This report is on the lives of the six women that married Henry VIII. It goes back to their past, into their marriage, and, if they made it that far, into their lives after Henry.
The wives of Henry VIII were all very different kinds of women. Gentle, unattractive Anne of Cleves was not at all like enticing, flirtatious Catherine Howard. The one thing that they had in common was having Henry as their husband, a rather unfortunate thing to share, it turns out.
Part 1. Before They Met Henry
Catherine of Aragon
Catherine (also spelt Katherine or Katharine) was born 16th December 1485. She was the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Castile.
Catharine was described as short, with long golden-auburn hair, blue eyes, a round face, and a fair complexion.
As a Princess of Castile, she was quite learned. She learned to speak, read and write in Spanish and Latin, and also spoke French and Greek. She was also taught domestic skills, such as needlepoint, lace-making, embroidery, music and dancing.
She also seemed to be very pious, much like her mother.
Catherine was sent to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, firstborn of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, heir to the throne of England. Arthur was the older brother of Henry VIII.
Almost a year after they were married, they both became sick, possibly from the sweating sickness. Catherine recovered, but Arthur died.
Anne was born c.1501/1507, the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an earl, and Elizabeth Boleyn, the Countess of Wiltshire.
Anne was described as having dark olive skin, thick, dark brown hair, and dark eyes, sometimes described as black.
Anne had two siblings, George and Mary.
Mary and Anne both spent their teenage years in France as ladies-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, the French Queen. When Queen Mary died, Anne’s sister Mary went home where she later became the mistress of King Henry.
Anne stayed where she was and served the new French Queen, Claude.
Because of where she lived for the earlier years of her life, Anne learned to speak French fluently and is known for loving the French fashions.
Her plans of returning to England and marrying her Irish cousin failed and instead, when she returned to England, she was placed as maid of honour to Queen Catherine, also known as Catherine of Aragon.
As a maid of honour, Anne is also known to have had two other suitors, a rich heir, Henry Percy and a poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt. These were not long in lasting.
Jane was born in the year 1508. She was the daughter of Sir John Wentworth and Margery Wentworth of Wiltshire.
While Henry VIII’s first wives had impressive educations, Jane was skilled in the ways of a housewife. She was good at things such as household management and needlework, things which were not necessary to a Queen.
Jane became maid-of-honour to both Queen Catherine of Aragon, and Queen Anne Boleyn.
It is unusual though that Henry would fall in love with her because she was not handsome. She was described as pale and blonde. According to an Imperial Ambassador, Jane was of middling stature, very pale, and not much of a beauty. Several documents mentioned that her figure was difficult on the eyes.
Two men, however, did report that she was ‘the fairest of all the King’s wives’ and that she was ‘a woman of utmost charm in both character and appearance.’.
Anne of Cleves
Anne was born 22nd of September, 1515 near Düsseldorff. She was the second daughter of John III, duke of Julich, Cleves. When John died, Anne’s older brother William became the new duke, his nickname being ‘The Rich.’ Her elder sister Sybille was married to the Elector of Saxony, John Frederick.
Anne was described as dark haired, of middling beauty, a swarthy complexion and old for her age.
When she was twelve-years-old, Anne was betrothed to Francis, the son and heir of the Duke of Lorraine. Anne was two years his superior. Later, when it suited the people at hand, the betrothal was considered unofficial and was cancelled.
Catherine, also spelt Katherine or Katheryn, was born in the year c. 1521 (Catherine’s exact birth place and birth date are unknown)
. She was the fourth child of Lord Edmund Howard and Joyce Culpepper. Catherine was niece to Elizabeth Howard, the mother of Anne Boleyn, so as has happened before in this story, she was related to her husband’s ex wife.
Although he had a large title, Lord Edmund was quite poor and often begged handouts from their richer relatives. Because of their lack of money, Catherine’s step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, took her in.
