Lesson 4: King Henry’s Wives

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1509-47)

Henry VIII was born in 1491. He was the second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Henry’s elder brother Arthur married Catherine of Aragon in 1501. However, the following year Arthur died and so the eleven year old Henry became heir to the throne.

Upon becoming King in 1509, Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow. They lived together happily for many years and in 1516 Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary. Henry desperately wanted to have a son, a male heir to be king after he died.

In the meantime, Henry had fallen in love with another woman, Ann Boleyn.

Henry divorced Catherine in 1533 and married Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant with his child.

However, Henry was most displeased when Ann gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. That was the beginning of the end of Ann. She was executed on false charges of witchcraft, incest and adultery on 19 May 1536. Her daughter, Elizabeth, would grow up to become the greatest queen that England ever had.

By the end of May 1536, less than three weeks after the execution of Ann Boleyn, Henry married again.

Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, was quite unlike the lively Ann Boleyn. Where Ann had been witty and talkative, Jane was meek and quiet. It was Jane who gave birth to Henry’s only son, Edward, in October 1536. Tragically, Jane never recovered from the effects of the difficult birth and died twelve days later.

Early in 1540, Henry arranged a marriage with Anne of Cleves. He had never met her, but agreed to marry the German princess after viewing a portrait of her by Hans Holbein. However, when he met her for the first time he immediately regretted his decision to marry her, crying out “I like her not! I like her not!” Henry famously referred to his bride as a ‘Flanders mare’.

Anne readily agreed to an annulment and lived in England for the rest of her life as the “King’s sister”. Perhaps Ann was the luckiest of Henry’s wives because she received a generous pension and several homes from Henry who was grateful to her for her co-operation over the annulment.

By now Henry was in his late forties. Depite that, he fell in love with a flirtatious teenager called Catherine Howard, a cousin of the unfortunate Ann Boleyn. They married in July 1540. Henry called her his ‘Rose without a Thorn’. However, the careless Catherine was discovered to be having an affair with a man of her own age. At first Henry refused to believe it, but the evidence was convincing. Catherine was executed in March 1542 on the same spot as her cousin Ann had been executed seven years before.

In 1543 Henry married his sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr. Although Catherne Parr was in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Jane Seymour, she had no choice but to marry the king. Like Henry, Catherine was interested in theology and wrote several theological works. Indeed, her Protestantism nearly cost her her life until she told the king:

“I am but a woman, with all the imperfections natural to the weakness of my sex;
therefore in all matters of doubt and difficulty I must refer myself to your Majesty’s
better judgement, as to my lord and head.”

Catherine survived the king, who died in 1547. She then married Thomas Seymour, but died in childbirth the following year.

There is a rhyme that helps you to remember what happened to Henry’s queens. It goes like this:

“Divorced, beheaded, died,
Divorced, beheaded, survived.”