Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Henry VIII

During the reign of Henry VIII, between 1509 and 1547, an estimated 57,000 English subjects were beheaded. Henry VIII's reign was have been a particularly bloodthirsty one; by contrast, his daughter who was daubed 'Blood Mary' killed fewer than 300 people during her six years as queen.

It is not only the sheer volume of people who died at the hands of Henry VIII, but the controversy surrounding them that makes Henry's reign so notorious. Henry VIII was responsible for the English Reformation, a period of great change characterized by England's break from the Catholic Church. The trouble started when Henry tried to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she failed to produce him a male heir to the throne. Henry claimed the marriage was illegitimate because Catherine was Henry's older brother's widow, however the Pope had originally given the permission to marry, and was not about to let them divorce.

What ensued was a political and religious fiasco. In the end, Henry cast out the Catholic Church and established himself as the head of the Church of England, God's representative on Earth. He divorced Cath­erine and married his mistress, Anne Boleyn, in the hopes of getting a son. In the process of achieving this single goal, Henry ordered the beheadings of some of the top political minds of the day, a few cardinals of the Church, at least one nun, a couple of his six wives, and countless members of the royal court who questioned the purity of his motives.

Of course, with tens of thousands of heads rolling, people were executed for a wide variety of crimes. In this blog I want to look at the ten most significant executions of Henry's reign, beginning with the beheadings he ordered immediately upon securing the throne. As one of his first acts as king, Henry ordered the executions of two of his father's top advisors, the notorious Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson in 1510.


Dudley and Empson were two of Henry VIII's unpopular father's tax collectors, blamed with impoverishing the Henry VII's subjects. The two men were claimed to have had stolen money  from subjects under the pretext of various taxes and fees. The people of England despised these men who were held responsible for Henry VII's policies. Immediately upon the death of Henry VII and succession of Henry VIII, the new king made a move to secure his popularity and his image as a king of the people. He found shaky evidence that Dudley and Empson had been embezzling money, his court found them guilty and Henry had them beheaded. They died in public executions in 1510.

Whilst Henry VIII began his reign as a popular monarch, he wasn't without powerful political enemies. Edmund de la Pole had a strong claim to the throne: he was the heir of King Richard III, who had died at the Battle of Bosworth against Henry Tudor. de la Pole was of York lineage, and whilst he had been imprisoned in 1506 Henry VIII had him executed in 1513 to secure his crown.

But that wasn't the end of the Yorks. Henry VIII faced serious opposition from another man, a popular noble and powerful politician, Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, who sealed his fate when he spoke too much of his claim to the English throne. Buckingham was a descendant of King Edward III and was very popular among the British people; he was seen as a great military leader, unlike Henry VIII. In 1521 rumours emerged of Stafford threatening Henry's kingship and Henry's top advisor at the time, the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, hated Stafford and therefore encouraged the king to take the accusations seriously. That year Henry had Stafford beheaded for treason. Henry VIII never faced another serious claim to his throne.

Threats to his policies, though, persisted throughout his reign. They became common practice once he started his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. One source of significant protest came from an unlikely source, a young servant who claimed to have supernatural insight.

Elizabeth Barton had visions that it was against God's will for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn.  In 1525, with Henry VIII's pursuit to gain permission from the pope to marry Anne Boleyn in full swing, Barton's visions became supernatural evidence of God's will: Henry was not to marry Anne. Her master, the Archbishop of Canterbury made Barton join a convent, where she became a nun and so attained a degree of legitimacy. Barton's visions about the consequences of the king's pursuit eventually became so powerful that they were considered treasonous. She was arrested, and under intense interrogation, she confessed to having faked everything. She was beheaded in 1534. No consensus was ever reached on whether her visions were divinely inspired or the result of a troubled mind. To this day, the Catholic Church gives some credence to Barton's apparent mysticism.

