Henry VIII of England will always be best-remembered for two things: starting the Church of England, and having six wives. Anne Boleyn, his second wife, was executed on May 19 in 1536 -- and to mark the day, we're going to take a look back at the many (many) wives of Henry VIII.
1. Catherine of Aragon
The youngest (surviving) child of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (yes, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World), Catherine of Aragon was originally betrothed to another man -- Henry VII's older brother, Arthur. When Catherine was fifteen years old, she and Arthur were married, but the marriage lasted less than six months before Arthur died. Catherine, being still quite young (and still in possession of a healthy dowry), was promptly re-betrothed -- this time to Henry, the new heir to the throne. The new couple waited to marry until Henry was old enough, and in 1509 the 23-year-old princess was crowned Queen of England.
Catherine would have four children with Henry, but only one survived infancy -- a daughter named Mary. (As in, y'know, Bloody Mary.) Henry, however, was far more interested in a male heir. The queen's "failure" to give Henry a son might have been a sufficient enough blow to the marriage even without the added complication of Henry's growing obsession with one of his mistresses, Anne Boleyn. When Henry's petitions to the Pope for a marriage annulment proved fruitless, the King of England came up with a different solution: reject the Pope's influence and turn to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to annul the marriage instead.
Having spent years fighting not to be deposed, Catherine refused to give up her title as Queen (Henry ordered that she been known only as "the Princess Dowager of Wales"). All the same, Catherine was cast out of the royal court and spent several years living in virtual exile, finally dying of ill health (her loyal subjects called it a broken heart) in 1536. She maintained her position as "the true and rightful Queen of England" until the end of her life.
2. Anne Boleyn
Anne was no angel, perhaps, but I've always felt she gets a bit of a bad rap. Born sometime in 1500 or 1501, she grew up, in part, at the court of a duchess, and she spent years at the French Court as an attendant to the queen. Like Cleopatra, Anne's now-legendary beauty may have had more to do with her charisma and spit-fire spirit than her actual appearance (though she was said to have large, dark, beautiful eyes).
Anne was a member of the court of Queen Catherine, and was in fact the second Boleyn sister to be a mistress of Henry VIII. Although, to be accurate, Anne was not technically Henry's "mistress," as she refused to consummate their relationship until after Henry married her and made her his queen. She had had other paramours before Henry (and had seen her own sister discarded by Henry), and was sharp enough to insist on marriage.
She eventually won a promise of marriage from Henry, and by the time they were married in secret in 1533, Anne was already pregnant. Later that year, the Archbishop proclaimed Henry and Catherine's marriage invalid, and Anne's coronation was held later that month.
Both Henry and Anne were convinced Anne was carrying a boy. When Anne gave birth to a girl, Princess Elizabeth, the slight disappointment was taken in stride -- until Anne's next two pregnancies ended in miscarriages. There was no male heir, and Henry's eye had moved on one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne's fate was already sealed.
Arrested on trump-up charges of adultery, incest, and plotting to murder the King, Anne was taken to court, her character smeared despite severe lack of evidence. She was beheaded on May 19, 1536.
(Her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who would grow up to be Elizabeth I -- one of the most famous and beloved of all English monarchs.)
3. Jane Seymour
STATUS: Died in childbirth
Jane Seymour was betrothed to Henry less than 24 hours after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and they were married ten days later. The following year, Jane became pregnant, and in October she gave birth to the long-awaited prince, Edward.
She may have given her husband the heir he always wanted, but Jane herself died two weeks after giving birth, weakened by her ordeal. Jane, however, is the wife whose grave rests beside that of Henry VIII, in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle. Henry considered her to be his only true wife, probably because it was Jane who finally gave him what he wanted most -- a male heir.
4. Anne of Cleves
Despite finally having an heir, Henry did not remain a widower. Two years after the death of Jane, Henry requested the portraits of three possible candidates for a new bride, and eventually chose Anne of Cleves (the sister to the Duke of Cleves).
It's a mystery as to why Henry found Anne's portrait properly enticing, only to find her completely unattractive in person. (He's rumored to have privately nicknamed her the "Flanders Mare.") In no short amount of time, Henry began entertaining thoughts of ending the unconsummated marriage and divorcing Anne.
Anne might be my favorite of Henry's wives, simply because it seems to me she had some decent common sense. As Wife #4, she was sharp enough to realize raising a fuss at the possibility of divorce would probably end no better for her than it had for two of her predecessors, and she hadn't been very happy in her life at the English court anyway. Without argument or trouble, Anne agreed to step aside -- and Henry, grateful for her cooperation, gave her the title of "King's Sister" and rewarded her with property and income for the rest of her life. She was even welcomed back to court on occasion as a visitor.
5. Kathryn Howard
On the other hand, some people never learn. Kathryn Howard, a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, had attracted Henry's attention while he was still married to Anne of Cleves, and Kathryn and the king were married sixteen days after Henry's second divorce. The year was 1540 -- Kathryn was 19; Henry, 49.
No longer a young man by medieval standards, and plagued with weight gain and an ulcerated leg, Henry nonetheless found his spirits lifted by his marriage to the teenage Kathryn. But, while it can't be considered a wise move, it's somewhat hard to blame Kathryn for having something of a flirtatious spirit, given the age difference between herself and her husband. It was not, however, a particularly safe move for the King's fifth bride to flirt with members of the court, and rumors of affairs soon took hold. (Kathryn might have spent some more time thinking through the wisdom of choosing one of her rumored paramours for the job of her personal secretary.)
A year and a half into the marriage, the evidence was piling up. Kathryn was tried, convicted, and executed -- and buried next to her cousin, Anne Boleyn.
6. Katherine Parr
STATUS: Outlived the King!
Onto the hunt for Wife #6! Although, somewhat remarkably, Anne of Cleves volunteered to put her name back into the running for a re-marriage, Henry eventually chose for his sixth and final bride Katherine Parr, the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Parr (a former member of Henry VIII's court) and Maud Green (a former lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon). Katherine Parr was twice a widower as well as a stepmother (to her second husband's two children) -- and was also deeply interested in the reformed faith, which put her at theological odds with her husband.
There is a delightful account of Henry growing increasingly angry with Katherine's religious views and philosophies -- and, in fact, the conservative religious faction was fighting to get Katherine arrested on charges of heresy. A warrant was actually issued for Katherine's arrest; and, though quickly dropped, the Queen was told of its existence. Exacerbating the situation were Katherine and Henry's frequent theological debate. Katherine's refusal to concede her husband's "superior" points of view were making Henry increasingly frustrated ... and furious.
Katherine knew she was getting close to her husband's breaking point, but was too sharp and experienced a person to get caught in the traps that had claimed most of her precedessors. The next time an angry Henry came to discuss religion, Katherine lost no time in telling her husband that she had spent all this time arguing with him only to give him the opportunity to instruct her weaker, feminine mind to the correct way of thinking. Henry's ego was mollified ...
And Katherine outlived her husband. Talk about living by your wits!
For more on some of history's weirdest and wildest royals, check out Michael Farquhar's fantastic book A Treasure of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors.
-- Post by Ms. B