Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Wives Of Henry VIII

I like to read about royal families usually before the 1800s. Royal families are a good source for stories about women succeeding despite the roles society placed them in. Women in royal families were usually educated to some extent providing more opportunity for them, and their lives were more likely to be documented. Henry VIII and his wives provides 6 popular examples of such women. I found this book in a used bookstore in Durham, and was eager to read another perspective on these women that have of late been popularized in fiction, tv shows, and movies.

Fraser provides an overview of each woman. There is not great depth in each woman's story because that was not the intent. If you only want to learn the basic facts about each wife, or are new to them, this is a great book. There are individual biographies by other authors that will give you all the details you could want about their lives. This book is also a good resource for other sources about them, or to figure out which wife you are more interested in reading a whole biography about.

A brief overview of the wives. Fraser begins the book with the rhyme: "Divorced, beheaded, died... divorced, beheaded, survived" that people use to keep what happened to the wives straight.

*Catherine of Aragon
Artist: Michael Sittow
Catherine of Aragon was the first of Henry's wives. Married first to his elder brother Arthur who died, several years later she marries Henry as he ascends to the throne. She has one child that survived infancy Mary(who would later become queen). It is thought that the lack of a male heir is what started the trouble between her and Henry. Although women could technically inherit, there are few instances at this point in English history where this had occurred or been successful without conflict. The Tudors had only recently come to the throne after years of civil war, and presumably this is what Henry feared if he were to only have a daughter to inherit.

The unique point in Catherine's portion for me was that her father obtained the wrong dispensation from Rome for her marriage to Henry. There is one if a marriage was consummated, and one if it has not. He obtained the former. This was later detrimental to her stance that she and Arthur had never had sex.

*Anne Boleyn
   Unknown Artist
 Anne Boleyn is often viewed as a conniving nasty mistress. Fraser portrays her as more of an opportunist, using the King's desire for her to further her station in life. Everyone did this, but Anne reached higher and succeeded. The main issue people had with her seems to be that Catherine was still alive and protesting the divorce(what we would consider today to be an annulment). Supplanting a beloved queen did her great harm. She also failed to give the king a male heir(she only had one daughter Elizabeth who would also later become queen). Anne was given little time to produce a male heir as the king became disenchanted with her. The king trumped up charges and had her beheaded.

A common misconception Fraser addresses is the idea that Anne was interested in the reform of the church only because it furthered her case with the king. Anne was interested in reform separate from Henry, who was religiously Catholic but interested in what changing certain political aspects  
                                           of his religion could do for him.

*Jane Seymour
Artist: Holbein
Jane Seymour was fortunate enough to have a legitimate marriage to the king that neither of his previous wives could claim to his satisfaction(Anne married him while Catherine was alive, and Rome denied the annulment he sought from Catherine). Not the Protestant queen everyone assumes she was based on her brother and son's affiliation, she was Catholic. She also had the fortune to have a son and heir for the king. She did not have a caesarean as has been rumored because of her long labor and rhymes about it. She delivered naturally, and died 12 days later of child-bed fever. The king considered her to be his true and beloved wife. Henry stated in his will he was to be buried with her when he died, and he was.

*Anne of Cleves
Artist: Holbein

 Anne of Cleves was the only wife Henry had not met before he married. He was greatly disappointed in her. He obtained an annulment not long after they were married. Anne was offered the position at court of the king's most beloved sister that came with money and property. It was a high position in court as only his wife and children would be higher than her. She accepted, and outlived Henry and his other wives. They had no children together, and for the annulment they obtained it was claimed they had never had sex. She remained unmarried. She was on good terms with her 3 stepchildren during her lifetime.

*Katherine Howard
Artist: Holbein

Katherine Howard attracted the King's notice, and managed to keep his love and attention until it came to light she was having an affair with a young man she loved. Her past exploits with young men also came out during this time. The king had her beheaded for this betrayal. Fraser clarifies that the statement she makes to a crowd before being beheaded, about wishing to die the wife of Culpepper(the man she was having an affair with) rather than a queen, was never made. It was only gossip adding to the scandal of the situation.

