12 Odd Details History Books Don't Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII

Natasha sheldon - November 29, 2017

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Henry VIII and his Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Google Images

Henry was a Master of Delegation

Henry may have been intelligent and accomplished. However, he found the business of ruling a bore. Instead, he preferred to decide the policy- and then leave it for others to implement, while he enjoyed himself with ‘gentlemanly pursuits’. To that end, the King chose those councilors who best supported his ambitions- rather than the good of his realm.

The first of those appointments was the former royal chaplain Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey had used his position to build up a collection of church and official posts, giving him a virtual monopoly on government. By 1515, he was so indispensable to the King that Henry elevated him to Lord Chancellor. Henry told Wolsey what he wanted- and Wolsey made it happen. And so the pattern was set for the more significant part of the King’s reign, In 1529, Thomas More took over from Wolsey, followed by Thomas Cromwell in 1534. After this, the Privy Council shared the responsibility of doing Henrys’ bidding.

Henry may have been setting policy. However, often the ‘best man for the job’ could affect policy itself. Thomas Cromwell may well have ended the problem of Henrys’ ‘Great Matter’ by providing him with the legal grounds for his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. However, in the course of this, he instigated the break from Rome by manipulating Henry’s belief in himself as Gods’ representative on earth. It was this manipulation which led to the Act of Restraint in Appeals in 1533, and Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church. It also led to the religious schism that divided the country for decades.

However, if a minister was unable to fulfill the King’s wishes, they would swiftly fall from grace- and find themselves without more than a job. Wolsey was unpopular with parliament long before Henry sacked him in 1529, stripping him of his assets. The Cardinal would probably have been executed for treason if he had not died of illness at Leicester Abbey in 1530. Thomas More lasted until May 1532 when he resigned over the Supremacy- and subsequently found himself executed for high treason.

Even Cromwell fell from grace over the King’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves. He was arrested and stripped of Office on June 10, 1540, and was beheaded on July 28 that year. Cromwell was the one Chancellor whose loss Henry admitted regretting. The French ambassador, in a letter written in July 1541 stated Henry was now lamenting putting to death “the most faithful servant he ever had.”

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Henry VIII and his Troops. Google Images

Henry Had Military Ambitions above his Ability

Henry VII, as part of his policy of a ‘strong and stable’ England, had tried to keep the costly business of warfare to a minimum. However, his son had his eye, not on peace but glory. Henry VIII wanted to be a warrior King in the mold of his namesake and predecessor Henry V and regain the English Crown’s lost French territories.

His chance came just two years after his ascension. The young King had already managed to jeopardize his father’s peace with France by signing a pact with Ferdinand of Aragon- Henry’s father in law and the French King Louis XII’s sworn enemy. However, the pope, Julius II was also distinctly anti-France and offered young Henry the chance to join his Holy League, regain some French land and cover himself in glory. Henry accepted. However, his military adventures did not allow him to shine in quite the way he planned.

Unlike Henry V, Henry VIII did not lead from the front. In fact, he very much stayed in the background. On June 30th, 1513, English troops finally invaded France after a lackluster start. The English won The Battle of the Spurs and followed this up by taking Tournai and Therouanne. Henry, however, could claim victory in name only. His advisers masterminded the military strategy- the same advisers who ‘persuaded’ the young King not to lead his troops in person.

Meanwhile, at home, Queen Katherine was doing somewhat better as a general. Surprised by an opportunistic Scottish invasion, the Queen Regent acted decisively, deploying troops led by the Earl of Surrey to deal with the incursion. English troops decisively trounced the Scots at the Battle of Flodden. As a victory, Katherine’s achievement exceeded those of her husband in France.

After twenty years of relative peace, the aging King was given a second chance at military might when Charles V tempted Henry into another invasion of France. Boulogne was retaken- but by Henry’s friend, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk- not Henry himself. The King was now so fat and infirm he could hardly walk let alone take to the field in battle. His last-ditch grab for glory only succeeded in provoking the French to attempt their unsuccessful invasion of England in 1545.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
The Great Harry- the flagship of Henry VIII’ Navy. Google Images.

Henry VIII Established the Royal Navy

One area where Henry’s military ambitions did work to the country’s advantage was his establishment of a permanent English navy- an achievement that was undoubtedly one of Henry’s most positive. The English Navy on his ascension to the throne was practically none existence. It consisted just five ships, more fitting for the trade expeditions that Henry VII utilized them for than warfare at sea.

