I accidentally stumbled into this project. The other day, I overheard a woman say to another, “Here’s how you remember King Henry’s wives: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”
Like a song stuck in my head, I kept repeating this little rhyme for the rest of the day. When I got home, I started creating what became this finished illustration:
Here’s some very brief overviews of each of his wives. I suggest reading in depth about them, because they are all fascinating women in their own right. The political implications of these marriages and of the king’s erratic behavior shines light on a tumultuous time in English history.
Catherine of Aragon
Motto: Humble and Loyal
The first wife of Henry VIII, she was a devout Catholic and a Spanish princess. She had first been married to Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur. However, the ill-fated marriage lasted only a couple of months before Prince Arthur died of illness. It was asserted that the marriage was never consummated, therefore it was acceptable for Arthur’s younger brother Henry VIII to marry her afterward. She was a bit older than Henry, but they did live in relative peace and happiness for awhile. However, Henry wanted a son, and Catherine bore him a daughter (Princess Mary) and had several miscarriages and stillbirths thereafter.
Henry then got it into his wacky head that the reason he wasn’t bearing children with Catherine was because her marriage with his brother had actually been legitimate. Maybe, just maybe, they really did bone and consummate their marriage after all. That would make Henry’s marriage to Catherine illegitimate and an abomination. He also had begun courting Anne Boleyn, whom he would eventually marry.
So, then he treated Catherine and his daughter Mary like crap and tried to annul the marriage. The Pope, however, denied the annulment, causing Henry to break England away from the Catholic church. Catherine of Aragon was exiled from court. She lived her life asserting that the marriage was, and always would be, legitimate and that she was the true Queen of England. It is rumored that she died years later due to the stress and mistreatment she received from the king.
Motto: The Most Happy
Probably the most famous of the wives, she caused a political stir and gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. King Henry VIII was besotted with this lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon and courted her while still married. Anne was vivacious and lively, teasing and flirting with the king while refusing to simply be his mistress. The king was enraptured and pursued marriage with Anne. He argued his current marriage was null and void due to Catherine of Aragon’s previous marriage to King Henry’s late brother. The pope in Rome refused to grant an annulment. King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England and a divorced was finalized. As a result, he was excommunicated from the Catholic church, and thus began a continual back and forth between the Catholic church and the Protestant Reformation in England.
Anne and King Henry VIII got married. She had a baby girl, Princess Elizabeth. Henry was kind of happy (but not really because he wanted a boy). However, Anne kept having miscarriages. Henry was losing interest in Anne and paying attention to his future wife, Jane Seymour.
In a complicated series of events, Anne was accused of adultery, treason, and incest with her own brother. Gross. None of the accused men confessed accept for one man, Mark Smeaton. However, he was tortured into confessing, so that’s not very compelling evidence.
She was lead to the scaffold and before being beheaded recited, “Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul.”
Motto: Bound to Obey and Serve
Jane Seymour is remembered as the favorite wife of Henry VIII, because she gave him the one thing that the other wives did not, a son. His affections for Jane started before the beheading of Anne Boleyn, and he didn’t waste much time securing her as a wife after Anne’s death. Jane was everything that Anne wasn’t: meek, humble, and subservient. Although used as a political pawn by her notable family, she humbly accepted her role as wife and remained dutiful. Unfortunately, giving birth to the son that Henry wanted caused her demise. Twelve days after having Prince Edward, she died due to complications from childbirth.
Anne of Cleves
Motto: God Send Me Well to Keep
Anne didn’t last very long as a queen (six months), but luckily she left with an annulment rather than a lopped off head. Before marriage, King Henry VIII was presented a portrait of Anne, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Apparently, the portrait was more pleasing than her actual appearance. When she arrived, the king was not attracted to his new bride, and they never consummated the marriage.
Anne probably breathed a sigh of relief at the annulment. At this point, the king was not so hot himself. She accepted it without complaint.
Motto: No other will than his.
Poor Catherine Howard. Perhaps being the cousin of Anne Boleyn was the first big sign that things weren’t going to go well. She was young, flirtatious, emotional, and probably not very aware of how erratic and cruel the king could be. She started as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves before catching the eye of the king, and when the king sets his sights on you, it can be both difficult and dangerous to spurn him.
She was only 19 or 20 when she was beheaded for adultery. While Anne Boleyn’s alleged indiscretions are dubious at best, it was confirmed that Catherine Howard did have something going on with a guy named Thomas Culpeper. But, really, who hasn’t been young, reckless, and in love?
Motto: To be useful in all that I do.
Catherine Parr is notable for surviving marriage with King Henry VIII and for also being one of the most intelligent and capable of the six wives. After marrying Henry, she took it upon herself to care for her stepchildren, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Edward, providing a lasting influence to their lives and educations. She cultivated her own mind by continually studying languages and theology. This penchant for learning, not to mention her Protestant sympathies, nearly got her in hot water when she tried to engage Henry in a discussion about theology. Keep in mind, due to England’s split from the Catholic church and the general spread of the Reformation, theology was a hot-button topic. Henry didn’t like Catherine taking about religion to him (because god forbid a woman has an opinion) and his irritation nearly got Catherine arrested. She managed to placate him by assuring him that she was inferior and was merely trying to distract him from his gross leg pain.
Despite all this, she was intelligent and capable enough to become regent of England while Henry was on a military campaign in France. Upon his passing, she was allowed a cozy living at court until Edward VI came into power. She remarried to Thomas Seymour soon after, but unfortunately died due to childbirth at the age of 36.