Six Wives of Henry VIII
Six Wives of Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536). Spanish princess, renowned for her piety, dignity, and strength of character, who was queen of England and wife of Henry VIII for 24 years. Name variations: Katherine or Catharine; (Spanish) Catalina. Born on December 16, 1485, in Spain; died of cancer on January 7, 1536, in Kimbolton, England; daughter of Isabella I (1451–1504), queen of Castile, and Ferdinand II, king of Aragon (r. 1479–1516); sister of Juana la Loca (1479–1555); married Arthur, prince of Wales, in 1501 (died 1502); became first wife of Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England (r. 1509–1547), in 1509; children: Mary I (1516–1558, queen of England); and a number who were stillborn.
Educated at Spanish royal court; betrothed to Arthur, prince of Wales (1489); widowed (1502), lived in seclusion and poverty for the following eight years; acted as regent for Henry VIII (1513); confronted Henry VIII in court and appealed divorce proceedings to Rome (1529); banished from court (1531); divorced from Henry VIII by Archbishop Cranmer (1533).
Boleyn, Anne (c. 1507–1536). English queen who precipitated the English Reformation and gave birth to England's most famous queen, Elizabeth I. Name variations: Nan Bullen. Pronunciation: Bowlin. Born in 1507 (some sources cite 1501) somewhere in England; executed on May 19, 1536, in London; daughter of Thomas Boleyn (a diplomat-courtier) and Elizabeth Howard (d. 1538); married Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England (r. 1509–1547), in 1533; children: Elizabeth I (1533–1603), queen of England (r. 1558–1603). (See also Boleyn, Anne.)
Educated at royal courts in the Netherlands and France; appointed lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon (1526); became object of Henry VIII's affection (1527); became Henry's mistress (1532); crowned queen of England (1533); miscarried male child (January 1536); accused of adultery and treason, beheaded (May 19, 1536).
Seymour, Jane (c. 1509–1537). Third wife of Henry VIII who gave birth to the king's only male heir, Ed ward VI. Pronunciation: See-more. Born around 1509 (some sources cite 1506) in England; died from puerperal fever at Hampton Court on October 24, 1537; daughter of Sir John Seymour (a courtier) and Margaret Wentworth (d. 1550); married Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England (r. 1509–1547), in 1536; children: Edward VI (1537–1553), king of England (r. 1547–1553).
Lady-in-waiting for queens Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn; began to receive the attentions of Henry VIII (1535); died after giving birth to Henry VIII's only male heir (1537).
Anne of Cleves (1515–1557). German royal, who was briefly married to Henry VIII and lived the rest of her life in England as the king's "good sister." Born on September 22, 1515, in Cleves, Germany; died of cancer on July 16, 1557, in England; daughter of John III, duke of Cleves, and Maria of Julich-Berg; married Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England (r. 1509–1547), in January 1540 (divorced July 1540); lived the rest of her life in England as Henry's "good sister."
Howard, Catherine (1520/22–1542). Young, headstrong woman who captured the heart of the aging Henry VIII and became his fifth wife. Born between 1520 and 1522 in Lambeth, England; beheaded for adultery and treason on February 13, 1542, in the Tower of London; interred at Chapel Royal, Tower of London; daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper; first cousin of Anne Boleyn (1507–1536); married Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England (r. 1509–1547), on July 28, 1540; began adulterous relationship with Thomas Culpeper, 1541.
Parr, Catherine (1512–1548). Sixth wife of Henry VIII, whose tact and intelligence enabled her to act as regent and nursemaid for the ailing king. Name variations: Katherine Parr. Born in 1512 in England; died of puerperal fever on September 5, 1548, after giving birth to a girl; daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and Maud Greene Parr (1495–1529); married Edward Borough, in 1529 (died 1532); married John Neville (1493–1543), 3rd Lord Latimer, in 1533; married Henry VIII (1491–1547), king of England (r. 1509–1547), in 1543 (died 1547); married Thomas Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour), Lord Admiral of England, in March 1547; children (fourth marriage) Mary Seymour (August 29 or 30, 1548–September 5, 1548; an 18th-century historian claimed that she grew to adulthood and married Sir Edward Bushell).
Widowed twice before marrying Henry VIII (1543); acted as regent (1544); wrote and published religious treatise (1545); argued with Henry over religious issues and was almost convicted of heresy (1546); Henry VIII died (January 1547); published second religious treatise (1547). Selected publications: Prayers and Meditations (1545); Lamentations of a Sinner (1547).
Henry VIII is one of England's most famous kings. Much of his reputation and fame rests upon the fact that he chose not one, but six women, to be his wife over the course of his 38-year reign. Of these six wives, he divorced two, two more were executed by his command, and one outlived him. All of his wives, save perhaps Catherine Howard, displayed intelligence, dignity, and perseverance during their marriage to the irascible and headstrong Henry.
