Henry VIII’s Wives: A Brief History

On April 23, 2015 by Tim Newman

Henry VII Wives - 1531

As I grow ever older, I’m increasingly annoyed with how little I know about history in general. At school you have the perfect opportunity to learn about the weirdness of the Royal Family. But, when you’re a child, there is nothing duller than reading about old-fashioned strangers marrying their cousins. Football, fights, guitars and girls were the only things on my mind.

In a meagre attempt to ram some knowledge into my mouldy, wooden noggin I have decided to revisit Henry VIII’s wives. If you are, like me, slightly embarrassed of your historical blind spots, I hope this is, in some way, useful.


Henry VIII in 1509

Henry VIII in 1509

Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) was the second King in the Tudor dynasty, the first being his father, Henry VII. He came to the throne as King of England on the 21st April 1509.

The best known facts about Henry VIII are that he was fat (at least in his later years), he had six wives and he was instrumental in splitting the Catholic Church from the Church of England.

As for his wives, you may well remember the following mnemonic:

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

It’s fairly useful to give you the general gist of things, but as is often the case, it’s not right. He didn’t divorce any wives, the marriages were annulled. His last wife Catherine Parr did “survive” and outlive Henry, but it’s also worth mentioning that Anne of Cleves outlived Henry and was in fact the last of the wives to die.

Your dim memory may also remind you that Henry had some major trouble getting the male heir he was after (more on that later), however, he did manage to get some heirs. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour each gave Henry one child who made it through infancy: two daughters and one son. All three of these children eventually rose to the throne: Queen Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I, and King Edward VI, respectively.

Interestingly, Henry’s harem were quite an interlinked bunch. Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn were first cousins. Many of the wives had been employed by, or worked with, each other – Anne Boleyn worked in Catherine of Aragon’s service, Jane Seymour worked in Catherine of Aragon’s and Anne Boleyn’s, and Catherine Howard worked in Anne of Cleves’s.

And to top the incestuous riot off a treat, Henry was distantly related to all six of his wives through their common ancestor, King Edward I of England. No wonder it was so tricky to conceive with all that blood mixing going on.

So, let’s get started on the wives:

1) Catherine of Aragon (1485 – 1536)

Married for 23 years, 11 months, 19 days

Henry VII Wives - Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon was initially married to Henry’s brother Arthur. Arthur died and she married Henry in the same year he was crowned King – 1509.

Things started well and Catherine fell pregnant in 1510; tragically, she gave birth to a stillborn girl. In 1511 she gave birth to a boy who died at just 2 months old. In 1513, she gave birth to a stillborn boy and, in the same year, another boy who survived just 1 month.

In 1516, Catherine and Henry managed a healthy girl at last – Mary. Their woes were not yet over, in 1518, another girl was born who lived a tragically short life.

Henry, it seems, genuinely loved Catherine of Aragon, but he sought an annulment from the Pope and started an affair with Anne Boleyn. The Pope was having none of it, you can’t just get out of marriages whenever you fancy it, even if you are a King.

Henry appealed to the highest Church of England official – the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop obliged, annulled the marriage and Henry and Anne were wedded.

It was this decision which led to the break between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

2) Anne Boleyn (1501 – 1536)

Married for 2 years, 11 months, 19 days

Henry VII Wives - Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was Henry’s second wife and mother of Elizabeth I. She was well-educated and by all accounts, rather attractive. Henry was particularly besotted with her “pretty duckies” i.e. her bosoms.

Her sister – Mary Boleyn – had become embroiled in an affair with Henry and, at first, Anne was determined not to go down the same path and be spurned as her sister had been.

Anne became the focus of Henry’s desires and eventually she capitulated. His marriage to Catherine was annulled and Anne married Henry.

The Catholic Church was unimpressed, the legitimisation of the marriage by the Archbishop forced the Church of England to split from Rome and, for the first time, come under the control of the crown.

Anne gave birth to Henry’s second daughter – Elizabeth – but her only male child was a stillborn. Henry soon became tired of the lack of menfolk popping from Anne’s loins and began a plot with Thomas Cromwell to execute her.

Despite a very shaky case, Anne was beheaded on charges of adultery, incest, and high treason on 19 May 1536. Although it would be of little solace to Anne, when her daughter Elizabeth became Queen, Anne was venerated as a martyr and heroine of the English Reformation.

So, Anne married Henry, had the wedding annulled and then she was beheaded. Insult to injury etc.

3) Jane Seymour (1508 – 1537)

Married for 1 year, 4 months, 24 days

Henry VII Wives - Jane Seymour

So, onto number three. Jane Seymour served under Catherine of Aragon and was one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting. Henry liked to keep it among friends.

Poor old Anne Boleyn was disposed of just 10 days or so before his marriage to Jane, so it is assumed he was doing the dirty with Jane behind Anne’s back.

A year into their marriage, Jane gave birth to a healthy boy called Edward but she died just 12 days after childbirth. Henry took the loss hard and Jane was the only of his wives to be given a proper Queen’s burial. When Henry finally popped his clogs he was buried next to her.

History Collection on LAZERHORSE.ORG

4) Anne of Cleves (1515 – 1557)

Married for 6 months, 3 days

Henry VII Wives - Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves was a German Princess and Henry was rumoured to have referred to her as “A Flanders Mare”, which doesn’t sound particularly flattering. Anne was described by the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac like so:

“…of middling beauty, and of very assured and resolute countenance.”

Chronicler Edward Hall said the following:

“Her hair hanging down, which was fair, yellow and long … she was apparelled after the English fashion, with a French hood, which so set forth her beauty and good visage, that every creature rejoiced to behold her.”

However, Henry wasn’t impressed at all when he first met her; just 6 months into this pan-European match, the marriage was annulled. Apparently, her lack of beauty had not inspired him to consummate the marriage. After his wedding night he confided in Cromwell:

“I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.”

According to Henry, she smelled bad and had sagging breasts. Anne was equally unimpressed by Henry and quite happy to go along with the annulment. Her eagerness to exit the marriage was rewarded with a generous settlement, including Richmond Palace and Hever Castle.

Anne became known as “The King’s Beloved Sister” and would stay close to Henry’s family and children for the rest of his life.

At the grand old age of 41, Anne of Cleves was the last of Henry’s wives to die.

5) Catherine Howard (1523 – 1542)

Married 1 year, 3 months, 26 days

Henry VII Wives - Catherine Howard

Sometimes known as “the rose without a thorn,” Catherine Howard was Henry’s fifth wife. She became his wife just days after the annulment with Anne of Cleves. Funnily enough, her father’s sister, Elizabeth Howard, was the mother of Anne Boleyn, making them first cousins.

Unfortunately for Catherine, she had an affair with Thomas Culpeper, Henry’s favourite male courtier. Woops. Henry was monumentally unimpressed with this; he stripped her of her crown, imprisoned her and, a few months later, both of them were executed.

Catherine’s last words:

“I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.”

6) Catherine Parr (1512 – 1548)

3 years, 6 months, 16 days

Henry VII Wives - Catherine Parr

And finally, the sixth wife – Catherine (or Kateryn) Parr. Henry and Catherine were third cousins but that didn’t seem to put either of them off. Catherine made it her job to make the King’s family appear to outsiders as a tight-knit unit. It was also thanks to Catherine – through the Third Succession Act – that Mary and Elizabeth were able to reach the throne despite being made illegitimate through divorce and remarriage.

Henry had great trust in Catherine Parr and she was left as regent when Henry went to observe the War in France.

Catherine also holds the record for being the most married Queen of England, Henry being her third husband of four. She died a few days after giving birth to her only child – Mary Seymour. It was likely due to fever, but one legend abounds that Catherine’s husband, Sir Thomas Seymour, may have poisoned her to carry out his plan to marry Lady Elizabeth Tudor.

There we go. I hope that this time around, some of those fact nuggets manage to stay firmly lodged in the hairs of your cavernous brain socket.

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