Revisiting King Henry VIII


Henry VIII King of England

Depositphotos Image ID: 5598102 Copyright: georgios

I recently saw Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The play, Shakespeare’s last one performed at the Globe Theater approximately 400 years ago, was very well done. The story line is not as compelling as most of Shakespeare’s works, but the interrelationship of church and state theme struck a chord with me, albeit a discordant one.

King Henry the VIII was born into aristocracy. Young Henry was appointed Constable of Dover Castle at age two, Earl Marshal of England and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at age three, inducted into the Order of the Bath soon after, and a day later he was made the Duke of York. A month or so after that, he was made the Warden of the Scottish Marches. He had the best education available from the best tutors, was fluent in Latin and French and was familiar with Italian.

For all of his privilege, he was not expected to become king. His brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, was the first born and heir to the throne, but Arthur died only 20 months after marrying Catherine of Aragon (daughter of the King and Queen of Spain). Henry VIII was only 10. (Wikipedia)

Henry became the Duke of Cornwall and assumed other figurehead duties. His father, the King Henry VII, made sure young Henry was strictly supervised, did not appear in public and was insulated from real authority. Henry VII quickly made a treaty with the King of Spain that included the marriage of his daughter, Catherine, to young Henry – yes the widow of recently deceased brother Arthur. (Wikipedia)

From this point begins a history of manipulation, abuse of power, shameless excess and rationalizations twisting biblical and religious notions to serve the king’s self-interest. This is a story that parallels the “marriage” of State and Church. The two are intertwined in an adulterous affair of blasphemous indiscretions.

For the marriage to be sanctioned a papal dispensation was required. It was somewhat complicated by the delicate question whether Arthur and Catherine had consummated their marital union. Young Henry was only 11 at this time and not sure he wanted to marry his brother’s widow. By age 14 he decidedly did not like the idea. With relations deteriorating between the English and Spanish monarchs, a way was found to keep Catherine in England. Meanwhile Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian was pressing for the marriage of his Granddaughter, Catherine’s niece, Eleanor to Young Henry. Then King Henry VII died. Henry was not quite 18. (Wikipedia)

Weeks after his father was buried, Henry married Catherine, snubbing Eleanor and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. It was a low key affair without the papal dispensation. Unlike the low key marriage, the coronation a month later was a grand affair. Henry became King Henry VIII at just barely 18 years of age. Catherine was at his side. She wrote to her father “our time is spent in continuous festival”. Two days after the coronation, King Henry VIII had two unpopular ministers arrested for high treason, and they were executed months later. They would not be the last executions under the reign of King Henry VIII. (Wikipedia)

Shakespeare picks up the story in this early time. Shakespeare paints a picture of a young, unstable man, given to merriment, rash, attracted to women, and conflicted over the complicated relationship with Catherine. Ultimately, however, it was Catherine’s inability to provide King Henry a male successor to his throne that led him to reject her and take on one of two sisters, both mistresses of his, as his second wife. Having already shown proclivity to do as he wished without papal blessing, King Henry VIII rejected the authority of Rome outright to “annul” his marriage to Catherine and to marry Anne Boleyn.

Ironically, King Henry VIII anchored the departure with Rome on Biblical grounds. He became convinced, convinced himself or found it convenient anyway that he should have never married Catherine based on Leviticus 20:21 – “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” Strange he had no trouble with the Biblical pronouncements against adultery and no compunction against beheading many, including future wives. So, figured Henry, the Pope could not have given the dispensation to begin with (the dispensation he did not bother to wait for). It was this neatly packaged argument he delivered to the Pope, seeking the Pope’s blessing on the annulment – a blessing that was not forthcoming after two years of trying. (Wikipedia)

King Henry married Anne Boleyn in secret. She became pregnant, necessitating a public marriage and a kangaroo court to declare the marriage to Catherine null and void and the marriage to Anne Boleyn valid. Of course, King Henry needed a church to bless these doings: so began the “English Reformation”

