King Henry VIII is remembered first and foremost as the mentally unstable monarch who married six women. And brutally killed off two of them. At school we were told to recite this ditty: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. The fates of the wives summarised in order.
Some queens have captured the imagination more than others. Everybody knows Anne Boleyn. The feisty and fiercely intelligent second wife whose rise and fall took place over a three-year period. Anne of a thousand days! And then it all ended with a sword swipe to her neck.
So let’s take a look at the six women who had the grave misfortune to marry this dreadful 16th century psychopath. Three of them were called Catherine…or Katherine…I’ve vexed about the spelling and gone for Catherine with two of them and Katherine for the other one. Tell me if I’ve got this wrong!
Let’s start then with the most brilliant, well-educated, and mistreated wife: Catherine of Aragon.
Wife number one: Catherine of Aragon
The Tudor dynasty was born out of the bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses that tore England apart. The flower of the aristocracy was slain in a drawn out conflict between the Houses of Lancaster (Red Rose) and York (White Rose). The Tudors emerged from the carnage combining the two roses as their family emblem, creating the semblance of unity, while ensuring peace through heavy handed methods.
Fearful of being seen as a usurper, the first Tudor king – Henry VII – cast around for a dynastic marriage to cement his family’s legitimacy and power. There was no stronger kingdom in Europe at the start of the 16th century than the emerging global empire that was Spain.
Henry VII betrothed his oldest son and heir, Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon. They were married and then things went badly wrong. Arthur died months into the marriage leaving Catherine a teenage widow. Everybody including the pope agreed that sending the princess home was pointless when Arthur’s strapping young brother – called Henry like his father – was there for the taking. So they were married in 1509.
Catherine of Aragon stands in a long tradition of powerful and intellectual queens of England stretching back to Eleanor of Aquitaine and Queen Philippa of Hainault. Women who held their own in a male-dominated society. In the immediate past, Henry’s mother and grandmother – Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York – had been power brokers exerting huge influence behind the scenes. Henry’s first wife stood in this line of indomitable crowned females.
Catherine’s own mother, Isabel, was the formidable Queen of Castile. When she married King Ferdinand of Aragon, they created the modern country of Spain. And Isabel didn’t play second fiddle to Ferdinand. The Pope recognised them both as the “Catholic Kings” of Spain. In 1492, the royal twosome conquered the last Muslim-ruled stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula while Christopher Columbus discovered the New World – opening up a vast empire for the King and Queen to rule and exploit.
So, Catherine had impressive parents!
And she inherited many of her mother’s stern and determined qualities. In September 1513, King Henry VIII was off campaigning in France. However, the kingdom needed to fight off the Scottish encroaching in the north. In an astonishing act of bravery, Catherine rode to meet the English army, heavily pregnant, and in full armour. She delivered a stirring speech. However, claims that she then led the soldiers into battle, charging on horseback, are disputed by most historians.
It’s hard for us not to be impressed by Henry’s first wife, an educated woman in dialogue with the great Dutch humanist Erasmus and a friend of the English politician, Sir Thomas More. She was even admired by Thomas Cromwell, the future Lord Privy Seal whose religious views could not be more different. But Catherine fell out of favour with her husband for one simple reason: she did not deliver a son who lived beyond infancy.
These were cruel times to be a woman – and especially to be a woman in childbirth. Becoming pregnant was a death sentence for many. But there was an added dilemma as a queen. You had to produce a male child that survived beyond the first very dangerous months and years. Catherine had one healthy daughter – Mary. But beyond that, it was a sad litany of dead babies. One son, yet another Henry, barely lasted fifty-two days.
Henry decided to get his marriage annulled by the pope. This wasn’t an unprecedented move. There was a long history of royal marriages being dissolved by papal consent. Before the 12th century, kings got their marital union declared null and avoid by the local clergy without bothering Rome. It was common enough to assert that the marriage was incestuous or the husband was impotent or the wife was a witch – whatever worked.
But Henry VIII found himself up against a hostile Pope, Clement VII, who was virtually a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Unfortunately for Henry, Charles V was the grandson of Catherine of Aragon’s parents and her nephew. He was not about to see Aunt Catherine deposed as Queen of England by an upstart monarch whose family had usurped the throne. No – Henry would have to stay married to Catherine, like the good Catholic he was.
Only Henry now decided not to be a good Catholic. Despite previously condemning the Protestant writings of Martin Luther and defending the primacy of the Pope in all religious matters, he performed a breathtaking 180 degree theological U-turn. To the horror of his Spanish wife, he rejected the Roman Catholic religion; declared himself head of the new Church of England; and set about shutting down the country’s ancient and very rich monasteries.
