Henry VIII is one of England’s best-known monarchs. Charismatic and extravagant, his reign lasted nearly 39 years, and was marked by radical changes to the English constitution, expansion of royal power and the breaking with the Catholic Church through the English Reformation.
But he is perhaps most famous for having six wives. Though married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for nearly 25 years, Henry’s next five marriages lasted less than that combined.
Two of the marriages were declared annulled (with the first annulment leading to Henry being excommunicated from the Catholic Church), while two of his wives were beheaded. Another of Henry’s wives died after giving birth to his only son, while his final wife, Catherine Parr, outlived him.
Here are Henry VIII’s six wives in order.
1. Catherine of Aragon
Catherine is best known today for her role in the sparking of the Reformation. But in life she was much more than that.
As the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, Catherine was a political catch. Initially wedded to Henry’s older bother and the heir apparent to the English throne, Arthur, she ran into trouble when her husband died just five months into their marriage.
Half of Catherine’s dowry had already been paid to Arthur’s father, Henry VII, and the English king faced the dilemma of what to do about paying it back.
While the issue was being debated, Catherine was held a virtual prisoner with little money to her name. But in 1507, six years after Arthur’s death, she became the ambassador of the Aragonese Crown to England; in doing so, she also became the first female European ambassador in history.
Two years later, Catherine married Henry VIII – who was five years her junior – shortly after he had ascended the throne.
The couple’s nearly 25-year-long marriage was certainly eventful for Catherine: in addition to suffering multiple miscarriages and still births, she also bore the king’s first child, a boy, only to see him die 52 days later; she had a daughter, Mary, who would go on to become queen; and, in 1513, she served as regent for six months while Henry was away in France (during which time she not only gave birth to a stillborn child, but also oversaw an English victory against Scotland at the Battle of Flodden).
Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, began in around 1526, setting into motion a chain of events that would not only see the end of Catherine and Henry’s marriage, but also lead to the eventual Protestantisation of England.
When Henry tried to have his marriage to Catherine annulled so that he could marry Anne, the pope refused, thus prompting the king to assume supremacy over religious matters and turn his back on the Catholic Church.
Henry’s marriage to Catherine was eventually annulled on 1533 and Catherine was banished from court. She lived out the rest of her days at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire where she died in 1536.
2. Anne Boleyn
With the extraordinary events of her life unparalleled in British history, Anne is undoubtedly the most famous of Henry’s wives and continues to be the subject of much fascination today.
Henry may have endured a seven-year courtship and far-reaching political and religious upheavals in order to marry his second wife, but that didn’t stop him having her investigated for high treason less than three years later.
The king’s change of heart was likely due to the fact that, like Catherine, Anne also seemed unable to bear him a son; after giving birth to Elizabeth I in September 1533, she went on to suffer several miscarriages. Thus, it seems, Henry began to look elsewhere for a woman to bear him a son – and he found this woman in Jane Seymour.
A month after Henry began courting Jane, he ordered Anne to be investigated for high treason and she was sent to the Tower of London. After being tried on charges of adultery, incest and plotting to kill the king, Anne was found guilty (most likely wrongly) and beheaded four days later.
3. Jane Seymour
Henry’s love for – or at least infatuation with – Anne may have sparked the Reformation, but Jane is commonly thought to have been his favourite wife. This is most likely because Jane gave him what none of of his other wives could: a son who lived.
Like Anne before her, Jane too had served as a lady-in-waiting to the queen she would replace. She also shared a great-grandmother with Anne (and with Henry’s future wife Catherine Howard).
Jane was not as highly educated as either of her predecessors, though her peaceful and gentle personality reportedly lent itself to peacemaking efforts at court – ironic given the circumstances that surrounded her marriage to Henry.
She married the Tudor king in May 1533, just days after Anne had been beheaded, and gave birth to a son in October of the following year. This son would go on to become King Edward VI, but Jane would not live to see him become monarch. After developing post-natal complications, she died less than two weeks after his birth.
Jane was the only one of Henry’s wives to be given a queen’s funeral and was the wife who Henry chose to be buried with upon his own death in January 1547.
4. Anne of Cleves
Henry’s last three wives are less famous than his first three, a matter not helped by the fact that they share names with two of their predecessors.
Not only were the events of Henry’s last three marriages less dramatic than those of is first (though this is certainly relative given that his fifth wife was beheaded), but none resulted in any children. In the case of Anne of Cleves at least, this latter point was hardly surprising given that her marriage with Henry went unconsummated.
Henry married Anne in January 1540, though negotiations for the marriage are believed to have begun shortly after Jane’s death. The daughter of the Duke of Cleves and Count of Mark, Anne was considered a politically expedient match by Henry’s advisers. But the king proved far less enamoured with his fourth wife than he had with her two predecessors.
After marrying Anne in January 1540, Henry had their marriage annulled just six months later, citing its lack of consummation as well as his wife’s previous engagement to another man.
Henry blamed Anne’s appearance on the marriage going unconsummated but this slight didn’t stop the pair later becoming close friends. Her acceptance of the annulment seemed to win her favour with Henry and she subsequently became an honorary member of his family, known as “the King’s Beloved Sister”.
The political adviser who arranged the marriage did not fare so well, however; Thomas Cromwell was executed on 28 July 1540, the same day that Henry married his next wife.
5. Catherine Howard
Henry’s marriage to Catherine Howard came close to matching the drama of his earlier partnerships – perhaps unsurprising given that his teenage bride was a first cousin of Anne Boleyn.
Catherine’s life had been turbulent even before Henry came on the scene. After being repeatedly molested by her music teacher from the age of 13, she later became embroiled in an extramarital affair with the secretary of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk (though whether this was a consensual relationship is not clear).
After the Dowager Duchess found out, Catherine was sent to court to serve as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, then Henry’s wife. This position had been secured for her by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who saw an opportunity in Henry’s lack of interest in Anne. And the king was certainly attracted to Catherine’s youth, looks and vivacity.
In the spring of the following year, however, Catherine is alleged to have begun an affair with a favoured courtier of Henry’s named Thomas Culpeper. By autumn, rumours about Catherine’s conduct were abundant and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, came to learn of her alleged affair with Culpeper, as well as her previous relationship with the Dowager Duchess’s secretary.
Cranmer saw this as his chance to reduce the influence of his political rival the Roman Catholic house of Norfolk, and thus launched an investigation into Catherine’s alleged affairs. Within months, Catherine had gone the same way as her cousin Anne, executed for high treason.
6. Catherine Parr
Henry’s sixth and final wife – and his third named Catherine – was perhaps his luckiest. She married Henry in July 1543, just four months after Catherine Howard was beheaded, and went on to outlive him – though only by a year.
Catherine Parr had been married twice before and after Henry died went on to marry again, making her the most married English queen. And this is not Catherine’s only claim to fame: she was also the first queen of both England and Ireland.
The third Catherine had actually already begun a romantic relationship with Jane Seymour’s brother Thomas Seymour when she caught the eye of Henry. But she considered it her duty to marry the king instead.
In 1546, Catherine, who held strong Protestant sympathies, faced a plot to get rid of her by anti-Protestant officials. These officials tried to turn Henry against Catherine and even drew up a warrant for her arrest. But Catherine outwitted them and successfully reconciled with her husband, avoiding the same fate as her unlucky predecessors.
Six months after Henry’s death, Catherine finally married Thomas Seymour (though it is thought he actually tried to marry Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter, first). In August of the following year, Catherine gave birth to her only child and died several days later from suspected childbed fever.