Henry VII And His Children


Before Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) defiance of the Pope, there had been an incident between King and Pope that became well known in Europe: Heinrich IV, Emperor of Germany, met his match with Pope Gregory VIII in an incident later called The Canossa Submission.

The German king surrounded by vacillating princes decided in 1075 to name his own bishops rather than submit to the pope’s authority. In reaction, Pope Gregory VIII ruled in 1075: “We decree that no one of the clergy shall receive investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or any lay person…but if he shall presume to do so…he himself shall lie under excommunication.”

Should secular rulers have the power to appoint bishops of the church? The events at Canossa in 1077 reaffirmed the supremacy of the church over emperors and kings until the Reformation of the 16th Century led by Martin Luther.

Heinrich IV, king of Germany was determined to have his own way by investing his own bishops. The pope refused to give him his absolution unless he rescinded the nomination of his bishops. Insulted by the Pope’s arrogance, Heinrich sent the Pope the following letter: “…because of the confusion you have wrought…I Henry, King by the grace of God together with all our bishops, say to you: Descend! Descend!” (Heinrich letter to Gregory in 1076) i  At the Council [Synod] of Worms in 1076 the Emperor and his bishops publicly called for Pope Gregory to be deposed from his office. Their attempt was unsuccessful: in retaliation, Gregory excommunicated Henry from the church and stripped him of his kingship. The emperor’s supporters quickly folded under the threat of excommunication.

When Heinrich realized he was totally isolated, he had no other choice but to humbly apologize to Gregory in order to regain his throne. So Heinrich came from Germany to the fortress of Canossa in northern Italy where the Pope was staying. “There on three successive days standing before the castle gate, laying aside all royal insignia, barefooted and in coarse attire, he ceased not with many tears to beseech the apostolic help and comfort…At last overcome by his persistent show of penitence, we released him from the bonds of anathema and received him into the grace of Holy Mother Church… (Pope Gregory VIII letter to the German Princes 1077, p.79) The events that occurred at Canossa showed that for the first time since Theodosius, the church was able to demonstrate that its authority extended as far as deposing emperors. This event was surely known to Henry VIII and his advisors in 1535.


It is important to remember England’s early history. Christianity came early (circa 300 AD) to Britain, a Roman colony, as it did throughout the Roman Empire.

When William the Conqueror invaded the island from Normandy to land near Hasting he was only the second successful invader after Caesar in a thousand years… he would also be the last. Once William and his French Norman companions had vanquished King Harold at Hastings, William walked with his army to London where the authorities had already pledged their loyalty to him. William, a very proud Christian leader, found a well-organized church with bishops named by Rome and numerous churches and parishes already well established. There was an active communication between William and the Pope, asking for his blessing after his conquest of England. ii

The new regime took two generations to establish itself in the face of periodic revolts organized by the former Anglo-Saxon elite. At least two invasions from the Vikings of Denmark were repelled by the Norman English army and after William’s death, pacification continued with his sons and grandsons.

At his death, his wife Matilda continued the tradition of founding monasteries and convents to earn points in the afterlife as was the custom in Normandy and in France. So when a Norman potentate wanted to do a deed to save his soul, he would fund the building of a church or the creation of a new monastery including the recruiting of an abbot and the necessary monks. Pretty soon the English countryside was dotted with numerous monasteries, abbeys and priories just as in France and in Normandy. Of course all these Catholic institutions required a great deal of manpower, monks, nuns, priests and of course many bishops always named by the pope in Rome. Close to 10% of the population was engaged in church and monastery activities, which was a drain on the economy as this section of the population did not actively work in a productive fashion. In 1535 the Church owned one-third of all land and, to add salt to the wound, a sizable portion of church revenues went directly to Rome.


England & Wales                                         France

In 1500

2.1 million                                                   15 to 18 million

In 1600

4.4 million                                                   20 million

In 1700

5 million                                                      21 million

Source: Tacitus.N.U.

How could a country with less than one fifth of France’s population come to dominate the world and create a global empire?

 Our thesis is that Henry VIII’s sexual appetite

forced him to get rid of Rome and allowed him to follow policies that made England the most powerful nation on earth until the U.S. came along after 1914.

Early in his reign Henry was as intellectual as he was physical. He liked to participate in theological debate and often he would write notes on the margin of church sermons that he attended. After his marriage to Catherine of Aragon – more a political marriage than a love match – Henry, only seventeen, was eager for a male heir; he was disappointed by the birth of daughter Mary but kept hoping for a male heir.


Here we must go back in time to explain why England allowed a Queen to rule although a King was preferred while France did not allow women to reign. This was the root cause of the 100 Years Wars which started around 1325. Philippe le Bel, King of France also known as Philippe

IV died without a male heir. At that point, Isabelle de France -who was married to Edward II the King of England -  claimed the French throne for herself as daughter of King Philippe and granddaughter of Saint Louis, King of France. After numerous discussions between the French legal team and its counterpart in England, the English side was winning the legal debate which forced the French to find a way out of their dilemma. Nobody in France wanted a French Queen living in England and married to the English king. So some clever French jurists dusted off an old 5th Century Frankish rule, called the Salic Law, which prevented women from acceding to the French throne.iii

The English left the negotiations in a huff and England declared war.  This cruel war, which lasted 125 years, decimated French nobility whose armored knights were defeated twice, 70 years apart, at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and then at the final crushing defeat at Agincourt in 1415 celebrated by Shakespeare. It was long-bows against heavily armored French knights and the countless arrows launched by the English won the day both times while the huge French horses tumbled and collapsed in the mud of the battlefield rendering the armored knights defenseless.

Finally, inspired by the great heroine Joan of Arc, France expelled in 1453 all the English troops except those at Calais which stayed under English control until 1558.

This is why, starting with Edward III and continuing with Henry VIII, the English kings and queens always claimed France as their rightful heritage and this claim was upheld until 1802 when France became a republic.

So Henry VIII’s daughters could be queens, but it was preferable to have a male king.


A few years after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1509 and the birth of the future Queen Mary, Henry’s roving eye found a young beauty in his court named Ann Boleyn. He wanted to marry her for love, but especially to have a son as his present wife was beyond childbearing age. He therefore asked Cardinal Wolsey to negotiate in Rome for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine.

In those days (1529) a request for an annulment from a very Catholic King of England should have been fairly simple, as the legal pretext was that Catherine had been his late brother’s wife, a state of affair banned by the bible (Leviticus 20, 20-21). For Henry’s marriage to Catherine an exemption had been granted by the previous Pope, Julius II, so an annulment by the new Pope Clement VII should have been fairly routine.

Catherine, however was very religious and despite living apart from Henry wanted none of it and pleaded with her nephew Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, to use his influence over Pope Clement VII to stop Henry from divorcing her.

Eventually, the king of Spain’s influence over the Pope forced the latter to reaffirm in 1534, the validity of the marriage between Catherine and Henry and therefore his refusal to grant an annulment.

A solution to the stand-off was found after six years of waiting for Henry. Catherine would retire willingly to a convent and “be dead to the world” which would allow the Pope to finally grant an annulment, but Catherine refused this last solution.

Henry’s efforts to convince the Pope came to an end. At this point Henry VIII was living openly with Ann Boleyn who was already pregnant, so he absolutely wanted to marry her. Otherwise, she would give birth to a bastard!


The refusal from Rome triggered a huge change in Henry's attitude. While remaining a Catholic, he decided to eliminate the pope as head of the Church of England; Parliament became involved and Henry VIII became both king and supreme head of the Church of England on January 15th 1535.

A last effort was attempted to mollify the pope and Ann Boleyn’s father Lord Pembroke was sent to Rome to plead for Henry. The proud Englishman must have remembered Canossa because he refused to kiss the Pope’s feet so “delicately offered to him”, but he must have rued the day when his daughter was later decapitated. There would be no Canossa and despite the papal excommunication, Henry VIII stood firm. He would be pope and king.

Of course this created turmoil among the more conservative segment of the population, including some well-known personalities like Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor who, faithful to the Pope to the end, was beheaded in 1532 after his conviction for “perjured testimony”. A new doctrine was established: absolute loyalty to the King; if not it was treason including the grievous insult of disagreeing with his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to the young Ann Boleyn. So heads started to roll in the true sense of the word and the Tower of London was full of dissidents and conscientious objectors waiting for their sentencing which was most often the death penalty. These dissidents were called “Papists” a term of contempt that would endure for centuries.

Contrary to another absolute King, Louis XIV of France, a century later, Henry VIII always worked through Parliament and the House of Lords. He was a tyrant who went through the motions of proposing laws to the Commons and convincing the House of Lords of his point of view. “Henry VIII wanted a purified Catholic church, a national church under his sovereignty”.iv  In truth he had blood-soaked hands when it came to two of his six wives or those ministers who disagreed with him. He was a true despot, ridding himself of unwanted wives and ministers in the most bloody and cruel fashion, but he set England free from the shackles of Rome. Since the signing in 1215 of the Magna Carta that imposed limits on the King’s power by law,

English kings could not punish a freeman except through the law of the land or common law.v So Henry VIII could not behead an English subject without due process, unlike French kings who could issue a “lettre de cachet” against a citizen who would not be seen again. “Unlike in England, the “lettre de cachet” was an expression of the exercise of justice that a French king reserved for himself independently of the law courts and their processes just as the king reserved the right to grant “lettres de graces” to persons who had been convicted by the courts.” vi Henry VIII was a true “Barbe bleue” as Charles Perrault of children tale fame would have said. But overall, compared to the number of people killed by Louis XIV’s wars and famine, Henry VIII was relatively spare in his executions. Approximately 330 persons were executed during the turmoil of 1530-1540.

