These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable

Aimee Heidelberg - January 25, 2023

The reign of Henry VIII is best known for two things: Breaking with the Catholic church to head the Church of England, and his six marriages. Actually, his marriage was the reason for the break, so it is fair to say Henry’s political and religious achievements pale in comparison to the fame he achieved by being a lusty man desperate for a son. But his wives were women beyond the chant, “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” They had their own personalities, desires, hobbies, and skills. While constricted by the standards for noble women during the Tudor era, they are complex, fascinating people beyond their role in English politics and religion.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Portrait of Katherine of Aragon, Public Domain.

Queen Katherine, 1485 – 1536

Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, went to England to marry King Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur. Shortly after their wedding, Katherine and Arthur became severely ill. Katherine recovered, but Arthur left her a young widow with an uncertain future. Upon Henry VII’s death, the new King Henry VIII quickly asked for her hand. They were married in 1509, and had one child, Mary. As Henry’s attentions turned to other women, she endured Henry’s claims that their marriage was never legitimate due to her marriage and consummation with his brother. Katherine passionately fought for her marriage for the rest of her life. Despite separation from her daughter and being forced to live in isolated castles, she insisted she was Henry’s true wife and Queen.


These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Katherine of Aragon watching Henry VIII joust. Early 16th Century. Public Domain.

Katherine & Henry Had a Happy (Early) Marriage

After Prince Arthur’s death, Henry VII betrothed his second son, Henry, to Katherine. But Henry VII lost interest in a Spanish alliance and coerced his son into breaking the betrothal. This could have set Henry VIII up as a free man in the European marriage market, but he chose to marry Katherine after Henry VII’s death. She was six years older than him, and his brother’s widow, but he loved her for their common interests. Her intelligence and wit meant interesting conversations about a variety of things; arts, religion, sports, things Henry pursued with passion. His respect and love for her meant he trusted her with his throne, making her regent while he was away in France in 1513.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Battle of Flodden, from British Battles on Land and Sea, vol. 1 (1873). Public Domain.

Katherine Was a True Leader

When Henry named Katherine as regent in 1513, Scotland tried to exploit Henry’s absence and invade England from the north. They didn’t understand Katherine was thoroughly Isabella’s daughter, raised on horseback leading armies into battle. Katherine raised and supplied an army and built a system of allies. She donned armor and rallied the men, sending them to defeat the Scots, with a major victory at the Battle of Flodden. As a trophy, Katherine sent Henry the bloodied coat of Scottish King James IV, telling Henry to use it as a banner in his own battles. All this while seven months pregnant.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Katherine of Aragon as Mary Magdalene, early 16th century. Public Domain.

Queen Katherine Struggled To Have Children

Unfortunately, Katherine’s Scottish victory was also a period of heartache. One of the Queen’s primary duties at the time was to produce a male heir for Henry VIII. She was pregnant within a year of her marriage. The baby girl was stillborn. In 1511, she had a son, Prince Henry, who died 52 days later. Katherine had a miscarriage, and then another son who passed away shortly after his birth. She gave birth to a daughter, Mary, in 1516. Mary would later reign as Queen Mary I. By 1518, after two more non-viable pregnancies, her hopes to give Henry his male heir were over.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Catherine Parr in blackwork collar. Eworth, c. 1548. Public Domain.

Katherine of Aragon Was Skilled With a Needle And Thread

Queen Katherine had a talent for sewing. Even after their marriage imploded, Henry VIII asked her to make his shirts and embroider them with blackwork, much to his paramour Anne Boleyn’s irritation. Katherine was particularly noted for her blackwork, a type of embroidery using black thread on a white or colored background, creating a endless patterns and shapes. Although she didn’t invent blackwork, she is credited with making it popular in England. Katherine popularized it by introducing the Spanish interpretation of the art, influenced by the geometric Moorish designs she would have seen in her homeland.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Juan Luis Vives, royal educator. Public Domain

Queen Katherine Loved Learning

Katherine’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, strongly believed in educating their children. Katherine’s father, recognizing her intellect, appointed her as Spanish Ambassador in the difficult period before she married Henry VIII. She was the first female ambassador in Europe. Katherine carried on this love of learning, giving daughter Mary a well-rounded education. She worked with Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives, one of Mary’s instructors, to publish The Education of a Christian Woman. The book promoted education for all women, without consideration of social status. The book, and the ideas behind it, were controversial. Her education prepared her for taking over as Henry’s regent for six months.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Katherine of Aragon stood her ground. Royal Navy official photographer. Public Domain.