Henry set to work immediately at increasing his navy. He had to. War with France was looming. So Henry began by buying up second hand Italian and Hanseatic warships and by 1512 had a fleet of sufficient size to send to France under Sir Edmund Howard.

As his reign progressed and the King alienated more and more European powers with his foreign and religious policies, he recognized the importance of protection at sea. So it was essential he create a formidable navy. Henry set up dockyards for the construction of his ships along the River Thames at Deptford and Woolwich. These areas had the advantage of being close to the woodlands of Kent and Sussex, which supplied the timber for their construction. Henrys’ ships were up to the minute. They were sturdy enough to accommodate the new style canons used in sea battles but remained nimble enough to maneuver in the water. Existing ships were refitted rather than scrapped, allowing them to accommodate the modern innovations. One such ship was the Mary Rose.

The navy was also designed to be permanently in operation. Even in peacetime, thirty ships were to remain in use. So Henry set up a permanent administrative structure for the navy and a navy board. For the first time, schools were established for officers. The navy became professional. To that end, Henry established its headquarters and the first navel dockyards at Portsmouth.

Henry’s navy had their most significant test in 1545, when, outnumbered by the French invasion force, they did battle under the command of Lord Lisle in the waters around Portsmouth. The campaign, which saw the Mary Rose lost at the Battle of the Solent, was hard won. However, by the time Henry died in 1547, his fleet still numbered between 40 and fifty ships- a tenfold increase from the start of his reign. Henrys’ navy laid the foundations for bigger and better things, and honestly earned the King the title “Father of the English Navy.”

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Pope Leo X. Google Images

The Defender of the Faith

The navy aside, Henry’s military achievements may have been somewhat lackluster. However, he was a staunch champion of the Catholic church- until it disappointed him over the matter of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The early sixteenth century was a time of growing religious dissent with an ever-increasing number of religious dissidents questioning the ideals of the Catholic Church. Between 1519-20, the former Augustan friar Martin Luther had written a series of pamphlets attacking the central tenets of the Catholic Church. In 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther, who had become increasingly disillusioned with the church due to its habit of selling indulgences to mitigate sin. However, the rise of the printing press, Luther’s writings spread throughout Europe at an alarming rate.

Henry, outraged by Luther’s heretical arguments was quick to jump to the Churchs’ defense. In 1519, he began to write “Assertio Septem Sacramentorum” or the “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” His earliest draft of the manuscript principally concentrated on destroying Luther’s arguments about indulgences, but as the reforming ex-monk continued to release more writing, the scope of Henry’s work increased. By the time the king published in 1521, the book not only defended the validity of the Catholic religion but also, (somewhat ironically given future events), affirmed the Supremacy of the pope. Henry dedicated the work to Pope Leo X who in turn conferred upon the King the title “Defender of the Faith.”

After his break with Rome, and a year after the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry sought to clarify and justify his position on religion in “Institutions of a Christian Man.” This work echoed the religious orthodoxy of his previous work- with one exception: the matter of the supremacy of the pope. However, the King, who was by this time himself excommunicated, remained a Catholic at heart until his death. He never renounced the title ‘Defender of the Faith” despite the fact it was bestowed upon him by a figure whose authority he now denied. It is a title that has been handed down to all subsequent English monarchs.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
An English Testoon. Google Images

Henry Practically Bankrupted England

Henry VIII inherited a country whose economy was sound. However, that quickly changed as Henry’s fiscal policy was- once again- the exact opposite of his fathers’. While Henry VII had been practically parsimonious with money, his son was a spendthrift. Henry’s tutor John Skelton had advised his pupil to be “bountiful, liberal and lavish.” Henry took Skelton at his word, spending freely without much thought of from where the money would come.

The King’s spendthrift habits were the reason why, after his early victories in France, Henry had to pull out of the wars of the Holy League: because he could not afford the costs. War, however, was not the only place the King lavished the cash. As well as commenting on the physical splendor of his body, foreign diplomats also remarked upon the jewels and gorgeous clothing the King wore. Henrys’ love at opulence did not stop at himself. He loved to build, with his lavish palace of Nonesuch in Surrey ‘the highest point of ostentation.”

