Was Having an Heir Henry VIII's Primary Motivation?

Some people explain Henry VIII's matrimonial turmoil by saying, "Henry VIII needed a son! He did all of these things because he had to have an heir for England." But is that actually true? Was Henry's foremost thought having heirs for the kingdom to prevent civil war?

Henry stopped sleeping with Katharine of Aragon around 1524 after he was told by physicians it was unlikely she would have any more children. Though he toyed with the idea of taking another wife as early as 1520, he didn't get serious about seeking an annulment until 1527 when he became obsessed with Anne Boleyn. He married Anne in late 1532 and three years later, after Anne miscarried a son, Henry had her executed on trumped-up charges of adultery.

His execution of Anne cannot be put down to his quest for an heir. Anne was still obviously fertile. He had no reason to believe a subsequent pregnancy would not be successful. She was not yet twenty-eight years old when she died, and according to the standards of the day, she had a few more fertile years left. But Henry despised his wife by this point and wanted to marry Jane Seymour - who was roughly the same age as Anne.

Jane Seymour died from complications after childbirth, giving Henry his heir. But he needed a "spare," and so the search for a new wife began before Jane was even in the ground. Henry himself had been the "spare," and he well knew that royal families could not rely on a single prince to continue the dynasty.

But Henry thought he should be an exception to a thousand years of royal marriage customs in which profitable unions were arranged by ambassadors and finalized by proxy before the bride was dispatched to her new homeland. Henry tried to convince ambassadors to send him eligible princesses so he could look them over in person before deciding if he'd marry them, something that would be humiliating in the extreme for the princesses who were rejected, and for their home countries. The French ambassador wryly suggested Henry might want to also "try" them and keep the one that was the sweetest. It's recorded that Henry at least had the grace to blush at that, but he whined,

"I trust to no one but myself. The thing touches me too near. I wish to see them and know them some time before deciding."

Cromwell convinced him of the political benefits and Henry married Anna von Kleefes, a princess from a small, but strategic, German duchy. Anna came from a very fertile family. Her grandfather was nicknamed "the babymaker" because he fathered a whopping sixty-three illegitimate children, aside from the four legitimate ones he had with his wife.

However, Henry disliked Anna and sought to divest himself of her as soon as possible. Had his primary desire been heirs for his kingdom, Anna would have been a perfect choice, a young, healthy woman of royal blood from a very fecund line. But Henry didn't even attempt to have children with her. 

His primary concern in this matter was not the good of his kingdom. Henry's actions were a shocking violation of royal marriage protocol. He lowered England's prestige in the eyes of the world, and put his nation at risk of war.

Had he wanted to seek the hand of another princess, it would have been very difficult to convince other countries to send him a wife when he might reject her - as he tried to do with Anna - or dissolve the marriage. England's king could not be trusted to do the right thing by their princesses.

While he waited for his annulment from Anna, Henry's interest had been drawn to one of her ladies in waiting. But Henry wasn't the only one who had lusted after Katheryn Howard. His "rose without a thorn" had been plucked before Henry discovered her.

Henry didn't bother with a trial that time. Katheryn was executed by Bill of Attainder, and it became illegal for a woman to conceal her sexual history once the king had expressed an interest in marrying her. It's recorded by Chapuys that Henry lashed out at his council and blamed them for this long parade of "ill-conditioned wives."

His final wife was Kateryn Parr, not the best choice for a baby-maker. Kateryn had been married twice before, and neither marriage had resulted in a pregnancy. She was thought to be infertile as a result. No one was surprised when her marriage to Henry produced no children, but they were surprised when she remarried after Henry's death and became pregnant by her next husband. 

Henry's marital tribulations were not because of his quest for children, but because of his personal desires. He chose his wives based on emotion. To modern people, that seems reasonable, but for his era, it was considered a foolish reason to select a spouse. Parents could have pointed to Henry's own matrimonial turmoil as an example of the results of choosing a spouse on such an ephemeral basis.

His rejection of Anna von Kleefes because he wasn't attracted to her was bizarre. Every royal marriage started out with people who weren't attracted to one another. Henry himself wasn't very concerned with whether his sister, Mary Tudor, would be attracted to her husband when he married her off to the elderly French king. But Henry thought he should be an exception to a thousand years of royal marriage tradition.

By marrying his wives' ladies in waiting, he lowered the prestige of his royal blood, and weakened his line's claim to the throne. The Tudors were already considered upstarts with a shaky claim, and the reason his father chose Katharine of Aragon to marry his son was because of the stability conferred by her impeccable royal lineage. Katharine actually had a stronger claim to the English throne than the current heir, Arthur Tudor. It's probably why Henry thought it was a good idea to marry Katharine himself, after his brother died. Thus, Henry's claims of concern that not having heirs might lead to civil war are weakened by the fact he married his subjects. As Elizabeth I knew, marrying a subject and favoring one noble family over another was a way to invite conflict into a nation.

Elizabeth may have later bragged about her blood being purely English, but she might have been stronger if she could have called on the assistance of family in other countries. That was the purpose of royal marriage: to create strong alliances between countries. But Henry's marriages were for reasons of personal satisfaction which brought little or no benefit to his nation.

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