Henry VIII was born on June 28, 1491. His father and mother, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, were loving parents, although they saw little of their children. Henry, their second son, was styled the Duke of York. He had his own servants and minstrels, and a fool named John Goose. He even had a whipping boy who was punished when Henry did something wrong. In 1509 Henry VII died of tuberculosis and his son became King Henry VIII. He was 17.
Henry VIII is one of the most famous and controversial kings of England. His fickle passions and demand for a male heir led him to marry six different women. (Two of those wives, Anne Boleyn and Katharine Howard, were executed on his order.) Henry's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, led to his split with the Catholic Church and set the stage for the English Reformation and for religious battles which lasted for centuries. (It also led to his famous clash with Sir Thomas More, who was tried for treason and executed.) Henry VIII was the father of Elizabeth I, who became one of England's most powerful and longest-reigning monarchs. Henry is also known for his great girth; his obesity probably contributed to his death at age 56. He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, born to Jane Seymour.
Henry VIII loved entertainers, and the court attracted acrobats, jesters, magicians and musicians. Prince Henry enjoyed music and grew up to be an accomplished musician (although he did not write "Greensleeves," as legend suggests). At the age of 10 he could play many instruments, including the fife, harp, viola and drums.
Although most people today think of Henry VIII as a fat tyrant, in his youth he was admired for his intelligence, good looks, good nature and athletic ability. One of his contemporaries wrote that he was "one of the goodliest men that lived in his time, in manners more than a man, most amiable, courteous and benign in gesture unto all persons."
Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547.
Wife #1 - Catherine of Aragon
It may surprise you to learn that Henry VIII was married to his first wife for over 20 years, and for a long time they were happy together. Catherine (the widow of Henry's brother Arthur) was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and had received an excellent education at their court. She had long red-gold hair and blue eyes, and in her youth was considered pretty.
As a young man Henry enjoyed dancing, gambling, hunting, hawking, horseback riding, tennis, archery, wrestling, writing and composing music. Catherine was five years older and much more sedate. She was interested in politics and Henry often turned to her for advice. In 1513 she ruled as regent while Henry was campaigning in France.
Although Catherine was pregnant many times, only one of her children, Princess Mary, survived. Henry was a doting father and didn't seem to blame Catherine for her failure to bear healthy sons. Henry is only known to have had two mistresses during his marriage to Catherine, which made him a reasonably faithful husband by the standards of the time. Catherine knew of his affairs but kept silent.
Wife #2 - Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was probably born in 1500 or 1501. Her father was an English diplomat and her mother was the daughter of an earl. When Anne was around 12 she became a maid of honor to Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands. A year and a half later she moved to the French court, where she served Henry VIII's sister Mary, who had married the king of France. King Louis soon died and Mary returned to England, but Anne stayed in France as maid of honor to the new queen, Claude.
Bewitched by Anne's sparkling black eyes, long dark hair and vivacious personality, the king began scheming to end his marriage to Catherine. He claimed that it had never really been a marriage because she had been his brother's wife. Catherine insisted that her first marriage didn't count because it hadn't been consummated, and church authorities agreed. For years Henry struggled unsuccessfully to have his marriage annulled. In the end, determined to have his way, he broke free of the Catholic Church, established the Church of England, banished Catherine from court, had his first marriage declared invalid, and married Anne Boleyn.
Queen Anne was crowned in June of 1533. Later that year she gave birth to her only surviving child, Elizabeth. The years of waiting had been hard on Anne. She was in her thirties now, moody and sharp tongued, and Henry was falling out of love with her. She had friends at court, but also many enemies. She had brought about the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, who died in 1530, and she also plotted against Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary.
Catherine died on January 7, 1536, and Anne rejoiced. She was pregnant again, and if she gave birth to a healthy son her position as queen would be secure. But Anne had a miscarriage.
In May Anne was arrested and charged with having affairs with five men, including her own brother George. The charges were false, but Anne and all of the men were convicted and sentenced to death. On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded. And on May 30 Henry VIII married his third wife.