All of this expenditure needed finance. While Henry could spend money, he was not very adept at generating it. Ironically, to pay for his wars with France, Henry had raised taxation- just scant years after dismantling his father’s unpopular tax system. When Henry wanted to return to war in 1525, Cardinal Wolsey came up with “The Amicable Grant”; a forced loan levied on between one-sixth and one-tenth of the goods of the laity and one third on that of the clergy. Unratified by parliament, it was profoundly unpopular, and after some passive resistance, which threatened to become more violent, Henry and the Cardinal abolished it.

Matters became worse during the last years of Henrys’ reign when the King’s overspending led to “The Great Debasement.” The amount of gold and silver in coins was reduced and replaced partially or wholly with copper, thereby reducing the real value of money and pushing up prices. In 1542, the mint introduced the English shilling or Testoon, a copper coin covered with a thin veneer of silver to imitate the old silver shilling. This veneer quickly wore off to reveal the copper beneath, earning Henry the nickname “copper nose.” Unlike Henry VII, Henry VIII bequeathed to his son, Edward, a country that, if not bankrupt, was in a dire financial state.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
A monastery being ‘dissolved’ and its goods confiscated by the Kings’ commissionaires. Google images.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was about Money – Not Religion

Despite following hot on the heels of Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome and declare himself Head of the Church of England, the dissolution of the monasteries was not about religion but money. There was, in fact, little or no opposition to the Dissolution with those affected. Most ex-nuns and monks took their pensions and melted away into Tudor society quietly- whatever their personal views. Those who lost their lives were executed for denying Henry’s new ecclesiastical authority- not because the King was bringing down the holy houses of England and Wales.

The richness of England’s Church was noteworthy. At the beginning of Henrys’ reign, one foreign diplomat observed that: “There is not a parish church in the kingdom so mean that it has not crucifixes, candlesticks, censers, patens, and cups of silver.” This ecclesiastical wealth must have become a provoking temptation to a King quickly running through his treasury. As early as 1525, Cardinal Wolsey began to look for ways to make money from the monasteries. He started by suppressing all of those with less than seven inmates. However, it was under Wolsey’s protégé, Thomas Cromwell that asset stripping the church would become a full-blown policy.

In 1530, Thomas Cromwell took over as chancellor. Having promised to make Henry “the richest king that ever was in England, in 1535, the new chancellor ordered the Valor Ecclesiasticus, an extensive evaluation of the Church in England’s assets. The reports of his commissioners, showed- as was expected- that the monasteries had become lax and wasteful. But the Valor also showed that church lands alone were worth £120,000 a year- around £36 million pounds today. Henry was now the supreme head of the church in England. Those properties were his- and he had every right to claim them back if the church mismanaged them.

Parliment passed an act which initially suppressed all monasteries with a revenue of under £200 a year. In 1536, it went further, and now all monastic houses were required to submit, and their inhabitants quit. These lands and assets immediately doubled the royal coffers. Henry also made a further profit by selling land onto interested nobles and gentlemen. In four years all of the 500 religious houses in England had been abolished and their assets seized by the crown.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Giving Alms to a Beggar. Google Images.

Henry’s Reign led to Massive Social Change

One consequence of Henry VIII reign was the opportunity for greater social mobility amongst those with the money and scruples to take advantage of the changing times. This was epitomized by Henry’s own councilors. Cardinal Wolsey was the son of a butcher, and Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith and brewer and Sir Richard Rich the son of a merchant. All rose socially because of their service to the King and in the case of Cromwell and Rich, established their families as part of the aristocracy

However, this social mobility extended beyond the King’s court. In all, during Henry’s reign, around a fifth of England’s’ overall wealth was redistributed with the dissolution of the monasteries. Some former monastic property was awarded to men who had been of service to the King or whose support he valued. Others, however, were sold off to the middling classes: lawyers, merchants, and doctors. These people who had money but no established pedigree. Now, they were able to establish their families as part of the landed gentry.

Others, however, suffered when the monasteries closed. These were the ordinary people, who had relied upon the monks and nuns for employment, medical care and social aid. Many tenant farmers found themselves turned off their lands when the new owners decided to turn small-scale farms over to the larges scale, highly profitable sheep farming.

While former nuns and priests were awarded a pension- if they had participated in the voluntary surrender of their monastery-their lay servants were left with no recompense. Left without employment or a roof over their head, these ex-monastic employees joined the rest of the displaced rural population heading for a new life in the towns.

