Annulled, beheaded, survived: Get to know the wives of King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII is one of England’s most famous monarchs. His reign of 39 years is marked by radical changes to the English constitution and the breaking with the Catholic Church during the English Reformation. Henry presented himself as the image of scholarly and artistic perfection, becoming the ‘Renaissance man’ people know him as today.
But only a few people know Henry for these achievements. Instead, he is more notable for having six wives during his reign. Some marriages ended in annulment, while other wives were beheaded. How much do you know about these wives? People say behind every great man is a great woman. Well, for King Henry VIII, he had six great women. That’s a big number, isn’t it?
Catherine of Aragon
Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon was perhaps his most successful union, but they were almost never married. Catherine was initially married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur. When he died five months into their marriage, Catherine needed a solution, and the solution became Henry.
In 1507, Catherine became the ambassador of the Aragonese Crown to England, making her the first female European ambassador. Two years later, in 1509, she married Henry after he obtained the royal throne. Their 25-year-long marriage had many ups-and-downs, including multiple miscarriages and stillbirths. She finally gave birth to their first son, Henry, but he died 52 days later. She eventually gave birth to a daughter, Mary, who would later become Queen Mary I of England.
Henry didn’t stay loyal to Catherine during their marriage. Instead, he had an illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, first Duke of Richmond and Somerset, with his mistress, Elizabeth Blount. Towards the end of his marriage to Catherine, Henry began a famous love affair with Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. Eventually, Henry had to leave the Catholic Church, a dangerous decision in 16th-century England, in order to annul his marriage to Catherine in 1533.
People are fascinated by Anne Boleyn for many reasons. She was involved in an intense love affair with Henry prior to their marriage in 1533. But like Catherine of Aragon, Anne suffered from multiple miscarriages. She only gave birth to one child, the famous Queen Elizabeth I, in September 1533. At this point, Henry still didn’t have a legitimate son to take over the throne, so he began looking elsewhere.
In 1536, Henry began courting Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. To marry her, he ordered Anne to be investigated for treason. She was charged with adultery, incest and plotting to kill Henry—none of which were true. Unfortunately, Anne was wrongfully beheaded on May 19, 1536, an act so cruel but that’s what people find so fascinating about Anne Boleyn.
Henry didn’t want to be married to Anne Boleyn anymore once he met Jane Seymour, credited as his favorite wife. She gave him something none of his other wives could: a living son. The two married in May 1536, just days after Anne was beheaded, and gave birth to their son, the future King Edward VI, in October 1537. Unfortunately, however, Jane suffered from many post-natal complications and died on October 24, 1537. Henry was devastated at the loss and when he died in January 1547, he requested to be buried alongside Jane—his favorite wife.
Anne of Cleves
Henry took a break from marriage after losing his beloved Jane. He eventually married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in January 1540. She was thought to be a political match for him as the daughter of the Duke of Cleves and Count of Mark, but Henry was never impressed with her. She wasn’t as dear to him as Jane had been. Henry had their marriage annulled six months later, but the two remained close friends. He considered her more like a “beloved sister” than a wife.
Catherine Howard is another fascinating wife of King Henry VIII. A teenage bride, Catherine, Anne Boleyn’s first cousin, was just 16 years old and he was 49 when they married in 1540. But it seemed like Catherine was looking for a way out of her past misery. Her childhood had been turbulent after being repeatedly molested by her music teacher. She was sent away from home to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves when she became involved in an extramarital affair with the secretary of her father’s stepmother. She married Henry, but historians agree the two were never in love. Instead, it was a marriage of convenience for both parties.
Less than a year into their marriage, Catherine began a love affair with Henry’s courtier, Thomas Culpeper. When the affair became public knowledge, Catherine was beheaded on February 13, 1542, for high treason to not only her husband but to England.
Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, was the cleverest wife of them all. His third Catherine, the two married in July 1543 and this was her third marriage, making her the most married English queen. But if you asked Catherine, she would have said she never wanted to marry Henry.
Instead, she was in love with Jane Seymour’s brother, Thomas Seymour. The two could never get married and Catherine had to marry the king. Once the court learned the news that she wasn’t always loyal to Henry, officials wanted to behead her for treason. Luckily, Catherine was quick on her toes and reconciled with Henry, ultimately saving her life. The two were married until Henry’s death in 1547. Afterward, Catherine finally married the man she loved— Thomas Seymour. She lived her happily ever after.