The [Secretive] Death of Henry VIII

Henry VIII_Death

Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, some 37 years after he ascended the throne at just 17. It would be another three days before England was made aware. From within the halls of his court at Westminster, Henry’s death remained a closely guarded secret even as food was dutifully carried in to his private chambers at meal times with all expected fanfare.

Henry’s death ushered in the reign of his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, whose age necessitated a minority government the strength of which was premised on the loyalty of Tudor courtiers – the same men who had spent over a decade working for a king who increasingly resembled a tyrant.

Henry’s health declined over the course of 1546, however the details were lost on most of the public thanks to his increasing isolation. He was last seen in public on January 17, 1547 when he met with the Spanish and French ambassadors – even then he had been notably sick since Christmas and the envoys urged him not to waste his energy on speaking to them.

He retired to his chambers, but was reported to be planning the investiture of Edward as Prince of Wales a few days later – no doubt he assumed he would recover, but securing the optics of the succession would continue to be a priority. Instead he only grew worse and began drifting in and out of consciousness. The men around him, who rightfully feared him when he was well, took advantage of his state to dole out gifts to themselves and their loved ones – small grants, wardships, settlements. The “dry stamp” was used some 86 times in those final days.

On January 18, Henry’s wife, Katherine Parr, arrived at Westminster from Greenwich after being told of the King’s condition. Even so, she was not brought to his chambers and he didn’t ask for her. They had been married less than four years and had no children of their own, though Henry had three legitimate heirs from previous marriages. In addition to Edward, he had two daughters, Mary, who was 30, and Elizabeth, who was 13. None of them were at court at the time of their father’s final illness.

It was during this time that Acts of Attainder were drawn up against Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and his son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. In the documents the month of January was filled out, but the day was left blank. Surrey would be beheaded on Tower Green on January 19 – not yet 30, he would mark Henry’s last execution.

In order for Henry to die a Christian death, he had to offer up his confession and receive his Last Rites. Yet, no one had the courage to tell the King he was dying – indeed, it was treason to predict his death and it was a rather touchy subject for Henry over the last several years. Finally, with just hours to go, he was asked who he would like to oversee the last sacrament – he asked for Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, otherwise known as the man who had helped him in and out of marriages since he was still legally bound to Katherine of Aragon.

By the time Cranmer arrived, Henry was unconscious. In order to speak to him, Cranmer got on to the royal bed and whispered in the King’s ear that he must, at least, offer some sign of acknowledgement that he put his trust in God’s mercy. Henry showed little sign of life, but according to Cranmer, he managed to squeeze his hand firmly – that would do. It bears mentioning that it would have been scandalous for Cranmer to have said otherwise. Indeed, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he lied to maintain the royal facade. If ever there was a monarch who deserved such an ironic ending it is almost certainly Henry Tudor.

Henry’s council was quickly informed of his passing, but as they all filed into the bedchamber to gaze upon the body one last time, they didn’t move to proclaim the reign over. Instead, it was a closely guarded secret as they grappled with three important hurdles: 1) what would a minority government look like? 2) should the Duke of Norfolk be executed? 3) what was a king’s funeral to be?

Two of those questions should have been answered by Henry’s will, which is traditionally dated for December 1546, however there is controversy as to whether the King ever approved this document. There is one outlier in the document’s contents that makes the date hard to swallow: the mention of Thomas Seymour as a member of the Privy Council. Thomas wasn’t a member of the Privy Council as of December 30, 1546 – he didn’t become one until January 23, 1547. Thomas and Henry were brothers-in-law from the latter’s brief marriage to Jane Seymour, Prince Edward’s mother. More recently, they had been rivals for the affection of Katherine Parr and it stands to reason there was little love lost between the two.

Indeed, Henry never signed his will. It was dry stamped, ostensibly on December 30, however it is entirely possible that it wasn’t “signed” until days or even hours before Henry’s death in late January. Given the tenor of his court, it’s not out of the question that he had in fact already died when it was.

Henry’s will was a massively important document for in it he laid out the succession of England for the next half-century, though neither he nor his councilors would have had any way of knowing it. He believed he was leaving his crown to Edward, who would grow up, marry and beget children of his own when he came of age. In fact, all three of his children and one great-niece would all come to hold it before the House of Stuart ascended in 1603. It would end up referenced over and over again in the coming years, making it all the more problematic that a king may well have never approved its final language.

Thomas’s elder brother, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who was to serve as the new king’s Lord Protector, rode from Westminster to Hertford Castle. There he found his nephew, informed him of his father’s death and moved him to Enfield in Middlesex where his sister, Elizabeth, was living. She, too, was then told of her father’s passing. Custody of the young king, as it had been back in 1483 when Richard III struggled against Anthony Woodville, was crucial to maintaining power.

From Enfield early on the morning of January 29, Edward Seymour sent the key to Henry’s will to his Chief Secretary with a letter that read it “should not be opened until further consultation and that it might be well considered how much ought to be published. For diverse [reasons] I think it not convenient to satisfy the world [yet.]”

In the meantime, England’s ports and the roads leading to London were closed off. One had to be careful that a European country might not use this time of turmoil to wage war.

It wasn’t until January 31 that news of Henry’s death was read out in Parliament. The duty was handed to Thomas Wriothesley, the Lord Chancellor, who feigned tears of fresh grief and proclaimed Edward king. By then, a path for a smooth succession had been paved. Edward was poised to enter London and be embedded safely within the Tower. Henry’s body had been dealt with and the details of his funeral mapped out. His corpse was embalmed and held at Whitehall surrounded by tapers. As for Katherine Parr, her jewelry was taken from her and put in the Tower for safekeeping.

On February 1, the nobles of the realm made their obeisance to Edward, while his uncle was unanimously accepted as Lord Protector. Fifteen days later, Henry’s funeral took place in London. His widow watched the sermon from Katherine of Aragon’s closet before retiring for what was presumed to be the deepest of mourning. Henry’s body, per his wishes, was interred in Jane Seymour’s tomb – the only wife to have given him a son.

Four days after that, Edward was crowned king in Westminster Abbey in a shortened ceremony deemed appropriate for a child. The structure of the procession was premised on that which had been set by the accession of Henry VI in 1422, who came into his inheritance at the advanced age of eight months. The real winner, it’s safe to say, was Edward Seymour.

As for the Duke of Norfolk, who came so close to death, Seymour lost his nerve. Instead, the Duke was left imprisoned within the Tower for the next six years when the next reign set him free.

But perhaps it was Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour who had the last laugh, for less than four months after Henry’s funeral they secretly wed without anyone’s permission. England was scandalized and Council furious, but from that point on it was hard to argue that Henry’s reign wasn’t really and truly over.

2 thoughts on “The [Secretive] Death of Henry VIII

  1. Wow! This is so interesting and well researched. Henry VIII had such a great impact on English history but nobody ever really talks about his death and the succession of Edward. Such a good read

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