At the age of 17 when he became king, Henry VIII seemed to be the perfect young king. He had received excellent schooling, spoke a number of languages, stood six foot two inches tall, and played several musical instruments (he was probably the only king to have had his own back-up group). He liked mathematics and was a magnificent athlete. No one could beat him at jousting, riding, archery or tennis. But, for all his talents, this young man would squander his potential by treating his six wives cruelly, breaking with the Catholic Church, killing or imprisoning his closest advisors and putting on so much weight that he eventually had to be lifted onto his horse with a hoist.

He started his married life by wedding his late brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon (Spain). His father had been careful with money but young Henry spent freely on extravagant tournaments, feasting and dancing. Cutting a dashing military figure in Europe, he defeated the French cavalry where the French rode away so fast it was called the “Battle of the Spurs.”

By the time he reached his mid-thirties, Henry’s wife Catherine, a devout Catholic, had had five children but only one, Mary, had survived. Henry became anxious for a son and, when he fell in love with one of the pretty ladies at court, Anne Boleyn, he became convinced she would be the one to give him a son.

In order to marry Anne Boleyn he would have to divorce Catherine of Aragon. As England was a Catholic country the Pope in Rome would have to give his permission —and this he refused to do. Used to getting his own way, Henry flew into a rage and broke ties with the Catholic church and declared himself head of the Church of England. Cutting off all homage and monies paid to Rome he also took over five hundred monasteries and sold them to officials and businessmen for cash.

The once jovial king became a suspicious tyrant. He married Anne and, when she failed to give him a son, he had her head cut off. Anne did however give him a daughter who would later become perhaps England’s greatest monarch — Elizabeth I.

Arrogant and feared though he was, the English liked their king to be powerful, and Henry was admired for his strength. He subdued the Irish and humbled Scotland. He built a strong navy and withstood an invasion from France.

Finally, bald and fat, and now married to his sixth wife, he formed a council to govern the kingdom until the only son he had produced (with his third wife, Jane Seymour) could succeed him and become Edward VI.

Henry VIII died in 1547. He had ruled for 38 years. But young Edward would not live long and in 1553 Henry’s first daughter (from Catherine of Aragon) Mary, became queen. Brought up a devout Catholic by her mother, she did two things to annoy many of her English countrymen. Firstly, she tried unsuccessfully to restore Catholicism in which a most ruthless manner, having 300 Protestants burnt alive and earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Secondly, she insisted on marrying her cousin Philip who would become Philip II of Spain.

As a result of illness, Mary’s reign was mercifully short and in 1558 her half-sister, Elizabeth became Queen of England and the “Elizabethan Age” began.