The Coolest of the Six Wives of Henry VIII
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
The Tudors are cool again. For the past few centuries Henry VIII has been regarded as a bloated, ulcerated wife-killer whilst his unfortunate assortment of spouses have been reduced to a playground ditty - "Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived". Then in 2007 The Tudors, hit our screens and suddenly Henry and his wives were once more the talk of several nations.
As historical dramas go, The Tudors is, well, light-weight. It's a triumph of style over substance, the producers not allowing inconvenient historical details to get in the way of a basically good plot. This is soap opera history, with characters renamed, their ages and appearances adjusted, all in the name of entertainment, not education. The result was a very visually appealing show and a heightened awareness of the real-life Henry VIII and his wives.
In the show, all Henry's wives are very attractive and more than a little cool. But in reality, which of Henry's wives was the coolest? Here, in reverse order, are the contenders for the coolest of the six wives of Henry VIII.
Jane Seymour, the Queen of Uncool
Jane Seymour - Too Dull!
Personally, I find Jane Seymour as dull as ditch water, a characteristic that actually endeared her to Henry. Exhausted by the strain of the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and tired out by ten years with the virago Anne Boleyn, Henry was seeking a more peaceful existence. Quiet, uneducated and biddable, Jane Seymour was the perfect antidote to Henry's turbulent recent past. Her motto was "Bound to obey and serve".
Apparently Court became a rather staid place with Jane as Queen. Entertainment was toned down, the ladies of the Court were obliged to wear plainer gowns and Jane applied herself to needlework rather than politics.
Jane lived up to her motto - she served her King well by producing his only legitimate son, the clever but sickly Edward VI. She lived only a few days after her son's birth, leaving a bereft Henry to idolise her for the rest of his life. Fortunately for Jane, her early death meant that she never had a chance to offend or bore Henry and consequently she alone of his wives is buried beside him at Windsor Castle.
Catherine Howard - Wild Child!
Poor Catherine Howard! She was extremely young when she became Henry's fifth wife and by the time they wed Henry was a very unappealing prospect, grossly obese and suffering from an unpleasantly ulcerated leg. Sadly, Catherine couldn't just bide her time and wait for his inevitable demise and then go wild. She chose to go wild whilst her husband, the most powerful and vindictive man in the country, was still alive. She really should have known better - her cousin was Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife.
Catherine's behaviour was very uncool. She bedded two gentlemen of her household and was, of course, discovered. Henry was devastated by the betrayal of his "rose without a thorn" and once convinced of her guilt moved swiftly to dispose of Catherine. Sadly, Catherine was neither clever nor well-advised. Her last ditch attempt to get off the hook involved escaping from her room to try to reach Henry and plead for her life. She failed, and was dragged screaming back to her rooms.
In her final hours Catherine did regain some composure, bizarrely practising for her execution with the block in her room at the Tower of London. When she faced the executioner she was perfectly calm.
The Infamous Holbein Portrait of Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves - Lukewarm!
Henry's marriages to his fourth wife is one of history's great "what-ifs". The King took an instant dislike to Anne of Cleves and didn't even bother to consummate the marriage - perhaps if he had he might have got another male heir and the course of British history would have been different. However, Henry found Anne's appearance unattractive and thought her ill-educated and boorish.
Henry's advisers quickly found a get-out clause and Anne and Henry ended their days as an honorary brother and sister, an arrangement that suited both parties well. Anne was well provided for and was glad to stay in England rather than return to her brother's very formal court in Cleves. Apparently she lived her life in some style, and was a regular visitor to Court.
Anne was certainly lucky and certainly turned a potentially disastrous situation to her advantage. Pretty cool, but not quite cool enough...
The Last Wife, Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr - Pretty Cool!
Catherine Parr was the only one of Henry's wives to survive him whilst still married to him (Anne of Cleves outlived him too). Catherine was already a widow twice over when Henry took her as his sixth wife. She wasn't keen; she had been planning to marry the brother of Jane Seymour, the dashing Sir Thomas Seymour. However, when Catherine caught the King's eye, Seymour found himself posted abroad and Catherine was persuaded to do her duty to the King.
Henry clearly had a deep regard for Catherine. In 1544 he went to war with France and left Catherine in charge of the country as Regent. She didn't have an easy time as there was trouble in the north with Scotland. However, she maintained control and kept the country stable until Henry's return.
