Chapter 5

Six Weddings and Two Funerals: Henry VIII's Wives and Girlfriends

In This Chapter

● Meeting Henry’s wives

● Marrying and divorcing for England

● Going to the block - Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard

Henry VIII’s love life is world famous. He’s the only English king to marry six different women, two of whom literally lost their heads as a result of saying Volo - ‘I do’.

Henry’s marriages are all about politics as much as sex. In the 16th century the government was the king and procreation was essential for a dynasty like the Tudors to survive. It was vital that a queen should be fertile.

In nearly 32 years of marriage Henry created 11 pregnancies with four different women and fathered four children who lived beyond babyhood:

● Mary - the future Queen Mary I

● Henry Fitzroy - illegitimate, the son of Bessie Blount

● Elizabeth - the future Queen Elizabeth I

● Edward - the future King Edward VI

After 1537 Henry was responsible for no more pregnancies, even though the king had three wives to go - Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. Catherine Parr outlived Henry and became pregnant by her next husband, so the fertility problem was probably Henry’s.

Don’t let Henry’s track record fool you. Six wives and a couple of mistresses give the impression that Henry was a stud and womaniser. In fact, he took marriage very seriously - so seriously that he executed two of his wives for adultery.

Henry comes out of all this looking a rather sad figure. Driven by the need to produce a legitimate male heir, his frequent marriages smack of desperation. But he seems to have genuinely loved each of his wives (except Anne of Cleves, who everybody realised was a big mistake). Equally, he tired of women easily and his own monstrous ego was the real cause of all the marital breakdowns.

Courting Catherine of Aragon

In Chapter 2 we explain that Catherine was the daughter of ‘the most Catholic of kings’, Ferdinand of Aragon, and Isabella of Castile.

Joining Team Tudor

Catherine was engaged to Arthur, Henry VII’s eldest son, when she was 7. Henry VII was an upstart who had, after all, taken the crown of England by force and his legal claim to it was dodgy. He knew that making an alliance with one of the oldest royal families in Europe would go a long way towards acceptance.

In 1501 the real wedding (as opposed to the proxy one - see Chapter 2) took place in England and everybody thought the couple were well matched. Both spoke fluent Latin and had been brought up good Catholics (at this stage nothing else existed in the Christian world) but with a humanist slant (see Chapter 1).

Pretty as a picture?

It was the job of Court portrait painters to make their sitters as pretty or handsome as possible, so we can't really rely on their accuracy. Easily the best portrait painter of his generation was Hans Holbein from Augsburg in Germany, and his paintings are so good we have to believe that they're fairly accurate. Other portraits are very average and the problem is made worse by later copies and engravings, particularly by the Victorians. It doesn't help either that society's ideas of beauty have changed: in the 16th century pale skin and a high forehead in a woman was considered a sign of beauty and intelligence. We know Henry was famously deceived by Holbein's painting of Anne of Cleves, although she does look pretty plain in his miniature. Anne Boleyn has a rosebud mouth and blobby nose; Catherine of Aragon has a huge chin in all portraits except Holbein's. It's probably safest to say that the clothes are accurate but the faces aren't. If in doubt, I'd stick with Holbein.

Although Catherine had been due to marry an English prince for years and was clearly a smart girl, no one had ever taught her English, so she must have felt quite lost in her first months in the country, speaking Spanish to her ladies of the chamber only.

The newly-weds spent an extended honeymoon at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh Marches (borders) and it was here that Arthur died, probably of tuberculosis. We don’t know whether the marriage was ever consummated. Very quickly, the 17-year-old princess was betrothed to Arthur’s 11-year-old brother, Henry.

Church law said, based on the Bible’s Book of Leviticus, that if a man married his dead brother’s wife it was an unclean thing and he would be childless. The only man able to turn this ruling on its head was the pope, Julius II, who duly gave his consent.

Catherine herself was now in limbo. Ferdinand didn’t want his daughter back (thanks, Dad!) because he was busy with affairs of state. So Ferdinand briefly made Catherine his ambassador, which improved her English and (uniquely at the time) gave a woman a political role in a man’s world.

