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King Henry VIII and His Six Wives—Love, Marriage, and Children

Henry VIII of England, King 1509-1547

King Henry VIII was, quite probably, the most significant English political and religious figure since William the Conqueror set sail from Normandy in 1066 AD.

This article is about Henry the man - his loves, his wives, his children. Famous for having six wives, Henry VIII is said to be the only English King to have had more wives than mistresses.

Every English schoolchild knows the rhyme, "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived", about, in turn, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.

Even in his own lifetime, when his revenge could be swift and cruel, his marital history was made fun of. The beautiful 16 year old Duchess Christina of Denmark is supposed to have said in 1538 that if she had had two heads, Henry was welcome to one of them. She declined to marry him.

Henry himself died thinking that he had had only two marriages - to Jane Seymour, and Catherine Parr. The rest were not valid, in his view. That meant, also, that King Henry VIII only considered one of his children, the future King Edward VI, to be legitimate. He did not regard his daughters, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor, as being born within marriage.

Family and Childhood of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's wife 1509-1533

Catherine of Aragon was born in Spain on 16th December 1485.

She was the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Both were monarchs of their own countries. Catherine was therefore an infanta, a Spanish princess. Her title as a child was Infanta Caterina.

Catherine was named after her maternal grandmother, the English daughter of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster.

As you can see from the portrait to the right of this text, she looked English as well, with fair hair, fair skin, and blue eyes.

Ferdinand and Isabella were important monarchs in Europe. They were relentlessly pious and Catholic, and were awarded the titles of, “the Catholic Kings”.

Catherine had several older siblings. The eldest was called Isabella, then came Juan, and then Juana, Maria and then the baby of the family, Catherine.

Catherine had an active childhood. Ferdinand and Isabella were busy with the reconquista.

They were dedicated to expelling the last remaining Muslim Moors from Spain, and the Queen was head of her own armies. Isabella took her daughters as well as her son to the siege of Granada in 1491.

Historical Fiction on This Topic

Catherine of Aragon's Marriage to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales

At the age of 3, Catherine was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales. The couple were married before they even met, by proxy.

They married firstly in Wales in May 1499, where Arthur married the Spanish Ambassador to England, De Puebla.

There was a second proxy marriage in December 1500, and the Ambassador played the part of Catherine of Aragon at a wedding feast after the proxy marriage.

Catherine arrived in England in October 1500, at Plymouth, Devon. Catherine and Arthur married in St Paul’s Cathedral on 14th November 1500.

The young couple moved to the Welsh Marches, but their married life together was short. Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales, died on 2nd April 1502, leaving Catherine a young teenage widow.

It was almost immediately proposed by Catherine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, that Catherine marry Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry.

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Henry the VII was far from sure that the marriage remained to his advantage. And Henry the VII therefore delayed it as long as possible, and in fact it was delayed until after he died in 1509.

Henry VIII's Marriage to Catherine of Aragon

Henry VII died on 21st April 1509.

Catherine married Henry VIII on 24th June 1509 in a very private ceremony. Henry appeared to want to marry Catherine. He had come to know her over the years that she lived in London as his brother’s widow, and appeared to find her attractive and interesting.

Catherine was a little older than Henry. She was 24 in 1509 when they married, and Henry was 18. She was, however, universally regarded as attractive. It must have seemed like a miracle to Catherine - from impoverished, disregarded and ignored widowhood, to wife and Queen in a matter of weeks.

Catherine became pregnant quickly, but miscarried in early 1510. She became pregnant again almost immediately, and on 31st December 1510 her first living child, a son, was born. He was named Prince Henry, and was baptised and given his own royal household. Jousts and ceremonies were held all over England to celebrate.

At the age of 22 days, Prince Henry died.

In 1513, Henry the VIII set sail for France in order to fight, allied with the Spanish, on French soil. He appointed Catherine as Regent of the country while he was away, a signal honour and a sign of his confidence in her.

While Henry fought battles abroad, encouraged by affectionate and admiring letters from Catherine back in England, the Scottish army led by James IV invaded England. Catherine organised the military defence. She marched out at the head of an army from Richmond, near London, and appears to have worn some form of armour.

Obviously she didn’t exactly fight, but was nearby when the English and Scots armies clashed at the Battle of Flodden. The Scots lost badly. In the Scottish armour, the King himself was killed, there was an Archbishop, a Bishop, 2 Abbots, 12 Earls, 14 Lords and 10,000 common soldiers. Casualties on the English side were only about 1,500.

Catherine further wrote to Henry a couple of months later to inform him that she was pregnant again. This pregnancy also ended in a miscarriage. She suffered from another stillbirth in 1514. She appears to have miscarried again in early 1515.

In January 1516 Catherine was once again in childbed. At the age of 31 she gave birth to the only child which would live to adulthood. Wonderful though a living child was, the celebrations were hugely muted because the child, Mary, was a girl and not the son everybody wanted.

In 1518, in November, Catherine gave birth to another live daughter, who died a few days later.

A video About the Inventory Made in 1547, on the Death of Henry VIII

Bessie Blount—Henry VIII's Mistress c. 1519-20

Henry the VIII’s only confirmed mistresses were Elizabeth Blount and Mary Boleyn.

By Elizabeth Blount, Henry had a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy.

In 1525 he was formally recognised as the King’s son, created Earl of Nottingham, Duke of Richmond, Duke of Somerset, a Knight of the Garter, and Lord Admiral and Warden General of the Marches against Scotland.

The 6 year old was given a formal household, based at Sheriff Hutton Castle, Yorkshire, and altogether set up as a royal figure.

Henry died before he reached adulthood. At one stage, bizarrely, King Henry VIII appeared to be considering a marriage between Henry Fitzroy and his half-sister, Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon.

Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn and mistress of Henry VIII

Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn and mistress of Henry VIII

Mary Boleyn—Henry VIII's Mistress c. 1520 to 1523

When Mary Boleyn, Anne’s older sister, became Henry’s mistress, she was already married to William Carey. That marriage had taken place in February 1520. Carey was bribed, and given grants of land, titles and other offices.

Mary remained his mistress for some time. She had a son, Henry Carey, in 1525. It is generally thought very unlikely that this child was also Henry’s.

Firstly, the affair had probably ended by then. Secondly, Henry was all too eager to recognise Henry Fitzroy as his bastard son, in order to show that his marriage was the problem not his virility.

"Greensleeves," Supposed to Have Been Written by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn

The Failing Marriage in the 1520s

Catherine was very short, probably only about 4 feet 9 or 10 in height. She was pregnant 7 out of the 9 years from her marriage in 1509 to 1518, and by the age of 35 she was really very large.

Henry VIII no longer found her attractive. In losing her looks, and failing to produce a male heir, Catherine also lost a great deal of her power over the King.

By 1525, Henry VIII was referring to himself as childless, despite his healthy living heir, Mary.

In 1525 also, Mary’s household was reorganised to be formally the heir’s household. She was given stewards and chamberlains who were barons, a Lord President of the Council, who was a Bishop, and 300 assorted servants. Her household cost £5000 a year to run.

As Princess of Wales, Mary was based in the Welsh Marches.

By 1527, however, Henry VIII had decided that the solution to the problem of the succession was to obtain a new wife.

The King's Great Matter

Henry VIII convinced himself that the words in Leviticus Chapter 20 showed that his marriage was unlawful:

If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness: they shall be childless

Henry came to believe fervently that the papal disposition for the marriage was not sufficient to make it lawful, and that the Pope could not set aside the laws of nature and God.

Henry was therefore determined that the marriage should be set aside.

Henry thought it would be easy. Generally speaking, Popes were sympathetic to Kings who lacked sons and whose wives were unable to provide them.

Ways out of marriage contracts were often found. For example, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s first marriage to Louis of France was dissolved as they had only daughters.

In the King's Great Matter, however, things were different. Amongst other problems, the Pope was under the practical and military control of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

And, of course, Charles V was not just the Holy Roman Emperor, he was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew.

Woodcut showing the coronation of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, from Stephen Hawes, "A Joyfull Medytacvon to All Englande" published 1509

Woodcut showing the coronation of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, from Stephen Hawes, "A Joyfull Medytacvon to All Englande" published 1509

The End of Catherine of Aragon's Marriage, and Her Life Thereafter

In May 1533, Cranmer declared that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been unlawful, and declared Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn valid.

In July 1533, Henry issued a proclamation stripping Catherine of Aragon of her title as Queen, and saying from thenceforth should she be known as the Princess Dowager of Wales, as Prince Arthur’s widow. She was given a greatly reduced household and sent off to the country.

Catherine moved in the spring of 1534 to Kimbolton, Huntingdonshire, and lived there as a semi-prisoner. Henry had not allowed Catherine to see her daughter for some years.

In March 1534, the Pope finally declared that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid in Canon Law, and that the marriage could not be challenged. This was now, in England, an irrelevancy.

Catherine died early in January 1536 at Kimbolton. She was buried as the Princess Dowager of Wales.

Mary had to be dealt with. She was put under enormous pressure from after the birth of Elizabeth to swear an oath that her parents had not been married and that she was illegitimate.

Anne Boleyn as Queen of England, painted about 1534.

Anne Boleyn as Queen of England, painted about 1534.

Hever Castle, Home of the Boleyn family

Anne Boleyn's Family and Childhood

Anne Boleyn did not come from one of the top families in the land.

Her father’s family were merchants who had ascended into the landed classes. Her great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, was a London merchant who bought land in Norfolk and in Kent. Anne’s grandfather and father, Thomas Boleyn, married well, into increasingly aristocratic families.

Thomas Boleyn’s wife was the daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk and sister of the third. Thomas and Elizabeth married in about 1500, and had 3 children who lived to adulthood; Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, and George Boleyn.

The exact dates of birth of all 3 children are not known. It is likely that Mary Boleyn was the oldest (contrary to what Philippa Gregory says in the “Other Boleyn Girl”) Anne was the second, born between 1502 and 1507, and George was the youngest.

Anne was well educated, attractive, and had all the courtly skills. As a child she went to live in the Archduchess Margaret’s household in Burgundy. Margaret’s court was intellectual and cultured, and Anne Boleyn received an extremely good education there.

When Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, married the King of France in 1514, Anne Boleyn joined Mary’s household in Paris. Mary Tudor was quickly widowed, in 1515, but Anne Boleyn stayed at the French Court.

Anne became perfectly fluent in French, had a very good singing voice and played a number of instruments.

She did not look like a classic ideal of English beauty. She was dark-haired and had very dark eyes. She was nevertheless regarded as extremely attractive, skilled, and interesting.

In the early 1520s, Anne returned to England and entered the royal household as one of Catherine of Aragon’s Ladies in Waiting. It is likely Henry VIII became interested in Anne in late 1524 or 1525.

Original parchment record of the trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, for incest, adultery, and treason.

Original parchment record of the trial of Anne Boleyn and her brother, George Boleyn, for incest, adultery, and treason.

Anne Boleyn's Relationship With Henry VIII

In 1525 and 1526, Henry VIII chased Anne Boleyn vigorously. He no doubt thought it would be easier enough to make her his mistress. But she held out.

A good number of Henry’s love letters to Anne have survived. Many of them were stolen and they are now in the Vatican library.

They became engaged on New Year’s Day, 1527.

Anne was, by 1528, already supporting religious dissenters, Lutherans, and Protestants. She did her best to protect them against persecution by the Catholic establishment.

Instead, Anne favoured her Chamberlain and Chaplain Thomas Cranmer. He was a reformist priest from Cambridge.

Anne brought Cranmer to Henry VIII’s attention, and he rose steadily in Tudor circles, eventually becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.

Anne adopted a new motto from the Burgundian Court in 1531, “Thus it will be, grumble who will”.

For a couple of years, bizarrely, King Henry VIII, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn had travelled together in a royal court.

The Marriage of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII

nry VIII and Anne Boleyn became lovers in November or December 1532. They had a secret marriage at the end of 1532, although Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon.

By early December, Anne was pregnant, and the expected heir made the marriage even more urgent.

The Act of Succession 1534, passed at the end of March, cited Thomas Cranmer’s verdict that the marriage to Catherine was unlawful, and affirmed the lawfulness of the marriage between Henry and Anne Boleyn.

The succession to the throne was to go to Henry’s heirs male by Anne or any subsequent wife, and if no such sons were born, the throne was to pass to Elizabeth. Mary I was not mentioned at all.

On 7th September 1533, Anne gave birth to a healthy child. This heir is exactly what was wanted, apart from one terrible error.

The baby, Elizabeth, was a girl and not the son for which Henry had risked everything.

More Acts were passed setting out the reformation, the Act of Supremacy 1534 appointed the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England, and the Act of Obedience 1534 made any attribution of power to the Pope treason.

In January 1536, Anne Boleyn was pregnant again. In a jousting event, Henry had an accident and fell badly. Anne Boleyn was not there, but was badly shocked when told.

On the day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral, 5 days after the accident in jousting, Anne miscarried a male foetus.

This was the third pregnancy for Anne. She’d had the healthy Elizabeth I in 1533, a miscarriage in 1534 (or possibly a stillbirth) and a further male miscarriage in early 1536.

By the time of this miscarriage, Henry’s eye already seems to have turned to Jane Seymour.

In early May, Anne Boleyn was arrested and was taken to the Tower of London. Her chief prosecutor and interrogator was her Uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.

Anne was accused of adultery with numerous gentlemen at the Court, and of incest with her brother. The 5 men, including George Boleyn, were executed on Tower Hill near the Tower of London on 17th May.

Anne Boleyn’s marriage to the King was annulled on the 18th May, and Anne Boleyn herself was executed on the 19th May. She was buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

After the execution, the 2 year old Princess Elizabeth joined her sister Mary in a state of legally-proclaimed bastardy.

Queen Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII

Queen Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour was a complete contrast to Anne Boleyn. She spoke very little, and when she did she was extremely meek, submissive and calm.

After the exciting and rollercoaster relationship with Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII appears to have been attracted to a woman who was frankly seen as pretty dull.

The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution on 19th May, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were betrothed, and they married on 30th May at York Place, now Whitehall, in Central London.

Not much is known about how Jane Seymour formed a relationship with Henry VIII. Jane was a member of Anne Boleyn’s household, just as Anne Boleyn had been a member of Catherine of Aragon’s household.

The relationship appears to have started in about February 1536. Like Anne Boleyn, Jane was from a good but not top-notch aristocratic family.

Jane soon became pregnant, and on the 12th October 1537, gave birth to a healthy son, named Edward. After a long and difficult labour, Jane appeared to be recovering, but then became infected with childbed fever, and died late on the 24th October. It appears that Henry was absent.

Anne of Cleves, in the portrait seen by Henry VIII before they met

Anne of Cleves, in the portrait seen by Henry VIII before they met

Anne of Cleves

King Henry’s fourth marriage was an arranged marriage of State.

With the reformation in full swing in England, fiercely Catholic princesses could not be considered, nor would they consider Henry.

The Duchy of Cleves was in present day Northern Germany, and had its capital at Düsseldorf. The Duke had 2 unmarried younger sisters, Anne and Amelia. Anne was 25 when the marriage took place, and Henry was nearly 50.

The famous portrait of Anne of Cleves was painted by Hans Holbein, in order that Henry could see what she looked like before they married.

Anne was not well educated. She came from a suitably non Catholic country, but could only speak and understand her own language, a type of German, and could not speak English, French or even Latin.

Anne arrived in England right at the end of December 1539, and first met Henry by surprise on New Year’s Day. Anne of Cleves failed to recognise Henry VIII, who was offended by this.

His type of humiliation set him against her from the beginning. In addition, he decided that she was unattractive and unsuitable.

However, in terms of arranged royal marriages it was impossible for him to reject her now.

The couple married on 6th January 1540, greatly against Henry’s will.

The day after the marriage, Henry declared he’d been unable to consummate it and was not impotent but unable to rise to the occasion with Anne.

By early July 1540, Henry was already talking about divorce. Anne of Cleves was distinctly upset by this, but was wise enough to realise that opposing the King in such matters was bad for her health.