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Henry VIII (1491-1547) became King of England upon the death of his father Henry VII in 1509. At this time, England was an important power in Europe.

During his youth, Henry was an accomplished musician, sportsman and scholar - the perfect Renaissance prince. Under the influence of his ambitious chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the first part of Henry's reign saw war against France. He strengthened the English navy, and his pride and joy was a ship called the Mary Rose. After it had been refitted in 1536, Henry and his court went to watch it sail on the Solent. Some 700 sailors, soldiers and archers stood on the deck. This affected the ship's balance so much that, when a gust of wind blew, it quickly sank.

In 1520 he met Francis I of France, in Flanders, at the 'Field of the Cloth of Gold' to make an alliance between their countries. Instead the event turned into a contest between the two kings with each trying to outdo the other in the splendour of his arrival.

In 1521 he supported the pope against Martin Luther, and was made 'Defender of the Faith'. As Henry wanted a son to make the Tudor dynasty secure, he decided to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry again. When the pope refused to dissolve the marriage, he broke all links with Rome (with the help of Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, and Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury) and made himself head of the new Church of England in 1534, ushering in the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (selling most of the monasteries' land to help pay for the wars against France). This new Church granted him a divorce and he married Anne Boleyn in 1533.

Henry executed his second wife; his third wife, Jane Seymour, died after giving birth to the future Edward VI. His fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, was a diplomatic union; Henry disliked her - calling her the 'Flanders mare' - and quickly divorced her in order to marry Catherine Howard (1540), executed two years later on a charge of adultery. In his final years Henry, now contentedly married to Catherine Parr, forming an alliance with Charles V. He renewed war with France and Scotland, and ruled as a tyrant at home.

As a youth, Henry was well-loved, earning the nickname 'Bluff King Hal'. However, this affection turned to fear as he became obese and bad-tempered, suffering from painful leg ulcers.

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