If you’ve ever taken a European history class, or if you’re a musical lover, you have most likely heard about Henry VIII and his infamous six wives. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Katherine Parr. Each of these women held a vital role during the tyrannical reign of Henry VIII but unfortunately, their involvement has been long hidden behind the shadow of the man that ruined their lives either by divorce or death. Well, all except Katherine Parr, the last wife, known as “the survivor”. But I’ve always been fascinated by the wives, more than I ever was by Henry himself, and I want to educate others on them and their importance so that they will be remembered as more than just his pawns.
Catherine of Aragon:
Catherine was the youngest daughter of Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain (if these names sound familiar, it’s because they were the ones that funded Columbus’ expeditions). Her parents wed her off to Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII of England, in 1501. Unfortunately, Arthur died the following year, leaving the crown and Catherine to his younger brother, Henry VIII. Although Catherine and Henry didn’t wed until 1509 due to a rivalry between England and Spain, Ferdinand II refused to pay her dowry in full until Henry VIII ascended to the throne. However, once they were married, it is believed that they were a happy couple; Catherine was intelligent enough to keep up with Henry and was a more than competent regent while Henry was away campaigning against France from 1512 to 1514.
Something that was incredibly important to Henry (and most rulers at the time) was producing an heir to the throne. Henry was absolutely obsessed with having a son that could succeed the throne when he died. To his dismay, although Catherine gave birth to six children between 1510 and 1518, only one survived past infancy, a daughter named Mary. Though, Mary would later ascend to the throne and become Queen Mary I, Henry the VIII still wanted to produce a legitimate male heir. This desire is what propelled Henry to appeal to the Roman church for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine in 1527 on the claim that since she had been married to his brother, their marriage had violated a biblical prohibition of union between a man and the widow of his brother.
However, the pope at the time, Charles V, was Catherine’s cousin, and he declined Henry’s request of an annulment. Therefore Catherine was able to deny the request as well and maintain that her marriage to Henry was legitimate and indissoluble. What is so important about Catherine’s stubbornness is that this is what made Henry VIII separate from the Holy Roman Empire and install himself as the Head of the Church of England. But to learn about that we need to talk about the woman that put the idea inside Henry’s head in the first place. Catherine never recognized Henry’s actions and continued to consider herself Queen until she died in 1536, isolated and separated from her only child, Mary. She died at Kimbolton Castle at the age of 50.
Anne Boleyn was born around 1502, to Thomas Boleyn, the Squire of the Body for Henry VII’s funeral, and to Elizabeth Howard who was a descendant of Edward I. When she was around 13, her father sent her to Burgandy to the court of Margaret of Austria. About two years later in 1515, she moved to the French court and was an attendant to Queen Claude alongside her older sister, Mary Boleyn. Mary was called to England by her father, but Anne would not return for another six more years.
When Anne finally returned to England, her sister Mary had been Henry VIII’s mistress for around two years and therefore Anne was pushed to join the court of Catherine of Aragon. Also during this time, her father was appointed head Treasurer of the Royal Household. Anne began to gain a lot of attention while at court, and soon she fell in love with Henry Percy, a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s retinue. The two betrothed and planned to run away together, but this was quickly stopped by Cardinal Wolsey on the orders of Henry VIII. Anne was then banished to Hever Castle, and Henry Percy was sent to London by his father. Anne didn’t realize at the time, but soon she would discover that Henry VIII had stopped her marriage because he was infatuated with her. He began to send her love letters while she was at Hever Castle.
These love letters expressed Henry’s infatuation with Anne but were lost, thought to have been stolen from Anne by Pope Clement VII or Charles V since they resurfaced in the Vatican in the seventeenth century. In 1526, Henry had asked Anne to become his official mistress but Anne refused, fueled by her ambition, her own virtue, or maybe even her scheming relatives, Anne held onto the possibility of becoming Queen. Anne also pushed Henry to separate from the Holy Roman Church, suggesting it as a solution and giving him a copy of William Tyndale’s “Obedience of a Christian Man”. This book stated that the supreme authority and power should not be held by the Pope but by the words of God that are in the Holy Bible.
Finally, in January of 1533, Anne and Henry secretly married and on June 1 of the same year, Anne was crowned Queen of England at Westminster. She was six months pregnant during her coronation, and Henry was becoming more and more desperate for a male heir to carry on the legacy of the Tudor dynasty. But despite her constant reassurance to Henry that she would give him a son, in September, Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth I. After the birth of Elizabeth I, Anne bore no more children, having two miscarriages in 1534 and 1536.
