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The Six Wifes of King Henry VIII

Updated on December 29, 2014

Catherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon (Alcalá de Henares, 16 December 1485 – 7 January 1536), Castilian Infanta Catalina de Aragón y Castilla, also known popularly after her time as Catherine of Aragon, was the first wife and Queen Consort of Henry VIII of England. Henry tried to have their twenty-four year marriage annulled in part because all their male heirs died in childhood, with only one of their six children, Princess Mary (later Queen Mary I) surviving as heiress presumptive, at a time when there was no established precedent for a woman on the throne. The Pope refused to allow the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine, which set off a chain reaction that led to Henry's break with the Roman Catholic Church and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in the hope of fathering a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty.

Early life

Born in Alcalá de Henares (30 km from Madrid) in 1485, Catherine was the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Catherine's sister Joanna the Mad was 6 years elder to Catherine, consequently it was Joanna who became Queen of Castile upon their mother's death rather than Catherine. Through her mother, she descended from Catherine of Lancaster, her namesake and source of her auburn hair. Catherine of Lancaster was a daughter of John of Gaunt and granddaughter of King Edward III of England.

Princess of Wales

Catherine married Prince Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII of England, on November 14, 1501. As Prince of Wales, Arthur was sent to Ludlow Castle on the borders of Wales, to preside over the Council of Wales, and Catherine accompanied him. A few months later, they both became ill, possibly with the sweating sickness which was sweeping the area. Catherine herself nearly died; she recovered to find herself a widow. Catherine had to wait for a month to see if she was pregnant with Arthur's child, which she was willing to do. Catherine testified that, because of the couple's youth, the marriage had not been consummated; Pope Julius II then issued a dispensation, so that Catherine could become betrothed to Arthur's younger brother, the future Henry VIII of England.

There is much controversy over whether Catherine's marriage was consummated with Arthur Tudor. For more on this matter see, Arthur, Prince of Wales "The Question of Consummation".

Catherine of Aragon was said to have made the road 'Aragon Road' in the village of Great Leighs, Chelmsford, and was said to have lived in the Windsor house on that road.

Queen consort of England

The marriage did not take place until after Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, the marriage on June 11, followed by the coronation on June 24, 1509. Both as Princess of Wales and as Queen consort, Catherine was extremely popular with the people. She governed the nation as Regent while Henry invaded France in 1513.

Henry VIII supposedly married Catherine of Aragon at his father's dying wish and was happily-enough married to her (despite squabbles with her father over the payment of her dowry), although not faithful, for 18 years, until he became seriously worried about getting a male heir to his throne as she approached menopause. Her first child, a daughter, was stillborn in 1510. Prince Henry, Duke of Cornwall was born in 1511, but died after 52 days. Catherine then had another stillbirth to a girl, followed by another short-lived son. On February 18, 1516 at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, London, she gave birth to a daughter named Mary (later Queen Mary I of England, nicknamed Bloody Mary). Her final pregnancy ended with a stillborn girl in November 1518. A male heir was essential to Henry. The Tudor dynasty was new, and its legitimacy might still be tested. The last time a female had inherited the English throne, Henry I of England's daughter Empress Matilda had had to fight a long civil war against those barons who denied a woman could reign in England. The disasters of civil war were still fresh in living memory from the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1485).

In 1520, Catherine's nephew Charles V paid a state visit to England, and the Queen urged the policy of gaining his alliance rather than that of France. Immediately after his departure, May 31, 1520, she accompanied the king to France on the celebrated visit to Francis I, remembered (from the splendors of the occasion) as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Within two years, however, war was declared against France and the Emperor once again made welcome in England, where plans were afoot to betroth him to Henry and Catherine's daughter Princess Mary.

At this point Catherine was not in physical condition to undergo further pregnancies. Because of the lack of heirs, Henry began to believe that his marriage was cursed and sought confirmation from two verses of the biblical Book of Leviticus, which said that, if a man marries his brother's wife, the couple will be childless. He chose to believe that Catherine had lied when she said her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, therefore making their marriage wrong in the eyes of God. He therefore asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage in 1527.

