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The Six Wives of Henry VIII

These women are fascinating figures in their own right.


Henry VIII was considered an accomplished, charismatic king by his contemporaries. A skilled musician, author, and poet, the 16th-century leader initiated the English Reformation, ushered in the theory of the divine right of kings, and expanded the Royal Navy. Yet when we recall Henry VIII, the political achievements of his reign aren’t the first thing that come to mind. 475 years after his death, King Henry VIII is best remembered as the English ruler who wed six times and notoriously had two of his wives beheaded. 

When Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, heralding a break from papal authority and his excommunication from the Catholic Church. Free from the constraints of the Church, Henry declared his marriage to Catherine invalid and wed the subject of his infatuation, Anne Boleyn. Their marriage lasted less than three years, culminating in her execution. It was just the beginning of what appeared to be a short attention span when it came to the women Henry courted.

Meanwhile, Catherine was banished from court to live out the remainder of her days at a castle in eastern England. It was a far better fate than some of her successors. Out of Henry’s five additional brides, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were executed on grounds of treason, and Jane Seymour died shortly after giving birth to a long-awaited male heir. Henry annulled his marriage to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr outlived him.

For the most part, we recognize these women only by how their marriages to Henry played out. It’s not entirely surprising; his unprecedented marriages became a topic of great discussion, and sparked an interest in the love lives of British royalty that endures today. And yet, each woman was a complex individual in her own right, with her own motivations, fears, and hopes for the future.

Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII is the first serious collective biography of these women to be published since 1905. Thanks to the humanism of the Renaissance, a wealth of written primary sources exist from the time period, but many of them have the slant of religious or political biasnot to mention the profound sexism that shaped every aspect of the women’s lives and the lens in which they were viewed by their male contemporaries.

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After years of careful research, Weir has been able to analyze the truth and integrity of numerous historical sources and draw conclusions about what each of Henry’s wives was really like. A well-rounded portrait of each women emerges in her “exquisite treatment, sure to become a classic” (Booklist).

The following excerpt details the beginning of Catherine of Aragon’s fall from grace. A pious woman with strict moral principles, she wasn’t afraid to share how she really felt about Henry’s infidelity, or to pressure him politically. Her outspoken nature contributed to the crumbling of their union.

Read a passage from The Six Wives of Henry VIII below, then download the book.




The Six Wives of Henry VIII

By Alison Weir

On Friday, 22 June 1509, the King and Queen went by royal barge from Greenwich to the Tower of London, where custom decreed the King must spend the night before his coronation. Henry had ordered the refurbishment of the old royal apartments in the Norman keep, and here, that same afternoon, he created twenty-four Knights of the Bath. On the following morning, the grand procession formed within the Tower precincts. Henry rode on horseback, Katherine in a litter through cheering crowds via Cheapside, Temple Bar and the Strand to the Palace of Westminster, through streets hung with rich tapestries, where on every corner stood priests swinging censers.

Crowds had turned out to see them, Henry in a robe of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine over a coat of ‘raised gold’, which was embroidered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, great pearls and other rich stones, and Katherine in virginal white satin. At Westminster, there was a lavish banquet, after which the King and Queen retired to the chapel of St Stephen to pray.

The 24th of June was midsummer day. A long scarlet runner had been laid from the Palace doors to the great west door of the Abbey of Westminster and, at the appointed time, the King and Queen went in procession along it, Henry walking beneath a canopy of estate borne by the five barons of the Cinque Ports, and Katherine riding in a litter of rich cloth drawn by two white palfreys. She was dressed like a bride, in an embroidered gown of white satin, with her hair – ‘of a very great length, beautiful and goodly to behold’ – falling loose down her back beneath a coronet set ‘with many rich Orient stones’. Her officers and ladies followed her, in chariots and on palfreys. ‘There were few women who could compete with the Queen in her prime,’ wrote Sir Thomas More, many years later. Katherine might have been past her first youth by Tudor standards, yet marriage, and the knowledge that the King loved her, had enhanced her buxom charm and her still-pretty face.

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The coronation ritual followed the form laid down by St Dunstan in AD 973, which in turn had been modelled on the ceremony devised for Charlemagne in AD 800. Now it was the turn of Henry VIII to sit in Edward I’s coronation chair and receive the Crown of St Edward the Confessor, whose shrine lay only a few feet away in the Abbey; and when he had been accepted and acclaimed as England’s King by the assembled lords spiritual and temporal, and due homage had been paid by all who owed him fealty, Queen Katherine received from the Archbishop of Canterbury the smaller crown of the Queen Consorts of England. For her, this was a sacred moment in which she would dedicate her life to God and to the service of her husband’s realm.

