Today, Saturday 19th May 2018, Prince Henry (yes, that’s his real name) marries Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. It’ll only be a few metres away from where one of England’s greatest king’s, Henry VIII, is buried. Henry rests next to ‘his one true love’ and third wife Jane Seymour, who died shortly after she gave birth to his only son, Prince Edward. I know this sounds like a long-winded connection, but bear with. Because Jane had married Henry the day after his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was executed. Down the river, at the Tower of London, in the early morning of 19th May, 1536. Yes, the same day Harry marries Meghan, is the anniversary of one of the most famous executions in British history. I’m sorry to put a dampener on the mood.
But if we’re talking about royal brides, what better topic than to discuss six of the most famous royal brides this country has ever had: the six wives of Henry VIII. If you’ve followed my twitter back in April, you’ll know I’ve just done a whole load of research on this: questioning whether Henry ever loved any of his wives. I concluded he had three types of love: married love and companionship, which applied to Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr; passionate love and lust, which applied to Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard; and finally love of an ideal but not the person themselves, which applied to Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves.
That essay, where I put on my proper academic hat, is probably fairly boring to read, but in my research of it, I found out a lot about, and I made some very strong opinions of, the six wives. So I thought today, as Harry weds Meghan, I’d give you a definitive ranking of the wives, from worst to best. This is going to be one big historical rant, I hope you’re all ready.
Sixth: Jane Seymour
‘Yeah but Jane was the only wife Henry truly loved!’ I hear all the protesters cry. She was the only one who gave the King what he wanted: a son. She was the only wife who’s portrait hung in the Royal Gallery at the time of Henry’s death. She was the only one who’s clothes were kept in the royal wardrobes at the time of Henry’s death. And when the King laid to rest in 1547, he chose to lie next to Jane. So he must have loved her right? WRONG. Because yes she gave Henry his son, but she literally did nothing else, and was only loved by Henry because she didn’t live long enough for him to fall out of love with her. He only married her because she wasn’t Anne Boleyn: she was quiet, obedient, calm, (boring), everything Anne wasn’t. She had learnt her lines by the political faction around her, and did what she needed to do to attempt to bring a more conservative religious policy to England. She had very little say or control in what went on, and is such a disappointment in comparison to the other wives. Even Henry commented this shortly after their wedding, hinting that he had made a hasty choice of bride when so many other good women were on offer. Yes he was buried next to her, but that’s only because she was the only legitimate wife available (Catherine of Aragon would’ve been hypocritical, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were both beheaded, and Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr were still alive). So yes, Jane ranks last, because she’s so unbelievably dull and pathetic. I’m sorry but she is, and even her son was.
Fifth: Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves, the original catfish. Well, sort of. Because I think it’s rather unfair on Hans Holbein (one of the greatest painter’s at the time) to claim that the famous portrait of Anne wasn’t a fair likeness. The failure of this political marriage was most likely because of the bad first impression Anne made on Henry, which presented her as an abrupt and rude individual; and then his total inability to consummate the marriage afterwards. But like Jane, Anne didn’t really make much of an impact on Henry’s reign, and it was all sort of over before it started. This means we can’t really judge her on much, so unfortunately ranks lower than the other feisty characters we will encounter. However, to give Anne some proper credit, she probably got the best deal out of everyone. By the time of their marriage in 1540, Henry had become an overweight, grumpy, pretty hideous creature, so when he commented that he didn’t find Anne attractive enough to sleep with, she probably felt the same. Lucky escape if you ask me. Secondly, she got a pretty good divorce settlement out of it. Yes, when he announced the break-up, she was devastated, but when he offered her £4000 a year, houses at Richmond and Bletchingley, and a welcome hand at the Royal Court, she took it pretty well. So Anne may be a short-lived affair, but she was certainly the luckiest wife. And when you’re married to a tyrant, that’s a pretty good deal.
Fourth: Katherine Howard
Henry had a habit of marrying someone the opposite to his current wife, and no more was this the case when Henry dumped Anne of Cleves and immediately jumped into Katherine Howard’s bed. Young (about 16 or 17 years old when she married him), feisty, and ridiculously attractive, Henry became absolutely besotted with his new wife, an absolute worldie. For him, she gave him a new youthful vigour that he hadn’t experienced for several years, and he loved it. Importantly, she didn’t really bother him politically, and was the only wife who didn’t represent a particular religious faction. Any normal man would’ve probably seen this whole arrangement as too good to be true, but for Henry – God’s representative on earth – all was right in the world. However, Katherine was a naughty little minx, and was conducting an affair with a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Thomas Culpeper, during the Summer Progress of 1541 (so actually Kudos to her for doing it in the little country houses that they stayed instead of usual places of residence like Hampton Court). Katherine was not the only Queen that Henry loved, but she was certainly the only one who broke his heart. No one had the heart to tell him, but instead left a letter explaining what his queen had been up to on his pew in the chapel at Hampton Court. He was devastated and cried to the Council when the told him the full allegations. Then poor Katherine had her head chopped off. It’s an interesting story, but in terms of Katherine herself, she doesn’t really do much, apart from, you know. She’s probably my favourite wife to study, but being the best wife requires more than just sex, unfortunately.
