The Wives of Henry VIII

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Podcast Transcript

Henry, Eighth of his name, King of England, Ireland, and Wales, and head of the House of Tudor, was one of the most significant monarchs in British history. 

One of the things which made his reign so noteworthy was the controversy surrounding his wives. 

His marriages completely changed the course of England and of Christianity in Europe. 

Learn more about the wives of Henry VIII, all six of them, and how they met their fates, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Let me start by saying this episode has two Henry’s, two Anne’s, and three Catherine’s. It can get confusing, so make sure to pay close attention. 

Henry VIII was born in 1491. His father was King Henry VII who was the victor in the War of the Roses and the first monarch in the Tudor Dynasty.

Young Henry wasn’t the oldest son. He had a brother named Arthur who was five years older. Arthur was named Prince was Wales and was the heir apparent to Henry VII.  

As was the norm during those days, plans for the marriage of Arthur began when he was just three years old. At the age of 11, he was betrothed to the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella: Catherine of Aragon.  

The two married in 1501 when Arthur and Catherine were both 15 years old.  

One interesting thing is that the two supposedly wrote to each other before the wedding in Latin. When they met, they were unable to communicate because neither knew the other’s language, and each had learned a different pronunciation of Latin. 

The wedding was a really big deal. This was a huge deal for the Tudors who were still a first-generation royal house and a union with Spain gave them a great deal of credibility. 

Unfortunately, only six months later, a relatively healthy Arthur succumbed to what was known as sweating sickness and died at the age of 16 in 1502.

Spain had paid a huge dowry to Henry VII. They agreed to pay 200,000 ducats, half of which had been paid at the time of the wedding. To put that in perspective, just in terms of the value of gold today, the dowry was worth over $40 million dollars, and in relative terms to the year 1501, probably much more.

Henry VII didn’t want to give back the money and he still wanted to keep his alliance with Spain. According to the marriage contract, Henry would have to return the dowry if Cathrine returned home to Spain. 

Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth died in 1503, so his first plan was to just marry the young Catherine himself, but this was nixed by King Ferdinand. 

So, he did the next best thing and betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, and the new heir apparent, Henry.  Henry was five years younger than Catherine. 

A special papal dispensation had to be granted to allow Prince Henry and Catherine to get married. The reason and this becomes a very big deal, later on, is due to a passage in the Bible, Leviticus 18, verse 16 which says,Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: because it is the nakedness of thy brother.”

Basically, you weren’t supposed to have relations with your brother’s wife. 

Catherine, for the record, testified that the marriage with Arthur had never been consummated. 

Catherine was pretty much kept as a prisoner in England during this time, and the wedding almost didn’t happen because her mother, Queen Isabella, died. Isabella was the heir to Castile, which was much bigger and more powerful than Aragon. Castile went to Catherine’s older sister Joanna.

Relations between Henry and Ferdinand fell apart. At the age of 14, Henry renounced the marriage, and Catherine was named ambassador to England to allow her to say. She was the first female ambassador in European history. 

Henry VII died on April 22, 1509, the young prince Henry became King Henry VIII at the age of 17. 

At this point, as king in his own right, Henry could have done what he wanted. He could have gone ahead with what he said at the age of 14 and not married Catherine, but instead, he decided to go ahead with the marriage.

On June 23, 1509, 17-year-old Henry VIII married 23-year-old Catherine of Aragon. What hadn’t been resolved at the time of the wedding was the papal dispensation and the second half of Catherine’s dowry.

As this episode is about the wives, plural, of Henry VIII, I’m going to speed ahead a bit in the story here. Catherine became pregnant six times during their marriage. 

In 1510, she had a girl, who died stillborn. In 1511, she had a son Henry who died 2 months after birth. In both 1513 and 1514, she had sons, both of whom died at birth. 

In 1516, she had a daughter Mary who lived to adulthood and became Queen Mary of England.

Her final pregnancy was another stillborn daughter in 1515.

Fast forward to the year 1525. 

Henry is now 34 years old. Catherine is considered to be too old to bear children at the age of 40. (Remember folks, this is the 16th century). 

Henry, like his father, was concerned about the stability and legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty as it was still pretty new. Without a son, he was concerned that the legitimacy of the Tudor’s would be put into question. There really had never been a female monarch of England before. 500 years earlier, Empress Matilda had claimed the English throne, and it caused a civil war.

Henry figured he had three options:

Option 1 was to legitimize his bastard son Henry FitzRoy. FitzRoy comes from the Norman French for “son of the king”. His mother was Henry’s mistress, Elizabeth Blount. This option would require a papal dispensation, and would still result in people denying the legitimacy of his rule.

Option 2 was to have his daughter Mary get married quickly, have a son, and then pass the crown directly to his grandson. The problem with this option is that he might not live to see it.

Option 3 was to annul his marriage with Catherine and get a new younger wife and make more babies. This too would require a papal dispensation. 

He went with option number 3, in no small part because he had become infatuated with a young woman by the name of Anne Boleyn. 