Henry waged war twice against a Catholic Scotland because England had been attacked, and from his English base in Calais he also had a skirmish with François I of France which won him Boulogne.


A wind of change was blowing across the land and the old scholastic approach to obedience and piety was being replaced by the more humanistic approach taught by Erasmus the famous Dutch philosopher who had been invited to teach at Oxford. Moreover, the influence of Luther was starting to be felt across the religious establishment and soon there were debates about the dogma of transubstantiation and the virginity of Mary. The proliferation of monasteries harboring thousands of “idle” monks was also criticized. For Henry they were wasteful and an affront to the Crown.

In 1538, emboldened by having crushed a rebellion by monks in 1538, Henry and his chief advisor Thomas Cromwell (Oliver Cromwell’s father) decided to widen the policy of suppression.

In the first eight months of 1538, thirty-eight monasteries were appropriated by the Crown. Within three years, the monasteries, the friaries, the priories and the nunneries were gone. We estimate that close to 25,000 former clerics, nuns and monks had to find work and occupation in this strange new world.

It was argued that the dissolution of the monasteries was for the higher good of the nation. At the time it was believed that the clergy owned one third of the land; the dissolution was of immense benefit to the Crown and represented the largest transfer of land since the Norman Conquest. vii Free from Rome’s interference, England became the shopkeeper of Europe and her ships were everywhere. Production of pig iron and cloth went up by 30% between 1535 and 1540 and the population despite periodic bad harvests was relatively well fed in contrast to the rest of Europe. In the summer of 1537 more measures against the old superstition were taken: the cult statue of Our Lady of Worcester was stripped to reveal that it was a doll-like effigy of an earlier bishop. It was soon decreed that there must be no more “kissing or liking” of holy images.

After Henry's death in 1547, his son Edward VI (1537-1553), born from his marriage to Jane Seymour, was crowned (at the age of nine).

An Act of Parliament banned the old religious services' English replaced  Latin  in religious services and Mass was no longer performed. Lending strength and unity to the English Church, The Book of Common Prayer, still in use today, was introduced. In 1547, Archbishop Thomas Crammer rejected the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

All these changes represented the definitive rupture with medieval Catholicism. As a result, the new place of the English language which had displaced Latin in religious services encouraged the growth of literacy among the population. Between 1550 and 1570, eighty-nine school foundations were established thus fostering the advancement of education.

Any minister who refused to use the new book was deprived of his position and imprisoned for six months; on his third offense he could be consigned to life imprisonment.

In July 1549, riots broke out in Clyst Heat to protest the new measures; troops were sent to quell the revolt and a “Mass” priest was hanged from the steeple of the Church of St-Thomas wearing his liturgical vestments. In fact the denial of transubstantiation effectively destroyed Mass.viii  Bishops were no longer to be seen as successors of the apostles but as government officials.

Edward VI became the first anointed English king to enjoy the title of supreme head of the English Church.


"Bloody Mary"

Upon Edward VI's death at the age of sixteen, his council drew up a “Device for Succession” attempting to prevent the country from returning to Roman Catholicism. Edward had named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey as his heir and excluded his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth.  Jane Grey became Queen but was deposed within thirteen days, tried for treason and later beheaded.  Eventually Mary {1516-1558} won the political contest and became Queen of England as Mary I.

So the traditional Catholic supporters got their Queen and soon a reversal of 40 years of reform was initiated by her. While her father Henry VIII had cut off heads, Mary used a different method. Close to 300 religious dissenters were burned at the stake including prominent bishops and officials. (Fortunately, for the sake of the country, she ruled as queen for only five years). For Mary, it was her duty to bring back the old faith!

“If they did not believe that Christ’s body and blood were physically as well as spiritually present in the bread and the wine they were condemned for heresy. Three months before her death, the Queen sent a letter of complaint to the sheriff of Hampshire; his offense was to cancel the burning of a man who had recanted at the first lick of the flame. It was thus that she earned the sobriquet of Bloody Mary.” ix

Two plots against Mary were discovered before they could hatch: so Elizabeth the future Queen came under suspicion and was imprisoned in the Tower of London by order of her sister Mary for two months. After a tense meeting between the two sisters, Elizabeth was freed but put under house arrest until Mary’s death.

