Whenever anyone discusses Henry VIII, four words invariably follow his name - "and his six wives". The stories of Henry's six Queens are as legendary as the man himself. We're taught the famous riddle - divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived, and as many films, books and plays have been written about his Queens as the man himself, particularly about his second and most infamous wife, Anne Boleyn. What is not so well known is that at one time, there was talk of Henry marrying for a seventh time. His final marriage to Catherine Parr had not resulted in further children for the King and such was the strength of the rumours that rulers across Europe were notified of an impending marriage. Where did these rumours start and is there any truth to them?
The news is first described in an account from February 1546 when the imperial ambassador François van der Delft wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In his letter, Francois stated “Sire, I am confused and apprehensive to inform Your Majesty that there are rumours here of a new Queen, although I do not know why, or how true it may be. Some people attribute it to the sterility of the present Queen while others say there will be no change whilst the present war with France lasts. Madame Suffolk is much talked about, and is in great favour; but the King shows no alteration in his demeanour towards the Queen, though the latter, as I am informed, is somewhat annoyed at the rumours.”
The ‘Madame Suffolk’ that Francois references was Katherine Willoughby, dowager-Duchess of Suffolk, the widow of Henry VIII’s closest friend, Charles Brandon. Brandon had died in August of 1545. Katherine had been married to Charles Brandon when she was only 14 and he was 49. Brandon had been married three times before marrying Katherine, most notably to King Henry's younger sister Princess Mary, a marriage which took place without the consent of the King. Brandon and Mary had been banished from court for this transgression and would only return to Henry's favour after a heavy fine had been paid. When Katherine married Charles Brandon on September 7th 1533, she became one of the leading ladies of the English court as Duchess of Suffolk. It is therefore reasonable to assume that she would have had several opportunities to meet with and befriend King Henry during the 1530s and 40s. Eustace Chapuys, Francois van der Delft's predecessor had exclaimed that King Henry was particularly fond of Katherine, and that he had been seen visiting her in March of 1538 just a few months after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour.
Katherine was known at court for her wit, sharp tongue and devotion to theology and learning. She was an outspoken supporter of the English reformation and became a great friend of Henry's final queen, Catherine Parr. Katherine was said to particularly dislike Stephen Gardiner, a conservative Catholic who served as Bishop of Winchester during Henry VIII's reign. Her dislike of the bishop was so readily accepted that she named her pet spaniel "Gardiner", which provoked much amusement amongst his enemies when the dog was called to heel. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk can be seen below. The drawing of Katherine was by Holbein and the portrait of the Duke is attributed to Jan Gossaert. It was painted as a double portrait alongside his third wife, Princess Mary.
When the Duke of Suffolk died in 1545, the rumours of a seventh marriage between Katherine and the King really took off. An agent of King Henrys, Stephen Vaughan based in Antwerp told fellow diplomats that "This day came to my lodging a merchant of this town, saying that he had dined with certain friends, one of whom offered to lay a wager with him that the King’s majesty would have another wife; and he prayed me to show him the truth. He would not tell me who offered the wager, but that many folks talk of this matter, and from whence it comes I cannot learn.” Had she been single, historian David Baldwin believes that Henry would have made Katherine his fourth queen after Jane Seymour's death. The relative good health of Charles Brandon did of course prevent this from taking place.
When the rumours about a new wife began to get traction, Henry had been married to Catherine Parr for coming on three years. Whether Queen Catherine's apparent anger at the rumours is based on it being her friend about whom the rumours were made is unknown. In any case it does not appear that this caused a fissure in the relationship between the Queen and the Duchess. Henry and Catherine's marriage was not always smooth and had not resulted in the much desired second son to solidify Henry's lineage. Although Henry was undoubtedly more content now that he had his male heir in Prince Edward, he could not look past the fact that a second legitimate male heir would make his position even stronger. Henry more than anyone understood the position plainly, for he himself had been the 'spare' to his brother Prince Arthur. It also appears that Catherine Parr was a woman for whom unwavering obedience and supplication did not come as naturally as it did to some of Henry's other wives. Perhaps reminiscent of her predecessor Anne Boleyn, she was forthright in her opinions and did not shy away from speaking them out loud. Many do not know for example that she was the very first woman in England to publish a book in her own name, Prayers or Meditations, which she wrote and released in 1545. A portrait of Catherine Parr can be seen below alongside a copy of Prayers and Meditations.
Her religious opinions sometimes grated on the King, for he found them too challenging and removed from his own more traditional view of Catholic doctrine. Indeed Catherine very nearly became the third of Henry's Queens to be arrested and potentially executed. Two of Henry's most senior and anti-protestant officials Thomas Wriothesley, Lord Chancellor and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester viewed Queen Catherine with extreme suspicion and attempted to turn Henry against her. Her actions in supporting Anne Askew, a protestant martyr who fiercely opposed the Catholic belief of transubstantiation did nothing to ease the rumours of the Queens religious sympathies. Wriothesley and Gardiner moved against the Catherine and had a warrant drawn up for her arrest. Miraculously Catherine saw the warrant before it was signed and was able to reconcile with the King. She vowed that she only challenged his views to take his mind off his ulcerous leg which by now was causing the King constant pain. Unaware of the reconciliation, an armed guard came to arrest Catherine when she was walking with Henry the following day. Henry is said to have exploded in rage at the apparent mistreatment of his dutiful wife.
It is unclear whether Henry VIII who was a capricious monarch at best ever seriously considered changing his wife, or if it were mere court rumour. Henry died just months after the events transpired on the 28th January 1547. His will granted Catherine Parr an annual allowance of £7,000 and he further ordered that despite now being a Queen dowager that she should be given the respect and reverence of a Queen of England, as if Henry was still alive. Catherine Parr, so often referred to as the one who "survived" only outlived the King by twenty months. She died on the 5th September 1548 from childbed fever at the age of 36.
Katharine Willoughby, the possible would-be seventh wife, still had many years to live. She successfully managed to avoid involvement in the downfall of her step-granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey in the years 1553-1554 and spent four years in self enacted exile in Europe during the reign of Queen Mary I. She returned to England when it was safe to do so during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Katherine died on the 19th September 1580 at the age of 61. ascended the throne and died in 1580.
My assessment is that Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk was not a serious contender to be Henry's seventh queen. The Tudor court was a positive hotbed of gossip, making it possible that this was merely a rumour that spiralled out of control - perhaps some off-hand comment was made which blew things out of proportion. I certainly don't believe the King was seriously considering making her his queen as late as 1546. He was practically immobile by this time, brought down by severe illness and his own massive weight. His reinstatement of Princesses Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession in 1543 shows that he had likely known then that he would have no further issue. It is of course possible that he had once thought of Katherine Willoughby as a potential suitable queen, had she not already been married, but thinking "what if" is a far cry from getting down on one knee...
Written by Adam Pennington
23rd November 2020