We know the story. King Henry VIII went through six wives in his life. Poor Anne could not give the King a son, fell from favor and was executed. His third wife, Jane Seymour, did manage to give him a son, but she died in the process. Henry found a new wife, Anne Cleves, but was quickly disappointed. She agreed to an annulment (which is better than losing her head), when Henry became infatuated with Catherine Howard. Catherine Howard, however, had a number of affairs and lost her head, along with her suitors when Henry became informed. After dissolving all the monasteries and transferring their properties to the crown, the King married his last wife, Catherine Parr.

The play highlights Cardinal Wolsey as the King’s primary confidante in his early years. Shakespeare presents Wolsey as powerful, diplomatic and ambitious, having risen to his high station by skill, cunning and force of will – very much unlike the hapless king. King Henry VIII is a study in the effects of power that do not match with strength of character. Wolsey stands in contrast to the young king, having risen from humble means in a time when station in life was determined by birth. King VIII s handed the throne to which Wolsey s positioned himself as the king’s right hand man with skillful diplomacy and political maneuvering.

Shakespeare makes Wolsey’s ambition his undoing. Wolsey had ambitions to ascend to the papacy. The King’s impromptu marriage to Catherine without papal dispensation put Wolsey in a tough spot. In the play, King Henry discovers a letter from Wolsey meant for the Pope that does not show the King in a good light. Wolsey’s fall from favor was as sheer a drop as Wolsey’s rise to high position. Historically, there may be more evidence that Wolsey was simply the King’s scapegoat, but Shakespeare uses to the fall from monarchial grace to reveal a repentant heart toward God in fallen Wolsey, in contrast to the hard-hearted, hard headed and rash Henry, who lops off heads, marries and unmarries women and maneuvers state, church and kingdom to his own ends.

This was a time, of course, when church and state were intertwined. The church became a pawn of the whims and the power struggles of the state. King Henry’s reformation was not a promising spiritual start for the Church of England. In fact, the historical account exposes the church/state problem. I have always thought since I learned of the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent decree making Christianity the state religion that the marriage of church and state is never a good thing for the church. Machiavelli’s famous words – “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – are testament to the problem when church is hitched to state power.

Contrast the early church revealed in the Book of Acts. God worked powerfully in the hearts and minds of the people that sparked the formation of the “church” and the spread of the Gospel throughout the world. These things occurred without any state power. In fact, it was precisely the persecution of the early Christians that precipitated the scattering of the apostles and the spread of the Gospel.

God does not need the power of state to bring His kingdom on earth in the hearts and minds of people. I believe state power corrupts and gets in the way. I would not be surprised if Satan himself did not decide that persecution was not working; it was more like pouring water on an oil fire, causing the fire of the Gospel to spread, rather than be squelched; and the tactics turned to a different strategy – make Christianity the state religion, compel people to become Christians, not out of godly change in the heart, but for fear of state reprisal, thereby mixing in to the “church” a flood of Christians in name, but not real believers. In this way, the church was watered down, corrupted and overrun. It took on the pagan holidays of the time and became like any other human institution.

I do not believe for a moment that God was taken by any surprise at these doings. In fact, Jesus foretold it in the parable of the wheat and the chaff in Matthew 13:24-30:

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied,

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'”

One of the main reasons I have heard why people do not believe in the Bible is the history of the Christianity. It certainly is a dark history, at least the one told in the history books. The stories of real Gospel truth are there too, but not recounted in the history books, as the history books pick up the story primarily from the point where the church becomes driven by state power. That power play is the history that we know – including the Crusades. Like the parable of the wheat and the chaff, however, God is still working in the hearts and minds of men and women. It simply is not the stuff of history books, newspaper headlines or plays.

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One Comment on “Revisiting King Henry VIII”


  1. […] « Lessons from King Henry VIII […]

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