Europe’s Greatest Womanizer: The Life and Wives of Henry VIII

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Henry VIII of England is most well known for his six wives, which he had over the course of his life and how he denounced the Pope and founded the Church of England in order to marry his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Throughout his turbulent reign, filled with marriages, executions, burnings, scandals, and betrayals, a new England began to emerge. 

The First Wife: Catherine of Aragon


Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. A Spaniard, she was raised in the strict Catholic faith.

At the age of 16, Catherine was wed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the son of King Henry VII and his heir apparent. In 1502, Catherine accompanied her new husband to the Welsh Marches, where Arthur was to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches, as was his duty as Prince of Wales. Arthur would never return. Both Catherine and Arthur contracted the “sweating sickness” which was sweeping through the area at the time. Catherine survived, but was left a widow as Arthur died of the illness.

Desperate to keep the Spanish alliance which was won by Arthur’s marriage to Catherine, King Henry VII, Arthur’s father, sought a marriage between Catherine and his new heir, Henry, Duke of York. However, both canon and ecclesiastical law prevented him from doing so, as Catherine was Henry, Duke of York’s sister-in-law. The only thing which would allow the marriage was a Papal Dispensation. Catherine claimed that her marriage with Arthur had not been consummated, which allowed Pope Julius II to grant the required dispensation. Henry and Catherine were married in June of 1509, following his father’s death earlier that year. In the same year, Henry was crowned King Henry VIII of England.

Henry’s Early Reign

Mary Tudor, Henry and Catherine’s only daughter

Henry’s stance on Yorkist supporters, potential claimants of the throne, was much more lenient than that of his father. Many political prisoners which had been arrested by Henry’s father, Henry VII, were released and pardoned, among them Edmund de la Pole, a Plantagenet by blood. Soon after, Catherine and Henry conceived a girl, who was stillborn in January 1510. The young couple grieved and conceived another child, a boy, who was born on New Years’ Day of 1511. The couple rejoiced. However, the gaiety was short lived, as the boy, Henry, died a few weeks after. After two more failed births, Catherine finally gave birth to a daughter, Mary, in 1516. However, the young Henry was frustrated by his inability to produce a male heir.

During his early reign, Henry conducted many affairs with women at court, most notably Lady Elizabeth Blount. Lady Blount soon became pregnant with Henry’s only recognized illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy. The birth of his son, though he was illegitimate and could never be his heir, gave Henry confidence that he was indeed capable of producing a son. This led Henry to believe that the fault must lie with Catherine, and that she was incapable of giving birth to a living son.

One of Henry’s most notably activities during his early reign was the signing of the “Treaty of Universal and Perpetual Peace,” urged on by his adviser and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, the Archbishop of York. Henry met with King Francis I of France at the “Field of Cloth and Gold.” However, the plan backfired as the meeting turned into a show of superiority and the treaty was shortly abandoned.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – Humanist and Politician

Cardinal_Wolsey_Christ_ChurchDuring Henry’s early reign, his most trusted adviser on all matters was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the Archbishop of York, who also served as his Lord Chancellor and first minister. Wolsey’s most notably achievements are in diplomacy, in which the Cardinal arranged the “Field of Cloth and Gold,” in an attempt to unite all Christian nations so that they could plan a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Pope Leo X granted him the status of Papal Legate, permission to act with the Pope’s authority, to do so. To ensure that France would agree to the treaty, Wolsey negotiated a secret treaty with Spain, guaranteeing that Spain and England would invade France, should they refuse to sign the treaty. Wolsey’s motives, however, we not entirely wholesome. In exchange for the signing of the treaty, Wolsey was guaranteed the support of the French cardinals in the Papal Conclave. When the treaty later broke down due to squabbles between England and France, Wolsey lost the support of the cardinals and missed his opportunity to become Pope.

At the height of his power, Wolsey was virtually in charge of all matters of state and was extremely powerful within the Roman Catholic Church. He was named the king’s almoner (treasurer) and Lord Chancellor. Many considered him to be the alter rex, meaning “other king.”

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace

Wolsey is also known for his contributions to architecture, pioneering the English baroque and Tudor styles of architecture. His Hampton Court Palace is most famous for this style of architecture. Following Wolsey’s fall from the King’s favor, the palace was confiscated by Henry VIII. Hampton Court Palace still stands today and is considered one of the most beautiful palaces in the world.