Queen Katherine Was No Pushover

Katherine knew about Henry’s affairs. Social standards meant the king tried to be discrete, and the Queen pretended she didn’t know what was happening, but when Henry told Katherine he wanted to annul the marriage to marry Anne Boleyn, she was furious. He insisted their marriage wasn’t valid because she consummated her marriage with his brother Arthur, which she strongly denied denied. Divorce went against her Catholic faith, and would threaten Mary’s royal role. Despite being sent from court and separated from her daughter. Still she insisted that she was Queen, refusing the Princess Dowager title Henry insisted on giving her.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Tomb of Katherine of Aragon, with pomegranate tributes. PeterboroughCathedral

Queen Katherine Battled Cancer

Katherine’s health deteriorated while living in isolation at Kimbolton Castle after Henry broke from the Catholic church. She died in 1536 at 50 years old. After her death, an autopsy found a black growth on her blackened heart. This was described by ambassador Eustace Chapuys as, “some black round thing which clung closely to the outside of the heart.” Chapuys asked a physician whether this might indicate poison. This started a debate about what actually killed Katherine. Her supporters insisted she was poisoned, given her symptoms and blackened heart. Modern physicians, however, find the description of Katherine’s symptoms and the tumor on her blackened heart more likely indicate melanotic sarcoma (cancer).

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Anne Boleyn. 1550. Public Domain.

Anne Boleyn, c. 1501 or 1507 – 1536

Anne Boleyn arrived to England in 1521 from the French court. While a Maid of Honor to Queen Katherine, she had some notable romances before catching the eye of Henry VIII. She refused to be Henry’s mistress, inflaming his interest and sparking his battle with the Catholic church. The Church refused his request for an annulment from Queen Katherine. He severed ties to the Catholic church, declared himself head of the Church of England. He had his new Church grant the annulment, and married Anne. She, too, struggled to produce a male heir, and Henry’s lusty loins were quickly ready to move on. Instead of dealing with another long divorce battle, Henry’s court charged Anne with treason, adultery, and incest. She was found guilty and executed on May 19, 1536.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
17th century interpretation of Anne Boleyn. Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Public Domain.

Anne Boleyn Was Fashion-Forward

Anne Boleyn served in the court of Margaret of Austria. Margaret was educated by Anne of France (also known as Madame la Grande), who advised,I counsel you not to wear anything outrageous, either too tight or too trailing, nor should you resemble those women who think they are very fashionable when their clothing is low-cut and very tight, and they attract attention.” This lesson stuck with young Anne Boleyn. Anne paved the way, fashion-wise, in the French and English courts. Her outfits were copied by other ladies. She is credited with making the French hood popular at the English court. When she became Queen, her style continued to show French influence. This bothered many of the English, given the constant conflict and war between England and France.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
King Henry and Anne Boleyn deer shooting in Windsor Forest. William Powell Frith (1903) Public Domain.

Anne Boleyn Knew The Game

Courtly love could be fun, but dangerous when the married king was involved. Anne saw Henry come and go through mistresses. One of those mistresses was her own sister, Mary. Anne saw how easily Henry would discard a mistress. She rejected his gifts and made it clear that she would not permit him into her bed unless he was really committed. He decided marrying Anne and rejecting Katherine could satisfy both his passions and solve the lack of a male heir. This demand prompted Henry’s final break with Katherine and the Catholic church. Anne played the game and won (for a while, anyway).

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
George E. Koronaios.

