When a 17-year-old Henry VIII took the throne back in 1509, he would’ve expected to end up in the history books. That’s what happens when you’re the King of England. What he definitely couldn’t have foreseen is that he’d become one of his country’s most famous sovereigns, but largely due to his positively scandalous love life. The Tudor monarch started his own church, changed the constitution and became the first English king of Ireland — and yet it’s his six wives (and some of their demises) that everyone remembers.
Indeed, several rhymes have been coined to help everyone recall just what happened to Henry’s queens — and for good reason: they’re a fascinating bunch. Their tales could give modern-day soap operas a run for their money. One inspired a winning battle, another was subsequently given a title anointing her his sister and another was the first woman in England to publish a book — and that’s only half of them.
Catherine of Aragon
The longest-serving of Henry’s spouses and one that would not step down quietly — something that certainly wasn’t typical of the time — the Spanish-born Catherine of Aragon sat by his side for a few weeks shy of 24 years. He wasn’t the first of the Tudors she would wed, however. Previously, Catherine had been married — for just five months — to Henry's older brother, Arthur. Henry and Catherine's relationship was arranged so his father wouldn’t have to return her substantial dowry.
During her stint as a popular queen, Catherine is credited with helping inspire an English win in a crucial battle against Scotland, but her status as a divorcee became her true legacy. After her husband fell for Anne Boleyn, he ripped England’s religion away from Roman Catholicism so he could split from Catherine and take a new wife.
Other than the obvious biblical figures, how many people can say they inspired a new church? Considered a temptress by some and a victim by others, Anne Boleyn could make that claim... for a few short years. Of course, it didn’t end well. The English Reformation started in no small part thanks to the king’s infatuation with her, however, such tumult didn’t set their marriage up for happiness.
Queen Elizabeth I was the result of their union, but even giving birth to a future monarch couldn’t save Anne once Henry did what he did best. After a series of miscarriages saw her fail to give the king the son and heir he wanted, he took up with Jane Seymour. Anne clashed with his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, and charges of adultery, incest and treason were made. Everyone knows what happened next: Anne was sentenced to death and beheaded.
Dubbed Henry’s favourite wife as well as his most dutiful, Jane Seymour was first a maid to both Catherine and Anne, but would become the bride that finally delivered a male heir. Her gentle nature and attractiveness has been written about, and maybe their marriage might’ve actually lasted if fulfilling that wish hadn’t killed her. Less than 18 months after their union, she succumbed to postnatal complications in the fortnight following the birth of King Edward VI, who would be later forced to succeed his father at the age of just nine.
Jane can be considered the king’s greatest loss — she’s the woman that got away, in a fashion. She was the only one of his queens to have received a royal funeral and he was eventually buried with her.
Anne of Cleves
The wife of the king is typically given the title of queen consort, but that didn’t apply to German princess Anne of Cleves. Henry’s fourth marriage lasted seven months, however, compared to his previous stints, it had a happy ending. They didn’t consummate their union, Henry’s affections waned and they agreed to an annulment.
Afterwards, alive and considered his friend, Anne was anointed the King's Beloved Sister. When his next nuptials didn’t turn out, it’s reported she tried to convince him to marry her again. He didn’t and she went on to outlive not only him, but all his other spouses.
Aged only 16 to 17 when they tied the knot, Catherine Howard’s marriage to Henry shared two things in common with Anne Boleyn’s: their beginning and end. Both started in far from ideal circumstances and both came to a head-less conclusion.
In an inauspicious start, the two were wed on the same day Cromwell was executed — partly for his role in arranging Henry’s previous marital affairs. Still only a teenager, Catherine would meet the same fate less than two years later after being accused of committing adultery.
Henry’s third Catherine was his final one — and his last wife as well. Besides holding that honour, she held another that seems quite fitting and also rather modern — with three other husbands to her name, she’s the most-married English queen. Two came prior to Henry and one after his passing.
Thanks to her book Prayers or Meditations, Catherine also became not only the first English queen to publish under her own name, but the first woman. She outlived Henry by only a year, but played a part in ensuring his daughters were officially restored to his line of succession. Without her, both Mary and Elizabeth I’s reigns wouldn’t have happened.
Watch The Six Wives of Henry VIII with Lucy Worsley on Saturdays at 7:30pm on SBS.
Missed the first episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand right here: