Henry VIII: Lover or Tyrant? Did He Love His Six Wives?
King Henry VIII
The Six Wives of King Henry VIII
Everyone knows that King Henry VIII of England beheaded his six wives, right! Wrong! In fact, Henry had only two of his six wives beheaded. Both had been objects of intense infatuation and frenzied desire. How could King Henry have beheaded them? And what of his other four wives? Much is known about each of Henry's six wives, but less attention has been given to how he actually felt about them. Was Henry in love with any of them? With all of them? There are fascinating clues that point to answers in each case, so let us look at each wife in turn; Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr.
Katherine of Aragon
Katherine of Aragon
Henry was first married to Katherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess who had married his elder brother Arthur. Sadly, Arthur died six months into their marriage. Royal marriages were always arranged to form or strengthen alliances and/or to benefit the countries involved in one way or another. In Katherine's case it was clear that England desired an alliance with Spain, which had become a major power and extremely wealthy since the conquest of the Moors, which re-unified Spain, and the discovery of the New World, both of which had occurred in 1492.
Henry had been an impressionable boy of 10 when his elder brother Arthur, age 15, had married the 16 year old beautiful and exotic princess from Spain on 14 November 1501. Henry was dressed splendidly for the occasion and was given the role of escorting Katherine from St Paul's cathedral to the wedding banquet after the ceremony. There are eyewitness reports that Henry danced energetically at the wedding celebrations; trying to impress his new sister-in-law? We will never know, but surely he must have been impressed by his brother's lovely young bride.
After the death of Prince Arthur, Katherine's fate was somewhat precarious. Henry was too young to marry yet, but the king, Henry VII, did not want to lose the advantages that an alliance with the Spanish could provide him. Several years passed with Katherine's fate in the balance as European events swirled around her, including the death of her mother, Queen Isabel. On King Henry's deathbed, however, he evidently made young Henry, by then a strapping young man of 18, promise to marry the beleaguered Katherine who was then 24 years of age. According to all reports of the time, she was still stunningly beautiful, with honey colored hair, blue eyes and a clear, fair complexion.
But Did Henry Love Katherine of Aragon?
All evidence points to King Henry VIII and Katherine's early marriage as being a happy one. Most scholars believe that Henry was, in fact, in love with Katherine and probably had been since her marriage to his brother.
The first rift occurred when Katherine discovered, during her first pregnancy, that Henry was having an affair with another woman. But Henry was reportedly mystified by her angry tears. After all, according to the norms of the time, sex was just sex and men were biologically driven to it. His affair had nothing to do with his marriage, in Henry's mind, and he still loved Katherine deeply. Although Henry VIII was comparatively discreet about his affairs and had relatively few of them, Katherine was heartbroken, and while she ceased to complain after the first outburst, the relationship between them was never the same again.
Henry's all-consuming wish was to father sons to secure the throne for the Tudor line. His claim to the throne was not rock solid by any means, so if he failed to produce a male heir it was likely that civil unrest would ensue, and the end of the Tudor line would result, as Henry had only sisters and no brother who could carry on the dynasty. Unfortunately for Katherine, she did not bear him any sons that survived more than a few weeks. This was her undoing, both in terms of her marriage and her place in Henry's affections. By the time it became clear that Katherine would not provide him with an heir, she was 40 years old and had lost her youthful beauty. By comparison, Henry, at 34, was in his prime and frustrated with his now frumpy, aging wife who had borne him but one living child, Mary, by then about 9 years of age.
So Henry's feelings toward his first wife, which probably began with fascination and infatuation, blossomed into love and then declined over the years to culminate in frustration and eventual hostility when Katherine steadfastly refused to grant him the divorce that he would seek.
Lady Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn: Henry's Infatuation
In 1525, after ending an affair with Mary Boleyn, King Henry VIII would begin his most notorious relationship, that with Lady Anne Boleyn, Mary's sister. Possibly Henry first noticed Anne as early as 1522, which marked her first appearance at court when she partook in a masque and danced for the entertainment of the King, but certainly by 1525 he had declared his love for the beguiling Anne Boleyn.