Anne Boleyn Had Pregnancy Cravings

Henry VIII desperately wanted a male heir to secure the Tudor succession. Anne’s food cravings were the first indication that she might help him achieve that goal. After Henry fought the battle with the Church of England, Anne decided, “Close enough” to actual marriage and was pregnant before their January 1533 marriage. Historian, David Starkey writes of a moment between Anne and Sir Thomas Wyatt, where she said she had a “fearsome and unquenchable longing to eat apples.” She said the King told her it was a sign she was pregnant, but she said it was not, but then burst into laughter and went back to her rooms.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Portrait debated to be Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public Domain.

Queen Anne Struggled To Have a Male Heir

To ensure the apple-craving baby would be born legitimate, Henry and Anne married in January of 1533. They were so certain the baby was a boy that they had names selected and prepared a birth proclamation declaring the birth of a “prince.” The baby was born on August 26, 1533, a girl they named Elizabeth, who would grow to play a pivotal role in English history. While Henry took it in stride, as Anne had plenty of child-bearing years ahead, Anne knew she had to have a son to solidify her position. She was pregnant again by January 1534, but the baby did not survive. She miscarried a boy in January 1535. This was particularly scary, because Henry’s eye was wandering to Jane Seymour, one of her ladies-in-waiting.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Henry’s Reconciliation with Anne Boleyn. George Cruikshank (1848). Public Domain

Queen Anne Had a Temper

In 1533, Anne found out about Henry’s infidelities and called him out. Henry, however, told her she better “put up with it, as her betters had done before.” He warned her that she could be brought down as easily as she was lifted up. One anecdote has Jane Seymour playing with a locket, opening it and closing it repeatedly. Anne noticed a picture of Henry in the locket, much like a gift Henry gave Anne when he was still married to Katherine. Anne grabbed the locket so hard she cut her fingers. Another time she walked in on Jane sitting on Henry’s lap, and the pregnant Anne flew into a rage, leading to her final miscarriage.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Anne Boleyn’s Execution, Jan Luyken, c. 1664 – 1712. Public Domain.

Queen Anne Protected Her Child

Historians tend to agree that Anne was, in fact, innocent of her charges. Even so, Anne was declared guilty of treason, infidelity, and incest in 1536. Amidst her downfall, she made sure to protect her daughter Elizabeth’s role in the royal household. She never admitted guilt but knew Henry could punish her family. She wrote to Henry to think of their daughter, stating, “neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me, and on the infant princess your daughter.” Unfortunately, Henry ignored Anne’s pleas, ignoring Elizabeth for a while after Anne’s execution.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein, c. 1536 – 1537. Public Domain.

Jane Seymour, c. 1508/1509 -1537

When Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, he found a wife that understood her role and played it well. Jane was thoroughly English, not born into foreign royalty like Katherine or serving foreign courts like Anne. Jane, with the support of her super-ambitious family, took a page out of Anne Boleyn’s playbook, refusing his advances and returning his gifts. It worked. She married King Henry VIII in 1536, 11 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution. In 1537, she and Henry had the son they wanted so badly. Unfortunately, the happiness was short lived; within two weeks she was dead. She never even had a coronation. Henry VIII was devastated. He made it clear for the rest of his life that Jane was his best-loved and first “true” wife. He chose to be buried with Jane when he died in 1547.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Queen Jane during childbirth. The Imaginative Conservative.

Jane Seymour Wasn’t as Mousy as History Portrays Her

Jane’s reputation for being meek, barely educated, and passive doesn’t give the full picture of her personality. She was spunky. Jane’s role as lady-in-waiting for Queen Anne kept her at court and Henry’s presence. When Henry began to favor Jane over Anne, he gifted her a locket with his portrait. She boldly wore it in front of Anne, at one point opening and closing it in front of the pregnant Queen, who ripped it from her neck. Jane’s flirtations with Henry are often cited as the trigger for Anne’s final miscarriage. She remained friends with Katherine’s daughter, Mary, who also despised Anne for what she did to her mother. And the two watched Anne’s downfall, likely with a little glee.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Jane Seymour’s badge. c. 1821. Public Domain.

