Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Henry VIII went down in history, not so much for what he accomplished as king of England but for one tantalizing fact - he had six wives. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Katherine Parr - these six women are often defined by their association with Henry VIII, she was wife number 2, she was number 5, she was number 6, their very humanity reduced to a number. Not Catherine, not Anne, not Jane, just “Henry VIII’s wife.” But these women were more than just wives, they were individuals, each with their own story, all of them overshadowed by the desperation of a man determined to continue his legacy. But did you know, in his absurd quest for a male heir, Henry VIII ripped his country apart, changing the religion of the entire nation, executing his closest advisors, tormenting his wives, and ultimately failing miserably? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Now, I’m not gonna try to claim for a second that Henry VIII and his six wives are lesser known history. This is like a fangirl episode if there ever was one. But there is a lot to this soap opera of a story that gets left out, or skewed, misconstrued. That is, of course, the stories of the wives themselves. Even the way we refer to them as “the wives” like they aren’t individuals. It’s Henry VIII and “the wives” not Henry VIII, Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine, and Katherine. And, I get it, that’s a mouth full. I wasn’t gonna call the episode that. But, my point is, the women in this story are interesting in their own right. They are impressive, they are complex, they are tragic heroines, and in a crazy twist, they kind of come out on top. You know I love an unsung hero, so this is not the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, this is the story of Henry VIII, Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine, and Katherine.
And actually, this is just the story of Henry VIII, Catherine, and Anne cause this is gonna be a two parter. I hope y’all are cool with that. It’s just too much to fit into one episode. We’re talking about 6 stories really. So to do all of them justice, I’m making this two episodes. But it’s worth it, I promise, this is the GOAT of interesting history. No one could make up a story this captivating if they tried. So give me two weeks you guys, it’s worth it.
To fully understand all the crazy twists and turns of this rollercoaster of a real life drama, I have to set the scene for you. We are in early 1500’s London now. So step on back in time with me. Henry VII is the king of England. He is the first Tudor monarch. So Tudor is a last name. His name is Henry Tudor. If you listened to my Mad Kings episode, I touched on the War of Roses. This is when the insanity of King Henry VI, causes, basically a civil war in which various factions are trying to claim the throne - a real life game of thrones, if you will. After a bunch of violence and nonsense Henry VII, who is only a distant relative of Henry VI not like his son or anything, he claims the throne, by force, he like wins it in a battle. But Henry VII has very little actual claim to the throne. It’s so weak, it’s never even well defined and everyone’s just like “well, he won the war so, whatever, let him have it.” It’s like, y’all it’s like the Southpark episode, and I’m not even a Southpark fan so if I butcher this I’m sorry, but it’s like the Southpark episode where they’re having an election and they have to choose between the giant douche and the turd sandwich. Okay, Richard III was the turd sandwich and Henry VII is the giant douche. But, whatever, he wins, he becomes the first Tudor king of England.
Now Henry knows his claim is weak, he knows he’s a giant douche, but he’s determined to grow this great dynasty. He wants the Tudor line to flourish and in order for that to happen, he needs an heir. At this point, England has never had a queen, that’s just not even a thing. Women do not rule countries, in England at least. Henry wants a son and he’s very fortunate. He ends up with two sons, the heir and the spare. He also has a daughter, Margaret, not going to leave her out.
So Henry VII’s oldest son, his heir, is named Arthur. It’s said that when Arthur was about to be born, his mother, Elizabeth, was sent to Winchester which was thought to be the actual location of the fictional Camelot like from the story of King Arthur, like sword in the stone, knights of the round table, all that. Not a true story, King Arthur was, most likely, not a real person, just a folk hero. But that did not stop Henry VII from naming his son Arthur. He was determined that this child was going to be the kingliest king that ever did king. Arthur Tudor was born and raised to be king of England. But the thing is, he wasn’t, by nature, this heroic fairy tale alpha male king that his father wanted him to be. He was fairly meek and sickly. Now, his little brother Henry, on the other hand, was quite kingly. He was strong and athletic, he was charismatic, he was vibrant and full of life. But Henry was the spare. He was not expected to become king and so he wasn’t prepared for the role like Arthur. Henry was left to enjoy the freedom being a second son allowed. He had a cushy, spoiled childhood. He could do whatever he wanted basically. He hunted and jousted and made merry. He didn’t concern himself with the prospect of someday ruling a country.
Now, let’s go to Spain. Spain is a major world power at this time. I talk about this in my Mad Kings episode too. Spain is ruled jointly by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, they unite the country, they begin the exploration and colonization of the Americas, they ruthlessly defend Catholicism, they are the power couple of all power couples. Now, if I asked you who ruled the world, you probably wouldn’t say Spain. No offense Spain, you’re just not at the top of that list right now. In 1500ish, yes. Spain is ruling the world and that’s mostly because of Ferdinand and Isabella. Their daughter, Catherine of Aragon, is betrothed to Arthur, the heir to the English throne, when she is 3 years old. This is a powerful political alliance. The prince of one powerful country marrying the princess, the infanta, of another, arguably more powerful country. It’s a match made in royal heaven. So if you listened to the Mad Kings episode, Catherine is the little sister of Juana of Castile who was questionably crazy, probably not crazy, but same family.
So Catherine arrives in England in 1501 to marry Arthur. They have this huge, elaborate wedding. Henry accompanies her at one point as like her escort during the ceremony. He’s only 10 years old. Catherine is 16, Arthur is 15, just a bunch of children, basically. But this wedding, this hugely important political alliance, the future of the Tudor dynasty, the future of the whole country, all of it rests on their little baby shoulders.
Four months after the wedding Arthur dies. I mean, he’s always been pretty sickly, he wasn’t in great health when he married Catherine. He ends up getting sweating sickness, which I find very intriguing because it’s this disease people used to get that, like, we just don’t have it anymore, and we don’t know what it was. It was characterized by fever, uncontrollable shivering, dizziness, exhaustion, sweating (obviously), and usually death within 24 hours. It had an extremely high mortality rate. What’s weird about sweating sickness is that it seems to have just happened in England between 1485 and 1551, usually in the summer and early fall and it mostly affected rich adult males. So like, what? This is super specific. What the heck was sweating sickness? There are a few theories but none of them perfectly match the symptoms described by contemporary doctors - hantavirus which is transmitted by rodents is a top contender, possibly something spread by mosquitoes because it seemed to be seasonal. Honestly, we just don’t know. It doesn’t fit the mold of any diseases we know about. So that’s fun, and terrifying. But it kills Arthur, the prized heir of the Tudor dynasty, the one they’ve been grooming since literally before his birth for the role.
Now Henry VII is like “okay, stay calm, stay calm, I have that other kid, I have my spare heir, we’re good. Gah, I really should have taught him some stuff about running a country instead of just letting him run around and do whatever he wants.” So young Henry VIII is now the heir to the English throne.