The Pope stalled on the issue for seven years without making a final judgment, partially because allowing an annulment would be admitting that the Church had been in error for allowing a special dispensation for marriage in the first place,[citation needed] and partially because he was a virtual prisoner of Catherine's nephew Charles V, who had conquered Rome. Henry separated from Catherine in July 1531; in January 1533, he married one of Catherine's former ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, sister of his former mistress Lady Mary Boleyn. Henry finally had Thomas Cranmer, whom Henry had appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury in expectation of Cranmer's support, annul the marriage on May 23, 1533. Five days later Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry and Anne to be valid. To forestall an appeal to Rome, which Catherine would have almost certainly won, Henry had Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy, illicitly repudiating Papal jurisdiction in England, making the king the head of the English church, and beginning the English Reformation.

Later years

Till the end of her life Catherine of Aragon would refer to herself as Henry's only lawfully wedded wife and England's only rightful queen; her faithful servants continued to address her by that title. In 1535 she was transferred to the decaying Kimbolton Castle in the wilds of Huntington. Confining herself to one room, leaving it only to attend mass, Catherine prepared to meet her end. While she was permitted to receive occasional visitors she was forbidden to ever see her daughter Mary. She was also forbidden to communicate with her, but discreet sympathizers ferried secret letters between mother and daughter. Henry offered them both better quarters and the company of one another if only they would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as his new queen. Neither did. In late December 1535, sensing death was near, Catherine made out her will, wrote her nephew the Emperor Charles V asking him to protect her daughter, and penned one finial letter to Henry, "my most dear lord and husband":

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katharine the Queen.

Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle, on January 7, 1536 and was buried in Peterborough Cathedral with the ceremony due to a Princess Dowager of Wales, not a Queen. Catherine's embalmer confessed to her doctor that Catherine's heart had been black through and through, which led many of her supporters to spread the rumour that Anne Boleyn had poisoned her. Henry did not attend the funeral, nor did he allow Princess Mary to do so. Catherine was the only one of Henry's wives who lived to see her 50th birthday.

Visitors to Peterborough Cathedral can still visit Catherine's tomb, which is frequently decorated with flowers and bears the title 'Katharine the Queen.' Peterborough is twinned with the Castilian city of Alcalá de Henares, her birthplace. In some historical evidence, It is said that Katherine of Aragon's heart showed signs of poisoning after her body was examined after her death.

Catherine of Aragon

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, Queen Consort of England, 1st Marchioness of Pembroke[1] (ca. 1501/1507 – 19 May 1536) was the second wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I.

Henry's marriage to Anne, and her subsequent execution, were part of the complex beginning of the considerable political and religious upheaval which was the English Reformation, with Anne herself actively promoting the cause of Church reform. She wielded immense political influence and has been called "the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had".

Anne Boleyn is popularly known for being beheaded on charges of adultery, incest and treason on 19 May 1536. She is widely assumed to be innocent of the charges, and was later celebrated as a martyr in English Protestant culture, particularly through the works of John Foxe. Her life has been adapted for numerous novels, plays, operas, television dramas and motion pictures, including Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Tudors, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and "Doomed Queen Anne".

The birth controversy

Due to a lack of parish records from the period, historians do not agree when Anne Boleyn was born. Evidence from the 16th century is contradictory, with several dates having been put forward by various authors. An Italian historian, writing in 1600, suggested that she had been born in 1499, while Sir Thomas More's son-in-law suggested a much later date of 1512. All other guesses fall within this period of 1499 to 1512. Nowadays, the academic debate centres around two key dates: 1501 and 1507.Two authorities on the period, Eric Ives and Retha Warnicke (both of whom have written biographies of Anne), disagree. Ives, a British historian and legal expert, promotes the 1501 date, while Warnicke, an American scholar and gender historian, prefers 1507.

