Monday, 27 February 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Henry VIII, who ruled England, Wales and Ireland from 1509 until his death in 1547, was famously married six times. Commitmentphobe or commitment-addict - who's to say?

Anyway, being married six times is and was extraordinary and in the years since, people have argued quite a lot about why one of the most powerful men in British history had such a messy private life. Debates in books and on the Internet between "fans" of the various wives often get quite vicious and part of the reason is that Henry VIII's romantic adventures helped radically change the face of history. As Dr. David Starkey wrote in his 2003 book on Henry's marriages, "The Six Wives of Henry VIII is one of the world's great stories ... It is more far-fetched than any soap opera; as sexy and violent as any tabloid; and darker and more disturbing than the legend of Bluebeard. It is both a great love story and a supreme political thriller .... What is strangest of all, it is true. And being true, it is supremely important."

There are few stories in History I love more than those of Henry VIII and his six very unlucky wives. As Starkey says, you can't make this stuff up!

1. Katherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536) Henry's wife from 1509 to 1533; she was divorced. The youngest daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, Katherine was originally married to Henry's elder brother, Prince Arthur. (It was this fact which was later used by Henry as a reason to divorce her. Conveniently, he decided marrying your brother's widow was against God's law at the same time as he also discovered he didn't find Katherine attractive anymore...) Arthur and Katherine were both teenagers at the time and Arthur died during a plague epidemic six months after the wedding, leaving Katherine a widow at the age of sixteen. For the next seven years, she remained in England while her father and father-in-law tried to renegotiate the treaty between their two countries. When her father-in-law Henry VII died in 1509, the 17 year-old Henry became King Henry VIII and almost immediately married Katherine, now twenty-three, in a private ceremony at Greenwich. Whether it was because he was in love with her, because of her powerful royal connections abroad or to please his advisers is anybody's guess. The young king - who was then tall, handsome and popular (what a difference 30 years and 30 stone would make...) - certainly seemed to find his dainty Spanish bride very appealing. In many ways, Katherine  of Aragon was a perfect queen. She was clever, dignified and well-connected. Henry soon began to take mistresses, but in public Queen Katherine was always treated with great respect. Early in their marriage, she also enjoyed great political power, which she often used to Spain's advantage, but in 1513, she also helped lead England's government in defeating an invading Scottish army (Henry was busy fighting an expensive and rather pointless war against the French.) Devoutly religious, Katherine was devastated when her only son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, died at the age of six weeks. All her other pregnancies ended in heartbreak. The Queen finally gave birth to a healthy daughter, Mary, in February 1516, but eight years later she entered the menopause and could have no more children. In 1525, Henry began to seriously consider a divorce, in order to have a son with another wife. In 1527, he fell obsessively in love with one of Katherine's ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Katherine fought the divorce tooth and nail, earning herself many devoted followers and the adoration of many of ordinary Londoners. However, her heroic defence of her marriage and her refusal to accept a divorce ironically ended up weakening the Church she was loved so much. With the Catholic Church unable to give Henry the divorce he wanted because of Katherine's opposition, Henry began to move further and further away from loyalty to the Pope. In 1531, Katherine was banished from Court and she never saw her husband again. She lived originally at The More, a lavish palace where she had over 200 servants; with her usual flair for melodrama, Katherine complained that it was like having a cell in Purgatory. She was officially divorced in 1533, but she never accepted the divorce as legal. She died of cancer in 1536 and she was survived by her 20 year-old daughter, Mary, who became Queen Mary Tudor in 1553. Some historians have been critical of Katherine and her stubbornness, but many more have praised her for the courage and determination she showed in resisting her husband's attempts to dismiss her.

2. Anne Boleyn (1507 - 1536) Henry's second wife from 1532/1533 until 1536; she was executed. The youngest child of Sir Thomas Boleyn and his well-connected wife, Lady Elizabeth, Anne was born in England, probably in the summer of 1507. Her father was the heir of his Irish grandfather, the Earl of Ormonde, one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the Irish aristocracy; her mother was the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the greatest lords in England. Anne's father was a diplomat and she was sent abroad as a child to be educated as a companion to the Austrian and then the French royal families. She was fluent in French and she was also taught Latin, calligraphy, music, dance, theology, embroidery and poetry. Of medium height, with long dark hair, a delicate physique and beautiful dark eyes, Anne returned to England at the age of fifteen, although people would later observe that because of a childhood spent in Paris, she always seemed far more French than English. More nonsense has been written about Anne Boleyn than about any other queen in English history; there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that she was anywhere near as nasty, unpleasant, immoral or cruel as later popular legend suggested. In fact, as a young woman, Anne earned nothing but praise everywhere she went. Lively, fun-loving, intelligent, witty and apparently the best-dressed young woman of her generation, Anne had many admirers, all of whom she cleverly managed to keep at arm's length. Then, Henry VIII fell so violently, obsessively and tragically in love with her. Anne initially rejected the King's advances, because she did not want to become one of his many mistresses. Impressed by her, he proposed marriage and she accepted. That engagement lasted six years and in time, Anne came to be seen by many as the power behind the throne. Ambitious and intelligent, Anne used her new-found influence to promote Protestant and reformist theologians, although she herself always remained a Catholic. Despite this, her hatred of the Pope was intense and she rejoiced when England split with the Vatican in 1533. She was secretly married to Henry, probably in late 1532, and crowned queen in a magnificent ceremony in 1533. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was born that September. In many ways, Anne Boleyn was an excellent queen. She was intelligent, sophisticated and cultured; she patronised scholars, encouraged the arts, was a very, very generous patron of charity and she championed an end to death by burning for heresy. However, she incurred her husband's hatred by refusing to meekly accept his many adulteries and when she turned against the Reformation in 1536 because of its greed and its closure of the monasteries, her former political allies turned against her too. After two miscarriages, she was arrested on 2 May 1536 and taken to the Tower of London. A palace servant was tortured into providing evidence against her and four of her male friends and supporters were arrested and executed on the charge of having adulterous sex with her, including, horrifyingly, her own brother. At her trial, Anne behaved with great dignity and denied all the charges. The Lord Mayor of London wrote that she had been the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice and all the evidence was false. She was beheaded on 19 May 1536 and went to her death bravely, according to the eyewitnesses, many of whom knelt as a sign of respect. Her daughter, Elizabeth, later became one of England's greatest rulers. Anne was called by one historian "the most important queen consort this country has ever had."

3. Jane Seymour (?1508 - 1537) Henry's third wife in 1536 and 1537; she died. The daughter of a country squire and his wife, Jane was a quiet, plain girl, with milk-white skin. She served briefly as a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, before Henry VIII developed a sexual interest in her in 1535. Jane initially seemed flattered by the King's interest, but she ultimately rejected them and his gifts of money. Jane was poorly educated, quiet, submissive and easily manipulated by those around her. In short, she was the opposite of Henry's first two wives and only twenty-four hours after Anne Boleyn's death, Henry asked her to marry him. They were married ten days later and Jane was pregnant within nine months. Deeply conscious of the fact that she had been born a commoner, Jane was strict with her servants - to the point of a possible O.C.D. She liked counting the number of pearl buttons they had on their dresses. She gave birth to the future King Edward VI in October 1537, but post-natal complications set in and she died in great agony two weeks later. Jane was given a splendid funeral and Henry was buried next to her, which has led to the idea that she was the wife he loved the most. In fact, his treatment of her often bordered on bullying and the reason he was buried next to the poor woman was almost certainly because she had given him a son.

4. Anne of Cleves (1515 - 1557). Henry's fourth wife in 1540; she was divorced. The dumpy but likable daughter of a German duke, Anne was promoted by Protestants in Henry's government as a useful tool to build an alliance with an anti-Catholic group of German princes. Despite the politics behind it, the royal marriage was a disaster. Henry claimed Anne was ugly, smelly and boring; she can't exactly have found the porky prince much of a catch either. It ended in divorce six months later, with Anne receiving one of the largest divorces in human history as thanks for her co-operation.

5. Catherine Howard (?1523-1542). Henry's fifth wife from 1540 to 1542; she was executed. The young, sexy and fun-loving niece of the Duke of Norfolk, Catherine was brought to Court as a teenager to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. Apparently, from the moment the middle-aged Henry clapped eyes on her, he was smitten. Like a middle-aged billionaire and his young trophy-wife, Henry and Catherine were an odd pair. They were married within days of Henry's divorce from Queen Anne and the new queen enjoyed herself with parties, jewels, clothes and presents. She was a gossip, a flirt and a material girl, but harmless. However, rumours soon circulated that she had not been a virgin at the time she married and this led to an investigation into her private life. A love letter was found from the Queen to a handsome young courtier called Thomas Culpepper, written after her marriage and the Queen and her lover were both executed. Catherine's favourite lady-in-waiting and her secretary were both executed as well, for helping cover-up details of the queen's behaviour. Whether Catherine Howard was actually guilty of adultery is impossible to tell.

6. Katherine Parr (1512-1548) Henry's sixth wife from 1543 to 1547; she survived him. Elegant, well-mannered and a keen reader, Katherine Parr was a wealthy society widow when Henry asked her to marry him in 1543. Katherine had no desire to marry such a dangerous man, but felt she couldn't say no. She was attractive and mature, and she helped heal the rifts between the royal children caused by their father's constant re-marriages. A devoted Protestant, she wrote two prayer books but was savagely criticised by her husband on at least one occasion because he felt her views were too radical. She survived Henry when he died, fat, feared and foul-tempered in 1547, and she then married for love to Lord Thomas Seymour. Tragically, Katherine Parr died giving birth to Seymour's child eighteen months later. She was the first member of the royal family ever to be given the title "Queen of Ireland", before that it had simply been "Lady of Ireland". 

Fun fan video from the series The Tudors about the wives.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails