How can we explain the seeming paradox of King Henry IX — the son of the most Catholic Defender of the Faith King Henry VIII and pious Queen Katherine of Aragon — breaking with the Roman Catholic Church in 1558?
To understand this, we need to consider Henry IX’s formation. Just 18 months after his parents’ glittering joint coronation at Westminster Abbey, Prince Henry was born on New Year’s Day 1511 to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.
The romance between Henry and Katherine is one of the great love stories of history, so it is easily forgotten that she had previously been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur: at their wedding at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1501, the young Henry had walked Katherine down the aisle, and it is probably at that point that he conceived his desire for her.
She was his first love and marrying her was one of the first acts of his new reign. Until her death in 1536, he demonstrated his utter devotion to her by inscribing their intertwined initials on his armour, featuring her badge — the pomegranate — alongside his rose throughout his palaces, and even defying convention by wearing her favours in the lists.
The couple shared a love of music, dancing, entertainments and magnificence. Henry liked to hunt, Katherine to hawk; both rode fearlessly. They had both been highly educated and could converse in Latin and French as well as English, as some rueful ambassadors discovered. Their shared love of learning and patronage, and their mutual taste in devotional and theological works, explains many of the riches of the Royal Collection today.
In 1524 Venetian Marino Sanuto observed that Henry and Katherine were two separate bodies animated by one spirit and one mind. Theirs was almost a joint rulership: Henry trusted Katherine and was advised by her. Katherine’s parents, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, had adopted the motto tanto monta — each as important as the other — and it could equally have been applied to Henry and Katherine.
The history of the enduring affection and friendship between England and Spain can be traced to their marriage, as can England’s continuing Hispanophilia. Katherine was so revered by the women of the court that they adopted the Spanish style of dress: fitted bodices, wide sleeves, full skirts over farthingales, high-heeled clogs and the veil or mantilla, dispensing with the unattractive gable hoods that predated her.
Their union was consolidated by the arrival of their son and heir, and to mark the birth, guns rang out from the Tower, bells pealed, bonfires were lit in the streets of London, and wine flowed freely. After Prince Henry’s christening, his father rode to Walsingham to give thanks to Our Lady and held a great tournament at Westminster to celebrate, jousting astride a charger splendidly trapped in a caparison decorated with the initials “H” and “K”.
As the young prince grew into a sturdy boy, universally praised by foreign visitors to the court for his beauty, wit and strength, Katherine endured a further four pregnancies, but of them, only a daughter, Mary, would survive. We know her as Mary of England, Holy Roman Empress, beloved wife of Charles V, after their marriage in 1530.
But Prince Henry also had at least two half-siblings, since the king’s love for Katherine did not preclude the taking of mistresses: the beautiful Elizabeth Blount bore the king a son in 1519. The brothers were close, and Prince Henry suffered great grief when the younger boy died in 1536. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn — former lady-in-waiting to the queen, wife of James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, and the king’s mistress from 1527 — gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth, in 1533. Some historians have posited that the red-haired Lady Elizabeth Butler was the king’s daughter, but we will never know for certain. After Katherine of Aragon’s death in 1536, Henry VIII’s new wife Jane bore him a further son, Prince Edward, a year later.
Katherine’s influence can perhaps most be seen on Henry VIII’s religiosity. It was inspired by and to impress her that Henry wrote his book, Disputation on the Sacraments, refuting Luther and earning his title “Defender of the Faith”. Under the influence of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII also presided over the burnings of heretics in the 1530s and 1540s, including sacramentarian John Lambert and a married cleric called Thomas Cranmer.
On the same day as Henry VIII married for the third time to the young Catherine Howard (a marriage that would later be annulled by the pope when Catherine was discovered to have been pre-contracted in marriage), Henry had renowned heretic and former servant to Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, burnt at Smithfield. Recent research has suggested, however, that Henry’s fourth and final wife, Kateryn Parr, may have been a Lutheran. She successfully hid her heresy from the king, but her influence on the young Prince Edward was strong. By his early teens, he showed dangerous signs of Lutheran leanings.
In 1539, Prince Henry married Anne, a young duchess from Cleves who was just four years his junior. Their betrothal portraits by Hans Holbein show Anne’s attractive face, dark brown eyes under long lashes, and alluring half-smile, and Prince Henry, then in his late 20s. He is auburn-haired like his parents, with pale skin, a round face, blue eyes and a long nose reminiscent of his maternal grandmother, Isabel of Castile.
When Henry VIII died in January 1547, the prince acceded to the throne as King Henry IX at the age of 35. Tall, winsome and popular, he and his much-loved Queen were already parents to four daughters: Isabella — named for both her great-grandmothers — Maria, Sybille and Katherine. Henry IX was therefore the first adult married king with heirs to inherit the throne since Henry V, demonstrating the success of the Tudor succession.
Prince Edward remained Henry’s heir presumptive until his death in 1553 (their siister Mary died in 1558), but Henry and Anne had prepared for any eventuality and, inspired by the long traditions of female rule in both their families, they raised their daughters to be queens. The girls were polyglots, educated in Latin, Greek, French, German and Spanish; they were exposed early to the strategies and realities of rule.
Following the observance of the Trastámara family of his mother and the example of his father, Henry IX was a devoutly Catholic king. His piety can be traced from his youth: the Library of England has an autographed copy of a prayer in an illustrated devotional Book of Hours, inscribed in a childish hand “The prayer of Sainte Thomas of Aquine translated out of Latine into Englyshe by ye most exselent Prince Henry son to the most high and mighty Prynce and Prynces Kyng Henry the VIII and Quene Kateryne hys wyfe”. Both Henry and Anne had been raised as Erasmian Catholics, while Henry received a humanist education at his mother’s hands.
As a result, he came to be one of Europe’s great reforming Catholic monarchs. Many of the abuses of the late medieval Church, such as simony and pluralism, were tackled by the king’s Court of Reformation. Decrees were issued on clerical morals, seminaries were established and doctrinal statements reaffirmed the importance of the Mass, pilgrimages and the veneration of saints and relics. The reform of the monasteries in the 1550s explains why the monastic tradition in England remains so rich today, and why our great medieval libraries, such as that at Glastonbury, continue to attract scholars from around the world.
Unlike his parents, however, Henry IX immediately ended the execution of heretics, and sponsored the translation of the Bible into English – the King Henry Bible. And it was this, and the extent of his reforms, that led to the clash with Rome. Urging further reform and tolerance on the Vatican, Henry IX ran into opposition from the austere, anti-Semitic Pope Paul IV, who was a bitter enemy of Catholic humanism. The English king was publicly accused of harbouring heretics and was privately suspected to be a hidden Lutheran. Establishing himself as Supreme Governor of the Church in England in 1558 was the only way for Henry IX to protect the advances that had been made. This was a fundamental step in the shaping of English national identity as a land of liberal, tolerant and catholic — but not Roman Catholic — believers.
So it was that a most Catholic king, from most Catholic parents, came to break with Rome. When Henry died 30 years later, aged 77, and was succeeded by his daughter, Queen Isabella I — England’s first queen regnant — she could unproblematically adopt the iconography of the Virgin Mary, while reigning as Supreme Governor of the Church.
Historical note: On 22 February 1511, Prince Henry, the firstborn son of King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon, died at the age of seven weeks.