Striking a match

Because of the shifts in European relations Henry VII had cooled on the Spanish Alliance marriage, but his death meant that Henry VIII could make up his own mind and the couple were married weeks later. Henry and Catherine were crowned in a joint ceremony on Midsummer’s Day 1509. The streets around Westminster Abbey were hung with tapestries and gold cloth. The livery companies, all wearing their finery, lined Cheapside, the City of London’s high street. Henry’s horse was draped in gold damask and the king’s doublet sparkled with rubies, emeralds and pearls. Catherine’s litter was pulled by two snow-white horses. Over the top, or what?

Catherine swore she was still technically a virgin, despite some teenage boasting from Arthur. We’re probably best off taking her word for it!

Making babies, losing babies

Nine months after their wedding Catherine gave birth to a stillborn girl. This was very common at the time, with no scans or modern medical checkups available. It was a sign of gloom and doom to come, but Henry wasn’t aware of that yet.

Infant mortality

The reason so many children died young or were stillborn is probably down to the frequency of their mothers' pregnancies. Women's diet of grain, vegetables and honey (they didn't eat as much meat as the men) led to a low iron intake and anaemia. This left women prone to infections and gave them low resistance to illnesses. The medical practice of bleeding (cutting veins or applying blood-sucking leeches) for all sorts of illnesses made matters worse.

In January 1511 Catherine gave birth to Henry, who should have gone on to be prince of Wales and eventually Henry IX. Tournaments and feasts were held and the church bells rang out. Within weeks, however, rejoicing turned to despair; baby Henry died from what today people call sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and for the first time the relationship between king and queen began to deteriorate.

It was two years before Catherine was pregnant again and it ended in miscarriage. Court gossip suggested Henry was looking elsewhere for excitement, perhaps with the duke of Buckingham’s sister, but the Court was always full of rumours and no doubt Catherine tried to ignore the chat.

When Henry went to war in France in 1513, he made Catherine regent in his absence, but this only papered over the cracks in their relationship.

Hitting the rocks

Henry may have been carrying on with Bessie Blount by this time (see Chapter 3), but if so he was still persevering with Catherine. In January 1515 she miscarried again - another prince she failed to deliver. Henry was at home in England but didn’t visit her or even send condolences, such was his disappointment.

Eleven months later Catherine produced the first of Henry’s children who would see adulthood. The child was healthy but it was female, and a newly disappointed Henry made all the right noises about the baby, named Mary, being ‘a token of hope’ and ‘a good beginning’ (nobody knows what Catherine thought of this damning with faint praise).

Catherine was now 31 and her final pregnancy ended in miscarriage in 1518. Lives were generally shorter in the 16th century and the menopause hit Catherine at 33 or 34. She’d gone through six pregnancies and two live births and was putting on weight rapidly. By the time of the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520; see Chapter 3) everybody accepted she was past it - a disaster for a king desperate for a son.

Hedging his Bess

We don’t know exactly when Henry bedded Bessie Blount, but it was certainly before 1519 because that was the year she gave birth to Henry Fitzroy. The birth of a healthy illegitimate son was like rubbing salt into Catherine’s wounds. She became more devout than ever, either as a sign of remorse, an attempt to say sorry to God for failing Henry or even in the faint hope of reversing her body clock.

Princess Mary wasn’t acceptable to Henry for political reasons. The last queen of England was Matilda in the 12th century and she’d made such a hash of it that civil war had broken out. Nobody knew exactly how having Mary as queen would work. If a woman married, the law said that all her property became her husband’s, so if Mary married a foreign king, England would belong to him as the crown matrimonial. If Mary married a home-grown nobleman, that could see the dynastic squabbles of the Wars of the Roses (see Chapter 1) start all over again.

Henry married Bessie Blount off to Gilbert Tailboys and threw money and land at them both, buying her silence. He had other fish to fry.

Getting Heady with Anne Boleyn

Henry probably had an affair with Mary Boleyn (see Chapter 3) in 1520 and this brought him into the circle of her sister, Anne. Both Boleyn girls have captivated historical novelists and film makers, always keen to have a slushy love story centre stage.

Courting commotion

In 1513, when Anne was about 12, she was sent to the Court of Margaret of Austria who ran the Low Countries (today’s Netherlands). From there she was sent to the Court of Mary (Henry VIII’s sister), who was now queen of France and not much older than Anne. When Louis XII of France died Mary came home, but Anne stayed on, learning all the flirtiness and flightiness of the French Court.