Third: Anne Boleyn
You probably all expected me to place Anne Boleyn higher up the list. And to be fair, you can’t deny her importance for British history, because this was the woman (with a few disagreements by historians over exact details) for whom Henry, dragging England along with him, broke away from the Catholic Church. Yes, that is a monumental change, so surely Anne should be a monumental woman. However, if I’m basing this ranking on how much the women actually did themselves, unfortunately Anne falls short. The one thing she did do which was important was refuse to sleep with Henry – and this wasn’t because she wanted to be Queen, but because she didn’t want to be slept with and then ignored, like Henry had done with his previous mistresses. But I don’t think Anne demanded this off Henry during their courtship, otherwise Henry’s famous love letters to her (now held in the Vatican Library) would have referenced her requests. Instead, I think Henry had chosen to divorce Catherine of Aragon because he did believe their marriage was not legitimate, and that Anne being in the picture at the time provided the support and motivation to push through with his plan.
Furthermore, she was part of an incredibly large faction at court which had facilitated her rise, and was an enemy to an equally large faction, which facilitated her downfall. Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell facilitated both parts. Similarly, Henry revered Anne whilst Catherine of Aragon was still being a pain in the arse, but once she had passed away, Henry suddenly realised he may not have made the best choice. Because Anne’s feistiness, excitement, flirtatiousness, and general awe absolutely besotted Henry – when he couldn’t have her. But when they were married, and Anne did not submit to a lifetime obedience but instead kept exhibiting these qualities, Henry found it really damn annoying. For a woman who took almost seven years to be crowned queen, her fall was fantastically swift – only seven months in fact. But my point is, Anne was important for history, but this was mainly because of the people and events that occurred around her, rather than her own actions herself. She almost was in the right place at the right time, and now acts as a personification for the English Reformation in our minds. I don’t even think she committed the crimes she was executed for: adultery with five different men, including her own brother. Why? Because when you look at Katherine Howard’s affairs, she was testified against by her ladies, who had helped her conduct the affair. But for Anne, absolutely no woman was mentioned in the interrogation reports. So, are you telling me a Queen of England successfully conducted affairs with five different men on five different occasions without ANY help from another human soul? And even if they did, are you telling me they wouldn’t have eventually confessed to Thomas Cromwell, one of the most intimidating men in England at the time? I don’t think so. And that’s why Anne Boleyn ranks third: yes, she’s one of the most important women in English history, but that importance isn’t because of her own doing.
Second: Catherine of Aragon
In comparison to Anne Boleyn, who I used to think was the greatest gal in history, I always thought Catherine of Aragon was the boring, miserable first wife who wasn’t interesting at all. Well, how wrong I was. Because the main reason why it took Henry so long to annul his marriage was because of Catherine herself, who literally dug her heels in so damn hard during the seven years. Henry wanted it to be a quiet affair, dealt with in England by his chief Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and all kept lovely and quick and neat and sorted. Catherine had other ideas. She loved Henry, and he loved her back, and for the first twenty-odd years of their marriage, it was a pretty good one. So when he decided he didn’t believe the marriage was legitimate anymore (and his justification for this was because she had already consummated her previous marriage with Henry’s brother Arthur, and thus God had not blessed their marriage, thus leaving them childless) Catherine was, quite rightly, really hurt by it. And when Henry wanted it to be a quiet affair, Catherine thought she’d get her family in Spain, and her nephew Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (as in, the most powerful man in Europe at the time) all involved. So now it had turned from Henry vs. Catherine, to the whole of Europe against England and it’s King. She stood her ground, forced an inconclusive verdict in England, made the case be dealt with in Rome, appealed to Rome, and then won the courtroom during the second trial, where she made the speech of her life, absolutely owned Henry on the matter, and walked out the courtroom. Her actions pretty much forced Henry to produce the Act of Supremacy and leave the Catholic Church: essentially, he couldn’t score, so moved the goalposts. So yeah. Catherine of Aragon is an absolute badass. Even Anne Boleyn pointed out the Henry that every time he argued with Catherine, he lost.
First: Katherine Parr
If Anne Boleyn produced England’s greatest queen, then Katherine Parr certainly raised her. Because no woman did more for the sixteenth century than Henry’s last wife. A woman who married the King as a duty to God, and as a mission to (properly) draft in the English Reformation. And this is what she did, being a strong advocate for Protestantism to Henry himself (until he got really annoyed with her doing this in his old, grumpy, disabled age). Similarly, she was a monumental influence on English print culture, being the first female author to publish under her own name, writing and translating important Protestant works. Furthermore, she brought Henry’s children together for the first time in a long time, and really provided a sense of family life for a King who had not experienced much of it. She took special interest in Mary, building a great relationship with the woman only four years her junior, and raised Elizabeth: providing her with a sophisticated education in languages and translation. Basically, she taught her how to be strong, and Elizabeth’s style of leadership in the second half of the sixteenth century is largely down to the things she learnt from Katherine Parr. Even after Henry’s death, she lived with Elizabeth and continued to raise her. And luckily, she outlived Henry – so that’s always something. As a Queen and wife, Katherine made the role her own, pursued her own interests, and wasn’t just acting in relation to her husband. It was impressive, and even though she almost had it once, after she had gotten on the wrong side of Henry, Katherine survived and thrived. No woman in the reign had been more important than her. And that’s why she’s the best wife. Period.
I hope this article isn’t a bad omen for Harry and Meghan. I’m sure they’ll have a long and happy marriage, unlike these six, because fortunately royal marriages have changed an awful lot since the sixteenth century. And thank god for it. Enjoy the day, I’m working, annoyingly. Why couldn’t it be a bank holiday for goodness sake.