By all reports, Anne, who had matured as lady in waiting at the lascivious French court, was not a traditional beauty. She had what would later be termed “sex appeal”. Her skin was olive and her hair shiny black to match black flashing eyes which she knew well how to use to her advantage. She was not tall, nor was she particularly shapely. But Anne was an expert at the art of flirtation and most men who knew her were entranced by her.
We do not need to rely on eyewitness accounts, of which there are several, regarding Henry's feelings for Anne. Seventeen of the dozens of love letters that he wrote to her her survived, and his doting, almost pathetic infatuation with her is evident in them. It is also clear that Anne was fully capable of taunting and tempting the King even in her letters, though sadly we do not have Anne's replies. In one of his early letters, Henry writes. “In turning over in my mind the contents of your last letters, I have put myself into great agony, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as you show in some places, or to my advantage, as I understand them in some others, beseeching you earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two.”
The Perils of a Royal Wife
Would you have married King Henry VIII?
From Lover to Executioner
Henry was head over heels in love, and Anne's refusal to become his mistress only whetted his appetite for her. But her conniving calculations paid off, and in 1533, after waiting years to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, Henry basically had the marriage proclaimed invalid based on the fact that Katherine had been married to his brother, and Henry married Anne Boleyn who was carrying his child, the hoped-for son.
But, it was not a son, but a daughter that Anne bore for Henry VIII. Elizabeth was healthy, however, and hopes remained high that Anne would yet produce a prince. During Anne's pregnancy, Henry had strayed again, but Anne had not taken this affront as graciously as had Katherine. She was furious and let her husband know it. As Queen of England, Anne became, in fact, more and more demanding and petulant to the point that many courtiers began trying to avoid her. This change in behavior eroded Henry's love for Anne, which only added to the disappointment of each successive miscarriage that she had.
It had been his love for Anne that led Henry VIII to eventually cut ties with Rome and assume the Head of the Church of England for himself, a huge event in the history of England and Christendom as a whole.
As we all know, Anne Boleyn ended up on Tower Hill where she was beheaded on trumped up charges of infidelity. The great love that Henry had held for her had evaporated. In this and most of Henry's other relationships, we find that he tended towards infatuation with women, a state that cooled all too soon once the conquest was made.
But this was not the case with his third wife, Jane Seymour. Some historians say that Jane was the only one of his six wives that Henry truly loved with his whole heart. Jane was everything that Anne had not been. She was not flashy or boisterous in any way, but demure and rather plain in appearance. She was soft spoken and compliant to her husbands wishes. And Henry loved her.
Henry had probably taken notice of Jane while staying at Wolf Hall, the home of her father on a progress or hunting trip, though he would have met her prior to that. She had been a lady in waiting to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, and within the month of Anne's execution he had married her. Jane's family most likely pushed her to the forefront as soon as Henry's interest was piqued, as relatives of the Queen would surely enjoy perks and prosperity. It is not known how Jane felt about Henry, but it was widely reported at the time that Henry spoke of her with genuine affection as well as respect. He often asked her opinion on matters of state, and enjoyed dining and dancing with her.
Jane rewarded Henry for his attentions by giving him the longed for son in October of 1537. The King was overjoyed and the child was christened with great fanfare and ceremony. Henry's happiness was cut tragically short, however, when Jane died just two weeks after little Edward was born. According to contemporaries, Henry was truly devastated by her loss and grieved for her profusely. He had lost the woman whom he'd referred to as his first “true wife” and he was utterly bereft.
What did Henry's wives really look like?
Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves
With only one tiny son between Henry and an empty throne, Henry's advisers thought it important that he remarry as soon as possible. Henry, however, was disinclined to do so, probably because he was in deep mourning for his Jane, and no bride was found for the first two years after her death. Ultimately though, a bride was arranged for him by Thomas Cromwell (who would suffer for his trouble) from Germany. Her name was Anne of Cleves.
Unlike his relationship with his other wives, his feelings for Anne of Cleves are indelibly documented and indisputable. He loathed her. When Henry first laid eyes on her, he was shocked to find that she looked nothing like the flattering portrait that had been done for his examination by Hans Holbein. Although it is unclear exactly what it was about Anne that Henry found so repulsive, he did mention that she had “evil smells about her” and he was apparently unable to consummate the marriage on the wedding night or at any time thereafter.