Artful Anne

Anne's portraits don't show her as a great beauty - and remember, they were painted to flatter the sitter! - but she was sexy, clever and witty. She knew how to waggle her assets (see Chapter 3 for details of Henry's admiration for her two biggest assets) and held out against the king's amorous advances for over five years.

Caught between the charm of Anne, with her razzle dazzle, and boring old Catherine, who was menopausal and increasingly judgemental, Henry decided by 1527 that his marriage was illegal because of the disclaimer in Leviticus. Catherine had to go.

Catherine, of course, had no such intention. She saw herself as queen of England and her daughter Mary as the heiress to the throne. Knowing that Henry needed the pope’s permission to get the marriage annulled, she dashed off letters to her nephew, Charles V, whose army was camped outside Rome, to make sure that the pope didn’t do the honours. Well served by her legal team, Catherine won every round in this royal battle.

In Chapter 4 we explain that Thomas Wolsey lost his job because of his failure to sort out the divorce. But another of Henry’s advisers, Thomas Cromwell, hit upon the answer. If the pope wouldn’t play ball and grant a divorce, then Henry could get Parliament to declare him head of the Church (see Chapter 6) and then the king could sort it out for himself.

Getting his own way - to hell

Catherine refused to recognise Henry’s jurisdiction. She was banished from Court and given £3,000 a year and the title dowager princess of Wales.

The pope excommunicated Henry but the verdict was a paper tiger because neither Charles V nor Francis I, the superpower leaders in Europe, paid any attention to the pope. The only people who did were goody-two-shoes like Thomas More and John Fisher who, as you see in Chapter 4, lost their heads as a result.

Now events moved quickly. Henry gave Anne Boleyn the title of marchioness of Pembroke and she went with Henry to France as the potential queen-inwaiting the next year. She conceived on this trip, and because the child had to be legitimate in the spring of 1533 Thomas Cranmer, as archbishop of Canterbury, the top churchman in the country, annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine. At the same time Parliament prevented Catherine from whingeing to the pope by passing the Act in Restraint of Appeals.

Henry and Anne were married in secret in January and then, on 1 June, she was crowned. Fifty barges, fluttering with flags and gold foil, brought the royal procession along the river Thames from Greenwich to Westminster. The lord mayor of London presented the new queen with 1,000 gold marks (like she needed it!). Some of the crowd were quite subdued, however, and some weren’t very pleased at the obvious signs of pregnancy showing through Anne’s robes.

Although a number of top people boycotted the ceremony, the Boleyn family were over the moon. Everybody else had the last laugh, though, because the much awaited royal son in September turned out to be another girl, Elizabeth.

Deja vu

While Cromwell and Parliament were busy sorting out the details of the Royal Supremacy (see Chapter 6), which would have the effect of dividing the country deeply, Anne was exerting as much influence on Henry as she could. She was pregnant again by the spring of 1534, but miscarried in July. Henry must have been distraught. He was putting his people through an unprecedented upheaval and for what? In a way, he was back to square one.

Matters were made worse in April when Elizabeth Barton, the holy maid of Kent, prophesied loudly and often that Henry would die a villain’s death if he stayed married to the queen. She was hanged at Tyburn, west of London, the traditional execution place for common felons.

Old wife's tale

During her banishment Catherine was afraid that she would be poisoned, and reportedly, she had her food cooked by her own servants over a fire in her chamber. She needn't have worried. Ruthless as he was in some ways, Henry didn't stoop to such methods. He made sure that the Oath of Supremacy, which all people in public life were supposed to take to recognise Henry as head of the Church (upon penalty of death), didn't apply to Catherine or his daughter Mary.

In any case, Catherine solved the problem for him by dying, probably of a series of heart attacks, at Buckden in January 1536.

Meanwhile, Henry’s relationship with Anne was passionate and intensely physical. Anne wore her sexuality on her sleeve. She was feisty and if she didn’t like what Henry was doing she told him so. They had furious fights and many make-ups, but the techniques that Anne had used during their courtship didn’t work so well after marriage. Henry began to find his wife annoying.

Falling out of love: A losing game

By the summer of 1535 Henry and Anne’s marriage blew hot and cold. The death of Catherine the following year meant that Henry could never go back to her and Anne was pregnant again. Then Henry had an accident while jousting and was knocked out for several hours. So worried was Anne that she miscarried.