The Dowager Duchess was an older lady who often took in young relatives whose family could not support them. She was not much interested in their upbringing though so Catherine did not receive much of an education apart from learning how to read and write.
When she was between the age of eleven and sixteen, her music teacher Henry Manox and herself had an affair. During their adultery trial she admitted that they had sexual contact without intercourse. This adolescent affair ended when she was pursued by a secretary in her step-grandmother’s household. They became lovers and addressed each other as ‘husband’ and ‘wife.’
When the Duchess caught wind of it she ended it promptly by beating them both soundly and sending Francis, the secretary, away to Ireland. It is told that he went into piracy and was later killed.
Catherine then went to Henry’s court and became a lady-in-waiting to his new German wife, Queen Anne (Anne of Cleves).
Katherine was born c. 1512/ 11th November 1512 at Kendal Castle in Westmorland, North West England. She was the eldest child of Sir Thomas
Parr and Maud Green(e). She had a younger brother, William, and sister, Anne.
Sir Thomas was the Sheriff of Northamptonshire, and her mother was an attendant of Catherine of Aragon.
When Katherine was seven, she married Edward Borough, but when he died in 1533, she married John Neville, 3rd baron Latymer (Latimer), of Snape, North Yorkshire.This was in 1534, but in 1536 during the Pilgrimage of Grace, Katherine was held hostage by northern rebels along with her two stepchildren and husband.
John was eventually able to secure their freedom but died in 1543. She was thirty-one at this time and was serving in Henry’s VIII court. The widow did begin a relationship was Sir Thomas Seymour (Jane Seymour’s brother) but accepted the marriage proposal of the King when he took a liking to her.
Part 2. The Marriages
Catherine of Aragon
Seven years after the death of Arthur, during which she was practically a prisoner in Durham House, London, Catherine married Henry, the new heir of England and six years her junior.
They were married for twenty-four years and during those times, Catherine gave birth six to eight times. All but one died, were stillborn, or were miscarriages.
The one child that survived was an unhealthy girl named Mary, who was later called Bloody Mary for the many people she had put to death.
Henry had two mistresses during his marriage to Catherine and they were Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount and Mary Boleyn. There is a great probability that there were other mistresses that are not known of.
After so many of their children had died, Henry began to believe that his marriage to Catherine was cursed. He sought the Bible for help and came to the books of Leviticus where it is written that a man should not take his brother’s wife or he will remain childless.
This may have been what prompted him to hurry in annulling his marriage to Catherine.
When Anne was noticed by the King, she quickly made up her mind to not become a discarded mistress as her sister had become and so she denied him all sexual pleasure.
Henry was a Roman Catholic and although he was the King of England, the Roman Catholic Church refused to let him divorce Catherine. Between 1527 and 1530, Henry did all he could to end his marriage. All attempts failed.
Finally, in 1530, Henry decided that he would have to break away from Rome. In three years it was done, he had created the Church of England and he was finally able to divorce Catherine.
She refused to attend the divorce case, but it was done without her. The Roman Catholic Church still refused to recognize the legality of the divorce, but Henry had already married Anne Boleyn.
Anne became pregnant before they were married and preparations were made to celebrate her child. Everyone was certain that it would be a boy, but to everyone’s surprise, it was a little girl. The named her Elizabeth and Henry was pleased with her, even though she was not a boy.
She became pregnant two more times after this but one was a miscarriage and one was a stillborn.
It was after the second baby’s death that Henry noticed Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting.
It is not known how Jane felt about becoming the King’s wife. Some stories report that she was nervous and other say that she flaunted her new position, even in front of Anne while she was still Queen.
Jane became pregnant in early 1537. Her every whim was indulged by Henry who was convinced that he would get a boy at last. He was not disappointed when young Edward VI was born.
Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, was the young prince’s godmother. Elizabeth also took part in the ceremony.
Jane became very sick after the birth of her son.