Jane Wasted No Time

In 1536, Anne was recovering from her miscarriage and trying to save her marriage and title. Meanwhile, Jane moved herself and her family into the royal quarters, displacing Anne entirely. Jane’s brother and his wife moved into the chambers next to Henry to serve as (rather lenient) ‘chaperones.’ Henry used a secret corridor to visit Jane privately. The day after Anne’s execution, Jane and Henry openly declared their love for each other, marrying on May 30, 1536. Henry hoped Jane would be the one to finally give him the heir he was increasingly desperate to sire.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Modest and chaste nun. Paul Mercuri (1861). Public Domain.

Jane Seymour Was the Anti-Anne

Jane’s reputation as being demure, calm, meek, and quiet, may have been by design. Anne’s outgoing personality, coquettish nature, and temper got her into a lot of trouble with Henry. Jane may not have had the level of education of Katherine and Anne, but she was observant and knew of Henry’s wandering eye. She knew Henry fell for Anne while he was still married to Katherine, and he fell for her while he was still married to Anne. Jane stopped the wild parties, insisted her ladies-in-waiting be modest, chaste, and follow a code of conduct. Anne Boleyn’s beloved French fashion was forbidden. Jane had the good sense to be everything Anne wasn’t and kept a close watch on her ladies.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Jane Seymour. Wenceslaus Hollar (1648). Public Domain.

Jane Knew When To Keep Quiet

Despite Jane’s behind-the-scenes iron fist, she knew being the anti-Anne meant knowing when to be silent. In 1536 a Catholic rebellion led by Jane’s third cousin Robert Aske demanded monasteries and Princess Mary to be declared heir. Starkey (2004) says a French agent recorded Jane, sympathetic to the rebels, threw herself “on her knees before the King and begged him to restore the Abbeys.” Henry did not take this well. He reminded her that she was not to meddle in his affairs, then chillingly told her to remember Anne. It was a very firm warning, one Jane well understood.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Dynastic portrait of Henry VIII, c. 1545. Jane Seymour is shown next to Henry. Public Domain

Jane Seymour Also Struggled To Have Children

Queen Jane was pregnant shortly after she married King Henry. Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Henry went above and beyond to keep her happy and comfortable when she became pregnant again. When she craved quail, he had some shipped from Calais and Flanders. Happily, she gave King Henry what he most wanted; a son and heir, Prince Edward, the future King Edward VI. Her labor was difficult, lasting three days. Although she died from complications of the birth, she was able to present Henry with his most prized gift, his son.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein (1539). Public Domain.

Anne of Cleves, 1515 – 1557

German duchy Cleves was an important ally for England. Duke Wilhelm of Cleves had two eligible sisters, and Henry VIII was ready for his next bride. Henry chose the elder sister, Anne, based on a portrait by Hans Holbein. Despite his misgivings and lack of attraction, Henry and Anne married in 1540. This did not go well. Henry found Anne unattractive, and her upbringing did not include how to turn up the heat in the bedroom. He found a non-lethal way out of his marriage when he discovered her (cancelled) precontract to marry the son of the Duke of Lorraine. He offered a divorce. She accepted it without a fight, paving the way for his next disaster of a marriage.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
An imaging of what Anne would look like today based on the portraits. Reddit.

Anne Had A Strict Upbringing

Anne of Cleves was intelligent, as her later life would show. But her education wasn’t nearly as extensive as Katherine of Aragon, nor as worldly as Anne Boleyn’s. She had a basic education for a noblewomen, but her family was strict. She wasn’t taught the artistic things Henry valued, like music, games, dancing, and singing. Nor was she taught English, which would make her married life difficult. She was smart enough to learn, but her ultra-pious childhood house rules banned such frivolous things. Most disastrously, Anne married Henry without knowing mechanics of sex, a deficiency Henry didn’t bother correcting.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Anne of Cleves, attributed to Hans Holbein (1539). Public domain.

Anne of Cleves Wasn’t “Ugly.”