After the situation with Katherine, the king pushed through a law that made it treasonous to promote a woman for his wife that had a questionable past. This made people think twice before encouraging family members to gain the king's attention in hopes of her becoming queen.

*Catherine Parr
Artist: William Scrots
Catherine Parr was widowed twice before she married Henry. She was also interested in marrying Thomas Seymour before the king's eye fell on her. Her roll was more of a nurse and companion to the king, and mother to his children. She worked to educate herself as an adult. She almost was imprisoned and tried after a difference of opinion with the king on religious matters. She managed to have an interview with the king before the arrest took place, and convinced the him there was no malicious intent meant. She explained she had only wanted to discuss issues to help him, and distract him from his pain. He chose to believe her, and saved her. They had no children together.

She survived the king. After his death she married Thomas Seymour. She had a daughter Mary with him, and died of child-bed fever.

King Henry's wives had a common ancestry with him and each other. They were all related in some way to the same kings of England. This was normal as royalty in Europe and the nobility would intermarry. His wives were all educated to some degree. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Parr were the most educated among them. Each woman's education varied in topic and extent, but they could all read and write, which was more than most women of the time could claim.

What I find most fascinating is that none of these women objected to marrying Henry. Catherine Parr was likely the most resistant to the idea, but married him willingly considering it her duty to do so. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn sought marriage with him. It is doubtful that Jane Seymour or Katherine Howard resisted at all, and once they had the king's attention were quite willing. Anne of Cleves seems the most unclear in this area, although it was a common practice for women to marry men they hadn't met, and the king of England was an advantageous marriage despite what happened to his previous wives.

I always thought Anne of Cleves probably fared the best out of her marriage to the king. She had no children to fight for in the succession, so she accepted the offer of prestige, money, and her own home to annul her marriage. It seems a good deal comparing her outcome with the other wives'.

I thought that this was a fine book, although I was hoping for more details that I had not read elsewhere. On reflection that was probably an unrealistic expectation for a book only 430 pages with 6 women to cover. I did manage to learn a few new things which I always appreciate when I take the time to read a book. I would be willing to read other books by this author. Preferably one that went more in depth about the topic.

*All pictures are from the book: The Wives of Henry VIII by: Antonia Fraser with the exception of Katherine Howard. There was no picture included in the book of her, so her picture is from her wikipedia page. One was likely not included because of the uncertainty surrounding portraits that are said to be her. The one I chose people seem confident about because of the time period and the jewels she is wearing were inventoried as hers.


  1. How certain is it that Catherine of Aragon and Arthur never consummated their marriage? If it were the case, then it seems to me Henry would have used this (valid) legal point in his "great matter" when appealing to Rome. Was that his main contention? How did the pope respond to it?

    1. Only Catherine and Arthur could ever say for certain what happened. Catherine claimed they didn't. It was common when these marriages were arranged for young people about 14 years old the parents would do their best to enforce delayed consummation. Arthur was also considered sickly, which could have delayed consummation.

      People claimed that Arthur boasted about sex the next morning, but it is uncertain if this was a boast more about the traditional bedding of the bride and groom to save face the next day. Catherine's own servants gave contradictory information trying to help her after Arthur's death. Her confessor claimed she had and was hoping to be pregnant. Other's servants that were close to her said that it had not happened.

      The pope found for Catherine and denied Henry's appeal for an annulment.

      Henry used whatever suited his claims.

  2. And, come on. What on earth was Katherine Howard thinking, knowing what happened with previous wives (particularly Anne Boleyn)?

    1. Katherine clearly wasn't thinking. I think she was the least educated of his wives. She was also very young, and he was old. She thought she could please the king and herself. She was also being encouraged by one of her ladies in waiting that should also have known better. She was also beheaded for her roll in the matter.