28 January 1547 – The death of Henry VIII and accession of Edward VI

On Friday 28th January 1547 the fifty-five-year-old King Henry VIII died at the Palace of Whitehall.

His death was kept secret until 31st January, giving the King’s Council time to discuss what was going to happen regarding the accession of Henry VIII’s nine-year-old son, Edward, who became King Edward VI.

Chroniclers Edward Hall and Charles Wriothesley recorded the King’s death:

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Also, on this day in history, on 28th January 1457, thirteen-year-old Margaret Beaufort gave birth to a son at Pembroke Castle, West Wales. The infant was named Henry after his half-uncle Henry VI.

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5 thoughts on “28 January 1547 – The death of Henry VIII and accession of Edward VI”
  1. It would be interesting to know how widely mourned Henry VIII actually was. We have the official propaganda put forward by chroniclers like Edward Hall that suggests Henry was loved and adored by his subjects, who regarded him as a majestic figure, a prince above all other princes, but were these chroniclers reporting widespread sentiment, or putting their own spin on how contemporaries viewed Henry? Certainly, he had ruled for nearly forty turbulent years, and captured the minds of his contemporaries. This contemporary fascination with Henry VIII has never gone away; even today, he is probably Britain’s most famous monarch, and thousands visit Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London, Hever Castle, Windsor Castle, and Leeds Castle every year. All of these places are associated with Henry VIII.

    But how successful was Henry VIII as a monarch, and does he deserve to be celebrated? I’m not sure. We have the likes of Alison Weir exonerating Henry from every bad decision that was made, and then we have historians who are fiercely critical of him and believe that he was a tyrant, a murderer. I am currently reading Gareth Russell’s fascinating new book and even in his treatment of Anne of Cleves, which has tended to be regarded as rather positive, Henry was content to humiliate and shame her. All of her correspondence from her brother had to be read first by the king before it was passed on to her. Her body was slandered as ugly, disfigured; Henry questioned her virginity and effectively prevented her from remarrying, if she was so inclined. According to her ambassador, Anne wept and tormented herself when the annulment decision was announced to her in July 1540. She wanted to be England’s queen, her family had prepared her for a glorious destiny as queen, and she knew that the annulment shamed and dishonoured both herself and her kin. According to contemporary evidence, Anne was widely liked, for she had the dignity, grace and kindness that was expected in a queen. Indeed, she was possibly Henry’s most popular wife after Katherine of Aragon.

    Henry VIII’s reign may have seemed to herald a golden age, at least to begin with, but by the time the Reformation was ushered in and the break with Rome, during the late 1520s, it was all beginning to go sour. Historians – and novelists – have traditionally portrayed Anne Boleyn, the temptress, as responsible for Henry’s metamorphosis into a tyrant and lecher, but the signs were always there. Early on in his kingship, two of his father’s hated ministers were executed on dubious charges of treason. Cardinal Wolsey’s failure to provide the annulment led to his disgrace and sudden death; he was fortunate to escape execution, but his treatment showcased Henry’s ability to look past a lifetime of loyalty and service, and instead focus on how an individual had disappointed him. In Henry’s eyes, when someone disappointed him, they deserved to be punished. Cardinal Wolsey was punished, as were Thomas More and John Fisher when they refused to accept the break with Rome. Their executions caused shock across the continent. Never mind that More had been one of the king’s oldest friends and Fisher had been a confidant and admirer of Henry’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was renowned for her piety and devotion. What would she have made of her grandson’s escalation into tyranny and cruelty?