Anne Boleyn: Seductress and Reformer

Anne Boleyn

In 1525, Henry became ever more frustrated with Catherine’s inability to produce a son and quickly became enamoured with Anne Boleyn, a member of Catherine’s entourage. However, Anne resisted Henry’s attempts to seduce her, unlike any of Henry’s former mistresses. This served to only deepen the king’s infatuation for her, which was her original intent. Henry then realized three options to produce an heir to the throne. The first would be to legitimatize Henry FitzRoy, his illegitimate son, which would require parliamentary and Papal approval. Additionally, there was little chance that the English people would accept FitzRoy as their sovereign. The second option would be to marry off Mary and hope she produced a grandson before Henry’s death. This however seemed unlikely, due to Mary’s young age at the time and would also require Mary to be wed matrilineally in order to continue the Tudor dynasty. The third and most attractive option for Henry was to somehow divorce Catherine and marry someone of childbearing age. Henry assumed that, should he secure a divorce, he would be able to marry Anne Boleyn, who he thought would give him a son and heir.

“The King’s Great Matter”

At the time of his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, Henry remained a devout and loyal Catholic, named Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X. Still frustrated by Catherine’s inability to bear him a son, Henry ordered his most trusted adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, to secure a divorce for him using any means necessary.

By 1527, Henry had convinced himself that, by marrying Catherine, he had acted against contradictory to Levictus 20:21 (a section of the Bible), which states that man shall not marry his brother’s widow and that if he does, he shall die without a son. As of then, that had proved to be true, leading Henry to believe even more deeply in it. He now realized that he had to rectify the situation immediately or his dynasty would die out after his death.

To add to the complication of the situation, in 1527, Rome was sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor (how ironic) and his 20,000 men.

Pope Clement VII who refused to grant Henry's divorce
Pope Clement VII who refused to grant Henry’s divorce

Priests, Cardinals, and clergymen were killed and the Pope was forced into exile at Orvieto. It was later discovered that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor had actually lost control of his men and was not responsible for the sacking. Nevertheless, the Pope was forced into exile and Rome was sacked. Henry sent his secretary, William Knight, to try and draw up a Papal bull to annul his marriage with Catherine, but to no avail. Instead, the Pope sent Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio to England in order to hold a hearing on the matter, alongside Cardinal Wolsey. The Pope, at the time, was at the mercy of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was also Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. The Pope believed that, should he annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, he would be killed by the Emperor’s forces.

The hearing proceeded for less than two months. At the end of it, Campeggio decided that the matter would be put before the Roman Curia, which would make a decision in about a year. Henry could not wait that long. England had now fallen from the Pope’s graces and forfeited it’s place in Europe. For this, Henry blamed Wolsey, who failed the secure his coveted divorce. Wolsey was arrested in 1529 for praemunire (assertion of Papal authority in England). Though he was briefly reconciled with the King in 1530, he was again arrested, this time for treason, and died while awaiting trial.

The Break From Rome 

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was influential in establishing the Church of England

To replace Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Henry’s longtime friend and minister, was appointed Lord Chancellor. More, however, was a devout Catholic and opponent of the divorce. Nevertheless, Henry kept More as Lord Chancellor. In 1531, Catherine was banished from court, her rooms given to Anne Boleyn. It was clear, now, that nothing would stop Henry from getting his divorce. Anne was unusually well educated and sympathized with many Protestant reformers. When William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, Henry asked the Pope to appoint Thomas Cranmer, a secret Lutheran, to the position. The Pope, unaware of Henry’s plans for the Church and trying to reconcile himself with England, agreed.

Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, convinced Henry that, according to Scripture, the King should indeed be the final legal authority in all religious matters. Henry soon asked Parliament to pass the Acts of Supremacy in 1534, demoting the Pope and promoting the King as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The legal aspects of the break from Rome were now complete, leaving Henry with the task of consolidating religious authority in England and of course, gaining the support of the populous, and of course, annulling his marriage to Catherine.

The English Reformation

In order to consolidate the ecclesiastical power in England, Henry proceeded to pass important pieces of legislation. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, under which all religious institutions, including monasteries, abbeys, friaries, and convents, were all dissolved and their assets transferred to the Royal Estate. Absorbing the assets of the monastic institutions, many of which were quite wealthy, made Henry the richest King of England in the history leading up to his reign.

Secondly, Henry ordered all of the nobles and clergymen of England to swear an oath recognizing him as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, on pain of death. Most obliged to the King’s demands, but some refused, including Sir Thomas More, the King’s Lord Chancellor, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, and even the King’s own daughter, Mary, who had been raised a devout Catholic by her mother Catherine. Henry excused his daughter, as executing her would have been most unseemly, but did not pardon Fisher or More, the King’s closest friend. Both More and Fisher were executed in 1535 and both were made Saints of the English Reformation by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.

