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Henry VIII

Born in 1509, Henry is probably one of the best known, if not most infamous, of all monarchs.

Physically commanding at six feet tall, strong and aggressive, Henry as a young man would have been prime quarterback material. But as well as being an enthusiastic wager of war, in particular with the French, he was also known as a dancer and songwriter. Henry became king after the death of his brother Arthur, and took his sibling's widow, Catherine of Aragon, as his own wife.

In Tudor England it was considered important that the king have a male heir, something that Henry's wife Catherine could not provide him. When Henry sought divorce from Catherine in order to pursue Ann Boleyn he ran into conflict with the Catholic Church and its spiritual head, the Pope.

Single minded in his quest for a male heir, he separated from the devoutly Catholic Catherine of Aragon in 1533. Henry also established himself as head of the Church of England, severing contact with the rule of Rome. He also set in motion the Dissolution of the Monasteries whereby the State began to seize the land and possessions of these Catholic bastions under the pretext of bringing them into line with the new order.

When Anne Boleyn produced not a son but a daughter, Elizabeth, Henry began to set in motion the accusations of treachery and adultery that would eventually result in Anne's execution and Elizabeth's exile from Court.

Henry's third wife Jane Seymour did provide him with Edward, the son he craved, but she died from complications soon after the birth. Henry's next marital mishap was with Anne of Cleves who, it is alleged, he agreed to wed on the strength of a portrait by the artist Holbein, and under the influence of Thomas Cromwell, who sought a speedy transition of the country to the Protestant faith.

Henry was apparently disappointed by his new wife as she appeared in the flesh, and would have nothing to do with her. Shortly afterward, Cromwell was executed.

Once the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, but she too would be accused of adultery and executed. Now overweight, gluttonous and plagued with syphilis, Henry entered a final more harmonious marriage with Catherine Parr, which endured until his death in 1547.

During his reign Henry VIII had turned the religious order upside down, emptied the country's coffers in fruitless wars with France and Scotland, and brutally crushed dissent wherever and whenever it arose. While in Edward Henry had the heir he had always so fiercely desired, the boy was sickly and would himself only survive for a further six years on the throne as Edward V1.

In the end Henry, who had sought for most of his life to provide the heir that he believed would bring stability and continuity to his country after his death, instead gifted England with the beginning of one of the bloodiest chapters in its history. That said, an unexpected consequence of his actions was to forge in Elizabeth I one of England's most iconic and influential monarchs.

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Henry VIII
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