Henry VIII’s Six Marriages

a sideways look

Like them or loathe them, royals seem to occupy a perennially-popular position in our national consciousness, and royal gossip even more so. We also seem fascinated as a country by our history, and by how our various past leaders came to make the choices they made. So I thought it might be interesting to take a look at Henry VIII’s marriages – not from the point of view of the individual wives, of whom we’ve heard an awful lot, but the marriages themselves. For that reason, I shan’t be going over the ladies’ backgrounds and details, as that info is readily available elsewhere, but rather trying to peer into the arrangements from a slightly different perspective.

We are led to believe that Henry just fancied various women, married them and then got rid of them (with tragic consequences, in some cases), are we not? Shag and dump. The age-old story. Henry, however, the petulant old monster, always seemed to see himself as the victim in all these happenings (as many bullies do), and in fact worked himself up to a homicidal rage over it more than once. Let’s take a gander at the reasons behind those choices – as he (not we) might have perceived them.

1. The Duty Marriage

Henry’s first marriage, to Katherine of Aragon, could also be seen as the ‘dynastic’ or ‘chivalric’ marriage. His father, the slightly johnny-come-lately Henry VII (sorry, Mr Lammy) had spent a lot of time and trouble arranging a favourable match between his eldest son, Prince Arthur (Henry’s big brother) and Katherine, the daughter of the illustrious and powerful Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The match went ahead, but when her young husband Arthur died suddenly of the plague in Ludlow, Katherine was left in limbo. Henry VII briefly considered marrying her himself after his wife died aged just 36, then prevented her from returning to Spain and kept her so short of money that it was reported she and her ladies were in rags. To Henry, she had once been the glamorous older teenage girl from abroad who rode into London in gorgeous clothing, her long blonde hair loose, at the head of a procession as his older brother’s betrothed. She was pretty, foreign, royal and exotic. When his father died, the younger Henry no doubt saw marriage to Katherine as the continuity route: a way of preserving the Spanish alliance, of carrying out his dear departed father’s wishes, of following in his elder brother’s footsteps and also of coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress to give her a fairytale, happy-ever-after ending, settling down to raise lots of red-headed future monarchs. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way.

2. The In-Lust Marriage

There’s little doubt that Henry and wife no 2, Anne Boleyn, were crazy about each other. We even have one of his love letters praising her boobs, preserved in the Vatican, of all places (the letter, not the boobs). And yes, he did call them ‘boobys’. Enchanting and fascinating, if not conventionally beautiful, Anne was slim, cultured, sophisticated, witty and lively, and had the polish which came from a childhood spent at the French court, where she had been a lady in waiting to Queen Claude. She was the most fashionable lady of her generation, and the toast of all the king’s courtiers and companions. By the age of nineteen, she was rumoured to have been almost engaged twice, once for family duty and once for love. Both near-engagements came to nothing, but still – if the highly competitive king could win this prize of prizes from his contemporaries, that would indeed be a feather in his cap. He was bewitched. She kept him waiting until he agreed to divorce Katherine, and, as she said to a lady in waiting, ‘in order that my issue may be royal’. After Henry officially promised to ditch Katherine, Anne gave in and quickly became pregnant. By now, despite Katherine’s many pregnancies, Henry only had one child, Mary Tudor, and it was his greatest hope that Anne might be carrying a son. His wife was getting old. Although he had also made Anne wait for that promise of divorce from the age of nineteen or so until she was twenty-six, it was still likely that she would go on to have more and more children, and the way Henry felt about her at first meant there was little reason to expect that wouldn’t happen. There are many reasons advanced for Queen Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace, but her failure to provide a son is the one most often put forward. On one occasion, she did conceive a son, but then lost the baby – as the French ambassador put it, ‘she has miscarried of her saviour’.

Sadly, she was in the last chance saloon by then, and so we come to …

3. The Face-Saving Marriage

Jane Seymour was about as different from her predecessor as it was possible to get. Meek, retiring and not especially good-looking, many were puzzled at his choice. Maybe her very mildness, after Anne’s intelligent, volatile temperament and sharp tongue, was attractive and restful in itself. Her motto as Henry’s wife was ‘Bound to obey and serve’. Rumour had it that Anne had miscarried due to finding Jane on Henry’s knee, and no doubt the king thought it would be a great wheeze to marry the girlfriend who had so royally pissed off the assertive wife he had come to hate so much. However, Jane also came from a large family which included lots of brothers, and it is possible this could also have heavily influenced Henry in her favour when deciding whom to marry this time. Of course, the fact that Jane came from a fertile family prone to producing boys was no guarantee of her being able to do the same thing herself, but if it was instinct or even superstition, it paid off: Jane was the only wife to give Henry a son, the future Edward VI. Unfortunately for her, she died in the process (or, at least, a few days afterwards). Onward then to …

4. The Love Marriage

There seems little doubt that Henry was bowled over by Catherine Howard. She was extremely young, fun-loving, beautiful, popular (maybe a little too popular, if you receive my meaning) and fond of fabulous clothes and jewels. When the news was brought to him of her supposed affairs, both before and (damningly) after she became queen, Henry actually wept. She had engaged his emotions and affection, softened his heart, and gladdened his eyes, more than any other of his wives. Of all his marriages, then, this one is the one which, to modern eyes, needs no explanation. And, like so many modern marriages, it crashed and burned.