Anne Boleyn’s Fall From Grace

Anne and Henry were married in a secret ceremony in 1533 and Anne was crowned Queen Consort later that year. Anne is believed to have been pregnant at the time of her marriage to Henry. Later in 1533 Anne gave birth

Elizabeth Tudor, Henry and Anne's only child. Elizabeth would later become Elizabeth I of England, one of England's greatest monarchs.
Elizabeth Tudor, Henry and Anne’s only child. Elizabeth would later become Elizabeth I of England, one of England’s greatest monarchs.

Henry’s child, but to their disappointment, the child was a girl, whom they christened Elizabeth. Henry was angry and disappointed, especially since all of the royal physicians and astrologers had assured the couple that the child was a boy. King Francis I of France had even offered to be the boy’s godfather. Following the birth of Elizabeth, Henry and Anne entered a period of strife. Anne’s intelligent and political acumen were not considered acceptable in a wife and caused Henry to feel emasculated, something which a king could not stand for. In 1534, Anne had a miscarriage, and by December, Henry was already discussing plans to divorce her with Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s new chief minister.

In 1536, Catherine of Aragon died. Her autopsy revealed that her heart was covered in black toxin, which caused many to believe that she was poisoned. It is more likely, however, that the black toxin on her heart was cancer, which likely was the cause of her death. Nonetheless, the belief that Catherine was poisoned served to worsen the public’s opinion of Anne, who was, at the time, in her fourth pregnancy, having suffered another miscarriage. By now, Henry was already paying court to one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour; his infatuation with Anne had fully worn off. On the day of Catherine’s burial, Anne miscarried for the fourth time. According to the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, the fetus appeared to be a male.

Charges of Incest and Adultery, Execution

Frustrated by her inability to produce a male heir, Henry began plotting the downfall of his wife. Along with the help of Thomas Cromwell, Anne’s onetime ally, Henry garnered sufficient evidence to convict Anne on charges of treason, adultery, and even incest. Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, and George Boleyn, the supposed lovers of Anne Boleyn, were tried and executed on the 17th of May, 1536 on Tower Hill in London. Anne was executed the next day in the Tower of London.

Jane Seymour: Henry’s Perfect Wife

Jane Seymour

Henry, being known for his benevolence and chivalry, waited a full 24 hours after the execution of his second wife before his betrothal to his third. Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, was the daughter of Sir John Seymour, a landed knight. Compared to his two previous wives, Jane was not as highly educated as his previous wives and of a much lower social status than his previous wives. Nonetheless, Jane was skilled at needlework and was considered to be quite beautiful by many at court. Henry and Jane were married on the 30th of May by the Catholic Bishop of Winchester. Unbeknownst to Henry and his courtiers, Jane was secretly still a Catholic. Many opponents of the English Reformation hoped that, by her grace, England could be restored to the Catholic faith. Jane sympathized with Henry’s eldest daughter Mary, who had fallen out of the King’s favor, due to her adherence to the Catholic faith and her refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy.

Henry and Jane’s relationship was happy for the most part. They enjoyed harmony and, by all counts, were very much in love. The only remaining challenge for Jane was to produce a son for Henry. In early 1537, Jane became pregnant and following much anticipation, gave birth to a son and heir, Edward. Henry rejoiced and ordered grand celebrations to commemorate the birth of his son. Henry’s quest to produce a male heir was complete and it seemed that he could finally settle down with his loving wife. His gaiety, however, was short lived, as Jane’s three-day labor caused her to fall seriously ill. Less than two weeks after giving birth to Edward, Jane died, leaving Henry devastated. Jane was the only one of Henry’s wives to receive a Queen’s funeral, as all his other wives had fallen from his favor prior to their death.

Edward VI of England, Henry’s Sickly Son

Born in 1537 to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Edward VI of England rose to the throne at the age of nine, following the Edward VIdeath of his father. During his developing years, Edward was shut out from the world. His father, Henry, was afraid that he would succumb to disease and perish, something which he could not afford. As a result of his sheltered upbringing, Edward developed a very weak immunity to disease. Edward never ruled England in his own right, as he died before reaching adulthood. Throughout his reign, England was governed by a Regency Council, led by his uncle Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector. Ironically, despite his goal to produce a strong, male heir to the throne, both of Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, eventually became two of the strongest monarchs in England’s history.

