Age of Henry VIII

Course No. 8467
Professor Dale Hoak, Ph.D.
The College of William and Mary
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Course No. 8467
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Course Overview

Henry VIII (r. 1509–47) ruled an island kingdom about the size of Pennsylvania inhabited by fewer than 3 million people nearly 500 years ago, and yet he remains instantly recognizable to this day, his barrel-chested and bejeweled figure immortalized by the brush of Hans Holbein the Younger. Meet England's most famous monarch, who provokes questions such as:

  • What is greatness?
  • How should we judge character?
  • Who or what can be said to "make" or cause history?

A Famous Face ... but Why?

So what accounts for Henry's astonishingly familiar image? Is it because he employed a brilliant portraitist? Or is there more to the story?

This king, as one of his recent biographers has noted, "changed the heart, mind, and face of Britain more than anything between the coming of the Normans and the coming of the factory," not least by giving Protestantism its powerful purchase in the English-speaking world. And given Britain's later significance in world history—made possible in part by Henry himself—he must be accounted a towering figure of history.

Four Standout Features

Four accomplishments highlight this lecture series by Professor Dale Hoak:

The first is Professor Hoak's cutting-edge expertise. His interpretation of British history is often different from the traditional approach, thanks to his pursuit of the latest scholarly research.

The second is Professor Hoak's extraordinary personal command of the relevant primary sources, including documents such as the inventory of Henry's vast possessions made shortly after his death. No purely popular treatment will offer you this level of sustained, expert insight.

The third is the way Professor Hoak discusses Henry not only as a figure who commands our interest on his own terms, but as someone whose life and actions raise larger philosophical questions about what history is and how it is "made."

The fourth is Professor Hoak's shrewd discussion of Henry's personal wealth, including his properties, accoutrements, and art collection—Henry was a deliberately grand patron of the arts—as windows on the mind and heart of this king and his age.

Professor Hoak explores these thought-provoking issues in a way that arises naturally, even gracefully, out of the story that he himself tells from the primary sources.

About Those Wives

Who could forget that Henry had six wives? Each was a figure of drama and interest in her own right. One was a giddy, sexy teenager; another was a sharp political player who became the first queen of England to publish a book. One made Henry court her for seven years and had her coronation turned into the largest spectacle ever staged by the ceremony-loving Tudor dynasty; another Henry married sight unseen and then hastily rejected, ranting, "I like her not!" Still another became a member of the truly tiny club of people who upbraided Royal Henry to his face (publicly!) and lived to tell about it.

You'll learn the story of each of these remarkable women in detail (including the only one—do you know who she is?—to be buried next to Henry at Windsor Castle). Around two of these women, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, swirled the royal divorce case that supposedly led to Henry's fateful quarrel with the pope. But did that famous quarrel really "cause" the English Reformation? Professor Hoak's answer might surprise you.

A Royal Revolutionary

How historically accurate are impressions that we take away from plays and films and Holbein portraits? Do they bring us any closer to the "real" Henry, the crowned revolutionary who wrenched history out of one course and into another by claiming "imperial" kingship (and with it, in effect, the sovereignty of the modern state and its laws), and then by bringing most of the English-speaking world into the Protestant camp during the early decades of the Reformation?

With these lectures by an historian who is intimately familiar with the actual documentary record, you can round out your own personal portrait of the Henry who comes to life in Shakespeare's words and in brilliant portrayals by Charles Laughton, Richard Burton, and Robert Shaw.

A Few Specifics

Here is a short list of facts from these engaging lectures:

  • What Henry did with the fabulous wealth that he gained from his seizure and dissolution of England's monasteries—there were more than 800, and the takeover involved fully one-quarter of the best land in all England
  • Why a law that Henry put through Parliament in 1533 (Act of Appeals) is more important to the history of constitutional development in the English-speaking world than even Magna Carta, and how Henry became an early (if unwilling) sponsor of free speech
  • How Henry's reaction to a sensational 1514 London murder case prefigured a break with Rome decades later
  • What it would have been like to visit Henry at court and see the king in the midst of both his business and his many and extravagant amusements.

The Real Henry

The Henry VIII who emerges from these lectures is a man of both great charm and terrifying, self-pitying ferocity (which predominates is for you to decide). And his limits are all too apparent. He harbored ruthless, vaulting ambitions and spun grand schemes, yet in the end was shadowed by the deep historical irony of expectations gone strangely awry.

