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.

Medieval Monday: A Thorny War

History Repeats Itself, Folks

There is a pause in the Hundred Years’ War when England experiences a succession crisis. Edward III’s heir, the Black Prince, predeceases his father. When Edward III dies, his grandson, Richard II, is crowned. Edward II had been a king in the mold of Longshanks: strong, an able commander, successful, and fair to his subjects. Richard II, unfortunately, was in the mold of King John: weak, tyrannical, and sometimes mentally unstable.

In 1381, the peasants of England revolt against the boy-king and his counselors, who, among other things, have instituted a poll tax. Richard rides out to meet them and diffuses the situation by agreeing to their demands, but their leaders are later captured and killed instead and the remainder are forced to disband.

Peasant's Revolt

Eventually, Richard becomes more tyrannical and his nobles rise up against him. He had no children of his own, but he had no shortage of uncles and cousins, and it was one of his cousins, Henry Bolingbroke, who deposes him in 1399 when Richard takes away his inheritance. Richard dies in prison of starvation.

England’s Holding Manhoods Cheap!

Henry V succeeds his father and restarts the war in France, giving the French their worst beating yet at Agincourt in 1415. The French King, Charles VI, is forced to agree to peace terms: Henry will marry his daughter, Catherine, and he will delegitimize his own son and make Henry his heir.

Charles VIUnfortunately, Henry dies two months before his father-in-law. His infant son, Henry VI, inherits the thrones of both England and France.

Useless Trivia: King Charles VI was undoubtedly the source of Henry VI’s later madness. King Charles sometimes refused to allow anyone to touch him because he was convinced he was made of glass and might break.

The Maid

In 1429, Joan d’Arc appears with a divine message for the disinherited French prince: he is to reconquer France. Together, they begin to wrest control of France from England—to the point that the Dauphin is able to have himself crowned Charles VII.

But shortly after seeing her king crowned, Joan is captured by the English and turned over to the English church courts to be tried as a heretic. The French king did nothing to try and ransom her back, and the English burned her at the stake. She would not be canonized as a saint until 1920.

Weekend at Henry’s

Meanwhile, in England, the gentle and pious Henry VI was suffering from fits of madness where he would become catatonic for months at a time. His queen, Margret of Anjou, attempted to rule in his name, but his nobles disliked her immensely. Soon his royal cousins are fighting to have wardship over him—and control of the kingdom. This leads to civil war—known as the War of the Roses—and eventually, after being passed between the factions numerous times, Henry is murdered in the Tower while at prayer. His only son predeceased him, leaving his Lancastrian and York cousins to squabble over who was the rightful heir.

Henry Vi

Useless Trivia: The Lancaster badge was a white rose; the Yorks had a red rose. When Henry Tudor (a Lancastrian on his mother’s side) finally ended the war (namely because no one was left to make a rival claim) and married Elizabeth of York, he put the two roses together, making the Tudor rose, as a symbol of unity.