Slum housing in England’s towns increased to house the lucky few that could afford a roof over their heads. However, the old, sick or unskilled found themselves lost in the ever-swelling begging communities. Their situation was made worse because the limited medical and social care offered by the monasteries had not been replaced. Vagrancy became such a problem that in 1545, many of London’s homeless were forcibly conscripted onto the ships of Henry VIII’s navy, effectively as galley slaves.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
The Execution of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. Google Images.

Henry Executed his Rivals to the Throne

As his reign progressed, Henry VIII developed a tendency to execute any distant Plantagenet relatives who were potential rivals for the throne. The reason for this paranoia was complicated, but at its heart lay the newness of the Tudor dynasty.

All claims to the throne were based on descent from Edward III, the last monarch to predate the War of the Roses. Henry’s strongest claim to the throne lay through his mother, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. His father, Henry Tudor, could only claim a few drops of Edward IIIs’ blood through his mother, Margaret Beaufort who was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, one of Edward IIIs’ younger sons.

However, even Henry’s claim through his mother was awkward. Richard III had declared all of Edward IV’s children with Queen Elizabeth Woodville illegitimate because of Edwards pre-contract of marriage with another woman. It had taken an act of parliament to re-legitimize Elizabeth. Then there was the question of Edward IV’s legitimacy as there was a scurrilous rumor that he was not the son of Richard, Duke of York.

At first, none of this worried Henry too much. The Tudors had given England peace- and the people loved their young King. In the first twenty years of his reign, Henry only executed two of his Plantagenet relatives- and both for proven acts of treason. In 1513, Edmund de la Pole, third duke of Suffolk (and Henry’s cousin on his mother’s side) was beheaded for attempting to enlist foreign support to take the crown. This execution was followed by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a direct descendant of Edward III who was executed for “imagining the death of the king’ by consulting fortunetellers.

However, after the break with Rome, Henry was well aware that there was a growing faction who wanted to return to the Pope and that required another monarch. In 1539, he executed his first cousin Henry Courtney, marquis of Exeter. That then left the most severe Plantagenet threat: the family of the Countess of Salisbury.

Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, was the daughter Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Clarence. Her son, Reginald, Cardinal Pole, was in exile over the split with Rome. However, her other son, Henry remained in England, with a growing family of potential royal replacements. So the Poles had to go. Henry was beheaded in 1540. Even Thomas Cromwell admitted that he ‘little offended save that he is of their kin.” His 67-year-old mother quickly followed, while her grandson, young Henry was kept imprisoned in the tower until he died in 1542.

12 Odd Details History Books Don’t Tell You about the Life and Reign of the Infamous Henry VIII
Henry VIII as an older man..Google Images.

His Love of Sports Destroyed Henry’s Health

Henry VIII started his reign as a handsome, athletic Prince. By the time of his premature death at 55, the King was grossly overweight, plagued with gout and ulcers and unable to walk very far, let alone dance, hunt or enjoy any of the ‘Pastymes’ he held so dear. So how had this fit, healthy, active monarch come to such an end?

In fact, the pastimes Henry loved destroyed him. His first serious accident was in 1524 during a joust. The King failed to lower his visor and was hit by his opponent’s lance just above his right eye. From then onwards, he suffered from regular migraines.

By the age of 36, the King was beginning to suffer from varicose ulcers, probably caused by the tight garters he used to accentuate the calves he was so proud of. But the final blow came in 1536 when the 44-year-old king took part in a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace. The king, clad in full armor was thrown from his similarly armored horse-which then fell on top of the monarch. Henry lay unconscious for two hours and for a time was not expected to live, causing his wife Ann Boleyn to miscarry the male heir she was carrying.

However, Henry regained consciousness and recovered. However, he was never the same again. The most immediate effect of the accident was to prevent the king from jousting anymore. However, the accident made Henrys’ other health problems worse- and brought issues of its own. The King’s mobility began to decline due to his injuries and the ulcers, which became progressively worse, causing his legs to swell and leak a smelly discharge.

A side effect of all this was Henry also began to gain weight. Henry’s declining mobility could not have helped but nor did his diet. Henry ate an estimated thirteen dishes a day, consisting mostly of meat and game. He topped this off with a daily ten pints of beer (water was considered unsafe) and plenty of wine. So it is little wonder the Kings measurements changed drastically. Changes to the King’s armor between his 20s and his 50s show that Henry’s waist expanded by 20 inches- with 17 inches of that within just four years. His 29-inch chest grew to 53 inches, and by the time of his death in 1547, he is estimated to have weighed 28 stone.