Anne of Cleves
An artist was sent to paint portraits of Anne and her younger sister Amelia, both who Henry was considering as his fourth wife.
Henry required that the artist be as accurate as possible. Negotiations were in full swing by March, 1539 and a marriage treaty was signed on the 4th of October between Anne and Henry.
She was described as dark haired, middling beauty, a swarthy complexion and old for her age.
Henry was very impatient to see his future bride; he went to meet her at Rochester. Some stories say that he went disguised as a man of the palace to escort her to the King and was extremely disappointed.
He felt very misled and urged Thomas Cromwell, his advisor, to find a way to avoid the marriage, but this was impossible without endangering the new alliance between the Germans and the English.
They were married on the 6th January, 1540.
“God send me well to keep” was engraved on Anne’s wedding ring.
Anne was not suited for life at the English court. She did not like the English customs or music. She was also brought up, like Jane, more for domestic skills, not literature and music.
Henry did not find her attractive and is said to have called her a “Flanders Mare.”
As well as his personal feelings for not wanting her, political feelings were not well between the Germans and the English, who had not had a very good relationship of late.
Henry had also come to notice Catherine Howard, a spirited lady-in-waiting to the Queen.
Catherine was a very attractive, young lady and caught the eye of the King after living in the Palace only a short time. It was only months after her arrival that he began to bestow expensive gifts upon her.
After he divorced Anne it was not long before Henry and Catherine were married. Catherine was rumoured to have been pregnant and this may have been the reason for the sudden rush to be married.
Henry was 30 years her senior and it was said that he truly loved her. He gave her much wealth, jewels, land, and outrageously expensive gifts.
Katherine was very close to her three stepchildren and was personally involved in the education of the younger two. She liked art and music and her achievements academically were impressive. She was also the first Queen to have a book published.
There was one point during their marriage in which Catherine got into trouble by stirring up some arguments with Henry’s religion. This was almost the end of her, but when someone close to her notified her of the king’s rage she was able to save herself by vowing that she had only argued religion with him to take his mind off his own pain (He had had an ulcerous leg for quite a while, it was hurting terribly at this time.)
Part 3. Divorce, Death, Survival?
Catherine of Aragon: Divorced
By 1526 Henry had begun to separate from Catherine because he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, sister of his mistress Mary.
In 1531 Catherine was banished from court and Anne was given her room.
Until the end of her life Catherine called herself the rightful Queen and her faithful servants honoured her by doing so as well.
Catherine was not allowed to correspond with her daughter Mary, but some pitying people did deliver and send secret letters between them. Henry later offered them better quarters and each others company if they would acknowledge Anne as his new Queen but neither of them would.
In 1535 she was transferred to the decaying and remote Kimbolton Castle. She confined herself to one room, leaving it only to attend Mass. She fasted most of the time and wore the hair shirt of the Order of St. Francis.
In late December 1535, sensing death was near, she made her will and wrote to her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, asking him to protect her daughter. She then penned one final letter to Henry, her "most dear lord and husband".
She was buried in Peterborough with a ceremony due to a Princess of Wales, not a queen. Henry did not attend the funeral and refused to allow Mary to attend either.
Anne Boleyn: Beheaded
Anne had enemies at the court and they began to plot against her. Cromwell persuaded the King to sign a document calling for an investigation that would possible result in charges of treason.
In April, 1536, Anne’s good friend Mark Smeaton was arrested and most likely tortured into making revelations about the Queen.
Sir Henry Norris was also arrested and taken to the Tower of London. The Queen’s brother was also arrested.
On May 2 Anne was informed that she was charged of adultery, incest, and plotting to murder the King.
Several men were also charged with adultery with the Queen. They were not allowed to defend themselves as they were found guilty, hanged, cut down while still living, disembowelled and then quartered.
At her trial, Anne denied everything that they charged her with, nevertheless she was found guilty and told that she would either be beheaded or burned at the stake.
