Henry was the second son of Henry VII, first of the Tudor line, and Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, first king of the short-lived line of York. When his elder brother, Arthur, died in 1502, Henry became the heir to the throne; of all the Tudor monarchs, he alone spent his childhood in calm expectation of the crown, which helped give an assurance of majesty and righteousness to his willful, ebullient character. He excelled in book learning as well as in the physical exercises of an aristocratic society, and, when in 1509 he ascended the throne, great things were expected of him. Six feet tall, powerfully built, and a tireless athlete, huntsman, and dancer, he promised England the joys of spring after the long winter of Henry VII's reign. "Heaven and earth rejoice; all things flow with milk and honey and nectar. Heaven laughs and the earth rejoices ... Our King is not after gold, or gems, or precious metals, but virtue, glory, immortality." It was with these words of rejoicing, written in a letter to Erasmus in 1509, that William Blount, 2nd Lord Mountjoy (died 1534), described the accession of the new king of England.
As king of England from 1509 to 1547, Henry presided over the beginnings of the English Renaissance and the English Reformation. His six wives were, successively, Catherine of Aragon (the mother of the future queen Mary I), Anne Boleyn (the mother of the future queen Elizabeth I), Jane Seymour (the mother of Henry's successor, Edward VI), Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.. As with virtually all royal marriages of the period, it was not a matter of personal preference or love but of dynastic and political needs. Yet Henry's dealings with his wives differed from those of other princes at the time in that he divorced two of them (Catherine of Aragon, and Anne of Cleves) and had two of them executed (Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Howard). Jane Seymour died in childbirth, while Catherine Parr outlived him.
The English Reformation was unleashed by Henry's own matrimonial involvements, even though he never abandoned the fundamentals of the Roman Catholic faith. Though exceptionally well served by a succession of brilliant ministers, Henry turned upon them all; those he elevated, he invariably cast down again. He was attracted to humanist learning and was something of an intellectual himself, but he was responsible for the deaths of the outstanding English humanists of the day. Though six times married, he left a minor heir and a dangerously complicated succession problem. Of his six wives, two joined a large tally of eminent persons executed for alleged treason; yet otherwise his regime observed the law of the land with painful particularity. Formidable in appearance, in memory, and in mind, and fearsome of temper, he yet attracted genuine devotion and knew how to charm people. Monstrously egotistical and surrounded by adulation, he nevertheless kept a reasonable grasp on the possible; forever taking false steps in politics, he emerged essentially unbeaten and superficially successful in nearly everything he attempted to do.
Henry VIII has always seemed the very embodiment of true monarchy. Even his evil deeds, never forgotten, have been somehow amalgamated into a memory of greatness. He gave his nation what it wanted: a visible symbol of its nationhood. He also had done something toward giving it a better government, a useful navy, a start on religious reform and social improvement. But he was not a great man in any sense. Although a leader in every fibre of his being, he little understood where he was leading his nation. But, if he was neither statesman nor prophet, he also was neither the blood-stained monster of one tradition nor the rowdy bon vivant of another. Though cold, self-centred, ungiving, forever suspicious of the ways of the world, he could not descend to the second stereotype; despite a ruthlessness fed by self-righteousness, he never took the pleasure in killing required of the first. Simply, he never understood why the life of so well-meaning a man should have been beset by so many unmerited troubles.