Barton is just one of the many insistent Catholics who lost their heads to Henry VIII's pursuit of a divorce. Cardinal John Fisher became a martyr and a saint when he refused to support the Supremacy Act that made Henry VIII the head of the church and the Act of Succession that made Anne Boleyn the legitimate queen of England.

Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey went to John Fisher when they first came up with the idea of annulling the king's marriage. When Henry and Wolsey approached him for advice, he was clear: An annulment would go against the will of God. They proceeded anyway, and Fisher never relented in his opposition. He openly defended Catherine, making great trouble for Henry. When the Supremacy Act passed in 1534, Fisher, with Sir Thomas More at his side, refused to take the required oath needed. The recently passed Supremacy and Treason Act made denying the king's supremacy an act of treason. Cardinal John Fisher was beheaded in 1535. The Catholic Church made him a saint 400 years later.



Catherine Howard was executed for being unchaste. Henry VIII married Catherine Howard after he annulled his fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves. However it seemed Catherine Howard had had lovers before Henry. The king didn't know this when he married her, and he was humiliated when the truth came out. To make matters worse, the queen had appointed one of her pre-marital lovers to be her secretary. Rumour had it the affair continued after her marriage to the king. The adultery aspect of the charge was never proven, but it didn't matter. Upon learning that he had married a non-virgin, Henry had Parliament pass an act declaring it treasonous for an unchaste woman to marry the king. Catherine Howard was promptly beheaded for treason.


The Seymours accused Henry Howard of supporting the Catholics and made his sister testify against him. She admitted on the stand that her brother was, in fact, a devoted Catholic. This was seen as a rejection of the king's supremacy. The Seymours combined this testimony with the fact that Henry Howard's father had had a claim to the throne before Henry VIII became king (though he never fought for it), and they convinced the king, who was by that time very ill, that the Howards intended to usurp the throne. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was beheaded in 1547, the same year the king died. It was Henry VIII's last execution.

Thomas Cromwell's poor match-making skills set him on the path to beheading. Thomas Cromwell served as the king's main advisor from 1532 to 1540. He was the one who finally succeeded in getting the king his divorce. It's possible that Cromwell was the mastermind behind the whole English Reformation. Cromwell took over after Cardinal Wolsey's fall from grace. After the death of Henry's third wife Jane Seymour, Cromwell convinced Henry to marry Anne of Cleves, of German royal lineage, for political reasons. Henry couldn't stand Anne, and he had the marriage annulled almost immediately. That was the beginning of Crowell's end. After Cromwell lost the king's support, his enemies used his connection to the Lutherans to convince the king that Cromwell was a heretic. Thomas Cromwell was beheaded for heresy in 1540. He never received a trial.



Thomas More was a statesman, writer and Catholic martyr who refused to swear to the Acts of Supremacy and Succession. This accomplished and respected man became one of Henry VIII's advisors in 1518. Leading up to the Supremacy Act of 1534, More tried to support the king as much as he could without betraying his religious beliefs. He didn't attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, and he refused to swear to the Acts of Supremacy and Succession. The former offence angered the king, but the latter was an act of treason. He was charged with conspiring with Elizabeth Barton, the nun whose visions had troubled the king. In 1535, he was beheaded for treason. His head sat on display on London Bridge for a month after his death.

Finally, we get to one of the most ironic executions of Henry's reign. Anne Boleyn died by the same law that allowed her to become queen.

While Henry VIII held the throne, England went through changes that would eventually lead to the creation of modern sovereignty -- a nation not beholden to the church -- though Henry never intended it. He was a walking contradiction, a devoted Catholic who rejected the Pope and founded his own religion; a king of the people and an educated humanist who executed tens of thousands of subjects. In the end, Henry VIII produced one male heir, Prince Edward, his son by Jane Seymour. Edward took the throne when his father died; he was 10 years old. He died of illness five years later, passing the crown to Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon, Princess Mary. Queen Mary's primary objective became reinstating Catholicism in England. She failed in her quest, though she burned hundreds of people at the stake in the process. Elizabeth I succeed her older sister and reigned for 45 years.