This led Henry to reconsider his decision to marry Anne and he began to look for solutions outside of their marriage. He also had Thomas Cromwell, an old ally of Anne, accuse her of adultery and plotting against the King with multiple men in 1536, including her own brother. That same year, Anne was arrested and beheaded, proclaiming her innocence until her very end. It is famously considered that her last words were, “I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it … I pray God save the King … for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never.” 11 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour was born around 1509 to Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall and Margery Wentworth, and this connection allowed Jane to become a lady in waiting for both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn while they served as Queen of England. Her family was rich but didn’t hold any power or influence, so it is believed that her family pushed her into the royal court to gain more power for the family.
Historians believe that Henry’s attraction towards Jane would’ve begun around 1535 when he visited her father at Wolf Hall. At that time Jane was willing to marry the King, but, like Anne Boleyn, she refused to be his mistress. Henry began to seduce Jane the same way he did Anne, with love letters and gifts, but Jane dismissed all of his advances. It is believed that Jane’s stubbornness undoubtedly helped Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution. It is unknown truly when their relationship began but it was definitely established by the time that Anne Boleyn was arrested because eleven days after her execution, on May 30, 1536, Jane and Henry married.
During her time as Queen, Jane worked hard to restore Mary’s, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, favor with Henry. She managed to do so but since Mary was still Roman Catholic, many took Jane’s efforts to mean that she had no sympathy for the English Reformation. But this didn’t matter because Jane was able to give Henry what neither of his previous wives were able to: a son.
Prince Edward was born at Hampton Court Palace on the 12 of October 1537, and as I’m sure you can guess, Henry was overjoyed. Unfortunately, Jane suffered postnatal complications due to the birth being quite difficult. She was able to witness a part of Edward’s extremely elaborate christening procession, but as days went on her condition worsened. Two weeks after giving birth, Jane Seymour died at age 28 due to the injuries she suffered giving birth to Prince Edward. Henry was heartbroken and it is very widely agreed that Jane was by far his favorite wife.
The Seymour family would continue to be a part of Tudor life. Following the accession of Edward VI, Jane’s son, to the throne, Jane’s brother, Edward Seymour became regent as lord protector with the title Duke of Somerset. Another one of her brothers, Thomas Seymour of Sudeley, was Lord High Admiral from 1547 to 1549. Eventually however, both of these brothers would be executed for treason.
Henry was desperately in love with Jane, either with her herself or due to the fact that she gave him what he wanted most in the world. In the end, Henry would wait three years after Jane’s death to marry again.
Anne of Cleves:
Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife, was born in 1515 and was the daughter of John III, Duke of Cleves, and Maria, heiress to the duchies of Julich-Berg. Henry only married Anne of Cleves because he wanted to create an alliance between him and her brother, William of Cleves, who was now the Duke of Cleves since their father had died the year before. This title made William the leader of Protestants in western Germany. Henry believed that he needed this alliance because he had heard that France and the Holy Roman Empire, the two major Catholic powers, were planning an attack on Protestant England. Thomas Cromwell, who was now Henry’s chief minister, created the idea of making these alliances with the Lutheran enemies of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope, Charles V. It is also believed that Henry wanted another son, just in case something happened to Prince Edward.
Anne and Henry did not meet until she arrived in England in 1540, Henry having only heard about her and seen her portrait. Once she had arrived, the need for a political union seemed to have disappeared and a lack of chemistry between her and Henry was picked up by most. Anne and Henry were separated by many factors including language, culture, personality, and attraction to one another. Henry usually liked to pick his brides, and this was the first and only time he wouldn’t. It is likely that he had already had his eyes set on another woman and attempted to halt the wedding to Anne of Cleves, but all attempts were unsuccessful. Anne and Henry married in January of 1540.
This marriage was extremely short lived and is deemed by historians to be Henry’s least important marriage. The marriage was annulled by an Angelican convocation on July 9, 1540, and Anne accepted it without any argument. She received a large income on the basis that she would remain in England. She lived out the rest of her days in Richmond, visiting court occasionally before her death in 1557.
Catherine was born approximately in 1524 to Edmund Howard, the youngest son of Thomas Howard, the second Duke of Norfolk who served for four monarchs. This made Catherine the niece of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the most powerful noblemen in England. Her mother, Joyce Legh, was the daughter of Sir Richard Culpeper of Aylesford. Needless to say, Catherine was born to an incredibly powerful family. Catherine was actually related to both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour–she was Anne’s first cousin (her father was Anne’s mother’s brother) and she was Jane’s second cousin (her grandmother was the sister of Jane’s grandmother).
Catherine had a quite scandalous childhood that would eventually be her undoing. At the age of 12, her music teacher, Henry Manox, took advantage of her and although they never engaged in intercourse, the two were once seen embracing suggestively by the Dowager Duchess. However, when Catherine was 14, she became undoubtedly sexually involved with Francis Dereham, who had been appointed secretary to the Dowager Duchess when the household moved to London. According to many the pair referred to each other as husband and wife and later Catherine would admit that she was very sexually experienced to the point of knowing how to ‘meddle’ with men without conceiving a child.