Catherine of Aragon
Ironically, the first of the king's wives was not originally destined to marry him. A royal princess from one of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, Catherine of Aragon first came to England as the bride of Henry VIII's older brother Arthur, prince of Wales. She was born on December 16, 1485, the youngest daughter of the two reigning Spanish monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. In her early years, Catherine was strongly influenced by her mother who cultivated in the young girl a sense of dignity and pride in her status as a true royal princess. Isabella made sure that Catherine and her three elder sisters—Isabella of Asturias (1471–1498), Juana la Loca (1479–1555), and Maria of Castile (1482–1517)—were given a proper Renaissance education. The future queen of England learned to read and write Latin as well as law, music, dancing, and drawing. From her mother, she also learned that marriage was a lifetime commitment and that, while both partners had an obligation to support one another, it was a wife's duty to submit to her husband's will. Catherine's formative years instilled in her a deep sense of piety and chastity.
Early modern marriages among the royal houses of Europe were almost always dependent upon political relations between the respective countries of the bride and groom-to-be. By the end of the 15th century, Spain was constantly hostile towards France and thus, when time came to arrange for the marriage of his youngest daughter, Ferdinand looked towards England. Negotiations for a marriage between Princess Catherine and Henry VII's eldest son Arthur were finalized in March 1489, when Catherine was only four years old. For much of her childhood, therefore, Catherine grew up with a sense that her destiny was in England.
In October 1501, her fate was about to be realized when she arrived in England. In appearance, the 16-year-old princess had reddish-gold hair, a fair complexion and an oval face. She was small in stature and, while not fat, was rather plump. Her fiance, 15-year-old Arthur, was well educated although small and under-developed for his age. Catherine was warmly greeted from the moment she arrived in England. Pageants and grand spectacles saluted her wherever she went. On November 14, 1501, two days after she had entered the city of London, Catherine of Aragon married Prince Arthur at St. Paul's Cathedral. Arthur's younger brother, ten-year-old Henry, was on hand to lead the princess up the aisle and participate in the wedding festivities.
Within a few weeks, it became clear to Catherine that all was not well; her marriage had yet to be consummated. Although this could become a problem, it did not worry either her parents or her father-in-law who argued that since they were both young, consummation could wait. Thus, Catherine followed her husband to spend the winter in Ludlow Castle on the border of Wales. Unfortunately, Arthur, whose health had always been frail, fell ill in March and died of tuberculosis shortly thereafter on April 2. Seventeen-year-old Catherine of Aragon was a widow after only five months of marriage. While the news was devastating, both parties decided that the best solution to the problem of the Anglo-Spanish marriage alliance was to betroth Arthur's widow to his younger brother Henry, who was now heir to the English throne. Consequently, on June 23, 1503, another marriage treaty between Spain and England was signed.
For Catherine, however, this turn of events was not an occasion for mirth. Henry VII, a stern and unloving man, sent her off to Durham House in London where she was kept in virtual isolation for the next six years. She knew little English and, as a foreigner in a strange land, these were unhappy years for the princess. Since her father Ferdinand delayed sending over the remaining half of her dowry, Henry VII refused to supply her household with sufficient funds. Many of Catherine's staff, including her Spanish confessor and her favorite lady-in-waiting, left her impoverished household to return to Spain. Isolated and lonely, Catherine turned to religion as a comforting solace. During these years, she also suffered from several illnesses, most of which were probably caused by depression. Finally, on April 21, 1509, Henry VII died. Two months later, Catherine of Aragon married the new King Henry VIII on June 11.
Her 18-year-old husband was tall, fair-haired and very handsome. Young King Henry VIII was an energetic, well-educated and athletic monarch who enjoyed music, dancing, and hunting. He was also deeply in love with his wife. The 23-year-old Catherine was still very pretty and was noted for her long, thick auburn hair and beautiful complexion. With a new and vigorous young king, the English royal court was revitalized. Tournaments, parties, and pageants celebrated both the coronation of the new king as well as his recent marriage. Soon after their marriage, Catherine became pregnant but later gave birth to a still-born girl. Although the king was disappointed, he knew that they were both young and that there was still time to beget a male heir.
Henry's devotion to and trust of his queen was readily apparent in 1513 when he declared Catherine regent while he went on campaign against France. She governed the country well in his absence. The Scots, as traditional allies of
France, attempted to invade England while King Henry was on the Continent but were horribly defeated at the Battle of Flodden on September 9, 1513. As proof of her governing abilities, Catherine sent the blood-stained coat of the slain Scottish King James IV to Henry in France, declaring that she had kept her promise of defending England against its enemies. Nor did she neglect her wifely duties. Affectionate letters were exchanged between them, and Catherine sent over several shirts that she had sewn herself.
The early years of their marriage were happy ones. Catherine accompanied Henry to every public function while he wore her initials on his sleeve at tournaments and affectionately called himself "Sir Loyal Heart." During these years, Catherine was often pregnant but suffered either miscarriages or stillbirths. On February 18, 1516, she gave birth to her only surviving child; a girl, Mary (later Mary I ). Although Henry was disappointed, he was still optimistic about the future birth of a male heir to the throne.
