Henry VIII is known for being married to six wives, and in fact may have had relationships with more women. The phrase “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” is often used to remember the order they came in and their fates, but is that all there is to them? For instance, did you know that one of them helped lead a successful battle against Scotland and another one was the first woman in England to have a book published under her own name?
Catherine of Aragon – Divorced
Lived from 16th December 1485 to 7th January 1536 (50 years old).
Married Henry from 1509 to 1533.
Alternative Name Spellings: Katherine of Aragon, Katharine of Aragon.
Originating from Spanish royalty, Catalina, or Catherine as her name was anglicised, was originally married to Henry’s brother Arthur until his death on the 2nd April 1502. She married Henry seven years later.
Catherine was a well-respected royal figure, beloved by the public. In fact, while Henry was away fighting the French in 1513, she temporarily took charge of England during the Battle of Flodden Field between them and Scotland. One story goes that she even rode into battle to address the English troops whilst pregnant. The battle was a major success for England, and from Woburn Abbey, she sent a piece of the deceased Scottish king James IV’s bloodied coat to Henry so he could use it as a banner during the siege of Tournai. Apparently, according to the National Archives, she had originally desired to bring back James’ body!
However, Henry lost interest in Catherine when she failed to provide a male heir, with her only surviving child being Mary Tudor. He aimed to divorce her on the grounds that as Arthur’s widow, it technically made her Henry’s “sister” and therefore the marriage should not have been allowed in the first place. The divorce (or rather, annulment) was a messy and tumultuous one, with the Pope’s initial refusal to grant it resulting in Henry setting up the Church of England and the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries in England.
Despite Catherine’s fall from grace and being sent into exile at Kimbolton Castle, the British populace went into great mourning when she died. In fact, some historians consider her to have been Henry’s favourite wife. According to historian Tracey Borman, “Henry viewed her as a model wife in every respect bar one…her failure to give him a son”.
Anne Boleyn – Beheaded
Lived from c. 1500 to 19th May 1536 (36 years old).
Married Henry from 1533 to 1536.
Anne was not royalty like Catherine, but she was brought up in an aristocratic family and spent most of her childhood in a French court. Her parents used her and her sister, Mary, to increase their power in court and appeal to the King. Anne was well noted for her striking appearance, witty nature and exotic appeal. She also notably turned down Henry’s sexual advances, only accepting them once she received a marriage proposal – something that would play a major part in starting the Reformation.
Despite Henry’s initial interest in her, not everyone was keen on Anne. Many people saw her as an inferior successor to Catherine and people in court worked against her. Catherine’s daughter, Mary, in particular did not see eye to eye with her and Anne often mistreated her, trying to keep her and Henry apart. Ironically enough, Anne would later have the same problems as Katherine did in providing a male heir for Henry, with her only surviving child being Elizabeth I.
Unlike Catherine before her though, Anne’s fate was worse. Rumours were spread about her, claiming that she’d been having affairs, particularly with her brother George, who had allegedly been conspiring the King’s death. It was even claimed that she had six fingers on one hand and a third breast! It is highly unlikely that these rumours are true – Anne was known to be quite beautiful and Henry VIII would probably not have married her at all if the rumours were correct. Nevertheless, this provided Henry with the justification he needed for sentencing her to death by beheading – not just to get rid of her, but to also warn her family of what happened to those who crossed him.
Jane Seymour – Died
Lived from 1508 or 1509 to 24th October 1537 (28 to 29 years old).
Married Henry from 30th May 1536 to 24th October 1537.
Originally a lady-in-waiting to Catherine and Anne, Jane was promoted to the position of Henry’s third wife after Anne’s execution. She was considered by some to be the king’s favourite wife, likely due to the fact that she was able to provide a legitimate male heir for him. It is perhaps with great irony that she was the only wife of his to never have a coronation.
Like Anne, Jane was willing to marry Henry but refused to be his mistress. However, both in terms of temperament and relationships with others, they couldn’t be more different, with Jane gaining a reputation as being more modest and patient. In contrast with the turbulent relationship between Anne and Mary, Jane got on well with both of her stepdaughters, even helping to somewhat restore Mary to Henry’s favour. It is speculated by some historians that this is because she opposed the Reformation herself, though if she did, she never publicly voiced her opinions on it.
It was on the 12th October 1537 that Jane gave birth to Edward VI, something that Henry was very pleased about. Unfortunately, complications linked with the birth meant that she died only a few days afterwards. Maternal mortality was a common issue in those days and even queen consorts were no exception to it. Naturally, the King was heartbroken by this turn of events and spent time in mourning afterwards. Whether Jane was definitely the favourite wife of Henry isn’t fully known, but the fact that Henry was buried next to her when he died certainly serves as proof of it.