In March of 1539, Catherine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, was able to get her a very prized position in the household of Anne of Cleves. After the disastrous meeting between Henry and Anne, it is most likely that the Duke of Norfolk chose this moment to push Catherine into Henry’s path. And his plan succeeded because by June 1540, Henry’s interest in Catherine was known throughout court so much that even Anne of Cleves made a comment of complaint about Henry’s attraction to Catherine. Sixteen days after divorcing Anne, Henry and Catherine married on July 28, 1540, and by August 8, Catherine was crowned Queen of England.
Catherine was seen as a gracious and conventional Queen. She was kind and quiet, but also spent very little time with her step-children: Princesses Mary and Elizabeth and Prince Edward. Mary in particular had an extremely strained relationship with Catherine due to her being older than her father’s newest bride. However, Catherine gained the favor of both Elizabeth and Edward early on. By the time Henry married Catherine, his old age began to show in his health and it was always evident that the pair would never have children together due to this.
The beginning of Catherine’s downfall would be when Francis Dereham, her former lover, would arrive at court and begin boasting about their relationship. He began to pester her for office and even told her councilors how she had favored him. Around the same time, Catherine began to get requests for favor from Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the King’s Privy Council and a distant relative of her mother’s side. It is said that Culpeper was a well known sexual predator and there was evidence of him being previously accused of rape and murder. However, he’d been able to escape imprisonment due to his favor with the King.
In early 1541, Thomas Culpeper and Catherine Howard began an adulterous affair. However, what truly sealed Catherine’s fate was a letter she had written to Thomas Culpeper in which she stated: “It makes my heart die to think I cannot be always in your company,” signing the letter as “Yours as long as life endures.” To make matters even worse for Catherine, around the same time, she had given in to Francis Dereham’s pestering and made him her secretary.
News of her adultery made its way to Henry VIII via the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who in October of 1541 was informed of Catherine’s premarital sexual encounters with members of her childhood household. When Cranmer told Henry the news, it was met with much denial and Henry immediately requested an inquiry to prove the allegations. Soon, Jane Boleyn, who was a very close attendant to Queen Catherine, confessed to having facilitated meetings between Catherine and Thomas Culpeper. On November 8, 1541, Catherine herself confessed to the adultery and to having premarital sex with Francis Dereham. At first she only disclosed her relationship with Dereham, only later confessing about her entanglements with Henry Manox and Thomas Culpeper. This confession sent Henry into a deep depression that he never recovered from as he truly adored his young wife and couldn’t imagine that she would have ever done these things. Eight days later, Catherine was sent to the former monastery of Syon and was later deprived of her queenship. Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham were executed on counts of treason on December 1, 1541.
On 10 February 1542, Catherine was moved to the Tower of London to await execution. Many historians believe that she most likely saw the severed heads of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham on her way into the Tower. Three days later, Catherine was executed. She was no older than 18.
Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, was born in 1512 and was the daughter of Thomas Parr, an official of the royal household. By the time of her marriage with Henry, Katherine had already been widowed twice. The same year that her second husband died, Katherine had secured a position in Princess Mary’s household, which is likely where she and Henry first met. Katherine was 30-years-old when Henry made his advances, differing greatly from the youth of Catherine Howard, and in his later years, Henry needed a wife that could also take care of him with knowledge of age.
Katherine and Henry married on 12 July 1543. Katherine had actually given up another relationship with Thomas Seymour, and it is believed that this was a sign that Katherine knew Henry was close to dying. Katherine however was an extremely loyal wife to Henry and was actually a wonderful stepmother to his children, bringing much needed unity to the family.
The only controversial part of her and Henry’s marriage came due to her vigorous support of the English Reformation. Sometimes she would push her evangelical views too far with Henry when discussing religion. This led religious opponents to try to convince the King that her religious views were dangerous, and eventually a plan for her arrest was created. However, Katherine was warned about these plans and began to plead with Henry for forgiveness, which he gave her, and the plea for arrest was dismissed.
By the time of Henry’s death in 1547, Katherine had remained completely loyal to the King and mourned his death greatly. She did however reconnect with Thomas Seymour, to whom she married and got pregnant with. Sadly, Katherine suffered puerperal fever after giving birth to their daughter, and died on 5 September, 1548. To this day, Katherine is considered the survivor of Henry VIII and the only Queen that was able to outlive the tyrannical King.
These six women shall always be remembered for their contributions to English society. The English Reformation was incredibly important to creating what we know as England today, and they held a very important part in that. They were more than just wives of a man who abused and neglected them–they were daughters, mothers, and important members of the world, whose choices will be forever ingrained in history.