Today, we associate royal weddings with great public celebrations, a grand procession, a magnificent ceremony in Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral or St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and a public appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The modern royal wedding, as we know it, dates only from 1840, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert. Prior to that, royal weddings were usually private affairs, solemnised in the royal chapels with little public fanfare. So what would a wedding have looked like for England’s most married monarch, Henry VIII? Read on and find out…
Katherine of Aragon
Henry VIII’s six weddings were all private. When, not quite 18, he became king in 1509, it was a matter of political and dynastic necessity that he marry and beget an heir as soon as possible, to ensure the continuation of the Tudor dynasty. Surviving members of the rival House of York arguably had a better claim to the throne than Henry, and the spectre of the Wars of the Roses still loomed large.
The new King’s councillors urged him to marry Katherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess to whom he had been betrothed since 1503 and the widow of his late elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. Katherine had a great dowry, and the prospect of war with France – England’s hereditary enemy – made an alliance with Spain all the more desirable. Her father, King Ferdinand of Aragon, was pressing Henry to marry her immediately, and promising him many political advantages if he did so.
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But Henry hesitated. He was uneasy in his conscience, wondering if he would commit a sin by marrying the widow of his deceased brother, as such unions were forbidden in Scripture. King Ferdinand hastened to reassure him that the marriage would be perfectly lawful, as the Pope had given a dispensation for it. He felt certain that Henry would enjoy the greatest happiness with Katherine, and leave numerous children behind him.
The Privy Council also put pressure on the King. “We have the Pope’s dispensation,” they said. “Will you be more scrupulous than he is?”
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Henry agreed that there were many good reasons for the marriage. Above all, he declared, he desired Katherine above all women; he loved her and longed to wed her. Despite her six years’ seniority, he found her attractive, with her long golden hair and fair skin, her dignity, lineage and graciousness. Everything about her proclaimed her a fit mate for the King of England.
What Henry felt for her seems to have been love in its most chivalrous form, coupled with deep respect. And honour demanded that he marry her and, like a knight errant of old, rescue her from the penury in which his father had kept her, and so win her love and gratitude. It was a grand gesture that appealed vastly to the King’s youthful conceit.
One day in early June, 1509, the King arrived at Katherine’s apartments in Greenwich Palace. He came alone, dismissed her attendants and, raising her from her curtsey, declared his love for her, and asked her to be his queen. Without hesitation, she joyfully agreed.
They were married on 11 June, the feast day of St Barnabas, in the Queen’s closet at Greenwich, with William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, officiating. Katherine wore virginal white, with her long hair loose under a gold circlet. After the nuptials, the small wedding party proceeded to the chapel of the Observant Friars adjacent to the palace to hear Mass. There is no record of Henry and his new Queen being publicly put to bed together, as was generally the custom, but there was never any doubt that the marriage was consummated that night, for Katherine became pregnant immediately.
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If, as the evidence strongly suggests, she had emerged from her first marriage virgo intacta, the chances are that Henry too was a virgin on his wedding night. There is no suggestion in any source that he was sexually active before his accession. He had led an almost cloistered life, closely supervised by his father and his tutors, and it is likely there had been no opportunities for dalliances with girls.
The marriage of Henry and Katherine was proclaimed four days later, on 15 June. On that same day Katherine first appeared at court as Queen of England.
She had adopted as her personal badge the pomegranate, a symbol of fertility since ancient times, and yet she failed to bear Henry the son he needed to ensure the succession. Of her six known children only one, the Princess Mary, survived infancy. At that time, it was unthinkable that a woman should rule England and wield dominion over men. By 1524, it was known that the Queen would bear no more children, and by 1526, Henry had fallen passionately in love with her maid-of-honour, the vivacious, accomplished and ambitious Anne Boleyn.
In 1527, Henry began to voice doubts that his marriage to his brother’s widow was lawful, and asked the Pope for an annulment, only to be kept dangling in hope for the next seven years. By then, frustrated and alienated, he had broken with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, and Thomas Cranmer, his new Archbishop of Canterbury, had declared Henry’s union with Katherine null and void, and confirmed his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry had not waited for the formalities.
The precise date of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn is a matter of dispute. A Milanese envoy in France thought that they had married during their visit to Calais in October 1532, but the chronicler Edward Hall claimed: “The King, after his return, married privily the Lady Anne Boleyn on Saint Erkenwald’s Day, which marriage was kept so secret that very few knew of it.”
The feast of the translation of St Erkenwald fell on 14 November, the day after Henry and Anne returned to England, but it is highly unlikely that they wed while journeying through Kent towards Eltham Palace, especially in view of the testimony of two people who were much closer to events than Edward Hall.
“The King’s marriage was celebrated, it was reported, on the day of the conversion of St Paul (January 1533),” the Imperial ambassador wrote on 10 May 1533, while Archbishop Cranmer stated, in a letter dated 17 June 1533, that Anne was “married much about St Paul’s Day last, as the condition thereof doth well appear, by reason she is now somewhat big with child”.
