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Henry, King of Cheeses

It must be true to say that England would have been a very different place today if Henry VIII had never taken the throne. There would be no Church of England, the country's religion would have continued under Papal administration, monasterial would have been wealth retained, the great houses of monks and nuns might still be flourishing, hundreds of great ruins unruined and thriving.

And yet Henry was never meant to be king. He was a second son, brought up in close proximity to his mother and sisters. His brother, Arthur, by contrast, was sent to the Welsh Marches to learn the rules of ruling.

Arthur was named for the legendary King Arthur, his father, Henry VII, claiming a rather shaky descent from him. In 1501 Arthur, at the tender age of 15, was married off to Catalina, or Catherine of Aragon as she is better known. Half a year later Arthur, who was always sickly, was dead, and the king terrified that he might be ask to return the sizeable dowry Catalina had brought with her, of two hundred thousand gold crowns. And who couldn't use two hundred thousand gold crowns?

Henry's cunning plan was this: he gained papal dispensation to legalise the union of one brother's wife to another brother, thus keeping hold of the dosh and betrothing 11 year old Henry to Catalina. They married in 1509 when, just before he was 18, Henry was called to the throne. She was 6 years his senior, bore him 5 children, 4 of whom died in infancy, the only surviving one, Mary, having the misfortune to be a girl, and not at all to Henry's liking.

After numerous infidelities Henry decided he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, and sought to have his first marriage annulled. The Pope wasn't happy, but Henry secretly married Anne anyway in 1533, and it was left to the Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, to spill the beans a few months later, and officially pronounce the annullment of Henry's marriage to Catherine.

This made Mary illegitimate, until, in 1534, the Pope set out his stall and said that no, Henry's first marriage was the real one, and the second one the sham, causing Henry to have the biggest hissy fit imaginable, forcing a break with Rome, creating his own church, and launching the Reformation in England that led to the dissolution of the monasteries.

And where do the cheeses come in?

Well, they were a gift from Pope Julius III to Henry in an attempt to cement an Anglo-Papal alliance.

Who'd have thought one hundred parmesan cheeses could play such a role in history, and without the merest hint of a pizza in sight.

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