Everyone knows that Henry VIII had six wives. Two were executed for actual or alleged adultery. Two were divorced and eked out their lives in rural seclusion. The fifth died soon after childbirth: the sixth survived him.
It is far too easy to see Henry VIII as being a monster with a wandering eye, who was exploited by factions who pimped women to catch his attention. But royal marriage is not a personal preference so much as an act of state. Historians rarely, and the public never, weight the fact that until the birth of Edward Prince of Wales in 1537, there was no male heir of Henry’s body to succeed him. The accession of his daughter Mary was severely problematic. Who would she marry and what role would her husband play in domestic political life? The alternative, the accession of Henry’s nephew James V of Scotland, was simply unacceptable, not least because he was increasingly in the orbit of the French.
So the purpose of this lecture is to see Henry’s failure to generate a male heir in the first quarter century of his reign as a serious problem and to consider the strategies devised to overcome the lack of an acceptable heir. We shall offer some speculations as to why he failed so badly at one of the key tasks of a monarch, to ensure the succession.
Richard Hoyle joined the University of Reading in 2000 as Professor of Rural History, and since 2014 he has been Visiting Professor of Economic History at Reading. He has published numerous articles on a wide range of history topics and was until 2019 the editor of the Agricultural History Review. Currently, he is working on a range of projects within economic and social history, including Tenure in Tawney’s Century (OUP).