Book Reviews

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Six wives of King Henry VIII. Each of whom was a fascinating person in her own right. This is the detailed account of each of those women whose fate lay in the hands of one of England’s most famous kings.

Published: 1992 | Paperback: 656 pages | Genre: History

King Henry VIII of England has always fascinated me. I first discovered him sometime in my early 20s when reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. Since then I have dived into whatever material I can lay my hands on, and get to know this man, who was larger than life, much better. For Henry VIII was, at the end of the day, a man – exalted than most, and yet prone to much the same fears as any man of his time may have been.

In The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir has taken a deep dive into the lives of the six women whose fates were not only intricately tied to Henry’s own but were dependent on his whims and wishes. These were the six wives of Henry VIII.

First, he married out of chivalry

Katherine of Aragon was the first of King Henry VIII’s wives. She was destined to be the Queen of England from the age of two when she had been betrothed to Henry’s elder brother, Prince Arthur.

Henry wasn’t born to take the throne. He was the younger son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Henry VII had killed the last king and taken the throne for himself, founding the Tudor dynasty. He married Elizabeth of York to stabilise his claim and to put an end to the strife between the Houses of York and Lancaster that had been fighting the War of Roses for 30 years. The book Game of Thrones by George R R Martin, which was adapted for the screen and the one we enjoyed watching so much (except for the last season), was based to a large extent on the War of Roses.

It was Prince Arthur who was their firstborn and destined to the throne. He was betrothed to Katherine of Aragon. She knew from a very young age that she would one day be the Queen of England. She married Prince Arthur in 1501 but their marriage lasted only five months for the Prince died from consumption. The widowed Katherine could have returned to Spain but her father-in-law King Henry VII was loath to lose her dowry. And so Katherine stayed in England and was betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry. When his father passed away Henry became the King and soon after married Katherine. He was the knight who rescued a princess in distress – Katherine had been a widow for more than 6 years. It was Henry’s medieval honour as king and his chivalry as a man to have taken on the wife of his deceased elder brother, finally crowning her as Queen. They would be husband and wife for 23 years. Their only surviving child would be Princess Mary (who would one day rule England and come to be known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for the religious persecution she unleashed on those of the Protestant faith).

Henry began to have qualms during the later years of his marriage. For one, he had no male heir yet to take to the throne after him and the Queen was moving into her middle age so the chances of her producing children were getting slimmer with every passing year. The second and the one reason that a lot of books and movies have played out with excitement and intrigue is that the King had found himself falling passionately in love with Anne Boleyn.

Then, he married for passion

Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife has found much fame in popular culture because of the scandal surrounding her that eventually led to her downfall and death.

Anne Boleyn held the promise that Katherine did not. Anne was younger, flirtatious and knew how to play the king to her advantage. She was a lady in Katherine’s household which gave her easy access to the king. Combined with the ambitions of her family, the other Boleyns and Howards, Anne was thrown into the king’s sight. Her sister Mary was once the king’s mistress. And now the king wanted Anne. This is where Anne played the one trump card she could – she did not go to his bed but teased and tempted him from as close a distance as she could. She didn’t want to become another Mary Boleyn by giving her favours to the king freely. She had her sights on the greatest prize of all – the crown.

King Henry VIII had for some time nursed a suspicion – that marrying Katherine, his brother’s wife, had been a sin, which is why God had not blessed him with an heir. Princess Mary was a girl so she didn’t count. Nor did a son once born to Henry and Katherine count for the babe had died within a month of his birth. Back in those days divorce was frowned upon and did not come by easily. Annulment though, could. Henry applied to the Pope to look into what the religious texts said in such a case where a man marries the wife of his brother. This came to be known as the King’s “great matter”. As Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn grew, his expectation was clear – for the Pope to rule in his favour, grant him an annulment so that he could move away from Katherine honourably and be free to marry the woman of his choice. But the Pope was hardly inclined to rule in Henry’s favour. Katherine was a Spanish princess after all, and her nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor, who even held the Pope under his control for a while.

So the king’s great matter dragged on for six long years. Katherine suffered for it, for she remained adamant that her marriage with Prince Arthur was never consummated and she had come to Henry’s bed a virgin. In her eyes, her marriage to Henry was lawful though she was willing to submit herself to the Pope’s judgment for Katherine was a devout Catholic. Henry, however, was not easily placated. He wanted what he wanted and seeing that the Pope had delayed the matter for far too long, he decided to threaten the Pope with the one thing he felt would get the Pope to act in his favour. He created the Church of England, installed himself as its Head and broke away from the traditional Catholic faith. Thus began a religious reformation movement in England.

Because he was now the supreme authority on religious matters, it didn’t take long for Henry to find the people he needed to annul his marriage. And so it was, that in 1533 King Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon was found to be invalid, paving the way for Anne Boleyn to take the throne.

Then, he married for peace

Jane Seymour became King Henry VIII’s third wife and was the most beloved of all his wives.

Anne would bear only one living child just like her predecessor – a daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who would one day go on to also become Queen and herald the Elizabethan age we now study of in such detail in history. Anne failed to keep the promise because of which Henry had married her. Add to this Anne’s caustic and jealous nature, and Henry was now dealing with a wife who didn’t act like a Queen – Anne was not demure, submissive and silent. She could throw a tantrum, have severe mood swings and did not hesitate from holding Henry accountable for things she didn’t like, like his infidelities. And so, he started wondering. If one wife had already been put aside, could another one also not?