With the steely resolve of her mother, Catherine refused to relinquish her title as Queen. But the divorce went ahead on various technicalities that Henry concocted with his advisers. She was packed off from court to slowly die of cancer and a broken heart in a countryside manor house. Henry then went public on the new love of his life: Anne Boleyn.
Poor Catherine! She must have had something going for her to be the subject of a Rick Wakeman keyboard-only song.
FIND OUT MORE: Me as Henry VIII on TV!
Wife number two: Anne Boleyn
Anne’s family tree wasn’t European royalty or the cream of the English aristocracy. The Boleyns were ambitious nouveau riche who climbed the greasy pole over the preceding three generations. One might say they got to the top through merit – and a lot of scheming.
Anne’s great-great grandfather was a serial felon, prosecuted for repeatedly trespassing on the local lord’s land in his home county of Norfolk. The family’s meteoric ascent got underway with his son. He went to London, traded as a hatter, and got himself elected Lord Mayor. A bright young man from the provinces made good.
The Boleyns married into much posher families. By the time Anne came along, they had wormed their way into the Tudor court. It was one of King Henry VIII’s major plus points that he was prepared to look beyond the old nobility for talented advisers and courtiers.
Henry took a fancy to Anne’s sister taking her as his mistress. There was even a rumour that Anne’s mother was no stranger to Henry’s bed. Though this was spread by a Jesuit propagandist, Nicholas Sander, who – along with most Roman Catholics – despised Anne for her strong adherence to Protestantism. He also claimed Anne had six fingers on her right hand, a projecting tooth, and a large wart under her chin.
Anne was sent to the French court to be an attendant to the queen. Then returned to England becoming part of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s household. Henry VIII wrote her love letters though these were later stolen resurfacing a hundred years later in the Vatican library!
Henry got his marriage to Catherine annulled by his compliant Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. This led to both of them being excommunicated by the Pope. Then Henry secretly married Anne. All the evidence suggests that the outgoing Spanish-born queen, Catherine, was hugely popular with the English people. While the English-born Anne was loathed.
Anne gave birth to a baby daughter – which was not what Henry wanted. Even though this girl, Elizabeth, went on to be the greatest of the Tudor monarchs. Three years after making Anne queen, Henry trumped up charges of treason, incest, and adultery against her. On May 17, 1536, Anne’s brother George and four other men were beheaded for their alleged involvement in these crimes and her head was severed by a French swordsman two days later.
Henry had yet again shifted his attentions to another woman he hoped would provide him with a son. This relentless quest for a male heir had already robbed Catherine of Aragon of her crown, Anne Boleyn of her head, and the country had a new religion. The king pinned his hopes on Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s maids-of-honour, for a baby boy. With Anne now headless and buried at the Tower of London, there was no impediment to a new royal marriage.
So dramatic was the life of Anne Boleyn that it inspired a well-loved opera still performed today.
FIND OUT MORE: Why King Henry VIII had no friends
Wife number three: Jane Seymour
For many, Jane Seymour is the most boring of the six wives of King Henry VIII. He loves her madly. She is a conciliator and causes little offence. Jane gives the king his much sought after son. But tragically, she dies in childbirth. So within eighteen months, Jane has been and gone.
Unlike Catherine of Aragon, Jane was not in communication with Europe’s greatest humanist Erasmus, nor was she commanding armies on the battlefield. And in marked contrast to Anne Boleyn, she was no sharp-tongued wit capable of giving Henry a run for his money in a conversation. But by this stage of his life, Henry wasn’t looking for excitement in his marriage. He wanted a son and heir.
How did Jane fit in to the religious controversies and court intrigues of the time? Her brothers, Edward and Thomas upheld Protestantism, especially during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI. But Jane was a Catholic though kept her faith under wraps. This may not have bothered the king so much as the pro-Catholic uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace had spooked him and he was rapidly falling out with his pro-Reformation chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell.
One of her great achievements was to bring Henry’s daughters back to court. Remember that Mary and Elizabeth, as the daughters of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively, had both been declared illegitimate and banished from London. But there was a sting in the tail to this reconciliation organised by Jane. Mary had to sign a document stating her now dead mother was never queen. And that her father was head of the church.
If Jane had not died after giving birth to Edward, she might well have soldiered on as queen and even delivered another son. Henry would have enjoyed a stable relationship and taken mistresses like any other king. However, she passed away from puerperal fever. The king was now on course for three more disastrous marriages.
Fun fact – Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn were second cousins!
Wife number four: Anne of Cleves
After the excitement of the first three wives, there’s been a tendency to overlook Anne of Cleves. Protestant. German. Dull. And according to King Henry VIII – not very good looking. He referred to Anne as a “Flanders mare” and blamed her for his inability to consummate the marriage. Though, some have wondered whether the king, beset by ill health and getting older, was increasingly impotent.