It was to be the former, and her only comfort was that they had hired an expert swordsman who would separate her from her neck in one clean chop.
After a short speech Anne knelt down and was blindfolded. The swordsman took pity on her and said loudly “Where is my sword?” so that she would not be expecting the swish of the sword as it came down.
Jane Seymour: Died
Jane died only two weeks after her son was born. She was buried in a grave that Henry had prepared for himself. She was the only wife that was to be buried with him.
Anne of Cleves: Divorced
Anne did not protest at Henry’s wanting to annul the marriage and she testified that the match had not been consummated and that her previous engagement to the young Duke of Lorraine had not been broken properly. Anne moved out of the castle and was given property as well as the title “King’s Sister.”
She lived away from court quietly until 1557 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Catherine Howard: Beheaded
Catherine and Henry were not married much longer than two years when Henry got wind that Catherine was involved with some young men. He believed these suspicions and Catherine was arrested under the charge of adultery. Her pleas to see her husband were ignored and her title of Queen was stripped from her.
It is said that the night before her execution she practiced many times how she would walk up to the block and how she would lay her head upon it.
Katherine Parr: Survived
Henry VIII died in January 1547 and Katherine did not take up the expected role in regency but secretly married Thomas Seymour, an earlier ‘boyfriend.’
After three previous marriages, Katherine was thirty-seven and pregnant for the first time. She gave birth to a daughter named Mary but soon after she fell ill with puerperal fever and died in the early morning of September 5.
She was buried near Sudely Chapel.
Part 4. Who Were the Wives of Henry VIII?
Catherine of Aragon was a pious princess, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Her arranged marriage to the heir of England was very short, and she must have been terrified for the seven years she was kept prisoner in England, pondering her fate.
Henry VIII was an appealing husband, young and handsome. She was faithful to him, even when he was not, even after their divorce and he was married to another woman.
She remained determined that she was the rightful Queen, right up to the minute she died.
Anne Boleyn is known for being a beautiful seducer. While Henry VIII would have been happy with her simply being his mistress, she would take nothing but being his wife, and the Queen of his country.
There are many stories about her being a witch, and indeed it is known that she had six fingers on one hand. But other stories, such as her having
three breasts, are probably spiteful stories made by the people who she ruled, who, it is known, did not like her.
Jane Seymour was plain and gentle. She was also the most loved of all his wives, the only one to be buried with him. She was loved because she gave him what he wanted most in the world, a son.
Anne of Cleves was part of an arranged marriage to make England and Germany unite. She was also a ‘Flanders Mare’ according to Henry VIII.
She must have had the worst marriage out of all his wives. Henry was disgusted with her, the people hated their new, foreign Queen, and she did not speak English and could not, therefore, understand a single thing that went on around her.
But she quietly accepted Henry’s desire to annul their marriage, possibly knowing of the fate that had betook those who hadn’t, and lived a quiet life away from Palace life.
Catherine Howard was small, dark, and pretty. Perhaps even more a seducer than Anne was, she used Henry’s attraction to her to make herself into a Queen. But she was a flirtatious, young woman who found that Henry, no longer strong and handsome, did not satisfy her, and went looking for other men, and so secured their, and her own, doom.
Katherine Parr was the last of Henry’s wives and this probably made her fear for her life on more than one occasion. She had been married twice before Henry and might have been again, had not he proposed.
She was wise and also gentle, nursing Henry on his deathbed.
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
One thing is utterly certain of Henry VIII- he would do anything to get his way. Even if it meant breaking away from the church of Rome, or having an innocent woman falsely accused and beheaded.
The women he married had a specific duty to which they were obligated to complete. If they wanted to become Queen, they had to produce a child, a boy child.
But these women must have been brave, especially after seeing what had happened to Henry’s previous wife. They had to be careful and smart, otherwise they found their lady-in-waiting prancing around with their husband, and their own heads on the chopping block.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, By Paul Rival
Tudor, By Simon Adams