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Henry VIII in United Kingdom

Henry VIII (1491-1547), king of England and Ireland, the third child and second son of Henry VII. and Elizabeth of York, was born on the 28th of June 1491 and, like all the Tudor sovereigns except Henry VII., at Greenwich.

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The secular importance of Henry’s activity has been somewhat obscured by his achievements in the sphere of ecclesiastical politics; but no small part of his energies was devoted to the task of expanding the royal authority at the expense of temporal competitors. Feudalism was not yet dead, and in the north and west there were medieval franchises in which the royal writ and common law hardly ran at all. Wales and its marches were brought into legal union with the rest of England by the statutes of Wales (1534-1536); and after the Pilgrimage of Grace the Council of the North was set up to bring into subjection the extensive jurisdictions of the northern earls.

Neither they nor the lesser chiefs who flourished on the lack of common law and order could be reduced by ordinary methods, and the Councils of Wales and of the North were given summary powers derived from the Roman civil law similar to those exercised by the Star Chamber at Westminster and the court of Castle Chamber at Dublin. Ireland had been left by Wolsey to wallow in its own disorder; but disorder was anathema to Henry’s mind, and in 1535 Sir William Skeffington was sent to apply English methods and artillery to the government of Ireland. Sir Anthony St Leger continued his policy from 1540; Henry, instead of being merely lord of Ireland dependent on the pope, was made by an Irish act of parliament king, and supreme head of the Irish church. Conciliation was also tried with some success; plantation schemes were rejected in favour of an attempt to Anglicize the Irish; their chieftains were created earls and endowed with monastic lands; and so peaceful was Ireland in 1542 that the lord-deputy could send Irish kernes and gallowglasses to fight against the Scots.

Henry, however, seems to have believed as much in the coercion of Scotland as in the conciliation of Ireland. Margaret Tudor’s marriage had not reconciled the realms; and as soon as James V. became a possible pawn in the hands of Charles V., Henry bethought himself of his old claims to suzerainty over Scotland. At first he was willing to subordinate them to an attempt to win over Scotland to his anti-papal policy, and he made various efforts to bring about an interview with his nephew. But James V. was held aloof by Beaton and two French marriages; and France was alarmed by Henry’s growing friendliness with Charles V., who was mollified by his cousin Mary’s restoration to her place in the succession to the throne.

In 1542 James madly sent a Scottish army to ruin at Solway Moss; his death a few weeks later left the Scottish throne to his infant daughter Mary Stuart, and Henry set to work to secure her hand for his son Edward and the recognition of his own suzerainty. A treaty was signed with the Scottish estates; but it was torn up a few months later under the influence of Beaton and the queen-dowager Mary of Guise, and Hertford was sent in 1544 to punish this breach of promise by sacking Edinburgh.

Perhaps to prevent French intervention in Scotland Henry joined Charles V. in invading France, and captured Boulogne (Sept. 1544). But Charles left his ally in the lurch and concluded the peace of Crépy that same month; and in 1545 Henry had to face alone a French invasion of the Isle of Wight. This attack proved abortive, and peace between England and France was made in 1546. Charles V.’s desertion inclined Henry to listen to the proposals of the threatened Lutheran princes, and the last two years of his reign were marked by a renewed tendency to advance in a Protestant direction. Catherine Howard had been brought to the block (1542) on charges in which there was probably a good deal of truth, and her successor, Catherine Parr, was a patroness of the new learning.