The story spread years later that Anne’s miscarried baby was deformed. Because of that Henry became convinced that the child couldn’t have been his and that Anne must be playing away from home. But this story wasn’t current at the time and is probably one of those annoying bits of fiction that tend to grow up around royals in every generation.

Henry began to brood. He wondered whether the dazzling girl at his elbow had bewitched him. He watched every gesture, read another meaning into every word. The dead child wasn’t his. So whose was it? How about Anne’s own brother George, Lord Rochford? After all, he was hanging around her all the time. In Henry’s paranoid mood, it all seemed to fit.

Punishing Anne: Off with her head!

Henry didn’t rush to judgement, but over three months in the spring of 1536 he became convinced of Anne’s infidelity. Two things pushed him over the edge:

● Thomas Cromwell changed sides. As you see in Chapter 4, Cromwell was loyal to Henry and could pick up intuitively on the king’s moods. Henry confided in him and Cromwell now used his considerable powers to remove Anne.

● Anne made a silly remark to Sir Henry Norris. He was a gentleman of Henry’s Privy Chamber and Anne, no doubt as a joke, told him that, should anything happen to the king, she knew Norris fancied her. The malignant Cromwell made sure that Henry heard of this in the worst possible light and Anne and Norris were arrested on charges of adultery. Because Henry was king, the crime was also treason.

Anne couldn’t believe this was happening. She’d done nothing except carry on in the same flirtatious way she always had. Henry had made up his mind, however, and as well as accusing the queen of witchcraft (see Chapter 4) Cromwell produced a bundle of dodgy evidence to ‘prove’ that Anne had slept with four men:

● Sir Henry Norris, who denied it.

● Francis Weston, who denied it.

● William Brereton, who denied it.

● Mark Smeaton, who confessed to it. He was a lowly music teacher and was almost certainly tortured.

The trial was a mockery, even by rigged Tudor standards, and on 10 May 1536 Anne and all her ‘lovers’ were found guilty.

Meanwhile, the archbishop of Canterbury hit upon Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn as an excuse to dissolve the royal marriage. After all, a consummated relationship outside marriage was the same as one inside (if it suited Henry’s purpose).

Anne was beheaded on 17 May 1536 (see the nearby sidebar ‘Losing her head, keeping her cool’ for the grisly details).

Losing her head, keeping her cool

Anne went to the block on 17 May. She was no longer queen, marchioness nor wife. Her brother died days earlier not far from her cell in the Tower of London. She walked the 50 yards to the execution place on Tower Green wearing a plain grey dress and spoke to the waiting crowd. She prayed that God would save the king, 'for a gentler, more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and a sovereign lord.' Her cloak and headdress were removed. She had the nerve to joke about her little neck to the specially imported, masked headsman who hacked through it with a single horizontal sweep of his two-handed sword (her choice - the cut would be cleaner).

Rumour had it that Henry waited for the cannon signal that Anne was dead before he rode out to hunt. This is faithfully shown in Anne of the Thousand Days and the camera lingers on little Elizabeth who, aged 3, is still learning how to walk in her heavy dresses and doesn't understand the significance of the cannon fire she hears.

Marrying Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, was the calm after the storm. The daughter of Sir John Seymour of Wulf Hall in Wiltshire, she was a bit dumpy and a bit plain. At 27, she was unusually old to be a virgin, especially because she’d already been knocking around the Court for a while in the entourage of Queen Anne.

This relationship was political as well as personal. By marrying an English bride, Henry was signalling loud and clear that he wouldn’t hitch his star to a European alliance and have to bargain away his control of the Church.

Plain Jane

Because she didn’t live long, figuring Jane out is difficult. Here’s what we know:

● She had common sense.

● She wasn’t deeply religious but may have tried to persuade Henry not to destroy the monasteries.

● She came of good breeding stock - the Seymour family was huge.

● She didn’t have the ambition to lead a party made up of the Seymours as earlier queens of England had done with their families.

● She got on with princess Mary (Catherine’s daughter), who accepted her illegitimacy and was welcomed at Court in July 1536.

It's a boy!

While Henry was busy sorting out the Pilgrimage of Grace (see Chapter 4), Jane’s coronation was shelved because she was pregnant.

All the signs looked good. Astrologers who watched the heavens closely at auspicious times told Henry he would have a son and he even had a new stall created in the Garter Chapel at Windsor for the new prince of Wales.

