King Henry VIII is one of the most famous rulers in history. Although he ushered in the English Reformation, he is better known not just for his surprising number of marriages but also for killing off multiple wives. Here we take a look a the lives of Henry VIII’s wives and what became of them while they were married to this notorious English King.
1. Catherine of Aragon: First married to Henry VIII’s brother
Henry VIII’s first wife and longest marriage was with Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was born on December 16, 1485, in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. She was the youngest daughter of Spanish rulers Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.
In 1501, Catherine married Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur. Tragically, Arthur died in April 1502 – only five months after marrying Catherine. Catherine of Aragon became betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother Henry following her first husband’s untimely death. However, the marriage was delayed because Henry was only 11 when his brother died. Catherine and Henry VIII married in 1509 after Henry had taken the English throne.
Catherine and Henry were happy in the first few years of their marriage. Between 1510 and 1518, Catherine gave birth to six children (including two sons). However, all except their daughter Mary (later Queen Mary, who reigned from 1553 to 1558) were either stillborn or died in early infancy.
By 1527, Henry VIII was growing concerned about producing a legitimate male heir. After 18 years of marriage, Henry VIII appealed to the Vatican in Rome for an annulment because Catherine had first married his brother. However, Catherine swore that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, and she was a virgin until she married Henry VIII. Pope Clement VII would not grant Henry VIII the annulment he wished for.
In July 1531, Henry VIII separated from Catherine of Aragon. Two years later, he married Anne Boleyn. He had Thomas Cranmer, his own Archbishop of Canterbury, annul his marriage to Catherine, thus ushering in the English Reformation. Catherine of Aragon spent her last years away from public life. On January 7, 1536, Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle. Henry VIII did not attend the funeral of his first wife.
2. Anne Boleyn: Lust or love?
Anne Boleyn is by far the most famous of Henry VIII’s wives. Henry’s second wife was born around 1501 at the Boleyn estate in Norfolk. As a young girl, Anne was sent to France to be a lady-in-waiting for the French Queens, Queen Mary and later Queen Claude. In 1522, Anne Boleyn returned to England where she soon became one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting.
By the mid-1520s, Anne had become one of the most influential and admired ladies at court. She caught the attention of Henry Percy, the 6th Earl of Northumberland. The pair was allegedly engaged and planned to marry. However, Henry VIII caught wind of these plans and ordered the engagement to end.
It is unknown when Henry VIII started developing feelings for Anne Boleyn. At the time, it was not uncommon for the king to have many mistresses. In fact, Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary Boleyn, was Henry VIII’s mistress before he became interested in Anne.
Although we aren’t sure when Henry started having feelings for Anne, it was apparent his feelings for her were strong. In one letter written by Henry, the King wrote: “It is absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been for above a whole year stricken with the dart of love… I promise you that not only the name shall be given you, but also that I will take you for my only mistress, casting off all other besides you out of my thoughts and affections, and serve you only.”
This letter suggests perhaps Henry VIII was not in love with Anne Boleyn but ‘in lust’ with her. “I will take you for my only mistress” indicates that he never planned on marrying Anne. Anne made matters more complicated as she refused to become Henry VIII’s mistress and made it clear that she would only sleep with him if she became Henry’s wife.
Henry VIII was desperate not only to sleep with Anne Boleyn but also to have a son. By the time Anne Boleyn was on the scene, Catherine of Aragon was in her 40s and it was clear she was past child-bearing age. Because of these two factors, Henry separated from Catherine and broke with the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1533, after Henry had separated from Catherine of Aragon, Anne discovered she was pregnant with Henry’s child. Without Pope Clement VII’s blessing, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII married on January 25, 1533, in a secret ceremony led by Thomas Cranmer. In June 1533, a lavish coronation was held to crown Anne Boleyn Queen Consort. On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth, who would later become Queen Elizabeth I.
Although he had worked so hard to be with Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII quickly began having sexual affairs with women only a year into his marriage with Anne. Henry blamed his actions on his desire to have a son, and the marriage between Anne and Henry VIII rapidly deteriorated.
Anne would conceive two more times as Henry VIII’s wife – once in 1534 and once in 1536. Each time the baby was stillborn. After their second child was stillborn in January 1536, Henry VIII decided it was once again time to take matters into his own hands. By then he had decided to make one of his new mistresses, Jane Seymour, his next wife. He sought an annulment and Anne Boleyn was imprisoned in the Tower of London on several false charges, including incest, adultery, and conspiracy.
Anne Boleyn was found guilty on all charges. On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded. She was only in her early 30s when she died.
3. Jane Seymour: Gave Henry VIII a son
The third of Henry VIII’s wives was the only one to produce a legitimate male heir. Jane Seymour was born sometime in 1508 or 1509. She was born into a relatively wealthy family, as the Seymours were descendants of King Edward III.
In 1529, Seymour became a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and then to Anne Boleyn when she became Queen. Historians believe Jane Seymour caught Henry VIII’s eye in September 1535 when he visited the Seymour home. Although Jane was beautiful, she was also reserved and timid. Many believe this bashful personality is what attracted Henry VIII to Jane in the first place.
Henry VIII and Jane Seymour married only 11 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution. Unlike Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour was never officially crowned Queen, although she was the only one of Henry VIII’s wives to receive a Queen’s funeral.
On October 12, 1537, Jane Seymour gave birth to Prince Edward (later Edward VI), a male heir to the English throne. Jane Seymour endured a difficult labor that lasted over two days because the child was not well-positioned. Edward was christened on October 15. As was the custom at the time, Jane Seymour did not attend the elaborate ceremony. However, after this christening, it became apparent that Jane Seymour was seriously ill.
Jane Seymour died at Hampton Court Palace on October 25, 1537 – less than two weeks after giving birth to her son. It is widely accepted that Jane Seymour died from puerperal fever, but in recent decades historians have started to dispute this claim. Henry VIII took Jane Seymour’s death very hard. He reportedly wore black for months after her death, and didn’t remarry again until 1540 out of respect. Jane Seymour received a Queen’s funeral and is buried in the same tomb as Henry VIII.
4. Anne of Cleves: Henry’s mail-order bride
Unlike his other wives, Henry VIII did not meet Anne of Cleves organically. Rather, he chose her by looking at a picture of her. Anne was either born on June 28, 1515 or September 22, 1515 in Düsseldorf, then located in the Kingdom of Germany.
Not much is known about Anne’s early years. In 1527, when she was 11 years old, she was betrothed to Francis, who would later become Francis I, Duke of Lorraine. However, this engagement was called off in 1535.
Henry VIII sought to make a political alliance with Anne’s brother, William, Duke of Cleves, who was the leader of the Protestants of Western Germany. In 1539, it seemed as though two major Roman Catholic powers – France and the Holy Roman Empire – were about to band together and potentially attack Protestant England. This threat prompted Thomas Cromwell to arrange a political marriage between England and the Lutheran enemies of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1539, Henry VIII sent court painter Hans Holbein the Younger to Düren to paint Anne of Cleves and her younger sister, Amalia. Henry chose Anne of Cleves over her sister because he believed her to be the more attractive of the two.
Henry VIII was sorely disappointed when he first met Anne of Cleves in 1540. Henry found Anne to be less attractive than he expected, and because she spoke primarily German, he soon came to resent her. Despite Henry VIII openly discussing his dissatisfaction, the marriage went ahead. Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII were married on January 6, 1540.
The marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves was never consummated. In fact, after their wedding night, Henry VIII told Thomas Cromwell, “I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse.”
Henry VIII’s fourth marriage would only last six months. After the Catholic alliance failed to attack England, Henry VIII decided to have his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled. On July 9, 1540, Anne and Henry’s marriage was annulled.
Because Anne of Cleves did not make a big deal over the annulment, she and King Henry VIII remained on good terms. She was rewarded with a generous allowance and a property in Kent. She became close friends with Henry and was often referred to as the “King’s Beloved Sister.” She died on July 16, 1557, when she was either 41 or 42 years old. Anne of Cleves was the last of Henry VIII’s wives to die.
5. Catherine Howard: Was younger than Henry’s children
Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, only 19 days after his annulment from Anne of Cleves. Catherine Howard was born between 1521 and 1525, making her between 15 and 19 years old when she married 46-year-old Henry VIII.
Interestingly, Catherine Howard’s first cousin was Anne Boleyn. Her father, Lord Edmund Howard, was the brother of Elizabeth Howard, who was Anne Boleyn’s mother. Catherine Howard’s mother died somewhere around 1528. After her mother’s death, she was sent to live in the care of her father’s stepmother – Agnes Howard, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.
It appears that Catherine’s step-grandmother was perhaps not as watchful as she should have been. Between 1521 and 1536, Catherine was involved in sexual affairs with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham. Henry Manox was Catherine’s music instructor and although they both denied having intercourse, they were sexually active with one another. During her affair with Francis Dereham, the two did have sexual intercourse. Sadly, these affairs would cause Catherine’s demise and eventual death.
Catherine arrived at court in late-1539/ early-1540 to serve as one of Anne of Cleve’s ladies-in-waiting. Henry VIII was very attracted to Catherine Howard, and the two married on July 28, 1540. For the next 14 months, Henry VIII appeared to be smitten with his fifth wife. Catherine Howard’s step-daughter, Mary I, was nine years older than Howard.
Henry VIII was seemingly unaware of Catherine Howard’s past, which by his (double) standards would have made her immoral and unworthy of his hand in marriage. However, this past wouldn’t stay buried. During her marriage to Henry VIII, Catherine may have been romantically involved with Henry’s male courtier, Thomas Culpeper. Allegedly, Catherine’s maid, Jane Boleyn Lady Rochford, who was married to Anne Boleyn’s brother George, helped Catherine Howard meet Thomas Culpeper in private.
Eventually, rumors of Catherine’s affair with Thomas Culpeper reached Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who investigated these claims and Catherine’s past. King Henry VIII was eventually made aware of Catherine’s pre-marital past and her alleged affair.
Henry was reluctant to believe these claims, passing them off as rumors and gossip. It was only after Catherine’s former lovers were arrested and tortured that Francis Dereham confessed to having a sexual relationship with Howard. After Thomas Culpeper admitted to his clandestine meetings with Catherine, Henry VIII became enraged.
In November 1541, Catherine was stripped of her title as Queen. Both Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper were executed for high treason in December 1541. On the morning of February 13, 1542, Catherine Howard was beheaded. Catherine could have been as young as 17 when she died.
6. Catherine Parr: The last of Henry VIII’s wives
Catherine Parr was the last of Henry VIII’s wives who ruled as Queen of England from 1543 until Henry’s death on January 21, 1547. She was born sometime in 1512, and was the oldest child of Sir Thomas Parr and Maud Green.
She was married two previous times before marrying Henry VIII. She was the first Queen of England to also be named Queen of Ireland. She married Henry VIII on July 12, 1543. Catherine was around 30 years old when she married the ailing Henry VIII.
Catherine Parr was particularly fond of all three of Henry VIII’s children and devoted herself to their education. After Henry’s death in January 1947, Catherine married her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. She also took custody of Henry’s 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Catherine Parr died on September 5, 1548, at age 36.