After years of attempting to get a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine, Henry eventually got married to Anne in a secret ceremony in 1532.

Anne became pregnant and the two were publicly married in January 1533. 

In May 1533, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine to be null and void, and the marriage of Henry and Anne to be valid. This marked the official break with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. 

Catherine became known as the “Princess Dowager” based on her previous marriage to Arthur. 

Anne had a daughter named Elizabeth, who went on to become Queen Elizabeth I. She also then had three miscarriages in a row, still not delivering Henry the son he wanted. 

In addition to not delivering a son, the marriage fell apart. Anne was very opinionated and often prone to outbursts and she had many enemies at court. Henry was an absolute monarch who didn’t like to be challenged. 

The problem was, even though Henry was now the head of the Church of England, he couldn’t just divorce Anne, and he couldn’t get an annulment after everything he went through to get the marriage in the first place. 

Catherine died on January 8, 1536, and Anne had her final miscarriage less than a month later.  Henry was now looking to get out of the marriage and was led to charge Anne with treason by Henry’s advisors who had become enemies of Anne.

Specifically, she was charged with incest, adultery, and treason, having relations with her brother George as well as several other men.

On May 19, she was beheaded at the Tower of London. The night before, her marriage to Henry had been annulled. 

Most historians think that the charges against Anne were either grossly exaggerated or wholly fabricated. 

The day after the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry was betrothed to one of Anne’s ladies in waiting that he was attracted to, Jane Seymour.  They were married just 10 days later. 

Jane wasn’t like Anne at all. She was rather quiet and meek. She ran the royal household strictly and didn’t have any extravagant celebrations.

She did something that neither Cathrine nor Anne was able to do. She gave birth to a son, Edward, who later succeeded Henry on the throne and became Edward VI. 

However, in 1537, just a month after having Edward, she died from complications giving birth at the age of 29. 

She was the only wife of Henry to be given a queen’s funeral and is buried by Henry’s side in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

Henry didn’t marry again for a little over two years. This time, he went back to seeking a contractual marriage with another power.  It was recommended he marry the 25-year-old sister of the German Duke of Cleves, Anne. 

The king agreed to a dowry, signed a contract, and everything. However, unlike his last two wives, he never actually laid eyes on her. 

When she arrived in England, Henry was….disappointed. To say the least. They were married in January 1540. 

Henry never consummate the marriage and tried to get it annulled. Anne, surprisingly agreed to the annulment and confirmed that the marriage was never consummated. 

Six months later, on July 9, 1540, Anne of Cleves was paid off handsomely for making things so easy, and the annulment was made official. For the rest of Henry’s life, she was a figure at court, and she and Henry were actually good friends and she was given the title of “The King’s Sister”. 

Next up was Catherine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boylen. She was in the household of Anne of Cleves, and just like before, Henry took a liking to her. They married on July 28, 1540, just 19 days after Henry’s annulment with Anne. 

Henry was 49 years old and Catherine was 19. 

Soon after the marriage, Catherine began having an affair with a friend of Henry, Thomas Culpeper. She also employed her former finance, ??Francis Dereham. 

Unlike the case against Anne Boylen, this doesn’t seem to be a case of Henry trying to get rid of her. He was honestly shocked at the accusations and at first refused to believe it. 

However, eventually, the evidence became overwhelming and Catherine Howard was arrested in November 1541 and was beheaded for treason in February 1542. 

For those of you keeping track, so far, that is two Catherines, two Annes, two annulments, and two beheadings. Only Jane managed to escape that fate, and she died. 

At this point, marrying Henry VIII had to be considered a very risky proposition. However, there was one more woman who was up for the task: Catherine Parr.

Cathrine had been previously married and widowed twice and she was quite wealthy. She was also extremely protestant, even more so than Henry. Henry still had some attachments to Catholic traditions, but Catherine would have none of that.

She was in the household of Mary, Henry’s daughter with his first wife when she caught Henry’s attention.  She was actually courting the brother of Jane Seymore when Henry proposed, and she agreed to marry Henry out of duty.

The marriage, Henry’s sixth, was in July 1543. 

She is primarily remembered for reconciling Henry with his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. She had no children with Henry. It was in 1542 that Mary and Elizabeth were put back into the line of succession after Edward. 

The marriage lasted until January 28, 1547, when Henry died at the age of 55. It was his longest marriage after Catherine of Aragon.  

Under Henry’s orders, she was to be treated as queen dowager after his death, and she was granted an annual stipend of £7,000. 

She remarried that same year after Henry died, marrying Thomas Seymour who had earlier proposed. Her fourth husband. 

She died a year later in 1548 after complications from childbirth, the only pregnancy she had after four marriages. 

Anne of Cleves was the last surviving wife of Henry. She died in 1557 at the age of 42.

Henry VIII’s reign was unique for so many reasons and his marriages were just one of them. He had six wives, and no other English or British monarch has ever had more than two. His marriages changed the political and religious landscape in Europe, many of those changes still exist today, almost 500 years later.