The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Henry VIII was king of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. He was born the second son of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York. Upon the untimely death of his older brother Arthur (named for the legendary king whom their father claimed decent from) he became the Prince of Wales.

Besides inheriting a crown from his brother, Henry would also go on to marry his older brother’s widow Katherine of Aragon.    Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of the great monarchs King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, who jointly ruled a unified Spain.   

Katherine came to England in 1501 in order to meet her betrothed, Arthur.    They were married in November of 1501, and Arthur would be dead within months.    Cause of death for the young prince is believed to have been either consumption (the old name for tuberculosis) or the infamous sweating sickness that ravaged England in the sixteenth century many recurrent times.   When he first died it was also thought that he may have died by overtaxing himself in the bedroom with his young beautiful bride.   Yes that’s right in the sixteenth century it was believed to be possible to die from having too much sex!

Of course Katherine famously claimed to have never been a true wife to Arthur, as he was too sickly to consummate the marriage.   This point becomes incredibly important years later during The King’s Great Matter!   My personal opinion is that the marriage was in fact consummated and that Katherine chose to hide the truth because she wanted to ensure she would marry Henry.   Henry was incredibly romantic at heart and the idea of being the first to lie with his wife was of utmost importance to him, and to his very delicate ego.   

The Pope needed to provide a dispensation in order for Henry to marry his brother’s widow, since it would be seen as incest.    In fact the Bible really has two contradictory passages when it comes to marrying your brother’s widow.   One passage states you must marry your brother’s widow.   The second is the passage in Leviticus Henry would go on to use as his defense of his belief that his marriage to Katherine was a sin and had never been valid.   

Katherine spent six years practically destitute because of dowry negotiations and the famed miserly ways of Henry VII.   Henry VII considered marrying Katherine himself after the death of Elizabeth of York in childbed with her last child (she died on her 37th birthday).   This option was seen as absolutely inappropriate by the Spanish monarchs.   So the betrothal of Henry and Katherine went through, but his father put off the marriage much longer than was agreed upon (it was originally to take place after Henry’s 14th birthday).    In fact Henry and Katherine did not marry until after the death of the previous King.   They were crowned together as King and Queen.

During their marriage Katherine was with child numerous times.   Each time ended in pain and tragedy, excepting their daughter Mary.    Mary was named after Henry’s favorite sister Mary Rose Tudor (one time Queen of France, and later wife of Henry’s best friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk).   

Katherine’s inability to produce a son is one of the driving forces of Henry feeling he needed a new bride.   Katherine actually did give birth to a son who lived by seven short weeks early in their marriage.   She also sadly is believed to have had a hysteric pregnancy before having Mary.   A hysteric pregnancy occurs when a woman desperately wants to have a baby and pregnancy symptoms occur, but after nine months no baby comes.   It is a case of mind over matter making her believe she is pregnant when she never was.   This occurred relatively often in this era, but is was humiliating for Katherine.

By 1526 Katherine was barren and Henry was searching for a new bride, all very quietly of course.   Henry knew he could have a healthy son thanks to his affair with Bessie Blount.   Bessie had given birth to Henry’s bastard son, whom he named Henry Fitzroy (literally meaning son of the king) and gave the title of Duke of Richmond!

Things took a major turn after the Shrove Tuesday celebrations in 1526.   During a pageant the royals and nobles participated in Henry’s eye landed upon Anne Boleyn.   She was playing Perseverance.    This certainly was a fitting role as Anne Boleyn definitely had perseverance.   

During this time period Henry had been having an affair with Anne’s elder sister Mary Boleyn.    But that pageant is when most historians pin point as the time when Henry’s sights alighted on Anne.   Anne Boleyn is a controversial figure, to say the least.   There are those who love her, those who hate her, those that see her as a whore, and those that see her as a martyr.

Personally I land on the side of loving Anne Boleyn.    She is my personal favorite of Henry’s wives, and I always have had a thing for doomed queens.   That being said I do not see her as a saintly martyr, or as an evil temptress.   I see Anne Boleyn as a person, and that means seeing both her positive and negative sides.   Anne is a powerful figure, and a mysterious one.   This is especially true because Henry tried to have her erased from history after her trial.   He had her portraits destroyed, likely burned any letters she wrote to him, and tried to have anything with their initials intertwined removed from his castle.   This was something done in as rush so there is still an H and A intertwined found at Hampton Court Palace.

