The truth about Henry VIII’s six wives

Historian Lucy Worsley looks back at the serial monogamist’s queens in a new BBC series

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It’s doubtful Henry VIII would top a poll of history’s Great Romantics. For Lucy Worsley, however, he’s merely misunderstood. “He was what we would call a serial monogamist, always looking for his one true love,” says the historian who, as Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces knows a thing or two about the domestic arrangements of British monarchs. Now, in a new series that mixes history with drama, Worsley sets out to explode some of the myths surrounding Henry’s queens.

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“I think each generation needs to discover them for themselves,” she says, “because Henry’s marriages were more than a series of love stories; they each had massive political repercussions, which in many ways turned us into the country we are today. Personally, I’ve always been more interested in the wives than in Henry, and in this series we’ve tried to look at events from their perspective. It’s time they got to tell their own stories.”

Catherine of Aragon

Paola Bontempi as Catherine of Aragon

There’s been a tendency to portray Catherine as bitter, disappointed, menopausal, cast aside – all the clichés of the first wife. But there’s so much more to her than that. She was, in fact, fantastically well trained to be queen; she’d been brought up in an environment of powerful women – her mother, Isabella of Castile, created Spain as a country along with her father Ferdinand of Aragon. So Catherine really was a terrific match for Henry; they were – for a time – the golden couple.

One of the sources for our first episode is the Westminster Tournament Roll, a really long picture that depicts, almost like a video, the tournament given to celebrate the birth of Catherine’s son, Henry, in 1511. We see Henry breaking his lance on the helmet of his opponent (which we know didn’t actually happen, because they kept the score card), then the “action” switches to Catherine, looking very young and beautiful – not at all the grim-faced, religion-obsessed widow of popular imagination.

Sadly for Catherine, the first Prince Henry lived only a few weeks. Again, she’s been done a disservice by history, as she’s often referred to as “infertile”. While it’s quite hard to work out her gynaecological history – there were six pregnancies, but only one of her children [Mary Tudor] survived – she certainly wasn’t infertile! Of course, it was very dodgy and dangerous to suspect the king’s health, so you can see how the blame would be laid on poor Catherine. Yet even when she’s put aside by the king and sent into damp and pestilential Cambridgeshire, she remains steadfast and dignified. She’s definitely my favourite wife.

Anne Boleyn

Claire Cooper as Anne Boleyn

There are two schools of thought on Anne Boleyn. For many centuries she had an image as a witch, a sexual predator with almost magical powers of seduction. Then there’s the idea, advanced by Protestant historians in the reign of Elizabeth I, that Anne was a proto-Protestant martyr, punished by conservative forces for wanting to bring about a new world order.
 

I think she’s quite a tragic figure; the reason she strikes a chord is that she quite often makes choices that are like the choices a modern person would make. She doesn’t seem like a Tudor person in the way she strategically manages Henry – telling him, “I’m not going to sleep with you for seven years until I’m sure you’re going to

make me queen of England.” Also, it was considered “a matter of hygiene” for the king to sleep with other women when the queen was pregnant, and one of the remarkable, modern things about Anne is that she did seem to expect Henry to stay faithful. 


More recently, of course, Wolf Hall has made Anne look like she’s the victim of Thomas Cromwell, but historians don’t think there was a faction or plot against Anne. So she’s not a total martyr brought down by politicians, but nor is she a wicked witch. I see her, in many ways, as an admirable, forward-thinking woman with a sense of her own worth. 

Jane Seymour

Elly Condron as Jane Seymour

The stereotype of Jane is that she was a bit of a doormat – her personal motto was “Bound to Serve” – and I think that, in this case, the stereotype was probably right. I think of her as being a bit like a geisha; her attitude to Henry was basically, “What do you want, my lord? I will give it to you.” And if you wanted to stay alive in 1536, that was a good way to go, because in that year, Catherine of Aragon dies, practically of a broken heart, and Anne Boleyn gets her head cut off. Yet it is known that during the dissolution of the monasteries, Jane spoke up for the monks, so maybe she wasn’t so doormatty after all.

It’s often wrongly said that Jane died in childbirth, either during or because of a caesarean. There are even popular ballads about this – one song goes that if you marry Henry VIII, he’ll chop off your head or rip open your belly to get his baby out – but this is Catholic, anti-Henry propaganda, presenting the king as someone who kills his wives like Bluebeard. Jane didn’t have a caesarean. We know that she was alive ten days to two weeks after the birth of Prince Edward, and died of septicaemia. Certainly she was sincerely mourned by Henry and was eventually buried with him in the same tomb. Which says something about Henry’s romanticism – it’s the queen who leaves him, “the one who got away”, who dominates his memory.

Anne of Cleves

Rebecca Dyson Smith as Anne of Cleves

The story goes that Henry is shopping for a wife, and gets sold a pup; the court painter Holbein creates a flattering portrait of Anne who, in reality, is so ugly that the king is unable to consummate the marriage. The real problem seems to have been that Anne’s figure was very full – there are reports of Henry saying “I don’t like her belly, I don’t like the looseness of her breasts” – and according to contemporary concepts of the body, that meant she wasn’t a virgin.

Certainly her wedding night was much discussed, as it later became a legal issue. There are depositions from a senior lady in waiting, claiming that Anne doesn’t fully understand about sex, and and from Henry’s physician, Dr Thomas Butts, to the effect that the king is well able to “do the deed” with other women, he just can’t do it with Anne. It must have been mortifying for her. I like to think our version of events at least gives her side of the story.

Katherine Howard

Lauren McQueen as Katherine Howard

She has a strong image as “the flibbertigibbet wife”, but we absolutely represent Katherine Howard as a victim of child abuse. We know that the king was handed a letter that said, “Your queen, who you think was a virgin when you married her, actually has a past.” What’s less well known is that as a young girl, Katherine was sent to live with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk to be educated about the ways of the court. There were lots of young ladies living in this household, and they all slept together, locked in a room called the Maidens’ Chamber. However it was possible for men to get hold of the key and we know that Katherine was having sex with at least two men during this period. This all came out when the men were tortured.

We don’t know exactly when Katherine was born, but she was possibly just out of her teens when she had her head cut off. There’s a heart-rending account of her asking to “try out” the executioner’s block, so that she doesn’t mess up her beheading. For us, Catherine is not a good-time girl at all – she’s a little victim. 

Katherine Parr

Alice Patten as Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr is traditionally seen as the caring wife, ministering to the King’s wants and treating his bad leg. This is historically incorrect; Henry had male servants and doctors to give what was called “body service” – it wouldn’t have been a woman’s job. Katherine was an intellectual powerhouse, the first woman in England, let alone the first queen, to publish a book under her own name. She also produced a devotional work, Lamentations of a Sinner, at a time when it was illegal for women even to speak about religion. It was Katherine who saw to the education of her stepdaughter, Elizabeth. One of the reasons Elizabeth was a great queen is that she had Katherine Parr as a role model.

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Six Wives with Lucy Worsley is on Wednesday 7th December at 9pm on BBC1