By 1516, however, Catherine was becoming quite stout and the age difference between them was becoming more noticeable. Nonetheless, she remained a popular queen and was well known for her religious piety as well as her patronage of scholars. In addition, she maintained an important influence with the king. On May 1, 1517, hundreds of Londoners rioted against what they believed was undue economic dominance by foreigners. King Henry was not a monarch who tolerated disobedience, however, and, as a result, many of the rioters were executed. When 400, many of them women and children, still remained in detention, Queen Catherine successfully pleaded for their release and pardon.
While the king continued to hope for a male heir, he did not remain entirely faithful to his wife. Early modern husbands were not well known for their fidelity and Henry VIII had at least two mistresses during his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In 1519, when Catherine gave birth to another stillborn daughter, Henry's mistress, Elizabeth Blount , gave birth to a son. Two years later, he was dallying with Mary Boleyn . By the 1520s, Henry was becoming increasingly concerned that he would have no male heir to succeed him. Like many other 16th-century parents, the king believed that his failure to beget a male heir was a sign of God's punishment. In spite of his efforts to please God, which included going on pilgrimages and praying several times a day, by 1525 Henry was convinced that his wife was unable to provide him with a son. One year later, he decided that his marriage to Catherine must be dissolved.
The justification for God's anger he found in the Old Testament commandment that a man must not marry his brother's widow. Although Catherine swore that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, Henry was convinced that because they had ignored the commandment, God was preventing them from producing a male heir. Thus, Henry's decision to dissolve his marriage was based upon his own theological arguments. By 1527, however, all of his attention was focused on a young woman who soon over-took Catherine's place in the king's heart.
The date of Anne Boleyn's birth was never recorded, although it is assumed that she was born in either 1501 or 1507. She was one of three daughters of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard . By the reign of Henry VIII, the Boleyn family had risen in both wealth and status. Anne spent her formative years at the royal courts in the Netherlands and France. During her seven years in France, she learned how to speak French fluently as well as sing, dance, play musical instruments and dress stylishly; she was also exposed to reformed religious ideas. Growing up with royal children provided Anne with a sense of dignity and self-worth. At the courts of Margaret of Austria (1480–1530) in the Netherlands and Louise of Savoy in France, Anne was also exposed to competent, intelligent, and influential female role models.
Elizabeth Blount (c. 1502–c. 1540)
Mistress of Henry VIII. Name variations: Bessie Blount; Lady Talboys. Born around 1502; died around 1540; daughter of John Blount; married Gilbert Talboys, Lord Talboys of Kyme; children: (with Henry VIII) Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond.
In 1521, Anne returned to England. Her father, in the meantime, was busily arranging the marriages of his children. Negotiations for a marriage between Anne and the son and heir of Sir Piers Butler, earl of Ormond, had broken off by 1523. Anne was relieved because she had formed a romantic attachment to Lord Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland. Henry VIII's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, however, soon discovered their love affair and forced Percy to give up the relationship. Although Anne's reaction to the loss of her beloved is unrecorded, doubtless she learned that aristocratic marriages were more a matter of satisfying one's family's ambitions and the interests of the crown than of love.
By the time she was appointed as a lady-inwaiting to Queen Catherine in December 1526, Anne Boleyn had matured into a captivating and intelligent young woman. Yet she was not a beauty by contemporary standards. Instead of the customary blonde hair and blue eyes, 20-year-old Anne had lustrous, thick dark brown hair, black eyes and an elegant, long neck. It was her charm, energy and intelligence which captured the 36-year-old king's attention when they first met in May 1527. Henry fell deeply in love with her almost instantly and, as a result, became even more convinced that his first marriage must be dissolved.
For Catherine of Aragon the appearance of a new young woman who had caught the king's eye was nothing new. Unfortunately, by 1527, she was in a very insecure position: she had not produced a male heir and, at age 42, was past child-bearing age. More important, Anne Boleyn refused to become Henry's mistress. Although she was in love with the king, she determined not to become his concubine. Consequently, for the next five years she sustained Henry's passion by denying him full sexual relations. Finally, unknown to Catherine, Henry had convened a secret tribunal in May 1527 to determine the legality of his first marriage. Although attempts were made to maintain the secrecy of the proceedings, word leaked out. The "King's Great Matter," as the divorce came to be known, was now public and international news.
In June, Henry confronted Catherine asserting that their marriage was not lawful and that he must separate from her. Catherine burst into tears, insisting that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. The king remained unmoved. Catherine, though upset, was determined to fight for the survival of her marriage. She managed to smuggle out a letter to her nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who responded by giving her his full support. For Henry, this was a serious blow to his plans. In May 1527, Charles' imperial troops had sacked the city of Rome and kidnapped Pope Clement VII. Consequently, Clement was unwilling to slander the emperor's aunt by granting Henry's request for a divorce.
By the early months of 1529, Henry was even more anxious to have his marriage annulled. In May, the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio convened a tribunal to enquire into the king's marriage. On June 21, in full view of the entire court, Catherine made a final desperate plea to save her marriage. Kneeling down before the king, she said:
Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, let me have justice and right, take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor women, and a stranger, born out of your dominion. I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife.