Catherine presents another problem. Her father, the king of Spain, had given or at least promised England an exorbitant amount of money as Catherine’s dowry when she married Arthur. Now Arthur is dead. Henry VII does not want to lose that money but also, they haven’t even gotten all of the money yet. It hadn’t even cleared the bank, so to speak. So they are now in this awkward financial situation and poor Catherine kind of just gets forgotten about for a while. For like a long time. She’s just a pawn in Henry and Ferdinand’s chess game. Henry says Ferdinand should pay for her upkeep because he hasn’t finished paying the dowry yet. Ferdinand says she’s Henry’s daughter in law so he should pay for her. Meanwhile she’s living far below what is expected for a princess of literally 2 countries. Which is probably still super luxe compared to most people but Catherine is not pleased. She writes pleading letters to her father during this time basically like “What is going on? Have you completely forgotten me? Do you not love me at all? How could you let this happen?” Let me remind you that she’s 16 years old in a foreign country and alone except for her servants who mostly just try to manipulate her. But Catherine is not naive. She was raised to be the queen of England. Infantas of Spain receive far more practical education and training than English princesses. Isabella saw to it that her 4 daughters were educated alongside her son. Catherine is not an airheaded bimbo and she pretty quickly seizes control of her household and really grows up pretty quickly during this time, making the best of a bad situation. She realizes she can’t rely on these men to take care of her. She has to fend for herself.
But the kings are still at a loss. At one point Henry VII, now a widower, suggests marrying Catherine himself but her parents are like “Um, no, you’re a gross old man and she’s technically your daughter, hard pass.” So they finally agree on Catherine marrying Henry VIII when he’s old enough. Remember, he was only 10 when Arthur died. They get married when Henry is 17 and Catherine is 23 and they’re both actually pretty stoked about the situation. They fancied each other as the English say from the time they met. Henry is this strong, handsome, chivalrous knight compared to his older brother. Catherine was likely quite pleased at this twist in her fate. Henry likes Catherine too. She’s quite beautiful with her English grandmother’s strawberry blonde hair, she’s demure, elegant, well suited to the job of queen consort, trained for it. They get married just 2 months after the death of Henry VII so they enter into marriage at the same time Henry VIII becomes king of England. And from now on, when I say Henry I’m just talking about Henry VIII cause his father, the seventh, is dead.
So Henry and Catherine are really this young glamorous fairy tale power couple at the head of a great nation. Catherine is like, I got this. Henry… not so much. Remember he was the second son, the spare heir, he was never trained to be a king. He was mostly left to his own devices.
He just wanted to go off hunting and host jousting tournaments, party with his courtiers. He’s Robert Baratheon, basically. He holds this very lively playful court while Catherine and his advisor Cardinal Wolsey do all the work of actually running the country behind the scenes.
So, let me pause for a second to explain this set up cause I keep throwing out the word court and I don’t think many people understand what that is in this context. The royal court was basically a group of fancy entitled aristocrats that followed the king around, like an entourage. Henry didn’t often stay in one place. He had over 60 palaces that he bounced around to but Hampton Court was his favorite, his pleasure palace. So this court was like a tv highschool drama on steroids. Everyone who was anyone was expected to attend court and participate as courtiers. The fancier you dressed and the more the king liked you, the more access you gained to the palace and the better your living conditions were there. Hampton Court was set up with long chains of rooms so basically, the more the king liked you, the more rooms you gained access to. In this way, access to the king was restricted and people were channeled into areas appropriate to their rank, like a filtering system. Only the highest ranking courtiers, favorites of the king, could get past the public rooms and into the inner sanctum that included the king’s eating room, the privy chamber, the withdrawing room, and finally the king's bedchamber. There are female courtiers as well that are part of the queens court. These were typically young noblewomen sent by their fathers to try to score a rich husband among the king’s courtiers. Courtiers were provided with lodging, food, and drink based on their social standing with the King and queen. The more they liked you, the more lavish your life was at court.
So it’s all just a huge popularity contest. Henry is Regina George and everyone else is vying for a spot in his favor among the plastics. It’s silly considering these are the people in charge of running one of the most powerful countries in the world. Henry isn’t all that concerned with governing though, he’s all wrapped up in this party lifestyle at the center of this glamorous social circle at court. Catherine and Wolsey are running the show.
When Henry goes to war in France, he leaves Catherine in charge as queen regent. And this is super unusual. This is just not done in England like it was in Spain. Women did not rule England. But Catherine did and she was incredible. I mean, I kind of think she was already doing it anyway behind the scenes and letting Henry take the credit, but now it’s official. Scotland decides to take advantage of Henry being away in France to attack England. Catherine is like “nope,” she musters the troops and starts heading north herself to put a stop to it. The Scottish king is killed and Catherine sends Henry his coat to fly among his banners in France. Apparently she wanted to send Henry the Scottish king’s body but her advisors were like, “um, no thats a bit much” so she settled for the coat. So while Henry is away, not accomplishing all that much in France, Catherine gets this smashing victory against the Scottish. So all the evidence suggests that Catherine was actually a much better king than Henry, limited only by the fact that she was a woman.
Like his father before him, Henry knows he needs a male heir to carry on the Tudor line. Catherine is fully aware that the duty to produce a son falls squarely on her shoulders but she had an extremely tragic track record when it came to her pregnancies. She had a tendency to go into labor early, resulting in multiple stillbirths. It’s believed she was pregnant 6 times - 3 boys and 3 girls. 3 stillbirths, or maybe you would call them late term miscarriages, I’m not sure where the distinction is drawn. Two boys, both named Henry, who survived birth but died shortly after and one daughter, Mary, who was the only surviving child. And while it seems like Henry would be disappointed at Mary’s birth given that she’s a girl, he’s actually delighted. It means they can have healthy children. He dotes on Mary while he waits for the arrival of a younger brother. But Catherine is 30 years old when Mary is born which, at the time, is getting towards the end of a woman’s reproductive years. It’s not looking promising.
Now I have to point out that Henry is not exactly a faithful husband to Catherine. He is a party boy, remember, and there are all these young, beautiful single ladies at court, ladies in waiting to his wife. Henry does not hold back and Catherine just sort of turns a blind eye. In 1519 Henry hooks up with Bessie Blount, which results in the birth of a healthy son named Henry Fitzroy. Now this son is illegitimate which means he can’t be king but Henry lavishes him with titles and offices and just adores him quite publicly which, I can’t even imagine how Catherine must have felt about that after all of the loss she has experienced. But the birth flips a switch in Henry. He realizes he is capable of siring a healthy boy. The problem doesn’t lie with him. And I think at this point, he starts to look at Catherine like it’s all her fault. Like she’s failing somehow to produce this heir, as if she has any control at all.
