It’s King Henry VIII’s birthday on June 23 and I have a confession to make: I’m a huge Tudor nerd. I think it’s the most interesting period in history, so much drama and intrigue, it’s the ultimate soap opera. Today’s celeb gossip has nothing on Henry the VIII and his six wives. From Arthur Tudor to the Nine Day Queen to Bloody Mary to Queen Elizabeth I, it was a whirlwind of scheming and backstabbing. Most of all I love to read about the 6 wives of King Henry VIII. Each of these remarkable women had their own captivating story of how they came to be Queen of England, and how they lost the crown (at least for 5 of them). They are:
I can never decide who my favorite is…Is it Katherine of Aragon for her strength? Anne Boleyn for her cunning? Jane Seymour for beating Anne Boleyn at her own game? Anne of Cleves for surviving and managing to obtain independence (an unheard of feat for a woman at that time)? Catherine Howard for her innocence and her dying words? Or Katherine Parr for restoring Mary and Elizabeth to the succession and outliving Henry VIII?
I hope you use the links above to come to your own conclusions, and read the many, many wonderful books written on the topic. One place to start is Oxford Reference Online. Read on for a fabulous and thorough biography of the Birthday Boy himself, King Henry VIII.
Henry VIII, Tudors, king of England and Ireland, b. 28 June 1491 2nd s. of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York; acc. 21 Apr. 1509; m. (1) Catherine, da. of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, 11 June 1509; issue: Henry, Mary; (2) Anne, da. of Sir Thomas Boleyn, 25 Jan. 1533; issue: Elizabeth; (3) Jane, da. of Sir John Seymour, 30 May 1536; issue: Edward; (4) Anne, da. of John, duke of Cleves, 6 Jan. 1540; (5) Catherine, da. of Edmund Howard, 28 July 1540; (6) Catherine, da. of Sir Thomas Parr, 12 July 1543; d. 28 Jan. 1547; bur. Windsor. The great portraits by Holbein and the complexity of his matrimonial arrangements have made Henry VIII the best known of all English kings. The death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502 set the pattern for most of Henry’s life, not only because it made him heir and (in 1503) prince of Wales, but because the decision to marry his brother’s widow had momentous consequences. When Henry succeeded in 1509 there was universal praise, and little regret for his father. The new king appeared open, frank, engaging, well built, and athletic, excelling in music and in jousting, and bursting with energy: ‘the most handsome potentate I ever set eyes on’, wrote one foreign observer. His first action was to strike down his father’s financial advisers, Empson and Dudley—a popular and facile gesture. His second was to go ahead with the much-postponed wedding to Catherine of Aragon.
Even in the heady early years, there were shadows. His first son, Henry, died after seven weeks in 1511. In 1514, rumour said that Henry might divorce his wife on the grounds that she could not bear healthy children, and the following year a diplomat reported that Catherine was grown ‘rather ugly’. Another glimpse of the future was the execution in 1513 of Suffolk, a Yorkist rival, whom his father had kept in the Tower, and the execution in 1521 of the duke of Buckingham on very flimsy grounds.
One of Henry’s earliest ambitions was to humiliate the French. In 1512, in alliance with his father-in-law, Ferdinand, he launched an invasion intended to reconquer Gascony. Ferdinand reneged on his commitments and the campaign was a fiasco. The following year, Henry took the field himself with an imposing army and won a skirmish in northern France, dignified as the battle of the Spurs. The earl of Surrey, left behind to guard the kingdom against France’s ally, James IV of Scotland, inflicted on them at Flodden a bloody defeat which left the Scottish king dead among his nobility. The total absorption of Scotland seemed a possibility and Henry began styling himself ‘king of Scotland’.
The French campaigns brought to the fore Thomas Wolsey, bishop of Lincoln in March 1514 archbishop of York in September 1514 cardinal in 1515, and legate in 1518. The birth of a princess, Mary, in 1516 steadied the royal marriage, reviving hopes that the next child might be a boy. The campaigns had not brought Henry the throne of France, but one town, Tournai, surrendered to France after only five years. Deserted by his allies, Henry came to terms with the French and in 1518 agreed that princess Mary should marry the dauphin. The elaborate and expensive Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais in 1520, when Henry and Francis I strove to outdo each other in conspicuous spending, was intended to consolidate the rapprochement. The reconciliation did not last, and by 1522 Henry was once more at war with France and Scotland, waged in desultory fashion until 1525.