The key piece of surviving written evidence in the argument is a letter Anne wrote in about 1514. She wrote it in French (her second language) to her father, who was still living in England while Anne was completing her education in The Netherlands. Professor Ives points out that the style of the letter and its mature handwriting prove that Anne must have been about thirteen at the time of its composition. This is supported by claims by a chronicler from the late 16th century, who wrote that Anne was twenty when she returned from France.

These findings are contested by Warnicke in several books and articles and it is the conclusion of most other historians, both academic and popular, that the precise date of birth may never be known.

Childhood and family

Anne was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, later 1st Earl of Wiltshire and 1st Earl of Ormonde, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (born Lady Elizabeth Howard), daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. It is not known for certain where she was born, but it was either at her family's mansion, Blickling Hall in Norfolk, or at their favourite home, Hever Castle in Kent.

It was later rumoured that she suffered from Polydactyly, having six fingers on her left hand (at the time considered a sign of the devil.) Although this legend is popular, it has recently been questioned on the grounds that there is no contemporary evidence to support it. None of the many eyewitness accounts of Anne Boleyn’s appearance – some of them meticulously detailed – mention any deformities, let alone a sixth finger. Moreover, as physical deformities were generally interpreted as a sign of evil it is difficult to believe that Anne Boleyn would have gained Henry's romantic attention had she had any deformities. On the basis of this evidence, many academics dismiss this story.

She had two siblings. As with Anne, it is not known for certain when they were born, but it seems clear that her sister, Mary, was older than she was. Mary’s children clearly believed their mother had been the elder sister; as did Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. Their brother George may have been older, depending on when one believes Anne herself was born, since George was definitely born sometime around 1504.

In later life, Anne did not have a particularly close relationship with her father, but in her childhood she seemed anxious to please him. Her relationship with her sister Mary was initially affectionate, but they quarrelled over her choice of husband and were not on speaking terms at the time of her death. She enjoyed a much happier relationship with her mother and her brother, both of whom she appears to have been very close to.

At the time of Anne’s birth, the Boleyn family was considered one of the most respectable families in the English aristocracy,[9] although they had only held a title for four generations. Later, they were criticised for being social-climbers, but this was a political attack against them. In the words of one of her biographers, ‘Tradition also tells us that the Boleyns were a family of London merchants, and again tradition leads us astray. Anne Boleyn was born a great lady [of the aristocracy].’

Her great-grandparents included a Lord Mayor of London, a duke, an earl, two aristocratic ladies and a knight; amongst her relatives she numbered the Howards, one of the pre-eminent families in the land. She was certainly more aristocratic than either Jane Seymour or Catherine Parr, two of Henry's other English wives.

Anne's father was a respected diplomat with a gift for languages; he was also a favourite of Henry VII, who sent him on many diplomatic missions abroad. He continued his career under Henry VIII, who came to the throne in 1509. In Europe, Thomas Boleyn's professionalism and charm won many admirers, including Archduchess Margaret of Austria, the daughter of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor. She was currently ruling The Netherlands on behalf of her father and she was so impressed with Boleyn that she offered his youngest daughter Anne a place in her household. Ordinarily, a girl had to be 12 years old to have such an honour, but Anne might have been somewhat younger, as Margaret affectionately referred to her as "La petite Boleyn" (it is not known, however, if the quote refers to her age or her stature). She made a good impression in The Netherlands with her manners and studiousness and lived there from the spring of 1513 until her father arranged for her to continue her education in Paris in the winter of 1514.

Appearance and personality

Anne Boleyn was not conventionally beautiful for her time. She was too thin and her colouring was considered by some to be too dark. However, many observers were impressed by her dark eyes and long, dark hair. One Italian who met Anne in 1532 wrote that she was "not one of the handsomest women in the world", but others thought she was "competent belle" ("quite beautiful") and "young and good-looking. " One historian has compiled all the descriptions and concludes thus:

“She was never described as a great beauty, but even those who loathed her admitted that she had a dramatic allure. Her dark complexion and black hair gave her an exotic aura in a culture that saw milk-white paleness as essential to beauty. Her eyes were especially striking: “black and beautiful” wrote one contemporary, while another averred they were “always most attractive,” and that she “well knew how to use them with effect.”

