Henry VIII had many children, but he was unhappy with anything aside from a legitimate male son.
Henry VIII had two very famous daughters. However, he also sired sons. The most well-known was King Edward VI, who reigned for six years before dying of an illness. He probably had several illegitimate sons but only recognized Henry Fitzroy.
Henry VIII is famous for divorcing his wives and having others executed. Much of this regrettable activity was taken in pursuit of producing a male heir.
Trying for an Heir
In most historical monarchies, it was considered crucial to produce a male heir. Women either could not inherit or were in a weaker position once they did. Therefore, birthing a male heir and a spare was one of the main goals of any self-respecting King.
However, Henry VIII put an exceptional effort into getting a male heir out of his many wives. He sought an illegal (at that time) divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon when she failed to deliver him a male heir. She had given birth to no less than six children, but only one daughter grew into adulthood.
Future wives were even more unlucky. Anne Boleyn was executed after giving birth to Elizabeth, who would eventually become one of the greatest monarchs in English history. Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, died in childbirth after giving birth to a male heir.
Trying for a Spare
Seymour’s death was soon followed by marriage with Anne of Cleaves to pursue better relations with the Protestant city-states of Germany. However, he soon changed his foreign policy orientation and divorced Anne.
As his next victim, sorry I mean wife, Henry chose Catherine of Howard. Catherine was a cousin of Anne Boleyn and shared her fate after facing accusations of adultery. His final wife, Katherine Parr, survived the ordeal of marriage to Henry by outliving him.
None of these latter wives produced another male heir, possibly because Henry was not in the best of health in the final years of his life.
Though history has focused on the misfortune that befell Henry VIII’s spouses, he left a far greater bloody trail than most people realize. According to one estimate, he had ordered 72,000 individuals to death on all manner of charges, actual and imagined.
Finally, a Son
In 1537 Jane Seymour gave birth to a healthy male baby. While poor Jane died of child-birth-related complications, Henry doted on his child, calling him his “most noble and precious jewel.”
In 1547 Henry VIII died at the age of 55, most likely of a pulmonary embolism. As he was dying, he hoped for divine forgiveness and believed that Christ would ‘pardon me all my sins, yea, though they were greater than can be.’
Two days later, Henry’s nine-year-old son Edward VI was proclaimed King. The cry went out throughout the kingdom, ‘The King is dead! Long live the King!’
Edward was King and took an interest in some policy issues. Most notably the theological direction of the church.
However, the power behind the throne was Henry VIII’s uncle, who serves as his protector. The oldest brother of Jane Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset Edward Seymour. However, Seymour’s poor handling of the rebellions of 1548-1549 saw him removed from office.
Somerset was succeeded by John Dudley, the Earl of Warwick. During these years, Edward VI began to take on more responsibilities, taking a particular interest in steering the Church of England in a more Protestant direction than he found it.
In 1553 the young King became gravely ill. He is said to have told his tutor, “I am glad to die.” Edward VI died at Greenwich Castle at the age of 15. He left no heirs.
The Illegitimate One
Henry most likely had several illegitimate children. However, in most cases, he chose to ignore them.
He did accept paternity over one Henry FitzRoy, whom he sired with Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting for Elizabeth Blount. The name FitzRoy meant son of a king. It is quite possible that Henry accepted paternity because he believed that his lack of male heirs could be interpreted as a lack of masculinity.
It appears that Henry was considering making young Henry an official heir. FitzRoy rose through the ranks quickly, reaching Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland’s position by the age of 17. However, his promising political career was cut short in 1536, when he died of consumption.
In retrospect, Henry need not have worried about having an heir. His two daughters would become queens. Elizabeth, with her courageous leadership, grew England into an impressive empire. However, the obsession of the patriarchal culture of the time with male heirs drove Henry VIII into a murderous obsession.