5 Key Moments in the Reign of King Henry VIII

Discover the key moments that occurred during the reign of the almighty King Henry VIII, England’s most notorious leader.

May 28, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History
king henry holbein with field cloth gold paintings


Henry VIII’s reign (1509-47) is one of the most famous reigns of any monarch in history. More often known for his six wives and the onset of Protestantism in England, Henry VIII faced numerous events during his almost 38-year reign which ultimately shaped him as a king, and the way he ruled the country. From tense relations with France and Spain, to rebellions in England, find out about 5 key events which shaped the reign of King Henry VIII.


1. Henry VIII Meets Francis I: The Field of the Cloth of Gold

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The Field of the Cloth of Gold, artist unknown, c. 1545, via Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace


The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a huge summit meeting held between Henry VIII and Francis I of France (r. 1515-47), both of whom were in their 20s and keen to impress each other, and their rival factions.


The meeting was originally orchestrated to help bolster the friendship between the two kings, who had signed an Anglo-French treaty in 1514. As a result, the event was to be held on neutral ground, at Balinghem, which was between Guînes in the English-owned Pale of Calais, and Ardres in French territory.


The meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was hugely expensive, and organized by Henry’s Lord High Chancellor of England, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The event was designed to show off how magnificent each king was, and there was so much gold cloth (fabric woven with silk and gold) that the event was given its name for this exact reason.


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Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537, via Wikimedia Commons

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Henry spared no expenses — a temporary castle including a courtyard was erected, and the canvas was painted to make it look like brickwork. Two fountains were also brought along, and instead of water coming out of them, red wine flowed instead. Around 10,000 people attended, including 35 priests who served the chapel day and night. It was even reported that 2200 sheep were consumed for their meat, giving an idea of the scale of the event.


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Francis I, by Jean Clouet, c. 1530, via the Louvre


During the eighteen days that the meeting went on for, Henry VIII and Francis I both held banquets and entertained each other’s queens (Catherine of Aragon and Claude of France, respectively) as well as partaking in tournaments with each other. They also watched Cornish wrestlers face Breton wrestlers, in a huge spectacle that undoubtedly showed off both of their abilities.


Although the rules of the tournaments explicitly stated that the kings were not to compete against each other, nevertheless Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match, and duly lost. He then attempted to challenge him to an archery competition in order to beat him, but their relations had soured by this point.


Although the event was a huge spectacle for their contemporaries, it achieved very little politically. If anything, it showed how pomp and ceremony meant too much to both kings but it also showed that being materialistic and rich does not achieve anything when it comes to confrontation on the battlefield.


This event was hard to swallow for Henry, who had spent thousands of pounds of the Crown’s money to effectively achieve very little. Henry VIII’s and Francis I’s relations worsened even more after the event, when Cardinal Wolsey arranged an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor and Francis’ enemy, Charles V (r. 1519-66), who went on to declare war against France that same year, leading to the Italian War of 1521-26.


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Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, c. 1589-95, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Nevertheless, the Field of the Cloth of Gold was a significant event in the reign of Henry VIII — it showed him early on that niceties and pretending to like a political rival did not always work out, and it did not have to cost so much money in future.


2. The Annulment of Henry VIII, and Catherine of Aragon’s Marriage

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Catherine of Aragon, early 18th century, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Henry VIII is famous for having six wives, but his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, lasted the longest and is arguably the most famous for how it ended. Henry desperately wanted a male heir to succeed him, and during his marriage to Catherine, their only surviving child was a daughter, who would go on to rule as Queen Mary I (r. 1553-58).


In the mid-1520s, Henry was becoming increasingly frustrated at what he (and Early Modern medical science) viewed as Catherine’s inability to produce a male heir. He became less interested in Catherine, and particularly interested in one of her ladies-in-waiting: Anne Boleyn. However, Anne refused Henry’s advances and did not just want to become a mistress — she wanted to be queen.


Henry began to attempt to find ways to annul his marriage with Catherine, on the grounds that she had not produced him a male heir, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry turned to Leviticus 20:21, where it states that “a man shall not take his brother’s wife” — Henry had married Catherine, his deceased brother’s widow. Henry along with Thomas Cranmer, tried to use this to explain why Henry’s marriage to Catherine was null and “blighted in the eyes of God.” (Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot: A Short History of Divorce, 1991).


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Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1531, via the J. Paul Getty Museum


Henry took the case to Pope Clement VII and by doing so in the public eye, prevented all hope of ensuring Catherine would stay quiet or retire to a nunnery. However, if Clement declared that Henry’s marriage was invalid, he would have had to go against a papal dispensation of a previous Pope who had allowed Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to marry. Moreover, Charles V was Catherine of Aragon’s aunt, and following the Battle of Pavia in 1525, he had taken Rome — and thus technically the Pope — as his prisoner.


Henry waited it out until 1533. During this time, he had been hugely influenced by Anne Boleyn, who was a highly intelligent woman, and who had also taken on the Protestant beliefs of Martin Luther. A year later, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which defined Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This was the official break with Rome, and the rise of Protestantism in England.


In addition, Henry passed the Treasons Act, which stated that anyone who questioned Henry’s authority over the Church could be punished by death. Henry’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon was finally annulled, and he married Anne Boleyn. She ultimately ended up being beheaded, but not before giving birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603).


Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon was a hugely significant moment in his reign. It marked the onset of Protestantism in England, the break from Rome, and the beginning of the Church of England.


3. The Pilgrimage of Grace

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The Pilgrimage of Grace, unknown artist, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Unsurprisingly, Henry VIII faced opposition from the public during his tumultuous reign. The Pilgrimage of Grace was a popular revolt, started in North Yorkshire, and it was led by the lawyer Robert Aske. The common people were protesting against Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as the policies of his Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell.


