Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – this is the rhyme most commonly associated with the six wives of Henry VIII, chanted in classrooms around the world by children learning about the Tudor king and his family. But how much do you know about the six key women in Henry VIII’s life? Here’s our comprehensive guide to each of his spouses – from Catherine of Aragon through to Katherine Parr…
Who were the six wives of Henry VIII – in order?
Henry VIII is England’s most married monarch. He had six wives in total between 1509 and 1547. These were, in order:
According to historian Alison Weir, all six of Henry VIII’s weddings were “private affairs”.
Why did Henry VIII have six wives?
Answered by historian Lauren Mackay
One could be forgiven for assuming Henry had notoriously bad luck when it came to marriage, but in truth it was his desire for a male son and heir to the Tudor dynasty that was the driving force behind most of his marital decisions. This, coupled with Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, was behind his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry her.
Henry would divorce two wives, and behead two – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – for adultery and treason. He no doubt would have remained married to his third wife, Jane Seymour, who gave him his son and heir, but she died in childbirth.
In the end, only two wives – Anne of Cleves, who he divorced years prior, and his final wife, Katherine Parr – would outlive him.
Lauren Mackay is the author of Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Life and Writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys (Amberley Publishing)
Did you know…
You can remember the order of the six wives by rhyming their names: “Kate and Anne and Jane, and Anne and Kate (again, again)
Your guide to Henry VIII’s six wives
Charlotte Hodgman, editor of BBC History Revealed magazine, explores the six women who married Henry VIII…
Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536)
Born in Alcalá de Henares, Princess Catherine was betrothed to England’s Prince Arthur at the age of three. A devout Catholic, she was married to Henry for nearly 24 years and never acknowledged the annulment of their union
The question of Henry’s marriage became of paramount importance to England in 1502, following the death of his elder brother, Arthur. As the new heir to the throne, it was up to Henry to continue the fledgling Tudor dynasty. He didn’t need to look far for a possible bride: Catherine of Aragon was the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.
Engaged as a child to Prince Arthur as part of Henry VII’s plans for an alliance between Spain and England, 15-year-old Catherine arrived in England in 1501 and was married on 14 November that year. Half of her promised dowry of 200,000 crowns was paid shortly after.
It was the perfect royal match but, just six months later, Arthur was dead. To avoid handing back Catherine’s dowry, and to maintain the Spanish alliance, a new betrothal was made between the widow and Prince Henry, five years her junior. In Tudor eyes, Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had made her Henry’s sister.
So papal dispensation was sought, and granted, to permit the union – but only after Catherine had sworn that her short marriage had not been consummated. Five years of wrangling over her dowry ensued, but Catherine’s patience was rewarded when, in 1509, she married the new king, 18-year-old Henry.
The union seems to have been, initially, one of mutual love as well as dynastic advancement. Henry had known Catherine for nearly a decade on their marriage, and she is described as being every inch the beautiful queen.
For the first 10 to 15 years, the marriage appears to have been a happy one. Henry himself wrote that the love he bore his wife was such that “if he were still free, he would choose her in preference to all others”. The pair shared a passion for learning, religion and court entertainment, and Catherine proved herself a competent regent while Henry campaigned in France between 1512–14.
But by 1518, relations had soured. Catherine, now 33, had at least six pregnancies in nine years, but only two children had survived. One longed-for boy, Prince Henry, was born in 1511 and a huge tournament was held in his honour, the third most expensive event of Henry’s reign. Young Prince Hal was the toast of the kingdom but, just 52 days after his birth, Henry’s much-loved heir died.
The prince’s death devastated the couple but hope was restored with the birth of Princess Mary in 1516. Her birth proved Catherine could bear a living child, but could she provide a son? Henry, it seemed, had his doubts.
By 1525, with his wife no longer able to bear children and with only one legitimate child – a daughter at that – Henry began to question his marriage. Had Catherine and Arthur’s union been consummated; was God punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow?
What is the rhyme about Henry VIII’s six wives?
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived
The ditty refers to the fate of each wife: Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII divorced after the king broke from Rome to marry his second wife; Anne Boleyn died by execution after she was accused of having sexual relations with five men, including her brother, outside of her marriage; Jane Seymour died during childbirth; Catherine Howard was beheaded; and Katherine Parr outlived Henry VIII and consequently ‘survived’ their relationship.
The famous rhyme has been memorised by generations of school children learning about Henry VIII. Although only six words long, it is not entirely accurate – Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves did not technically divorce Henry VIII; instead their marriages were annulled.
Another version of the poem is: “King Henry VIII, to six wives he was wedded. One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded”.
Anne Boleyn (c1501–1536)
The daughter of a courtier and diplomat, Anne’s relationship with Henry brought about the English Reformation. She was the first English queen to be publicly executed
Henry had another reason for wishing to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon: he had fallen in love. The object of his affections was the quick-witted Anne Boleyn, who had returned to England in 1522, after nearly seven years living at the French court.