Anne of Cleves – Divorced
Lived from 22nd September 1515 to 16th July 1557 (41 years old).
Married Henry from January 1540 to July 1540.
Two years after Jane’s death, it was deemed that England needed a new political ally due to England’s split from Rome. Painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who had already painted pictures for the king such as members of court, Jane Seymour and the king himself, was assigned to paint Anne and Amalia, two sisters and princesses from Cleves, which was the place England hoped to ally with. The older sister Anne was the one ultimately chosen.
Upon arrival though, Henry was disappointed to discover that Anne looked different to the painting that he’d seen. Though people in court still saw her as beautiful (one person even claimed that she was the most beautiful of Henry’s wives!), the king had a low opinion of her appearance. It did not help that by this point, Cleves was no longer needed as an ally against France and Rome. Holbein was able to get off for the painting and was still commissioned to paint Henry’s future wives, but advisor Thomas Cromwell got the brunt of the king’s fury. The marriage was never properly consummated and they split up only six months later.
That said, Anne surprisingly got a good deal out of it. She was appointed the King’s Beloved Sister and even received her own palace in Richmond. She got on well with Henry’s children and with Mary in particular, who was almost the same age as her by that time, had a friendship that lasted until Anne’s death. Mary, who was by then the Queen of England, even made sure that Anne was buried in Westminster Abbey to befit her position as former queen and Beloved Sister of the king.
Catherine Howard – Beheaded
Lived from sometime between 1518 and 1524 to 13th February 1542 (17 to 24 years old).
Married Henry from 1540 to 1542.
Alternative Name Spelling: Katherine Howard.
Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard was brought up in an aristocratic family that wanted power. She was essentially sent to the equivalent of a finishing school, run by her step-grandmother Agnes, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, where girls were trained to be good candidates for the king to marry. It was while taking music lessons that Catherine ended up in a relationship with one of her teachers Henry Maddox, who frequently took advantage of her. Reports vary of the extent of his exploitation, ranging from him pressuring her to lose her virginity and gossiping about their sexual escapades, to outright grooming and preying on her. Frances Dereham, the gentleman usher of the Duchess, would exploit Catherine in a similar manner.
When Catherine was married to the king, he was already ageing and in ill health. It is likely that she was only a teenager when the marriage took place, whilst he was 49 years old. Initially, Henry was besotted with his young wife. He referred to her as his “rose without a thorn” and often showered her with gifts. Unfortunately, his opinions on her would diminish when word came out about her having numerous affairs with men in court, most notably with Thomas Culpeper, as well as the past relationships that she had been in with Maddox and Dereham.
Historians are divided as to whether Catherine was genuinely that promiscuous or whether it was just the tragic result of her upbringing. While past views on her were needlessly scathing of her actions, current opinion stands that she was a victim with no control over her life. One theory by historian Lucy Worsley in her historical fiction novel Eliza Rose claims that she had actually been trying to birth a male heir to Henry, given that he was infertile at the time and the person she was in a relationship with had the same red hair as him. Either way, Henry was not impressed, and she was sentenced to the same fate as Anne in order to set an example to her family.
Katherine Parr – Survived
Lived from 1512 to 5th September 1548 (36 years old).
Married Henry from 1543 to 1547.
Alternative Name Spelling: Catherine Parr.
Not only was Katherine the sixth wife of the king, but he was in fact her third husband. She had been twice-widowed beforehand, though had never had children.
Katherine would go on to have a wide influence on a variety of areas in court. In fact, she was the one who ultimately convinced Henry to restore his daughters to the order of succession, after he had originally declared them “illegitimate” due to them not being sons. She was also known for her interest in writing and religion and published three books in her life – Psalms or Prayers, Prayers or Meditations and The Lamentation of a Sinner – even becoming the first English woman to be published under her own name.
But it wasn’t all that easy. In fact, Katherine almost lost her head herself. Due to her strong Protestant faith, she made enemies in court who planned to turn the king against her and have her executed for “heresy”. However, Katherine was able to fake being ill in order to convince the king to come to her bedchamber, where she was able to persuade him not to execute her and that she was loyal to him.
Interestingly enough, despite Katherine being known as the wife who “survived”, she died only a year after Henry’s death due to complications of childbirth during her fourth marriage. Catherine of Aragon would live the longest of Henry’s wives and Anne of Cleves would be the last of them to die.
Written by Imogen Easton, Whitehall Volunteer.
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