Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived: A morbid rhyme indeed, but useful if you want to keep up with the lives and fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. While his reign was not generally viewed as extraordinary, the lasting legacy of England's King Henry VIII is undoubtedly the founding of the Church of England and the gruesome (not to mention juicy) story of its origin.
Portrait of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Catherine Of Aragon
A few years after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain sent some guy named Columbus to sail the ocean blue, they decided their next big move should be strengthening ties with the Tudors of England. Naturally, this meant arranging the marriage of their youngest daughter, Catherine, to the eldest Royal Prince of England, Arthur. However, it would be a short marriage, as the 15-year-old prince died five months after their wedding. (Just a heads-up: Death is a common theme in this story.) Unwilling to let go of the dowry, King Henry VII urged the marriage of Catherine to the new heir to the throne, little Prince Henry. It was a typical royal marriage to secure wealth and power. What could go wrong?
Catherine of Aragon, early 18th century, NPG 163.
Tragically, the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII was plagued by a series of miscarriages and stillbirths that left England without a legitimate male heir. While Catherine's fifth pregnancy resulted in a healthy daughter, Mary I (A.K.A. Bloody Mary), England had never had a proper queen regent, so King Henry VIII didn't take Mary seriously as a future leader. By English law, the line of succession favored male children until 2013, when the law was changed to disregard sex. (Yes, it took until 2013 to change that law.) Henry wanted a son.
Anne Boleyn. (Source: Wikipedia Commons, scanned by University of Toronto)
As Catherine entered her forties, it became clear that her childbearing years were reaching their conclusion. Enter 25-year-old Anne Boleyn, one of Queen Catherine's many ladies-in-waiting, who turned Henry's head so hard that he decided to create an entirely new religion just for her.
Divorce was not allowed under Catholic law, so Henry first petitioned the Church to annul his marriage to Catherine on the grounds that she had been married to his brother, and according to the Bible, "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless." The Catholic Church kindly informed Henry that this only applied when the brother is still alive. You know, like adultery? Nice try, though.
But this was the King of England; you couldn’t just tell him no. The man was so pampered that he literally had other people wipe his royal rear. (They were called "Grooms of the Stool," and it was a surprisingly coveted position.) Henry realized that, as king, he could just say "annulment" and make it so, and all he'd have to do is sever the relationship between one of the most powerful countries in the world and one of the most powerful churches in the world. No big deal, right? Such is the story of the creation of the Church of England, under which the king's leadership conveniently replaced that of the Pope. Henry was apparently so enamored with Anne Boleyn that he married her before Catherine was even officially out of the legal picture.
Jane Seymour, Queen. (Source: Wikipedia Commons, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts)
Much to Anne's dismay, her marriage to Henry also failed to produce a male heir. They, too, got a consolation prize in the form of a future queen (Elizabeth I A.K.A. the Virgin Queen), but Anne's other pregnancies resulted in heartbreaking miscarriages. An angry Henry blamed Anne for the losses and sex of their single living child, although of course, we now know that sex-determining chromosomes are actually provided by the sperm. In fact, some scholars suspect that Henry's unusual blood type was responsible for his difficulty in fathering healthy children. Instead of wondering if perhaps it was him, however, Henry accused Anne of incest and treason and had her beheaded. Reportedly, it only took one swing of the sword to completely decapitate the young queen, which was strangely seen as a mercy. Jane Seymour, a royal attendant, took Anne's place as Henry’s wife only 11 days later. Not long after, they finally had the baby boy that Henry so desired, but their joy was cut short when Jane died days later from complications of childbirth. She was the only one of Henry VIII's wives who received a proper funeral.
Anne of Cleves, Betrothal Portrait, circa 1539. Richelieu, 2 e étage, Salle 8
Anne Of Cleves
Next came Anne of Cleves, who pulled an old-school catfish on England's most eligible bachelor. After Jane Seymour's death, Henry decided to seek a German bride to forge an alliance with the country as Italy and France grew more and more war-happy over England's separation from the Catholic Church. A painting of Cleves was sent to Henry as a sort of medieval Tinder profile, and he swiped right immediately. However, like so many after him, Henry was horrified to discover that Cleves looked very different in person. He manfully went through with the wedding, but unable to consummate the marriage, he called for his second annulment. Interestingly, they remained good friends for the rest of his life. He even gave her a castle! Overall, out of all of Henry VIII's wives, Anne of Cleves arguably made it out of her marriage the best.
Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of Henry VIII. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Once again, Henry didn't wait long to find another love. Catherine Howard was Anne Boleyn's first cousin, but she demonstrated that she had learned nothing from her family's history when she decided get involved with the increasingly unstable king. This time, he waited a whole 16 days to remarry, but the now overweight, middle-aged man with gout and a seriously smelly case of leg ulcers was probably not the most attractive suitor to Catherine's 19-year-old eyes. As a result, she may or may not have rekindled a previous romance and become a victim of blackmail by many who threatened to spill her secret. Whatever the case, the rumors made their way to the King's ears, and Catherine was beheaded for adultery not long after.
One more Catherine, young enough to actually have been named for Catherine of Aragon, soon entered Henry's life. Miss Parr was twice a widow and soon to be engaged to Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother, when she caught His Majesty's eye. He forbade the marriage, because the king could just do that, deciding he'd like to play the groom instead. Remember how hard it was for the Catholic Church to tell him no? Young Catherine was not in a better position. Henry died five years into the marriage, however, and she finally got to marry her love, Seymour. The next year, she gave birth to their child, but unfortunately, as was the case with Seymour's sister, Catherine died from the trauma of childbirth.
Ironically, Henry VIII's much sought-after male heir, Edward VI, died at only age 15. After his father's death, he ruled for a short six years as a boy king, after which the Mary I, the overlooked daughter of Catherine of Aragon, ascended the throne. Naturally affronted by England's split from Catholicism, she tried to reinstate the Church, but it turned out Protestantism was pretty well-liked by the people. Elizabeth I of England took over in 1558 and ruled a considerably more tolerant and moderate kingdom for 44 years, never marrying nor having children. With Henry VIII as a father, one certainly can see why.