By Tudor tastes, which held fair women in high esteem, the brunette, dark-eyed Anne was no belle, but her charm, style and sophistication set her apart from the other ladies at court and ultimately captured Henry’s heart. Anne had been at court for four years before there was any hint of romance between the pair, but by 1526 Cupid’s arrow had struck and Henry had begun courting Anne in earnest.
In his early relationship with Anne, Henry revealed a genuinely romantic side – one that few would equate with the cantankerous, suspicious and cruel tyrant of his later years.
The 17 surviving love letters from Henry to Anne are the stuff of true Tudor romance. In them, it’s clear to see that Henry’s desire for Anne is growing, as is his frustration at her constant refusal to become his mistress, and his desperation for the dissolution of his marriage. At some point in 1532, Anne submitted to the king’s advances and, by December that year, she was pregnant. Henry was beside himself with joy. Achieving his annulment from Catherine – who clung grimly and steadfastly to her marriage and crown – now consumed his thoughts.
Watch: Tracy Borman on what Elizabeth I thought of her mother – in less than 60 seconds
It was imperative the new baby be born legitimate so, on 25 January 1533, Henry married Anne Boleyn in secret. With the Pope still refusing to end the marriage, the monumental decision was taken to reject papal authority altogether. On 23 May, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer confirmed the annulment and Anne was crowned on 1 June in a magnificent coronation. Her seven-year wait for crown, and king, was over.
Having overturned the religious and political life of England to marry Anne and conceive an heir, Henry was convinced his unborn child would be a son. The birth of Elizabeth, on 7 September 1533, therefore, was a bitter blow and must have caused considerable anxiety to Anne, who had seen her predecessor cast aside for the same.
Sunshine and storms
The fiery nature of Henry and Anne’s relationship is well-documented but they are also described as being “merry” together. Theirs, as one historian puts it, was “a tumultuous relationship of sunshine and storms”.
Anne suffered at least two miscarriages during the marriage, the second of which, in January 1536, was a boy. But, despite Anne’s failure to produce an heir, it is widely believed that Henry remained committed to his wife. Court gossip and intrigue, however, was to change his mind.
Anne’s downfall seems to have been result of malicious gossip and plots to end her influence over the King. Rumours of her infidelity emerged after a lady-in-waiting was heard to describe her own loose living as being “little in comparison with that of the Queen”. Henry, who prized chastity in his wives above all else, ordered his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to investigate, telling him “if it turns out that your report, which I do not wish to believe, is untrue, you will receive pain of death in place of [the accused].” Little wonder, then, that by May 1536, Cromwell had unearthed ‘evidence’ of adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death.
Anne’s beheading, at the hands of a French executioner, was to be a turning point in Henry’s life and reign.
Henry’s break with Rome: king v pope
Henry’s break with Rome heralded the creation of a new Church, and the king’s own excommunication…
England’s split from papal power was triggered by Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a union for which he felt God was punishing him with a lack of male heir. The king’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn only increased his determination: it became known as ‘The King’s Great Matter’.
In 1527, Pope Clement VII was approached for an annulment on scriptural grounds but, to Henry’s anger and frustration, it was refused.
A legal approach seemed the only solution and it fell to Wolsey’s successor, Thomas Cromwell, to use the powers of Parliament to decide the matter in the King’s favour. A series of acts were passed, cutting back papal power and influence in England.
In 1533, Thomas Cranmer was appointed to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury and, on 23 May that year – hastened by the news that Anne was pregnant – he pronounced Henry and Catherine’s marriage to be against the law of God. Five days later, Cranmer validated Anne and Henry’s marriage, which had taken place some months earlier.
The pope was infuriated by the news, and excommunicated Henry. In England, Parliament was swiftly called, and the legislation to enact Henry’s decision to break with the Church in Rome was passed. The Act of Supremacy, which followed in November 1534, recognised Henry as supreme head of the Church of England, and rejected all “foreign authority”. This effectively brought an end to centuries of papal jurisdiction over religious life in England.
The act also stated that Henry and his heirs would have “full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, o ences… whatsoever they be.”
Cromwell now had the tools with which to reform the English Church. In January 1536, he embarked upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries, bringing their immense wealth and landholdings under crown control.
Jane Seymour (c1508–1537)
Lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon and then Anne Boleyn, Jane was the only one of Henry’s wives to receive a queen’s funeral, despite the fact she was never crowned
As Anne met her grisly end, Henry, now 45 and without a male heir, had already found his third wife – Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting. Demure, calm and gentle, 27-year-old Jane was Anne’s opposite in both looks and temperament, and within 24 hours of Anne’s death, Henry and Jane were betrothed.
Jane’s hold over Henry has been much discussed by historians. Although lacking Anne’s education and sophistication, Jane is said to have possessed a quiet determination and was able to manage Henry and his everincreasing outbursts of temper.