The pregnancy was fine, but the labour and birth were difficult. Finally, on 12 June 1536 at Hampton Court, a boy was born, and he was christened Edward three days later. Henry is said to have cried with joy.

Taking leave: A dying shame

Thomas Cranmer and the duke of Norfolk were the prince’s godfathers and princess Mary was godmother. Jane sat up in bed in the antechapel to receive visitors. Then it all went pear-shaped. She developed septicaemia, which was then called childbed fever, and 11 days after Edward’s birth she slipped into a coma, dying on the evening of 24 October. Henry went to his Palace of Westminster and ‘kept himself secret a great while’ and the Court wore the black of mourning until Candlemas (2 February 1538).

Jane was gentle and biddable, perhaps the nicest of all Henry’s wives. Above all, she’d given him what his heart desired most - a son.

Tripping Up with Anne of Cleves

Henry was 46 and perhaps no longer really interested in marriage. But it was a risk to pin all your hopes on one boy and the Council, urged by Cromwell, suggested a new queen. Henry had a couple of options:

● A French princess: That would do wonders for shaky Anglo-French relations, but Francis refused to allow a beauty parade of family talent for Henry’s benefit.

● The Duchess of Milan: She was 16 and already a widow, but she didn’t fancy following Anne Boleyn to the block.

In fact, foreign policy pushed Henry in another direction altogether. Charles V and Francis I became buddies again early in 1539, leaving England and Henry out of the loop to such an extent that the king feared invasion. To counter the Franco-Imperial alliance Henry could:

● Join forces with the Schmalkaldic League - but they were Lutheran princes and he was a Catholic.

● Work out a deal with the powerful John, duke of the German state of Cleves-Julich, one of Charles V’s most bitter enemies.

Henry settled on the second option, and a double wedding to cement friendship with Cleves-Julich was arranged: when Duke John died, his son William proposed to marry Henry’s daughter Mary, and Henry himself would marry William’s sister, Anne.

Making a big mistake

Anne of Cleves was probably frightened to death as she set sail for England in December 1539. The weather was terrible and she couldn’t get to Dover before the 27th, leaving a fuming Henry to spend Christmas alone at Greenwich.

When Anne got to the bishop of Rochester’s palace on 31 December en route to her new husband-to-be, Henry played a prank that Anne Boleyn would have loved but that terrified Anne of Cleves. In masks, the king and his gentlemen of the Chamber crashed into her bedroom, pretending to bring a token from the amorous bridegroom. It all went horribly wrong, with ghastly silences, even after Henry revealed who he was. ‘I like her not,’ was his muttered comment.

Dealing with the fallout

Henry quickly realised he’d been had and Anne wouldn’t make a handsome match (see the sidebar ‘Not even a pretty face’). And very quickly the international scene changed so that the Cleves-Julich alliance no longer mattered. But Henry was unable to wriggle out at this late stage, despite putting the wedding off for 48 hours and hoping for a miracle. He married Anne in the private chapel at Greenwich on 6 January 1540. The wedding night was a disaster and Henry gave up trying to have sex with Anne after four nights. So much for a spare to back up the heir!

On the surface, all may have seemed well. But Henry’s adviser Thomas Cromwell soon fell, partly as a result of his part in the Cleves fiasco.

Not even a pretty face

In the days before easy communication and photography, royals saw the faces of prospective spouses via Court miniatures. The brilliant and ever-reliable Hans Holbein did an incredible job with Anne's portrait and Henry fell for it. Anne was a bumpkin with none of the sophistication or dazzle of previous wives. She spoke, read and wrote no language other than German and knew nothing of the facts of life. She was tall and gawky with smallpox scars.

On the other hand, she was good at needlework!

Getting another divorce

As archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer must have been quite used to marrying and divorcing on Henry’s behalf (for more on Cranmer, see Chapter 6). This marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. London couldn’t believe it - most ordinary people believed Henry was a stud.

Anne rolled over for Cranmer’s contention (something she clearly hadn’t been able to do for Henry!) and accepted the land given to her worth £3,000 a year. Because this was the same amount thrown at Catherine of Aragon, £3,000 was clearly the going rate for ex-queens in Tudor England.

Nothing further happened in the William-Mary projected marriage either and Anne stayed in England, making no attempt to return home, until her death in 1557. She never remarried and sex may well have remained a dark mystery to her until her dying day.