She repeated publicly that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. Since Henry's entire case was built around the Biblical injunction against marrying his brother's wife, this was an unfortunate admission. Finally, Catherine asked that the case be tried in Rome in front of the pope. Finished, she rose up and curtsied to her husband. As she slowly moved out of the court, she was called, three times, to return. She replied to her nervous assistant, however, that she would not tarry in a court so prejudiced against her.
The proceedings continued, although by July it was clear that Campeggio was unwilling to make a decision. In an effort to buy time, Campeggio prorogued the court but it never met again. Henry, outraged by this turn of events, turned his wrath upon Cardinal Wolsey whom he stripped of all offices and lands. Wolsey died a year later, a broken man.
Contemporaries blamed Anne Boleyn for Wolsey's fate, though it was the cardinal's failure to secure a quick divorce for the king that led to his demise. Wolsey's fall from grace was noted by the king's new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who recognized that the king's desire for a divorce did not prevent him from turning his back on loyal servants.
After 1529, the king was forced to look for new methods to obtain the divorce. Led by Cromwell, steps were taken to deviate power away from the papacy and into the king's hands; thus began the English Reformation. In 1531, Henry VIII was declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. A year later, the clergy surrendered their legal autonomy to the king. Henceforth, all future clerical legislation required royal assent.
By the summer of 1531, it was evident that Queen Catherine was no longer the king's consort. In August, she was ordered to move away from court while Henry sent various delegations of clerics and nobles who tried to persuade her to have the case settled in England. Catherine steadfastly refused, declaring that the authority to dissolve lawful marriages lay with the pope, not King Henry.
Anne Boleyn's star, in the meantime, was rapidly rising. She was given separate apartments close to the king and now appeared openly at his side on formal occasions. Anne's triumph, however, was not shared by the majority of Henry's subjects. Catherine of Aragon was still a popular queen and, even though she was placed in virtual seclusion, the people of England refused to forget her. Anne was openly referred to as "the King's whore." Nonetheless, in September 1532, she was created Lady Marquess of Pembroke and was given lands and manors in Wales and Middlesex. More significantly, in October Anne accompanied Henry to Calais where they visited the French king, Francis I. It was also sometime during this visit that Anne and Henry finally became lovers. By December, she was pregnant and on January 25, 1533, they were secretly married.
Four months later, the king publicly announced his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cranmer, the new archbishop of Canterbury, decreed that the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid. Catherine was asked to give up the title of queen and, as widow of Prince Arthur, to take the title of dowager princess of Wales instead. Thus, in a stroke, the king attempted to erase the past 24 years of their marriage. Defiant, Catherine refused to give up her title. In July, Pope Clement finally came to her aid by condemning the king's marriage to Anne. By this point, however, his words were meaningless since Anne Boleyn had already been crowned queen of England on June 1.
At her coronation, Queen Anne was five months pregnant. On September 7, 1533, she gave birth, not to the king's long-awaited male heir, but to a girl, whom they named Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I ). Although both Henry and Anne were disappointed, they were still confident that Anne would bear a son. And, in the early months of 1534, Henry was hopeful once more when Anne was again pregnant. Hope turned to despair when she miscarried in late June. From this point on, Henry's feelings for his wife began to wane, and by September it was widely rumored that the king had taken a mistress.
Despite these events, Anne remained optimistic about her future, especially when she became pregnant once more in autumn 1535. Her confidence was shattered when she prematurely delivered a male child in January 1536. This event led to her tragic and rapid downfall. Not only was the child premature, but it is likely that it was also deformed. This had devastating consequences. Early modern society believed that the birth of a deformed child was a sign of God's punishment on the parents for committing sexual sins. More significantly, it was believed that witches, due to their excessive lust and deviant sexual acts, gave birth to deformed children. These popular beliefs provided a convenient excuse for a sovereign who wanted to rid himself of an unwanted wife. By 1536, Henry had already set his sights on another young woman at court, Jane Seymour. In addition, Catherine of Aragon had died on January 7, at age 50. Thus, Henry was rid of his first wife and was determined to eliminate the second. These events combined to ensure the swift and inevitable fall of Anne Boleyn.
By mid-March, Henry was publicly flirting with Seymour at court. On April 30, several arrests were made. Five men, one of whom was her brother, were accused of having had sexual relations with Queen Anne. Anne, realizing that her time was short, confronted Henry with three-year-old Elizabeth in her arms proclaiming her innocence. The king was unmoved. On May 2, Anne Boleyn was taken by barge to the Tower of London. In a strange twist of fate, she was housed in the same apartments she had stayed in before her triumphant coronation just three short years before. She was charged with inciting, through witchcraft, the accused men to have sex with her. She was also charged of afflicting the king with bodily harm and of conspiring to kill him. Few people at court, including members of her family, remained loyal to her once they knew she had fallen out of Henry's favor. A new star, in the form of Jane Seymour, was in ascendance.