Henry did treat her with courtesy however, and found that he enjoyed her company at dinner and card playing. But, his ministers managed to find a loop hole in the marriage contract that they could use to dissolve the marriage, which they did scarcely six months after the ceremony. The union was undone and Anne was granted a handsome stipend and several comfortable homes, much to her great relief. She lived out her life in comfort in England, never returning to her homeland in Germany, and she remained friendly with the King who called her “sister”.
Enter Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Catherine was another example of the King's tendency toward infatuation. At this point, Henry was an obese and aging man of 49 and Catherine was about 17 years of age. It was another case of the family of the girl conniving to win favor through young Catherine, and she was purposely paraded before him and no doubt instructed as to how to tempt him. Whatever the plotting consisted of, Henry fell in love with the young member of Anne of Cleves' household and he married her only weeks after his marriage to Anne was dissolved.
Henry was entranced by the pretty blonde girl, and he called her his “rose without a thorn”. She played her part well, and flattered Henry which he sorely needed in his condition at the time, which included a badly ulcerated leg making it difficult for him to walk and impossible to ride or dance as he had loved to do in his youth. Catherine rejuvenated Henry, and while there was likely little that the two shared in common (Catherine was practically illiterate and poorly educated), he became very much besotted by his young bride. He extolled her virtues to anyone who would listen. One can only imagine what was whispered behind the back of the King at this time, as he must have seemed a pathetic figure indeed.
In the meantime, Catherine fell very deeply in love with a young courtier by the name of Thomas Culpepper, and the two rashly began to meet in secret. But secrets cannot be kept for long in the context of a royal court, and they were soon found out. When news of her infidelity reached the King, it is said that he was crushed and astonished that his rose without a thorn could have done such a thing to her doting husband. A trial was held, and Catherine and her lover were found guilty of treason against the King and beheaded on 13 February 1542. One wonders how much real love he could possibly have felt for this girl of 17 if he could have sent her to such a death.
Did He or Didn't He?
- Katherine of Aragon = infatuation first, then probably loved her
- Anne Boleyn = strong infatuation but never deep love
- Jane Seymour = Henry's one true love
- Anne of Cleves = revulsion as wife/ strong friendship afterwards
- Catherine Howard = strong infatuation and idolization/ probably loved her
- Katherine Parr = caring and respect but no great love
This episode seems to have truly depressed the King and he remained almost in seclusion for some time after Catherine's execution. He felt bereft, betrayed and despondent that his last chance to sire another son had most likely passed him by, as he was rapidly sickening and aging at this point in time.
His final marriage was to Katherine Parr, a wealthy widow that Henry had known at court, as she had been lady in waiting to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Lady Parr happened to be attracted to a man by the name of Thomas Seymour, brother to the late Queen Jane, at the time that Henry began his pursuit of her. She was about 31 years old at the time, and Henry was an elderly fifty-two years of age and quite sickly. Katherine evidently felt that responding to the King's attentions was her duty, so she gave up her involvement with Seymour and married the King in July of 1543.
Katherine was reportedly kind and gentle to the ailing King, and she was also bright and extremely well educated which allowed her to verbally spar with Henry, something that he enjoyed. She also took a great interest in Henry's three surviving children, and was instrumental in bringing them together at the court. For Katherine, Henry had no wild infatuation as he had with Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and no deep love as he had known with Jane Seymour. Instead it seems to have been a warm and comfortable relationship with mutual respect and genuine caring.
Katherine nursed the King herself in his last days and was truly saddened at his death in January of 1547. Although she was now able to continue her relationship with Thomas Seymour, which she did, she knew that the passing of this enigmatic man marked the end of an era and she mourned the husband for whom she had been the sixth, and final, wife.
Did King Henry VIII love his wives? As for most of us, his feelings in each relationship were different, complex, changeable and difficult to define at times. Certainly he was a man of great romantic passions, an ability to genuinely love, and a vulnerability that belied his cruel treatment of several of the women he presumably cared for. Of all his wives, the most famous, Anne Boleyn, represented and infatuation so strong that it changed the course of English history.