Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Henry VIII (1)

"Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger -
Portrait of Henry VIII -
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons -
The reign of Henry VIII saw a huge increase in the importance of parliament. This was because of the king’s decision to use parliamentary statute in order to bring about the break with Rome.  Henry’s failure to produce a male heir before 1537 also raised two further issues: 

  1. in default of males, could a female succeed to the throne?
  2. who decided the succession – king or parliament?

"Catherine aragon" by Lucas Hornebolte -
(reproduced from collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry KT).
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 
Henry's Spanish-born wife, Katherine of Aragon had come to England in 1501 to marry his elder brother, Arthur. However, Arthur died suddenly after six months. It was not clear whether the marriage had been consummated. In December 1503 Pope Julius II issued a Bull of Dispensation allowing Henry to marry his brother's widow. 

The lack of a son

Henry married Katherine shortly after his accession in 1509. By the 1520s the couple had one surviving child, Mary, born in 1516. There was nothing in English law to prevent her succession, though Henry had qualms both about his daughter’s right to succeed and her ability to govern if she did.  For Katherine, however, Mary’s gender was not an issue. She herself was the daughter of Isabella, queen of Castile, and Isabella’s heir was Mary’s elder sister, Joanna. Somehow, Isabella had managed to combine the two rules of reigning sovereign and the obedient wife of her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Katherine saw no reason why Mary should not do the same.

At this stage, Henry was clearly keeping his options open. In June 1525 he officially recognised his bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, installed him as a knight of the garter and created him duke of Richmond and Somerset – an unprecedented double dukedom.  Not since the twelfth century had a king raised an illegitimate son to the peerage. Fitzroy was given a great household and sent to Yorkshire as head of the King’s Council of the North. Katherine was furious: ‘No bastard ought to be exalted above the daughter of a queen’. But Henry was giving out mixed messages. The nine-year-old Mary was despatched to the Welsh marches to preside over the Council of Wales. Though Henry did not create her ‘Princess of Wales’, the appointment revived the tradition of associating the heir to the throne with the government of Wales, a practice begun by Edward IV.

In the following year (1526) Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn. Would she be able to give him the son he wanted? But in order to achieve this he had to have his marriage to Katherine declared invalid. The fact that she had previously been married to Arthur gave him the excuse he believed he needed.

The summoning of the 'Reformation Parliament'

By July 1529 Henry’s attempt to get Pope Clement VII to dissolve his marriage had reached deadlock, mainly because the Pope was in the power of Katherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The legatine court, summoned to hear the case, was dissolved and never reopened. 

In August writs went out for a new parliament to meet in November. It is clear that at this stage Henry was thrashing around and the summoning of parliament was not part of some well thought-out strategy. Nevertheless, it was to prove a momentous decision. The Parliament, later known as the Reformation Parliament, sat for six years and brought about the greatest revolution in English history.

The first session of this parliament saw Thomas More’s indictment of Cardinal Wolsey.  In October Wolsey had been forced to resign as Chancellor, and his failure to secure the divorce had made his eventual downfall inevitable.

Parliament did not sit in 1530, though it was not dissolved. This is another indication that at this stage Henry VIII did not know what to do. The second session (January to March 1531) saw the first attacks on the clergy.  In December 1530 they had been charged with the vague offence of praemunire, and in February Convocation (the House of Clergy that sat at the same time as the Commons) reluctantly agreed to pay a fine to the king ‘as Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy as far as the law of Christ allows’.  But still there was no clear sign of any concerted action. 

Then in December Thomas Cromwell became a member of the King’s inner council (he had been on the council for a year, but this was a significant promotion). The following year (1532) saw decisive moves against the Church. This is probably not a coincidence.

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