Then, as he’s thumbing through his bible, Henry stumbles upon a verse in Leviticus. Leviticus 20:21 which says “if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” This is an absolute turning point for Henry. Because, remember, Catherine was his brother’s wife. This explains everything. Now, I’d like to point out that Henry and Catherine are not childless. They have Mary, but whatever, she doesn’t count, I guess.
Henry realizes he can use this bible verse to dissolve his marriage to Catherine. She was his brother’s wife, they never should have been married to begin with, therefore the entire marriage is illegitimate. It’s brilliant. At this time, England was a Catholic country. Henry needs to get the Pope to approve an annulment based on these grounds and he’s a free man, able to marry again, start over, get that heir from another woman. And he knows just the woman. For years he’s been chasing Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s maids of honor. He’s become obsessed, possessed by her. He must have her.
Because, you see, Anne was quite different from Henry’s other mistresses. Contrary to popular belief, she was not conventionally beautiful. I think a lot of people think of Anne Boleyn like a Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships. No. She was very average looking, not exceptionally beautiful. That’s not why Henry, why everyone really, was drawn to Anne. Anne was very alluring. When she entered a room, everyone looked at her. When she spoke, everyone listened, enraptured. She was charismatic, bold, and outspoken, captivating. She had the “it factor,” the “je ne sais quoi” and she knew how to use it. She was intelligent and manipulative and she played Henry like a fiddle.
Anne flat out refused to sleep with Henry. He was not used to this. He was used to getting whatever he wanted but Anne said no and rather than infuriate him, this refusal just made him want her all the more. Henry was a hunter, Anne knew this, he loved the chase, the pursuit, and she led him on this way for years. He wrote her love letters with their initials in hearts like a love struck school boy. In one response Anne writes “your mistress I will not be.” But sometimes she sent no response at all, which only fueled Henry’s passion for her further. She’s playing the game, and it works. Henry cannot have Anne without making her his wife, without making her queen and he can’t do that until he gets rid of Catherine.
So he sends Cardinal Wolsey to Rome to secure an annulment of his marriage with Catherine on the grounds that she was married to his brother and therefore never should have been his wife. He removes Anne from Catherine’s household and sets her up with her own court, making his intentions very clear, Anne is to be the new queen, as soon as he can get the paperwork straight. And my god, can you imagine what this was like for Catherine? She loved Henry, you guys, I know this was a diplomatic marriage but she actually did love him. They had had a happy 20 year marriage and they were a good match. She had to have been devastated when this all came to light.
But getting the Pope to approve the annulment, the divorce, proves harder than Henry thought it would be. You see, the Pope at the time, is more or less controlled by Charles V, king of Spain. Charles is the son of Juana of Castile who is Catherine’s sister. And I’m not a Charles fan because of what he did to his mother, revisit episode 11 for more on that, but he does have a good relationship with his aunt Catherine. So when he hears what Henry is trying to do he’s like “absolutely not, Pope, you better not approve that.” And the Pope’s like “roger that Charlie.” Now on top of that, Wolsey does a terrible job of being the mediator between Henry and the Pope. Wolsey is a cardinal in the Catholic church he has aspirations of being the Pope himself one day so he doesn’t really want to do this. He wants to stay on the Pope’s good side. So I don’t imagine that he was very persuasive when presenting Henry’s case.
But they do manage to arrange a trial of sorts to determine if the marriage was legitimate or not. A representative comes from Rome to hear both sides. Henry is claiming the marriage is illegitimate because Catherine was his brother’s wife. Catherine is claiming her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, and therefore never official. Catherine, by the way, is not going down without a fight. She absolutely refuses to accept any of this BS Henry is trying to pull off. She is his lawful wife and the queen of England and she’s not giving that up. Period. At the trial, Catherine throws herself at Henry’s feet and delivers a captivating, brutally honest speech begging quote “I beseech you for all the loves that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right, take of me some pity and compassion…” she goes on to say that she had been a flawless and devoted wife to him and that they had had many children although quote “it hath pleased God to call them out of this world, which had been no default in me.” After that the court just falls apart. No one can give Henry what he wants after that homerun speech, I mean she nailed it, and it just goes nowhere.
Henry is furious. He is determined to be rid of Catherine. He feels betrayed by her at this point. How dare she foil his plans with accurate statements and expressions of true love. That devilish woman. It’s Wolsey fault too, of course, he’s failed to obtain the annulment. Henry has Wolsey arrested for treason, he would likely have faced execution for this, but he dies of natural causes just before his trial.
Henry brings in a new advisor, Thomas Cromwell, to replace Wolsey. Together, Cromwell and Anne Boleyn present Henry with a fresh new idea for obtaining that annulment. You see, all across Europe, people are splitting from the Catholic church, forging their own churches - the protestant reformation. Anne gives Henry books, heretical books, claiming kings should only have to answer to God, not to a Pope. There are no popes in the bible. Henry was raised Roman Catholic but this is tempting. He suddenly starts to like these new ideas. He doesn’t need the Pope. He doesn’t need the Catholic church. He’ll form his own church. The Church of England. And that’s what he does. With Cromwell and Anne whispering in his ears, he splits from the Catholic church and creates his own. A new church that he is the head of, he has control, he can grant himself his own divorce. He literally changes the religion of the entire country, to this day, England is still a mostly protestant country, just so he can marry Anne Boleyn.
But, before the divorce is even final, like 6 months before the divorce is final, after all that time, Anne gives in and finally sleeps with Henry. Which is weird to me. For years she was all “you have to marry me first” and now she’s just like “okay.” But I guess it was imminent at this point, she knew it was all gonna go her way. Annnd she gets pregnant immediately. But, remember they aren’t actually married yet. So that’s a problem. They get married real quick in a secret wedding in November so the child will be legitimate and then they have a second wedding in January. But his divorce to Catherine isn’t even official until May. So Henry’s actually got 2 wives for a minute and a questionably legitimate pregnancy but no ones going to call him out on that. He’s obviously not messing around at this point. You’d be a fool to get in his way.
Catherine, poor Catherine, is sent off, locked away in dilapidated, moldy, crumbling castles. She’s never allowed to see her beloved daughter, Mary again. She dies three years later at the age of 50, of natural causes, likely exacerbated by stress, grief, and unhealthy living conditions.
Now, right now, it seems like we should be hating Anne. Like, I’m pretty team Catherine at this point. Anne’s the other woman, she’s the homewrecker, she’s the whore. We all know this character, she’s awful, right? But I want to shift that archetype. It’s not that black and white. It’s so easy to pit the women against each other. How dare she take Catherine’s man? And just totally overlook the man, who is usually at the center of it all and very much to blame. None of this would have happened if Henry didn’t go to great lengths to make it happen. And it makes me question, did Anne manipulate Henry? Was this all some well thought out master plan to usurp Catherine as queen? Or was she unwillingly pursued by him? Is it possible Anne didn’t want any of this? She had her sights set on marrying another man when Henry started to notice her. And once he noticed her, he pursued her like prey on a hunt. And yes she led him on, but was that strategic or was she actually trying to get away? The King of England gets what he wants. If he wants a mistress, he’ll take a mistress. These women didn’t feel like they could say no to him. They couldn’t say no to him. The power dynamic here has it verging on sexual abuse. It’s very “me too.” Anne did say no, and you guys, maybe she really didn’t want him and she was the only one brave enough to stand up for herself. I don’t know, but I keep that possibility open when forming any judgment of Anne and her indiscretions.
