Six wives for Henry VIII

Six wives for Henry VIII

An unusual impression of the great monster when still young, playing (royal) tennis /

An unusual impression of the great monster when still young, playing (royal) tennis /

“History!” snorted an ex-pupil of mine the other day, “nothing but kings and dates!” I am not even sure if History is still taught in British schools of the present day.  Most children one meets know nothing at all about Britain’s past, good or bad. They might recognise a few of the names – Alfred (‘wasn’t he a Viking?’), Budicca or Boadicea (‘she had scythes on her chariot’s wheels isn’t it?’), Nelson (‘he won at Waterloo!’), Wellington ‘the French shot him at Trafsomething?’) etc. etc. Ministers of Education ensure that English is taught so that pupils mispronounce the words and cannot write them.

In some other countries where education has some importance, such as the United States, History is taught, usually rather well, and kings and dates have their place. Kings are actually of no importance whatever unless they did something, or did not do something, which affected the everyday routine of their subjects. History is not something vague that happens in books. It is yesterday, and last month, and 55 BC. Teachers must talk about kings and fix them in childish minds with useful things called dates, because both are part of the structure of an education in History.

One of the worst kings in Universal History was a Tudor called Henry, eighth of that name. He was a son of the first Tudor, a usurper who defeated (with a great deal of help from the linesmen) the crowned and annointed king of England. Henry VIII started well, being tall and very good looking, rather good at tennis, speaking and writing the Classics, winning at jousts, and composing long-remembered tunes. But he married six different women in the hope of producing a male heir to continue Tudor traditions. It is easiest to remember who each woman was by drumming into your head these famous lines:

Divorced, Beheaded, Died;

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

Here are some very brief biographies of the poor unfortunates who married a Tudor and bitterly regretted it. It is quite possible they had no choice, the 15th century being what it was.

Catherine of Aragon (1485 – 1536, Catalina de Aragón in her mother tongue) was a royal princess of the house of Spain, a child of the Spanish Monarchs Fernando and Isabella. She had been brought up amidst all the pomp and ceremony of the Spanish Court, and knew how to be a Queen. First she married Henry’s brother Arthur, who promptly died leaving her a widow, and an attractive one at that. She married Henry in 1509 when she was 24, quite late for those times. She bore him many children but they died young, except one, a girl child called Mary, the future Mary Tudor. Thus the importance of the alliance with Spain diminished, and Henry lost interest. By 1527 the King was infatuated with a girl at his Court, one Anne Boleyn, and wished to fornicate with her, but Anne was a clever girl whose sister had already had a dalliance with the Tudor. She held out firmly: if Henry wished to bed her he must first marry her. Henry claimed Catherine’s first marriage (to Arthur) was invalid because it was never consummated (there is considerable doubt about this, since young Arthur had boasted on his wedding night that ‘this night I have thrice entered Spain’). Henry appealed to the Pope, whose word was generally accepted to be final in Catholic nations, but he would not annul Henry’s marriage with the Spanish princess. Henry strongly suggested to his Archbishop Cranmer that he should annul the marriage. Catherine was distraught. She had been an excellent wife to Henry, and had suffered the dreadful pains of childbirth countless times. But she could not produce a male. In 1553 Cranmer decided his own head was more valuable to him than any moral code, and pronounced the annulment. Henry married his ‘sweetheart’ (in a secret ceremony), and Catherine was retired on a modest pension to live out the rest of her life in England, though never at Court. Henry and England’s treatment of this woman remains one of the blackest marks in history, though at least Henry did not kill her, as he did with his second wife . . .

Anne Boleyn (1507 – 1536) was the mother of the best of the Tudor dynasty – Elizabeth I.  Anne and her family (country squires) were rapidly advanced through the King’s patronage, and were ardent supporters of the Protestant religion which Henry and his Minister Thomas Cromwell had assaulted in the Reformation. Henry was now Head of the Church of England, and Catholics were ‘Papists’ or ‘traitors’ or ‘recusants’ or simply dead. England’s version of Ivan the Terrible of Russia was accumulating his abuses. But Anne failed in her task too! There were no male children.  In May 1536 she very bravely faced a Court instructed by Cromwell to find her guilty of treason. The charges were dubious if not ridiculous. But they were enough, as she could not defend herself and no-one else dared to. Her head was cut off in theTower of London, the first of two beheadings among Henry’s wives. She was 29.