Historians are actually unsure of Anne Boleyn’s birth year.    Although it is most commonly believed by modern historians to have been 1501.   As she went to study at the court of Margaret of Austria, and it is believed she was likely aged about twelve when she arrived in 1513.    After her time learning in Margaret’s court she went to France to meet up with her sister Mary, as they had both been assigned to be ladies in waiting to Mary Rose Tudor as she married the French king.

When the king died and Mary Rose Tudor impetuously married Charles Brandon, Anne remained at the French court to serve the new Queen Claude.   She would spend years (1514 through 1521) in the queen’s household serving her and learning French customs.   She in fact became seen to be more French than English.   Upon her return to English court in 1522 it was remarked anyone who met her and did not know of her birth would think her a natural born Frenchwoman.  

She came back to England because a match was arranged for her to her Irish cousin James Butler.   This marriage of course never took place.   Anne later fell in love with Henry Percy, who was the son of the Earl of Northumberland.    He would pay court to her, and there were many who thought that they were in fact precontracted (which in Tudor times was as good as being married).   Thanks to Cardinal Wolsey, in whose household Henry Percy was serving at the time, the match never came to be.   Henry Percy went on to marry the woman he had been betrothed to years earlier.

Next it is very important to mention Thomas Wyatt.   Wyatt was a poet who fell in love with Anne.   Anne would not dally with him because he was married, but he was a friend.   Some even believe they may have known each other while growing up since they both lived in Kent during their childhoods.   No matter when and where they met what is known is that Wyatt wrote many beautiful poems about Anne, and he likely wanted her for his mistress.    There is a famous story of Henry and Wyatt playing a game of bowls and there being a question as to who had won.   Wyatt used a chain with a pendant of Anne’s she had given him to measure and this made Henry absolutely irate.

Anne had to explain that Wyatt had taken the token from her months earlier in jest.   Of course Henry eventually calmed, but he was more determined to have Anne for his.

It is known that Anne caught the sweating sickness during a time she had went home to Hever Castle (which she did multiple times during the courtship with King Henry).   Anne nearly died, but thankfully recovered.   The thoughts of her possible death helped spur Henry in his determination that Anne was worth more than his mistress.   She had after all already rejected the idea of becoming his maitresse-en-titre (literally the King’s official mistress, common in France).   Anne insisted that none of her children be labeled bastards.

This brings us to The Kings Great Matter.   Henry had to have papal approval to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.   During the trial much was brought up pertaining to Katherine having consummated her marriage to Arthur.   In particular witnesses were brought forward who testified that the morning after the wedding Arthur had requested ale and said he had spent the night “in the midst of Spain” and that it was “a good pastime to have a wife.”   Of course, other than humiliating Katherine, the trial did not go over the way Henry wanted.   Much of this is due to the fact that Katherine’s nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, and the pope could not afford to anger someone so powerful.

This led to the Protestant Reformation where Henry broke with the Catholic Church to form the Church of England.   Anne Boleyn was the one who gave Henry Obedience of the Christian Man by William Tyndale.   This had been a banned book as it was by the Protestant Tyndale who also translated the Bible into English.   But Henry really loved the book calling it “a book every prince should read.”    In the book Tyndale wrote that kings should not be made to bow down to the pope.   This would lead to Henry declaring himself head of the Church of England.

It would take six, nearly seven, long years of fighting together in order to get Henry and Anne to the altar.   Their relationship is most likely to have been consummated during their trip to visit the French king, Francois I, in November of 1532.   Although there are some historians that believe that Anne did not make Henry wait, for instance Antonia Fraser has suggested that they practiced coitus interruptus early on in their courtship.   Anne joined Henry on this trip to France after he gave her the title of Marquess of Pembroke.    Their marriage would officially take place on January 20th of 1533 in a private ceremony.   By this time Anne was already pregnant with what was hoped to be Henry’s longed for prince, and heir!

Anne was coronated in June of 1533 with St.Edward’s crown.   She was the only one of Henry’s Queens to be coronated with a king’s crown.   Especially as this crown was usually only used to crown a reigning monarch, and not a consort!   For her coronation motto Anne chose “La Plus Heureuse” a French motto translated to “The Most Happy.”   In fact this motto also is what I chose for my email address at which you can use to contact me!