So Anne is pregnant, and she gives birth to a healthy baby girl named Elizabeth. Yeah, you know her, she’ll go on to rule England for 45 years as Queen Elizabeth I. But Elizabeth is not a boy, at England doesn’t do queens, yet, so, here we go again. No matter, a healthy girl means there can be healthy boys, Henry keeps his chin up.
Anne is not well liked by the people. They loved Catherine. They call Anne “the great whore.” So they organize a charm campaign to try to make people like Anne. Her coronation is this massive PR stunt. She’s presented as the Virgin Mary and the initials HA for Henry and Anne are displayed all along the processional route but the people mock them turning HA into “haha.”
Soon, even Henry begins to tire of Anne. What attracted him to her as a mistress, her bold outspoken nature and refreshing intellect, he finds repellent now that she’s his wife. Catherine was the perfect wife. Anne is feisty and combative. She speaks her mind. She doesn’t let him have mistresses. They have huge blowout arguments over this. Worse, after Elizabeth, Anne suffers miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage. Henry is furious. He feels cheated by Anne. He established a new religion, made an enemy of Spain, lost the love and support of his people all so Anne could give him a son and she has failed to do that. Now that’s not fair, obviously. None of that this her fault any more than it was Catherine’s fault. It’s just biology and it’s out of their control. But that’s how Henry sees it.
In 1536 Henry, now 44 years old, has a jousting accident. He falls from his horse and is pinned beneath it. He was supposedly unconscious for hours which suggests a traumatic head injury. He also injures his leg which never heals and he’s plagued by chronic pain for the rest of his life. This is a turning point for Henry. Until now, he has felt invincible. Now his own mortality is painfully apparent and he still doesn’t have an heir. Around this same time, Anne suffers her third consecutive misscarriage - a boy - and Henry is just done.
Cromwell, who used to be Anne’s minion, has turned on her as well. You see, when Henry broke with the Catholic church, they basically raided and destroyed all of the monasteries in England. Monasteries had a lot of wealth mostly in the form of land, property, that had been donated to them. Anne righteously thought this wealth should go to charitable causes, to help the poor. Cromwell thought the wealth should go straight to the kings own coffers and dished out to his favorite, already wealthy, friends. This argument turns bitter, at one point Anne makes the comment that she wanted to see Cromwell’s head off his shoulders. I told you, she speaks her mind. Cromwell is like “how dare this woman tell me what to do and also be smarter, and kinder, and wiser than me. You’re right Henry, she’s got to go.” And he starts devising an evil plan to be rid of her for good.
It’s Anne’s bold nature and charm that gives them the ammunition they need to pull off this stunt. She makes a flirtatious comment to one of Henry’s courtiers, something about oh if the king were to die, you’d be first in line to have me. But, you see, it’s a crime to even think about the death of the king. It’s treason - a thought crime. This gives Cromwell an idea - if Anne were convicted of treason, it would cost her her life. He concocts devious and likely completely false accusations that Anne is guilty of adultery and incest with her own brother in an attempt to conceive a child and pass it off as Henry’s. There’s no proof of any of this. Anne adamantly defends her innocence, as do the men accused. They are all like “no, this did not happen.” But in Henry’s England, you are guilty until proven innocent and not the other way around. I don’t know if Henry even believed the accusations, deep down he probably knew they were lies, but he goes along with it, of course because he’s now desperate to be rid of Anne. In his mind, not giving him a son is treason enough.
There’s a trial. Anne puts on such a good performance that everyone thought she would be acquitted. This is her forte, after all, she would have made a brilliant lawyer or serial killer. But Henry gets what Henry wants. Anne, her brother George, and 4 other men, likely all innocent, are convicted of adultery and treason and sentenced to death.
Henry is given the choice - Anne can be burnt at the stake or beheaded. He chooses beheaded. He brings in an expert executioner from France to ensure that Anne’s death is clean and quick, so there’s a hint of mercy there. It almost seemed like the people didn’t really believe it was going to happen, like they thought Henry was going to step in at the last second and be like “wait, jk, nevermind, this is crazy.” and put a stop to it. They weren’t ready. There was no coffin ready, the gates at the tower of London were left wide open even though it was supposed to be a private execution. By the time they closed them a thousand onlookers had already gathered. But it happened nonetheless. In true Anne fashion, she delivered a captivating final speech, her finest performance, saying quote “I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it … I pray God save the King … for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never.” So she accepts the court’s judgment but, if you read between the lines, she is still not admitting guilt. She’s very careful with her words. She’s praises Henry, who isn’t even there. Didn’t have the time to show up to his own wife’s execution. I think she does this in an attempt to protect her daughter Elizabeth. She can’t just completely eviscerate Henry with her final breath for fear he’ll take it out on Elizabeth.
And then she kneels on the executioner's block with perfect composure, without flinching, as the sword comes down and that’s that. That’s the end of Anne Boleyn. A woman who changed the course of history, government, and religion. A woman so powerful, the only way to stop her was to kill her. And where is Henry?
As soon as the cannons sound signifying Anne’s death, Henry is on his way to meet another woman, a woman he plans to propose marriage to that very day. I’ll save that story for next week. Stay tuned for part 2 when I delve into the lives of Henry’s last 4 victims, ahem, wives and give them all their identities back. Not number 3, not number 4 - but Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Katherine Parr.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from a History Extra podcast series called “Six Wives,” a Short History of podcast episode about Henry VIII, Historic UK.com, National Library of Medicine, Historic Royal Palaces, The Tudor Society, and The Freelance History Writer. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes.
It’s May 1536. Anne Boleyn has just been beheaded at the tower of London. The crowd falls silent. Onlookers are shocked. Some didn’t believe it would really happen. There’s some hesitant cheering, some applauding. The queens ladies in waiting scream, wail, fall to the ground. One rushes forward and gathers Anne’s head in a white cloth. Others drag her body from the stage. Somewhere a cannon fires. Anne is carted away. She’ll be buried in a shallow, unmarked grave. Meanwhile, as the cannonfire fades away, Henry VIII hops on a barge. His wife’s decapitated body is still warm and yet, he moved on long ago. He has his sights set on another woman, Jane Seymour. By the end of the month, he’ll make her his third wife.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, actually, you’re listening to part 2 of a two part episode of History Fix so if you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, you’re gonna wanna go ahead and do that first or this isn’t gonna make a whole lot of sense. In case you forgot, we’re talking about the six wives of Henry VIII, as actual people, individuals with unique stories worth telling, not just Henry’s wife number whatever.