Anne Boleyn's trial took place on May 15, 1536. She confronted her 26 male judges in a calm and composed manner. Although she denied all of the charges, they declared her guilty. Her uncle, the duke of Norfolk, sentenced her to death. Two days later, Henry VIII divorced her. On the same day, the five men who had been accused of being her lovers, including her brother, were executed on Tower Hill. On May 18, when Anne was told that she was to be beheaded, she greeted the news with, "I have heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck," then put her hands around her neck and laughed. The following morning, 29-year-old Anne Boleyn was executed in front of a large crowd. Twenty-four hours later, Henry VIII was formally betrothed to Jane Seymour.
The young woman who had captured the king's affections as early as 1535 was the opposite of Anne Boleyn in both appearance and personality. Jane Seymour was born into an aristocratic family that had slowly risen in wealth and status. Her father Sir John Seymour had been knighted by Henry VII in 1497 and later served under Henry VIII as a gentleman of the bedchamber. Her mother Margaret Wentworth was descended from Edward III and thus Jane could claim royal blood in her family tree. Jane, the eldest of three surviving daughters and three sons, was probably born in 1509.
Like Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour was in her mid-20s when she caught the king's eye, though little is known of her education or upbringing. She was at court from an early age serving as lady-in-waiting to both queens Catherine and Anne. Of her appearance, it is clear from contemporary portraits that she exhibited some of the 16th-century ideals of beauty; fair hair, a pure white complexion, high forehead and an oval-shaped face. Although she had none of Anne Boleyn's dark and sensuous beauty, Jane's charm of character outweighed any defects of appearance and, significantly, was much more to the king's liking. Her personal motto, "Bound to Obey and Serve," neatly sums up Jane Seymour's personality. Virtuous, calm and good-natured, she was everything a 16th-century English-woman was supposed to be. Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were married on May 30, 1536. For the next month, celebrations were held throughout London as the king showed off his new queen.
Although she was not to become as heavily involved in state affairs as her predecessor, Jane was responsible for reconciling the king with his eldest daughter. Mary (I) steadfastly refused to accede to the belief that Henry's marriage to her mother Catherine of Aragon had been invalid. Unfortunately, as he grew older, Henry VIII became less patient with anyone who disobeyed his wishes, and he was prepared to send Mary to the Tower in order to obtain her obedience. Finally, she capitulated and agreed to all of the king's demands. On June 14, 1536, Mary wrote a letter to her father begging his forgiveness and, with Jane's encouragement, the king agreed to reinstate her. From this point on, Mary was a frequent visitor at court.
As the royal couple traveled throughout the realm that summer, the new queen's good and virtuous reputation spread quickly. It was obvious that she was beloved by both her husband and the English people. The same could not be said about the king who, during the last few years, had forcibly dissolved the majority of English monasteries while swallowing up their
abundant wealth. The displaced monks and nuns were left to live as beggars and many people believed that the king had gone too far with his religious reforms. Resentment was greatest in the northern and eastern counties and by September 1536 a rebellion, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, had broken out. The queen, who was a conservative in religion, had some sympathy with the rebels. Consequently, she attempted to plead with the king for leniency. In full view of the court, Jane fell upon her knees in front of Henry and begged him to restore some of the smaller monasteries. Henry, visibly angry, ordered his wife to get up and not to meddle in his affairs, pointedly referring to the fate of "the late Queen" (Anne).
In spite of this small spat, their marriage was a happy one. The king's affection for his third wife only increased in intensity when she informed him in January 1537 that she was pregnant. Four months later, the happy news was announced officially. Throughout that spring and summer, the king was cheerful and content. By late September, Jane took to her chamber and on October 12, after two days' labor, she gave birth to a son. At age 46, and after almost 30 years of matrimony, Henry VIII's dream had finally come true—he now had a male heir to succeed him. Although it was later rumored that the baby was delivered by Caesarean section, this was not possible since Jane would never have survived the operation. Throughout the country English people celebrated the royal birth by lighting bonfires and ringing bells. On October 18, 1537, baby Edward (IV) was officially proclaimed prince of Wales. While the child appeared to flourish, his mother did not. Jane Seymour fell ill with puerperal fever and, at age 28, died 12 days after the birth of her son, on October 24.
Henry VIII, though grief-stricken, began searching for a new bride less than one month after the death of his third wife. In this instance, he instructed his ministers to look abroad for a suitable candidate. As always, a royal marriage was closely tied to international affairs. In June
1538, Charles V and Francis I signed a treaty binding them to friendship, effectively leaving Henry VIII in political isolation. In addition, Pope Paul III reissued the Bull of Excommunication against Henry. Consequently, Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, suggested a union with one of the Protestant German families in order to secure an alliance against Charles V. By 1539, English envoys were being sent to Cleves to determine if Anne, the eldest daughter of the duke of Cleves, would be a suitable match for the king.
Anne of Cleves was born on September 22, 1515, and was the second of four children born to Duke John III and Maria of Julich-Berg . Her upbringing was strict. Anne was only educated to read and write in her own language, and she could neither sing nor play an instrument. In appearance, she looked older than her 24 years. Tall and thin, she was not a typical Renaissance beauty. A contemporary French ambassador described her as "of middling beauty, with a determined and resolute countenance." Henry, however, was determined to learn more and sent the artist Hans Holbein to paint her portrait.