However, there were also other grievances that the rebels were protesting. From a political perspective, many were unhappy with Henry’s annulment of his marriage with Catherine, and then his marriage to the Protestant Anne Boleyn. However, following Anne Boleyn’s execution on an exaggerated charge of adultery and treason, many viewed Henry’s personal reputation as that of a spoiled child bored with his toys.


In addition, the Ten Articles which had been released as part of the Reformation and the new order of prayer released in 1535 by the government, made the official church doctrine more Protestant, which again went against the Catholic beliefs of most northerners.


Robert Aske led his army of followers south from York to Doncaster, where they met Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Aske’s forces numbered about 40,000 while Norfolk’s numbered just under 7000. Aske and Norfolk entered into negotiations (as Norfolk was acting on Henry VIII’s behalf), and Norfolk promised the rebels that if they dispersed and returned to York, there would be no actions against them and that a parliament would be held in York within the year to discuss their grievances.


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Thomas Howard, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1539, via Royal Collection Trust


Aske naively believed Norfolk, and as a result, the rebels dispersed. In February 1537, another northern rebellion broke out, but not under Aske’s authority. Henry VIII viewed this as his chance to get his own back and turn back on his promises. The rebellion failed, and Henry arrested the leaders as well as Aske. Around 200 people were executed as a result of their parts during the rebellions, and Robert Aske was hanged in chains from Clifford’s Tower in York.


Nonetheless, the Pilgrimage of Grace deserves a place on this list for a number of reasons. Although it was a failed rebellion and resulted in the larger monasteries being dissolved, it was still the largest threat that Henry had to deal with on his own soil during his reign. It also can be argued that the Pilgrimage of Grace was a defining factor for four of the seven sacraments being restored in the Bishop’s Book of 1537, which marked the end of the flow of official doctrine toward Protestantism.


4. The Dissolution of the Monasteries

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Gisborough Priory, via English Heritage


With the Act of Supremacy of 1534, Henry VIII became the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Unfortunately for him, the monasteries were a stark reminder of the wealth and power of the Catholic Church in England.


Furthermore, the monasteries were also the wealthiest institutions in England during Henry VIII’s reign. Henry’s extravagant lifestyle and his wars cost huge amounts of money — Henry’s thinking was to destroy the monastic system so that he could not only remove Papal influence and reinforce Protestantism, but to also take the hordes of wealth owned by the monasteries.


But Henry did not undertake this task alone. A dossier was presented to Parliament outlining — and over-exaggerating — the corruption of the monastic system. His Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, then introduced the Valor Eccleasticus to find out just how much property was owned by the Church and followed this up by sending out royal commissioners to all the monasteries in England, Ireland, and Wales.


This then led onto the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act in 1535, whereby small monasteries with an income of less than £200 per year were closed down. Their buildings, land and money were taken by the Crown. Henry managed to work his way around this by stating that he was undertaking it in the name of monastic reform: he was closing down the smaller monasteries and donating the money to the larger monasteries to make them more efficient.


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Rievaulx Abbey, via English Heritage


By 1538, it was clear that Henry was not doing this in the name of monastic reform. Instead, he was selling on the land to the nobility and gentry, and making even more profit for himself and the Crown. A year later, the Second Act of Dissolution was passed, allowing Henry to dissolve the larger monasteries and religious houses. By 1540, they were being shut down at a rate of fifty per month.


The consequences were huge. An immediate after-effect was that hundreds of people who worked in the monasteries were out of work, and many were homeless. The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 was another immediate response. For Henry, his wealth increased by estimates of about £1.5 million — the majority of which was spent on his wars in Scotland and France.


A lasting legacy of the Dissolution of the Monasteries was the huge loss of wonderful architecture, the destruction of the monastic libraries, and the loss of thousands of precious, irreplaceable illuminated manuscripts.  This was a negative element of Henry VIII’s reign but a key one nonetheless — its legacy can still be seen today, in the hundreds of monastic ruins around England, that are now, thankfully, largely protected by English Heritage.


5. Henry VIII’s Favorite: The Marriage to Jane Seymour

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Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1536, via History.com


The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour, a member of the Seymour family who held the duchy of Somerset. Ten days later, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were married, and Jane was publicly proclaimed Queen on 4th June 1536. She was shown to be a kind-hearted person, who showed sympathy to Catherine of Aragon and Mary I, and her only involvement in political affairs was to ask for pardons for those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry angrily rejected this, and reminded her of the fate of Anne Boleyn when she “meddled in his affairs”.


In January 1537, Jane conceived and she reportedly had a craving for quail — causing Henry to order the finest from Flanders and Calais for her. She gave birth to the future King Edward VI (r. 1547-53) on 12th October 1537, to the delight of Henry VIII — he finally had the male heir he had wanted for years.


Unfortunately, his joy was short-lived. Jane’s labor had been notoriously difficult, and due to birthing complications — which some historians today argue was a retained placenta or puerperal fever — she died 12 days later at Hampton Court Palace. She was aged just 29.


Jane was buried at Windsor Castle and was the only one of Henry’s six wives to have been given a queen’s funeral. Henry wore black for the three months following Jane’s death, and it was during this period that he began putting on weight, leading him to develop gout and diabetes.


Jane Seymour’s legacy was that she was, unquestionably, Henry VIII’s favorite wife. She also helped to restore the relationship between Mary I and Henry VIII, as well as advancing her own family’s fortunes through her influence as queen. She gave Henry the son and male heir that he had wanted, and when Henry VIII died in 1547, he was buried next to her, as per his request.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.