In part 1, I introduced Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess who married Henry VIII after his older brother’s death. Catherine was married to Henry for almost 24 years, somewhat happily. But out of 6 pregnancies, only 1 resulted in a living child, a girl named Mary. Henry, desperate for a male heir, decided his marriage was doomed from the start because Catherine had been married to his brother first. He goes to great lengths to secure a divorce, breaking with the Catholic church in Rome and establishing his own Church of England. All of this to marry Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting. Anne is the object of Henry’s desire, the perfect solution to his heir problem until she also fails to produce a son, just another daughter, Elizabeth. Henry quickly tires of Anne, accuses her of treason, adultery, and incest with her brother - all baseless claims and has her beheaded at the tower of London.
So, we’ll pick it up from there. Now Henry’s on his way to propose to his next wife Jane Seymour. Henry has had his eye on Jane for a little while. She was one of Anne’s ladies in waiting, just as Anne was Catherine’s lady in waiting. So Henry recruits Jane in the same way he did Anne. There’s one account by a lady named Jane Dormer who was one of Princess Mary’s ladies. Jane Dormer reports that Anne Boleyn once walked in on Jane Seymour sitting on Henry’s knee and freaked out on them. She was NOT okay with infidelity in their marriage. She had to have been aware that, if she could swoop in and replace Catherine, what’s to stop someone else from swooping in and replacing her.
And that’s exactly what happened. I mean kind of? Henry pursued Jane just as he had pursued Anne. And, I don’t know, can you really say no to the King of England? Part of me wonders how much of this was actually consensual and how much was just feeling like there was no way out. Anne and Jane also had powerful families, powerful men in their families urging them on, pushing them into the relationship with Henry to better their own positions in the court. So, how much agency, how much free will did they really have?
Jane couldn’t have been more different than Anne. She was very submissive, quiet, plain, border-line boring. Anne was confident, outspoken, charismatic. People didn’t really get what Henry saw in Jane but, I think he was trying to find the anti-Anne. Anne had obviously backfired so he tried to go in the complete opposite direction with this marriage.
He was mostly pleased with Jane, she fit the role of a queen consort. She would do anyway. He did supposedly remark at one point that there were better looking women at court and that perhaps he should have waited a bit longer before settling for Jane. Which yeah a bit longer than one minute after your previous wife was executed on your orders would have been nice but not because there are prettier women out there. Just, all kinds of messed up. Like, do you even feel, Henry?
Jane does not get pregnant right away. This might be why Henry seemed to be having second thoughts about the marriage. But she does set to work trying to repair and reunite Henry’s broken family. She befriends Mary, they are similar ages, and tries to get Henry to reconcile with her. Elizabeth is just a toddler but there are records of Jane purchasing clothing for her so she must have taken on at least somewhat of a stepmother role.
Jane is fully aware that Anne’s outspoken, combative nature and fierce independence are what got her killed. She is careful not to cross Henry. Except for one time. Around 5 months into the marriage, a revolt rose up called the Pilgrimage of Grace. This was in response to Henry’s break with the Catholic church. The rebels were planning to march on London and Henry is furious, he wants vengeance. How dare they even think about revolting. Jane is more sympathetic. She pleads with Henry on the rebels behalf, suggesting he restore the monasteries to put a stop to the rebellion. Rather than consider this actual decent advice, Henry tells Jane not to make the same mistakes as Anne Boleyn or she’ll meet the same demise, and that’s that. She never asserts herself again, just bends to whatever Henry wants. So, yeah if that’s not psychological abuse, I don’t know what is.
Jane finally gives birth to a surviving son a year and a half into the marriage, Edward. Henry is ecstatic, the entire nation is ecstatic. This is what it was all for. Finally, there is an heir to the throne. But 2 weeks later, Jane succumbs to complications from the birth and dies. Her cause of death is a little unclear. It could have been an infection often called “childbed fever” but there aren’t actually any reports that she had a fever. Other experts who have analyzed her symptoms suggest food poisoning combined with dehydration and eventually an embolism which is when your blood flow gets blocked. It could be like an air bubble, or a blood clot in a vein. But whatever it was, it was undoubtedly related to a childbirth complication. Childbirth was a leading cause of death for women for much of history. At the time Jane died, the life expectancy for women was only 35 and that’s entirely due to the dangers of childbirth bringing the average down. It was an extremely dangerous and often unavoidable business.
So the country is elated that little Edward, the heir to the throne was born, and also deflated that their queen has tragically passed away. It had to have been bittersweet. According to Henry’s PR, he is completely grief stricken but in reality is quote “as merry a widower as can be found.” Henry has his son. He gets over Jane very quickly and begins the search for a new wife. As a spare heir turned king himself, he understands the importance of a second son. Although they were only married for 18 months, Henry does honor Jane in a couple of ways. He has her painted into a family portrait posthumously. This is when he’s married to his 6th wife Katherine Parr but rather than include Katherine in the portrait, he has the artist paint Jane next to him with Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. You can see this and a bunch of other portraits on my instagram @historyfixpodcast. He’s also buried next to Jane after his death. So I don’t know, I don’t actually think this means he loved Jane the most. She’s just the one who gave him his son so he kind of had to put on this show to really legitimize the marriage and therefore his heir.
So Henry’s in the marriage market again and I have to imagine he’s pleased. I think he liked wife hunting more than he actually liked having a wife. But this time, he takes a more traditional route. He has Thomas Cromwell, his advisor, arrange a diplomatic marriage. So this is the way it’s usually done, the way Catherine’s marriage to Arthur was arranged as a political alliance. But this is a first for Henry. All of his wives so far, he’s met before the marriage. He got to know them, fell in love, maybe, or at least lust, before they were married. Now he’s going old school.
England is still in hot water with the Catholic world. The Catholics aren’t exactly pleased with Henry. He’s started his own protestant church, joined the protestant reformation, remember that was the only way to get out of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. So Cromwell decides they need an alliance with another protestant country. They need backup. He chooses Cleves, which is a small duchy in what is now Germany. Back then Germany was just a collection of regions, territories called duchies. So a duchy is an area ruled by a duke or duchess as a sovereign state, like an independent little country almost.
The Duke of Cleves has a daughter named Anne - Anne of Cleves. Now Cleves is a pretty small-fry duchy it’s not a super impressive or powerful ally. But, at this point, most of Europe is very wary of Henry. He doesn’t exactly have a great track record with his past wives. When Princess Christina of Denmark and Norway was approached she responded quote “if I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.” Ouch. So Cleves it is. But Cromwell thinks Cleves is a smart match for another reason. They’ve also rejected the Pope. In fact, Anne’s older sister is married to one of the heads of a defense alliance of protestant states. So that’s a good guy to be related to if you’re Henry.
But Henry has never met Anne of Cleves. She’s the only match he hadn’t pre-approved and this makes him nervous. He’s quite shallow and vain and he worries that Anne won’t be pretty enough. Now, I need point out that, while Henry was a looker in his youth (I mean I guess? I don’t find his earlier portraits that impressive but I guess he was handsome for contemporary standards). Now he’s kind of gross. Sorry but he is. He’s getting old. He’s like 47 (which is basically an old man in the 1500s). He’s also very overweight and out of shape. It’s said that 3 of the biggest men at court could fit inside his doublet - a 50 inch waist. He’s been in bad health since his jousting accident, suffers from chronic pain, ulcers, and an oozing pussy infection on his leg that won’t go away. He’s not a tall drink of water anymore. But for a fat old man, he is very concerned about what Anne of Cleves looks like. So, he sends an artist to paint her portrait. Actually, he sends like the artist, the portrait painter guy, Hans Holbein. Everyone who was anyone had their portrait painted by Hans Holbein.
Holbein, apparently has a hard time getting access to Anne. All of the English ambassadors have a hard time actually. The culture is quite different in Cleves. Young women do not mix with men. Anne is kept fairly sheltered, isolated almost with her mother and siblings. She’s also not super educated. I mean English girls weren’t either really but they did learn skills like singing and dancing, they may have learned to read and write, possibly another language like Greek or Latin, you know just the really useful ones. Now, Catherine of Aragon, remember was from Spain, she was highly educated in the same way boys were educated in England. In Cleves, girls learned needlepoint, yeah that’s about it. Anne only speaks German and she’s had very little exposure to the world.
But Holbien manages to paint the portrait and it’s stunning, iconic. Henry is very impressed. I have this portrait on my instagram @historyfixpodcast along with portraits of basically everyone so you’ll want to check those out. Henry’s like, yep, I’ll take her and Anne of Cleves begins the long journey to England. Although she doesn’t speak any English, she’s well liked by the men accompanying her on the journey. She’s kind and easy to please, she’s very chill. She dines with the men which had to have been outside her comfort zone. She asks, through a translator, she asks to be taught a card game that Henry likes to play so they’ll have something to do together. Anne is eager to learn and eager to please.
She arrives in England and is staying in Rochester on her way to meet Henry in London. But Henry decides he just can’t wait. He still fancies himself a bit of a fairytale knight so he decides he is going to basically bust in on Anne in disguise and, if she’s his true love, she’ll recognize him and they’ll just fall into each other’s arms and it will be the start of this fairy tale romance. So he does this. He bursts into Anne’s chamber and kisses her on the lips and Anne doesn’t recognize him. She’s terrified that this stranger has forced himself on her and by one account she even slaps him. Henry is devastated. This is a disaster of a first meeting. By the time Anne realizes who he is, it’s too late. But I mean, she’s never seen him before. She legit didn’t know the man was Henry. Did he want her to be okay with kissing a strange man? I think, if anything, it speaks to her character that she was so horrified by it. But whatever. It really is a disaster and I think the relationship was ruined at that point before it even began.
Henry went to Cromwell pretty immediately and remarked quote “I like her not!” but at that point, there was nothing they could do. The marriage contract with Anne was rock solid. Henry had to marry her. It was actually his most elaborate, public wedding ironically. Henry complains that Anne is not as described. Now, he never calls her ugly and no one ever says that Anne doesn’t look like the portrait Holbein painted. Just that she was quote “not as described.” But for some reason, Anne of Cleves has gone down in history as the ugly wife. And I don’t think that’s fair. First of all, it doesn’t really matter. It shouldn’t matter at all what she looks like, I mean look at Henry. But also, I kind of don’t think she was ugly. I’ll tell you what I think actually went down.
Henry was unable to consummate the marriage. This is fact, we know this because it comes out later. He claims he is unable to perform his marital duties because he’s just not feeling Anne. He doesn’t like her, she’s just not doing it for him. He doesn’t call her ugly, but it’s implied. But actually, Henry is most likely impotent at this point, physically unable to perform in the bedroom if you catch my drift. Rumors of this surfaced during the trial of Anne Boleyn. She made a comment suggesting that Henry was suffering from impotence. It also explains why it took so long for Jane Seymour to get pregnant. And remember, he even made a comment about Jane not being pretty enough. He keeps trying to blame it on his wives but I think the problem is with Henry. I think he would have consummated the marriage with Anne of Cleves if he could. I mean, he’s come this far, he’s married her, she very likely could have provided him with that spare heir. Henry just flat out can’t and the history the men wrote down twists that into Anne of Cleves wasn’t pretty enough to tempt Henry into her bed. I’m calling BS on that.
But Henry decides to use this, the fact that the marriage hadn’t been consummated, along with an old pre-contract of marriage Anne had to another man he managed to dig up as grounds for an annulment. He wants out of the marriage. He’s going to get himself out. He sends Anne off to Richmond Palace, telling her there’s a plague in London and she’ll be safer there, which is a lie. Soon, the king’s ambassadors arrive in the middle of the night, bust into her room and tell her the king has doubts about their marriage and that there will be a trial. So, like, intimidation tactics much? I mean this is ridiculous. Anne is terrified, she’s screaming and crying, she’s well aware of what happened to Anne Boleyn after her trial and Catherine of Aragon after hers. She had to have been scared out of her mind at this point. But she decides to handle the situation much differently than Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon. Anne and Catherine both flat out refused to accept that Henry wanted to end their marriages, or execute them. They were not willing to compromise, even a tiny bit, they refused to give in to Henry. Anne of Cleves goes the other direction with it. She doesn’t agree with it, she thinks she’s Henry’s rightful wife, but she goes along with it, basically to save herself and it works.
After only 6 months of marriage, Henry successfully annuls his marriage to Anne of Cleves. Now, part of the settlement states that Anne has to stay in England. She can’t go home, like ever. They can’t have her going back to Cleves and claiming to be the Queen of England. They have to be able to keep an eye on her incase she ever decides to doublecross Henry and the annulment. Also, no one is going to marry her now. She’s basically ruined as far as the marriage market goes. It’s social suicide to marry a divorced woman, especially one who’s been cast off by the king himself. So this sounds bad but, honestly, Anne of Cleves makes off like a bandit compared to Henry’s other wives.
Henry, likely pleased that Anne just gave him what he wanted, gives her the status of a king’s sister. Which is super high ranking, she’s right below Mary and Elizabeth, the king’s daughters, at court. She gets all these palaces and properties, including Hever Castle which was actually Anne Boleyn’s childhood home. She’s provided a large income, she’s welcome at court, she lives a lavish life of luxury. She enjoys a lot more freedom and independence than she’s ever had before but also, I’d expect, more freedom than a married woman even. She kind of falls into this weird loophole of cast off wife but wait this is actually so much better, like, I’ll take it? She’s good friends with Mary and Elizabeth and, actually, when Mary is later crowned queen, Anne rides in the second chariot with Elizabeth, so this just really shows how much a part of the family she became and how influential and really powerful she ended up being despite her disastrous 6 month marriage to Henry.
