The wives of Henry VIII: A king in search of an heir

Religious conflict began with King Henry VIII's departure from the Catholic Church

King Henry VIII - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Divorced, beheaded, died: divorced, beheaded, survived”. Most of us know this famous rhyme. But how many of us know the full story behind the six wives of Henry VIII?

Henry became King just before he turned 18 in 1509 and married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was Spanish and had previously married Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, who had died five months later. The young Henry was a keen sportsman and enjoyed jousting, falconry and hunting.

Henry and Catherine were in fact married for nearly 25 years, considerably longer than all of his other marriages put together. However, the marriage, Henry’s reign and indeed his life generally would be totally destabilised by his overriding obsession with securing a male heir to succeed him. By the mid-1520s, Catherine and Henry had one daughter, Mary, born in 1517. Catherine had suffered a number of miscarriages and stillbirths and was approaching the age when she would no longer be able to have children.

Henry had, meanwhile, grown increasingly infatuated with a younger woman in his court, Anne Boleyn. Soon he wanted to ditch Catherine in favour of Anne. But achieving this was no simple matter.

Henry was still a Catholic King in a Catholic country. Divorce was not allowed. Many years before Henry had needed to obtain special permission from the Pope to marry his own brother’s widow which was expressly forbidden in the Bible. Now Henry argued that the earlier Pope had been wrong to give him this permission and that Henry was being punished by God as a result, hence his lack of sons. In the end, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church completely, declaring himself head of the new Church of England. The move had dramatic implications for British history. Henry divorced Catherine (who died a few years later) and married Anne Boleyn.

Unfortunately, Anne fared little better than Catherine had. She had one daughter, Elizabeth, in 1533 but no boys and Henry was soon more interested in a younger woman in his court, Lady Jane Seymour. Anne Boleyn had, in fact, been secretly taking on lovers in the desperate hope of producing a baby boy by any means necessary. She was discovered and executed for adultery. Henry married Jane Seymour.

Jane gave Henry exactly what he wanted: a male heir, Prince Edward born in 1537 but she sadly died herself as a result of complications resulting from childbirth soon afterwards. Henry genuinely mourned Jane and would be buried alongside her when he died himself.

Henry would have no more children but would marry three times more in his final decade. He married Anne of Cleves after apparently being impressed by a flattering Hans Holbein portrait of her. In reality, on meeting her on her arrival in England, he was much less impressed and the marriage fell apart (Henry’s growing obesity and poor health may have been a factor here too. He was now a far cry from the dashing renaissance man of his youth). Despite this awkwardness, Anne remained on friendly terms with Henry and died later than any of his other wives, although was still only in her early 40s. Not so Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. More than 30 years Henry’s junior, she was executed in 1542 for adultery. She was not yet 20.

Henry VIII died himself in 1547, aged 55. He lived longer than any of his six wives. His sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who survived him had already been twice married and widowed before she married the King. Afterwards, she married again. By coincidence, her husband was Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane.
After Henry’s death his son, Edward VI, ruled as a child for six years until his death aged just 16. His older half-sister, ’Bloody’ Mary, then ruled for three unhappy years before her own death triggered the glorious 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Determined never to marry herself, the Tudor dynasty died with Elizabeth in 1603.

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