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14 Facts About Henry VIII

Janet Burns
A full-length portrait of King Henry VIII.
A full-length portrait of King Henry VIII. / Hans Holbein the Younger, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Many plays, films, and TV shows have explored the life and loves of Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland, who was born on June 28, 1491. But despite his place in history books and pop culture, there are likely a number of things most people don't know about this enigmatic monarch.

1. Henry VIII was a talented dancer.

According to Alison Weir in her book Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Henry loved dancing. At age 10, he delighted guests at his brother Arthur’s wedding to Catherine of Aragon when he grabbed his sister Margaret for a partner and then “flung off his coat and cavorted around in his doublet and hose.” He frequently cut a rug during the group dances involved in Tudor life and “exercised himself daily in dancing” as a young man. In 1515, one ambassador commented that the young king “does wonders and leaps like a stag.”

2. Henry VIII was not supposed to be king.

While dancing away at his brother’s wedding, Henry had no idea that he was going to be king. Arthur was his older brother and the heir to the throne. Named for the legendary king and born in what was believed to be Camelot, Arthur was supposed to unify the country after the recently ended War of the Roses. But just months after the marriage, Arthur died, and Catherine wed the new heir to the throne—Henry.

3. Henry VIII was an avid musician and composer, but he didn't write "Greensleeves."

With heaps of high culture at his fingertips from birth, Henry became passionate about music at a very young age. He collected and played a variety of instruments over the years. According to the British Library, he also composed at least a couple dozen songs and instrumental pieces during his lifetime, many of which have remained popular examples of the era’s music. However, despite popular belief, his many musical accomplishments do not include composition of the tune “Greensleeves.”

4. Before rejecting the Catholic Church, Henry VIII wrote a bestseller defending it.

Before his request for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was denied (a request based on the belief that the Bible forbids a man to marry his brother’s widow) and he split from the church in 1533, Henry was an outspoken supporter of the Roman Catholic Church. His 1521 bestseller Assertio Septem Sacramentorum attacked Martin Luther and his Protestant proposals, earning Henry the title of "Defender of the Faith" from Pope Leo X.

5. Henry VIII became the Head of the Church of England—but never strayed far from Catholicism.

After marrying then-pregnant Anne Boleyn and being excommunicated by the Pope, Henry took on Thomas Cromwell as his minister and longtime partner in crime. Cromwell soon convinced him that breaking with Rome would be in the empire’s best interest. With Henry as its Supreme Head, the Church of England disbanded and dissolved the assets of hundreds of monasteries in the next few years, providing an influx of treasures for the Crown and prime land for gentry and churches to purchase. Nevertheless, Henry himself remained faithful to most of Catholicism’s tenets (except submitting to the Pope), despite growing Protestantism in England and at court.

6. Henry VIII upped England's naval strength tenfold.

Henry VIII became known as "the father of the Royal Navy" thanks to his enormous investment in developing the royal fleet. In his 37-year reign, he increased the number of royal warships from five to around 50, refitted others with new guns, established the Navy Board, and created the first British naval dock at Portsmouth.

7. Henry VIII fell for Anne Boleyn's personality—but it took a few years.

According to Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb, “The love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is shrouded in historical myth, romantic legend, cliché and half-truths … and remains fiercely debated by historians.” Case in point: Evidence from a wealth of personal letters and documents suggests that Henry and Anne didn't have a love-at-first-sight situation at all. When Anne first arrived at court, Lipscomb says, Henry was already well enamored with her older sister Mary, and it would be another four years before his gaze would land on Anne. Lipscomb points out, too, that Henry likely became enthralled by her intelligence, charm, and the worldliness she’d acquired through travel, rather than by her looks, which records suggest weren’t the stuff of Tudor legend.

8. Henry VIII was related to all of his wives ...

Henry VIII and his wives Jane Seymour, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr, Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard were all cousins by different degrees, each being descended from King Edward I.

9. ... Many of whom had worked for the others.

Prior to marrying Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Catherine Howard had all served as ladies in waiting to the queen, i.e. each other.

10. Henry VIII sentenced more men and women to death than any other monarch.

The later period of Henry’s reign saw the king becoming increasingly paranoid. (Some scientists have theorized that traumatic brain injuries from a jousting accident may have contributed to his bizarre behavior as he aged.) During that time, he sentenced an unusually large number of people to imprisonment in the Tower of London or to death, typically by beheading. According to some estimates, upwards of 72,000 people were executed during his reign.

11. Henry VIII executed Thomas Cromwell after the minister's matchmaking efforts failed.

For many years, Thomas Cromwell was Henry’s ruthless right hand (and a bit of a party animal himself), but not even he was immune to Henry's temper. When Cromwell, aiming to build up relations with the German Protestant alliance, set up Henry’s marriage to the German princess Anne of Cleves, the marriage was so disastrous that it ended in annulment just a few months later. As punishment for the bad match, Cromwell was executed for treason.

12. Henry VIII loved spending money ...

Unlike Henry VII, Henry VIII “loved to spend money,” according to the UK’s National Archives. He dished it out in huge sums for ordnance, armor, and “extravagant displays of wealth.” He worked to make sure money kept flowing in, too; before dissolving England’s monasteries, Henry commissioned the document Valor Ecclesiasticus, which outlined the expected income from the process ahead.

13. ... And gambled away a lot of his inheritance.

During a time when the whole royal court was "excessively fond of gambling" on board games, dice, cards, dog races, and anything with an uncertain outcome, Weir writes, Henry VIII was the leader of the pack. Any given evening, the Knight Marshal of the Household, who also served as bookie, would delight the group by instigating card games such as Click-Clack, Mumchance, Gleek, Imperial, or Henry's favorite, Primero, said to be the immediate ancestor of Poker (and which Henry was reportedly very bad at). Records show only losses for Henry—sometimes of hundreds of pounds per day—and suggest he gambled away almost a million pounds by today's standards between 1529 and 1532. In his lifetime, these high-rolling losses ate away a large portion of his kingly inheritance but never affected his gusto.

Many moral figures took issue with the royal gambling scene, however, and Henry attempted to make concessions to this group on several occasions. For example, in 1541, Weir explains, "Henry himself forbade anyone with an income of less than £20 to 'play any game for money,' making it clear he preferred such people to practice archery."

14. Henry VIII has no legitimate descendants alive today.

In terms of legitimate children born in wedlock, Henry VIII’s royal Tudor line ended with Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and his only acknowledged illegitimate child is Henry Fitzroy. However, Henry had well-documented affairs with at least two women, including Mary Boleyn Carey, Anne’s older sister. Some historians believe that Mary’s children Catherine and Henry were fathered by the king, which would mean that her many notable descendants—including H.R.H. Elizabeth II and Princess Diana of Wales—are also illegitimate descendants of Henry VIII himself. According to the UK’s The Spectator, “Henry VIII is almost certainly Kate Middleton’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather,” too, through the same family.

A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.

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