But Mary went too far in her insistence on marrying Philip of Spain another ultra-Catholic; this made the English people uneasy as to the religious and political direction of England.

Englishmen especially did not want a Catholic Spanish King upon Mary’s death. Nevertheless, she married Philip of Spain, a political marriage that made her very unpopular in England. At her death in 1556, she was only 42 and childless; the English emitted a sigh of relief and prepared to acclaim the new Queen.



England was rid of “Bloody Mary” without violence, as she had died of natural cause. So her half-sister Elizabeth  (1533-1603), daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, became the new Queen. To celebrate her coming coronation, Elizabeth entered the Tower of London itself and she remarked that “some have fallen from princes of this land to be prisoners in this place, I am raised from being a prisoner in this place to be prince of this land”.

She was now the Virgin Queen and she proceeded to return the country to the religion of her father and of her half-brother Edward VI. Using the Parliament and the House of Lords she slowly eliminated the opposition to her policies without violence, unlike her sister Mary. She had appointed a majority of nobles and bureaucrats to her privy council even before her coronation and soon the clerics and the Catholics were gone. There were debates but no executions: “after one of this debate Elizabeth was obliged to imprison two catholic bishops in order to prevent them from excommunicating her in public.” x

During her reign, she insisted that peace was much more desirable than war and she managed to have a peace treaty with both catholic kingdom, Scotland and France. Elizabeth was a careful Queen who managed to steer clear of numerous continental wars and religious conflict in Europe; she also had a reputation to be as learned as any don from Oxford and could debate theology with any of them. In fact she knew seven languages including Latin and classical Greek and had no need for an interpreter when she met ambassadors and kings from foreign lands. It was a golden period for England culturally and economically; Shakespeare was composing his plays and British explorers were discovering new lands to add to the nascent empire.

Her greatest challenge came with the enmity of Philip II of Spain who took upon himself the task of eliminating Elizabeth from the face of the earth. The pope Gregory XIII had issued a bull against Elizabeth in 1570 by which he excommunicated her as a heretic. This meant that all Catholic kings had a duty to eliminate the Queen of England.

In a well-known saga, a huge Spanish fleet sailed to attack England in 1582 with 10,000 soldiers and 7,000 sailors; the Armada was trapped as much by the sea as by the English ships. At the end more than half of the Armada 180 ships were sunk and 9,000 soldiers and sailors were lost or killed. Not a single ship of the English naval force led by Sir Francis Drake was lost. This victory helped create the aura of the English naval force’s invincibility.

The Massacre of Saint Barthélémy

Earlier, a bloody tragedy happened in France, the Saint Barthélémy’s massacre of the Huguenots in 1572, believed to have been instigated by the very Catholic Catherine of Medici, the Queen Regent; mobs attacked and killed Protestants with impunity. Women and children were thrown from bridges; every Huguenot in France became a target. The slaughter spread through Paris and expanded outward to other urban centers. Estimates for the number of Huguenots killed across France could be as high as 30,000. This event did more than any other to discredit the Catholic cause in England especially after it was reported that bells rang in celebration of the Huguenot massacre in Rome, and that Pope Gregory XIII ordered a Te Deum while his cardinals walked from shrine to shrine in a grateful procession. “It was the worst of the Century’s religious massacre and it printed on Protestant minds the indelible conviction that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion”. xi

England became a very hostile place for Roman Catholics and priests were hounded close to extinction. The right of Catholics to co-exist legally in England, was finally granted only in 1829 by the Roman Catholic Relief Act.


At the end of her reign, Elizabeth had to face a series of plot against her from no less than Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, her cousin and mother of the future King of both Scotland and England, James I. After the third plot had been discovered, Elizabeth’s patience ran out and she reluctantly had Mary Stuart executed in the Tower.

Elizabeth’s greatest regret as she aged was that she was barren without an heir to the throne . A series of suitors presented themselves - all to no avail: the last was the Duke of Alençon, 22 years her junior, who waited patiently in England for Elizabeth to make up her mind. She realized that she was open to ridicule and the negotiations were stopped.

Thus, ironically, upon her death in 1603, the son of Mary, Queen of Scotland, decapitated by Elizabeth’s order in 1587, became James I, King of England and Scotland.

The brilliant Tudor dynasty was ended.

By Pierre Arbour (March 2014)

END NOTES                                                        

  • Hanscom, Hellerman & Pasner Voices of the Past: Readings in Medieval and Early Modern History
  • David Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest


  • Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453


  • Peter Ackroyd, Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I


  • Wikipedia


  • Encyclopaedia Britannica


  • Peter Ackroyd,, Tudorscit.


  • Idem


  • Idem


  • Idem


  • Wikipedia