Who was Henry VIII? What did he think of his six wives?

King Henry VIII (1491-1547) by the studio of Hans Holbein the younger
King Henry VIII (1491-1547) by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger. Credit: National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

King Henry VIII staged six royal weddings, became Ireland’s first English monarch and sowed the seeds for a multicultural Britain. He reigned from 1509-1547

We all know King Henry VIII because of his six wives. Much of what occurred during the reign of this extravagant, desirous and insecure king came as a direct result of his nuptials. Henry received papal dispensation to marry his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, as she had previously been wedded to his brother, Arthur. A Spanish princess, Catherine was perhaps the king’s one true love, so the early years of his reign saw him lean on Thomas Wolsey to do much of the regal leg work for him, appointing him Lord Chancellor in the process. 

Portrait of Anne Boleyn c1534
Portrait of Anne Boleyn c1534. Credit: Egore/commonswiki

Britain’s second Tudor king was very active on the national and international stage. He invaded France during the first years of his reign. He then became Ireland’s first English monarch in 1542, and attempted alliances with Spain, Germany and Italy during the intervening years. 

One could even argue that the king sowed the seeds for a modern, multicultural Britain in his treatment of Protestants. Although in practice the Church of England remained Catholic, he is credited with initiating the English Reformation by challenging papal supremacy, curbing Catholic influences and even marrying the German Protestant Anne of Cleves.

The king of spin

But perhaps Henry VIII was just, as the National Archives suggest on their website, the “king of spin”. With many monarchs, we must rely on artistic renditions and self-serving written records for an account of their lives. More than almost any other king or queen, Henry VIII understood how his public profile could be used to create an impression of power and authority.

As the National Archives notes, “Written accounts reveal that the young Henry was bearded, tall and imposing, a physique probably inherited from his mother’s family… [Yet] by his mid-forties he had become so obese he had to be hoisted by crane onto his war horse, a far cry from his carefully constructed public image.”

His fondness for heraldry, pageantry and tournaments similarly acted as propaganda for the grandeur of his reign – as did the ceremony of staging six royal weddings. We can only speculate over how much the projection matches the reality. But Henry VIII’s legacy is rich and fascinating all the same.

Key dates 

  • 1516 – The appointment of a Master of Posts marks the founding of the Royal Mail, Britain’s postal service
  • 1542 – The Witchcraft Act makes it a crime punishable by death

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