In 1509 Henry VIII (8th) came to the throne after his father, Henry VII (7th) died. The old king had been unpopular towards the end of his reign for being dull, penny-pinching, and for squeezing money out of the nobles. The new king Henry was a contrast. He was 17 years old, well-educated, tall and athletic. He loved sport, especially jousting, and hunting.
An appetite for glory!
Soon after he came to the throne, Henry VIII turned his attention to foreign policy. He was determined that England should be seen as a more powerful country in Europe. In times gone by, England had ruled parts of France. Henry wanted to get them back.
In 1513 Henry went to war in France and captured the towns of Tournai and Therouanne. While he was away the Scots invaded England. But they were defeated and the Scottish king was killed. It all seemed to be going so well...
But as his reign went on, Henry was frustrated in his ambitions of glory and conquest. The truth was that England was a lot less powerful than the other main players in Europe at the time. England ended up being somewhat eclipsed by the superpowers of Europe: France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire (a collection of territories centred on Germany). In addition to this, the people of England (who had to pay for Henry’s wars through their taxes) did not share Henry’s appetite for conquest.
His main opponents were Francis I (1st), King of France and Charles V (5th), who ruled Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.
Who helped Henry run the country?
Henry was advised by various people during his reign, but none more influential than Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was a churchman who had come from an ordinary family and had risen up through his great intelligence, ambition and organisational skill to be the king’s right-hand man. He held various important roles in the church as cardinal, legate and Archbishop of York, but he also held political roles, becoming Lord Chancellor (the most important man in government) in 1515. He advised Henry on every aspect of domestic and foreign policy.
At times it seemed that Wolsey was more powerful than the king himself. His power made people jealous and resentful. In particular, the noblemen in the Privy Council (who thought that they should be the ones advising Henry) disliked Wolsey. These people were always trying to turn Henry against Wolsey.
Wolsey remained powerful until 1529. Henry had become determined to get a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted a son (Catherine had been unable to give him one) and had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn.
To divorce Catherine, Henry needed permission from the Pope in Rome. It was Wolsey’s job to get Henry what he wanted. But in this instance, Wolsey was unable to persuade the Pope to annul the marriage. In addition to this, the Boleyn faction, a group of nobles at court (including Anne’s family), wanted to bring Wolsey down to increase their own power.
After Wolsey’s fall, the Henry was advised by Thomas Cromwell (a lawyer who had previously worked for Wolsey) and by various noblemen at court. These noblemen formed factions (groupings) who fought among themselves for the King’s favour.
Henry was still no nearer to getting a divorce. He was not helped by the fact that Catherine’s nephew was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, whom the Pope was unwilling to cross.
But Henry was determined. He argued that his marriage to Catherine was wrong because she had previously been married to his brother, Arthur. A passage in the Old Testament (Leviticus) said it was sinful to marry one’s dead brother’s wife.
Henry became frustrated by the Pope. As King of England, why couldn’t he do as he pleased and grant his own divorce? The idea of disobeying the Pope was completely new, and suddenly (encouraged by Thomas Cromwell), Henry realised just how powerful he could be. He went on to establish Royal Supremacy (i.e. he…