On September 7th of 1533 Anne gave birth to not the hoped for son, but instead a daughter she named Elizabeth in honor of the King’s late mother (of course her own mother was also named Elizabeth).   This daughter was not the hoped for prince, but the idea that Henry immediately was disappointed alone is a common misnomer.   Most historians agree that Henry told Anne they were both still young and there would be more children, more sons.   Anne truly adored Elizabeth and desired to breastfeed her herself.   This of course went against royal custom as they always used wet nurses, as it allowed the possibility of conceiving again as quickly as they could.   Even if she could not breastfeed her daughter Anne would keep her close until Henry gave the infant princess her own household.   And brought in his elder daughter (now no longer a princess and simply known as the Lady Mary) to work in the princess’s household.

It is well known that Anne and Mary had a great animosity between them.   Anne did try to have a relationship with Mary, telling her she would help her with the king if Mary would recognize her as queen.   Of course Mary said she would see no other queen but her mother, and this led to even greater hatred between Anne and her step-daughter.   

King Henry would put into order articles of succession putting the princess Elizabeth in the role of heir until a prince was born.   Along with this Henry forced his people to recognize Anne as the Queen his wife and himself as the head of the Church of England.   Those who refused were locked in the Tower of London and eventually executed.   This included Henry’s old friend Thomas More!

Anne would become pregnant at least two more times in their marriage.   Both would end tragically in miscarriage.   The last would be in 1536 and is seen to be what led to her downfall.   Anne miscarried after first seeing Jane Seymour sitting on Henry’s lap, and then being informed that Henry had died after the infamous jousting match that left him with a sore on his leg that never healed.   This was the last straw for Henry’s advisors that now had come to hate the woman they called the Boleyn Whore.   Katherine of Aragon had died (likely of cancer) in January of 1536, and there was relief in Henry’s court because there was no longer another Queen to claim to be his wife.   Yet after the last miscarriage all seemed lost for Anne.

It is most likely that Thomas Cromwell led the charge to investigating Anne for high treason.   He would collect false evidence that Anne had been routinely unfaithful during her marriage, that she had imagined the king’s death (itself a treasonable offense), that she had bewitched the king using witchcraft, and that she had in fact engaged in an incestuous relationship with her own brother George Boleyn!   George’s wife Jane was the one to come forward to say he slept with the queen.   This would later be recanted (before her own execution alongside Katheryn Howard) and it has been theorized she was resentful because George did not desire her.   Some historians believe he may have been gay (and certainly this is how The Tudors television show portrayed the situation).

It was May Day 1536 when Anne was left at the festivities alone by Henry (he could no longer tolerate being near her as he believed she had betrayed him).   On the morning of May 2nd of 1536 Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, being put up in the same rooms she occupied three years earlier before her coronation.   On May 15th Anne and George were put on trial, and of course found guilty.   Five men were executed for bedding the queen, including her brother George. Anne herself was executed the morning of May 19th 1536 by the Swordsman of Calais.

While being in the Tower Anne had behaved erratically.   The master of the Tower recorded everything she said and did.   During many mood swings and much uncertainty she had to endure.   After she knew she was to die she made jokes about being “La Reine Anne sans tete” (Queen Anne Lack Head), and about having “but a little neck”.   

After the execution of Anne, Henry married Jane Seymour, wife number three.   Jane is the wife Henry would go on to idealize, and even be buried next to.   She was in many ways the complete antithesis of Anne Boleyn.   Where Anne was fiery and spoke up too much in politics, and even told Henry when he was wrong, Jane was sweet and obedient.   

Jane would also give Henry the thing he wanted most, a son.   Edward was born in October of 1537, and his mother would die ten days later of complications from the birth.   It is thought that the placenta never came out during the afterbirth and it poisoned her from the inside.   Of course doctors in the sixteenth century would not have known about this, and so Jane died.   She died before Henry got a chance to get angry at, or tire, of her.   

With the death of Jane Seymour Henry went into mourning, and refused to see anyone but his fool for weeks.   Eventually he pulled himself together and began planning his next marriage.   Thomas Cromwell strongly favored a marriage to a German princess named Anna of Cleves.   Master Holbein (the court portrait painter) was sent to paint the princess.