Jane Seymour (c. 1509 – 1537, surname pronounced ‘Seemer) had already attracted Henry’s eye, some time before he had his second wife killed on trumped-up charges. She was a young aristocrat, properly brought up according to Henry’s lights. She was Queen Consort of England from 1536, and in 1537 she gave birth to a son! This was the future Edward VI, but the hours and hours of agonizing labour killed her. She died only 12 days after the birth. Henry is said to have mourned her greatly. Cromwell was instructed to find a fourth wife.

Anna of Cleves (1515 – 1557) was a German princess, not from a Low Counties family as a few historians have blandly stated. She was the choice of Thomas Cromwell for the King whose only son was sickly and weak. Cromwell was after an alliance with the German Protestants and this was a useful way of killing two birds with one stone. Anna married Henry in 1540 but the monster hadn’t even liked her portrait, brought to him by Cromwell. Henry called the poor girl ‘The Flanders Mare’ which indicates that his geography was poor. Though he went to bed with Anna regularly, and the Court thought he had no complaints, Henry had the marriage annulled six months after the wedding. Henry alleged the union had not been consummated. Anna very carefully denied this but it was no use. There was no issue. She stayed on inEngland, with an admittedly generous pension for the rest of her life. Thomas Cromwell was of course executed, one presumes because he had introduced Henry to Anna of Cleves, because his record as Minister was acceptable, though he, Cromwell, was the one responsible for the judicial murder of a number of important Englishmen, including St. Thomas More.

Henry had to find another wife, his fifth, and she was . . .

Catherine Howard (1521 – 1542) a relative of the Duke of Norfolk, a grand survivor at Henry’s Court. The King had seen off most of the other great nobles on one pretext or the other. It was Norfolk who had persuaded Henry to see only the bad side of Thomas Cromwell, thus engineering his death. He presented his 19 year old niece, who was a pretty girl, and Henry was smitten. The happy couple were married in 1540, but the Howard Dukes of Norfolk were extreme Catholics, and very soon their Protestant enemies made their plans and accused little Catherine of infidelity. This was of course a capital crime if you were the King’s wife. Catherine was beheaded at the age of twenty-one. She had been the fifth wife. It is likely that she had indeed taken lovers at Court, as the King had become a gross, ugly man sick with gout and much worse. He was, despite the Holbein portrait not a pretty sight, and the Court was full of nice young men only too anxious to please the Queen Consort.  Catherine’s ghost is said to haunt rooms, passages and doorways at Hampton Court, and one would not be surprised. Meantime, Henry had a male heir, but he had been told young Edward would not make old bones. The advisors were right, for Edward VI did not live long after Henry’s death.

Catherine or Katharine Parr (1512 – 1548) became Henry VIII’s sixth and surviving wife. She was an able, intelligent and astute countrywoman, daughter of Sir Thomas Parr, controller of the King’s Household. She had lost two husbands already, before she married Henry, by now uncontrollable in temper and sick in body and mind. It was 1543.  Catherine nursed Henry successfully and became important to him; she managed to reunite him with his abandoned (and probably terrified daughters Mary and Elizabeth) so that they regained their places in the succession. She set about a proper education for Elizabeth and her half brother Edward, who would be King after Henry’s demise. Mary’s education had been a thorough schooling in Catholic matters and the Classics. In 1557 the greatest monster in English history at last died, and Catherine had survived him! This was despite several attempts made by dissident ministers to turn Henry against her. Howard Duke of Norfolk escaped execution literally by a hairsbreadth, as Henry had taken against him though the Duke had served him as faithfully as any 15th/16th century politician could. The King died before the officers could cut off Norfolk’s head in the Tower. Catherine survived Henry, but did not survive her next marriage to Baron Seymour of Sudeley. She died after giving him a daughter.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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