5. The Diplomatic Marriage

Henry’s advisers like Cromwell very much wanted him to ally with a European Protestant power, in order to curb the potential influence of the potentially antagonistic French monarchy, the Emperor Charles V and the Pope. Even though Henry had broken away to form the Church of England, he was still in a very real sense a reformer rather than a Protestant, and even probably still at heart a Catholic (just not a Roman one).  He could perhaps be described as what would later be called a very high church Anglican. Be that as it may, the balance of power in Europe was such that neither his reformist minsters nor Henry himself wanted to go anywhere near a traditional European dynasty, with all the dangers of attack and the future complications any children would create, and the English court ladies Henry had previously chosen for himself had not only brought no international advantages but didn’t seem to have worked out too well personally either. Anne of Cleves, whose brother William was the leader of the Protestants in Western Germany, and whose elder sister Sybille was married to John Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, head of the Protestant Confederation, considered the ‘Champion of the Reformation’, seemed an ideal choice on paper … even when Holbein, the artist sent over to paint her portrait, overdid her charms a bit, leading to inevitable disappointment when Henry eventually agreed to the match and met the real thing. She looked, as they said, ‘older than she was’ and was wearing what were considered ‘outlandish’ clothes after the fashion in Düsseldorf. On being challenged by Cromwell as to why he didn’t tell them she was so plain and leave her there, the messenger sent to bring her from her port of disembarkation to London protested he could hardly ditch the king’s fiancée on his own initiative when he had expressly been sent to accompany her to the royal presence. Henry asked if he couldn’t put the wedding off … for a long time. Like forever. Cromwell told him he couldn’t, things were too far advanced:  although he found her physically repulsive, Henry humiliated himself by submitting. He never quite forgave Cromwell. Eventually, Anne agreed to go quietly, cannily accepting some choice royal real estate along the way, which brings us to …

6. The Comfort Marriage

The marriage service says that the couple should ‘cherish’, ‘care for’, ‘help’ and ‘comfort’ each other, and that’s exactly what Henry got in Catherine Parr. The youngish (around thirty), thrice-widowed Catherine from Westmorland had a passion for learning and languages, so was good for intelligent upmarket conversation. Practical and well-used to dealing with illness and with grumpy old men, she was also, importantly, used to being a stepmother. By now, of course, an increasingly obese, gouty and ulcer-ridden Henry had three children – Mary, Elizabeth and Edward – to worry about, even if he occasionally made one or other, or both, of the girls illegitimate, just for fun. Catherine was already in the middle of what we now might call ‘a blended family’, with all the intricate web of relationships and connections that three previous husbands implies. She used to put Henry’s ulcerated leg on a cushion on her lap and massage it for him (stop sniggering at the back). Indeed, when even this tactful and competent wife no 6 blotted her copybook (by arguing with Henry about religion and – even worse – winning), and men were on the way with a warrant for her arrest, she used the excuse that she had only been arguing with the king to try to take his mind off his sore leg. ‘Is it even so, sweetheart? Then you and I are once again the best of friends’, Henry told her, bawling out the would-be arresters as they hove into view. Phew.

7. Eh? What’s this? A seventh wife? Bet you didn’t know that 😉

Well, in fact, it was only someone who was *rumoured* as being the seventh choice. When Catherine Parr was briefly out of favour, and it looked as though her luck had run out, it was noticed in more than one quarter that the king liked to spend his time with Lady Katherine Willoughby above all other. Vivacious, half-Spanish Katherine was the daughter of one of the ladies-in-waiting that Katherine of Aragon had brought with her from Spain, which brings us rather neatly back to where we started. Indeed, Katherine was probably named after her mother’s former mistress. She was also the widow of Henry’s best friend, the four-times-married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had previously been married to Henry’s sister Mary, so she was practically one of the family. Katherine later became Bertie. No, she didn’t transition, she married a Mr Bertie.

In our list of seven, Henry VIII only considered marrying one whose name was not C/Katherine (spelling was not standardised in those days)  or Anne. Weird, or what?

I hope you have enjoyed our little gallop through Henry VIII’s matrimonial adventures, and hope too that maybe we have brought a fresh – if rather irreverent – angle to the whole topic

© foxoles 2024