An act of 1545 dissolved chantries, colleges and other religious foundations; and in the autumn of 1546 the Spanish ambassador was anticipating further anti-ecclesiastical measures. Gardiner had almost been sent to the Tower, and Norfolk and Surrey were condemned to death, while Cranmer asserted that it was Henry’s intention to convert the mass into a communion service. An opportunist to the last, he would readily have sacrificed any theological convictions he may have had in the interests of national uniformity. He died on the 28th of January 1547, and was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

The atrocity of many of Henry’s acts, the novelty and success of his religious policy, the apparent despotism of his methods, or all combined, have made it difficult to estimate calmly the importance of Henry’s work or the conditions which made it possible. Henry’s egotism was profound, and personal motives underlay his public action. While political and ecclesiastical conditions made the breach with Rome possible—and in the view of most Englishmen desirable—Henry VIII. was led to adopt the policy by private considerations. He worked for the good of the state because he thought his interests were bound up with those of the nation; and it was the real coincidence of this private and public point of view that made it possible for so selfish a man to achieve so much for his country. The royal supremacy over the church and the means by which it was enforced were harsh and violent expedients; but it was of the highest importance that England should be saved from religious civil war, and it could only be saved by a despotic government.

It was necessary for the future development of England that its governmental system should be centralized and unified, that the authority of the monarchy should be more firmly extended over Wales and the western and northern borders, and that the still existing feudal franchises should be crushed; and these objects were worth the price paid in the methods of the Star Chamber and of the Councils of the North and of Wales. Henry’s work on the navy requires no apology; without it Elizabeth’s victory over the Spanish Armada, the liberation of the Netherlands and the development of English colonies would have been impossible; and “of all others the year 1545 best marks the birth of the English naval power” (Corbett, Drake, i. 59). His judgment was more at fault when he conquered Boulogne and sought by violence to bring Scotland into union with England. But at least Henry appreciated the necessity of union within the British Isles; and his work in Ireland relaid the foundations of English rule. No less important was his development of the parliamentary system.

Representation was extended to Wales, Cheshire, Berwick and Calais; and parliamentary authority was enhanced, largely that it might deal with the church, until men began to complain of this new parliamentary infallibility. The privileges of the two Houses were encouraged and expanded, and parliament was led to exercise ever wider powers. This policy was not due to any belief on Henry’s part in parliamentary government, but to opportunism, to the circumstance that parliament was willing to do most of the things which Henry desired, while competing authorities, the church and the old nobility, were not. Nevertheless, to the encouragement given by Henry VIII. parliament owed not a little of its future growth, and to the aid rendered by parliament Henry owed his success.

He has been described as a “despot under the forms of law”; and it is apparently true that he committed no illegal act. His despotism consists not in any attempt to rule unconstitutionally, but in the extraordinary degree to which he was able to use constitutional means in the furtherance of his own personal ends. His industry, his remarkable political insight, his lack of scruple, and his combined strength of will and subtlety of intellect enabled him to utilize all the forces which tended at that time towards strong government throughout western Europe.

In Michelet’s words, “le nouveau Messie est le roi”; and the monarchy alone seemed capable of guiding the state through the social and political anarchy which threatened all nations in their transition from medieval to modern organization. The king was the emblem, the focus and the bond of national unity; and to preserve it men were ready to put up with vagaries which to other ages seem intolerable. Henry could thus behead ministers and divorce wives with comparative impunity, because the individual appeared to be of little importance compared with the state. This impunity provoked a licence which is responsible for the unlovely features of Henry’s reign and character. The elevation and the isolation of his position fostered a detachment from ordinary virtues and compassion, 290 and he was a remorseless incarnation of Machiavelli’s Prince. He had an elastic conscience which was always at the beck and call of his desire, and he cared little for principle. But he had a passion for efficiency, and for the greatness of England and himself. His mind, in spite of its clinging to the outward forms of the old faith, was intensely secular; and he was as devoid of a moral sense as he was of a genuine religious temperament. His greatness consists in his practical aptitude, in his political perception, and in the self-restraint which enabled him to confine within limits tolerable to his people an insatiable appetite for power.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)


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  • Article Name: Henry VIII
  • Author: International
  • Description: Henry VIII (1491-1547), king of England and Ireland, the third child and second son of Henry VII. and Elizabeth of York, [...]

This entry was last updated: October 21, 2016

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