Trivia Break: Henry VIII and the Implications

>> Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Mother did a fantastic job of answering my questions. I'm going to include her answers here and just expand if I happen to have any additional tidbits. She didn't get a damn things wrong.

Us docs currently believe that Henry, a well-known philander all his life, had syphilis. His first children with the first two wives were fairly healthy, followed by numerous stillbirths and miscarriages, classic for syphilis. I tend to agree and I'm not even a doctor.

1st wife: Catherine of Aragon, his brother's widow (whom he married to maintain the Spanish ties and dowry), which is what he used to divorce her years later when she failed to give him the required son. 24 years later, as a matter of fact and, while all records call Catherine of Aragon a devoted wife, the same cannot be said of her husband. Catherine was also daughter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain who were rather vehemently Catholic (starting the Spanish Inquisition). She had one child, a daughter, Mary, who later became queen (the last unabashedly Catholic monarch in England).

Anne Boleyn, who also failed to produce son, discarded with a frame up job, convicted of witchcraft and incest (with her brother). Much is made of Anne Boleyn largely because she used Henry's obsession with her to force him to throw his wife over. He'd already had an affair with her sister (which produced a bastard boy) and Anne did not want the same treatment apparently. Elizabeth was born shortly after Henry's hurried divorce and remarriage. A son was later born stillborn which many historians consider her Anne Boleyn's death sentence.

An interesting note. At a time when royal houses intermarried frequently and in-breeding was the order of the day (see the Spanish royal house), King Henry marrying so many of his own countrywomen was quite unusual. In fact, other than Anne Hyde's marriage to the ill-fated James II, no other British monarch or heir presumptive has married and English bride until the current Prince of Wales married Diana Spencer (although George VI married a Scottish bride at a time he did not expect to get the throne so there was an additional British Queen).

Jane Seymour, who did manage to produce the required son, but died of the dreaded puerperal fever after a very difficult labor. (Edward was sickly all his life and probably had congenital syphilis). The only wife to produce a son and the only wife to leave the marriage via death by natural causes.

Anne of Cleeves, not apparently a beauty, who Henry married without meeting her. She wasn't up to snuff and he divorced her as soon as his lawyers could figure out how to make it work (incidentally, Cromwell lost his head over this whole incident). The dislike was reputedly mutual.

Catherine Howard, who was convicted of adultery shortly thereafter. She probably really did it, which says something about her intellect. She was also a cousin to Anne Boleyn (who was almost undoubtedly innocent of the charges). Catherine Howard was also nineteen to Henry's forty-nine and it wasn't as though he set a good example.

Catherine Parr, a maternal figure who attempted to mend fences between Henry and his two daughters. She also took custody of Elizabeth after Henry died. Catherine Parr had already buried two husbands when she married Henry and married Jane Seymour's brother Thomas after Henry VIII kicked off.

As for his legacy: The protestant conversion of England was the biggie. He did it entirely because he wanted rid of Catherine of Aragon, and then he figured out that it could be a real source of wealth, as he shut down monasteries and confiscated their wealth. The impetus for the break with Rome was his lust for Anne Boleyn, but his ego took extraordinarily well to leading his own church. The callous treatment of Catherine of Aragon hardly endeared him to his former in-laws, Spain's ruling couple. And, the ever money-hungry Henry undoubtedly envied the considerable gold Spain made on their overseas conquests.
Failing to produce a protestant male heir who could live long enough to reproduce, though, left England in a religious war for the next twenty years. The strife with Spain might have eased with Mary's marriage to her cousin, Phillip II of Spain, but the internal strife increased. Finally, Elizabeth took the throne and cooled everything off by attempting to be reasonable about the whole religion thing. She also was a major patron of the English pirates who were exploring the new world, largely to prevent Catholic Spain from controlling yet another continent. This is probably the biggest lasting impact of Henry's syphilis on America--without it, we'd all be speaking French and Spanish. Although Phillip II wooed Elizabeth as well, there was a lot of bitterness toward the "bastard" Elizabeth and the protestant/Catholic chasm made it possible for her to sanction the piracy The Mother mentions (which made the pirates richer and the Crown as well). The different religious factions who were treated contemptuously also became the ones most likely to move on to colonies. Those experience from Quakers and the like not only meant our ties were largely to Protestant Europe, but also laid the groundwork for one of the founding Principles of the United States: Freedom of Religion.


