Medieval Monday: The Rise of the English Empire

Henry VIII is a young man when he becomes King of England. His father had been a notorious miser and never felt secure on the throne due to his poor claim to it. He gave England peace, but nothing more. Vivacious, handsome, and well-educated, Henry VIII brought the light of the Renaissance to England.

Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

Catherine of Aragon – Henry marries his brother’s widow—despite the fact that she was 8 years his senior. Catherine had spent years caught in a power struggle between her father and Henry VII and had been neglected and impoverished. When Henry declares he will marry her as soon as he is king, he is seen as a romantic and valiant knight.

Catherine becomes pregnant numerous times, but miscarries often and her one live-born son dies shortly after his christening. Mary is the only child they have that survives infancy and Catherine gives her a new European education with the intention that she will rule in her own right, as her grandmother, Isabella of Spain, did.

Anne Boleyn – Henry and Catherine have a great marriage, although he takes the occasional mistress. When Henry falls for Anne and she refuses him, he loses his senses. When he can’t get Anne, he tries to get rid of Catherine, but she proves just as stubborn and refuses to retire to a nunnery so that he can marry Anne. Anne is a Protestant and she begins to influence Henry. Despite the fact that he once wrote a piece so eloquently in favor of papal supremacy that the Pope declared Henry a “Defender of the Faith,” Henry ultimately rejects the Pope’s authority and places himself at the head of the Church in England. And as such, he grants himself a divorce, marries Anne, and exiles Catherine to a cold, run-down castle.Anne Boleyn

The fiery Anne that so enthralled Henry when he couldn’t have her soon becomes tiresome when he actually has to live with her every day. Anne’s family rise fast with her, generating jealousy at court, and she was already thoroughly hated by the people. She gives Henry a daughter, Elizabeth, but she loses her second daughter and produces no sons. Soon, a combination of political factions and Anne’s own behavior begin to poison Henry against her. After a serious fall from a horse while jousting—which gives him a leg wound that never heals—Henry becomes more temperamental and tyrannical. Anne and her brother are set up and Henry allows them to be tried for incest and treason. Both are executed.

Jane Seymour – While Anne is falling out of favor, Jane’s star is rising. Quiet and unassuming, she is more like Catherine in temperament than Anne. As soon as Anne is out of the way, Henry marries Jane and in a short time she is pregnant. She gives him a son, Edward, and everything seems to be going well. But a short time later, she dies of a fever (probably from an infection contracted during childbirth).

Anne of CleavesAnne of Cleaves – Anne of Cleaves was an attempt by Henry’s advisors to make a political (rather than love) match for Henry. They, like him, wanted England to be a major European power. Anne, however, ended up coming with little in the way of political status. Furthermore, she inadvertently angered Henry when they first met and he took a set against her, nicknaming her the “Mare of Flanders” for her supposed ugly face and body odor. They were reluctantly married, but his anger with her only increased until he couldn’t stand her any longer. He offered her a divorce, which she (wisely) took. She was given a nice castle and a sufficient pension and was styled as “the king’s sister.” She appeared at court occasionally and kept up a friendly correspondence with both princesses.

Catherine Howard – Catherine Howard was a young teenager when she wed Henry, who was old enough to be her grandfather. Henry was as besotted with her as he had been with Anne (who was a cousin of Catherine’s) and he doted on the vivacious young woman. Unlike her predecessors, Catherine was too young (and perhaps too stupid) to be a decent queen. She certainly wasn’t smart enough to realize how perilous court could be. Like Anne before her, she was denounced as an adulteress by those who resented her family’s rise to power. Unlike Anne, though, the charges against her were probably true. She too was sent to the block.

Katherine Parr – Katherine, a widow, was selected to be Henry’s wife not out of love or a desire for male heirs or even political alliance; she was needed simply to care for the ailing king and perhaps act as a calming influence on a man who was now even more suspicious and distrustful than his father had been. That didn’t work too well, as Katherine found herself in serious trouble with Henry over some rather trivial disagreement. Some quick groveling spared her from what would have probably been her own trip to the block, but she lived in fear of upsetting him again. When he finally died, everyone at court breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The Children of Henry VIII

Edward VI was still a child when he became king after his father. He was as intelligent and well-educated as his father, but lacked all of his father’s size and vigor. He expanded his father’s Protestant reforms (which really didn’t go farther than making the king the head of the church and robbing all the monasteries in England; in all other respects, the Church of England looked like the Catholic Church), but other than that, he did little in his few years as king. He died while still a teenager—most likely from tuberculosis.

Just before his death, Edward bastardized both of his sisters and named a cousin, Jane Grey, as his successor. This was done to prevent Mary, a staunch Catholic, from taking the throne. It didn’t work, however; Lady Jane Grey reigned for only nine days before Mary’s forces took the throne by force. Jane Grey was later executed when her parents tried to raise another rebellion against Mary.

BurnHenry’s firstborn daughter, Mary, was fast approaching middle age by the time she took the throne. She married a Spanish cousin—much to everyone’s dismay—and hurriedly tried to conceive an heir. But Philip apparently didn’t care for the much-older Mary and could hardly be enticed to do his husbandly duty. Mary thought that she was pregnant twice, but each “pregnancy” failed to produce a child—or even a miscarriage. Likely both occurrences were a sign that something was wrong with Mary’s reproductive organs. She dies just five years after gaining the throne, most probably from a uterine tumor. But, before she dies, she restores England to the Catholic Church and burns so many Protestants that she is forever dubbed “Bloody Mary.”

Elizabeth is a young woman when she takes the throne and ends up being the most like her father. She is extremely intelligent and well-educated, with all the charm and wit that her mother possessed. She returns England to the Protestant faith and takes it further away from Catholicism in appearance. English Catholics become a source of ongoing danger to her, but she refuses to take any action against most of them, thus ending her sister’s bloody religious purges.

She gets England a toe-hold in North America and with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England begins to become a recognized naval power. Her reign is long and politically stable. Unlike her father’s reign, when backers of the latest queen held the most power, Elizabeth rather adroitly plays one faction against the others, never allowing any one family to have too much power. Her weakness was Robert Dudley (and, later, Robert’s stepson, the Earl of Essex), but even though she showed both men great favor, she refused to marry them, thus denying them the greatest prize of all. In the end, England had but one mistress and no master and she refused, until the very last, to even name an heir. It was only after her death that James VI of Scotland—her closest male relative—was named James I of England and finally united the two countries.

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