Lusting After Catherine Howard

Catherine was another mistake, but a very different one from Anne of Cleves. Henry was on the rebound and very taken with the sexpot, who was actually five years younger than his eldest daughter. Catherine was one of the enormous grasping clan of the duke of Norfolk, and she was brought up in a huge family home at Horsham in Sussex by her step-grandmother. She could read and write but had no academic interests beyond that.

Catherine put herself about, probably under the influence of her older sisters, and had her first affair at 14 with her music teacher Henry Mannox. (Why is it always music teachers? See the earlier section on Anne Boleyn.) When she got bored with Mannox, Catherine popped into bed with Francis Dereham, a gentleman. Their affair lasted two years. After Anne of Cleves, Henry would probably have welcomed an experienced girl, but the fact that she had been to bed with other men would prove fatal for her.

Falling for a temptress

Catherine joined the royal Household at about the same time that Anne of Cleves arrived. She probably learned quite quickly from Court gossip that things weren’t going well for Henry in the bedroom, and the king got interested in Catherine by March or April 1540.

Canoodling with Catherine

Henry was besotted. He showered Catherine with expensive gifts, jewellery and furs, most of which he'd got from the estate of Thomas Cromwell (Henry probably felt his adviser owed him something after the Cleves fiasco).

Catherine's motto was 'No other will but his', but Henry was 30 years older than she was and this physical fact probably became apparent pretty quickly.

Once Cranmer and the Church had annulled the Cleves marriage, Parliament petitioned the king (which was standard procedure) to find a new wife for the sake of the succession. Henry couldn’t keep his hands off Catherine even in public, and they were married at Oatlands Palace in Surrey on 28 July.

By March 1541 Henry became ill (see Chapter 3 for his medical ailments).

His leg ulcers became infected and he feared he may die. Far from an ardent lover, Catherine now faced life with a chronic invalid.

Pushing the limits

There may have been no evidence against Anne Boleyn in terms of adultery, but in the case of Catherine Howard plenty of proof existed:

● While Henry was ill she took up with an earlier lover, Thomas Culpepper, a member of the Privy Chamber who believed the king was dying and Catherine was about to become a very rich widow. She wrote him love letters - a huge risk as privacy didn’t exist in the Tudor Court. And she canoodled with Culpepper on a royal tour to York.

● She appointed Francis Dereham as her personal secretary.

Henry seems to have been completely in the dark about all this, but the Howards had many enemies. Cranmer was told and he felt duty bound to tell the king. Henry couldn’t believe it, snarling with fury one moment and bursting into tears the next. But he couldn’t ignore his wife’s adultery, and Culpepper and Dereham were arrested. Catherine was confined to quarters.

Reaching the end of the line

Cranmer interrogated Catherine at Hampton Court on 7 November 1541 in the presence of her father. She cracked and confessed everything with much screaming and wailing. A grief-stricken Henry threatened to torture the girl to death.

Culpepper and Dereham were found guilty on 1 December of ‘conspiring the bodily harm of the king’s consort’ (having sex with Catherine). Both men were sentenced to die by the ghastly method of hanging, drawing and quartering at Tyburn. Because of Culpepper’s status, Henry commuted the sentence to one of mere decapitation.

Not content with bringing Catherine down, Henry destroyed the entire Howard family and they’d never again find favour at his Court. The ex-queen wasn’t tried, perhaps to spare Henry’s feelings. The entire country now knew he was a cuckold (a man whose wife was unfaithful to him) and his embarrassment must have been acute enough. Catherine was condemned by an Act of Attainder (a parliamentary ploy to avoid a trial) on 8 February 1542 and executed five days later, this time with an axe.

Catherine was only 21 when she died and many in the country felt her punishment was too harsh. Henry hadn’t had their marriage annulled but her betrayal shattered him, leaving him feeling old and full of self-pity.

Stowing Down with Catherine Parr

The king’s last marriage was unlike the other five. Henry had grown old not-so-gracefully (see Chapter 3) and Catherine Parr was 30 and had been married twice before.

Becoming available

The new queen came from Kendal in Westmoreland and her father, Sir Thomas, was a courtier who’d been a companion-in-arms to the young Henry years before. Catherine was 17 when her first husband died and she married John Neville, Lord Latimer of Snape, who was a widower. She became a busy stepmother to his children and ran his estate in Yorkshire.