The sex life of the king was the business of the court. Could he create another son and heir in case Jane Seymour’s son Edward died? Having a spare heir was always a good idea. But Henry was very vocal from the outset that his new wife wasn’t going to be pregnant any time soon. There were no bedroom romps and he stomped around declaring she revolted him and even smelled bad.
Henry blamed his adviser Thomas Cromwell for locking him into the loveless marriage and in no time, Cromwell’s neck had a date with the executioner’s axe.
Anne has been reappraised in recent years. After all, she not only avoided the fate of Anne Boleyn but after the king divorced her, walked off with a handsome pension, residences, and continued as a member of the Royal Family. One of her new homes was Hever Castle where Anne Boleyn grew up. Henry thought nothing of bestowing this on a woman he now referred to as his “sister”.
Anne became the great Tudor survivor.
She successfully navigated the short reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, though was forced to hand over a couple of her palaces (not Hever Castle though). The boy king Edward pursued a very pro-Protestant policy, which suited Anne given her well-known Protestant background. But then Edward died in his teens and his sister Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and a staunch Catholic, took over.
How would Anne negotiate this? Quite easily. She simply converted to Roman Catholicism! Not only that, but Anne of Cleves participated in Mary’s coronation. However, Tudor politics were dangerous, convoluted, and fast moving. Even an ingratiating opportunist like Anne of Cleves was going to come a cropper at some stage. And it was Mary’s provocative decision to marry the king of Spain which proved Anne’s undoing.
When news broke that Queen Mary Tudor was determined to marry King Philip of Spain, rebellion broke out among the nobility. Mary put it down subsequently executing the young Protestant rival to her throne, Lady Jane Grey. She rightly suspected that the rebels wanted to instal either Jane Grey or her sister Elizabeth as queen. And Mary was convinced that Anne had switched allegiance from her to Elizabeth.
Maybe she did. Though such a daring move seems a little out of character.
Mary married the Spanish king. Anne was not invited to the wedding despite sending a grovelling letter of congratulation. And it seems the fourth wife of Henry VIII was excluded from court thereafter. She died in 1557. Queen Mary passed away a year after that.
Anne was the last of Henry’s six wives to die, even outliving the king’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr.
FIND OUT MORE: How Anne of Cleves kept her head
Wife number five: Katherine Howard
Air-headed adulteress. A clueless teenager. Even recent histories of Henry VIII continue to swallow the king’s side of the story that she was all looks and no brains. So we’re told that Katherine was devoid of morals and good sense. Ipso facto, she kind of deserved to lose her head. But hang on a moment – we’re talking about a very young woman who was treated from puberty as a sexual plaything by middle-aged men.
And that includes King Henry VIII.
At the time of their marriage, the king was 49 years of age but would have looked at least ten years older if not more to us today. Morbidly obese, stricken by ulcers, and possibly suffering from a range of illnesses including malaria and some allege, syphilis. Add to that gout, arthritis, and constipation. His new bride was in her late teens and this can’t have been her ideal love match.
She was a product of the aristocracy, the mighty Howards of Norfolk, but experienced the genteel poverty of those nowhere near inheriting a title. As a child, she grew up on the estate of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk who ran a kind of commune-cum-boarding school for anything up to a hundred wayward upper-class children.
An underage Katherine was groomed for sex by two older men: her music teacher Henry Manox and Francis Dereham, a hanger-on. The latter was sent away to Ireland by the Dowager Duchess when his predatory activity was revealed…by Manox. He had started to molest Katherine when she was 12 touching the “secret parts” of her body, while Dereham appeared on the scene as she turned 14.
Down the centuries, Katherine has been portrayed as complicit in these liaisons. But in our own times, with heightened awareness of child abuse, her vulnerability and exploitation should be better understood. We can argue that sexual mores were different and that abuse went unchecked. But Katherine Howard seems to have been in an especially precarious situation with a complete absence of any safeguarding.
Katherine’s uncle, the sitting Duke of Norfolk, got her a place at court as lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. The teenager, possibly as young as 15, was related to some of the previous wives. She was the first cousin of Anne Boleyn through her father’s sister and second cousin of Jane Seymour. It didn’t long for Henry’s roving eye to alight on the new face in Anne’s retinue.
Then the king, after several unhappy months of marriage, divorced his queen.
As Anne was packed off to Hever Castle, Henry took Katherine Howard as his new bride on July 28, 1540. The conventional wisdom is that Henry was glad to see the back of plain old Anne who was useless in bed while Katherine got his hormones raging again. But this is a horribly misogynistic tarring of Anne that excuses Henry his own shortcomings. Nothing like blaming your wife for erectile dysfunction.
And so what if Katherine did satisfy him? This was still a smelly old ogre running his hands over a teenage girl. It doesn’t look good now – and it didn’t look good then.