The eighth Henry was a Renaissance prince but also in many ways a backward-looking man obsessed by medieval chivalry, a king who became an agent of the future—England's and the world's. He was an athlete who surrendered to self-indulgence. He was a romantic who is remembered for his failed marriages and his cruelty toward at least four of his six wives.

He combined exquisite taste and aesthetic sensibility (he was a superb singer) with a vulgar acquisitiveness. He was a trained theologian with a tender conscience who turned on the church for none-too-lofty reasons. He recruited awesomely talented advisors to help him with his plans, only to destroy the greatest of them.

Henry's reign contributed an important legacy to British history and the modern world: the revolutionary effect of the Act of Appeals was to make law itself, or the king-in-Parliament, the supreme authority. Parliamentary law became the basis of the new constitutional monarchy; the tax schemes of Henry's lord chancellor, Wolsey, would presage the beginning of modern bureaucracy; and Henry's navy was the first standing military force in his day.

With these achievements, Henry was a despot who became an accidental great-grandfather of English-speaking democracy. He built, as they say, "other than he knew." We might also say he built better than he knew. But what standards would Henry and his contemporaries have applied to judge such actions and achievements? In assessing Henry and his reign, should we prefer our own standards to theirs? Why?

Henry was a willing history-maker. But history is driven by patterns of causation that include, and yet are not exhausted by, human desires, even the desires of "great" men and women.

