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European history is filled with all sorts of scandals and intrigues—murders, romantic entanglements, near constant backstabbing—but few scandals in history rival England’s King Henry VIII and his six wives. After all, Henry managed (in a period of only twenty-two years) to see two wives beheaded, two marriages annulled, and the entire country of England excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his antics. The popular HBO series The Tudors romanticized much of what went on, but let’s look at what happened ourselves.
When we think of Henry VIII, I’m sure many of us harken back to (at left) Hans Holbein the Younger’s infamous portrait depicting an obscenely rotund figure crowding the painting, massive codpiece screaming out, “Hey! Look at me! I’m potent and powerful!” It’s easy to make fun of such a sight five hundred years later. The real story, though, is, I think, much more tragic and certainly more complex.
Henry VIII was the second son of King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch and ruler of England after the tempestuous War of the Roses era. I’ll do more posts about this era and its illustrious personas; Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, for example, was a force of nature and deserves some recognition. As the second son, none of us should have cared much about Henry; if all had gone according to plan, he would have lived a life of relative luxury and little responsibility out of the way of political machinations of Europe at the time. Indeed, his elder brother Arthur was the child Henry VII placed all of his hopes on. In 1502, at the age of fifteen, Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon, youngest child of the famed Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in order to establish an iron clad alliance between the two powers. Henry, by comparison, was a ten-year-old whose childhood was not well documented because he was just expected to be a kid.
Everything went horribly wrong less than half a year after Arthur and Catherine’s marriage. An outbreak of sweating sickness swept through England, and it claimed young Arthur as a victim. At the age of ten, Henry VIII became the presumed heir to the throne and assumed the title of Prince of Wales. His father Henry VII and the Spanish diplomats in England concocted a plan for Henry to marry his brother’s now-widow, but there was a problem with this plan: according to papal law, it was illegal for a man to marry his brother’s spouse. Fortunately, Henry was so young that this wasn’t a huge issue; the Tudors appealed to the Pope for a special dispensation with the law, saying that Arthur and Catherine’s marriage was never consummated and was thus invalid, and since Henry was so young, obviously nothing seedy had happened within the families. Because British and Papal interests were aligned at the time (remember, the Vatican was as much a political entity as a religious one at that time), this was not a big deal. By the time Henry ascended to the throne in 1509 at the age of seventeen, the dispensation had been granted, and he and the now twenty-three-year-old Catherine were allowed to wed.
By all accounts, Catherine and Henry had a good marriage—Henry was handsome and vigorous, Catherine bright and well-tempered. They apparently loved and trusted each other. Sure, Henry had his share of affairs on the side as was custom among the nobility of the time, fathering Henry Fitzroy with Elizabeth Blount, but all in all, the union was solid. Soon enough, they conceived their first child, but then tragedy struck. Catherine suffered a series of miscarriages, putting a strain on the marriage. Finally, in 1516, Catherine gave birth to a child who survived: the future Queen Mary.
By 1525, however, Henry was impatient with Catherine. He was now well into his thirties and still did not have a male heir. Since Catherine was older than him by a few years, the probability of the two of them having a male child was growing smaller and smaller. In the meantime, Henry’s wandering eye had been captured by Anne Boleyn, sister of Henry’s mistress Mary Boleyn. Anne, unlike her sister, was known for being highly shrewd and refused to give in to Henry’s sexual advances, saying she would never be a mistress. The stage was set for one of the greatest soap operas in European history.
By 1527, Henry was desperate to find a way out of his marriage to Catherine so he could pursue Anne Boleyn. However, he had been able to wed Catherine only because of a papal dispensation; the pope was not exactly happy when Henry came to him asking for an annulment of said special marriage. Up until this point, Henry was a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church; he had even been given the title Defender of the Faith by the Vatican after publishing a fervent defense of the Church (remember, this is the time of the Reformation throughout Europe). But with the pope refusing to annul his marriage to Catherine (English and Papal interests didn’t line up quite as well by this time, so the Pope was less inclined to grant Henry’s requests), Henry found himself with his hands tied. He began a series of moves that separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church, and with the Act of Supremacy in 1534, Henry made himself the sole head of the Church in England. In 1532, he banished Catherine of Aragon from court and declared that marriage invalid. Soon after, he married Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to Elizabeth I just a year later. As a result, the entire country of England was excommunicated by Rome.
But alas, the marriage that was so hard fought for was not meant to be. Henry and Anne’s relationship was publicly tumultuous; Anne was intelligent and ambitious, and she was not going to play the role of subservient wife. The marriage was further strained by a series of miscarriages, the most notable happening in January 1536 after Anne learned of Henry’s severe leg wound as the result of a jousting accident. Conveniently, Henry took Jane Seymour as a new mistress at around the same time. Anne had become more of an annoyance than a help to the King, and she had to be gotten rid of. By that spring, reports were published that Anne was having multiple affairs, including one with her own brother. In sixteenth century England, this was considered treason, and in May 1536, Anne underwent a show trial, where she was found guilty of adultery and beheaded. Her child Elizabeth was, like Catherine’s daughter Mary, declared a bastard.
