Divorced, beheaded, died…divorced, beheaded, survived. This English saying depicts the ultimate end of the six wives of Henry VIII.
Henry VIII’s first wife was Catherine of Aragon to whom he was married for 24 years. It seemed to be a successful marriage except for the fact that Catherine was unable to produce a male heir who would ascend the throne of England upon the death of his father. The couple did have one child, Mary, but a male heir was the hope of the royal family and of the English people.
Henry set his eyes on the beautiful Anne Boleyn with the thought that her youth and good health would produce the family he yearned for. Again, this marriage produced a female heir, Elizabeth, who would one day rule as Queen Elizabeth I. This illicit marriage was the beginning of the separation of England from the Roman Catholic Church which would not condone Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII became the head of the Anglican church in England which exists to this day.
When it was shown that Anne Boleyn had been unfaithful to King Henry, it gave Henry a good reason to dispose of his second wife who had several miscarriages but produced no male heir. Anne Boleyn was beheaded which paved the way for a new wife to enter the picture.
King Henry was smitten with Jane Seymour who was a lady-in-waiting to both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. His marriage to Jane Seymour produced his only legitimate male heir, the future King Edward VI. He had an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who was born to a mistress before King Henry married Catherine of Aragon. Jane Seymour died 12 days after the birth of her son, having contracted puerperal fever, a common occurrence after birth at that time.
Since a wife was a necessary adjunct to a king, Henry’s advisors were quick to propose certain ladies to become his fourth wife. Anna of Cleves was mentioned to the King as an excellent choice for him and Henry agreed to the marriage. He was hugely disappointed that Anna was not beautiful and there is rumor that, although he shared her bed for six months, the marriage was not consummated. An annulment along with a large settlement was given to Anna who remained friends with Henry throughout her life and outlasted all of his wives.
Katherine Howard was a first cousin to Anne Boleyn. As lady-in-waiting to Anna of Cleves, Katherine caught the eye of the King who bestowed many gifts on her. It is said that King Henry loved Katherine Howard above all of his other wives. Sadly, it was learned that Queen Katherine was unfaithful to her elderly and very obese husband who reluctantly had her beheaded for treason.
Catherine Parr was the last of the six wives of King Henry VIII. She was a widow with no children when it was suggested by Henry’s advisors that she would make a fitting spouse. She was no doubt the most learned of Henry’s wives. And of course, she was the only one of his wives to outlive him. Upon Henry’s death, Catherine married her long-time friend, Thomas Seymour, a sister of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour.
Antonia Fraser writes an appealing tale of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives. English history is interwoven between the bawdy court anecdotes, making this piece of non-fiction fascinating to all types of readers.
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser (1992)