The result was not displeasing to the king and on October 4, 1539, a marriage treaty was signed. It was agreed that Anne would travel by land, rather than water, to Calais. She reached the French port on December 11 and, after several delays caused by inclement weather, finally arrived in England on December 27. Henry, increasingly impatient to see his new bride, visited her in secret and in disguise at Canterbury. Unfortunately, he was distressed by what he saw. Anne's plain looks and solemn demeanor were definitely not what he had expected. He returned to speak to her, this time without a disguise, but he remained unimpressed. He later remarked to Cromwell, "I like her not."
Though Anne of Cleves was not beautiful by contemporary standards, she was not ugly either. It is likely that Henry was not sexually attracted to her and, as a result, was unenthusiastic about his upcoming marriage. He even hoped for a way out. It was rumored that Anne had once made a premarital contract with the son of the duke of Lorraine. Unfortunately for Henry, his council found no evidence to support the claim. Resolved to his fate, and seeing the necessity of keeping Emperor Charles V at bay, 48-year-old Henry VIII married 25-year-old Anne of Cleves on January 6, 1540.
Anne had no idea of the king's feelings towards her. Due to her strict upbringing, she was never told the "facts of life" and, as a result, was unaware that her marriage had not yet been consummated. From the wedding night on, the king complained that he could not bring himself to engage in sexual relations with his new wife. Outwardly, however, the royal court was happy. A queen's household was established once more, and Henry behaved courteously towards his bride in public. In late February 1540, Anne of Cleves finally learned how and why her marriage had not been consummated. Although she was worried, she waited patiently and hopefully for the king to change his mind.
Unfortunately, time was not on her side. A combination of political, religious, and emotional developments contributed to the failure of the king's fourth marriage. Internationally, the alliance between France and the Holy Roman Empire was becoming strained and both sides were making friendly overtures towards England. The alliance with Protestant Germany was, therefore, no longer as advantageous as it had been. Religiously, there was a strong Catholic faction at court headed by the powerful and ruthless duke of Norfolk. Finally, by April 1540, Henry had fallen passionately in love with one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, Catherine Howard, and wanted to marry her.
Catherine Howard, a first cousin to Anne Boleyn, was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpeper . She was probably born sometime between 1520 or 1522. Although no authentic portrait of her survives, contemporaries described her as small in stature, not beautiful but pretty and exceptionally vivacious. Unlike the king's fourth wife, Catherine Howard exuded sex appeal and was appealing to men. She was brought up in an impoverished household and, after her mother died, was sent to live with her step-grandmother Agnes Tylney , duchess of Norfolk. During her time there, she had two romantic liaisons, one of which was sexual. Catherine's education was haphazard at best and she remained headstrong and immature.
When she came to court to serve in Anne of Cleves' household, she fell in love with one of the king's courtiers, Thomas Culpeper. Despite this, her fortune changed when the king set his sights on her. Once the king's intentions became known, Catherine's family supported the infatuation and coached the young girl on how to behave with Henry. Events moved rapidly. Cromwell, whom the king blamed for his disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, was arrested on June 10, 1540. Accused of high treason and heresy, he was sentenced to death without a trial.
Meanwhile, Anne of Cleves had no idea that the king wanted to divorce her. Over the past few months, she was slowly learning to speak English, and it was clear that the people were coming to love and respect her. Nonetheless, the king's mind was made up. On July 9, 1540, Parliament granted the king a divorce. Anne of Cleves submitted to Henry's will without protest and was duly rewarded with a substantial settlement of lands and money. Henceforth, she was to be regarded as the King's "good sister."
While it is uncertain how Anne felt about this turn of events, it is clear that she was shrewd enough to know that it was not in her best interests to cross the king of England. After the king's marriage to Catherine Howard on July 28, Anne of Cleves continued to visit the royal court. In all likelihood, she probably enjoyed her new position. She maintained an honorable place at court as first lady after the queen and the royal daughters.
Author Antonia Fraser has concluded that like a rich widow, Anne "had a household, a large income and property, untrammelled by any need to bow before any male authority except that of the English King." It is quite possible that Anne of Cleves was one of the happiest, and the luckiest, of the six wives of Henry VIII.
It was clear that Henry was head-over-heels in love with his new young wife. A contemporary observed that the king was "so amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough, and caresses her more than he did the others." During the first months of their marriage, he showered her with jewels, clothing, and gifts. Catherine, as an impressionable and pleasure-loving young woman, accepted the king's attentions gratefully. As a newlywed couple, they made an interesting sight. Henry VIII was nearly 50 years old and was by now very fat. He had varicose ulcerations on his legs which caused him pain and did not improve either his moods or his temper. His bride, on the other hand, was small, young and slender. Their marriage, however, appeared to be a success.