Enter Jane Seymour, who was a lady in Anne’s household. Jane was just the kind of relief that Henry needed. She was in every way the opposite of Anne and that may very well have been her secret recipe for success. The Seymours were every bit as ambitious as Anne’s family were and in fact, the two families were often rivals for the King’s favours. There is little doubt then, that when Jane caught Henry’s eye, her family must have egged her on.

Henry did not have a good enough reason to annul his marriage with Anne Boleyn. But his courtiers, including Anne’s uncle and sister-in-law, who had their own reasons for seeing her topple, provided the king with the kind of case that could get him free from this unfruitful marriage. Anne had cheated on Henry with five men and plotted his death – at least that was the case put forward and proven in court. In the bargain, five men, including Anne’s brother, George Boleyn were put to death. Anne would meet her end in the Tower of London, beheaded for adultery, incest and high treason. The next day, Jane Seymour was betrothed to Henry, marrying him 10 days later.

Then, he married for diplomacy

Anne of Cleves became the fourth wife of King Henry VIII but because she failed to impress the King, soon found her marriage on the rocks.

Jane gave Henry the thing he most desperately needed – a son, Prince Edward, who would one day become King Edward VI, succeeding his father to the throne. But Jane’s luck did not hold for long. She died just a year after her marriage of puerperal fever. Henry was devastated, for to him, Jane had been his true wife. He would mourn her for two years.

Jane’s death gave his courtiers the opportunity once again, to swing the power balance in their favour. Thomas Cromwell, his secretary began negotiations for the King’s fourth marriage. Henry was getting older now and his son was a mere infant. He needed more heirs, just in case. For Cromwell, this was the chance to steer Henry and through him, the country as well, towards the new Protestant faith that had been gaining popularity across Europe at the time. Cromwell saw in the Protestant Anne of Cleves the chance to make this possible. And so negotiations concluded, and Anne of Cleves arrived in England to take the crown.

But Henry was disappointed when he saw her and exclaimed, “I like her not!”. He felt he had been cheated and lied to by the painter who had shown him Anne’s portrait which he had liked enough to agree to the marriage. The king was also out for Cromwell’s blood. This was not the marriage he wanted, and yet, he went ahead and married Anne for it was too late to send her back. However, after six months of non-consummation, their marriage was annulled. Anne of Cleves was certainly the luckiest of Henry’s wife for she submitted to his decision without any protests, unlike Katherine of Aragon who was sent to a run-down house, did not have enough to pay her household bills and died alone without any of her family by her side because she refused to accept that she was not the King’s true wife. In fact, Henry was so happy with Anne of Cleves’ submission that he called her his beloved sister, gave her a place of honour at court and provided three of the best houses in his kingdom for her troubles.

Then, he married for youth

Katherine Howard, the cousin of Anne Boleyn, would be the fifth woman to become King Henry VIII’s wife and her luck would go the same way as her cousin’s had.

By now, Henry was 49. One of the ladies in Anne of Cleves household, Katherine Howard had caught his eye. She was just 17. And she was the cousin of Anne Boleyn. Once again, the luck of the Howards was on the ascendant and the Duke of Norfolk, who had once installed Anne Boleyn on the throne, now began working to get another niece to the same position. A mere 19 days after the annulment of his fourth marriage, Henry married again. He was finally happy.

That is until news reached him of Katherine’s misdemeanours. Unlike Anne Boleyn, who may not have been guilty of the crimes that were attributed to her, Katherine Howard was. She was in all likelihood, not a virgin when she married Henry and that should have been cause enough for grief, although premarital sex back then was not a crime. But what the rival faction at court wanted, was to use the smallest of excuses and turn it around into an act of high treason. They managed to concoct a case of adultery against Katherine, and like her cousin, she was sent to the block.

Finally, he married for companionship

Katherine Parr, the last woman that King Henry VIII married, was a much loved stepmother and was the most intelligent of the King’s wives, having published two books under her own name, in a time when few women were encouraged to learn.

That should have been the end of marriages for Henry, except that a new lady, Katherine Parr in Princess Mary’s household caught his eye. At the time Katherine Parr was more interested in Thomas Seymour, the brother of late Queen Jane. But when Henry proposed to her, she found it prudent to accept. Thus Katherine Parr became the last of Henry’s wives. This was the sixth marriage for the king, the third for Katherine (her previous two husbands had died). She was perhaps the wisest of his wives, definitely the best stepmother for the King’s three children and highly intelligent. She was the kind of companion that the king needed, and along with Anne of Cleves, would be the one to survive Henry VIII.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, he would die with the belief that he had had only two lawful marriages – one with Jane Seymour and the other with Katherine Parr. Katherine Parr would go on to marry Thomas Seymour, becoming the most married Queen of England.

A rhyme to remember them by

When I was in London I was introduced to a famous rhyme. It is the easiest (and perhaps the funniest) way of remembering the fates of King Henry VIII’s six wives,

“Annulled, beheaded, died

Annulled, beheaded, survived.”

What is true of each of King Henry VIII’s wives is that they were all, unique and fascinating women in their own right. Some had been bred as princesses from birth and knew how to conduct themselves with grace and submission. Some had grown to be ambitious and stopped at nothing to gain the place of highest honour. All, however, were pawns when it came to political intrigue. Each had tried to be true to their husband but failed. Each had been in a position of influence and were exploited or at the very least, pushed ahead by their families to get prominence and positions for the rest of their clan. As their luck waxed and waned so did of those who supported them. Many men and women lost their lives because they suddenly found that the Queen they served and supported had run out of luck with the King.

This is one of the finest works of non-fiction if you want to get to know these six women. This is, as detailed a history of them, as we can possibly have for now.

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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