More than just the story of a larger-than-life figure with feet of proverbial clay—compelling as that story is—this series offers an invitation to reflect on these patterns of causation and the fascinating ironies they suggest.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Henry VIII—Kingship and Revolution
    Henry VIII was England's first Renaissance ruler: dynamic, brilliant, and charming, but also willful, ferocious, and dangerous. Hans Holbein's famous portrait offers us a good place to start getting our arms around the paradoxes of this revolutionary monarch. x
  • 2
    The Wars of the Roses and Henry VII
    The Wars of the Roses, more a series of baronial feuds than the devastating internecine strife that some have imagined, provide the crucial backdrop to understanding the Tudor dynasty's rise. x
  • 3
    Majesty and Regality—The Cult of Monarchy
    By emphasizing the majesty of English monarchy in new ways, Henry VII, the tough, shrewd, first Tudor king and father of Henry VIII (but not the cold miser of legend), effectively created a sacred cult of "imperial" kingship. x
  • 4
    Chivalry and War—The Accession of Henry VIII
    Widely hailed as a learned dynamo when he took the throne in 1509, Henry VIII saw himself in chivalric terms, an honorable crusader who would regain the French crown. From 1512 on his wars drained his treasury, causing him to envy Church wealth. x
  • 5
    King and Cardinal—England Under Wolsey
    The planner of Henry's first French war (1512-14) was the brilliant cleric Thomas Cardinal Wolsey. English rule of the occupied parts of France became a test case for Henrician "imperial kingship." Wolsey rose vertiginously in both church and state offices. x
  • 6
    Magnificence, War, and Diplomacy, 1519-29
    Henry and Wolsey engaged in much war and diplomacy, but did they pursue a "foreign policy"? Opportunism ruled all, and players of this game risked losing honor and office. x
  • 7
    Anne Boleyn and the King's "Great Matter"
    Henry's divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, played itself out at a troubled crossroads where sex, religion, law, dynastic politics, and sheer stubbornness (Henry's mostly) met and intertwined in sometimes-bewildering ways. x
  • 8
    King, Church, and Clergy
    Henry had inherited an England in which the Church had its own law courts with jurisdictions that overlapped those of the royal courts. The divorce case highlighted the resulting jurisdictional tension. x
  • 9
    Church and People—Heresy and Popular Religion
    Was the English Reformation only a "top-down" event? To what extent did Henry and his Parliament tap lay anger at overweening clerics? What was the nature of religious faith and practice on the eve of Henry's Reformation? x
  • 10
    Rex Est Imperator—The Break With Rome
    The years 1527-34 marked the resolution of Henry's divorce case and his break with Rome—each had its own causes but was buttressed and rationalized by secret research of Henry's legal team. From this came the modern doctrine of state sovereignty. x
  • 11
    Parliament, Law, and the Nation
    When he launched his Reformation, Henry did not resort to his own decrees—royal proclamations—but instead used Parliament to secure statutes recognizing him as head of the Church in England. Why did he choose this path and its consequences? x
  • 12
    The Trial and Execution of Thomas More
    Why was the "man for all seasons" put on trial for his life, how did he understand his own actions, and for which principle did he die? Learn what the real record reveals about the Thomas More not of legend or film, but of history. x
  • 13
    Humanism and Piety
    To humanists such as Thomas More, the Renaissance was not just about acquiring Greco-Roman culture or reforming school curricula. They hoped that spirituality of learned laymen would point the way to peace and justice. x
  • 14
    Wealth, Class, and Status
    Though not a nobleman, Thomas More was one of the richest men in England. Precisely where in Tudor society did he and those like him fit? Hans Holbein's masterful portrait of More and his family provides important visual evidence. x
  • 15
    More's Utopia
    More's clever, enigmatic Utopia, a masterpiece of world literature, addressed the most pressing moral and political issues of the day, and one which touched More's own life and career. x
  • 16
    The Dissolution of the Monasteries
    Acting on falsified charges of monastic vice and corruption, Henry seized more than 800 friaries and nunneries between 1536 and 1540. He sold much of the confiscated wealth to pay for yet more war. Such sales also made him rich. x
  • 17
    Rebellion—The Pilgrimage of Grace
    In 1536 in several northern counties the dissolution sparked the largest mass revolt in English history. The rebellion drew in all classes in defense of what we might call regional autonomy. How did the revolt end and what were its long-term consequences? x
  • 18
    A Renaissance Court
    Henry's wealth and education made his court a magnet for the greatest European artists. This lecture describes the structure, pastimes, and rituals of the court, showing how the king sought to make his household a display of royal magnificence. x
  • 19
    Queen Anne Boleyn
    Foreigners hailed Queen Anne as a paragon of spirituality and artistic taste. An intelligent, strong-willed woman, she helped make the English Reformation. But her inability to give Henry a son helped to doom the mother of the future Elizabeth I. x
  • 20
    Two Queens—Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves
    Henry's top aide, Thomas Cromwell, used Jane to destroy Anne Boleyn and his enemies at court. But Jane's death set in motion events which eventually cost Cromwell his life, for he persuaded the king to marry Anne of Cleves, whom Henry found loathsome. x
  • 21
    Politics, Sex, and Religion—Catherine Howard
    With the fall of the evangelical Cromwell, a religiously conservative court faction saw an opening and drew Henry's eye to the flirtatious teenager, Catherine Howard. But sexual indiscretions soon cost Catherine her head and wrecked her sponsors' hopes. x
  • 22
    Queen Katherine Parr
    The sixth and last wife of the now bloated and ailing Henry was the sister of one of his evangelical councilors. Katherine managed her husband masterfully; a fervent evangelical herself, she also supervised the education of his daughter Elizabeth and her half-brother Edward—both future monarchs. x
  • 23
    Endgame—Politics and War, 1542-47
    Still obsessed with kingly honor, an aging Henry invaded Scotland and France at ruinous expense, pressing a novel doctrine of royal "necessity" to make Parliament levy more taxes. The making of his will in December 1546 constitutes one of the great forensic puzzles of English history—a riddle this lecture resolves x
  • 24
    Retrospect—Henry VIII: The King and His Age
    Studying the reign of Henry VIII raises important questions of how we should assess the legacy of such an imposing historical figure. By what criteria—by whose criteria—should we judge? x

