“You often boast to me that you have the king’s ear and often have fun with him, freely and according to your whims. This is like having fun with tamed lions – often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal.”
On Friday 28th January 1547, the man who had started his reign as a ‘Virtuous Prince’ died at Whitehall Palace. He was aged 55.
The day before his death Henry saw his confessor and received Holy Communion. Although death was obviously imminent not even Henry’s doctors had the courage to break the news to the King. It was after all treason to predict the King’s death.
It was though also imperative that a man have time to prepare his soul and so Sir Anthony Denny undertook the perilous task of warning his master that ‘in man’s judgement, he was not like to live’ and should remember his sins, ‘as becometh every good Christian man to do’. Henry responded by saying that he believed that Christ in all His mercy would ‘pardon me all my sins, yea, though they were greater than can be’ (Weir, Pg. 502).
On this matter, Henry VIII was undoubtedly correct- his sins were ‘greater than can be’.
Although the exact number of people that were executed by order of Henry VIII is unknown and estimates do vary widely, some suggest that the total could have been as high as 72,000, yet other estimates are much lower (Historic Royal Palaces).
The second half of Henry’s reign was stained with the executions of wives, relatives, close friends and confidantes. Henry must have feared for his soul as only nine days before his death he executed his last victim, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (Childs, Pg. 311).
It is no wonder then that Henry’s last known words were about summoning Archbishop Cranmer to his side. Denny asked the King whether he wanted any ‘learned man’ to speak with and the King responded that ‘if he had any, it should be Dr Cranmer, but I will first take a little sleep, and then, as I feel myself, I will advise upon the matter’ (Weir, Pg. 502).
Sometime after midnight on 28 January Cranmer was summoned to the King’s bedside but when he arrived Henry was past speech (Wilson, Pg. 496). Derek Wilson describes how
“At the end there was no master and servant, no prince and churchman; just a priest preparing a departing soul for eternity. Cranmer begged Henry to give a sign that he trusted Christ for salvation and, in response, he felt the grip on his hand tighten slightly. It was an evangelical departure: no anointing; no reading of Latin prayers; just a simple acknowledgment of the all-sufficient atoning work of Christ. Cranmer would have been glad of that.” (Wilson, Pg. 496).
Shortly afterwards, at around 2 a.m., King Henry VIII left this world.
The exact cause of the King’s death is uncertain, although Alison Weir believes that it was likely to have been a pulmonary embolism (Pg. 502).
For the following two days after Henry’s death his body remained undisturbed in his chamber. His passing was kept a secret so much so that his meals were still being brought to his lodgings.
It was not until the morning of 31 January that Lord Chancellor Wriothesley announced to parliament, through a steady stream of tears, that Henry VIII was dead (Wilson, Pg. 497).
On the same day young Edward VI was brought to the Tower and proclaimed King. The heralds cried ‘The King is dead! Long live the King!’
For a few days Henry VIII’s body, embalmed and encased in lead and surrounded by burning tapers, lay in state in the presence chamber at Whitehall, before being moved to the chapel.
Alison Weir describes how ‘there were solemn dirges and tolling bells in every parish church in the land, in memory of the late King.’ Even Henry’s on and off friend and foe, Francis I, ordered a Requiem Mass at Notre Dame.
On 14 February Henry VIII’s body begins its final journey from Whitehall to Windsor.
“The vast coffin, covered with palls of blue velvet and cloth of gold, lay on a chariot drawn by black-caparisoned horses, who drew it along roads that had been swept and even widened for the occasion. On top of the coffin was a wax effigy of the King, carved by Nicholas Bellin and clad in crimson velvet trimmed with miniver; on its head was a crown atop ‘a night cap of black satin, set full of precious stones.’ It wore jeweled bracelets and velvet gloves adorned with rings.” (Weir, Pg. 503)
So it seems that even in death Henry remained magnificent.
The cortege rested overnight at Syon Abbey and the next day reached its destination, Windsor.
It took sixteen very strong Yeoman of the Guard to carry Henry’s coffin into the church and lower it into the vault in the choir of St George’s Chapel, in accordance with the King’s will.
Here Henry was laid to rest next to his beloved Queen Jane, mother of Edward VI- Henry’s longed for heir.
Queen Catherine Parr watched the sermon being preached by Gardiner from Katherine of Aragon’s closet (Weir, Pg. 503).
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the chief officers of the household broke their white staves of office and threw them into the vault after the coffin.
Henry VIII had planned to be buried in a magnificent Renaissance tomb that he’d taken over from Wolsey but this was never completed. Work ceased on the tomb with the death of Edward VI and it was partially dismantled by the Commonwealth in 1649. Under Oliver Cromwell, most of the fine metalwork was sold off or melted down and the one remaining candlestick now rests in Ghent Cathedral.
Henry’s sarcophagus also survives but does not contain the body of Henry VIII. Instead it was used as the base of Lord Nelson’s tomb in the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral.
The great Henry now lies under a simple, 19th century black marble floor slab that reads,
In a vault
Beneath this marble slab
Are deposited the remains
Jane Seymour Queen of King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII
Henry and Jane are not alone in death as the vault is also the final resting place of Charles I and of one of Queen Anne’s infants, both placed there in the seventeenth century.
This short video presented by David Starkey is about Henry’s final resting place.
Fast Tube by Casper
To some Henry was ‘Great Harry’, the man who rescued England from the tyranny of the Roman church, the Renaissance prince, the ruler of the most magnificent court in English history and patron to the arts.
Yet to others he was a tyrant, an unmerciful monster that murdered hundreds, almost bankrupted his treasury in pursuit of glory and the person responsible for the destruction of hundreds of abbeys and churches.
One of Henry’s earliest biographers, writing in the year of Henry’s death, William Thomas declared that the King
“was undoubtedly the rarest man that lived in his time. I say not this to make him a god, nor in all his doings I will not say he has been a saint. He did many evil things, but not as a cruel tyrant or as a hypocrite. I wot not where in all the histories I have read to find one equal to him.” (Weir, Pg. 504).
And after 464 years Thomas’ declaration remains true for Henry VIII still has no equal.
References & Sources
Childs, J. Henry VIII’s Last Victim, 2008.
Historic Royal Palaces, viewed January 28, 2011, Link
Weir, A. Henry VIII: King and Court, 2001.
Wilson, D. In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, 2001.