Despite Henry's affection for her and her clear capability, Catherine nearly became another of Henry's marital casualties. Although a Catholic, she was interested in the ideas of the Protestants, which was viewed as heresy, and there was at one point an arrest warrant drawn up for her. Catherine was very astute and maintained her cool; she convinced the King that her arguments with him over religion were merely diversions to take his mind off his painful leg. Henry believed her and the danger passed.
After Henry's death Catherine made her fourth and final marriage to Thomas Seymour. She became pregnant, but her joy was short-lived. Her husband began a potentially treasonous flirtation with her teenage step-daughter, Lady Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) and the couple fell out. After the birth of their daughter, Mary Seymour, Catherine lived only six days. Her widower was executed for treason the following year.
Queen Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn - Too Waspish
When I first thought about which of Henry's wives was the coolest, I though of Anne Boleyn. In some ways, Anne was the epitome of cool. She was allegedly not beautiful but had the sort of magnetism and vivacity that drew people to her instantly - of course, with that sort of personal power she also repelled some people and made a number of enemies. Not only did Anne have a compelling personality, but she was intelligent, well-read and stylish. So why doesn't Anne hit the top spot in this list?
Unfortunately, Anne had a very ugly character flaw - spite. It was her bitterness toward Cardinal Wolsey, the man she blamed for breaking up a youthful romance with Henry Percy, that drove her to poison the King's mind against his trusted advisor. Her antipathy toward her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, and the King's daughter Princess Mary, was deeply unattractive. No doubt it was she who had a hand in making sure that Catherine and Mary were kept apart even during Catherine's final illness. She also humiliated Mary by making her serve the infant Princess Elizabeth. Her final insult to the woman she supplanted was to dance at Court on the evening that news of Catherine's death was received, resplendent in a yellow gown.
Anne was certainly stylish, even in death - no clumsy axe severed her elegant neck, she ordered a French sword to dispatch her. However, her spitefulness was definitely uncool.
A Young Catherine of Aragon
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Catherine of Aragon - The Queen of Cool
Catherine of Aragon didn't need to try to be cool, she was born to be cool. Her parents were both monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, whose marriage established the throne of Spain. Catherine's siblings all made fabulous strategic marriages into the royal houses of Europe and Catherine, the youngest, was married to Arthur, Prince of Wales when she was 15.
The marriage was short lived as Arthur died prematurely. Catherine was plunged into a political limbo, kept in England by Henry VII, who did not want to return her dowry, and treated in a manner that did not honour her rank. She was rescued from obscurity when Henry VII died and his son Henry VIII ascended the throne. Henry married his widowed sister in law, five years his senior, apparently much to the delight of both parties.
Henry not only loved his wife, but he placed enormous trust in her. In 1513 he appointed her Governor of England whilst he was on a military campaign in France. During this time the Scots invaded England and a heavily pregnant Catherine donned full armour and rode our to rally her troops. The English defeated the Scots, killing James IV of Scotland, and Catherine sent a piece of his blood stained coat to Henry to use as a banner in his own campaign in France.
Unhappily for Catherine, she was not so lucky in carrying children as she was in carrying on a war; she gave birth to six children, but only Mary survived. This was a dreadful failure for a Tudor Queen. Henry had already had affairs, one of which produced an illegitimate son, but his affair with the tempestuous Anne Boleyn finally turned him against Catherine. He set out to rid himself of his wife.
During "The King's Great Matter", Catherine maintained that she was the King's lawful wife and refused to bow out gracefully and retire to a convent. To do so would have meant admitting that she and the King had lived together "in sin" and that their daughter was illegitimate. When Catherine finally got her day in Court she gave an impassioned speech, on her knees, in front of the King, asking him how she had offended him. She managed to paint herself as she was, the dutiful wronged wife at the mercy of an all powerful husband. At the end of the speech she turned on her heel and walked from the courtroom, ignoring all calls to come back. A truly cool, albeit fruitless, moment.
Eventually, Catherine was banished from Court, away from her supporters (the common people loved Catherine) and her beloved daughter. She died in Kimbolton Castle in 1536 and was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Her tomb is, to this day, adorned with fresh flowers and pomegranates (her personal device).
Catherine had it all - beauty (in younger years she had gold-blonde hair, not black as film makers usually insist), brains, bravery and dignity. Catherine was definitely cool.
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