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Your professor

Dale Hoak

About Your Professor

Dale Hoak, Ph.D.
The College of William and Mary
Dr. Dale Hoak is Professor Emeritus of History at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. He earned his bachelor's degree from the College of Wooster, his master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and his doctorate from Clare College, University of Cambridge. Dr. Hoak received the prestigious Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia, awarded by the State Council of Higher Education for...
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Age of Henry VIII is rated 4.0 out of 5 by 75.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Page Turner - Can't Wait for the Next Chapter Intrigue, infidelity, crime, ideals, noble aims and purpose, all this and more. Each lecture provided a comprehensive picture and discovery of conflicting issues, hopes and ideals. The series read for me like a novel and I awaited each lecture eagerly (I listen while driving to/from.) Highly recommended for history buffs, those with religious interests. The series have another benefit: they show how the political arenas of today have an historical context dating down to Henry VIII. Thank you Professor Hoak
Date published: 2020-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing amount of facts. Professor Hoak knows his subject matter extraordinarily well. With this course,you get a vast amount of information. Especially important are the often subtle facts that are obtained only by reading extensively. Wonderful course!
Date published: 2020-10-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Factual errors I am usually a great fan of these courses and although this is generally of a high standard, it is spoiled by silly factual errors which I wouldn’t expect from this professor. For example, he states that Edmund Tudor died two months after his son was born - no, it was two months before. Lord Stanley was actually Margaret Beaufort’s fourth husband, not her second. And the biggest howler - the Lollards tried to capture Henry IV in 1414. Wouldn’t have done them much good - he had died the previous year ! And those are the ones I know about - there may be others.
Date published: 2020-07-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Riddled with errors The lectures contain many factual errors. Some are minor, such as calling Thomas Stanley Margaret Beaufort's second husband (try fourth). Some are bigger, such as saying that Catherine of Aragon turned 40 in 1520 (she was born in 1485). There are many examples. The one that got me the most was that he says that the son born to Henry and Catherine 1511 was named Arthur after his brother. I have no idea where this could have come from. He's talking about Henry of Cornwall. (Also, would Henry seriously name his heir after his brother?) Unless you feel like fact-checking everything he says, I'd find a more accurate way to learn about Henry VIII.
Date published: 2020-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview of the Man and the Time Period I purchased this course to augment my reading of the masterful Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel. I hoped this course would provide me with historical detail to help me better appreciate the Mantel trilogy, and I was not disappointed. Professor Hoak is an excellent lecturer and kept my interest throughout the course. While he provided details of Henry's life or the lives of those who surrounded Henry, he made sure to ensure the student did not lose sight of the larger picture, i.e., England and Henry's position within Europe and within the Renaissance period. Should Professor Hoak ever record a series of lectures on the entire Tudor reign, I would purchase it instantly. I suppose the mark of a good course is satisfaction/enjoyment with the material and then a desire to learn more about the topic. This course succeeded on both accounts.
Date published: 2020-05-14
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Professor's delivery hurts the content. The history of Henry VIII drones on for 24 chapters, but it likely could have been completed in half that if Professor Hoak could have delivered it smoothly, in complete sentences uncluttered by stutters, stammers, halts and start-overs. By the end of the lecture series, the character of the delivery utterly overwhelmed the content. It was literally painful to listen to. If Henry VIII had any grand sense of purpose or any great and noble ambitions, they were not revealed by the telling of his story. He was obsessed with his own grandeur, with besting other kings with his fabulous spectacle and pageantry, and with becoming recognized as the rightful emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His primary activities revolved around hedonism and self indulgence. Consequently, he grew to a girth of some 54 inches and weighed in at 400 or more pounds. While he at times surrounded himself with brilliant men, such as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, he ultimately had them all "legally" murdered as they fell out of favor with him. He also had a couple of his wives beheaded (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), and some 180 Abbotts hanged from the tower. Innocent men were routinely arrested, tortured and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit (before they were summarily executed) in order to advance his political agenda. Professor Hoak describes all of this in quite comprehensive detail, without the least bit of revulsion or moral outrage at Henry's excesses. He describes the hanging of 15 dozen churchmen with the same dispassion as he would describe the shade of green in which the king's carriage was painted. Anne Boleyn's beheading was described in near clinical detail, with Hoak being somewhat bemused by the fact that she turned her head to see which axe was to be employed, and was caught quite by surprise by the instrument the executioner had hidden out of sight on the side away from where she was looking. I sensed no shudder at the brutality of the scene. While important and lasting change came to England during Henry's reign, most of it happened around him rather than as a consequence of his vision and intent. He comes across as a petty and vulgar bully given to great tantrums and plots for vengeance. His self indulgence squandered vast stores of wealth with little left to show for it. In the end, he did more to delay England's emergence as a great nation than he did to advance it. As Houk plodded through the details, I never got the feeling that he saw Henry VIII's role, or lack of it, in the grand sweep of history.
Date published: 2020-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you are a fan of the history of England and the monarchy you will love this.
Date published: 2020-04-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from One factual error. I purchased this course several years ago and was watching it again to refresh my memory. I would recommend the course and overall I believe it to be well-done and thorough. However, one error bothers me... Dr. Hoak states that Henry and Catherine of Aragon's second child, born in 1511, to great fanfare and pageantry, was named Arthur. I can find no evidence of this, and everything I see states that this child's name was Henry, Prince Henry. He died only 52 days later and Dr. Hoak does state that fact accurately. To some this error might be considered insignificant or trivial but I feel the record should be corrected...
Date published: 2019-11-26
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