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Hall, who revered Henry VIII, would not have wanted to imply that the daughter Anne bore on 7 September 1533, had been conceived out of wedlock. His dating of the wedding to the previous November was either based on incorrect information or was a tactful, deliberate error. There can be little doubt that it was the discovery that Anne might be pregnant that prompted the King to pre-empt the Pope and marry her.
Just before dawn on 25 January 1533, a small group of people gathered in Henry’s private chapel in Whitehall Palace for his secret wedding to Anne.
“It has been reported throughout a great part of the realm that I married her, which was plainly false,” Cranmer protested, “for I myself knew not thereof a fortnight after it was done.” The officiating priest was either Dr Rowland Lee, one of the royal chaplains, or George Brown, Prior of the Austin Friars in London.
Possibly the priest was informed that the Pope had sanctioned the marriage; a royal envoy had just returned from Rome, leading some to suspect that the Pope had given his tacit consent. As far as Henry was concerned, he had never been lawfully married at all and was free to enter into wedlock at will.
The few witnesses were all sworn to silence. The marriage, and Anne’s pregnancy, remained strictly guarded secrets until Easter Sunday 1533, when, “loaded with diamonds and other precious stones”, she went “in royal state, openly as queen” to her closet to hear Mass, with 60 maids of honour following her. Having at long last won her King, she had adopted for her motto the legend ‘The most happy’.
Her marriage lasted little more than three years. Her failure to bear a son laid her open to the machinations of her enemies, who did their best to exploit the King’s increasing interest in Anne’s maid-of-honour, Jane Seymour. Accused of betraying Henry with five men, one her own brother, and plotting to assassinate him, she was beheaded on 19 May 1536.
Henry VIII was at Whitehall Palace when the Tower guns signalled that he was a free man. Immediately, he had himself rowed to Chelsea, where Jane Seymour was waiting. Their affair had been gathering momentum since the autumn.
The Privy Council had already petitioned Henry to venture once more into holy wedlock, pleading the uncertainty surrounding the succession, for both the King’s daughters had been declared bastards. A speedy marriage was both desirable and necessary, and on the day Anne’s head fell, Henry’s imminent betrothal to Jane Seymour was announced to the Council. At nine o’clock the next morning, they were formally betrothed at Hampton Court in a ceremony lasting a few minutes.
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Henry and Jane were married on 30 May at Whitehall Palace. The ceremony took place in the Queen’s closet, with Archbishop Cranmer officiating. Afterwards, Jane sat enthroned under the canopy of estate in the presence chamber. Some thought it strange that, “within one and the same month that saw Queen Anne flourishing, accused, condemned and executed, another was assumed into her place, both of bed and honour”.
Jane died in October 1537, after presenting Henry with his longed-for son, Edward. He mourned her deeply, but ‘framed his mind’ to marry again for the good of his realm.
Anne of Cleves
But when he saw Anne, he knew he could never love her. He did everything he could to wriggle out of the contract, but in vain, and on 6 January 1540, he reluctantly prepared himself for his wedding at Greenwich Palace.
“Is there none other remedy, but that I must needs, against my will, put my neck in the yoke?” he growled. Nevertheless, he dressed magnificently for his wedding in a furred gown of cloth of gold with great flowers of silver, “his coat crimson satin slashed and embroidered, and tied with great diamonds, and a rich collar about his neck”.
When his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who had arranged the marriage, attended him in his presence chamber, Henry muttered, “My lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do that I must do this day for none earthly thing.”
Informed that his bride was coming, he proceeded to the chapel gallery. At eight o’clock, Anne appeared, sumptuously attired in “a gown of rich cloth of gold set full of large flowers of great Orient pearl, made after the Dutch fashion round, her hair hanging down, which was fair, yellow and long; and on her head a coronal of gold replenished with great stone”. She was bedecked with sprigs of rosemary, which symbolised love, fidelity and fertility, and about her neck and waist were costly jewels.
Preceded by Cromwell, and walking between the German envoys with a most demure countenance, she made three low curtseys to Henry, and together they proceeded into the Chapel Royal, where Cranmer was waiting to perform the ceremony.
The King made no protest. Both he and Anne answered freely that they knew of no impediment to the marriage. On her finger, he placed a ring engraved with the motto ‘God send me well to keep’.
After Cranmer had blessed them and wished them a fruitful union, Henry and his new Queen went hand in hand into the King’s closet to hear Mass. Cranmer gave the kiss of peace to Anne, upon which the King in turn kissed and embraced her. Afterwards, they were served wine and spices.
Thus “passed that day honourably”. The newly wedded pair were ceremonially put to bed together to do their dynastic duty. The marital bedstead had an oak headboard with erotic carvings of priapic and pregnant cherubs, but they had little effect on Henry. The marriage was not consummated.
The next morning, the King complained to Cromwell that he “abhorred” Anne. “Surely, my lord, as ye know, I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse, for I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid, which so strake me to the heart when I felt them that I had neither will nor courage to proceed any further in other matters.”
