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Henry VIII: Unwitting Proponent of Free Speech and Thought?

Updated on October 12, 2014

England Dished Up to the Monarch.

Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries was a thriving and no doubt fervid place. One could almost argue that the zeitgeist was injected with a healthy dose of adolescent hormones. Implacable beliefs that had been as solid as the Papacy and Holy Roman Empire were beginning to exhibit cracks of age and doubt. Nicklaus Copernicus juggled the very spheres in the cosmos itself, rearranging the universe with a heliocentric model (where the sun was the centre of the universe, not the earth). Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, alongside Carravagio and Botticelli were elevating art to unparalleled echelons of grace and magnificence (literally, if some of Da Vinci's had gained wings). And Martin Luther and John Calvin were instigating the dissatisfaction with infallibility of the Church in Rome.

In England, the Monarchy had settled into an uneasy peace after decades of turmoil that had gripped the nation in the Wars of the Roses. The Middle Ages had been executed with the slaying of the last male in the York line of the Plantagenet dynasty, King Richard III, at Bosworth Field. The king's death heralded victory for the Tudor usurper, Henry, who subsequently became Henry VII. His own claim to the throne was delivered courtesy of his parent's union, Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor. Margaret 's father, John Beaufort was the grandson of the influential John of Gaunt, King Edward III's third son. His father, Edmund's heritage was an even more immediate threat to York's royal writ of rule, as the son of Owen Tudor and Katherine of France, Henry V's widow and Henry VI's mother. Once the overthrow of Richard was complete, Henry VII never rested on his laurels to tighten his right to England further, marrying Richard III's niece and elder sister of the "Princes in the Tower," Edward IV's daughter and Edward V's sister, Elizabeth of York. A final masterstroke involved nationalisation of the entire army, removing the threat of local Baronial forces, a tactic ensuring that the Tudors had solidified England into one force under one supreme figurehead... and didn't the next Henry know it!

Give No Eighth To No One! Least Of All God!

Never born for the role of King (that title had been intended for his elder brother, Arthur, who had died of Consumption, aged 15), Henry accepted the role with aplomb. A vigorous and ardent 18-year-old to replace his somewhat niggardly father. Strapping, handsome, strawberry blond, multilingual and highly educated... even fastidiously clean for a person of that time (known to bathe once a month!) Henry VIII implied a virile, youthful nation, wealthy and newly influential on the changing chess board that was Europe.

A first hammer stroke in forging a new destiny of these isles came with Henry's sister Margaret marrying James IV, Stuart King of Scotland, unwittingly setting the wheels in motion leading to the unification of England and Scotland, the formation of Great Britain. But at the time, a dissidence was growing. In Germany, Martin Luther challenged Papal authority, denying that God's freedom could be purchased through indulgence and preached that the Bible was the sole word of God, nothing else. Of course this was a direct threat to the widely held notion of the Pope being the Vicar of Christ on earth and being infallible. The French John Calvin also was a staunch polemicist for the Protestant cause.

Initially, Henry VIII fiercely opposed this heresy, penning a book to laud the virtues of the one true faith. His apologist stance earned the king with the moniker "Defender of the Faith" perhaps used to this day as a middle-finger to the Vatican to describe the British Monarch (who knows?) But a son and heir outstripped any devotion to his deity or religion, so it seemed, when his wife of almost a quarter of a century (Catherine of Aragon) failed to produce a male heir. Having had a roving eye and the urge to roam into different beds for a while now, that eye and lust settled on Anne Boleyn (after sampling her sister Mary first). Wanting to marry Anne, who had been his mistress for a while, Henry intransigently insisted his first marriage was an affront to God. Catherine was initially betrothed to Henry's late brother Arthur and Henry's piety suddenly chafed at this - after two decades of it being fine with it. It was for this that Henry sought a Dispensation from the Pope. But the Pope had granted one for the marriage to go ahead in the first place and reneging on one position hardly seems infallible, does it? Henry's search for a son was denied... or was it?

So, in one of the biggest acts of petulance in recorded history, Henry VIII essentially did to the Pope what many a spurned child does: "fine! I'll start my own gang/church!"

Religion On Henry's Chopping Block.

Although initiated for selfish reasons, such as wanting to extricate himself from a marriage he no longer enjoyed and to plunder wealthy monasteries in order to fund his increasing profligacy, Henry VIII's actions held a much deeper undercurrent for the world. Mixed with the Renaissance and the Printing Press, this epoch on the continent heralded a moment when ideas could propagate far faster than they ever had before. Before that, the King and Church above it were unalterable, unquestionable. It was little wonder that such institutions, stalwart since the fall of the Roman Empire (if a common European serf even knew what the Roman Empire was then) then surely to the unwashed and uneducated, these positions appeared divine.

Henry's rebellion, coupled with Renaissance, gave a fringe movement credence. Although he remained devoted to the tenets of Catholicism all his life (his children having to deal with the fallout of his actions, especially his daughters) it acted as a catalyst for thought and ideology. Suddenly, the edifices of society, sheer and incalculable, proved to be tangible, accountable. If the Pope could be defied, what else could be? The Catholic/Protestant fallout has been often messy (The Jacobite Rebellion and Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Thirty Years War in Europe) but Henry VIII's decision - though he was probably ignorant of it - prompted our freedom to blossom after a millennia long Dark Ages winter, by giving the dissidents of Luther and Calvin clout.

"When society dictates your actions to aim one way, rebellion is always an inherently selfish act." - Brad James.

© Brad James, 2014.

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      A different angle on the age-old chestnut. Was Henry fit to rule? As Duke of York (traditional title for the second born son, no matter how many brothers) Henry hadn't been groomed to take the throne. Being wed to his brother's widow may have been his father's idea - continuity etc - and he settled into the role of kingship.

      But he wasn't king material. He was a bully, albeit an educated one. But education alone doesn't mean suitability. The Tudors weren't meant to be monarchs and the line certainly didn't live up to expectations. They were gone in the space of a century and a quarter. No loss, only to be replaced by another no-no known as James VI of Scotland (where did we get all these dead losses, I ask myself? Funnily enough HIS first son died, leaving another unsuitable candidate for the throne. Did it run in the genes?)

      Following Harold we only got something nearing a suitable candidate (with only two possible exceptions) to sit on the throne when Parliament gave the monarchs their marching orders. Edward VII was the first monarch to remotely fit the bill, but he didn't last long enough to make a difference.

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