Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. These six words are as famous as the six women that they reference. I realise that this sounds somewhat trite, but it is easy to forget that these six queens were also Henry's wives. As wives, they should have represented more than being merely his consort or mother to his children. They should have been the people in his life whom he loved the most dearly, and depended on most greatly, and yet "love" as a concept with Henry VIII is very seldom explored or even referenced.
Historians tend to divide the six wives of Henry VIII in their two natural halves. The stories of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour are viewed with greater significance, in part owing to the enormous interconnectivity of these three queens lives with each other and the fact that they each gave birth to future monarchs of England. They are followed by the arguably more straightforward and less consequential marriages of Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. The concept of actual love, or even compatibility with these six women is hardly touched on, and when it is the same response tends to come up - he "loved Jane Seymour the most". The reason for this view coming from her giving him the all important male heir, and the fact that he chose to be buried next to her. That last part is undeniably true, but that doesn't mean that she was the love of his life, or that he even felt particularly strongly towards her. It is just as likely that he chose to be buried with her because she was the mother of his heir, and is the wife who managed to predecease him, therefore avoiding his displeasure which resulted in divorce or decapitation - he could hardly be buried alongside women he'd publicly separated from or executed.
The other wife for whom many claim to be Henry's true love is Catherine of Aragon, and the justification for this view is certainly evident. He was married to her for longer than any of his other five wives put together - 24 years in total, and it is highly probable that had she given him healthy sons that he'd have never divorced her. Henry also appears to have granted Catherine greater levels of respect and power than he was willing to share with his five subsequent queens. It should never be forgotten that Henry appointed Catherine his Regent in England when he went to war with France in 1513, naming her "Governor of the Realm and Captain General". This was a staggering display of not only loyalty but confidence in his queen. It would suggest that at this time in their marriage, he viewed her as every bit his equal and certainly in greater esteem than the many nobleman of his court who could have stepped into the role instead. Some could argue that as the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain that Catherine had been taught from the cradle what ruling meant, but we are talking about a time of staggering patriarchy. Women did not rule, and yet here we had Henry outwardly displaying his confidence that she could steer the ship assiduously in his absence. When Catherine rode north to defend England from Scots raids, addressing the English troops in full armour despite being heavily pregnant at the time, it can have only increased Henry's respect for her. Despite being viewed as almost saintly, she certainly displayed a level of quiet ruthlessness towards her enemies. This is evidenced by her sending Henry a piece of the bloodied coat of King James IV of Scotland who had died in battle against English troops under her control. She instructed Henry to use this as a banner in his siege at Tournai. Glory in war was however not the business of queens in 16th century England, and once Catherine lost her child and it became clear that she would not provide Henry with his much desired male heir, her victories on the battlefield soon melted away to insignificance.
The next phase in Henry's reign is perhaps the most famous. Known as his "Great Matter", this was the time when his most infamous of queen consorts entered the stage - Anne Boleyn. By 1526, Henry had become enamoured with Anne, who had been serving as a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine. Catherine was now middle aged (by the standards of the day) and her childbearing years had elapsed. Driven by the need to provide a male heir to follow his rule, Henry began the process to separate from his queen of 20+ years and instead marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he believed male heirs would be born. The Kings great matter would stretch across six long years. The inability to secure the much needed divorce was no doubt aided by Catherine's own incredible connections, namely her nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor who had Pope Clement VII imprisoned and thus unable to sanction the divorce Henry required. A true divorce from Catherine was never fully achieved, instead perhaps under the influence of Anne Boleyn and her progressive religious leanings, Henry soon adopted a different mode of attack. He labelled his marriage to Catherine lawfully invalid on the basis of her former marriage to his brother Arthur, and thus never truly recognised in the eyes of god. Henry broke with the Church in Rome, named himself Supreme Head of the Church in England and had Thomas Cranmer name his marriage to Catherine invalid. Henry and Anne Boleyn had secretly married January of 1533, Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen and was know down as the Dowager Princess of Wales. Anne was crowned queen consort of the 1st June, 1533.
