“Divorced, Beheaded, Died – Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”
King Henry VIII (28 June 1491 – 28 January 1547) is one of our most well-known monarchs. As a young prince he was considered chivalrous, handsome, benevolent and intelligent – the perfect King. But as Henry’s life and reign went on, public perception of him changed. Nowadays he is most remembered for his turbulent private life – arguments with the Pope, founding the Church of England, marrying 6 different times, and ordering the execution of two of his wives. In fact, it is his marriages that most people know him for today. As fascinating a character as Henry VIII was, it is his wives that keep the public’s interest 500 years on from their complex marriages with the King.
Read on to get some fast facts and inside information on some of the most well-known ex-wives in history!
Catherine of Aragon
Birth Date and Place: 16th December 1485 in Madrid, Spain
Age at Marriage: 23
Length of Marriage: 23 years, 11 months and 19 days
Reason for the Marriage Ending: Annulled – Catherine’s failure to provide a son and her previous marriage to Henry’s elder (deceased) brother
Died: Aged 50 at Kimbolton Castle of ‘natural causes’ but perhaps cancer
As a young princess, Catherine of Aragon married the heir to the English throne, Arthur Tudor. However, around 4 months after their marriage, Arthur – a week and sickly lad – fell ill and died. Catherine was left a widow in a foreign country for 7 years until Henry VIII, Arthurs younger brother and now heir to the throne, married her himself. For this marriage, Henry had to write to the Pope to request permission to marry Catherine. This was because of a law that stated men were not allowed to marry their brothers former wives. Catherine testified that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated because Arthur was too ill and so because of this, the Pope granted permission for their marriage. Throughout their union, Catherine and Henry had 6 children, but only one who survived – our future Queen Mary I. For failing to provide Henry with a son instead of a daughter, Catherine would be cast aside.
In 1525 Henry VIII became infatuated with one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting: Anne Boleyn. Anne refused to be Henry’s mistress and Henry, fuelled by desire for Anne and disappointed in Catherine’s ability to provide him a male heir, made the decision to marry Anne and make her his queen. As head of a Catholic country, Henry needed the Pope’s permission to divorce Catherine – which the Pope would not give. As a result of this, Henry tore England away from the Catholic Church, declared himself the head of his new church – The Church of England – and cast Catherine of Aragon aside in favour of Anne Boleyn.
Birth Date and Place: Unclear. Either 1507 or, more likely, 1501, probably in Norfolk
Age at Marriage: 26 or 32
Length of Marriage: 2 years, 11 months and 19 days
Reason for the Marriage Ending: Anne’s failure to provide Henry a son accompanied by accusations of infidelity, incest and witchcraft
Died: Beheaded at the Tower of London on 19th May 1536
Once Henry rid himself of Catherine of Aragon, Henry married Anne straight away and she was hastily crowned his Queen. The reason for their hasty attitude is because Anne was visibly pregnant at the time. Henry was sure that this child of theirs would be the son and heir he desperate needed. Unfortunately for Anne, their child was a girl – our future Queen Elizabeth I. After more failed pregnancies Henry feared that his marriage to Anne was a mistake and he sought to rid himself of her.
With the assistance of Thomas Cromwell, the Earl of Essex, a bevy of accusations were levelled against the Queen. She was accused of carrying on numerous affairs, of liaising sexually with her brother, and of practising witchcraft. It is highly unlikely that any of these accusations were true, but the legal system was more interested in giving Henry what he wanted than giving Anne a fair trial. She was declared guilty of treason against the crown – and the punishment for treason was death.
As a final gift of mercy, Henry VIII arranged for a French swordsman to come to the Tower of London to behead Anne, instead of the usual axe that was normally used. Anne thanked him for his kind gesture.
Birth Date and Place: 1508, probably Wiltshire
Age at Marriage: 28
Length of Marriage: 1 year, 4 months and 24 days
Reason for the Marriage Ending: Jane’s death in childbed
Died: 24th October 1537 at Hampton Court Palace
Henry married Jane Seymour – one of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, just 10 days after Anne’s execution. Jane was the wife that finally provided Henry with the male heir he had so long sought to have. However, shortly after she gave birth Jane fell very ill and died 12 days after the birth of her son, likely because of post-natal complications and infection.
Henry VIII was grief stricken over the loss of Jane and she was the only one of his wives to receive a proper Queen’s burial. Henry also made it his wish to be buried beside her when he died – a request that was upheld in 1547. Henry VIII and Jane Seymour are, to this day, interred together in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.
Anne of Cleves
Birth Date and Place: 22nd September 1515 in the Duchy of Berg
Age at Marriage: 24
Length of Marriage: 6 months and 3 days
Reason for the Marriage Ending: Her previous engagement to Francis I, Duke of Lorraine was the official reason. In reality, it was Henry’s dislike of her.
Died: 6th July 1557
Anne of Cleves fared the best out of all of Henry VIII’s wives. Three years after the death of Jane Seymour, Henry was ready to marry again. He sent his court painter – Hans Holbein the Younger – to Europe to paint portraits of eligible princesses. When the portraits were brought back, Henry chose Anne of Cleves based off his painting only.
However, when Anne arrived, Henry VIII was immediately unimpressed. He said she had a larger bosom than he had expected and that she had “evil smells about her.” Again Henry relied at the Earl of Essex to assist in disentangling him from his marriage and Anne and Henry’s union was dissolved based on her previous engagement to the Duke of Lorraine – something that was known before the marriage and was not considered an obstacle. But this was the only thread that Henry could hold on to that would allow him to quickly dissolve his marriage to Anne.
After this, though, Anne’s prospects remarkably improved. Not wanting to create an international situation by rejecting a German princess and turning any political alliances on their head, Anne was made “The King’s Sister” which meant she was the most important woman in the country, after Henry’s wife and children. She remained on friendly terms with Henry, as well as with all three of his children. She attended all their coronations – taking pride of place – and lived with a large allowance in a number of stately homes throughout the country. She lived long into life and was actually the last of Henry’s wives to die. She is the only one of his queens to be buried in Westminster Abbey and her burial plot can still be seen.
Birth Date and Place: 1523, probably in Lambeth
Age at Marriage: 18 or 19
Length of Marriage: 1 year, 3 months and 26 days
Reason for the Marriage Ending: Catherine’s alleged adultery
Died: Beheaded at the Tower of London on 13th February 1542
When Katherine Howard was wed to Henry, he had grown well into middle-age and was not only morbidly obese but was afflicted with syphilis and had an open wound on his leg that would not heal – that had an odour detectable from rooms away. Katherine was a young girl, who had spent her life growing up at Lambeth Palace where she had a number of previous boyfriends and had entered into an engagement contract with one of them. Katherine lived a care-free life with little repercussions which meant when she married the King she was not well versed in keeping her head down, following the rules, or being discreet.
Many people threatened Katherine and her family, stating they would tell the King that Katherine was technically engaged to somebody else when he and Katherine married, and that Katherine had previous boyfriends (some of whom she was still said to be in contact with during their marriage). Eventually, the King was made aware of Katherine’s previous engagement but disasterously, Katherine denied it ever existed – stating instead that the man she was said to have been engaged to was actually the perpetrator of a sexual crime against her. If she had admitted to the pre-contract, Katherine would have been banished from court and rendered penniless. But her denial of it, and the court decision that she was lying to the King, made her crime a treason punishable by death.
It is said that the night before her execution, Katherine spent hours practising how to lay her head on the block – which had been brought to her room by her own request – so she would look noble when she lay down to die.
Birth Date and Place: 1512 in London
Age at Marriage: 31
Length of Marriage: 3 years, 6 months and 16 days
Reason for the Marriage Ending: Henry’s death
Died: 5th September 1548 at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire
When Catherine Parr and Henry VIII married, Catherine had already been married twice before. Older than Henry’s previous queen consorts, Catherine and Henry had a rather calm relationship, in fact, many people commented on the fact that they seemed more like friends rather than lovers. The two of them often engaged in intellectual and religious debates, but in 1546 Catherine’s interest in religion and controversies around Church of England and the Pope in Rome, was used against her. An arrest warrant was drawn up for her, charging her with religious crimes (essentially believing a religion different than the Kings! Rumours swirled that the King would be casting her aside.
After being made aware of the warrant, Catherine immediately spoke to Henry and explained to him that she only debated religion with him to keep his mind off the pain of his ulcerous leg. Henry took this as the truth and absolved Catherine of any wrong doing.
After Henry died, Catherine remained close with his children and lived a quiet life in Chelsea. As she grew older, she later looked after Henry and Anne Boleyns daughter, the Lady Elizabeth and she is regarded as a loving step-mother to Henry’s three heirs.
+++You’ll be sure to find out more about Henry VIII on our Westminster Tour!+++