People seemed primarily attracted by Anne's charisma. She made a good impression with her fashion sense, inspiring many new trends amongst the court ladies. In hindsight, she was probably the biggest English fashion icon of the early 16th century. William Forrest, author of a contemporary poem about Catherine of Aragon, complimented Anne's "passing excellent" skill as a dancer. "Here," he wrote, "was [a] fresh young damsel, that could trip and go."

“Anne’s charm lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her vivacious personality, her gracefulness, her quick wit and other accomplishments. She was petite in stature, and had an appealing fragility about her… she shone at singing, making music, dancing and conversation… Not surprisingly, the young men of the court swarmed around her.”

She was a devout Christian in the new tradition of Renaissance Humanism (calling her a Protestant would be an overstatement). She also gave generously to charity and sewed shirts for the poor. In her youth she was "sweet and cheerful" and enjoyed gambling, drinking wine, and gossiping. She was also brave and emotional. Yet, according to her enemies, Anne could also be extravagant, neurotic, vindictive and bad-tempered.

“To us she appears inconsistent – religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician … A woman in her own right – taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage

In France, she was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France and also acted as an interpreter whenever any high-ranking English visitors came to the French court. In the queen's household, she completed her study of French and acquired a thorough knowledge of French culture and etiquette. She also developed an interest in fashion and religious philosophy that called for reform of the Church. Her European education ended in the winter of 1521 when she was summoned back to England on her father's orders. She sailed from Calais, which was then still an English possession, in January 1522.

A royal love affair

At the time Anne Boleyn came to court, Henry's first wife Queen Catherine was popular with many people, although she had been inactive in politics and court life for some time. All her sons by Henry had died young and Henry was anxious for a male heir to his throne in order to preserve the monarchy and prevent civil war.

Boleyn made her court début at a masquerade ball in March 1522, where she performed an elaborate dance accompanying the king's younger sister, several other great ladies of the court and his mistress – Anne’s sister, Mary. Within a few weeks of this performance, Boleyn was known as the most fashionable and accomplished woman at the court and she has been referred to as a "glass of fashion".

During this time, she was being courted by Henry Percy the son of the Earl of Northumberland around 1522. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear. Many novels and cinematic adaptations of Anne’s life have romanticised the tale by describing how the young lovers consummated their union. However, it is worth noting that it would have been impossible to break their betrothal if it had been consummated and several of her biographers have pointed out that Anne had seen too many reputations ruined to risk hers. A Catholic author, George Cavendish, who disliked Anne but was friendly with Henry Percy, later stated categorically that the two had not been lovers. It thus seems unlikely that their relationship was sexual.

The romance was broken off in 1523 when Lord Henry's father refused to support the engagement. A romantic legend has it that the liaison was secretly broken up by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister, because King Henry desired Anne for himself[1]. It is impossible to say if this is true and historians are divided on the issue.

According to George Cavendish, Anne was briefly sent from court to her family’s countryside estates, but it is not known for how long. When she returned to court she gathered a clique of female friends and male admirers around herself, but became famous for her ability to keep men at arm's length. The poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, wrote about her in the poem, Whoso List to Hunt, in which he described her as unobtainable and headstrong, despite seeming demure and quiet. In 1525, Henry VIII became enamoured with her and began his pursuit.

Anne's sister, Mary, had previously been King Henry's short-term lover, during the time that she was married to Sir William Carey, a gentleman of the king's Privy Chamber. It has long been rumoured that one or both of Mary Boleyn's children were fathered by Henry. Some historians, such as Alison Weir, now question whether Henry Carey (Mary's son) was actually fathered by the King . It is believed that Henry's affair with Mary had been finished for some time when he became involved with her younger sister.

© 2007 Thomas Byers


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