King Henry VIII of England is known around the world for having had six wives, in part the result of his desire for healthy male heirs. What helps make him infamous is the way he treated them: executing two for alleged adultery, divorcing two, one for failing to produce a male heir and another because he didn’t like them. If you have trouble remembering the order, I always found it easier to remember the following: divorced, executed, died and divorced, executed, lived.
Catherine of Aragon 1485 – 1536First wife of Henry VIII. The youngest child of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, joint rulers of Spain, Catherine married Henry’s older brother Arthur in 1502, but he died the next year before the marriage was consummated. In 1509, with Papal dispensation, she married Henry and they were crowned king and queen shortly after. Over the next ten years she had six pregnancies, but only one child survived for any length of time, the future Queen Mary. Catherine was sidelined by Henry as he became increasingly concerned to have a male heir and then fell in love with Anne Boleyn. The queen acted with considerable dignity during the long divorce proceedings, but the marriage was annulled in 1533. She died three years later.
Anne Boleyn c. 1501 – 1536Second wife of Henry VIII. The sister of one of Henry’s mistresses, Anne met Henry at court where she had drawn many admirers, but refused to be a mistress, having her eye on being queen. Once Henry had fallen in love with her she had input into persuading Henry to break with the Pope, and married the king shortly before his previous marriage was annulled in January 1533. Anne bore the future Queen Elizabeth I, but fell from grace in Henry’s eyes as she failed to produce a male heir. There was a court conspiracy against the haughty Anne and she was found guilty of, probably fictional, adultery and executed May 19th 1536. Anne was descended from Edward I.
Jane Seymour c.1509 - 1537Third wife of Henry VIII. Another descendant of Edward I, Jane was a lady in waiting to both of Henry’s previous wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Having refused to be a mistress, she married Henry on May 30th 1536, less than a month after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and began to attempt to persuade Henry away from the Reformation and to save the monasteries. She also bought about a reconciliation about between Henry and his oldest daughter, Mary, who had been disinherited after Henry’s first annulment. However, Jane died from the aftermath of a caesarean section twelve days after giving birth to the future King Edward VI.
Anne of Cleves 1515 – 1557Fourth wife of Henry VIII. Sister to the Duke of Cleves, Anne’s marriage to Henry in 1540 was mainly the result of work by Henry and Thomas Cromwell to form an alliance with the Duke, leader of Protestants in West Germany, against the Catholic Emperor Charles V. However, Henry was greatly displeased by the personality, and possibly appearance, of Anne. This, coupled with the alliance being deemed unnecessary, led Henry to have the marriage annulled quickly the same year, contributing to the downfall of Cromwell. Anne was given a large pension, as well as the title of “King’s Sister” and parcelled off to an estate in England. She outlived Henry.
Catherine Howard c. 1524 to 1542Fifth wife of Henry VIII. The semi-literate grand-daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, Catherine had been set up as a Catholic rival to Anne of Cleves by court politics and married Henry in July 1540, the same month as his marriage to Anne was annulled. Henry was keen on his bride, however, it became apparent she had embarked upon pre-marital affairs, and may have continued at least one of these physical relationships after the marriage. She was executed for adultery in 1542.
Catherine Parr 1512 – 1548Sixth wife of Henry VIII. Already twice widowed, Catherine was about to marry Thomas Seymour before she married Henry in 1543. She acted as a devoted companion to the ailing king, friend to each of Henry’s three children and regent when he was away campaigning in France. She used her position as Queen to engage in a further humanist education and produced writings which were explicitly Lutheran, although she needed the king’s support to survive an attack by more conservative elements in 1546. After Henry died she married Seymour, dying herself shortly after bearing him a daughter.