There is no reliable evidence that Anne of Cleves was unattractive. Henry’s agent, Thomas Cromwell, praised her looks. The portrait Hans Holbein presented Henry may have been flattering, but Holbein wouldn’t have taken too many liberties, knowing Henry would see her for real at some point. She may have been taller and stronger featured than his other wives, but that doesn’t mean “ugly.” Nobody in her lifetime called her the “Flanders Mare.” This nasty name originated with Bishop Gilbert Burnet in the 1600s. Historians question whether Henry’s inability to be aroused by Anne was more about how he was no longer a strapping, handsome young man. But he couldn’t let the fault lie in himself. His diminishing bedroom skills would threaten the succession, as he had only one living son and two daughters.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
King and Queen chess pieces. Andy Burgess.

Anne of Cleves Knew How To Play The Game Too

Henry VIII didn’t want to marry Anne of Cleves. He wasn’t attracted to her, and his eye was wandering (again) to young, vibrant Catherine Howard. Henry petitioned for divorce after only six months. Anne accepted without a fight. Henry, likely taken aback at her ease in accepting the divorce, was generous with his parting gifts; houses, money, the title of ‘sister’ and retaining royal status. They were apparently more friendly after their divorce than during their marriage. But Anne got in a little shade at Henry; upon accepting his divorce offer, she gave Henry back her wedding ring, and told him to break it up as a ‘thing with no meaning or value.’

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Henry VIII-Wikipedia

Anne of Cleves – A New “Brother”

After years of wives resisting their marital breakups, when Anne accepted Henry’s divorce, his gratitude extended beyond gifts of real estate. He declared her his “sister.” This elevated Anne’s status, ranking only behind King Henry and his immediate family. Over time, as noted by historians David Starkey and Alison Weir, he came to genuinely regard her in a sisterly fashion, declaring her fourth among women in England only behind his current wife and his two daughters. He declared her the “King’s beloved sister” and they seem to have shared an interest in renovation and upgrading their homes, exchanging cooks and household gadgets.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Hever Castle, the Boleyn ancestral home gifted to Anne of Cleves. Dave Price, Geograph Project

Anne of Cleves – Property owner

Henry was grateful for Anne’s quick, quiet acceptance of divorce. As part of their settlement, he gave her lots of real estate, and a guaranteed income of £4,000 a year. Her property holdings included Bletchingly Manor, Richmond Manor, and Bisham, former property of the recently executed Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. Most notably, and for Henry to get one more dig at the Boleyns, she was granted their ancestral home, Hever Castle. She wasn’t known to spend a good deal of time at Hever, but there is at least one letter by Anne to Mary Tudor in 1554 signed, “from my poore house of Hever.”

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Copy of a portrait of young Princess Mary, Princess Elizabeth, and Prince Edward (1650 to 1680). Public Domain.

Anne of Cleves Loved Henry’s Children

Henry didn’t bother trying to have children with Anne during their brief marriage, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a good maternal figure. Anne insisted on being able to continue a relationship with Princess Mary, Princess Elizabeth, and Prince Edward. She had bonded with each of them during her time with Henry, wanting to provide them stability and maternal guidance. Historians credit Anne of Cleves with reconciling Henry and the standoffish Princess Mary. Since divorce terms meant Anne could never marry, they would be her family. Anne once affectionately said of Elizabeth, “…to have had [Elizabeth] for her daughter would have been [a] greater happiness to her than being queen.”

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Portrait often identified as Anne of Cleves. Public domain.

Anne of Cleves Wasn’t Bitter

Divorce didn’t dampen Anne’s good nature. She had a good post-divorce relationship with Henry VIII and his children. But the best demonstration of Anne’s character is in her gracious relationship with Catherine Howard, her lady-in-waiting who stole Henry’s attention and sparked Anne’s divorce. While “meeting the ex” is often a dreadful thing, Anne went out of her way to show Catherine some kindness. She gave Catherine some horses as a Christmas gift. In return (and probably with relief), Catherine gave Anne a ring and two puppies. They danced together at Hampton Court during the festivities.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Catherine Howard, by Hans Holbein (1540). Public Domain.

