[Warning. Longer post than intended.]
Divorced, beheaded, died
Divorced, beheaded, survived.
This nursery rhyme depicts the fate of each of Henry VIII’s wives; ironically it is usually only by their fate they are remembered. Just to give ya’ll a brief run-down of the six women who were married to ‘Bluff King Hal’…
Catherine of Aragon: 1486-1536
This pious, intelligent little woman was married briefly to Arthur Tudor in October 1501 before his death shortly after. She married his younger brother Henry in 1509 when she was 23 and he was 17. She suffered several miscarriages, stillborns, and children who died shortly after birth (take little Prince Henry, alive for 52 days), was strong in her faith, her love for her surviving daughter Mary, and her love and devotion to her husband. Daughter of the Spanish Kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, sister of Juana the Mad, and aunt of Emperor Charles V, Catherine was a princess by birth and by actions. When Henry began his campaign to divorce her, Catherine caused him a rather impressive six-year headache. She was only one of two of Henry’s wives to serve as regent while he was at war. Her daughter would one day become Mary I, or “Bloody Mary.”
Anne Boleyn: c.1501-1536
Witty, fiery, temperamental, intelligent Anne Boleyn was educated under Margaret of Austria and served two Queens of France. She caught the king’s eye when she returned to England to serve Catherine of Aragon, sometime after her sister Mary’s affair with him in the early 1520s. After six years of courtship, Anne and Henry married in secret in 1533, and Anne gave birth to a baby girl on September 7th. Anne was also highly passionate about the Reform of the Church, and she can be pinned down to the woman responsible for England’s break from Rome. Her pregnancies in 1534 and 1536 both ended in miscarriage, and her argumentative, jealous ways were beginning to wear on her husband, who was starting to pay attention to lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour. Anne was executed on fabricated charges of adultery, incest, and treason on 19 May 1536. Five men were executed in association with her, including her younger brother George. Her daughter became Elizabeth I, or “Gloriana.”
Jane Seymour: c.1508-1537
Not much is known about the pale, prim woman whom Holbein captures on canvas. Quiet, pious, thought to be leaning towards the ‘old religion,’ many people believe her to be the polar opposite of her flighty predecessor Anne. Probably educated and intelligent, Jane was much loved by Henry, and her brothers Edward and Thomas became prominent men in the court. She gave birth in 1537 to the long-awaited male heir, but died shortly after. Her son became the boy-king Edward VI.
Anne of Cleves: 1515-1557
Educated differently than her predecessors but still intelligent, innocent, and ultimately self-preserving, Anne of Cleves make up Wife No. 4 of the list. Despite having gone down in history as ‘the Flander’s mare’ and the ‘ugly wife,’ modern society generally agrees that Holbein’s portrait of her is the most flattering of the six wives. After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry was persuaded by his man Thomas Cromwell (the figure given credit to the destruction of Anne Boleyn) to marry one of the sisters of the Duke of Cleves, therefore making a Protestant alliance against the Catholic Spain. Holbein was sent to paint the sisters, Anna and Amelia, and became enamoured by the portrait of the elder, Anna. She was sent for and Henry was anxious to meet his 24-year-old bride, but when she finally arrived in England everything fell apart. Henry, the romantic buffoon that he was, decided to sneak up upon Anna in a guise as so many courtly romantic figures did. Unfortunately, Anne, who couldn’t speak a stitch of English at the time, didn’t recognize him (he was disguised, after all!) and ignored the strange man trying to embrace her. It went downhill from there. After a lavish wedding, Henry declared he couldn’t consummate his marriage because his wife just didn’t excite him, but quickly defended his manhood saying he felt he could ‘do so with other women.’ Anyway, Anne readily agreed to an annulment and accepted the title of ‘the King’s beloved sister.’ She was given manors and money and was the highest woman in England save for the King’s wife and his daughters. Anne lived to see her ex-stepdaughter Mary become Queen and rode with Elizabeth in the procession.
Katheryn Howard: c.1521-1542
Polite, energetic, generous, and a bit naïve, this cousin of Anne Boleyn also made her mark on the King. She served Anne of Cleves and quickly caught the King’s eye, steering away from her crush Thomas Culpepper. Katheryn was married to Henry only six weeks after the annulment of his marriage with Anne and quickly became the apple of his eye. His “Rose Without a Thorn” however, had some secrets. After her past and promiscuous life was exposed, the young queen and her lady were sent to block on 13 February 1542. Read my post on Katheryn here.
Katherine Parr: 1512-1548
Highly intelligent with a passion for the Religious Reform, Katherine was already twice-widowed when she married Henry in July of 1543. She saw her marriage to the King as an act of duty, not necessarily love, and an opportunity to further the Reform. A mother to his two younger children,Elizabeth and Edward, and a friend to his elder daughter Mary, Katherine is often known as the ‘survivor.’ Religious conservatives sought to end her radical ways and was nearly arrested; she endured, however, to become to first English queen to have a book published under her own name. After the King’s death in January of 1547, Katherine and Elizabeth moved to Chelsea where the Queen Dowager lived with her new husband Tom Seymour (brother to Wife No. 3). The remainder of her life was not exceptionally happy, though. Tom was rumoured to have been unfaithful with his own stepdaughter, 13-year-old Elizabeth. Katherine’s behaviour became strange when she joined her husband to his romps in Elizabeth’s bedroom, holding her down while he tickled Anne Boleyn’s daughter. Katherine died on 7 September 1548 after contracting puerperal fever while giving birth to a daughter Mary. It’s not known what happened to little Mary Seymour, but Tom Seymour was executed in January 1549 after attempting to marry Elizabeth. As David Starkey puts it, “Perhaps marriage to Henry had been the better part after all.”
There is a lot of favouriting and bashing happening with Tudor fans and the wives, especially between Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. Insults have been thrown, pathetic hate-Facebook pages have been started, and malice brewed. Why? These women have been gone for nearly 500 years and none of them directly caused the fate of another. I dislike when people pick a ‘favourite’ of the wives — they were people, not colours!
I can understand, however, finding some wives more interesting than the others. For me, the interest from greatest to least goes: Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katheryn Howard, Katherine Parr, and Jane Seymour. Some of it is the personality they’ve left behind, or the legacy, or the end. I do respect each of these brave women and hope others can respect their memories as well.
- Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey, 2003
- The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser, 1992
- The Anne Boleyn Files also has bios of the wives
OH, and guess what? Claire Ridgway, author of the Anne Boleyn Files, will be guest posting on March 6th as part of her virtual book tour. Don’t miss it!