Dear Henry VIII: Just Because I Don’t Care Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Understand

Got into a conversation about the Church of England recently. This one was about the ignominious legend of its beginnings – the “Henry VIII wanted to get up Anne Boleyn’s skirts” version.

I’m not sure which version of “the difference between empathy and sympathy” we’re on, but as a disclaimer: I don’t exactly stan Henry VIII. He was an unrepentant lech and a murderer. I don’t blame his six wives for dumping him to form a rock group. (Broadway musicals are legitimate historical sources, right?)

But the ignominious version of Henry’s decision to break away from the church is simplistic to the point of inaccuracy. It leaves out a lot.

To put it in context, we need to go back to Henry’s childhood.

Henry wasn’t raised for the throne. He was raised to enter the Church. The assumption throughout his childhood was that his brother Arthur would be king and Henry would be a priest or a monk or somesuch.

As both the son of a king and a child headed for the orders, Henry’s sense of himself is shaped by a sense of theological destiny – that God intended him to be born exactly who he was, where he was, for a specific purpose. This is a major driver of his ego but also of his more considered decisions – like the CoE split.

So Long, Camelot

Elder brother Arthur marries Catherine of Aragon (then quite young and by all accounts extremely pretty). Elder brother Arthur celebrates this accomplishment by dying.

That leaves Henry to take the throne. Ideally (for political reasons), it also gives Henry a built-in wife, Catherine.

Henry’s childhood sense of Having a Destiny takes on a new significance: He’s convinced that God not only intends him to be king but to “save” Catherine from a lifetime of dowager spinsterhood.

There’s just one problem. It’s a big problem. It is, ultimately, the problem that will split the Church of England from Rome. The problem is that Catherine is Henry’s brother’s wife.

You Can’t Marry Your Brother’s Wife…

You can’t marry your brother’s wife. According to Leviticus. God will punish you for this by causing the land to “vomit you out” (Leviticus 18) or cause the couple to be childless (Leviticus 20:21).

…But you kinda can, according to Deuteronomy, if the goal is to ensure your brother doesn’t die childless?

Anyway, fortunately for Henry, the Pope eventually decides to grant a dispensation so that Henry and Catherine can get married.

…Except When You Can?

The Pope’s dispensation becomes the crux of Henry’s entire church-related problem and a huge factor in his decision to split from Rome. It’s also pretty baffling to the 21st century mind. We’re used to laws operating in a very dry, material sense. We’re also not used to ascribing magic powers to leadership.

Yet the dispensation operates much more like magic than like a permit from city hall.

The Pope isn’t just some dude in a funny hat. To Henry, Catherine, and the rest of the Holy Roman Empire, the Pope is the chief justice of Wizard Court. God said a thing? Pope can say “okay, but not in this instance.”

(This power derives from the passage in Matthew 16 where Jesus gives Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”)

Here, God said he’d leave childless any man who married his brother’s wife and/or vomit him out of his land. The Pope says “nah, not in this instance.” So Henry and Catherine should be able to have an heir – a child who ensures the Tudor name stays firmly on the throne of England, right?

About that.

Daughters are So Easy to Forget

Fast-forward a decade or so. Henry and Catherine have, in fact, produced several children! Some of them were even boys! But only one, a daughter, manages to survive infancy.

Please ignore everything you know about infant mortality prior to the discovery of handwashing. Remember, Henry doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Henry is getting concerned that the Pope’s Pope-ing power may be…not so great. Supposedly, the Pope said he was free to marry Catherine without invoking childlessness and loss of his kingdom. Yet he still has no heir, without whom he is functionally childless and about to lose his kingdom.

Henry does what he was trained to do from birth: He resorts to studying theology and trying to sort out this puzzle for himself. He does this within the context of the early Reformation. Brilliant minds all over Europe are wrestling with similar questions about Scripture and magic Pope powers and what have you.

Some of them are even more brilliant and well-read than Henry, and that’s saying something, since his sons’ education was about the only thing his father was willing to spend money on. But I digress.

(Henry actually goes through several Popes during these years, but because we’re interested in the power ascribed to the role and not the individuals occupying it, I’m collapsing them all into “the Pope.”)

Enter the Sexy Lady Who’s Not His Wife

No, not Anne Boleyn. Henry’s mistress, Bessie Blount.

Henry’s mistress, Bessie Blount, who gives birth to his son. A healthy baby boy who manages to make it all the way to adulthood (eventually). A son Henry names Henry Fitzroy (“Kingson”), just to make it clear that he did, in fact, manage to produce a son all by himself!

(Mistresses are also easy to forget.)

Henry Fitzroy’s existence is perhaps the point of no return for the relationship between Henry and the Pope. Henry Fitzroy is proof that Henry can in fact have a healthy son. Henry Fitzroy’s birth and survival prove that God’s wrath on Henry VIII doesn’t extend beyond the bounds of Henry’s relationship with Catherine.

Henry Fitzroy’s existence proves that Henry VIII can break one of the Ten Commandments and God will give him a son, but Henry VIII can’t do whatever his marriage with Catherine is doing and expect to have a son.

Old Habits Die Hard

Even here, though, Henry’s not ready to leave the Church. Instead, Henry does what any loyal and pious subject of Rome would do in this situation: He asks the Pope for an annulment.

An annulment isn’t a divorce. A divorce says “this marriage existed once but now it is over.” An annulment says “this marriage was never actually a marriage in the first place, ever.”

Again, this has some magical God effects. It also has the benefit of allowing Catherine to save face. She’s not some divorced harlot! She’s a pious lady doing her best, and it’s not her fault the menfolk screwed up!

Pope says no. Pope says “that dispensation I gave you should be enough.”

…Okay, but back at court, the fact that Henry Fitzroy is running around enjoying life is pretty clear proof it ain’t, your Popeship.

Also, Henry has met Anne Boleyn, who gives him major pantsfeels. Even better, Anne is (as far as he knows) a virgin who has never been married or betrothed or any such thing. Even better, she’s really into this whole Reformation thing (unlike his boring wife Catherine), which further encourages Henry to believe she’s the one God is calling him to bone marry. God should have no problem blessing Henry with a bunch of bouncing baby Boleyn boys. Right?

Rome Wasn’t Abandoned in a Day

It’s only when the Pope makes it clear Henry will not receive help for his problem from Rome that Henry decides the Church in England needs to be the Church of England.

Why not? If the head of the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t actually have magical wizard powers to gainsay God, then no church needs an actual magical wizard running it. Any ordinary egomaniac will do.

If the Reformation and emerging Renaissance are teaching Henry anything, it’s that there’s no actual wizardry involved in the Church. Like Soylent Green, it’s made of people. People who make mistakes. People who can’t actually end-run God.

Maybe God gave Henry all that early theological education, then made him king, then took him through marrying Catherine, precisely because God needed someone to figure out it was time to leave Rome. A pretty solid conclusion for Henry to reach, given the evidence (and his ego).

And if the Church isn’t magical, why are we piling up money inside it like it deserves sacrifices? Surely there are better uses for those funds. Like Nonesuch Palace, that towering edifice for the ages.


Henry VIII was an unlikeable lech and a murderer. He also spent years working through the theological implications of his situation, assisted by the best education money could buy and the work of theologians far smarter than he was. He genuinely believed that an independent Church of England was the best course of action for a secure Christian England – expressed, of course, by continued Tudor kingship.

If you made it this far and learned anything at all, please buy me a coffee.