    But it did not end there. Katherine of Aragon was virtually imprisoned in a succession of lonely castles in the middle of nowhere, but her subjects did not forget her. To them, she remained the rightful queen, and Katherine and her daughter, Mary, continued to be admired and loved. Evidence of how popular Mary was can be seen in the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, when the rebels demanded that she be reinstated to the succession. When Mary came to the throne, public rejoicing greeted her accession and the fountains flowed with wine. Anne Boleyn, who may not have wanted to marry Henry in the first place, lost her life after suffering possibly two miscarriages and the king sought to virtually erase her from history. Very few believed that she was guilty of the charges brought against her, even her enemies admitted the courage and dignity she showed at her trial and execution. Archbishop Cranmer, who had been close to Anne, wept and believed that she would reign as a queen in heaven. Henry turned his back on a woman to whom he had been devoted for ten years, he tried to rewrite her out of history, he bastardised their infant daughter, and he remarried less than two weeks later. And yet, historians continue to exonerate Henry’s behaviour and to make Anne, the victim, appear responsible for her death.

    The religious tensions and political conflict escalated in the late 1530s and early 1540s, with the conservatives and radical reformers becoming increasingly polarised, both at court and elsewhere. In 1538, the Poles – who were royal by virtue of their Plantagenet blood – were rounded up, arrested and interrogated for maintaining correspondence with Reginald and for sympathising with the old religion. Several were executed in the so-called Exeter Conspiracy, but again, there were questions about whether any of them were even guilty. Margaret Pole, who was not far short of her seventieth birthday and had been loyal to Henry and his father since the Tudors had come to power in 1485, was arrested, convicted without a trial, and executed in a heinous display of brutality. Thomas Cromwell, whom many blamed for the religious and political divides, went to the block in 1540, on the same day that Henry married Katherine Howard. She too was executed along with three of her friends while still in her teens; even today historians question what she was guilty of.

    Katherine Parr also annoyed the king on several occasions and was fortunate to escape imprisonment and possibly even worse. The king permitted his daughters to reside at court, but they remained bastards, a stigma in those days. Elizabeth, in particular, was placed in a difficult position, and even when she became queen she never had herself made legally illegitimate, for to do so would be to question her father’s motives and behaviour. But there is evidence that Elizabeth revered her mother’s memory and did not believe in her guilt. Henry’s reign closed with the execution of the earl of Surrey, again on dubious charges; his father, the duke of Norfolk, was fortunate to escape execution, and eventually went on to serve Mary.

    So should Henry VIII be viewed as a great monarch? I don’t believe so, for compared to his father – characterised by many as mean-spirited and unfeeling – Henry VIII’s reign comprised cruelty, bloodshed and faction. He turned his back on those who disappointed him, including Wolsey, More, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Katherine Howard. His daughters were publicly branded bastards and both suffered emotional distress as a result, especially Mary who was placed in a difficult position during the annulment years; whose side should she take? Thousands were tortured and executed during Henry’s reign; novel punishments were introduced, including being boiled alive as a poisoner. Even thinking against the king was legally deemed to be treason. Many suffered due to the whims of the king, and past loyalty and a lifetime of service were never enough. Imprisonment and execution were possible fates for everyone.

  2. Henry Viii is a monarch of two halves. Yes a few political executions happened early on, but they are few and far between. Epsom and Dudley were a pair of scumbags, exploiting the citizens and merchants of London with fines, blackmail and extortion. They were deeply unpopular, so Henry played to the clammour and executed them….good for him. They may not have been guilty of treason ….but so what, they were guilty of plenty of other things, some of which carried the death penalty anyway.

    De la Pole was next, being executed in 1513 on dubious charges, but technically he had already been condemned. Henry was off to war and cleaned house. It may not have been fair, but it was prudent not to leave a potential rival, no definite rival in the Tower, while everyone is away fighting. It may look tyrannical but it was viewed as sensible. There is no evidence that Henry was a tyrant at this time. He was universally praised as anything but.

    There was then over 500 rebels and rioters, some of whom had committed murder in May 1517 who were pardoned. 12 ringleaders were, however, brutally executed, but on the orders of Norfolk and Suffolk, not the King. Henry gave them leave to deal with things as Wolsey and Fox ran his council then and Henry was the warrior and party King. He set up a Henry gracious lord showcase and publicly pardoned them to great rejoicing.