Anne of Cleves continued to visit the court, and on New Year's Eve 1541 she and Catherine Howard danced together while Henry retired early to bed. By the spring, Catherine took a step which ultimately led to her downfall. She resurrected her relationship with Thomas Culpeper. For several months, her affair went undetected. By late autumn, while she and the king were on a tour of the northern counties, an informant told Archbishop Cranmer of her past behavior. Although divulging secrets was not unusual in royal courts, it is likely that a faction in the palace, fearful that the reactionary religious party was gaining too much influence, betrayed Catherine.
Her fall was swift. By November, her lovers were interrogated and tortured. Henry was outraged and threatened to kill Catherine himself. It was up to Archbishop Cranmer, however, to wrest a confession out of her. When he confronted her, she collapsed and told him everything. He reported, "I found her in such lamentation and heaviness, as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man's heart in the world, to have looked upon her." Henry VIII, however, was not a man who held much pity for his wives and Catherine was arrested on November 12, 1541, and was taken to Syon Abbey. According to legend, before she left Hampton Court, Catherine Howard attempted to plead with Henry but was dragged away, screaming, by her attendants. The gallery is said to be haunted by a woman clad in white whose screams vanish with her.
By December, most members of the Howard family were sent to the Tower of London and by February 1542 Catherine was also transferred there. Although she had never confessed to her adultery with Culpeper (which was grounds for treason), she was condemned to die on February 11, 1542, under an Act of Attainder. Two days later, she was executed on the same block and in the same place as her cousin Anne Boleyn. She was not yet 21.
After the death of Catherine Howard, the king was once again looking for a new wife. This time, however, there was no young lady waiting to take over as queen, such as the situation had been when the king married Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Some members of the English court secretly hoped that Henry might reconcile with Anne of Cleves, though this was not something the king himself envisioned. As always, international politics played a role in Henry VIII's marital affairs and in July 1542 the short-lived peace between the Holy Roman Empire and France was waning. Henry, adhering to England's traditional enmity with France, chose to side with the emperor thus ruling out any chance for a French bride. By early 1543, it appeared that he had already made his choice. The king was becoming close to a widow named Catherine Parr.
Catherine Parr was probably born in 1512 and was the eldest child of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and Maud Greene Parr . The Parrs were a wealthy aristocratic family who had connections to the royal lineage, and Catherine's mother had served as a lady-in-waiting for Catherine of Aragon. In 1517, her father died leaving her mother to care for her three children. Moving away from London and the royal court, Catherine was brought up on the family estates in Northamptonshire. Her education was typical of aristocratic young women, though she did not learn Latin until much later on in life. Nonetheless, she developed a deep and abiding love of learning.
When Henry VIII first cast his eyes upon Catherine Parr, she was already a widow from two previous marriages. Her first marriage took place in 1529 when she was just 17 years old. She was married to a young aristocrat, Edward Borough, whose father served in the household of Anne Boleyn. Three years later, he died leaving Catherine a widow at age 20. Since it was difficult for any woman, wealthy or poor, to survive economically on her own, Catherine married for the second time in 1533. This time, her husband was much older. John Neville, Lord Latimer, at age 40, was 20 years older than his young bride. Nonetheless, Catherine's second marriage appeared to be a happy and successful one. She was responsible for a large household in Yorkshire as well as bringing up her husband's daughter from a previous marriage.
During the last years of her husband's life, Catherine spent more time in London where she developed connections with the royal court. Her sister, Anne Parr , was lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr soon engaged in what became a lasting friendship with Princess Mary. It was during this period that Catherine also became interested in the more evangelical aspects of the reformed religion. In February 1543, just two weeks before the death of her husband, King Henry presented several gifts to Catherine. While she was pleased by the king's attention, she soon faced a personal dilemma. She had fallen in love with Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane, and now had to decide between duty to her family or love. She chose duty. In a letter to Thomas, she explained: "As truly as God is my God, my mind was fully bent to marry you before any man I know. Howbeit, God withstood my will … and made me renounce utterly mine own will, and to follow his will most willingly."
Four and a half months later, Catherine Parr married King Henry VIII on July 12, 1543. The 31-year-old queen had light auburn hair and was the tallest of Henry's six wives. She enjoyed dancing and dressing well. In one year, for example, she ordered 47 new pairs of shoes. Catherine Parr was also fond of music and animals. During her years as queen of England, she lived up to her motto: "To be useful in all I do." Her love of learning blossomed under Henry's patronage and in 1545 she wrote and published a short manual of religious exercises entitled Prayers and Meditations.
As always with royal marriages, the new queen's family rose quickly in status. Catherine's sister, her cousin and her stepdaughter soon joined her household while her brother was created earl of Essex. She was greatly admired by everyone and, more important, developed an excellent relationship with all three of her royal stepchildren. Princess Mary remained in Queen Catherine's household until the death of Henry VIII. Nearly everyone approved of the new queen. The Lord Chancellor described her as "a woman, in my judgment, for certain virtue, wisdom and gentleness, most meet for His Highness. And sure I am that his Majesty never had a
wife more agreeable to his heart than she is." The only person who appeared to hold less enthusiasm for the royal marriage was Anne of Cleves who believed, wrongly, that she would be reconciled with the king. This was an unrealistic hope, for Catherine's 51-year-old husband was content with his new wife. To prove his trust in her, Henry declared Queen Catherine regent to rule in his name when he went on campaign in France in July 1544. Affectionate letters were exchanged between the royal couple until Henry returned in October.
