A New Look at Henry VIII's Wives

Historical people, like us, were 3-dimensional. And when it comes to Henry VIII's six wives, it seems that we've relied on their cardboard-cut-out stereotypes for far too long. Anne Boleyn was the saucy, flirtatious minx who led Henry away from his devout wife, who was old and grumpy. Anne of Cleves was the one that looked like a horse, yes? And Katheryn Howard, the young, stupid and illiterate wife who would meet the sticky end of the executioner's axe. 

Nineteenth century depiction of Henry's queens, 1867. British Library, Public Domain.

It's about time we took a closer look at these women. And the evidence might surprise you. 

Katherine of Aragon: Grumpy, old, infertile, always wore black
Henry's first wife is often portrayed in books and films as all of these things. And it's true that she was older than Henry, but only by five and a half years. And she was nowhere near infertile, having conceived up to seven times. And did she always wear black in a sombre display of miserableness? Actually, Katherine dressed quite richly, as you'd expect for a Queen. She married Arthur Tudor in a dress of white silk in 1501. A portrait from around 1520 shows her dressed in red, cloth of gold and bedecked with pearls. A later portrait of 1525 also shows her dressed in red with white slashes at the shoulders. (1) And before you call her grumpy, I'll have you know that she loved to dance, leading festivities during the impromptu visit of her brother-in-law Philip of Burgundy in 1506, pulling out all the stops to get him on the dance floor. (2) Here's more on why I think history has been a bit harsh on Katherine of Aragon

Anne Boleyn: sexy, flirtatious, man-eater, witch
Born around 1500, Anne was something like fifteen years Katherine's junior and so yes, it's possible that this led to her being labelled as the 'sexy one' when Henry started showing interest in her in the 1520s. She had also brought some of the French fashions to the English court.  However, as for any claims that she flirted with courtiers for kicks, this is highly unlikely. Although her trial documents accuse her of incest and speaking of the king's death, they are generally thought now to have been made up or embellished: dates and places just don't add up. We also tend to think of Anne as a fairly shrewd politician that wouldn't deliberately invite controversy that would weaken or otherwise undermine her position. While rumours relating to witchcraft did exist, it was never a formal charge in her trial, and as Henry didn't take advantage of this it suggests it wasn't true. Her big mistake was to take a personal compliment from Sir Henry Norris at court, and reply, eyelashes fluttering in chivalrous, playful style, that he looked for 'dead men's shoes... for if ought but good would come to the king, you would look to have me.'  From  the contemporary accounts, she seems genuinely panicked immediately after she spoke, whispering to Norris never to repeat it. This doesn't sound like a flippant, flirtatious queen unaware of the trouble loose words could put her in. In any case, she took an active role as queen over the three years she was consort, interceding on behalf of others and advising Henry. You might like this post I wrote about what the sources may tell us about Anne Boleyn's personality

Jane Seymour: quiet little mouse, timid, puppet
If you believe most of the things written about Jane Seymour, you'd believe that she quite accidentally ended up Queen, unknowingly and meekly manipulated there by her ambitious brothers. I don't think it was an accident. Jane had targeted her employer's husband, and - now she had him -  was planning their wedding while Anne was being executed and thrown into an old arrow chest. She argued with Henry against the dissolution of the monasteries, and was said to have engineered conversations around the king so that the right people would be poised to agree with her. Doesn't sound very timid, does it? Find out more about Jane Seymour in my dedicated post about her here. 

Anne of Cleves: ugly, looked like a horse, smelly
I recently finished a course on The Tudors run by the University of Roehampton. In it, it was speculated that Henry's disastrous first meeting of Anne of Cleves set the tone for his dislike of her. He disguised himself as a servant, whisked out from under his cloak and tried to kiss her. Rather than swoon into this stranger's open arms and flutter her eyelashes, Anne didn't know who he was and pushed him away, as anyone would do under the circumstances. To Henry, this was an insult. In a hat-trick of what sounds like juvenile name-calling, he declared 'I like her not', said that she smelled and that he could tell by the shape of her body - and her breasts - that she wasn't a virgin. Henry's bruised ego was sore indeed. There were no other contemporary accounts of Anne's 'ugliness' and Holbein's portrait was actually said to have been a good likeness by those who had seen her, possibly the reason Holbein retained his head. Oh and the Flanders Mare comment? Henry never said that. It first appears in the seventeenth century in an account by historian Gilbert Burnet. 

Katheryn Howard: stupid, illiterate, young, promiscuous 
We know Katheryn Howard (I'm using the spelling of her name that she used) was the youngest of Henry VIII's wives, but many people don't appreciate just how young she was. Current estimates are that she was no more than nineteen - and possibly even younger - when she married the 49-year old king. Any critics calling her illiterate must have missed the main piece of evidence against her - the tenderly written letter to Thomas Culpeper, with scribbled poetics such as "ytt makes my harte to dye to thynke what fortune I have that I cannot be always yn your company" and signed off with: "yours as long as lyffe endures, Katheryn." I also don't buy the idea that she was stupid. Naive, yes. A teenager looking for playful affection and some flirtation with an old flame perhaps. Otherwise, she carried herself as queen in public occasions beautifully. It's also likely that it was mainly the events before her marriage that worked to create the circumstances of her downfall as I explain in this post. 

Kateryn Parr: old, widow, Henry's nurse-maid
Kateryn Parr. The older wife who would devoutly nurse Henry through his last years, bandaging up his ulcerated leg and soothing him to sleep reading bedtime stories. The old, widowed, safe bet. Well actually, Kateryn Parr was fairly young, even by Tudor standards. She was in her early thirties when she married the 51-year old king, was far from dowdy and much too busy to be doting on Henry as his nurse-maid 24-hours a day, although she did spend time with the king and cared for him. Kateryn was famous for her fashionable dress, spending a fortune on new clothes in the latest styles, colours and fabrics from around Europe. As well as taking control over the three royal children, general duties and advising Henry on the succession and religious matters, she also wrote three books between 1544-47, being the first female author in England published under her own name. Phew. 

Was any of this surprising to you? Will you look at Henry's queens in a different light from now on? 

Let me know in the comments below... 

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2. Thomas Penn, The Winter King p218