  • The Mother

    I will comment that, while we all want to believe that freedom of religion was the reason the US started in the first place, it isn't completely true.

    The Elizabethan religious tolerance was aimed toward keeping the Catholics from open rebellion--it didn't apply to other groups. The Anabaptists were still actively persecuted (as were the Jews) as the radicals they were. One of their offshoots was an obscure sect that called themselves Puritans, who were so out in left field that the English just couldn't really stomach them. They took off and lived in Holland for a while, then moved en block to America.

    Where they immediately set up shop denying religious freedom to everybody else.

    Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were established almost solely because the Puritans couldn't stomach the Quakers or anyone else with slightly less radical religious views.

    In the Southern colonies, the Church of England was the only recognized and acceptable religion.

    It wasn't really until the Deists Thomas Jefferson and John Adams started writing the Constitution that the whole religious freedom thing became important.

  • Stephanie B

    While I will absolutely agree with you on some of the southern colonies and the Pilgrims, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island (as you noted) provide examples of religious tolerance. Maryland, by the way, was originally intended as a haven for Catholics expelled from England, though, in practice, there was quite a bit of religious dissent. The Carolinas began with religious tolerance, but, over time, Anglican interests came to the fore.

    Although I don't doubt that religious persecution was a part of many if not most of the original 13 colonies, some also progressively pursued religious tolerance and that kind of thinking was carried forward to the founding fathers (as opposed to coming, full bore, from the founding fathers themselves.)

  • JD at I Do Things

    I wish HBO would hire you (or The Mother) to write for "The Tudors."

  • The Mother

    JD: "The Tudors" have gotten a lot of history absolutely right. And a bunch of it salaciously wrong (although the writers have frequently admitted compressing/redirecting for "time constraints"). But they're doing better than Philippa Gregory, who can't seem to be bothered with actual history and yet is still selling bodice rippers by the ton.

    On the separation of church and state: This was a radical concept at the time of the US Constitution. Jefferson took a whole lot of flack, and there is a huge body of correspondence as he defended his position from naysayers on all sides.

    Remember, Britain (the model) STILL doesn't have separation of Church and State. The Church of England still is the official and only recognized religion in Britain. The monarch is the head of the Church and MUST be a member (per ordinance), and may not marry a Catholic (and probably anyone else outside of The Church of England--but I'll have to check that one).

    At the time America was building this ideal, we were still a predominantly Protestant nation. Many, if not most, of the country saw the Deists as radical, responding to John Locke's philosophy rather than the real world (never mind that Philadelphia's Jews largely funded the American Revolution).

    And we still do not actually have religious freedom in this country--all you have to do is look at last week's Iowa bus scandal to see that all we have is tolerance of other theists. We still apparently do not have the right to NOT believe--because that offends the believers to their socks.

  • Stephanie B

    JD, one reason I never watch historical TV (even when I watched TV) and rarely watch historical movies any more, even though I LOVE history is the blatant disregard so many have to get things right.

    There are historical movies I enjoyed by separating myself from reality or by recognizing that the characterizations were sound even if the details weren't, but there are only a handful of cases where my historical sense isn't offended. It has happened, however.

    Philippa Gregory - is she the one who wrote "The Other Boleyn Girl"? I had to explain to my daughter why it was absolute nonsense (and tripe as well) and I hate when I have to do that. I am not a fan.

    There are people who have written good historical fiction with some consideration for history (though, even among my favorites, leeway is occasionally taken). There is even a romance author among them (Georgette Heyer, though she never wrote a bodice ripper that I can recall).

    Of course, if I read an historical novel I like, I routinely do a history review to get more detail. Many a book has soured when I did my research, but I've also discovered authors worth pursuing.

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