The “King’s Beloved Sister”

Anne of ClevesFollowing Jane’s death, Henry was devastated and became very recluse. He kept mainly to his chambers and the government was run almost entirely by his ministers. One of his ministers, Thomas Cromwell, a Lutheran reformer, saw the opportunity to arrange Henry to be married to a Protestant bride in order to seal the English Reformation and prevent a return to Catholicism. Cromwell began searching for a Lutheran bride for Henry. His first choice was the beautiful Christina of Denmark, the daughter of King Christian II of Denmark. However, after due deliberation, Christina refused to marry Henry, saying that “if [she] had two heads, one would be at the King of England’s disposal.” Instead, Cromwell negotiated an alliance with the Duke of Cleves and arranged a marriage between Henry and the Duke’s sister, Anne. In order to convince the King to marry Anne, Cromwell ordered Hans Holbein the Younger, one of Henry’s painters, to paint Anne and exaggerate her beauty (left). Henry agreed to marry Anne and in 1540 they were married.

Henry and Anne’s marriage was troubled and unhappy. Henry did not find Anne to be attractive and thus never consummated the marriage. Because the marriage was not consummated, the marriage was easily annulled. Also, any legal issues were eliminated because Anne was never crowned Queen Consort, due to the shortness of their marriage. Anne lived out the rest of her days as “the King’s beloved sister.” Anne outlived Henry, all of his other wives, and even his son Edward.

“A Rose Without a Thorn”: Catherine Howard

Like most of Henry’s wives, Catherine Howard started as a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s wife, in this case, Anne of Cleves. Catherine HowardCatherine was described to be very attractive and quickly caught Henry’s eye when serving his wife. Within months, Henry began to bestow upon Catherine gifts of land and expensive clothing. The Howards, which were related to the Boleyns through Anne Boleyn’s maternal line, sought to regain the favor lost after the execution of Anne Boleyn.

Catherine and Henry were married in 1541 after the annulment of is previous marriage to Anne of Cleves. Henry was deeply attracted to Catherine and spoiled her with expensive clothing and jewelry. He considered her to be so perfect that he called her “his rose without a thorn.”

Unfortunately, the rose that was Catherine Howard did indeed have a thorn, or rather two. During her marriage to Henry, Catherine conducted not one, but two extramarital affairs to two men: Thomas Culpeper, one of the King’s servants, and Francis Dereham, her former lover who she appointed as her personal Secretary. These two affairs were soon brought to light. The King, enraged, arrested Catherine, Dereham, and Culpeper, and stripped Catherine of her title as Queen Consort. Dereham and Culpeper were promptly executed for treason.

Catherine, however, could not be legally executed, as she had not technically broken any laws by carrying on her affairs. To account for this, the King ordered Parliament to pass a Bill of Attainder, making it treason for a Queen Consort to fail to disclose her sexual history to her husband before they are wed. Given this new law, Catherine was beheaded for treason. According to popular folklore, Catherine’s final words were, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper.”

The Wife Who Lived: The Story of Catherine Parr

220px-Catherine_Parr_from_NPGCatherine Parr arrived at court in 1542 after the death of her second husband, Lord Latimer, thinking she would marry the love of her life, Thomas Seymour, and live out her days happily ever after. Unfortunately for her, she would have a quick, four-year deluge as the Queen Consort of England, Ireland, and Wales.

Upon her arrival at court, Catherine quickly caught the eye of King Henry, who was single at the time. In 1543, Henry proposed to her and she accepted reluctantly, despite her reservations towards Henry and her romantic relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour. Henry and Catherine were married later that year and Catherine was crowned Queen Consort soon after.

Henry and Catherine’s marriage was happy, by most accounts. It is clear that Henry respected Catherine, appointing her as his regent during his military campaign in France. The Queen’s religious views, however, were questionable. Due to her birth before the Protestant Reformation, Catherine was most likely brought up as a Catholic. However, many Catholics and anti-Protestants, such as Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, tacitly accused her of being too Protestant. In her own book, Lamentacions of a Synner, Catherine argues for justification by faith alone, a religious doctrine that sets Protestant denominations apart from Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, proving that she at least sympathized with Protestants. In 1546, Bishop Gardiner tried to turn the King against her and a warrant for her arrest was even drawn up after she argued with the King on religious matters. After her apology to the King, she was forgiven and the arrest was never carried out.

Henry’s Death and Legacy

Many years prior to his death, Henry sustained an injury to his leg during a jousting tournament. The bone in his leg Henry VIII of Englandsplintered and never fully healed, leaving the King with an ulcerated leg. Towards the end of his life, the ulcer in his leg became inflamed and caused him great pain. On January 28th, 1547, Henry VIII died as a result of his ulcerated leg, leaving behind a legacy of religious friction and tyranny. Nonetheless, Henry VIII significantly altered the course of Britain’s history by breaking ties to Rome and establishing royal supremacy in England. The Church of England remains the state religion of the United Kingdom and many of the laws pertaining religion established under King Henry are effective in Britain today. Henry’s reformation, motivated by his lust for Anne Boleyn, altered the course of British history unlike any monarch in Britain’s history.


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