If the recent media storm around the announcement of Prince Phillip’s impending retirement is anything to go by, our appetite for news about Britain’s Royal Family is as fierce as ever.
But you really have to wonder why. There hasn’t been a genuine royal sensation since the one caused by Edward, Duke of Windsor, when he abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. And the odd questionable fancy dress choice aside, daily life at Buckingham Palace is really rather dull now compared to the heady days of the '90s, when toe-sucking scandals and racy phone conversations made headlines.
But just imagine if Tatler or The Daily Mail were in circulation during King Henry VIII’s 40-year reign. With his weight-gain and six wives, Henry would have provided boundless tabloid fodder.
Of those six wives, Anne Boleyn, number two, remains the most fascinating. As historian Lucy Worsley explains in her new three-part series, Secrets of the Six Wives, Anne and Henry’s love story is the ultimate soap opera – a flesh and blood narrative of love, loss and betrayal. Their romance was so passionate it changed the course of English history.
They were a perfect match
The popular image of Henry VIII as an obese older man doesn’t account for the fact that in his prime, Henry was a real catch. The king was tall (over six feet), athletic and a keen sportsman. He hunted and loved to dance. Henry also lived the life of the mind – interested in books, the arts and languages, and he could play many instruments.
Anne was Henry’s equal in every way. Although not beautiful in accordance with the blonde Tudor ideal, she was exotic, with dark hair and olive skin. Anne was also far more sophisticated than her English counterparts. After seven years as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude in the French royal court, Anne was cultured. She was skilled at dancing, singing and flirting – it was said she could captivate with a glance. But Anne was also clever and curious, and Henry was seduced as much by her mind as her body.
Henry's passion was uncontainable
Anne first joined the English court in 1522 upon her return from France. It took four years for Henry to notice her among the other women, in part because he was busy having an affair with her older sister, Mary. But when Henry discovered Anne, he fell hard and pursued her for over a year before she reciprocated. As Lucy Worsley uncovers in episode one, 17 gushing love letters written by Henry to Anne reveal the extent of his passion and devotion.
But Anne, smart and ambitious, was unwilling to settle for mistress status like her sister. In the bedroom, she kept Henry at arm's length as long as she could. And Henry, who was desperate for a legitimate male heir, obliged, distracting himself with “The King’s Great Matter” – ending his marriage to Catherine. This took years. But Henry and Anne’s desire for each other was overwhelming, and by 1533 Anne was pregnant.
He moved heaven and earth to be with her
Henry went to amazing lengths to rid himself of Catherine and make Anne his new queen. Unable to persuade the Pope to grant him an annulment, Henry broke with the Holy Roman Church, sparked the Reformation and declared himself the head of the Church of England. Henry changed his country’s faith for the woman he loved, but it was a decision that haunted him in the years that followed.
Then things went cold after a jousting accident
If Henry and Anne’s love story began with intense passion and sacrifice, the honeymoon ended dramatically. When he was 44, Henry had a jousting accident that permanently injured one of his legs. Unable to exercise, he gained weight. Poor circulation led to leg sores that bothered him the rest of his life. After the fall, Henry lost consciousness for two hours, leading to speculation he suffered a brain injury that irrevocably changed his personality.
Almost immediately, Henry turned away from Anne. Informed she should prepare for his death, Anne suffered a miscarriage. The baby was a boy and Henry saw this as evidence his union with Anne was cursed. He began looking for ways to get out of it. Henry’s heart turned to ice for the woman he had once moved heaven and earth to be with.
But Anne wouldn't let go
While Henry swore in his love letters to Anne that he would never look at another woman, his once passionate love for Anne turned to hate overnight. A notorious womaniser, Henry didn’t really need a reason to stray, but his accident and Anne’s failure to give him a son spurred him on. Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting and, in true soap opera fashion, Anne’s second cousin, became his new conquest. Historical accounts suggest Anne physically attacked Jane on more than one occasion as she fought to hold onto her man.
So Henry found a, well, permanent solution
Maybe Henry really was in love with Jane or maybe he wanted a male heir so badly he couldn’t think straight. But what would it look like to England and the world if he divorced Anne, the woman he had caused all that fuss over in the first place. Another solution was required. Henry looked to his trusted advisor, Thomas Cromwell, to secure his freedom.
On May 2, 1536, Anne was taken to the Tower of London, amid salacious accusations of adultery and incest. Whether Anne was guilty or not remains a point of historical debate, but what matters is she appeared to be, because she was a feisty, forthright woman who couldn’t be kept in her box. She was executed, two days after the five men – including her brother, George – accused of being her lovers.
Henry’s bloodthirsty lust and insatiable appetite swallowed everyone that got in his way. It was an abrupt and tragic end to a love that first seemed boundless.
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: