Henry VIII: The Spare Who Changed History 

Written by Naomi Wallace

The idea of the “heir and the spare” has been a hotly discussed topic recently, following the publication of Prince Harry’s memoir, the title of which draws upon this phrase and refers to his experience as the “spare”. Henry VIII is one of the most infamous kings in British history, renowned for his six wives and transformation of the Church of England. Less well known, however, is the fact that, like Prince Harry, he was a spare. In all likelihood, the course of English history would have been drastically different had the young Prince Henry not found himself thrown into the role of heir after spending his first years in the background, as the spare. It seems surprising given that he played such a landmark role in history, but Henry VIII was never supposed to be king.  

Henry VIII was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, the king and queen consort of England who, through their union, had brought together rival houses Lancaster and York and established a new era for the English monarchy. Their reign came at the end of decades of bloody violence in the Wars of the Roses. Following the defeat of Richard III and the Yorkist faction at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry VII had won, but his position was still precarious – and more important than anything was the need to produce children to continue the dynasty he was creating. Fortunately, he and Elizabeth’s first son, Arthur, was born in 1486. Together, they had seven children, only three of which survived to adulthood: Henry, and his sisters Margaret and Mary. As A.F. Pollard puts it, Tudor children “had an unfortunate habit of dying in childhood”. This meant that the need for a spare was vital, and Henry VII knew he could not rely on the survival of just one son to succeed him.  

Given that Prince Henry was the spare and was not born into a life where he would be groomed and shaped into the next king of England, there is disappointingly little evidence surrounding his early years. He was greatly overshadowed by his elder brother, Arthur, the heir to the throne. This is ever so frustrating to the historian, but we must remember that early sixteenth-century chroniclers did not view Prince Henry as we do, as a boy who was to become one of the most powerful monarchs in history. To them, Arthur was the future king.  

Henry VIII was born at Greenwich Palace on 28 July 1491. Throughout his childhood, his father bestowed upon him a number of titles, including Duke of York and Warden of the Scottish Marches. Clearly, he did not expect his young son to govern or assume the responsibilities associated with these roles; Henry VII merely sought to consolidate his own position and wanted these offices under his control. He made a number of public appearances as a Prince, the most important being the marriage of Arthur Tudor to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, in which he led the procession of the bride to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  

Henry was likely educated by tutors selected by his grandmother Lady Margaret Beaufort, including the poet, John Skelton. Evidence points to the young prince’s considerable intelligence. Humanist scholar Erasmus was impressed by his intellectual ability, and he was also a talented musician; he could play multiple instruments and was also a capable composer (there is, however, no evidence that Greensleeves was a work of his, despite being a popular myth). It is possible that his father was steering him towards an ecclesiastical career, and certainly Henry was astute in theology- as king he even published a book that criticised Lutheranism and defended Catholicism.  

Whatever Prince Henry’s future was, everything changed in April 1502, when his brother, the heir to the English throne, died at Ludlow Castle from consumption.  

In one fell swoop, Prince Henry went from spare to heir, altering the course of his future, and history, forever. He assumed Arthur’s titles of Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, and the dukedom of Cornwall. The next seven years of his life he spent knowing that he was destined to be King of England, and it is difficult to imagine how he reconciled with this total shift in his path. 

It is the behaviour of Henry VII that is particularly curious in this period. By 1503, he had lost five children, including all but one son, as well as his wife. It is unsurprising therefore that he seemed paranoid for the remainder of his life – who was going to continue the dynasty, if he lost his only remaining son? This led to a somewhat sheltered upbringing for the new heir. A Spanish envoy, Fuensalida, claimed he was being raised like “a little girl” due to how little he was permitted to do. While Henry VII had sent Arthur to Wales to preside of the Council of the Marches of Wales and gain important political experience, he provided his second son with no such experience. Perhaps this was out of fear that what had happened to Arthur would happen again, but in practice it meant Henry assumed the throne with very little training in how to be king.  

The most important question was marriage, as well as what to do with Arthur’s Spanish bride, who remained in England after being widowed only four months into her marriage. Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine’s formidable parents, demanded they receive the money from her dowry back, whereas Henry VII believed he should keep it all, plus what was still left to pay. The English king refused to return the young princess to Spain when her mother demanded it. There was, however, a logical solution – after Henry VII briefly considered marrying Catherine of Aragon himself, he arranged a marriage contract between his second son and his brother’s widow, to be ratified when Prince Henry turned fifteen. This was by no means a secure or guaranteed agreement; Henry VII spent much of his time scheming to find alternative matches that may have suited his interests better. There were negotiations for Henry’s marriage to Eleanor, daughter of Phillipe of Castile, as well as Margaret of Valois, sister to the later Francis I. At one point in 1505, Prince Henry told Bishop Fox that he would never marry Catherine of Aragon, which was bizarre and likely said under the instruction of his father who, at that point, sought to toss Catherine aside in favour of a better pairing. 

But Henry VII’s meddling came to nothing – the king died on 22 April 1509, and Henry VIII took his place, which allowed him to marry as he pleased (which he would do… six times). He married Catherine of Aragon on 11 June 1509. Papal dispensation had to be obtained to allow the marriage, as Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s brother. Nevertheless, Henry and Catherine would enjoy two decades of relatively content marriage, ruling as king and queen consort of England together.  

The unusual journey to this marriage had a seismic impact during Henry’s reign. Had Henry automatically been married to Catherine, had his brother not been in the picture, he would not have been able to claim the marriage was illegitimate twenty years later when he sought a divorce from his wife. His entire case for his annulment came down to the fact that Catherine and Arthur had been married first, something that would not have happened if he was originally supposed to be the heir. 

It is difficult to imagine English history without Henry VIII and the profound impact he had on the country, so it is strange to know that his kingship was not originally destined, and only occurred due to the unfortunate death of his elder brother, the boy who should have been king after Henry VII. It is inevitable that Henry VIII is remembered for his many wives, the break from Rome, and his brutal suppression of traitors and heretics. However, it is interesting to draw attention to the boy who existed before he was king, the boy who grew up in his brother’s shadow, expecting to live a life as the less significant, second son – life as the spare.  


Scarisbrick, J. J. Henry VIII. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011 

Pollard, A. F. Henry VIII. London, Longmans, Green, 1905. 

Chrimes, S. B., George Bernard, Vince Walsh. Henry VII. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993. 

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