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When the future King Henry VIII was born at the royal palace at Greenwich, England, on June 28, 1491, his elder brother Arthur was the Prince of Wales, and heir to the throne of England. The boys' father was King Henry VII, who had wrested the throne from King Richard III in 1485 in a famous battle at Bosworth Field, which ended the War of the Roses. Their mother was Elizabeth of York, the daughter of King Edward IV, and the lawful heiress to the throne. Her marriage to Henry Tudor in 1485 helped solidify his shaky claim to the Crown, and the births of their sons were major steps in securing the Tudor dynasty in the future. Arthur married the young Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon in November 1501, but he died very suddenly of consumption six months later. This unexpected event affected the young Henry's future dramatically: in January of the following year, Henry was named Prince of Wales, heir to his father's throne.
On December 26, 1503, Pope Julius II issued a dispensation for the young Prince to marry the widowed Catherine of Aragon, who was six years the boy's senior. Henry VII had desired this dispensation for his heir, since he wished to preserve the marriage alliance with Spain. The dispensation was necessary because it was questionable according to the laws of the Roman Catholic Church whether a man could marry his brother's widow. Young Henry initially rejected the idea of the marriage, however, formally protesting it in June 1505. He would later change his mind and marry Catherine after he acceded to the throne, in part because it was his father's dying wish that he would do so, and also because he, too, eventually saw the political benefits of marrying the daughter of the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand I of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.
As long as Henry VII lived, however, the marriage did not take place. During his teenage years, Henry was essentially waiting for his father to die. For uncertain reasons, the Prince was kept away from learning the administrative duties of English kingship. Instead, Henry occupied himself with his studies and with the princely sports of hunting, hawking, jousting, wrestling, and archery. In sports Henry proved quite the athlete: historian Jasper Ridley writes that Henry "could compete with the best archers of the King's guard." Henry's intellectual gifts were exceptional, as well. Under the tutelage of the famous poet John Skelton, Henry excelled in his studies, showing himself particularly fond of theology, and adept with languages. He became fluent in Latin and French and also spoke Spanish and Italian. Furthermore, Henry was a capable musician and composer of songs with the organ, the virginals, and the harp.
The young Prince, affectionately called by the name Harry, grew to be six feet tall – an exceptional height in the sixteenth century – as well as very handsome, with a fair complexion, red hair, and a powerful build. With his good humor, limitless self-confidence, and intellectual and athletic prowess, Henry in many ways embodied the fondest hopes of his future subjects, who were growing tired of his father's miserly reputation and dour personality. When Henry VII died on April twenty-one, 1509, the new King Henry VIII, not quite eighteen years of age, was received with the open arms of the English people. After a gloriously arrayed procession on June twenty-three through the streets of London, which were lined with cheering crowds, Henry was crowned in Westmisnter Abbey along with his new bride, Catherine of Aragon.
The period of Henry's boyhood is significant both for the circumstances leading to his eventual coronation as king and for the shaping of his character as one of the most famous of all English monarchs. Henry's succession to the throne was in some ways a matter of sheer historical accident. In the first place, his brother Arthur's sudden death in 1501 had profound effects on the course of English history. It is unclear how or whether the English Reformation would have come about had Arthur lived to be king and Henry followed his originally intended track away from the throne. Henry owed his throne to his father's victory at Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry VII had no claim to the throne other than his military victory, a bit of royalty in his family tree, and the acquiescence of Elizabeth of York and the Parliament to his wearing the crown. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, such claims were shaky at best. In late medieval times, dynasties could be challenged and overturned on the basis of hereditary right; in England this hereditary principle was particularly important, hence the significance of Elizabeth's willingness to sit beside Henry VII as his queen, and her choosing not to fight for her right to rule.
Prince Henry's right to rule was more secure than his father's because he was the direct heir of his mother Elizabeth's hereditary right. At the same time, Henry grew up keenly aware of the importance of securing that right over time and of bringing dynastic stability to England. This formed the heart of his later concern over having no male heir when he was married to Catherine of Aragon. He knew the political disatisfaction and difficulties that would attend a female sovereign in the future, with the potential of male cousins squabbling for the right to wear the crown.
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