    The third political execution was harder to fathom. There is a mystery over Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, for his execution appears to be based on false evidence planted by Wolsey. We all know the story…but here’s a brief recap. Story goes that Buckingham was a big head, proud of his heritage and scornful of new men (Buckingham was actually a charitable and generous man, skilled in statecraft, high in rank to be second to the King at official ceremony, in fact he was his Marshal in France in 1520, plus very popular); so he was accepting the honour to hold the bowel for the King to wash his hands, but when Wolsey put his hands in, Buckingham threw the water over his feet. Henry made him apologise and buy him a new robe. At some point Henry, affected by the fact he only had a daughter, who was nevertheless treated as his heir, became suspicious about Buckingham and others and Wolsey watching, decided the time had come. He hears Buckingham is building a private army, which he probably actually needed as he was going to his Welsh estates as an escort, so he alerts the King. Henry ordered him to court for New Year, accepts his gift and Buckingham left in a huff. According to the story he went home to take oaths of allegiance and was then plotting to seek audience with Henry, stab him and hey presto he is King. The Cardinal had a spy in his household and this is what he claimed to hear. Buckingham was set up, arrested and tried, but the shock was his being found guilty. He believed his peers would not do so. He was executed, with dignity, not in tears as in the Tudors. It is, however, more likely that he was set up and a nieve, not tyrannical King persuaded he really was plotting to kill him. Norfolk and Katherine, his friend, intervened, but Henry refused and was influenced by the Cardinal. This was not a trace of tyranny, but insecurity. Many other kings and queens executed nobles, so why condemn Henry for one or two in the first 22 years of his reign? It would be another ten years before the next political execution under Henry after Buckingham.

    AB makes a very valid point about his discarding of Wolsey after so many years of service, but a tyrant would have killed him. Henry only reluctantly ordered his arrest and this was after being nagged by Anne Boleyn and others. I don’t believe he would have executed him and Henry was distressed at his passing. When Wolsey first fell he was merely dismissed. Henry was faced with serious evidence that Wolsey was on the make; he ordered an investigation and many of the charges were true. Wolsey could have gone to prison for life, even been executed for some of the charges, but Henry pardoned most of them, fined him, then gave him a generous pension and allowed him to retire to York. He sent him gifts and it was only as more charges arose that he had him arrested. I think Henry was insecure as he this time allowed himself to be influenced by Norfolk, Boleyn and Suffolk, this time. Still, at the end of the day his treatment of Wolsey had been measured and self controlled. In fact Henry resisted attempts to charge Wolsey with treason.

    Henry became more intense and likely to act harshly after his marriage to Anne Boleyn, not because Anne pushed his buttons, but as a result of his and Cromwell’s legislation to protect the heirs of his new marriage and to combat those who publicly opposed the setting aside of Katherine of Aragon, which the Treason Act 1534 applied the death penalty to. As AB rightly points out it is now the second Henry begins to emerge. He sets more easily aside Thomas More and John Fisher, despite long years of service, but it has also been argued that they knew the sentence attached to the Acts of Succession and Supremacy. There was also a long delay in their execution. Henry attempted on several occasions to get them to change their minds. Having passed the new laws, he was now bound by them. Parliament made the laws, Henry could argue this justified his actions. It was treason to deny the King his titles and this was only part of his legal argument against them. A tyrant would not have even bothered with a trial or legislation. A tyrant would also ignore international law and Parliament. Henry was clever enough to make the law, old traditional laws, plus Parliament work for him and his personality aided in the setting up of this legislation. Yes, I think that by now Henry was becoming crueller and more controlling, but he still had some decent qualities too. Anne and Henry had good times together, he still partied, he still jousted, he still negotiated, he still kept up with science and medical advances, he still had scholars at court, he could still be very approachable. His other side began to emerge, however, with the treatment of his wife and daughter, Mary and Katherine. His behaviour became more erratic, ruthless, more like a tyrant following three events…the fall in January 1536, Anne’s death and his total belief that the woman he had torn the world apart to have had betrayed him with his friends and the loss of an unborn son. Henry did not turn overnight, it took a few more years, but the tyranny began from 1537 onwards.