For much of her marriage, Catherine acted as nurse to Henry VIII who still suffered from leg pains. Household records confirm that she attempted to ease his pain with various herbal remedies and soothing massages. The last years of Henry's reign were dominated by a struggle for power between the two most important factions at court: the Seymours and the Howards. Both represented differing aspects of the religious atmosphere during the king's remaining years. The Seymours adhered to more evangelical and, for Henry, more subversive views, while the Howards were closely akin to the king's own "Catholic" religious preferences. Henry, who had never been a tolerant man, became less so in his declining years and an increasing persecution of heretics characterized the remaining time of his reign.
Catherine Parr was a pious woman whose religious tendencies differed from those of her husband. This is readily apparent in her second religious treatise, The Lamentation of a Sinner, which, significantly, was not published until after Henry's death in 1547. The work was strongly anti-papal and advocated a personal study of the Bible. Although she usually kept her religious opinions to herself during her marriage, on several occasions she argued with Henry about religion. No woman since Anne Boleyn was ever allowed to contradict the king, and in July 1546 Henry began taking steps to remove Catherine by charging her with heresy. Fortunately, Catherine became aware of the king's intentions and, using all of her tact and intelligence, managed to have the charges dropped. Taking refuge in traditional sexual stereotypes, she told Henry that she would no longer discuss religious matters with him because, as a woman, she was subject to his will. In a masterful display of discretion, she also asserted that the only reason she had argued with him was in an effort to get his mind off the pain in his legs. Her arguments were persuasive, and the king, giving her "very tender assurances of constant love," was once again reconciled with his queen.
From this point on, Henry VIII's health began to deteriorate, and Catherine spent more and more of her time nursing her ailing husband. In December, the queen and the princesses Mary and Elizabeth left London to spend Christmas at Greenwich. Catherine never saw her husband again. Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, at the age of 55. The Seymours quickly seized power and Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England, took over the guardianship of young King Edward VI.
Thirty-six-year-old Catherine Parr was once again a widow. This time, however, as queen dowager, she was still first lady of England until Edward married. Shortly after King Henry's death, she rekindled her relationship with Thomas Seymour, who was now Lord Admiral. Though the exact date of their marriage is unknown, it is likely that it took place sometime in March 1547. Eight months later, Catherine Parr was pregnant with her first child.
During Catherine's marriage to Seymour, Princess Elizabeth came to live in their household. Catherine and Elizabeth had developed a deep and abiding friendship which, unfortunately, became threatened when Catherine's husband began flirting with the young princess. Although her love for Elizabeth was strong, Catherine sent her away. While contemporaries believed that Catherine took this step out of jealousy, it is more likely that her decision was based on a deep concern for the princess' reputation and safety. Despite this incident, Catherine's marriage to Seymour was a happy one. On August 30, she gave birth to a girl whom they named Mary. Unfortunately, like many other women in the 16th century, Catherine did not survive the birth. She soon fell ill with puerperal fever and died on September 5, 1548, at age 36. Her infant daughter died on the same day.
In 1547, the only surviving wife of King Henry VIII was Anne of Cleves. Beset by money problems, she lived through the short reign and death of Edward VI and spent the last years of her life under the reign of her close friend Queen Mary I. She never lived to see the coronation of Elizabeth and died on July 16, 1557, at age 42.
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Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
Ives, E.W. Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Martiensson, Anthony. Queen Catherine Parr. London: Secker and Warburg, 1973.
Mattingly, Garrett. Catherine of Aragon. NY: Vintage, 1960.
Paul, J.E. Catherine of Aragon and Her Friends. London: Burns and Cates, 1966.
Warnicke, Retha. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. London: Bodley Head, 1991.
Neale, John E. Queen Elizabeth I. London: Jonathan Cape, 1961.
Ridley, Jasper. Henry VIII. London: Constable, 1984.
Scarisbrick, J.J. Henry VIII. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968.
Anne of the Thousand Days (146 min. film), starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold , directed by Charles Jarrott, 1969.
Henry VIII and His Six Wives (125 min. film), starring Keith Mitchell, Frances Cuka , and Charlotte Rampling , directed by Waris Hussein, 1972.
The Life of King Henry VIII (play) by William Shakespeare.
"Six Wives of Henry VIII," 6-part BBC series (9 hrs.), starring Annette Crosbie as Catherine of Aragon, Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn, Ann Stallybrass as Jane Seymour, Elvi Hale as Anne of Cleves, Angela Pleasance as Catherine Howard, Rosalie Crutchley as Catherine Parr, and Keith Mitchell as Henry VIII.
Margaret McIntyre , Instructor in Women's History, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada