Henry VIII Was a Disgusting Bro Whose Wives Were Too Good for Him
Henry VIII, serial divorcee and serial adulterer, was married six times, to six different women, as well as having innumerable affairs. Basically, he’s a medieval Jax Taylor with way too much power. He was famously the dude who wanted to replace his first wife with a new model so badly that when the pope told him he couldn’t get divorced (because his wife had done nothing wrong and Catholics in the 16th century aren’t allowed to get divorced), he STARTED A WHOLE NEW CHURCH just to get out of his marriage. What a guy, what a guy, what a heap of sixteenth century garbage. But look, we are not here to speak of the world’s first and worst fuckboi, we are here to discuss his WIVES, whose lives and legacies have been my eternal fascination since reading way too many historical fiction YA novels in middle school.
WIFE 1: Catherine of Aragon. Catherine of Aragon gets a reputation for being boring and old, but she actually seems like a mostly chill lady to me, although she was a good five years older than Henry. Originally, she was actually married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, who was meant to be king, but Arthur died of sweating sickness basically right after they got married and according to the relevant parties the marriage was never consummated, so she got married to Henry instead (although Henry spent like, a good several years protesting that no way would he marry Catherine, until he abruptly changed his mind right around the time he took the throne, probably as some sort of messed up power move — that was kind of his whole deal). And then Henry turns around, some 24 years into their marriage, after Catherine has suffered through MULTIPLE MISCARRIAGES and the death of an infant son and ENDLESS PRESSURE to produce a male heir because god forbid someone else’s kid have a crack at the throne after Henry dies, all hail the House of Tudor etc.; and he tells her “hey, wife of over 20 years, remember when I had that affair with Mary Boleyn and she had a son who I acknowledged as my own and it was probably really painful for you? Well it turns out Mary’s sister is pretty hot and chill and I’m going to marry her. What’s that you say? I’m already married? That doesn’t matter, I’m a megalomaniac and I’ve decided none of the rules apply to me HAHAHAHAHA.” (Dialogue imagined, not explicitly confirmed by historical record). So Catherine gets cast out and eventually dies. (Historians these days think it was probably cancer although there were dirty rumors that she was poisoned by Anne Boleyn, which, for the record, I do not believe for A SECOND. Anne Boleyn was not a saint but I will defend her on this point — I do not believe she was a murderer.) So entering stage left, now we have:
WIFE 2: Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn has been the subject of a lot of films and books and TV show episodes because tbh, she sounds cool as hell. She basically pulled off the world’s first royal husband heist with an already married dude — you have to respect the craft. So here Anne is, exquisitely well educated, hella connected in court. Henry obviously starts eyeing her, as he does all the hot ladies, because the man could not keep his thoughts out of his pants for more than 30 seconds at a time. Anne basically refuses to be his mistress and insists on being his wife. And because Henry is deeply, troublingly horny and also has no impulse control, he goes with it. He starts C of E, gets himself out of his first marriage, and marries Anne Boleyn, who takes as her motto “The Most Happy.” For perspective, most queen’s mottos would be like “devout and demure” or “obedient and fertile” or “women shouldn’t say words,” etc. So her motto was basically laughing in her enemies’ faces. It’s a power move and a subtweet and I respect the hell out of it. Anne basically charms the hell out of everyone and revolutionizes sleeve fashions in order to hide the fact that she has an extra finger. She has one daughter, Elizabeth (as in Queen Elizabeth I — powerful women breed powerful women). Henry is pretty peeved that even with his upgraded wife he’s still not getting the son he specifically asked for, but he’s willing to bide his time a little longer. Anne has a few miscarriages, and instead of being sympathetic, Henry figures he needs to get a new wife again because THIS ONE IS ALSO DEFECTIVE. Never once does it occur to him that he is defective, but that’s probably because he’s a self-obsessed monster. He has Anne arrested and eventually executed for a bunch of trumped up charges including treason and incest, which are all nonsense, tbh. Anne is unfairly beheaded but lives on in movies and TV and mildly sexy historical fiction, making way for:
