The Death of Henry VIII

“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.”

Thomas More

Henry VIII in later life, Hever Castle

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).

Edward VI of England, by William Scrots, c. 1550

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

Of

Jane Seymour Queen of King Henry VIII

1537

King Henry VIII

1547

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.

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Comments

  1. Carol Dennis says:

    Of couse, it is well known that Henry did a lot of bad things. Never-the-less I believe that he was in many ways a great King. He is also as much a part of Britain as Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding. Henry asserted a place for England on the international stage. He earned respect from King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
    Henry was the principal founder of the English Navy. His navy was the key to Englands later victory over the Spanish Armada.. He also patronised innovations in both the arts amd medical sciences.

    • Natalie says:

      I agree Carol, in many ways he was ‘Great Harry’ and that’s why he continues to fascinate us today!

      • Emma Nation says:

        Henry continues to fascinate people because he executed his wives. People don’t usually do that, not even kings. His sins were greater, much greater than his virtues, though I suppose it’s fascinating that he would throw his good fortune away in light of his mighty station, piety, and how talented he was. The most annoying thing about Henry is how he played the victim, yet terrified his subjects so much they could not correct him.

    • solena says:

      I think that most people will never understand the working mind of Henry but, I do not think that he is no greater monster than some leaders today. There are hundreds and thousand through out history who have been sent to their graves under the guise of law or simply for being Jewish, Black or other wise. Innocent people are often left as the casualties of war torn countries under their so called leaders. In those days things were much different and traitors were on every hand, as a King it would not have been wise to trust every one around you or even close friends and relatives as most of them were greedy and self serving and only wanted power for themselves. Henry did what it took to keep his throne safe and not be overthrown by those who sought his crown. In the process of his own vanity, and power hungry struggle he put a lot of good and innocent people to death. Most would agree if not for his strong handed leadership things ewe see today in the lines of religious practices may not have been.

  2. Catrina Whitley says:

    Natalie,

    Thank you for the great article and the commemoration of Henry’s death. Fantastic Quote by Thomas Moore! Would you mind sending on the citation? It is such a VERY perfect quote for our argument about Henry’s psychological demise. Also, you state Henry was embalmed. Do you happen to know with what? Current embalming was not devised until the Civil War, so I am curious if you know what was used during this period.

    Thanks – again – for another fantastic article.

    • Natalie says:

      Isn’t it a fabulous quote! It comes from Derek Wilson’s ‘In the Lion’s Court’ just prior to the contents page. Now the information about Henry being embalmed is from Alison Weir’s ‘Henry VIII: King & Court” but there are no other details that I can find. I will dig around a little more and see what I can come up with. You might also find this quote interesting, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote of Henry: ‘If all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the world, they might all again be painted to the life out of the story of this King.’ This is from Weir’s ‘Henry VIII: King & Court’ page 505.

    • Jo Clark says:

      I found this about embalming in Henry’s time.

      “Embalming during the Middle Ages included evisceration, immersion of the body in alcohol, insertion of preservative herbs into incisions previously made in the fleshy parts of the body, and wrapping the body in tarred or waxed sheets. The Danish king of England, Canute II, was embalmed by the above, or similar methods, as were the English monarchs William the Conqueror and Edward I. William’s body was found well preserved in the French city of Caen in the 16th century; Edward’s was also found to be well preserved when it was disinterred in Westminster Abbey in 1700; and Canute’s body was still in a state of good preservation when it was discovered in Winchester Cathedral in 1776.”

      http://autocww2.colorado.edu/~blackmon/E64ContentFiles/ArchaeologyAndExcavations/embalming.htm

  3. I don’t think we will ever understand Henry for lots of reasons–we don’t have the same ideas about ruling and power as Henry did–he really believed he was God’s chosen man to rule England–and his people agreed with the Great Chain of Being, everything ordered by God. He started out so well, a true Renaissance prince. What happened? He got drunk on power, I think. Starting with the break with Rome and continuing as he rid himself of one wife,, then another. A man of great achievement and also great cruelty–good-humored, yet deadly dangerous, Defender of the Faith–yet broke with Rome–what a man he must have been!

  4. Dawn says:

    I always think it is ashame when the great Henry VIII is only remembered as a tyranical, wife murdering, obese King, they miss out on so much of his story by not finding out more about the young, intelligent, athlectic man that he was for many years before he changed.

  5. Pamela Alsop says:

    They were all fascinating characters! Duke of Suffolk. Charles Brandon, THomas moore. Jane boleyn. Would love to know more about Lady (queen) Grey. The princes in the tower, All of it. Tom Wyatt, Anne of Cleeves. Little King Edward. I think Anne Boleyn was set-up to get her out of the way for Seymor,she was innocent. I read anything I can get my hands on! The Tudors by Swowtine wasn’t accurate, showed nothing about Mary Boleyn & her bastard son by Henry,

  6. Jean Roughley says:

    Henry will never be forgotten. His sins and glories are all well known. To me, the very best thing he ever did was to father Elizabeth!

  7. swed says:

    No doubt Henry VIII was an intelligent person but as we all know; money and power corrupts and Henry had plenty of both. Beside the notion that kings where appointed by God, as Anne Barnhill mentioned, Henry apparently also believed all that Machiavelli later wrote about in his book The Prince to be true. I think that Henry in spite of disagreeing on most of his father’s opinions really took his view about the importance of an heir to heart and he also “inherited” Henry VII’s fear of conspiracies and how to swiftly handle such events. Henry’s gradually health deterioration and becoming obese made him of course frustrated and dissatisfied thus annoyed at any triviality.
    I find the most intriguing characteristic of Henry to be the immense contrast between the amazing generosity and utter cruelty (or maybe more rightly) unforgivingness he showed throughout his entire reign. Please bear with my English since it isn’t my native language.

  8. Graham says:

    He reminds me so much of my headmaster, Mr Barnett. A fat tyrant. Like Oliver Hardy from Hell. Amazing to see the resemblance in portraits of QE 1 and son. Same mean little mouth, same long hooked nose. Should really disinter him and do a reconstruction.

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