By 1543 Neville was dead. Now in their London town house, Catherine became friendly with princess Mary, who was four years her junior. The princess taught Catherine Latin, essential to cope with the snobs who hung around Court, and the newly widowed woman attracted two suitors:

● Thomas Seymour, brother of the earl of Hertford

● Henry Tudor, king of England

No contest!

Growing up: Choosing a sensible wife

We don’t know what drew Henry particularly to Catherine Parr. He sent her a present two weeks before her husband’s death, so perhaps he admired the quiet way with which she coped with adversity.

It may have been Catherine’s first instinct to jump into bed with Thomas Seymour. She was still a young woman, he was a handsome buck and Lord Latimer hadn’t been active in the bedroom for years. By June 1543, however, Catherine was seen increasingly around the Court and she told Seymour she was going to marry Henry.

Cranmer and Co breathed sighs of relief when the wedding took place in the private chapel at Hampton Court on 12 July.

Anything for a quiet life

Henry was well and truly past any sort of sex by now - he may not even have consummated his marriage to Catherine. She was a born manager and made sure that the king kept in touch with his children. Mary was 27 and could look after herself, but Elizabeth was only 10 and Edward was 6. It may be that the tutors Henry arranged for them, John Cheke and Richard Fox, who were quietly Protestant in their views, were Catherine’s choice and not Henry’s.

Catherine may have secretly converted to Protestantism before 1547 but she had to keep quiet about it. She certainly joined in theological chats that Henry had with various advisers and Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester who hated Protestants, believed the queen was a heretic. Henry actually drew up a list of accusations against her, perhaps with a view to putting her on trial.

Catherine may have got wind of this list and may even have seen the charges against her when a careless adviser dropped the list in a corridor(!) because she had a queen-to-king meeting with Henry and charmed him so much that he forgot the idea. When the lord chancellor arrived to arrest the queen, Henry sent him packing with a flea in his ear.

Administering angel

Despite the fact that she was made regent when Henry was fighting in France in 1544, all Catherine seems to have done was to compose a prayer for the soldiers to use before battle. There was to be no sending of bloody shirts for her (check out Catherine of Aragon’s actions while Henry was off fighting in Chapter 3).

Catherine’s role was that of peacemaker. As Henry’s physical problems grew, she nursed him, soothed him, made him laugh when she could. It can’t have been easy.

When Henry knew he was dying in January 1547 he sent for Archbishop Cranmer, not his wife. She wasn’t there at the end and even had to watch his funeral from behind an iron grid in the chapel.

Surviving Henry

After Henry’s death Catherine was still only 35 and Thomas Seymour wasted no time moving in. He was a councillor by now and a member of the Privy Chamber and still as handsome as ever. He was opposed, though, by his own brother, now lord protector to the new king, Edward VI. The boy king nevertheless gave Seymour his blessing and he carried off Catherine as well as her lands and the princesses Mary and Elizabeth, who’d been living with her.

Sadly, Catherine died in childbirth of puerperal fever in September 1548.

Six wives frame by frame

In The Private Life of Henry VIII Jane Seymour, played by Wendy Barrie, is preparing for her wedding while Merle Oberon's Anne Boleyn is on her way to the block. Merle's headgear and dress were faithfully modelled on the best-known portrait of Anne, but she didn't have the feisty, yet fragile beauty of Genevieve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days. All the queens were played by fine British actresses in Keith Michel's Six Wives of Henry VIII: Annette Crosbie was Catherine of Aragon; Dorothy Tutin was Anne Boleyn; Anne Stallybrass was Jane Seymour; Elvi Hale was Anne of Cleves; Angela Pleasance was Catherine Howard; and Rosalie Crutchley was Catherine Parr. For my money, the most gorgeous queen was Genevieve Bujold and the funniest, in The Private Life, was Elsa Lanchester as Anne of Cleves. No film on Henry's wives can fail, if only because of the gorgeous clothes and the soap opera drama that they all lived through with Bluff King Hal. The most recent television series, The Tudors, had an ageless Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry with the wrong colour hair and not looking a pound over ten stone. The clothes were good, so was the heraldry in the Court scenes and there were lots of candles. If the king was looking down at this production, he'd no doubt have been delighted by it all!

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