The seven years that Henry and Anne fought for their right to marry can only have greatly intensified their passion for one another. In an age where fair skin and light hair were considered the height of attractiveness, the olive skinned and dark haired Anne Boleyn certainly stood out in the English court, often for all the wrong reasons. She was the opposite of what was considered ideal for a gentlewoman at the time. She was never meek or submissive, she was rather emotionally demonstrative and possessed what we may now call "sex appeal". Her time spent in France had created a woman of considerable intellect and she excelled at the game of courtly love. She was bold and fearless, and compared to the more retiring women of the English court, it isn't hard to recognise that Henry would be attracted to her. Despite the seven year legal battle to win her, once married Henry VIII soon began to tire of Anne Boleyn. Beyond her inability to provide him with the much desired male heir, it is my belief that the very things about Anne Boleyn that Henry found so appealing in their courtship, soon began to grate in a wife. Anne continued to be Anne. She could not and would not restrain her character, despite her elevated position to queen consort. Henry didn't want a political wife, he wanted someone who "knew her place", in short one just like Catherine, but preferably younger and with the ability to produce healthy sons!
In the end, Henry and Anne's courtship lasted more than twice the amount of time they were married. Anne famously fell from grace in May of 1536, and would become the very first queen consort in English history to be executed. She would be beheaded at the Tower of London on 19th May. Just 11 days later Henry moved on to wife number 3, Jane Seymour. Here we had a wife who was ostensibly the polar opposite of Anne Boleyn. To use the phrase uttered by David Starkey, "like a pendulum Henry went from one extreme to another". Jane was quiet and subservient, and although Anne Boleyn was not viewed as being a staggering beauty, she undoubtedly exuded a dark sort of glamour that Jane did clearly not possess. Her plain and dutiful manner no doubt attracted Henry, to quote Hilary Mantel "at least this one seemed like she'd be no trouble". Despite her drawbacks, Jane did at least provide Henry with his hearts desire, a healthy male heir. Tragedy would strike again for Henry VIII however, when just two weeks later Jane Seymour died following complications from the birth of Prince Edward.
As I reference at the top of this post, it is often said that Jane Seymour is the wife that Henry VIII loved the most. There are several pieces of evidence to corroborate the view, namely his decision to be buried with her and the fact that she did provide Henry with that much needed male heir. In "the family of Henry VIII" painting, Henry sits in the middle flanked by Jane and Prince Edward. His daughters Princesses Mary and Elizabeth are relegated to the sides - supporting acts in this outward display of how Henry perceives the future once he has gone. The portrait is of course a lie, given Jane not being around to see Prince Edward grow up, but this painting is another piece of evidence in the "he loved Jane most" argument. I would however point our that as the mother of his heir, then she would be the obvious choice for inclusion in a painting which includes one of Henry's queens. Again, he was hardly likely to want to celebrate the two women who had preceded Jane's rule.
Henry would not remarry for three years. He was eventually talked in to a marriage with Anne of Cleves, sister to the Duke of Cleves in an attempt to strengthen ties with the mostly protestant Germany. The marriage was famously a disaster, lasting just six months and was soon followed by the marriage to Catherine Howard. Young, perhaps just 17 at the time of their marriage, Catherine Howard was part of the premier noble house in England, and acted as something of a tonic for the aged King. Vivacious, buxom and attractive, Catherine brought about a decided upswing in the Kings former irascible mood, he would even refer to her as his "rose with a thorn". Unfortunately the marriage would also not last. Convicted of adultery, Catherine Howard would end her life on the scaffold, like her cousin Anne Boleyn had done six years earlier. Katherine Parr would become Henry's sixth and final queen. The one who "survived", Katherine was well liked by the English people and developed a particularly strong relationship with Princess Elizabeth.
So, who was the true love of Henry VIII's life? Sadly it's impossible to say with any certainty, but I do believe that we can rule out his last three wives. The argument for Catherine of Aragon certainly has its merits, and I do believe that they probably loved each other very deeply in their youth. For the reasons I have previously covered, there is also the argument for suggesting that Henry's true love was Jane Seymour. I however am firmly of the belief that the love of Henry's life was Anne Boleyn. No, I'm not saying this because she's my heroine, I firmly believe this to be true. In Anne Boleyn, Henry met his match. A woman centuries ahead of her time and one who I believe he genuinely fell for. I think here we had a couple who "couldn't live with each other, couldn't live without each other". They were the Burton and Taylor of their day. Such was their passion for each other that it could only ever end dramatically, as so many love stories where there is almost "too much" love do.
To summarise succinctly:
Catherine of Aragon - his childhood sweetheart
Anne Boleyn - the one
Jane Seymour - mother of Henry's heir
Had Anne Boleyn given Henry VIII a son, I daresay they'd have been together until old age.
Written by Adam Pennington
19th December 2020