Henry VIII’s six wives in a different light

From the scheming sophisticate who lost her head, to the hapless 'mare' who repulsed the king, the reputations of Henry VIII's spouses are secure. But do the stereotypes stand up to scrutiny? Lucy Worsley investigates...

Portrait of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, 1536. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Catherine of Aragon

She’s been cast as a humourless Spanish harridan, but Catherine was highly popular in England

Bitter, conservative, graceless: Henry’s first wife (married 1509–33) has often been portrayed as a foreign harridan, lecturing her erring husband about the loyalty he lacked. This is the picture painted by Protestant historians who disliked her deeply held traditional religious views.

But, today, Catherine enjoys a far more favourable press – one that reflects the adulatory views that many of her subjects held about a queen whom they loved to the end. When Henry abandoned Catherine (he had the marriage annulled), these subjects thought of her as a wronged woman, while Anne Boleyn, her younger, sexier, replacement, was “the goggle-eyed whore”. For most of the nearly 24-year marriage, Catherine was Henry’s beloved wife.

A portrait of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, by an unknown artist. (Photo by Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

She is renowned for her Spanish background – but portraits show her as surprisingly blonde. Daughter of the powerful ‘warrior queen’ Isabella of Castile, and given a royal education, Catherine was by far the best-qualified of Henry’s wives to be queen. He trusted her to rule as regent when he was fighting in France. In fact, when Catherine’s army defeated the Scots at the battle of Flodden in 1513, she was in danger of out-shining her husband.

Even her much-mentioned infertility has been overplayed: she conceived six times, but five children died (she was mother of the future Mary I). No longer seen as an inflexible foreigner, Catherine is a figure to admire.

Anne Boleyn

A manipulative minx or a Protestant martyr? Actually, Anne was neither

Anne had an extra finger on one hand, didn’t she? Sure sign that she was a witch. She has been vilified for centuries as the ‘other woman’ who stole Henry VIII – a woman who even had magical powers. An influential minority of historians today still believe she was guilty of the crimes for which she was beheaded in 1536, and did do some of the outrageous things of which she was accused at her trial.

A clever and charismatic woman like Anne inevitably excites condemnation, but neither should we go too far in the other direction. She certainly wasn’t a saint, a contrasting view that has competed with her ‘sorceress’ image ever since her daughter, Elizabeth, became queen and the Protestant side ‘won’ the religion argument.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Elizabethan historians recreated Anne as a religious radical, almost a proto-Protestant martyr, trying to bring about a new order, and being punished for this by conservative forces. But the reality is muddy. The Reformation wasn’t a mighty struggle between two opposing forces, but a patchy, uncertain affair.

And some modern historians discount the idea that Anne was as intellectually progressive as her fan club like to suggest. Others have disputed the idea that she was framed by a faction formed against her. Yet, counter-balancing this, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has had the effect of placing Thomas Cromwell firmly back in the centre of the drama as Anne’s enemy.

The one thing that’s clear is that Anne, with her intelligence and sexiness, played a part in her own destiny. Her choices in life often make her seem more like a modern person than a Tudor woman. That’s why she’ll continue to fascinate us.

Jane Seymour

Far from being a doormat, it seems that Jane played her husband perfectly

There’s a gap in the historical record where Jane Seymour’s personality should be. But could the secret of Jane’s success be her restful, passive nature? As her personal motto stated, Jane felt “bound to obey and serve”. Perhaps Henry was glad to avoid the high drama he’d put up with from Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. And quiet Jane Seymour was one of 10 siblings: she looked likely to be a good breeder.

A portrait of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Historians have built up the best picture they can with only a tiny handful of clues to Jane’s character. There was an incident prior to marriage when she refused a gift of gold coins from the king, possibly an attempt to ‘play’ him by standing up to him. Then, there were her pleas for the monasteries to be spared destruction: perhaps she was making the case for the old religion. But both may also be seen simply as aspects of the traditional role of a queen – virtuous, focused on marriage, interceding on behalf of the vulnerable.