WIFE 3: Jane Seymour. I don’t want to be unfair to Jane, but she kind of annoys me. She just seems like a quiet, annoying, conniving little mouse, plotting to steal someone’s husband away. And okay, Anne also technically plotted to steal Henry away from his wife but no one got killed in the process. Jane basically parades around being demure and godly and Henry decides he needs a good, meek, undereducated wife. I’m sorry, this is probably unfair to Jane. Records indicate she was a very capable embroiderer, for what it’s worth. Jane gets engaged to Henry LITERALLY THE DAY AFTER ANNE BOLEYN’S HEAD IS CUT OFF and they get married ten days later. She was super popular with the citizenry and convinced Henry to be a little nicer to his first daughter, Mary (who like, we’re not getting too much into his children, but Mary turned out to be a fanatical religious zealot who, during her reign, had A LOT OF PEOPLE MURDERED FOR BEING THE WRONG KIND OF CHRISTIAN, so yeah, that’s what Mary is bringing to the table.) Jane gets pregnant and has what seems like a really horrible delivery that lasts two nights and three days. The child in question is A SON, named Edward, and although he is extremely sickly, he is Henry’s first and only legitimate male heir, so Henry basically cherishes Jane forever because she was able to give him what he wanted. Not any of her qualities so much as her wish fulfilling. Anyway, Jane gives birth to her son and dies of some kind of infection less than two weeks later. Fun fact, she is the only one of his wives who was buried next to him. Several years later, Henry marries:
WIFE 4: Anne of Cleves. Anne and Henry’s marriage is basically arranged as a result of a treaty with the Germans. Henry sends away for a picture of Anne and is reassured that she’s sort of medium-attractive, so he agrees to marry her, on the advice of Thomas Cromwell. Anne comes to England, but on meeting her, Henry decides she isn’t hot enough or witty enough or clever enough for his taste, and because of all these reasons, he is simply incapable of consummating their marriage, so it’s annulled. (Although he gives Anne a pretty generous settlement and she outlives him and all the rest of his wives, so who’s clever now, Henry??? Huh???) Henry has Thomas Cromwell executed for treason (which probably actually meant pressuring Henry to marry an insufficiently hot lady, not that he was going to admit that). With Anne out of the way, Henry moves on to:
WIFE 5: Catherine Howard. Catherine’s family are English nobility, but unfortunately, they are also pretty tight on money and pretty in debt because her father was the youngest of 21 children, if you can believe that, and they’re still using primogeniture to determine inheritance, so the 21st son doesn’t inherit too much of anything really. As a noble, Catherine is educated, though not particularly well, but she’s super young and vivacious when she shows up at court working in the court of Anne of Cleves, and Henry loves young vivacious women. The two are married on the same day that Henry has Thomas Cromwell executed. But trouble is brewing, because it turns out that before Catherine married Henry, she had a thing going with a guy named Thomas Culpeper and they might still be in love. Anne and Culpeper purportedly met up together for several secret trists after Anne’s marriage to Henry with the help of one JANE BOLEYN, the widow of George Boleyn (Anne Boleyn’s brother). THE BOLEYNS GET THEIR REVENGE, HENRY TUDOR. Anyway, there’s a whole terrible thing and a bunch of dirty laundry gets dredged up and Catherine is accused of treason (infidelity counts as treason if it’s infidelity against a king — can’t go messing around with royal bloodlines, ya know?). Catherine, imho, is the victim of being simply too trusting and too much of a sweetie and being surrounded by some pretty gross dudes who took advantage of her. The whole thing sucks. She was beheaded for her infidelity and apparently went to her death with a lot of composure. Another victim of Henry’s insatiable appetite for wife-flesh. Which brings us to the final wife:
WIFE 6: Catherine Parr. (Insert An Abundance of Catherines joke here.) Catherine Parr holds the impressive record of being the most-married Queen of England (married four times, almost as many as Henry). Also, they are multiple cousins (basically that means they are cousins in more than one way, both on their fathers’ sides and their mothers’ sides — gross but not unusual for the time.) The two are married in 1543, about a year after Catherine Howard is beheaded. Catherine had some pretty strong religious beliefs which went against the accepted norm and there were those that tried to take her down but she basically just told Henry not to worry about it and it all blew over. At this point, Henry is getting very ill. The man has gout and is suffering from an ulcerous wound from an old jousting accident and the after effects of years of eating mostly large turkey legs. (Also, some historians think he had syphilis. Some don’t, but you know. All I’m saying is, if he didn’t have syphilis, it was clearly not for lack of trying.) Their marriage is pretty uneventful and eventually he died, she outlived him, and she remarried. A triumph at last for one of the wives.
Which brings us to the end of our round up of Henry VIII’s wives, all of whom were too good for him. Rest in peace, you weary, beleaguered women. Here’s to you.