Catherine Howard, 1521 – 1542

During his marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII shopped around for women within his own court. Young Catherine Howard was a lady-in-waiting for Anne of Cleves. In typical fashion, Henry pursued Catherine while he was still married, and 19 days after his divorce, the two were married. Henry saw Catherine Howard as his “rose without a thorn.” Virtuous and innocent. But she had a secret – she had affairs before Henry, and dangerously continued one during their royal marriage. She and Thomas Culpeper, one of Henry’s Privy Chamber men, met in secret whenever they could arrange it, with a little help from trusted companions. When Henry found out, he condemned her to death, beheading her in 1542.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Chesworth House, site of Catherine Howard’s liaison with Francis Dereham. Dave Spicer, Geograph Project.

Catherine Howard – Horny Teenager

Catherine’s mother died while she was quite young. She was sent to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk Agnes Howard. The Dowager Duchess was seemingly unaware that Catherine and her friends entertained men in their dormitory unchaperoned. Catherine reportedly had affairs with her (much older) music teacher Henry Manox and nobleman Francis Dereham. She and Dereham called each other as “husband” and “wife” and consummated this pre-engagement. The Dowager Duchess found out and sent Dereham away. In Anne of Cleves’ service, Catherine attracted the much older and declining Henry, to the delight of her Boleyn relatives. But Henry’s attention wasn’t fulfilling for Catherine. And sooner rather than later, her affair with Thomas Culpeper would be her undoing.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Portrait debated to be Catherine Howard, c. 1540-1545. Public Domain.

Catherine Howard Loved a Good Time

Catherine Howard had little interest in academics or religion. She could read and write, but didn’t show intellectual curiosity. Her personality was vivacious and fun-loving. She loved to dance, flirt, play music, play games, and buy new clothes. Catherine preferred risqué French fashions, much like her cousin Anne Boleyn, and Henry indulged her. Henry was happy to spoil his pretty, young wife. But she had attention issues. Reportedly she never really focused on one thing for too long before her mind started to wander. She would even interrupt her beloved dancing lessons to goof off.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Princess Mary. Public Domain.

Catherine Howard Was a Young Stepmother

Princess Mary wasn’t thrilled to welcome Catherine Howard as her stepmother. First, Catherine was at least seven years younger, and second, she was a Boleyn. Catherine was cousin to Anne Boleyn, the woman who displaced Mary’s mother. Catherine felt Mary wasn’t showing her due respect, but by May of 1541, the two seem to have developed a truce. Henry VIII allowed Mary to remain at court, and Catherine gave her a gold pomander decorated with rubies and pearls. Catherine and Elizabeth, being more directly related, got along well, although they didn’t meet often. There is little documentation about Catherine’s relationship with Prince Edward, as the two rarely saw each other.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Catherine Howard facing the executioner (1864). Public Domain.

Catherine Howard Practiced Her Dance With Death

Upon discovery of Catherine’s past affairs and romance with Culpeper, Henry refused to hear her pleas for mercy. She wasn’t given a trial; Henry approved an Act of Attainer sentencing her to death. Catherine went to the Tower of London for her date with the executioner. Much like her well-rehearsed dances, Catherine asked to have the executioner’s block brought to her chambers so she could practice laying her head on the block. Instead of the fiery speech about preferring to die as Culpeper’s wife recorded by Spanish chronicles, she gave a short statement about how she was justly condemned and asked for the mercy of God and the King. On February 13, 1542, Catherine was beheaded in one stroke.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Queen Katherine Parr. Public Domain

Katherine Parr, 1512 – 1548

Henry’s final wife was a bit of a change for Henry VIII. Instead of the young, vivacious coquette he had pursued in the past, he chose a well-educated, studious two-time widow. She was lively and loved the arts, attractive qualities to Henry even in his advanced age. Katherine accepted Henry’s proposal as a matter of duty and honor, despite being in love with Thomas Seymour. Perhaps learning from Catherine Howard’s mistake, Katherine Parr ended her relationship with Seymour and tended to the ailing Henry. History notes that Katherine is the “one who survived,” praised by Henry as “so faithful a spouse.”

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Katherine Parr’s ‘Prayers and Meditations.’ (1550).

