King Henry VIII & His Many Wives

Paternal 2nd Cousin, 16x Removed

Henry Tudor, known more widely as England's King Henry VIII, was born on the 28th of June, 1491 at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, England. He was the son of King Henry VII and Queen Consort Elizabeth of York.

Henry was the 2nd son born to Henry VII and Elizabeth. Henry's older brother Arthur, the Prince of Wales, was born on September 19th, 1486. However, the Prince of Wales predeceased his father the King by 5 years when he died in 1502, leaving Henry as heir to the throne of England. Henry first became the Duke of Cornwall in October, 1502, and then was named as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester in February, 1503. Henry was 10 years old when his elder brother died.

When Henry's father, King Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, the now 17 year old Henry became King of England. So began Henry VIII's reign which would last almost 48 years, and bring about significant changes to England...and more than a little terror for those that would not yield to his demands.

Most people have heard how Henry VIII married - and then "divorced" his many wives. Hollywood has made countless films based on King Henry and his 6 wives, and what would happen to them - or anyone, for that matter - when they fell out of the King's favor. The stories range from tragic romance to outright horror, but in my own family research, I have found an untold story about King Henry VIII and his wives!

Henry's first wife was Catherine of Aragon. Catherine wasn't just Henry's wife however, she was also Henry's sister in-law. Catherine and Henry's elder brother, Arthur, had been married to Catherine for 20 weeks prior to his death at age 15. The marriage had been arranged - as almost all noble marriages were - by Catherine and Arthur's parents. After Arthur's death, the families quickly began to consider marrying the young Henry to Catherine who was 6 years his senior. The marriage did not take place immediately, however, and Henry did not agree to marry Catherine until after his father's death in 1509. The two were married on June 11, 1509 in a low-key ceremony held at the friar's church in Greenwich. On June 23, 1509, the newlyweds left the Tower of London and traveled to Westminster Abbey for their coronation that took place on June 24, 1509.

Catherine was soon pregnant with Henry's child - a girl - but the child was stillborn on January 31, 1510. Four months later, Catherine was again pregnant, this time with a son. The child - named Henry - was born on January 1, 1511 - New Year's Day. As we all know from our history lessons, having a male heir was hugely important for kings, and Henry was no exception. The couple were ecstatic at having a son and celebrations in his honor were held. However, the young Henry died 7 weeks later, an event which must have devastated both King Henry and Catherine.

Catherine became pregnant - and lost - 2 more children in 1513 and 1515. Finally, after her 5th pregnancy, Catherine gave birth in February, 1516 to a baby girl - Mary - the future Queen Mary. 

During the years between their marriage and Mary's birth in 1516, Henry had mistresses, as was the custom with royals and other nobles of the time. The exact number of mistresses that Henry had remains unknown, but at least one mistress, Elizabeth Blount is known. Elizabeth gave birth to Henry's illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy (the surname FitzRoy is often used for an illegitimate child of nobility) in 1519. The child was acknowledged by King Henry VIII, and given the title Duke of Richmond, in 1525. Henry FitzRoy married, but died childless in 1536. Had Henry FitzRoy lived, he may have succeeded to the throne upon Henry VIII's death. 

Another mistress of Henry VIII's was Mary Boleyn, elder (by 1 year) sister of Anne Boleyn. The 2 Boleyn sisters were this author's 4th cousins, 16x removed. 

While Henry was with Mary, his thoughts turned to the younger Anne and soon his attention was with the younger Boleyn sister. It is of note that Mary Boleyn was Catherine's lady-in- waiting, and her sister Anne was also a member of the Queen's entourage. It was now 1525 and Henry was growing impatient with Catherine's inability to provide him with a male heir. 

The lack of a male heir weighed heavily on the King, and he considered his options to find a successor. He could legitimize Henry FitzRoy's birth, which would require Papal approval and be open to challenges by other males in the family; he could enter a marriage contract for his daughter, Mary, but it was unlikely she would conceive and give birth to a male heir before Henry's death; or he could get rid of Catherine and marry another woman who could bear him a male heir.

We all know how this story went - Henry chose to replace Catherine with another wife, but there was a significant obstacle in his way: the Church. Henry could not get a divorce or annulment from Catherine without the Pope's approval, and Pope Clement VII would not approve of a divorce.

Henry, previously a devout Catholic, became enraged at the Pope's refusal to grant him an annulment. Henry banished Catherine from court and Anne Boleyn had moved into the Queen's rooms. Henry and Anne were married secretly in the winter of 1532. Henry was still married to Catherine until the following May, at which time the annulment was granted by Archbishop Cranmer.

Prior to the annulment, a second public marriage took place in London between Henry VIII and Anne who, by this time, was pregnant. The marriage took place on January 25th, 1533. On September 7th, 1533, Anne gave birth to a girl - Elizabeth - who would later become Queen Elizabeth I.

Catherine managed to leave the marriage with her head still attached, something which would become problematic for Anne and Henry's subsequent wives. In 1535 Catherine was sent to Kimbolton Castle and separated from her daughter Mary. King Henry told Catherine that she would be allowed to see Mary, but only if she accepted Anne as her Queen. Catherine refused and never saw Mary again. Catherine died of natural causes in January, 1536, just months before Anne was executed.

After the birth of Elizabeth, Henry had the Act of Succession law drawn up in 1533. This law declared Mary illegitimate and therefor removed from the line of succession to the English throne. This law also declared Henry's marriage to Anne legitimate, and that Anne's child, Elizabeth, was next in line to the throne.

In 1534, the Acts of Supremacy placed the King as the head of the church in England, not the Pope. This now gave Henry the final say in all religious matters in the English church.

Anne and Henry's marriage quickly turned sour. Anne, an intellectual, well-educated and opinionated young woman, refused to be submissive to her husband. While these traits may have enticed Henry to take Anne as his lover, for a wife, it enraged him. Anne's demeanor, along with her inability to provide Henry with the male heir he so desired, soon had him thinking of ways to get out of the marriage.

Henry also had problems outside of his marriage as dissenting monks opposed Henry as the head of the church. These dissenters were quickly put down and a number were executed. Execution started to become a way for Henry to solve any issues regarding opposition to him, or to his laws.

When news reached Henry on January 8, 1536 that Catherine of Aragon had died, he seemed to take the news well - dressing in yellow with a white feather in his hat. At the time his queen, Anne Boleyn, was once again pregnant. 

When the King was badly hurt when he was knocked off his horse during a tournament and fear that he would die from his injuries soon arose. When the news reached the Queen, the shock caused her to lose the baby - a boy - at 15 weeks into her pregnancy. Anne lost the baby on January 29, 1536, the day of Catherine of Aragon's funeral. It was an ominous omen of things to come, and was the start of the end of Anne's marriage to Henry VIII.

During her time as Queen, Anne had acquired many enemies, including members of her own family. A plot was devised by enemies of Anne, and supporters of Henry VIII which culminated in the arrest of 5 men between April 30th and May 2nd. The men, including Anne's brother George, were charged with adultery with the Queen. Anne was also arrested, charged with adultery and incest and all were condemned to death. Anne's brother was executed on Tower Green on May 17, 1536 along with the other men. Anne was executed by beheading on May 19, 1536 at 8 am.

Henry, who by this time had taken a new mistress, Jane Seymour, became engaged to Jane on May 20, 1536. Jane Seymour, who had been one of Queen Anne Boleyn's ladies-in-waiting, was my 7th cousin, 14x removed. Our twisted family tale continues.

10 days after becoming engaged, King Henry VIII married Jane Seymour at the Palace of Whitehall in London. No time was lost in mourning Anne!

Jane became pregnant the following year and gave birth to a son, Edward, on October 12, 1537. Edward would go on to become the future King Edward VI of England. Things were not well though, as the birth had been very difficult for Jane. Only 12 days after giving birth to Prince Edward, Jane died from an infection and was buried at Windsor Castle.

Henry didn't grieve for Jane for very long, and the search for a new wife was soon started. Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, suggested to Henry the daughter of the Duke of Cleves, 25 year old Anne Cleves as his next wife. 49 year old Henry viewed the portrait of the much younger Anne and agreed to marry her. The marriage was not a happy one and in short order, Henry wanted to annul the marriage. Anne did not put up a fight and agreed that the marriage had never been consummated. This fact, along with Anne's previous betrothal to Frances, son of the Duke of Lorraine, adding further legitimacy for an annulment. Anne escaped from her marriage to Henry VIII with her head...and a generous settlement.

Thomas Cromwell, the man who had suggested the marriage with Anne to Henry, was not so lucky. While he was never directly blamed for the failed marriage, he was charged with treason, along with a number of other offenses, and was duly beheaded shortly thereafter.

The next woman that Henry had his sites on was my 4th cousin, 16x removed, Catherine Howard. Henry married Catherine on July 28, 1540 - the same day that Cromwell lost his head. Catherine had been both a first cousin of Anne Boleyn, and a lady-in-waiting to the unfortunate Queen. Learning little from the fate of her cousin, Catherine soon had an affair with Thomas Culpepper, a courtier. To make matters worse, Catherine employed Francis Dereham, her previous fiancee and with whom she had had an affair. 

Word of Catherine's affairs quickly spread and the news was taking to the King who, at first, refused to believe the stories. When Henry was finally forced to face the facts, he flew into a rage.

Catherine could have confessed that she and Dereham had previously entered into an agreement of marriage, which would have made her marriage to Henry invalid, but foolishly she did not. Instead, Catherine accused Dereham of forcing her into an adulterous relationship at which time Dereham exposed Catherine's affair with Culpepper. This may be were the term "heads are going to roll" first came about, as 3 of them did!

Both Culpepper and Dereham were executed by beheading, and on February 13, 1542, Catherine lost her head. So ended Henry's 5th marriage.

Henry VIII's 6th and final marriage was to Catherine Parr, who just happened to have been my 5th cousin, 15x removed. The marriage took place in July, 1543. At the time Catherine was a wealthy widow, at the age of 31, having previously been married twice.  Henry was now 53.

No children came from Henry and Catherine Parr's marriage. However, Catherine did take a close interest in the 3 surviving children from Henry's previous marriages - Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. Catherine managed to get Henry to reconcile with his 2 daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and put them back in the line of succession in 1543 through the Third Succession Act.

King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, ending one of the most talked about reigns in English history. His daughters however, would soon add their own colour to the English Monarchy as both Mary, known as "Bloody Mary", and then Elizabeth I, "The Virgin Queen" were to follow in their father's footsteps.

Catherine Parr remarried only 6 months after Henry's death. Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour was to be Catherine's 4th and final husband. Catherine died on September 5, 1548 due to complications from childbirth. 

© 2023 by William B. Taylor

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