The peaceful succession of Prince Edward was Henry VIII's primary concern in his last years. In 1543, the same year Henry married Katherine Parr, Parliament passed the Succession Act which named Edward, Princess Mary, and Princess Elizabeth, in that order, the heirs to the throne. Along with the succession, however, came the problem of faction among the king's ministers, the most prominent of which, at Henry's death, would jockey for influence over young Edward. In the early 1540s, the Privy Council was divided into two main factions: a conservative one led by the Duke of Norfolk and the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, and another more sympathetic to Protestantism, headed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and Edward Seymour, Prince Edward's uncle.
Although Henry was very cruel toward Protestants, he remained close to Archbishop Cranmer. Three times between 1543 and 1545, the king personally intervened in attempts by the Norfolk-Gardiner faction to charge Cranmer with heresy. At the close of 1546, the tables turned on Norfolk and his son, the Earl of Surrey, when they were accused of plotting to make Norfolk the young Edward's regent upon Henry's death. Norfolk and Surrey were charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London in December. Surrey was executed in January 1547. Norfolk escaped execution, however, with the king's death.
Throughout the 1540s, Henry's health was in steady decline. He suffered chronic headaches and an ulcer on his leg which kept him in great pain. He grew enormously fat, and he was peevish and unpredictable in his behavior. By the summer of 1546, the king could not walk or stand up by himself. His mind remained very sharp, however. It was said that during his last years the king often engaged in rigorous theological debates with his wife, Katherine Parr, who was known to be Protestant in her convictions. Strangely, in August 1546, Henry began to entertain Protestant views on the sacraments, but also entered into secret negotiations with a Papal envoy to discuss the possibility of submitting England once more to the supremacy of the Roman pontiff.
King Henry VIII passed away in his bed at Whitehall palace January 28, 1547. He was fifty-five years of age, physically a very old man. His hand was in Archbishop Cranmer's hand when death came upon him. His passing was not announced for several days, and it was not until January 31 that his nine-year- old son was proclaimed King Edward VI. All three of his children would reign as monarchs: Edward was sickly and died at fifteen, succeeded by his half-sister Mary in 1553. Queen Mary I died only five years later, succeeded by the iron- willed, fiery tempered Elizabeth, who reigned over England until 1603.
Henry VIII began his reign as a handsome young king beloved by his people, and ended it as a grotesquely fat tyrant who was feared by all who knew him. His legacy has been a subject of great debate for centuries. His six marriages, his executions of ministers such as Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, his religious persecutions, and his showy but mediocre diplomatic and military successes gained him a singular fame, if not respect, throughout Europe. Loved and hated, Henry VIII remains a most well-known and intriguing personality, and one which may only be paralleled among English monarchs, remarkably, by his own daughter Elizabeth I.
Above everything, even his tyranny, it is Henry's break with Rome which has given him his prominent place in the chronicles of English history. While the nature of that break may not even have been entirely understood by Henry himself, it marked a most significant turning point for his island nation. The fact that the break came about by Henry's desire to remarry and secure a male heir for the succession shows not only how personal affairs were very political in the sixteenth century, but also that personal affairs bore implications of the greatest and most profound political and historical signficance. Each person in Henry's drama–Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, the princesses Mary and Elizabeth, not to mention Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell, and so many others–was crucial to the unfolding of events. A birth of a healthy son, or the birth and succession of a daughter such as Elizabeth, involved the fate of Church and State in Henry's England, as did the personal relations between the king and his various ministers.
Small landowners, tenant farmers, and vagrants who hoped for relief from the Poor Law lived most of their lives relatively untouched by the events in Henry's palaces or in Parliament. The changes in the Church, though, did touch many people's lives in very real ways, the fate of the Catholic rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace and of the small bands of persecuted Anabaptists and Lutherans being the most sensational examples. Henry VIII's reformation of the English Church affected the character of small village parishes far from London even as it altered the landscape of the English countryside, which for centuries had rung with the sound of bells from hundreds of Catholic monastaries and convents.