Katherine didn’t enjoy Henry on any level. Unfortunately, other men realised this. Dereham reappeared in her life claiming they had a pre-contract to marry back in the old days. He swaggered around court drunkenly publicising his past with the young queen. At the same time, she was jumping into bed with a very handsome courtier, Thomas Culpepper.
At some point – this was all going to unravel.
Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was informed that the Katherine had not been a virgin before her marriage to the king. Quite the contrary! There had been steamy scenes as a young teenager with Manox and Dereham.
Cranmer now discovered the pre-contract between Dereham and Katherine which posed a threat to the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage to Katherine. And the backstairs sex with Culpepper also came to light. Cranmer had no particular axe to grind with the queen but the Howard family were known for their Catholic leanings and Cranmer was the Protestant par excellence.
This was his opportunity to crush the Howards and he went for it. The outcome was a bloodbath at the scaffold. Dereham was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Culpepper was beheaded – as was Katherine Howard and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Rochford.
Rochford’s actual name was Jane Boleyn – husband to George Boleyn, brother of Henry’s second wife. Her damning evidence against her own husband sent Queen Anne Boleyn to her death. Now, it was Rochford, accused of enabling the sexual encounters with Culpepper, who ended up losing her head.
There was some karma in Tudor England.
Wife number six: Catherine Parr
Ah yes, wife number six. Sensible Catherine. The king’s nurse to the end. Outlived Henry and married the man she really loved. Like Anne of Cleves, Catherine Parr has been reappraised in recent years. From being a boring footnote in the life of Henry VIII, it turns out she was as politically and religiously engaged as Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn.
She had been married twice already but was childless. As Henry’s marriage to Katherine Howard nosedived, Catherine Parr was part of Mary Tudor’s household and madly in love with Thomas Seymour. He was the brother of wife number three, Jane Seymour, and also of Edward Seymour, who would go on to become Lord Protector for his nephew and Henry’s son, Edward VI.
Katherine was beheaded for treason and adultery and Henry swept in on Catherine Parr. She could forget marrying Seymour. The king demanded her as his bride.
You do begin to see a pattern with the king where his next wife has opposing qualities and views to the outgoing wife. Twice-widowed, well-read, and cultured Catherine Parr was a huge contrast to the teenage, vivacious Katherine Howard. Sweet-mannered and obliging Jane Seymour couldn’t have been more different to sharp-tongued and argumentative Anne Boleyn. Etc, etc.
Catherine was wedded to Protestant religious reform whereas the Howard family had leaned towards the Catholic church. When Henry went campaigning in France, she became regent ruling in his stead. This was the kind of role that had once been entrusted to Catherine of Aragon. But to none of the subsequent queens. Catherine Parr didn’t waste the opportunity bringing the king’s children to court and subtly pushing for the Protestant cause – making her some powerful enemies.
She wrote a book, The Lamentation of a Sinner, describing the king as a latter-day Moses who “hath delivered us out of the captivity and bondage of Pharaoh (Rome)”. And she brought in new tutors for Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth who were humanists and possibly also Lutheran. This might go some way to explaining Edward’s radical Protestantism when he became king and Elizabeth’s hostility to Catholicism when she ascended the throne.
Stephen Gardner, the conservative Bishop of Winchester, set about plotting Catherine’s destruction. Firstly, he tortured and executed the reformer Anne Askew who was so brutally stretched on the rack, her broken and paralysed body had to be carried to the stake where she was burned to death in public. Then Gardner convinced the king to have his own wife arrested, along with her three leading ladies-in-waiting.
What happened next is an account that’s never made a great deal of sense to me unless you assume that Henry was in the first stages of dementia. Catherine Parr discovered she was about to be carted off to the Tower of London and threw herself on the king’s mercy. In short, she was forced to humiliate herself as a silly woman who didn’t know her place. When soldiers suddenly arrived to execute the arrest warrant, Henry told them to go away. She had won him over.
It’s hard to imagine what Catherine must have thought of her husband after that brush with death. Like everybody else, she knew he was capricious and lacking any empathy. But even this episode must have come as a terrible shock.
In January 1547, King Henry VIII died. Later that year, the Queen Dowager Catherine Parr secretly married Thomas Seymour. They lived with Princess Elizabeth.
Aged 35, Catherine Parr became pregnant for the first time (we know of) in her life. Seymour, meanwhile, began grooming the 14-year-old Elizabeth. He was ceaselessly lecherous with the future queen. It’s a moot point whether Catherine knew that her husband was making constant sexual advances at the young girl. Some have argued she even joined in, “tickling” Elizabeth in bed.
Catherine gave birth to a girl, Mary, on August 15, 1548. But then developed puerperal fever – the same condition that killed Jane Seymour after childbirth. She died six days after conceiving her daughter.