When Henry learned of her pregnancy in early 1537, he took great pains to ensure her every whim was catered for, even shipping quails eggs from France to satisfy her cravings. Nothing was denied the woman he described as his “one true wife” and his attentions were rewarded with the birth of Edward in October 1537. But 12 days later, Henry was mourning the death of his third wife, after postnatal complications.
Anne of Cleves (1515–1557)
Born in Düsseldorf, Anne was culturally unsophisticated by Tudor standards. She was referred to as ‘The King’s Beloved Sister’ after the annulment of her marriage to Henry
Henry remained single for two years after Jane’s death, but England had become vulnerable without the support of Rome. A political alliance was deemed necessary and the net was cast for a new wife.
Henry’s first glimpse of his future bride, Anne of Cleves, was a portrait by court painter Hans Holbein, in which she is depicted as a handsome, demure-looking woman. But, for Henry at least, the gap between portrait and reality was vast, and after meeting Anne he allegedly railed at his advisors: “I like her not! I like her not!”
The meeting was a disaster. Henry, in chivalric tradition, chose to meet his bride-to-be in disguise. Anne’s role was to see through this to recognise her King and true love Sadly no one explained this to Anne who, when Henry attempted to kiss her, is said to have recoiled at the over familiarity displayed by what she perceived to be a lowly servant. Henry, faced with the reality that he was no longer the golden Prince of his youth, was utterly humiliated. The marriage lasted just six months – Henry was allegedly unable to consummate the union and his eyes were already set on a new prize.
Catherine Howard (c1524–1542)
Cousin to Anne Boleyn, Catherine was raised in the household of her father’s stepmother at Lambeth Palace. Her former indiscretions and an affair with a courtier cost her her life
Now nearly 50, Henry had fallen in love again, with another lady-in-waiting: 19-year-old Catherine Howard. To the ageing and ailing king, Catherine was everything a queen should be: obedient, fertile and chaste. Henry was entranced; Catherine made him feel young again, helping him forget the constant pain of his ulcerated legs. “The King is so amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough, and caresses her more than he did the others”, wrote the French ambassador of the love-struck king. How Catherine felt about being married to a man old enough to be her grandfather is unknown, but she is said to have accepted her lot with good grace, anxious to please her ambitious family.
Catherine loved the luxury of court and her besotted husband showered her with expensive gifts. But, just 14 months into the marriage, a distraught Henry was presented with evidence of Catherine’s infidelity: on 13 February 1542, his “rose without a thorn” was beheaded.
Katherine Parr (1512–1548)
Already twice-widowed, Katherine had begun a romance with Thomas Seymour, brother to the late queen, when she caught Henry’s eye. She went on to marry Seymour four months after the king’s death
Catherine’s death saw Henry slump into a deep depression, and with no new wife waiting in the wings to distract him, his erratic temper made court a dangerous place to be. The lonely monarch needed a companion and, in 1543, as plague broke out in London, Henry married twice-widowed Katherine Parr at Hampton Court Palace.
Aged 31, Katherine was slim and attractive – far from the matronly figure she is often portrayed as – with a deep love of learning and desire for religious reform. She quickly established herself as a major influence in Henry’s life, developing relationships with the royal children and tending to the king.
Her position seemed unshakeable, but in 1546, Katherine nearly became a third victim of the executioner’s blade when her passion for the ‘new faith’ (Protestantism) triggered accusations of heresy. Tipped off in advance, Katherine took to her bed claiming she was mortally ill; when Henry rushed to her side, she successfully defended herself and her actions. Katherine outlived Henry – as did Anne of Cleves – but she wasn’t at the king’s side when he died in 1547. When this larger-than-life ruler passed away, he was safe in the knowledge he had secured the continuation of the Tudor dynasty. But as Henry was buried beside his beloved Jane Seymour at Windsor Castle, no one could have known that it would be his daughters – Mary and Elizabeth – who would change the course of British history.
Henry VIII’s royal mistresses
It wasn’t only the lawfully wedded wives who shared the king’s royal bed…
Henry’s favourite mistress was Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount, lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. The affair began in c1514 and it is even claimed that Henry considered divorcing Catherine in order to marry her. Bessie gave birth to a son in 1519, a boy the king named Henry Fitzroy. Fitzroy was made Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset at the age of six, and Henry was even rumoured to be considering marrying Fitzroy to his legitimate daughter, Mary, as a way of legitimising the boy’s claim to the throne. Whether Henry would have ever made Fitzroy his heir is unknown, for he died of tuberculosis in 1536, aged 17.
Another of Henry’s known mistresses was Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne. Mary, too, served at the French court, where she embarked on a string of a airs, including one with King Francis I himself. Mary’s promiscuity earned her the nickname ‘The English Mare’ and, later, ‘The Great Prostitute’. Her five-year affair with Henry, which began in c1521, may have produced two children. There is even a claim that Henry had an affair with Anne and Mary’s mother, Elizabeth, although when asked whether he had “meddled both with the mother and the sister”, he is said to have muttered “never with the mother”!
Charlotte Hodgman is editor of BBC History Revealed magazine. This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed, but has since been updated