boring. However, people who like English Literature, and who have made it the object of their studies, discuss the lives of British kings all the time. Here is my contribution.

In all of its Royal history, England has had many monarchs, all of whom contributed more or less significantly to its development and greatness. When one engages in the study of the life and times of the many personalities who have worn the crown, there is one king who, in my view, deserves the spotlight: in modern terms, he was a womanizer; he married three Catherines; two Anns and one Jane, not exactly in that order; he had a multi-millionaire father who pinched and scraped and replenished the royal coffers; he aspired to cut a figure in the world but spurned the drudgery of the work and when it came to the real business of it all, he was glad to “leave it to expert, but subordinate management” as T.S. Bindoff puts it in his Tudor England.

Who is this young, virile, handsome figure who coveted honor and glory? Henry VIII, son of Henry VII, a Tudor whose ascent to the throne was not without buckets of blood being shed for the Wars of the Roses, a thirty-year contest between the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster - the two branches of the Plantagenet line – for the possession of the realm, paving the way for a century of changes.

Throughout our readings, we are led to think that Henry VIII was a pragmatic man who, in backroom dealings, made himself the head of the English Church and appropriated for himself and his henchmen church property and its various assets on English soil. This fact, nonetheless, was not without precedent. It is known that someone had tried to do that before: Had one Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 not nailed his 95 Theses on a door at Wittenberg in what is now Germany against the sale of indulgences and therefore bringing about an unprecedented change in Christendom? Henry accomplished just that with the English Reformation – the chain of events in the 1500’s when the Church of England broke away from Rome.

King Henry VIII, historians say, had a double purpose: first, to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and wed his mistress, Anne Boleyn, in the hope that she would give him a son, a feat not yet reached by Catherine, which was not the case, however. It must have been a huge blow to learn that Anne Boleyn had failed to do just that and gave him a daughter, instead – Elizabeth – who would later redefine the world as it was known until then. Second, Henry VIII fully intended to make his own, we learn, what the Church owned in England. What happened next is known to everyone: Henry had his second wife executed on suspicion that she had been unfaithful and had committed incest. It was the end of Anne Boleyn. She was beheaded.

It would be simplistic in one paragraph to enumerate the circumstances that led Henry to break with the Catholic Church. Was he following a natural tendency or a sign of the times or was he just trying to cater to his own immediate necessities? More of a political than a theological dispute? For it is known that that Protestantism was a movement brought about by many factors, chief among those: the decline of feudalism, the rise of nationalism; the invention of the printing press and the increased circulation of the Bible and the propagation of knowledge in academic settings and in the upper echelons of society. The debate rages on among historians.

On to another marriage, Henry VIII weds another heiress, Jane Seymour, who would present him with a son, Edward VI, who was to have an untimely death at age sixteen. At this point, one would think that this is the Divine Hand at work – not to Henry however, who would marry three times more and in order of chronology: Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr – all of them childless.

At his death in January 28th 1547, Henry VIII had completely revolutionized the Church of England, had inherited an overflowing treasury from his father and bequeathed an empty one to his son (and daughter). The question where had all the money gone is apt: war, beside which “all other items of expenditure, his household – wives, ex-wives, mistresses, new palaces, trips to the continent among others, are of insignificant account” to quote more Bindoff. And still, “if only his wars weren’t wars of ambition and self-worth, there stood a chance that he might have profited from them”.

However dramatic and idiossyncratic Henry VIII’s existence may have been, English history would not be history and we get the feeling that his reign would get lost in the mists of time – for good or evil, his legacy made England what it is today. And if Henry VII was the rising, Elizabeth I the setting, Henry VIII was the midday sun.

Works cited:

Bishop, Morris. 1968. The Middle Ages. New York. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Bindoff, T.SA. 1963. Tudor England. Baltimore. Penquin Books.
And you guessed it right: Wikipedia


  1. Great piece Mauro. I love reading about the Tudor dynasty, which I picked up from my mom. She very much enjoyed that part of English history and had dozens of books on their family.

  2. Thanks, Kyle. I have noticed that the sources I have used are a bit old and may not be reflecting the latest academic findings. I've got to keep an eye out for updated biographies and/or contributions from other disciplines.