Katherine Parr Was An Author

In 1545, Katherine, an intellect fluent in several languages, published Prayers or Meditations, the first book in English published by an English woman using her own name. She wrote several other books centered on religion. She would anonymously publish English translations of Latin psalms. After Henry VIII’s death, and when it was reasonably safe, she revealed herself as a Protestant with her last publication in 1547, Lamentations of a Sinner, making an argument that faith alone could achieve salvation. This would have been an executable offense during Henry’s time, but Catherine was savvy enough to know when the time was right.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Princess Elizabeth gifted this book to Katherine Parr. Bodleian Library. Public Domain.

Katherine Parr Loved a Good Book

Katherine Parr was an intellect. She loved to read and was close to Princess Elizabeth due to their shared intellectual curiosity. When Elizabeth was 11, she gifted Katherine’s own Prayers or Meditations translated into French, Italian, and Latin. But Katherine’s love for reading tread in dangerous territory. She read banned Protestant books on religious reform. Katherine was playing with fire, literally. She held study sessions among her ladies to discuss scriptures and owned several Protestant-based books banned in England. This was a time when even having the books in your possession could result in one less head or a very crispy tan.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
King Henry VIII and Katherine Parr. William Kearney (c. 1830). Public Domain

Katherine Parr Could Have Been The Next Victim of Henry VIII

Katherine came very close to meeting the same fate as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Henry VIII conveniently found out about Katherine’s banned books. Katherine had a heads-up about a warrant for her arrest. She understandably broke down (it’s not like a rage-filled Henry VIII was known for his mercy). She quickly thought her way out of her mess. Henry met with Katherine to let her know she was overstepping her expected boundaries when it came to religious discourse. She appealed to his ego, saying she was arguing with his stance only to learn from him, and to help take his mind off of his health and other troubles. It worked. He said they were once again perfect friends, and revoked Katherine’s warrant.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Princess Elizabeth. Public Domain

Katherine Parr Built a Nice Household

Before Henry VIII passed, he named Katherine as custodian to 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth. Elizabeth moved in with Katherine and her new husband, Thomas Seymour, Jane Seymour’s brother. Katherine’s quick marriage after Henry’s death was a scandal and resulted in her having a more distant place in the new King Edward’s life. But she made a home with Seymour and Elizabeth. The couple also took in Lady Jane Grey, who would become notorious in her own right. When Katherine became pregnant in late 1547 or early 1548, the household was full and happy. But the idyllic marriage was thrown for a loop when Seymour began getting creepy with Princess Elizabeth.

These Surprising Facts Make The Six Wives Of Henry VIII Extra Relatable
Thomas Seymour. Public Domain

Katherine Parr’s Husband Was Terrible

Katherine Parr had a stomach-churning problem, aside from her pregnancy. Her husband was playing a new game with Princess Elizabeth, surprising the girl in bed and tickling her. Katherine dismissed this as innocent horseplay, sometimes even joining the ‘fun.’ In one notorious play time, Seymour cut young Elizabeth’s night dress to shreds. The ‘fun’ ended when Catherine caught Seymour and Elizabeth embracing. Katherine sent Elizabeth away from her home, never to meet again. Katherine died soon after giving birth to her daughter, Mary. She outlived three husbands but never reconciled with the stepdaughter who would become Queen.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Anne Boleyn used flirtation, fertility, and faith to seduce Henry VIII. Staff, National Geographic 30 December 2020.

Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s most successful queen? Tracy Borman, BBC History Magazine. September 2015

Archaeologists unearth foundations of Wolf Hall, where Henry VIII fell for Jane Seymour. Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine. 4 October 2018.

Catherine Parr as a Woman of Letters. C. Fenno Hoffman, Jr. Huntington Library Quarterly, 1960, vol 23(4), pp. 349 – 360).

How Anne Boleyn Lost her Head. Pia Catton, 9 April 2020.

Six Wives: The queens of Henry VIII. David Starkey (2004). Harper Collins.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Alison Weir (2018). Grove Press.

Tragic facts about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Christine Tran, Factinate, (n.d.)

Tudor Blackwork Embroidery: History on Blackwork Embroidery. THL Lynne Fairchild, Society for Creative Anachronism. 23 August 2014.

When Catherine of Aragon led England’s armies to victory over Scotland. Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine, 14 October 2020.