The Death of King Henry VIII

In the last months of 1546 it was apparent to everyone that Henry was nearing his end. The knives came out, the political families, notably the Seymours and the Howards, did their best to destroy each other by infamy or preferably by decapitation. Henry was beset with tales of treachery. Henry was ill and looked like he might die in December when at Oatlands, but he recovered, moved to London in easy stages, stopping at one palace after another, In Hampton Court before going to Greenwich, before Christmas, and thence to the palace of Westminster. His family were sent away over Christmas and he was in virtual seclusion. The day after Christmas he had his will read to him, made a list of 16 councillors who would serve as a Council of Regency, emphasizing they were co-equals; the document did not include Queen Catherine among the regents, and it was not signed by Henry.

In January his ulcer was cauterised – burned with a red hot iron without anaesthetic, which is in fact painless when applied to gangrenous insensitive flesh. He recovered enough to take an interest in the trials of the Howards, father and son, Earls of Norfolk and Surrey, who were accused of intending to seize the throne. Surrey attempted to escape the Tower via the garde-robe, but was beheaded – and so ended the life of one of the two “Fathers of the English sonnet.” The father, Earl of Norfolk had a date fixed for his execution which was not carried out, some reports state because Henry died the day before, thus voiding all such documents, others (perhaps better informed) state Henry changed his mind and ordered a reprieve.

Towards the end of January he wished to speak with Catherine Parr, but choked up after saying ,”It is God’s will that we should part,” and Catherine was sent away. He did have the strength to send a letter to Francis, King of France, dying with syphilis, to remind him he was mortal (plus ça change plus c’est la même chose!).

Predicting the King’s death was an act of treason, and no one cared to tell Henry it was about to happen; there was concern he should be confessed before he died, but how were they to tell him that? Archbishop Cranmer was sent for, early in the morning of January 28th Henry held Cranmer’s hand, and he persuaded himself this was a response in the affirmative to the key questions of faith.

It was the tradition going back at least to Saxon times that the king would designate his successor. In his will, Henry designated in line of succession, Edward, Mary, and then Elizabeth; if they had no heirs the crown would pass to descendants of his younger sister, Mary, and not to those of his older sister Margaret who was Queen of Scotland. This may have reflected his anger at the Scots reneging on an arranged betrothal between the infant who was to become “Mary, Queen of Scots” and his infant son who was to become Edward VI. When the Scots backed off the treaty, Henry took the excuse to lay waste their country.

For two days his death was kept a secret. Then, on January 31st the young Edward was brought to the Tower, and the traditional shouts were given of, “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

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