    It must be pointed out that a great number of the very many political deaths from his last eight years on the throne are connected to his religious changes and his fight with Rome. Most of the high borns he has arrested are from the old Catholic families who pay lip service to his reformation and Supremacy. The Poles are set up by Cromwell. The nonsense of the Exeter Conspiracy is a complete crock, but by 1538/9 Henry has become quite paranoid, lost his third wife, only has one young son to succeed him. It made him very insecure and open to evidence that the plot was real. This and the writing from abroad by Cardinal Reginald Pole, put the family under suspicion. Henry rounded them up as he could not get Reginald. His compliance in this shows clear evidence of tyranny. His execution of their mother shows he was becoming unreasonable. He justified this as clearing house, which was very cruel, but how he saw it. Yet, even now there was another side to Henry.

    Henry did the right thing annulling his fourth marriage, it would have made them both miserable and once Anne got over her initial feelings of humiliation and natural distress, she accepted what happened, agreed and did very well thanks. Henry did indeed check her letters, well, given his growing paranoia plus Katherine of Aragon’s complaints to the Emperor, he had every right to do so, in his mind, as he saw it to ensure Anne was towing the Henry line. Anne, though was actually quite happy, she recovered from her shock and in fact chose to remain in England. She could go home but that would have been embarrassing, she could also marry. Henry did not slander her virginity. He made a passing remark in private, which everyone knew was nonsense. He only had it in testimony but this was known to only a few people. It was not common knowledge. Anne saw a different Henry and for most of their marriage Katherine Howard did also. Her demise and alleged betrayal hardened him even further.

    Yes, the guilt of Katherine Howard is debatable, but her behaviour was reckless and Henry acted patiently at first. From his point of view, however, at the end of the day, her alleged actions put him and the realm in danger. His actions are very cluel indeed, but Henry could find a reason to justify anything. If Katherine was thinking she could marry someone else after his death she was guilty of treason. It was not this however that the Act of Attainer focused on. It was living a base and immoral life, meant to shock and blacken her name. If you can paint a woman as a wh*re, you can make them appear guilty of anything. This is a man in blind panic and anger. The tyrant is revealed.

    The last decade of Henry Viii saw a whole list of executions and wife swapping, but it also saw a number of achievements. Henry had already founded the royal navy, naval schools and now he added to these. He rebuilt many schools, he built our coastal and boarder defences, many of which were used in both world wars. Henry reformed our medical association by foundation of the two medical schools and by licensing doctors. It could be argued that he made England more independent, raising our standing abroad, he built numerous palaces and expanded the royal libaries. He also made weapons more advanced, minng more efficient, increasing the production of iron and bronze, which were produced on an industrial scale, he mzy have destroyed the monasteries, but he also revolutionised the image of monarchy and art, he allowed, if reluctantly the Bible in English and to some his reformation was a good thing. Henry also laid down the the foundations of local government, made the council meet daily to sort out ordinary problems and he left us a legend to debate about. He may or not be a tyrant, I believe the verdict can never be finished with Henry Viii, but we certainly have a lot to talk about with Henry and the Tudors. He also used an effective propaganda machine go promote his new monarchy well. For some reason, Henry, in spite of everything remained respected, even if he was no longer loved. He was mourned widely. His daughters certainly saw something in him as they followed many of his methods. Elizabeth became a female version of her father and his image became the basis of her own creating herself as a subject of worship.

    Henry was such a presence that people didn’t know how to cope if he died. This is normal as he affected everyone and everything around him, for good or bad. He was also around for a couple of generations. As with Elizabeth, Victoria, George iii, Henry iii, every long reigned ruler in history, especially ones who brought about the tremendous changes he did, few people could recall life before him. These men and women were remembered as great or as contributing to history for one simple reason, they were around long enough to make an impact.

    RIP Henry Viii and here’s to you. Tyrant, great King or bit of both? Or is Henry just Henry?

