Sunday, 1 May 2011

How Many Wives Did Henry VIII Have?

My current guilty pleasure is watching The Tudors on DVD (a mother’s day present from my boys – clever chaps.) All of which set me thinking: How well do you know your Tudor history?
So here’s a simple question:
How Many Wives did Henry VIII have?
a)      6
b)      5
c)      4
d)      2

Now those of you with an English education will be counting on your fingers: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.
So would it surprise you to learn the correct answer is d)?  TWO wives.

History has it that Henry VIII had six queens (In order)
-         Catherine of Aragon
-         Anne Boleyn
-         Jane Seymour
-         Anne of Cleves
-         Catherine Howard.
-         Catherine Parr.

A young Catherine of Aragon.
Catherine of Aragon.
Henry VIII himself annulled this marriage in his capacity of the head of the Church of England.
Annulment is very different from divorce, in that it means a marriage never took place.
Prior to Henry taking control of the church, there were two grounds for annulment – none consummation or pre-contract.
Henry argued that since Catherine had previously been married to his deceased brother, Arthur, it was “God’s Law” that the marriage did not stand, regardless of what the Pope thought, and declared they had never been married.

Natalie Dormer as 'Anne Boleyn' (apologies to the purists out there.....)

Anne Boleyn.
This time it was the Pope who declared the marriage invalid, since in the eyes of the Catholic Church, King Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon.
Ironically, shortly before Anne’s execution, Henry annulled the marriage himself, which begs the question: - If they weren’t married, how could her supposed ‘infidelity’ amount to treason?

The famous Holbein portrait of 'Anne of Cleves.'

Anne of Cleves.
Both reasons for annulment, none consummation and pre-contract, came into play here. Henry found Anne’s physical appearance so repulsive that he wasn’t able to consummate the marriage…and… Anne was contracted to marry Francis, Duke of Lorraine, until Henry’s advisors singled her out.
In the long run Anne did rather well from her none-marriage, since Henry, glad to be easily rid of yet another ‘wife’ showered her with gifts and gave her the honoury title of ‘Beloved sister.”

Catherine Howard.

Catherine Howard.
It seems likely Catherine Howard was unfaithful before and during the marriage to Henry. When he found out, once again he used his power to declare the marriage invalid and had Catherine executed. Another none- marriage!

Jane Seymour.

And Finally.
The TWO incontrovertible marriages were to Jane Seymour (who died from puerperal fever after giving birth to Edward) and Catherine Parr (who out lived Henry, remarried, and then died in childbirth.)

Catherine Parr.

Does it bother you, that programmes such as 'The Tudors' take liberties with historical accuracy? Does it matter that the lead actor, Johnathan Rhys Meyers, doesn't have Henry's famous red hair...or is it a more important to popularise history and bring it to life?
Leave your comments below.


  1. The historian in me screams inside every time a T.V. show takes liberties with historical accuracy. I have to remind myself that they're doing it for the sake of entertainment.

    The philosophy that I've taken on, particularly since The Tudors, is that I can handle the embellishment if it makes people want to learn about a period of history that they didn't care about before. And if I'm among friends, I make sure to fill them in on the facts.

  2. It does bother me somewhat but, I know there is a reason why they do this and, that is to hook the audience. I have really enjoyed watching The Tudors. In fact, I still have a couple of discs to watch. I love all the history, the costumes, the jewels, the romps and all the other celebratory occurences being shown. I have also learned quite a lot about the history of Henry VIII and his dynasty, more so than when I was at school. lol

  3. I agree, Farin, that if an inaccurate programme creates a spark of interst...that's something that could be kindled at a later date.
    I hated history at school and gave the subject up at the earliest opportunity - it was reading historical fiction that made me realise how interesting history was!
    And as Diane says, the Tudors does help to put the political machinations in context, and make them understandable (and interesting....not an easy task at times.)

  4. I have to say that some poetic licence isn't too bad. I hated history at school and since I have watched the Tudors, and read Phillipa Gregory novels, it has given me an interest in history and I have learnt more than I learnt at school. I'm sure the majority of those who are not history buffs would not notice if there were some indiscrepancies.
    Love your blog by the way.

  5. Books are a great way to fall in love with history. I LOVE Philippa Gregory, 'The Other Boleyn Girl' is so clever...I was hugely disappointed when I saw the movie...just a shadow of the colour of the book.
    PS, Thanks Lisa for the kind comment about the blog. It's a labour of love and great fun.

  6. Glad you could put us right on our Tudor History, Grace. I like historical fiction and drama to be as accurate as possible, given that the sources might vary or be conflicting. But I also like a good story so I will forgive an author's artistic licence if it is essential.

  7. Oh dear, I hope I'm not lecturing people, Deborah, this was meant to be some historical trivia....

  8. I'm a fan of Tudors, having bought a few seasons and watched most with my wife. That is our little thing. We share books and watch series together. Ten years without a hitch.

    Anywho! I didn't know as much about his wives, but I'm glad to have learned a bit. I do think there is enough drama in real life to keep it accurate, but the show is good. Also, they do have to compete with HBO. Winter is Coming.

    Great post. Thanks for the information,

    Draven Ames

  9. I beg to differ Grace.

    You can't pick and choose whose rules you follow, and swap and change between papal rules and Henry's rules as it suits your argument.

    If indeed his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid (by Henry's rules) then you can't then also say that his marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid because it was declared so by the pope.

    Accepting the pope's ruling on that marriage automatically accepts that the marriage to Catherine was valid.

    You first have to decide whether you're going along with the rulings of the catholic church or those of Henry's own church, and then decide within those parameters which of his marriages were valid and which weren't.

    Alternatively you could offer the two cases separately which would give two different answers to your question.

    The papal rules would then exclude only Anne Boleyn, since Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour occurred after Catherine's Death, so he was by anyone's reckoning, a widower at the time.

    Papal rulings on his subsequent marriages in that case are unknown, because the situation never arose.

    Anyway, Henry's reputation was such that a more accurate question would have been "How many wives, of his own, did Henry VIII have?"

  10. Another little bit of historical trivia, that's so obscure that it's never mentioned in any historical dramas:

    Henry was the first king in English history to be referred to, within his lifetime, by his name and his number; i.e. he was referred to in the writings of the time as 'Henry VIII' as opposed to just 'King Henry' as had always been the tradition with the kings that came before him, (though not all as King 'Henry' of course!)

  11. I enjoyed the Tudors. It was a guilty little pleasure for me. Yes, the historical inaccurancy bothered me, but I understand it was a show. I agree you can't pick and choose the rules, but hey, Henry VIII is a most interesting historical figure - capable of anything. And so is history. It is written by the victors. Your post is interesting.


  12. I loved history with a passion when growning up and still do. However, I can read historical fiction just as easily as I can the real thing. Even as a small child I loved playing history detective and going to my encyclopedia to find out the facts after watching a movie on tv. For me, that was half the fun.

  13. This was a fun post, since I have never thought of this confusion in the number of wives he had. I don't mind at all the liberties you took in who annulled the marriages. It was just in fun and it was easy to discern the intent. However, I do wish that when people make movies or write books, they would use as much accurate information as possible along with added fictional people and occurrences. There is little enough time to study history without having it fed to me wrongly when it could be done correctly!

  14. Glad you took the post in the spirit that was intended Debbie (winks!)
    G x

  15. If by ruling of the Pope, and by the law of Henry VIII (later on), his marriage to Anne was considered null and void... then technically, she could have never committed adultery in a union that never existed.


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