Whatever the nature of Jane’s charm, there is no doubt that the story that she died following a Caesarian is anti-Henrician propaganda. Henry’s Catholic enemies believed that he was capable of cutting open his wife to get at his baby. But the reality is that Jane probably succumbed to straightforward septicemia (a matter of days after giving birth to the future Edward VI in October 1537). This cemented her image as the perfect wife, who died before Henry could get bored with her. In this case, the myth might really be the reality.

Anne of Cleves

She’s been the butt of a thousand jokes but the ‘Flanders Mare’ was a canny survivor

Henry went shopping for a new wife, fell in love with Holbein’s flattering portrait of Anne, and was thrown into a rage by the reality. The marriage (lasting just seven months in 1540) was a disaster.

In reality, Henry’s failure to find Anne attractive – and consummate the marriage – had a political element. An alliance with her German brother, a reformed Catholic, held political attractions that faded as the situation in Europe shifted.

This portrait of Anne of Cleves, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1539, delighted Henry VIII. Unfortunately, the king was far less impressed with his new bride when he met her in the flesh. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Anne’s biographer Retha Warnicke argues that her full figure made Henry believe her to be sexually experienced, tainted, and thus unworthy of him. But historians also point out that their sexual incompatibility could have stemmed from Henry – was the fat old king now impotent?

Either way, the ‘fault’ for the failure of this marriage did not lie with Anne, and she made a dignified exit by agreeing to a divorce. Her survival skills have been underestimated.

She lived until 1557 – the last of the six wives to die – and has a grander resting place, too, right by the high altar of Westminster Abbey.

Catherine Howard

We should feel only pity for this tragic victim of unscrupulous older men

Of all Henry VIII’s wives, it is Catherine Howard who has undergone the biggest transformation of image in recent years. Catherine used to be thought of as a silly little girl, and she has been described even by highly respectable historians as an “empty-headed wanton”, or even as a “juvenile delinquent”.

Catherine’s downfall in 1541 came about when evidence that she had a sexual past was brought to her husband’s attention. Investigations revealed that while growing up in the household of her step-grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk, Catherine had had physical relationships with two servants. These were music teacher Henry Manox, and Francis Dereham, who admitted having had “carnal knowledge” of the future queen. But today these illicit liaisons between older men and a young girl look to us very much like child abuse. It was common knowledge in the duchess’s household that it was possible to obtain the key to the dormitory where the household’s maidens slept together, supposedly for safety. It looks like Catherine, who went to the block in 1542, was a damaged survivor.

Portrait of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

What about the apparently damning evidence of her ‘love letter’ to Thomas Culpepper, written after she married Henry, and when she was certainly old enough to know better? Well, her statements of affection certainly can be read as placating a man who’d previously been accused of rape and murder, who knew her background, and who was using it against her.

There’s been no more striking example than Catherine Howard of how changing attitudes to women have changed our interpretation of one of Henry’s wives.

Katherine Parr

The saintly nurse of popular imagination was, in fact, an influential radical

The 19th-century historian Agnes Strickland did much to create the impression that Katherine was some kind of saintly nurse. She imagined her as the sort of woman whom the Victorians would have found an admirable wife for an old and sick man.

There still remains a powerful image of her changing the bandages on her husband’s ulcerated leg, perhaps enduring the smell to sit with him in order to comfort him. This is misleading, though, because the king had a team of male servants and doctors to give him ‘body service’. His queen certainly would not have done it.

Katherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

More recently, historians have recreated Katherine as a bluestocking, interested in radical religion, using her position to promote an agenda of change in the light of Henry’s increasing conservatism. She was, after all, the first woman to publish a book in English under her own name, which was called Prayers or Meditations. She was responsible for the excellent education given to her step-daughter, Elizabeth I, perhaps our greatest queen ever. Katherine was an intellectual powerhouse.

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Lucy Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. She is author of Eliza Rose, a historical novel for young readers about the Tudor court (Bloomsbury Childrens, 2016).