Born in 1491, Henry was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. After his older brother, Arthur died, Henry became the next in line to the throne. With little of the training in kingship that Arthur had likely received, Henry was unexpectedly thrown into the role of king at the age of 17.
The Inheritance of the Throne
Not only did Henry inherit the throne but he also ended up marrying his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, the youngest child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. When the idea was first put forward when he was a prince, Henry rejected the idea but, when he became king, he cast his reservations aside and declared that he would go through with the marriage as it was his father's dying wish. He married the Spanish princess in 1509, just a few days before his coronation.
And so began one of the most famous tales in English history: that of King Henry VIII's six unfortunate wives.
The Many Wives of King Henry VIII
The importance of having a legitimate male heir to the throne must have been impressed on Henry quite early on in his life. With their claim to the throne being rather weak, his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, were very careful to ensure they had a strong heir to continue the fledgeling Tudor dynasty. It's no surprise that Henry VIII wanted to do the same. He was all too aware there'd be chaos if the succession wasn't clear after his death.
For that reason, Henry was desperate for a son. Though he and Catherine had a daughter called Mary, it became less and less likely as the years went on that Henry's dream of having a son was going to be a realised – at least with Catherine.
After 20 years with Catherine, Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn, the ambitious and charismatic sister of one of the king's mistresses. Anne refused to be the king's mistress herself and instead wanted to be his Queen, so Henry set out to divorce Catherine. He appealed to Rome to annul his marriage with Catherine but to no avail. Determined to have his wish granted, the king ended up separating the English church from Rome in order to secure himself a divorce.
He soon got his wish and married Anne. Their marriage only lasted three short years, however. Again, Henry's new wife gave him a daughter rather than the son he so desperately wanted, and Anne was allegedly unfaithful. In 1536, Anne delivered a stillborn son and Henry turned his affections to someone new. This time, it was Jane Seymour that caught his eye. Before he could marry Jane, Henry had Anne beheaded, accusing her of treason and incest.
Much to Henry's delight, Jane gave birth to a son named Edward. Less happily, however, Jane passed away just 12 days after having Edward.
Next up was Anne of Cleaves. Thomas Cromwell, the king's chief advisor, arranged the marriage for political reasons but when Henry saw Anne for the first time he was appalled by her looks. He reluctantly proceeded anyway but the marriage, of course, didn't last too long and the couple ended up divorcing.
By this time, Henry had fallen in love with Catherine Howard, who was soon to be his fifth wife. They enjoyed more than a year of happy marriage before he beheaded her for adultery.
The king's sixth and final wife was Catherine Parr. Already twice a widow, Catherine was only 31 and both attractive and intelligent. Luckily for Catherine, she survived – who knows how much longer she would have lasted if Henry hadn't died first.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries
Though it's unsurprisingly what he's most remembered for, Henry VIII's reign was marked by more than his many wives and their unfortunate ends. The king made huge social and religious changes in England, most notably his separation of the English church from Rome.
As eager as he was for a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, he broke with the Pope, who refused to grant the divorce, and established the Church of England. From then on, he was determined to destroy catholicism in England and dissolved the 823 abbeys and monasteries.
As well as hugely increasing his wealth, this move brought suffering to many as the monasteries had been a great help to England's needy. In fact, 400 years later, the dissolution of the monasteries led to the beginnings of the welfare state in England.
The Legacy of Henry VIII
Henry's reign wasn't all bad. In fact, at the start of his reign, the well-read and highly educated king was rather popular. He was incredibly charismatic and attractive, at least during his younger years.
Thought by some to be the start of the Royal Navy, Henry greatly strengthened the English navy, increasing its size from five ships to 53, including the famous Mary Rose. He also had Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey completed, added to Hampton Court Palace and finished the interior of Henry VI's stunning King's College chapel and founded Trinity College in Cambridge.
Henry's Journey to Tyranny
There's no doubt that Henry was initially loved. He came to the throne as a talented and attractive young man, but his reign saw him edge further and further to the side of tyranny.
No opposition to the king survived Henry's wrath. In fact, he's remembered as having blood-soaked hands, a souvenir from all those he'd killed. Throughout his reign, he had at least 50 people who displeased him executed. No one was safe – not even his wives nor his closest advisors.
By the time he died in 1457, he'd become nothing short of a brutal megalomaniac. With the lavish court he kept and his fruitless wars, he also died having rinsed England of its money.
His sudden death at the age of 55 left his the throne to his son, Edward VI, who was just nine years old.