He made similar complaints to other courtiers, on many occasions. Possibly he was only saying what he believed to be the truth. Most likely he wanted an excuse for not consummating the marriage, so that it could be annulled without difficulty as soon as grounds could be found. As indeed they were, and in July 1540 it was dissolved.
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By then, Henry had fallen for a pretty 19-year-old brunette, Katherine Howard. She was a niece of the Duke of Norfolk, England’s premier Catholic peer. Norfolk and his party had put her in the King’s path because they wanted to see a good Catholic queen on the throne; Henry quickly became besotted and resolved to wed Katherine.
Today, what remains of the Palace of Oatlands lies beneath a housing estate in Weybridge, Surrey. It was a favoured retreat of Henry’s, and he took Katherine there for their wedding, solemnised in private on 28 July 1540 by Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London. For ten days, absolute secrecy was maintained.
Infatuated with his bride, the King wanted to spend time alone with her before showing her off to the world. At last, it seemed, he had found a wife who embodied the qualities he most admired in women: beauty, charm, a pleasant disposition and, he believed, virtue. He considered himself blessed. Whether Katherine was as elated is a matter for conjecture, for her husband was prematurely aged at nearly 50, with a waist of 54 inches and a putrid leg.
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But Katherine had a past of which Henry knew nothing, and it increasingly came back to haunt her. In 1541, evidence of sexual liaisons before her marriage, and adultery after, came to light. Henry broke down in tears in council, then called for a sword with which to slay her whom he had worshipped. She was executed in February 1542.
The tragedy left Henry miserable and lonely, but in no hurry to remarry. That was as well, because, according to the Imperial ambassador, there were few ladies at court hastening to aspire to such an honour.
As time passed, and his spirits lightened, Henry began to seek a companion for his declining years, and proposed marriage to Katherine Parr, a comely, intelligent widow of 30.
Katherine was reluctant to marry the King because, having been wife in turn to a sick boy and a sick man, she had looked to wed the gallant Sir Thomas Seymour, Queen Jane’s brother. Henry, sniffing a rival, sent Seymour abroad and claimed Katherine for himself.
On 10 July 1543, Archbishop Cranmer issued a special licence for their marriage and, two days later, the wedding took place privately in the Queen’s closet at Hampton Court, amid much rejoicing. The King’s niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, was the bride’s chief attendant. When the King was asked if he would take Katherine Parr to be his lawful wife, he answered “Yea”, “with a joyful countenance”.
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Katherine proved an admirable queen, and a loving stepmother to Henry’s children, who were all fond of her. She was popular, and it was said that every day was like a Sunday at her court. Such was the King’s trust in her that, when he invaded France in 1544, he appointed her Regent of England in his absence. When he died in 1547, he left her a wealthy widow.
Henry VIII’s matrimonial career shows that the outward trappings of royal nuptials were only half of the story – the velvet glove, rather than the iron first inside – and belied the fact that the celebrations attending his weddings would be remembered as the ceremonial cover for an unholy and sometimes brutal alliance.
British royal weddings: a potted history
The first royal to be married in Westminster Abbey was Henry I in 1100. It has hosted over a dozen royal weddings since, most recently that of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Edward III chose York Minster for his wedding to Philippa of Hainault in 1328, even though it was still being built and had no roof. The king got a white wedding of sorts, as it snowed during the ceremony.
Edward IV kept his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville a secret, as she was a widow and commoner. The exact date of their 1464 wedding is still debated.
Henry VII considered a marriage between James IV of Scotland and his daughter, Margaret – a five-year-old. She was bethrothed (by proxy) in 1502, when she was 12 years old. Margaret didn’t meet her husband until the following year.
The teenage Princess Augusta really didn’t want to go ahead with the planned marriage to the Prince of Wales, Frederick, in 1736. While on the way to the ceremony, she pleaded with her mother, “Please don’t leave me”, and was sick immediately afterwards.
The oldest surviving royal wedding dress belonged to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, who married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. It cost over £10,000 (around £400,000 today).
We have Queen Victoria to thank for the white wedding dress. Although not the first to wear white, her wedding to Albert on 10 February 1840 set the bar that all other brides had to match. Before then, any colour could be worn, including the rather funereal black.
The future George VI proposed three times before Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon agreed to marry him. The wedding took place in 1923, and it was made a public event to lift national morale in the wake of World War I.
There has been no shortage of scandalous royal match-ups, but when Edward VIII announced his desire to wed Wallis Simpson, twice divorced already, it led to a constitutional crisis. In 1936, Edward abdicated the throne.
Elizabeth II’s wedding cake was a towering nine feet high, over four tiers – enough for all 2,000 guests to have a slice.
The first royal wedding to be televised was in 1960, when Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, married photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones.
Diana Spencer was so nervous at her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles that she mixed up his name during the ceremony, calling him ‘Philip Charles’.
Alison Weir is a historian and bestselling author. Her latest book is Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets (Headline, 2019), the fourth installment in her Six Tudor Queens series