  3. I am reading about the arrest, torture and execution of a fourteen year old apprentice called Richard Meekins in 1540. I understand that execution was the required penalty for heresy, but there is evidence that even Henry’s subjects were horrified and discontent about the harsh penalties inflicted on those who were condemned. Maybe it’s personal state, I just personally think that his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and his father Henry VII were more effective rulers and I don’t believe Mary or Henry VII get the credit they deserve.

  4. Henry is certainly our most colourful monarch and he has divided opinion amongst historians and his biographers over wether he was a great or bad King, I think the truth is somewhere inbetween, if you list his achievements next to his deeds of cruelty what scores the highest? I think the sacking of the monasteries was dreadful and the executions of his two wives, also the executions of some of his most loyal ministers because they wouldn’t sign the act of supremacy, yet the building of the navy and the break with Rome are his best achievements although to the Catholics it isn’t, now I know we all think Anne Boleyn was innocent so her death is the more shocking, yet the death of his second queen to me seems the more horrendous because she was little more than a girl and her only crime to me seemed to be one of ignorance and indiscretion, her hysteria that followed her arrest and interrogation has me picturing in my mind a very young fearful girl weeping alone in a locked room and I find that scene so pitiable, she was completely at the mercy of this fearsome man and it’s like a dark fairytale, a young beautiful girl at the mercy of the ogre of the forest, I wish he had pardoned Catherine he wept before his council and was devastated when he heard the full truth of her behaviour, after discussion with his council maybe Henry had no choice but to sign her death warrant, was she actually charged with treason as her behaviour did certainly suggest she had wronged the King, she was executed for immorality before her marriage and for her secret meetings with her lover after her marriage, wether they were innocent or not her behaviour was not the right way for the Queen of England to behave and Cupleper like the idiot he was confessed he intended to do more with the Queen and she with him, talk about hanging yourself! Such talk was treason and rashly he had then signed both their death warrants, The penalty for treason was death and for a queen to betray her husband she was thus guilty of this most serious of crimes, the way Margaret Pole was allegedly dragged out of her cell to be butchered on Tower green for no crime other than being related to her traitorous son Cardinal Pole is an act of dreadful brutality I agree and there was no excuse for that, there was no justification for beheading an elderly lady of seventy just because Henry couldn’t execute her son, she was his cousin and in fact her own father the Duke of Clarence had also died violently, she may have thought of that in her last terror stricken moments, it was acts like that that blacken Henrys name and gave him the label ‘tyrant’, with his fourth wife Anne of Cleves he did in fact after she agreed to the anullment of their marriage grew quite fond of her and she was often invited to court, she was treated with respect and was a rich lady living in comfortable palaces and this is what I find so sad about his first wife, Katherine also could have lived in comfort had she not opposed Henry, on television there was a programme about Henry and the palaces he built, he was its true a great builder of palaces and this is one of his other achievements, the one he spent vast amounts of money on was Nonsuch which was called the grandest of all his royal residences but it has long since gone, all we have are some paintings and a sketch of its grandeur, it was a building Henry was proud of and wanted it to emulate all his others, his court was described as the most opulent and richest in Europe, it was said to dazzle the eye and at the head of it was King Henry V111, the most handsomest intelligent charismatic King in the world, and even in old age he had that charisma which he passed onto his daughter Elizabeth, the only child of his to have inherited his glittering personality, his reign was one of bloodshed and he did commit many cruel acts, his relentless pursuit of a prince made him treat one wife with appalling cruelty and behead another, he set himself up as Head Of The Church and shook England free from the yoke of Rome forever, (strangely I find parallels in that act with our country today in breaking free from the EU), the founding of the Church of England of which our current monarch is head of now and has been ever since Henry V111, that I feel was his greatest achievement as it has endured, if I was to have the chance of choosing a dinner guest at my table out of all the enigmatic people in the world, dead and living, I would choose King Henry V111, what tales I could tell for posterity.

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