Outside the Abbey, however, behaviour was anything but sacred, for the crowds had descended like vultures upon the scarlet runner along which the King had walked and ripped it to shreds, each person carrying off a piece as a souvenir of the day. So elated were the King and Queen when they at last emerged from the Abbey that they did not notice its removal, and proceeded to Westminster Hall to the acclaim of the crowds. There, in the vaulted edifice built by William Rufus and beautified by Richard II, Henry and Katherine sat down to their coronation banquet, where ‘sumptuous, fine and delicate’ food was served in abundance. Half-way through the proceedings, the King’s champion entered and dared anyone to challenge his master’s right to the throne. There was, of course, no response, and the champion was presented with a golden cup before he withdrew. This little ceremony had been performed at coronation banquets since the early Middle Ages, and always provided excitement at what was usually a very long and ceremonious occasion.

catherine of aragon
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  • Catherine of Aragon.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Several days of celebrations followed the coronation, with tournaments in the gardens of the old Palace of Westminster, where a timber pavilion had been erected so that the King and Queen could watch the proceedings in comfort. There were pageants and banquets, all paid for out of the vast wealth that Henry VIII had inherited from his father. Queen Katherine was present at every festivity, and presided over the jousts with her ladies in true courtly fashion. To some extent she shared Henry’s love of hunting, and was not squeamish about it. When the bloody bodies of deer killed in a hunting pageant were laid at her feet as trophies, the Queen did not flinch at the sight, but thanked the hunters and commanded that the venison be served at yet another court banquet. Blood sports were a pleasurable way of providing entertainment as well as meat for the table.

Henry VIII spoke openly of the ‘joy and felicity’ he had found with Katherine. According to Fray Diego, he adored her, and she him. Yet his love for her was no grand passion; it epitomised rather all his ideals about women and chivalry. Throughout their marriage, he would treat Katherine with the respect due to his wife and queen, and with genuine affection, long after love and desire had died. Her gratitude for his rescue of her from penury and humiliation was flattering to his highly inflated ego, which was further gratified by her submissiveness. She happily conceded that Henry was intellectually her superior, and deferred to him accordingly, as a wife was expected to. This, to Henry, was a most satisfactory state of affairs, and he congratulated himself on having chosen such an amiable bride. Because he was young and inexperienced, he did not perceive the steel beneath the meek exterior, and he certainly underestimated Katherine’s tenacity. It is possible that he regarded Katherine almost as a mother figure. The loss of his own mother when he was eleven had affected him deeply, and Katherine, to a degree, was a substitute. She was older than he, more mature, and was always ready with advice when he needed it, and sometimes when he did not.

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Katherine herself had always been solemn, with a gravity beyond her years, but for a time now her Spanish training was forgotten and she was able to laugh with the pure happiness of being in love with her young husband and free at last from care. She was, according to her confessor, Fray Diego, ‘in high health, with the greatest gaiety and contentment that ever there was’. Gone were her traumatic ailments, gone her depression. She was rational enough in love to realise that Henry was in many ways immature, and sensible enough not to let him know it. She seems to have had a good insight into the youthful mind of the King, and common sense cautioned her to treat him with due respect. This came naturally from years of long training, and it was not difficult, for she was in love.

Henry wrote to Ferdinand that summer: ‘My wife and I be in good and perfect love as any two creatures can be,’ and Katherine also wrote to her father, thanking him for seeing her ‘so well married’ to a husband she loved ‘so much more than myself’. Ferdinand answered that he ‘rejoiced to find you love each other so supremely, and hope you may be happy to the end of your life; a good marriage being not only for the blessing of the man and woman who take each other, but also to the world outside.’ It must have seemed to Katherine that her marriage was built upon a sure foundation of love, respect, desire and good political sense. How could it fail to succeed?

Within a year, however, matters were to deteriorate significantly.

In August 1509, Katherine informed the King with delight that she was to bear a child in the spring. In November, the baby stirred for the first time, and a proud Henry informed King Ferdinand of the fact, to signify to him ‘the great joy thereat that we take, and the exultation of our whole realm’. The public announcement of the Queen’s pregnancy had given rise to great rejoicing in England, for the birth of an heir to the throne would stabilise the dynasty and remove the ever present threat of civil war.

The court was in residence in Henry VIII’s great gothic palace at Westminster when, on 31 January 1510, the Queen went into labour prematurely. Her infant, a daughter, was stillborn, which, although considered a calamity, was not an uncommon misfortune with first babies at that time. But Katherine suffered a strong sense of failure, compounded by guilt, because ‘she had desired to gladden the King and the people with a Prince’. Henry, however, was philosophical, but even his reassurances and attempts to comfort his wife were to little avail, for she was profoundly shaken by her loss and remained depressed for several weeks, tormented by irrational feelings of guilt. When she wrote to break the news to her father, she begged him: ‘Do not storm against me. It is not my fault, it is the will of God. The King, my lord, took it cheerfully, and I thank God that you have given me such a husband.’ Again, she repeated, as if to reassure herself, ‘It is the will of God.’