Eleven days after Anne’s execution, Henry married his mistress Jane Seymour. By the end of the year, she became pregnant. Many believe that Jane Seymour was Henry’s favorite wife. It is certain that she was popular across England, pushing for Catherine and Anne’s children, Mary and Elizabeth, to be restored to the line of succession, and calming some of the unrest that Henry’s actions had stirred up.
In October 1537, Jane gave birth to a boy, Edward VI. The labor was difficult; Edward was breech, and the labor lasted over two days. As the country celebrated the birth of the new king, Jane bled out, dying of childbirth-related complications merely days later. Henry was devastated; he did not remarry for another three years and allowed himself to become morbidly obese in the interval. When Henry died a decade later, he requested that he be buried in a grave he made himself next to Jane Seymour.
In 1539, Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, pushed for Henry to remarry and supported a union with Anne of Cleves, a German Protestant noblewoman. Cromwell was a staunch Protestant and wanted the marriage to help solidify England’s Reformation. Henry sent painter Hans Holbein to Cleves to paint a portrait of Anne so that he could see if he wanted to marry her. Holbein completed his task, delivering Henry a flattering portrait, and Henry assented to the marriage. However, when Anne arrived in England, Henry was appalled. She was relatively uneducated, only able to read and write in German, and Henry accused her of smelling poorly and having saggy breasts. He went through with the marriage, but it was never consummated, and it was, in fact, quickly annulled. Thomas Cromwell was executed for treason for pushing for the marriage, and Anne was sent away from court with a handsome financial settlement. Over time, Anne was given the title of the King’s Beloved Sister, and they actually became friendly, but the union was not to be.
The day of Thomas Cromwell’s execution, Henry, now aged 49, married the eighteen-year-old Catherine Howard, a former cousin and lady-in-waiting of Anne Boleyn. Henry was suffering quite a great deal by this time; his leg wound from his jousting accident never healed (and was poorly treated by doctors at the time), he was fat, and he likely had diabetes. Catherine was young, and energetic, and mischievous. By 1541, Catherine was accused of having affairs with Thomas Culpeper, Henry’s favorite courtier, and Francis Dereham, to whom she may or may not have been engaged before marrying Henry. Love letters were found in Catherine’s handwriting addressed to Culpeper, and unlike Anne Boleyn, there is no doubt that Catherine did, in fact, commit the adultery that led to her downfall. Culpeper and Dereham were both executed at the end of 1541, and Catherine was beheaded only a few months later.
Henry tried his hand at marriage one final time when he married wealthy widow Catherine Parr in 1543. Catherine was instrumental in finally getting Mary and Elizabeth restored officially in the line of succession, and Henry trusted her. They would argue over policy and religion (she was a dedicated Protestant), and when Henry traveled to France in 1544, he made Catherine regent in his stead. They never had children together, but Catherine maintained strong relationships with Henry’s children. Indeed, when Henry died in 1547, Catherine married her ex-boyfriend Thomas Seymour (Jane’s brother), and the two of them actually allowed Elizabeth to live with them for a time (until Thomas made grossly inappropriate sexual advances on Elizabeth, causing a massive scandal in its own right).
It’s easy to blame Henry for being a philanderer or for being fickle, but at the root of this soap opera is a very real desire to maintain stability within England. Remember, Henry VIII was only the second Tudor monarch (and a spare at that), and his father had ascended to the throne with a very tenuous claim to it at best. Yes, he could very well be portrayed as a tyrant or as a bad king, but his reign is highly reflective of the time during which he reigned. I wouldn’t call him a victim by any stretch of the imagination, but his character is far more complex than simply “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” Understanding that complexity helps us understand the monumental shifts that Henry and his court are responsible for, and hopefully, it lets us all be a tad less dismissive of others.
For more background on the Wars of the Roses and the era that Henry was born into, I highly recommend Dan Jones’s documentary series Britain’s Bloody Crown, which is available on YouTube. It ups the drama of the era maybe a bit more than necessary, but it provides decent context and will keep you or a student entertained. For more fact based research, I drew heavily from Peter Marshall’s Reformation England: 1480-1642 along with the work of David Starkey, Alison Weir, Susan Brigden, Robert Hutchinson, and my own notes from multiple British history classes with Carl Estabrook (yes, I saved them all and have them) at Dartmouth College. The BBC also has good resources for biography and context (
https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/what-did-king-henry-vii-really-want-from-a-wife/zh9s2sg, for example).