Wife #3 - Jane Seymour
The Seymours were an old and noble family. Jane, who was probably born between 1507 and 1509, had been maid of honor to both Queen Catherine and Queen Anne. As Henry grew tired of Anne's tantrums he was drawn to Jane's gentle, modest ways. Jane sympathized with Catherine and was apparently happy to help bring about Queen Anne's downfall. Like Anne before her, Jane virtuously rejected the king's advances, and once again Henry fell in love with the woman he could not have.
After their marriage Jane remained quietly obedient to Henry. In October of 1537 Jane gave birth to a son, Edward. Twelve days later she died. Henry grieved for her, but he also began looking for a new wife.
Wife #4 - Anne of Cleves
Cleves was a dukedom in modern day Germany and Anne was the sister of its ruler, Duke William. Born in 1515, she was given a sheltered upbringing, and was less educated and worldly than Henry's previous wives. Henry approved of her portrait, so in 1539 a marriage treaty was signed and Anne set sail for England.
When she arrived Henry was so eager to see her that he raced to where she was staying and burst in upon her unannounced. Anne didn't speak English, didn't know who this fat stranger was, and was busy watching something out the window, so she more or less ignored Henry. The king's pride was wounded. "I like her not!" he told all and sundry. He found her ugly - downright repulsive - and the last thing he wanted to do was marry her.
But Henry couldn't wriggle out of his treaty with Cleves. The wedding took place on January 6, 1540 with the groom protesting every step of the way. At first Anne had no idea that her husband was displeased with her. She told her ladies, "Why, when he comes to bed he kisseth me, and taketh me by the hand, and biddeth me 'Good night, sweetheart.'" Her ladies had to tell her that this wasn't enough to cause a pregnancy.
Eventually Anne learned that her husband wished to be rid of her. She was shrewd enough to realize that her life was in danger. To Henry's amazement, she cooperated with his desire to have the marriage annulled. Relieved, he gave her money and property and treated her very well. Anne remained in England, and never remarried. Henry called her his sister and often invited her to court. She outlived Henry and was certainly the most fortunate of his wives.
Less than twenty days after his marriage to Anne of Cleves ended, Henry married his fifth wife.
Wife #5 - Katherine Howard
Katherine Howard, a first cousin of Anne Boleyn, was fifteen or sixteen when she married Henry. She was lively, pretty and kind, and Henry saw her as perfect and unspoiled, a "rose without a thorn."
But Katherine had secrets. Several years earlier she'd had an affair with a man named Francis Dereham and promised to marry him. This alone made her ineligible to marry the king. She had also been involved with her music teacher, Thomas Culpepper, and as queen she resumed her relationship with him. In time, of course, her infidelity was discovered and she was arrested.
In December of 1541 Dereham and Culpepper were executed. Katherine Howard was beheaded in February 1542. Henry was horrified and heartbroken, but he had not given up on matrimony. The following year he married his sixth and final wife.
Wife #6 - Katherine Parr
Katherine Parr was born around 1512. In her teens she married a man named Lord Borough. He soon died and Katherine married another older man, Lord Latimer. Katherine and her second husband frequently visited the royal court, and Henry became fond of the auburn-haired Lady Latimer.
Lord Latimer died in March 1543 and Henry quickly began courting Katherine. She was in love with Jane Seymour's handsome brother Thomas, but she didn't dare refuse the king. On July 12, 1543, Henry and Katherine were married.
Henry was old and ill now, and Katherine was as much a nurse to him as a wife. She was good to his children and helped him reconcile with Catherine of Aragon's daughter Mary. But Katherine's keen intellect and radical religious views placed her in danger. She argued with Henry about religion and he angrily ordered her arrest. Learning of this, Katherine took to her bed crying, which so distressed Henry that he cancelled the arrest warrant. After that Katherine took care not to dispute with the king.
Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547. Within months Katherine had married her true love, Thomas Seymour. But Seymour soon betrayed her by trying to seduce her stepdaughter, Henry's daughter Elizabeth. Henry VIII's last unfortunate wife died from complications of childbirth on September 7, 1548.