Thomas Cromwell doesn’t fare quite as well. Remember Cromwell was Henry’s advisor who arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves. He doesn’t go down for that, though, Henry actually forgave him for the marriage mistake and made him Earl of Essex after that. He actually gets executed for suspicions of treason and heresy that were probably completely false. Actually, some believe rumors were spread by Cromwell’s rivals out of jealousy after he received that title, Earl of Essex. Henry, now paranoid that Cromwell was plotting against him, had him arrested and beheaded without a trial. But Henry regretted this hasty decision pretty much immediately, later referring to Cromwell as “the most faithful servant he had ever had.” And I just find it so ironic indeed that Cromwell was the one who spread false accusations about Anne Boleyn, leading to her execution and now he’s had the very same thing done to him by his own jealous foes. I just have a hard time feeling sorry for him after that. But also, Henry will chop your head off at the drop of a hat, apparently. And that takes us to our next wife, Catherine Howard. Can you feel the foreshadowing?
Catherine Howard came from the Howard family which was quite high ranking. So she’s of noble birth, but her father was actually in a lot of debt. She didn’t have the same financial opportunities and cushy upbringing as the rest of her extended family. She’s actually the cousin of Anne Boleyn and her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, secures her a position as maid of honor to Anne of Cleves. So once again, we see Henry hand picking his next wife from among his current wife’s ladies in waiting.
Henry marries Catherine Howard on the exact same day that his trusted advisor, Thomas Cromwell, is executed. Yeah, he may have been a sociopath, I don’t know he’s at least very good at compartmentalizing his feelings in order to seemingly not care at all about some seriously heavy stuff.
Catherine is very young. Possibly as young as 16 when she marries Henry and he’s nearing 50. She was quite beautiful. He was very into her looks. Maybe he thought that would get him out of his slump of sexual disfunction, I don’t know but Catherine is basically a child. Henry calls her his “rose without a thorn” and showers her with gifts.
Despite her age, she adapts to the role of queen quite well and is actually well received by the people. She does not get along with Henry’s children though. Mary is not a fan. Mary is older than Catherine by almost 10 years so I’m sure she was royally annoyed by all of this and likely eye rolling her father and his choices by now. Elizabeth is still a child, she’s like 7 years old and Catherine seems to favor her because she is the daughter of Catherine’s cousin, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth and Catherine are blood relatives. And then there’s Anne of Cleves still hanging around court. Catherine receives her kindly which is a classy move.
But some pretty nasty rumors start swirling, not long at all after the marriage. First Thomas Culpepper, who was a member of Henry’s privy chamber - so that’s a high ranking courtier - there are rumors that he visited Catherine’s room several times while Henry was away. Catherine would send one of her ladies, Lady Rochford, to invite Culpepper to her room. She also wrote several letters to Culpepper signed quote “yours as long as life endures.” So there’s that. But then other nasty rumors emerge about Catherine’s past.
When she was 13 she was sexually abused by her music teacher Henry Mannix and later by her grandmother’s secretary, Francis Dereham. She lived with her grandmother at the time probably because of the financial turmoil her father was in. The relationship with Dereham was particularly damning as it was ongoing and long lasting. Questions arose about whether Catherine and Dereham had a pre-contract to marry which could make her marriage to Henry invalid. It’s exactly what he used to get rid of Anne of Cleves.
So these rumors start to surface. Then Dereham actually shows up at court demanding to be part of Catherine’s household. She allows him, probably just to appease him and keep him from spilling the beans but it definitely raises some eyebrows. So between Culpepper visiting her room and Dereham showing up at court, the scandal is now reaching a fever pitch. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, finally decides to tell Henry about it. He’s like “I gotta tell him. He’s literally going to kill me if he finds out I knew and didn’t say anything.” So he writes Henry a note and it all blows up. Henry storms out of Hampton Court in a fit of rage, he’s devastated, betrayed. He was very satisfied with Catherine as his wife so he’s completely heartbroken by the news of her infidelity. Which, I mean, kind of a taste of his own medicine no? Is anyone else not feeling bad for Henry at all? Isn’t this exactly what he’s done to almost all of his own wives? He wasn’t exactly a faithful husband to any of them.
So Anne Boleyn was executed for adultery, which was probably not true. Catherine Howard is now being accused of adultery and premarital relations which is probably actually true. BUT, I want to pause the narrative for a minute to remind you that Catherine is 16 years old. So let’s update the context here to the modern age. At the time, Catherine was likely seen as promiscuous, sinful, lustful, slutty, if you will. Through a modern lens, I see a child, 13 years old, abused by her music teacher - a grown man in a position of power over her. I see a not much older than that child - maybe 14 when it started - abused by an employee of her household, a grown man in a position of power over her. And this relationship was ongoing, he groomed her, followed her to court. Then I see a 16 year old, now married to a man 30 years her senior, King of England, can’t so no to him. And a high ranking man of the court, Thomas Culpepper, who had been accused of rape in the past, by the way, but pardoned, now he’s trying to grab his piece of the pie. Because, despite Catherine’s invitations and letters to Culpepper, there are indications that she’s actually terrified of him. She’s quite pleading in her letter. She says “I pray you” 3 times, there’s a clear power dynamic and Culpepper is obviously on top. Later Catherine told her interrogators that Culpepper “ceaselessly begged for a meeting and she was too fearful to refuse.” So through a modern lens, this is not a sinful and unfaithful wife, consensual, complicit in these acts of infidelity. This is a child groomed, abused, taken advantage of by men in positions of power. Culpepper and Dereham both had serious motives to maintain their relations with Catherine. Henry was getting old, he was in poor health. Catherine was soon to be a very wealthy and young widow in need of a man to manage all that wealth. They’re 100% taking advantage of her for their own gain. And as a victim of sexual abuse since the age of 13, Catherine is powerless to stop it, she is a victim.
But that’s certainly not how Henry sees it. He sends a messenger to Catherine to tell her that if she comes clean about everything, he’ll be merciful. So she does come clean. She admits to everything during her interrogation, Dereham, Culpepper, all of it. And Henry is not at all merciful. He’s completely humiliated and wants revenge. Culpepper is beheaded. Dereham is hanged, drawn, quartered, castrated, and disemboweled. Like overkill much? Catherine is condemned to die without a trial along with Lady Rochford who had helped orchestrate the rendezvous with Thomas Culpepper. The night before her execution, Catherine asks that the executioner's block be brought to her room so she can practice getting into position which, if that isn’t just the most heartbreaking thing. She’s a wreck at her execution, not at all like Anne Boleyn who stoically held her neck out for the sword. Also, Catherine is beheaded with an ax not a sword which is decidedly less merciful. Then Lady Rochford has to lay her own head on the same block immediately after Catherine’s execution, warm blood and all. It’s just all very intense and unnecessary especially when you consider they were guilty of nothing Henry hadn’t done himself. The double standard is infuriating.
After Catherine Howard’s execution Henry descends into a deep depression. He’s having a midlife crisis. He’s been having a midlife crisis. Actually, I guess it’s a late life crisis. He’s in his early 50s now which is considered old age. He chooses a final wife from among his daughter Mary’s ladies in waiting named Katherine Parr.
This Katherine is in her early thirties. She’s been married twice before, twice a widow. And I think Henry is looking more for companionship at this point than anything else. They don’t really have a romantic relationship. Katherine is an intellectual partner to him. She’s very intelligent, she likes to read, she’s actually a published author. She was the first woman in England to publish in English under her own name.
But Katherine Parr wasn’t interested in marrying Henry at all. She was in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour. She agreed to marry Henry because, as I’ve said several times already, you can’t really say no to the King of England. If he wants to marry you, he’s going to marry you. But also, I think she looked at it like a duty she was doing for her country, caring for its lonely, ailing king at the end of his life. She also cares for his children as if they were her own. She’s a proper stepmother to them.
Katherine is a very capable queen. Henry actually leaves her in charge as Queen Regent in 1544 when he goes off on some exploit in France, something he hasn’t done since Catherine of Aragon way back when. Katherine Parr is intelligent and independent and it almost gets her into a lot of trouble, actually. Katherine is a bit of a protestant religious reformer and she starts pushing the idea that religious texts should be written in English, you know so the common man can read and understand them. Which, I guess this wasn’t done? I guess it was also apparently a problem because it was a very controversial idea. She’s writing about it and publishing these scandalous ideas she has and it’s starting to freak Henry out a little bit. Katherine catches on though, she notices Henry is becoming colder and more distant and she reels him right back in. She turns on the passive, submissive wife setting and is like “oh I have so much to learn from you. I was only doing this for you. I thought it would be a good distraction from the pain you’re in. Please teach me how to be better.” And just completely manipulates Henry right back into her good graces. Someone actually comes to arrest Katherine while she is having this discussion with Henry and he’s all “Arrest her? On whose order?” even though he’s totally the one who gave the order. And Katherine is saved. She’s bested him really. She’s outmaneuvered him mentally and politically by letting him think he’s superior to her when really, she’s in the driver's seat.
Katherine hopes to be made Queen Regent when Henry dies until his son, Edward, is old enough to rule on his own. Cause he’s like 9 right now. But unfortunately that’s not how it goes down. Henry’s health is failing, he’s on his deathbed at this point where he mutters quote “pardon me all my sins, though they were greater than can be.” Which, um, yeah, you think? And after he dies Katherine is made Queen Dowager which is just like the widow of the dead king. She has no power basically. She doesn’t get that Queen Regent distinction she so wanted. Instead, Henry leaves a group of men in charge until Edward comes of age. Predictable, no?
But Edward, I mean yeah he’s a boy, a male heir, but he’s not all that. He’s always been sickly. He rules for 6 years and dies at the age of 15, probably of tuberculosis. At which point Mary takes the throne. But not without challenges. When Edward dies, the powers that be try to place his protestant cousin, Lady Jane Gray on the throne. Mary is like “uh uh.” She gathers support, rides into London and rightfully takes her throne. The first female to rule England. The first queen in her own right.
Mary had a strong agenda. She wanted to restore the Roman Catholic faith in England which, is, you know, what her father destroyed in order to divorce her mother. So she’s like “yeah, we’ll go ahead and undo that.” Mary only ruled for 5 years but in that time, she became rather notorious for her ruthless defense of Catholicism. She had around 280 protestants burned at the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism and another 800 fled the country. She earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for this religious persecution, yeah, like the cocktail.
So that sounds awful but history journalist Meilan Solly sums it all up pretty nicely in a Smithsonian Magazine article titled “The Myth of Bloody Mary” when she says quote “the Tudor queen is remembered as one of the most reviled figures in English history: “Bloody Mary.” This is a story of how a heroic underdog became a monarch who was then mythologized as a violent despot—despite being no bloodier than her father, Henry VIII, or other English monarchs. It’s a tale of sexism, shifting national identity and good old-fashioned propaganda, all of which coalesced to create the image of an unchecked tyrant that endures today.” end quote. And really, it’s pretty predictable. You can’t really expect them to paint England’s first queen in a positive light. That would be a huge blow to the patriarchy which had maintained forever that women could not rule.
Mary died childless in 1558 after acknowledging Elizabeth as her heir. Elizabeth was protestant so this was probably hard for Mary to pass the throne to a protestant queen after all she had done to restore Catholicism. But they were sisters and they really did have a good relationship, despite it all. Elizabeth ruled for 45 years as one of the most successful and admired monarchs of all time. She brought England into its Golden Age of economic prosperity, exploration, art, and literature. We’re talking William Shakespeare, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the first English colony in the Americas. They couldn’t even try to twist her story, to demonize her like they did Mary. She was undeniably one of the greats, man or woman.
Elizabeth never married. She didn’t want to share her throne with a man who would have inevitably been seen as superior to her. And honestly, I have to imagine the concept of marriage itself was a bit tainted for her after witnessing her father’s shenanigans. So Elizabeth never had any children. The Tudor line ended with her death in 1603. And I feel like this was her final eff you to her father who went to such horrifying lengths to secure an heir. Elizabeth was just like “nah, not gonna.” She was buried next to Mary in Westminster Abbey beneath the inscription “Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection.” And I love that they loved each other in the end. And really we have Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr to thank for that. They all went to great lengths to unite the royal family and rebuild those familial bonds between the siblings.
And so, when I look back at this whole saga of love and betrayal, lust, conspiracy, abuse, and murder. I have so many feels with this one. This story really illustrates so many issues with traditional western society and the way that it’s always been done - the imbalance of power between men and women is the root of all evil in this story. If Henry wasn’t so desperate for a male heir, if Mary had been enough for him, if Elizabeth had been enough for him, none of this would have gone down the way it did. And history laughs in his face with Elizabeth, honestly, a far better ruler than he ever was. I have to imagine her mother, Anne Boleyn, is smiling in her unmarked grave still at that.
So really the lesson here is, do not underestimate the power of women, even in times of extreme oppression and gender inequality. Henry had the patriarchy on his side. That’s how he was able to do what he did. But when you really strip this story down, when you strip it bare and read between the lines, you have 6 women - Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine, and Katherine, actually 8 women, Mary and Elizabeth. 8 women who really had the upper hand for their righteousness, determination, honesty, intelligence, integrity and overwhelming strength in the face of unjust betrayal, persecution, and death.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from a History Extra podcast series called “Six Wives,” Tudor Times, The Tudor Society, localhistories.org, Historic Royal Palaces, englishhistory.net, Smithsonian Magazine, Royal Museums Greenwich, and Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes.