Horrible history? How Henry VIII left his mark on our region

The old adage goes that it is not the things you do in life, but those that you don't, that you will come to regret.

Henry VIII
Henry VIII

It is doubtful that applied to Henry VIII. Henry was never known for shying away from bold decisions, and he certainly packed a fair bit into his 37 years on the throne. But regrets? He probably had a few.

This week marks 530 years since the birth of one of the most notorious monarchs ever to have ruled this nation. And you do not have to look far around the West Midlands to see his legacy. The ruined priories of Dudley and Much Wenlock, the abbeys of Halesowen, Buildwas, near Ironbridge, and Haughmond, near Shrewsbury, are all testament to his bloody rule. And all because he married a girl from Ludlow.

All right, that might be stretching things a bit. Catherine of Aragon was actually born in Madrid. And it is probably a little unfair to blame the girl who was betrothed to Henry's big brother Arthur at the age of three for all of her second husband's excesses. But what is beyond doubt is that Britain today would have looked very different were it not for Henry's marriage to Catherine, who had lived with Arthur at Ludlow Castle.

Catherine of Aragon

As the second son of King Henry VII, the young Henry never expected to take the throne, and enjoyed a much more relaxed upbringing than his older brother. Nevertheless, royal children had to grow up fast in those days, and at the age of 10 he bore much of the responsibility for organising Arthur's wedding.

Arthur, who was himself just 15 at the time of the nuptials, realised his life would be dictated by royal duties from a very early age. He was not quite three years old when he was betrothed to Spanish princess Catherine, as part of his father's ambitions to improve relations with Spain. The proposed marriage formed part of a wide-ranging trade deal, which certainly puts the Northern Ireland 'sausage war' into context.

In 1499, when the couple had reached the ripe-old age of 13, a 'marriage by proxy' – a sort of medieval equivalent of the draft Brexit agreement – took place at Tickenhall Manor in Bewdley.

Ludlow Castle, home to Catherine of Aragon during her first marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales

While previous royal weddings tended to be understated and often carried out in secret, Henry VII was determined his eldest son's marriage was going to be a full-blown public spectacle. He was a pioneer of what is these days called 'soft power', and put on a glittering show of pageantry to emphasise the strength and legitimacy of the Tudor monarchy.

There were a few loose ends to be tied up first though. Such as the annoyingly persistent claims to the throne by Perkin Warbeck – who reckoned he was the long-lost Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York – and Edward Plantagenat, the last genuine Yorkist prince. Henry senior smoothed matters over by having the two pretenders executed, which was enough to convince Catherine's parents that young Arthur was suitable marriage material.

The interior of St Paul's Cathedral was reconfigured specially for the wedding on November 14, 1501, and the Royal Family got the hoi-polloi on board by offering an unlimited free wine fountain at the door of the church.

Haughmond Abbey, near Shrewsbury

As the happy couple were both only 15, the King thought they would probably need a bit of on-the-job training before they were ready to inherit the crown. The tradition in those days was for the heir to become President of the Council of Wales and the Marches, a sort of modern apprenticeship scheme for medieval rulers. For Arthur and Catherine, this meant moving to Ludlow Castle, although Arthur would not live long enough to complete his induction. In April, 1502, just five months into the marriage, Arthur died suddenly, leaving his younger brother Henry as the heir.

While Henry inherited his brother's title as Prince of Wales, he never did move to Ludlow. However, following the death of his father in 1509, one of his first acts as King was to announce his engagement to Catherine.

Unlike his elder brother's spectacular wedding some eight year's earlier, Henry's marriage to Catherine was a quiet, low-key affair at the Friar's Church in Greenwich on June 11, 1509.

St James Priory in Dudley fell into a state of ruin after being dissolved by Henry VIII

It seemed the new King was keeping the pomp and ceremony for the coronation, which took place 13 days later at Westminster Abbey. As the King and his new Queen made their way to the ceremony, "the barons of the Cinq Ports held canopies over the royal couple who trod on striped cloth of ray, which was immediately cut up by the crowd when they had entered the abbey," said a report from the time.

A few days later, Catherine wrote to her father, "our time is spent in continuous festival".

Not everyone was celebrating though. Edmund Dudley, whose grandfather John Sutton was the first baron of Dudley Castle, had become something of a hate figure after introducing a punitive and arbitrary tax system during the reign of Henry's father. The new King realised that his subjects would not be too sorry to see the back of Dudley and his loyal sidekick Sir Roger Empson, and two days after the coronation he had the rapacious duo arrested for treason. They were beheaded the following year. Populism could be a brutal thing in those days.

Wenlock Abbey was another casualty of Henry's split with the Catholic church

Henry's marriage to Catherine lasted for nearly 24 years, and it was relatively happy save for one thing – her failure to produce an heir. The couple had celebrated the birth of their only son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, on January 1, 1511, with great fanfare, but he died after just 52 days. His subsequent attempts to produce an heir resulted only in daughters, and when it became clear that Catherine was unlikely to bear any more children, he became increasingly concerned about how he would maintain the Tudor dynasty.

Henry became preoccupied with a sentence in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, "If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless."

There is much debate about whether Henry actually believed he had committed a great sin by marrying his brother's widow, or whether it was simply because he had become infatuated with the much younger Anne Boleyn who was, of course, of child-bearing age. But either way, when he asked the Pope for an annulment, he was turned down flat.

Of course, his break-up with Catherine and subsequent marriage to Anne led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church and the breakaway of the Church of England with the monarch as its head.

In retaliation he shut down the Catholic monasteries and abbeys, many of which were left to fall into a state of ruin, although he allowed the great church at Shrewsbury Abbey to remain in use for the people in the town.

Henry's marriage to Anne did not produce a son either, and within three years the marriage was annulled and Anne was beheaded. His third marriage to Jane Seymour did produce the heir Henry so desperately longed for, but at the cost of Jane's life 12 days after giving birth.

He married three more times, his marriage to Anne of Cleeves being annulled after six months, his union with Catherine Howard ending with another beheading after 18 months, and his last wife, Catherine Parr, outliving the King.

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