By this time the marriage question had become more than rumour. In 1519 Elizabeth Blunt, one of the king’s mistresses, gave birth to a healthy boy (the future duke of Richmond), confirming Henry’s belief that either his wife was at fault or that their union had been cursed. Elizabeth Blunt was succeeded by Mary Boleyn. Divorce and remarriage became urgent, and a new candidate for royal consort emerged in Mary’s younger sister, Anne Boleyn. Henry’s argument was that marriage to a dead brother’s wife was contrary to canon law; Catherine’s retort was that her marriage to prince Arthur had never been consummated. The issue brought down Wolsey in 1529, after he had failed to persuade the pope to grant a divorce. He was replaced as Chancellor by Sir Thomas More, but effective power passed to Thomas Cromwell, who pushed through Parliament the legislation denying the authority of the pope, giving Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, the chance in 1533 to declare Henry’s first marriage null and void. The new legislation was draconian. An early victim was More himself, who resigned in 1532 and was executed three years later for refusing to acknowledge Henry as head of the church. When Henry moved against the monasteries in 1538 and 1539, the abbots of Glastonbury, Colchester, Reading, and Woburn and the prior of Lenton were hanged. At the same time, a vigorous persecution of protestants was maintained, particularly after the Act of Six Articles in 1539 marked a return to catholic orthodoxy. Henry was, at least, impartial in his religious terror.
Meanwhile, he remained preoccupied with matrimony and the succession. Anne Boleyn, heavily pregnant, was crowned queen of England on 1 June 1533 but the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth, was a disappointment, and by 1536 Henry had begun to weary of Anne. When his eye lighted upon Jane Seymour, Anne’s fate was sealed, and she was beheaded on charges designed to discredit her, including incest with her brother, Lord Rochford. The king was betrothed to Jane the following day, and married within the fortnight; this third marriage produced, in prince Edward, the desired male heir, but the birth cost the life of his mother. The fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves in 1540, was never consummated, and was declared invalid after six months. Henry’s fifth wife was Catherine Howard, whose youth and vivacity entranced the king until he discovered that she had been unchaste before marriage and probably afterwards: she went to the block in February 1542. Despite advancing bulk, Henry’s unlucky experiences had not wholly deterred him, and in July 1543 he embarked on his last marriage, to Catherine Parr, which saw him through to the end.
The work of reasserting royal authority continued under Henry, particularly in the 1530s when Cromwell was in charge. The rising of the Pilgrimage of Grace in the northern counties on behalf of the old religion shook the throne and frightened Henry; his revenge was characteristically brutal, but it resulted in the foundation of the Council of the North to bring that remote region under more effective control. Wales was more closely integrated with England by acts of 1536 and 1543. In Ireland, direct rule was still confined to the Pale, around Dublin, but a determined effort to extend the authority of the king’s lieutenant began in 1520 when the earl of Surrey, son of the victor of Flodden, was sent over with a large army. The effort was too expensive and Henry fell back on the old expedient of relying upon the earls of Kildare. When the tenth earl rebelled in 1534, Henry took savage revenge, executing him in the Tower, despite a safe conduct, along with five of his uncles.
After 1540, when Cromwell was executed, there is a sense of drift. The most prominent counsellor was Norfolk, a conservative in religion, but he was no Wolsey or Cromwell. Debasement of the coinage, which began in the 1540s, contributed greatly to a steep rise in prices. In 1542 war began with France’s ally, Scotland, where Henry pushed the marriage of his son, Edward, to the infant queen Mary. When the Scots demurred, he responded with the ‘rough wooing’, sending expeditions to burn and destroy the south-eastern towns. In 1543 he added to his problems by agreeing with Charles V to attack the French. Henry hoisted himself on horseback for one last attempt at military glory and succeeded in capturing Boulogne. Approaching bankruptcy forced a peace in 1544 whereby Boulogne was to be handed back in eight years.
Personally and politically there is little to admire in Henry. His treatment of his wives has been much condemned, but at least he was convinced of the guilt of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. In some respects, the treatment of his ministers was worse: Wolsey destroyed, More and Cromwell executed, Norfolk condemned to beheading and saved only by Henry’s own death, with one day to spare. He hounded the Kildares and Poles as though they were vermin to be exterminated. Henry had no pity, save for himself in abundance.
The traditional view of his reign saw a great strengthening of the crown, the papacy routed, clergy cowed, nobility brought to heel, administration reformed, the wealth of the monasteries acquired. But the reservations are severe. If Henry’s great object was to secure the succession, he could hardly have done worse: his six marriages produced one sickly boy, and two princesses whose inheritance had been jeopardized by repeated bastardization and reinstatement. The gains from the dissolution were squandered and went largely to the gentry, and roaring inflation undermined the monarchy’s finances, causing great problems for successors. His religious policy produced not unity but deep and enduring divisions, while his use of Parliament as a weapon against the papacy built it into an institution capable of overthrowing the monarchy itself a hundred years later. His foreign policy was highly personal, markedly eccentric, and counter-productive. Of the political acumen of his father, there is little trace.