Henry was pleased with the portrait and the marriage was arranged.   When Anna came to England and met Henry he found her not attractive enough to sleep with.   The marriage was of course annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.   To think of Anna of Cleves as the ugly wife Henry could not bed is rather unfair.   It is more likely that Henry having become old and obese was having troubles with impotency.   Of course, he could not admit to this for his image and his ego were too important and fragile.   This is the same reason I do not believe Henry was behind the plot to make Anne Boleyn into a traitor.   He would never have allowed himself to be seen as a cuckhold in front of his court unless he believed it true!

Anna of Cleves actually made out the best of all Henry’s wives.   She survived them all, inherited much riches (including Anne Boleyn’s home, Hever Castle), and had an exalted place at Henry’s court as his “sister” after the annulment.   It turned out Henry and Anna could get along as friends!

  When the marriage with Anna of Cleves ended Henry executed Thomas Cromwell (he chose to back the wrong marriage).   Then Henry would go on to marry his fifth queen, Katheryn Howard.   Katheryn was actually Anne Boleyn’s first cousin (Anne’s mother was born Elizabeth Howard).   Katheryn was only seventeen when Henry took notice of her among Anna of Cleves ladies in waiting (just like Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour were first noticed).   

Katheryn was young and fun-loving and frivolous.   She looked at everything as a fun experience, and this led to poor decisions like having an affair with Henry’s groom Thomas Culpeper and hiring her former lover Francis Dereham to work in her household.   I have always felt bad for Katheryn, although she was technically guilty of the crimes for which she was executed, she was forced into a marriage with an old obese king.   After all who could say no to the king of England if he proposed?   Her story is made all the more tragic for that reason, she was just young and tried to make the best out of a bad situation, and she did so by being reckless.   Jane Rochester (widow of George Boleyn) helped her cover her affair, and went on to lose her head as well.   Katheryn was executed by axe February 13th of 1542.

Henry finally went on to marry his last wife, Katharine Parr.   Katharine Parr had already been married and widowed twice.   She was no stranger to aged and ill husbands, and was a good step-mother.   Katharine Parr was an incredibly intelligent woman who truly believed in the Lutheran cause (Protestantism) likely even more so than Anne Boleyn had.

Katharine would be the wife to take care of Henry and his children during the final years of his life.    After the king’s death his son Edward was crowned Edward VI.   Katharine would then take in young princess Elizabeth.

Katharine would also marry Thomas Seymour, whom she loved deeply even prior to her marriage to Henry.   Seymour was the brother of the late king’s favorite wife Jane.   Thomas Seymour would act inappropriately with the young princess living under their roof.   So Elizabeth would leave while Katharine was pregnant.

Katharine Parr would like Jane Seymour before her die in childbed.   Yet another tragic end to a good woman. 

So ends the tales of the six queens that had been married to Henry VIII!   They are an incredibly intriguing bunch of ladies.   I hope this post helps peak the interest of readers to learn more about the Tudor monarchs!

Postscript: The daughter of Katherine of Aragon would go on to become Mary I of England ruling for five years after the death of her younger brother Edward (he was just 15 and had ruled six years).   Mary had to take her rightful crown after Edward’s will had stated that his cousin Lady Jane Grey (the famous nine days queen) should be queen.   Jane was executed and is seen as a Protestant Martyr.   Finally in 1558 Henry’s final surviving child took the throne, Elizabeth I.   Anne’s redheaded daughter became the kind of heir Henry would have been proud of (oh the irony given the obsession with sons).   She ruled England alone for 45 years, refusing to marry and instead marrying her country!  Upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 the Tudor Age came to an end.

Note on Spelling: I chose to use different spellings for each queens first name.   In reality there was no standardized spelling during the time in which they lived.    So each queen likely used several spellings of her name during her lifetime.   One thing we know for certain is that Katherine of Aragon preferred her name spelled with a K instead of a C as is seen by her surviving documents.

Further Reading

The list below contains several books to further your knowledge of the Queens discussed in this post!

  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
  • Anne Boleyn by Amy Licence
  • Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell
  • Katherine Howard by Joanna Denny
  • In Bed with the Tudors by Amy Licence
  • Henry VIII:The King and His Court by Alison Weir
  • The Six Tudor Queens series by Alison Weir (the final book about Katharine Parr is not out yet,  but is due out this year.    These books are the only fiction on this list, and they are wonderful and written by a noted historian!)