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Henry VIII
Henry VIII

Henry VIII (1491-1547) separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Reformation in England. He helped England become one of the world's greatest naval powers, but spent his father's fortune on foreign wars. Henry is also famous for his six wives. His private life greatly influenced English political history. He was sometimes autocratic and sometimes cruel. But he understood his people and knew how to hold their confidence.

When Henry came to the throne in 1509, his first act was to marry his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine bore five children, but only one lived-Mary, who later became queen. Henry wanted a son. He turned his attentions to a maid of honour at court, Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's able and ambitious chief minister, asked Pope Clement VII to annul the king's marriage. He argued that it was wrong for Henry to have married his brother's widow. But the pope refused, and Henry dismissed Wolsey in 1529.

The king was determined to have his divorce. He denied that the pope had authority over England, and secretly married Anne Boleyn early in 1533. Henry's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine null and void. Anne was then crowned queen.

At Henry's insistence, parliament passed two acts in 1534 that made the break with the Roman Catholic Church complete. One declared that the pope had no authority in England. The other, the Act of Supremacy, made the Church of England a separate institution, and it also established the king as its supreme head. The two acts officially established the Reformation in England.

Anne bore Henry a second daughter, Elizabeth. Then in 1536, the king had his wife beheaded on a charge of infidelity. Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, died shortly after the birth of a son, the future Edward VI.

At the urging of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, Henry married a German princess, Anne of Cleves. But Cromwell was disgraced and executed, and Henry divorced Anne. The king later married Catherine Howard, who, in 1542, was convicted of misconduct and executed. Henry's sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr (1512-1548), outlived him.