His reign will be remembered for his material exploits, his quest for a son, and executions….a lot of executions.
In 2015 Henry VIII was, probably harshly, voted the worst monarch in English history by sixty members of the Historical Writers Association.
So what were Henry’s seven biggest mistakes during his reign?
1. The break from Rome
However, the formal break from Rome started years of religious division and persecution in England.
Despite the break from Rome, Henry VIII made few moves towards the protestant faith. However, the seeds were already sown by the break.
The entire Tudor dynasty was played with religious upheaval and confusion. As each monarch succeeded to the throne, there was another switch in spiritual practices. As the protestant Edward made further changes, the catholic Mary brought back the mass, and Elizabeth reversed them all again.
The break from Rome also resulted in the most significant rebellion of his own reign. The country’s north rose against his religious reforms and the dissolution of the monasteries during the Pilgrimage of Grace.
The break from Rome caused problems, not just during the Tudor era, but all the way through to the Act of Settlement in 1701
2. The divorce from Catherine of Aragon
The problems came when Catherine could no longer have children, and Henry VIII still lacked a legitimate male heir. Catherine had produced male children in the past, but Henry, Duke of Cornwall, died just weeks after being born.
Henry had often looked elsewhere for sexual pleasure. Still, now he wanted to go further and annul his marriage so he might remarry.
When Henry took steps to annul the marriage, his popularity amongst his people diminished significantly. His choice of bride, Anne Boleyn, was almost universally hated throughout the country because of it.
After finding it possible to dispose of one wife, it meant that Henry found it easier to get rid of many others. He went through six wives in his lifetime.
Instead of divorcing Catherine, Henry could have embraced his daughter Mary as his heir. If he had done this, there would not have been the break from Rome, which would have avoided the issues that arose with that. With suitable preparation for the role of Queen, Mary could have been become a successful long-term ruler, and not how history remembers her as Bloody Mary.
3. Lavish lifestyle
His father had held a prudent fiscal policy backed up with a regime of rigorous taxation enforced by fear. Henry VII was prudent in his spending and avoided costly expenses like war.
His son was utterly the opposite.
Henry VIII loved spending money.
As well as luxuries such as clothing, jewelry, and fine living, Henry spent significant sums on lavish building programs.
He also spent heavily on wars with France and Scotland.
The dissolution of the monasteries became a necessity to complete the process to help restock the Royal Treasury. Even after this had been completed, bringing in the equivalent to billions of pounds today, his treasury was in a poor state when Henry died.
This would result in problems that plagued all three of his children when they succeeded to the throne.
4. Henry’s failure to stop jousting.
Jousting was a hazardous sport, even for one with Henry’s skills and obvious physical advantages. Without a recognised heir, this was asking for trouble.
Trouble arrived on the 24th of January 1536.
Henry suffered considerable injuries at the jousts at Greenwich. He was probably unconscious for several hours.
In the aftermath, Anne Boleyn miscarried her child, a boy. This was probably due to the shock.
Many modern-day historians believe that his head trauma was the root cause of his personality change and descent into tyranny.
His lack of mobility caused by his leg injuries caused his weight to balloon, which quickened his death.
5. The Execution of Thomas Cromwell
For Henry, it was a monumental error.
Cromwell was a workhorse for Henry, who took on much of the work of administration of the Kingdom. He was feared by the nobility and managed to keep factions from appearing in the court.
However, Cromwell was hated by the nobility for his lofty position. Once Henry had become displeased with him because of his advocation for the Cleves marriage, they saw the opportunity to strike.
Henry was a man that was easily influenced, especially when he was feeling angry.
He allowed the plot against Cromwell to succeed.
However, it didn’t take him long to regret it; just weeks later, he was calling Cromwell “the most faithful servant he had ever had.”
6. Illegitimacy of his Daughters
This just smells of bitterness. There was no need to do it.
Even when he recanted and restored both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession, he failed in the change to restore their legitimacy.
This caused problems for both of them.
Their “value” on the marriage market was hurt. A potential suitor wouldn’t know where they truly stood. Elizabeth never married, and it can’t be said that Mary’s marriage was successful.
The legitimacy status allowed Lady Jane Grey the opportunity to attempt to stage a coup. She said that both Mary and Elizabeth should be disregarded when it came to the throne, and hence she took the throne (her own mother standing aside for her.)
When Mary did overthrow the coup and became Queen, she made legal moves to restore her legitimacy.
Interestingly Elizabeth didn’t make any such moves, which simply strengthened Mary, Queen of Scots’ claims on the English throne.
7. Failure to name a regent
Despite his bluster and refusal to acknowledge the potential of death, Henry must have known he was dying. There was little chance of him living until Edward reached eighteen.
Henry was fully aware of the problems that had occurred in the past with minors on the throne. His attempt to solve this was appointing a council to rule when he died.
The problem was this was ripped up a matter of days after his death. Edward Seymour, the new king’s uncle, ruled the council as Lord Protector.
This didn’t end well for him and resulted in his execution. John Dudley took his place as Edward VI’s chief minister.
A named regent may have prevented the infighting that took place. A suitable candidate would likely have been the highly educated Catherine Parr. She had served very successfully as Regent in the past when Henry VIII was fighting in France. She might have had the political ability to draw the competing factions together.