Inside the lives of King Henry VIII’s wives and children
King Henry VIII is one of England’s best-known monarchs, having reigned England for nearly 39 years. He’s the image of the Renaissance man. His court was the center of scholarly and artistic innovation. His reign is marked by radical changes to the English constitution and the breaking with the Catholic Church through the English Reformation.
But while Henry is known for these royal achievements, he is perhaps most notable for having six wives during his reign. He had three grown children in these marriages. His first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, lasted 25 years, but his other five marriages ended in some declaring annulment while other wives were beheaded.
While Henry is notorious for these marriages, how much do you know about his six wives? You have probably heard rumors, but it’s time to focus on the wives behind the royal leader.
Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon is known for sparking the Reformation, a movement in 16th-century Europe in which political rulers extended their power and control at the expense of the Church. Born to Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Aragon, Catherine grew up to be a catch for many political figures. She was initially married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, but he died just five months into their marriage.
In 1507, six years after Arthur’s death, Catherine became the ambassador of the Aragonese Crown to England, making her the first female European ambassador in history. Two years later, she married Henry shortly after he obtained the royal throne.
The couple’s 25-year-long marriage had many ups-and-downs, including multiple miscarriages and stillbirths. She gave birth to Henry’s first child, a boy, but he died 52 days later. She eventually had a daughter, Mary, who would later become queen.
During this marriage, Henry had an illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, first Duke of Richmond and Somerset, with his mistress, Elizabeth Blount. To historians’ knowledge, this was the king’s only illegitimate offspring.
Towards the end of his marriage to Catherine, Henry began a famous love affair with Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. He wanted to end their marriage, but the pope refused, forcing Henry to turn his back on the Catholic Church. Henry’s marriage to Catherine was annulled in 1533 and Catherine was banished from the court. She lived the rest of her life in solitude at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, where she died on January 7, 1536.
Anne Boleyn is the most famous of Henry’s wives and people are still fascinated by her. During her seven-year courtship with Henry, she caused many political and religious upheavals in order to marry the king in 1533. Like Catherine of Aragon, Anne suffered from multiple miscarriages. She only gave birth to one child, the historic Elizabeth I in September 1533. At this point, Henry still didn’t have a son, so he went looking for another potential wife.
In 1536, Henry began courting Jane Seymour. In order to marry her, he had to find reasons to end his marriage to Anne. He ordered his wife to be investigated for high treason. She was tried on charges of adultery, incest and plotting to kill Henry. She was wrongly found guilty and beheaded on May 19, 1956.
Credited as Henry’s favorite wife, Jane Seymour gave him what none of his other wives could: a son who lived. Jane served as Anne Boleyn’s lady-in-waiting and her peaceful, gentle personality attracted Henry. She married the king in May 1536, just days after Anne was beheaded, and gave birth to a son, the future King Edward VI, in October 1537.
Unfortunately, Jane wouldn’t live to see her son grow up to become monarch. She suffered from post-natal complications and died on October 24, 1537, less than two weeks after giving birth. When Henry passed away in January 1547, he chose to be buried alongside her— his favorite wife.
Anne of Cleves
Henry married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in January 1540. She was a political match for him as the daughter of the Duke of Cleves and Count of Mark. But Henry wasn’t impressed with her. He had their marriage annulled six months later, citing its lack of consummation as a cause of the annulment.
Despite the annulment, the two remained close friends and Anne later became an honorary member of his family. Henry considered her more like a “beloved sister” than a wife. She died seven months after him, on August 3, 1557.
Henry married his teenage bride Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn’s first cousin, in 1540 when she was just 16 years old and he was 49. But prior to the marriage, Catherine’s life was turbulent after being repeatedly molested by her music teacher. She was involved in an extramarital affair with the secretary of her father’s stepmother, and she was sent away to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. She eventually married Henry, but everyone would agree she was not in love with the king.
Less than a year into their marriage, Catherine began an affair with Henry’s favorite courtier, Thomas Culpeper. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, learned about the affair and launched an investigation into Catherine’s moral character. Catherine was eventually beheaded on February 13, 1542, for high treason.
Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, is regarded as his luckiest. His third Catherine, she married the king in July 1543, but this wasn’t her first marriage. She had been married twice before, making her the most married English queen.
But Catherine didn’t always have her eye on Henry. Instead, she was involved in a romantic relationship with Jane Seymour’s brother, Thomas Seymour. But she knew it was her duty to marry the king instead, even though she wasn’t happy with Henry. Once the court learned the news that she wasn’t always faithful to Henry, officials tried to turn the king against his wife. However, Catherine outwitted them and reconciled with Henry, ultimately saving her life. She was lucky not to suffer the same fate as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.