Who are the real queens of 'Six'?

The six wives of Henry VIII take centre stage in a smash musical that retells their turbulent life (and death) stories. Here’s the history behind the hit.

By Editors of National Geographic
Published 19 Aug 2022, 11:50 BST
King Henry VIII of England is surrounded by his 6 wives, including Anne of Cleves, Jane Seymour, Catherine Parr, Catherine Howard, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine of Aragon, in an illustration.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Stefano Bianchetti, Bridgeman Images

Authors Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss found inspiration for their hit musical in the lives and loves of King Henry VIII, but SIX tells the story from the women’s point of view. Each queen gets her moment in the spotlight to explain her fate of being “Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.”

Divorced: Catherine of Aragon

Larger-than-life Henry VIII ruled England for 36 years (1509-1547), raging war against France and Scotland, separating from the Catholic Church, and paving the way for the constitution of England, among other political achievements. But young Prince Henry was not destined to be king. When his older brother Arthur died in 1502 at age 15, Henry became the heir to the throne.

Henry married his first wife, the daughter of Spanish King Ferdinand II and the widow of Henry’s older brother, in 1509. She gave birth to the future Queen Mary I in 1516 but failed to produce Henry’s hoped-for male heir.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Private Collection, Bridgeman Images

When Arthur died, Henry didn’t just inherit the throne—he inherited his brother’s fiancée, Catherine of Aragon. After marrying, the two became parents to a son—who tragically died two months later. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1516, but by 1526, the marriage had not produced the male heir Henry needed to secure the succession. He began looking for a new bride, even though the Catholic Church made it impossible to divorce Catherine.

In the end, the answer was simple: Henry believed he was a king ordained by God, so he, not the pope, had ultimate authority over his kingdom; as such, he could grant his own annulment. This decision led to England’s break with the Catholic Church—and the creation of the Anglican Church.

After their annulment, Catherine was given the title “Dowager Duchess of Wales,” and she lived out her days at Kimbolton Castle. She died in 1536 from cancer at the age of 50.

Mary, by the way, went on to become Queen of England and Ireland from 1553 to 1558, during which time she fought to reverse the English Reformation, brought about during her father’s reign.

Beheaded: Anne Boleyn

Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn required England’s tumultuous split from the pope and Rome. She gave birth to Elizabeth I in 1533. After she failed to produce a son, Henry had her executed in 1536.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Musee Conde, Chantilly, France, Bridgeman Images

While still married to Catherine, Henry had begun wooing a court beauty, Anne Boleyn, and was determined to marry her. A lady-in-waiting to Catherine, Anne was sophisticated, charming, and confident. She is commonly believed to be the wife he loved the most. As his advisers worked on “the King’s great matter” of the divorce, the couple had to wait seven years to be married—though the two flaunted their relationship in court. He wrote her love letters, which still exist today: “I hope soon to see you again,” he wrote, “which will be to me a greater comfort than all the precious jewels in the world.”

Anne was six months pregnant when they finally said “I do” in June 1533, and three months later she gave birth to Elizabeth I. Later, she had two stillborn children and suffered a miscarriage in 1536; the foetus appeared to be male. Henry still did not have his heir.

Little by little, Henry grew tired of Anne, and his eye caught sight of a new woman: Jane Seymour. To end the marriage, Henry needed to find a way out—and he found it through accusing Anne of high treason. For the crimes of adultery, incest, and plotting to murder the king, Anne was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She went on trial, denied all charges, but was found guilty. Anne was beheaded on May 17, 1536, at the Tower and buried in an unmarked grave beneath the Parish Church there.

Henry proposed to Jane Seymour the day after Anne Boleyn’s execution, and they were married a month later. She bore a son, the future Edward VI, in 1537 but died within 12 days of giving birth.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, Bridgeman Images

While married to Anne, Henry visited the Seymour home, and it’s believed that’s when he first laid eyes on Jane, who served as a lady in waiting for both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. As in his relationship with Anne, Henry began courting Jane while still a married man.

Beautiful and reserved, she was a stark contrast to his first two wives. Before long, rumours of his attraction to her spread. He proposed to her the day after Anne Boleyn’s execution, and they were married a month later. She bore a son, the future Edward VI, in 1537 but died within 12 days of giving birth. She is the only wife buried with him in the same tomb in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Divorced: Anne of Cleves

Henry’s ministers searched high and low for a new wife for the king, whose abysmal marital reputation preceded him. Anne of Cleves, the daughter of a German duke, became a prospect for diplomatic reasons: The marriage would ally England with a Protestant duchy, thus solidifying England’s religious reformation.

But Henry needed to know what she looked like, so, on the advice of Thomas Cromwell, he sent his favourite court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, to the German duchy, and he approved based on the portrait.

Henry did not meet Anne, the daughter of a German duke, until they married in 1540. The marriage, arranged for diplomatic reasons, was annulled by mutual consent after six months.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Louvre, Paris, France, Bridgeman Images

When Anne arrived, however, he was crestfallen to see she was not as fair as reported. (Remember, he was no great looker at that time of his life—obese, in chronic pain, with an unpredictable temper.) Nevertheless, they were married at Greenwich Palace on January 6, 1540, but he was already looking for a way out. The marriage was annulled six months later, on the technicality it hadn’t been consummated. She was given Hever Castle (Anne Boleyn’s former home) and the title “King’s Beloved Sister.”

Thomas Cromwell was not so fortunate; Henry had him executed for his miscalculation.

Beheaded: Catherine Howard

Henry was 49 and Catherine 19 or 20 when the pair married in 1540, three weeks after his separation from Anne. Accused of extramarital liaisons, Catherine was executed in 1542.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Private Collection, Bridgeman Images

Henry was 49, and Catherine was 19 or 20, when he spotted her among the ladies in waiting to his previous wife, Anne of Cleves. Vivacious and full of energy, the young Catherine had no choice in the matter. The pair married in 1540, three weeks after his separation with Anne, and she became his trophy wife.

No doubt turned off by her much older husband (who suffered from various ailments including ulcerous legs), she fell in love with Thomas Culpeper, one of Henry’s young advisers. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, found out, and he reported her indiscretions—including those that occurred before their marriage with other men—to Henry. She was charged with “unchastity” before her marriage, concealing her indiscretions, and adultery: acts of treason. She was executed on February 13, 1542.

Survived: Catherine Parr

Twice married and twice widowed, the down-to-earth Catherine offered comfort to Henry in his old age after their marriage in 1543. She outlived him and married for a fourth time.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Private Collection, Bridgeman Images

Twice married and twice widowed, the down-to-earth Catherine was reluctant at first to marry Henry. Who wouldn’t be? She knew the fates of his previous wives, though she also knew refusing the king could have drastic consequences. She had caught his eye when she had been part of the household of Princess Mary, the king’s daughter. They were married in 1543, and by all reports she was a loving, pious wife who offered comfort to Henry in his old age. She helped Henry to reconcile with his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and ensured they were educated and restored to succession. She outlived him and married for a fourth time.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in Atlas of the British Empire. Text Copyright © 2015 National Geographic City. Compilation Copyright © 2020 National Geographic Partners LLC.

To learn more, check out Atlas of the British Empire. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


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