The King wasted no time in fathering another child, believing that it was the only thing that would cure Katherine of her depression, and in May 1510, Fray Diego was able to inform King Ferdinand that ‘it has pleased our Lord to be her physician, and by His infinite mercy He has again permitted her to be with child’. She was already ‘very large’, which indicates that the baby was almost certainly conceived during February and that Katherine was one of those women who ‘shows’ early. The friar hoped this would be ‘the beginning of a hundred grandsons’ for King Ferdinand.

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There are hints in diplomatic records that the young King had been pursuing other women at the time of his accession; whether these adventures continued after his marriage is not recorded, but in 1510, when Katherine was pregnant with her second child, Henry strayed. He had become a complacent husband, secure in his wife’s devotion, and Katherine had changed from a young woman ‘who cannot be without novelties’ into a grave, sedate matron, who had to adjust to a second pregnancy coming hard on the heels of the first. Henry felt he had done his duty by the Queen, and now he was going to enjoy himself. By the standards of his day, his attitude was not unusual.

Henry’s first known mistress was his second cousin Lady Elizabeth Fitz Walter, sister of the Duke of Buckingham. In her late twenties, she had recently arrived at court with her sister, Lady Anne Herbert. The King immediately pursued her, while his friend, Sir William Compton (who had been close to Henry since being appointed a royal page in 1493) provided a front for his master by pretending to carry on an intrigue with Lady Elizabeth himself. Thus, for a time, Henry was able to make love to his mistress in secrecy.

Jane Seymour and Henry VIII
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  • Henry VIII with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and their son, Prince Edward.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

It was not long, however, before Lady Anne noticed the attention Compton was paying to her sister, who was after all a married woman; in some agitation Lady Anne called a family conference, at which she confided her suspicions to her brother the Duke and to Sir Robert FitzWalter, Elizabeth’s husband. As a result, a furious row broke out between the Duke and Compton when the Duke shortly afterwards found Compton in his sister’s rooms at court. Buckingham used ‘many hard words’ and ‘severely reproached’ Compton, who slunk off to the King and warned him what was happening. Henry, in a simmering rage at the prospect of being deprived of his pleasures, summoned Buckingham and reprimanded the Duke angrily, whereupon Buckingham left the court in a fury. Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth had confessed to her incensed husband the truth of the matter, and had been forcibly removed by him from the court and immured in a convent sixty miles away. By then, the real identity of her lover was known to the whole Stafford family, Lady Anne included.

Deprived of his mistress, Henry VIII cast his eye about to see where blame could be laid, and guessed that the prime mover in the matter had been Lady Anne Herbert, whom he knew to be one of the Queen’s closest friends. Exacting revenge, he banished Lady Anne and her husband from the court, and had a mind to turn out a lot of other ladies also, believing that they had been set by Lady Anne to spy on him. However, he could not quite face the scandal such drastic action would give rise to and, moreover, the worst had already happened: someone, probably Lady Anne, had told the Queen. This resulted in a stormy confrontation between husband and wife, in which Katherine reproached Henry for his infidelity, and he upbraided her for daring to censure him for it. They both ended up ‘very vexed’ with each other, and the whole court knew it.

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Luis Caroz, the Spanish ambassador, feared that Katherine might prejudice her considerable influence with the King by being so openly hostile about what was, after all, a common failing amongst men of rank whose marriages were arranged for them. Yet, to Caroz’s dismay, she continued to berate Henry for betraying her, and made matters worse by her evident ill will towards Compton. She was now suffering as countless other queens before her had suffered, having found themselves neglected for the less dignified charms of the ladies of the court, and although she was behaving badly, she could not help herself. The honeymoon was undoubtedly over, and Katherine was shattered by the realisation.

Henry himself could not see what all the fuss was about. In fact, he saw himself as the injured party, Katherine having dared to challenge his right to do as he pleased. He had been discreet, had not intended publicly to humiliate her, and he felt he was being unfairly treated. Of course, in the end, Katherine capitulated, and faced the fact that it was a wife’s duty to turn a blind eye to her husband’s extra-marital affairs. The onus was on her to adapt to circumstances. It was a hard lesson to learn, but she learnt it well. Never again would she publicly call Henry to account for his behaviour, even under the most extreme provocation. She had emerged from this affair without dignity or pride – even her friend Caroz had criticised her behaviour. Now she resolved to accept what could not be altered with as much grace as she could muster, and on the surface the relationship between the royal couple reverted to its former happy state. It would never, however, be quite the same.

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