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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

The Marriages Of Henry VIII Of England

by Charles Beem 17th December 2019

In the second installment of Charles Beem's blog series, he explores the story of Henry VIII and his relationship history.

Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) was unique among his fellow European kings in his insistence that he personally know his wives before marrying them (on the one occasion that he did not, it was a disaster) While Henry’s marital predilections may seem reasonable to our modern understandings concerning love and marriage, most of Henry’s contemporaries as European kings routinely married foreign royal heiresses for diplomatic, economic, and territorial gains, rather than sexual attraction or emotional connection, usually without meeting them prior to the marriage. Nevertheless, regardless of emotional or sexual compatibility. most kings and queens endeavored to provide for the succession in hereditary monarchies.

But what about the other aspects of a royal marriage, such as love and companionship? Such qualities did develop in some arranged marriages; but there were wide variations among Henry’s contemporaries. For instance, Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-1557) and French King Francis I (r. 1514-1547) exemplified the two poles of approach to royal marriage. Both married for political reasons. The Burgundian born and bred Charles V only met his wife (and first cousin) the Iberian native Isabella of Portugal just days before their marriage in 1526. But they both set out to create a successful marriage that worked both emotionally and politically, with Isabella providing a son and two daughters and later serving as regent in Spain while Charles ruled the rest of his far-flung territories from his base in the Netherlands. In contrast, Francis I of France also married for political reasons but saw no reason to create an image of domestic harmony as Charles V did. Instead, Francis I sought love and companionship outside the bounds of holy matrimony. His first marriage, to Claude, daughter of his predecessor Louis XII, brought him the previously independent duchy of Brittany. Only fourteen when the twenty-year old Francis married her in 1514, Claude was literally bred to death, dying in 1524 after bearing a bumper crop of heirs. Six years later Francis married Charles V’s sister Eleanor purely for diplomatic reasons and then completely ignored her for the duration of their marriage, preferring the company of his mistresses to his queen.
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Image credit: Photo by Remi van Leemput. Avaliable on WikiCommons via CC 2.0

Henry VIII tried to emulate the companionate model exemplified by Charles V in most of his marriages. In 1509, soon after his accession, he married the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, who had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur and had been resident in England for eight years before the marriage, so Henry knew her prior to the marriage. The relationship was companionate for nearly two decades, but their inability to produce a male heir was ultimately a deal-breaker; by 1527, Henry began proceedings to get his marriage annulled. But rather than choosing a foreign-born heiress as Francis I did with his second wife, Henry had decided to marry Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, whose sister Mary had once been his mistress. Trained in the princely courts of Burgundy and France, Anne Boleyn proved to be a tenacious courtesan, keeping Henry’s interest for the six long years it took him to obtain an annulment.

But the marriage did not work out. While charming and charismatic, Anne was also opinionated and acquisitive, while her inability to bear a male heir proved to be her undoing as it had for Catherine. While few historians believe Anne was guilty of the crimes she was convicted of, including adultery, incest, and treason, her lack of queenly discretion greased the wheels of what is universally considered a judicial murder. Convicted by a jury of peers on May 15, 1536, she was beheaded four days later by a French swordsman in the Tower of London.

Ten days after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies in waiting. Quite unlike Catherine and Anne, both strong-willed women, Jane was shy and demure. To all appearances the marriage was a contented one, lacking the drama of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. The birth of her son the future Edward VI in October 1537 was the crowning achievement of her queenship, but she died twelve days later of a puerperal fever.

For his fourth wife, Henry chose a much more conventional path, marrying the Protestant German noblewoman Anne of Cleves, whom had not met prior to marriage. However, when Anne arrived in England in early 1540, Henry did not like her looks or her charms, and only went through with the marriage under protest. Henry was either unable or unwilling to consummate the marriage, which created the conditions for an annulment, which was obtained in July of 1540. By this time, Henry had already set his sights on eighteen-year old Catherine Howard, who had been one of Anne of Cleve’s ladies in waiting. By now middle-aged and overweight, Catherine was a trophy wife, young, carefree, and unbeknownst to Henry, sexually experienced. When news of her indiscretions both before and after marriage came to light, Catherine met the same fate as Anne Boleyn, losing her head in February 1542 after confessing to adultery. But Henry found some contentment in his final marriage, to Katherine Parr, a twice-widowed gentlewomen. While it is doubtful that procreation was a motivating factor, she fit all the other criteria that Henry desired in a royal marriage; he had known her prior to their marriage and found her attractive and good company, at long last making the companionate model work for him and the wife lucky enough to outlive him.
Featured image credit: Portrait of Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein. Image available avaliable on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 4.0