History brought back to life: DOMINIC SANDBROOK on how Henry married his older brother’s Spanish bride
He began his reign as the dashing image of knightly chivalry. He ended it as a bloated, stinking whale, hated and feared across the land
Henry VIII was one of the most magnetic characters in English history. Tall, handsome, charming and clever, a fine musician and a magnificent sportsman, he was also grasping, impulsive, suspicious and cruel.
He began his reign as the dashing image of knightly chivalry. He ended it as a bloated, stinking whale, hated and feared across the land.
But in his determination to preserve his Tudor dynasty, Henry changed England in ways that still echo today.
Succeeding his father in 1509, Henry ruled during one of the most revolutionary periods in European history — the Reformation, when rebellious thinkers were challenging the hold of the Roman Catholic Church.
At first Henry treated the new ideas with suspicion. The new books were burned in public and rebels against the Catholic Church, who were nicknamed Protestants, were dragged to their deaths.
But then events took an unpredictable twist. The great religious arguments of the day became mixed up with Henry’s tortured love life — and everything changed.
Henry’s father had won the crown on the battlefield after years of civil war. So for Henry, nothing was more important than maintaining his family’s grasp on the throne.
To do that he needed a son, as no woman had ever ruled England unchallenged.
And in his desperation, he worked his way through not one or two wives, or even three or four, but a record-breaking six.
As Henry’s wives came and went, from Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, England changed with them.
For the only way Henry could get rid of his first wife was by breaking the link with Roman Catholicism and setting up a new Church of England, with himself at its head.
It was a colossal moment in England’s history. For the first time, Englishmen came to think of themselves as a nation apart, separate from Europe, chosen by God to fight for freedom.
More than any other king in our history, then, Henry really made a difference. So too did his six wives, whose names have gone down in legend.
A girl child- but Henry wanted a boy
Wife No.1: Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon was born in 1485 in Alcala de Henares, Spain. She was the daughter of Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, Queen of Castile, the most celebrated couple in all Europe.
Married when they were teenagers, Catherine’s parents dreamed of uniting their separate kingdoms into a single mighty realm of Spain. So little Catherine soon became used to life on horseback, accompanying her mother in her battles against the Moors.
Despite her royal blood and adventurous childhood, Catherine was a girl like any other. As a toddler she had a pushcart to help her walk, and she adored fruit jellies and a drink known as ‘rose honey’.
She spent her early teens in the Alhambra in Granada, the most spectacular of Spanish palaces, a paradise of marble courtyards and painted ceilings, crystal pools and fountains.
But when she was 15, it was time for her to leave. Her parents had promised her hand in marriage to Arthur, the heir to the English throne.
And so, one May morning, Catherine mounted her horse, took one last look at the palace she loved so much, and turned north towards her new life in England . . .
How they met
When Catherine first met Henry in 1501, he was still a boy. She was on her way to London to marry his elder brother, Arthur, and Henry was sent at the head of the welcoming party.
He saw a nervous girl of 15 with honey-coloured hair and blue eyes.
She saw a boy of ten years old, with reddish hair and narrow blue eyes. Henry had a round, broad face, which lit up when he grinned. Even in the saddle he was bursting with energy, like a dog straining to be allowed off the leash.
At first, neither of them thought anything of it. Catherine married Arthur, though at the wedding party Henry did his best to steal the show, ripping off his gown and dancing about like a madman.
Just a few months after the wedding, Arthur died of the sweating sickness, a kind of fever. That left Catherine a teenage widow, and for years she remained alone in London, sunk in depression.
Then the wheel of fortune turned again. In 1509 Henry’s father died and Henry became king. He needed a wife, and he knew just the person: Catherine.
Henry’s marriage to Catherine was easily the longest of his life, lasting for almost 24 years. And for most of it, the two of them got on well.
After they were married, Henry wrote to Catherine’s father, assuring him that he was head-over-heels in love.
He had ‘rejected all other ladies in the world’ to marry Catherine, and admired her more every day. Indeed, if asked to choose again, he would pick her before any other woman on earth.
In their early days, life seemed an endless whirl of fun and games. As Henry himself wrote, they spent their days enjoying ‘continual feasts’, as well as ‘jousts, birding, hunting and other innocent and honest pastimes’.
At tournaments, Henry loved jousting, where two men ride horses and try to topple the other.
He called himself ‘Sir Loyal Heart’ and wore golden hearts on his horse to match the decorations on Catherine’s pavilion. And the couple enjoyed court masques, in which Henry and his friends would dress in disguises.
Catherine had to pretend she didn’t recognise him. Then, when he took off his mask to reveal his identity, her job was to gasp and smother him with kisses.
If Catherine and Henry had had a son, England’s history would have been very different. She did have a baby boy in early 1511, but he died after less than two months.
After that, she had a daughter, Mary. But Henry was desperate for a son to follow him as king — and no son came.
This was hardly Catherine’s fault. But as the years went by, an idea took root in Henry. Perhaps God was punishing him. Perhaps it was a sin to marry his brother’s widow.
Then something momentous happened. In the late 1520s Henry fell for a younger woman, Anne Boleyn. She wanted to marry him — which meant Catherine had to go.
But Catherine didn’t go without a fight. She refused to withdraw to a nunnery and insisted that she was still the rightful queen. She even appealed to Rome, asking the Pope for support.
To punish her, Henry imprisoned her daughter Mary in a succession of country houses. But Catherine was a brave woman, and the English people loved her for it.
Even as her health collapsed, she refused to give in. And it’s a sign of her character that as she lay dying in January 1536, she prayed not for herself, but for Henry.
Love affair that went sour
Wife No.2: Anne Boleyn
Born in Norfolk in 1501, Anne was the daughter of accomplished diplomat, Sir Thomas Boleyn. He had a gift for languages and so the King sent him as his representative to court foreign princes.
Because of this, Anne spent much of her early life abroad. When she was 12 she went with her father to Brussels. Months later she was sent to Paris and became a maid of honour to the French queen.
She spoke French, learned French music and dressed in the French style. She read French Bibles and absorbed Protestant ideas.
Nobody ever described Anne Boleyn, with her thick black hair, sallow skin, long neck and oval face, as a great beauty. But she had personality. She was well-read and was never afraid to argue. She danced, sang and played the lute. She was sharp, with a flashing wit and waspish tongue.
She had a temper, and could be vindictive. But to her admirers, she seemed spirited.
How they met
Henry and Anne may have first met in 1522 at the fabled Green Castle in London.
The castle, besieged by attackers, fired its guns and missiles roared. It was terrifying. Or it would have been, if the battlements had not been made of foil, and if the defenders had not been young ladies of the court, including Anne.
The castle had been made for a pageant held to entertain envoys sent by Emperor Charles V.
Soon afterwards, Henry became smitten. He wrote Anne love notes, unusual for a king, and often left them in books. And sometimes he sent her coded messages:
‘B.N.R.I. de R.O.M.V.E.Z.
v. n. A. 1. de A. o. na. v. e. r.’
Even today, centuries later, nobody knows what they mean.
Henry’s romance with Anne was charged with passion. And all the time she drew him on, knowing when to tease and toy with him, and when to push him away.
By 1532 she was recognised as the King’s first lady, even though Henry had a wife. He took Anne to France, and the French king gave her a diamond as a gift.
The following January, after Henry made himself head of the Church and ended his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he and Anne were wed at Whitehall palace.
And on June 1, 1533, Anne reached the summit of her desires, and was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey wearing a purple and crimson robe trimmed with fur and bedecked with jewels.
Among the crowds outside, a banner read in Latin: ‘Queen Anne, when thou shalt bear a new son of the King’s blood, there shall be a golden world unto thy people.’
But would she give Henry the son he craved?
In an age when ladies were expected to say little, Anne Boleyn had a sharp tongue. She was not popular with ordinary people, who called her ‘a goggle-eyed whore’ and a witch. Even with Henry she could be very fiery.
Mind you, Henry was no model husband. When Anne told him off for flirting with other women, he snapped that ‘she must shut her eyes and endure as those who were better than herself had done’.
Most importantly, Anne never gave him a son. Although she did give birth in 1533, the baby was a girl, the future Elizabeth I.
That made Anne vulnerable. Three years later, Henry’s chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell, decided it was time for her to go.
Cromwell claimed Anne had been plotting to kill the King. It was a fantasy. But Henry believed it, and Anne’s world fell apart.
Dragged to the Tower of London, she was tried for treason, sentenced to death and beheaded on Tower Green.
People claimed they saw hares in the fields. The hare, they all knew, was the symbol of the witch.
Gentle Jane who died in childbirth
Wife No.3 Jane Seymour
Growing up in the Wiltshire countryside, Jane Seymour never dreamed of marrying a king. Sir John, her father lived quietly with his family at Wolf Hall.
Born in about 1508, Jane was good-natured. One ambassador wrote she was ‘of middle height and nobody thinks that she has much beauty’, but like everyone, was impressed by her character.
She was kind. She was nice. She was ordinary. In other words, she was unlike Anne Boleyn.
How they met
In the summer of 1535, Henry and Anne stayed with the Seymours at Wolf Hall. The following spring, while Jane visited the palace at Greenwich, Henry sent her a letter and a purse of sovereigns.
But Jane returned them. She was, she said, a ‘gentlewoman of good parents’. She had ‘nothing but her honour, which for a thousand deaths she would not wound’. So although she was flattered, she would never become his mistress. If he wanted to give her a gift, he should wait until God blessed her with a husband.
Far from being offended, Henry was charmed, delighted to find a woman with such noble character. And when he turned against Anne Boleyn, he wasted no time.
The morning after Anne’s execution, Jane was brought to the palace. By that afternoon, she and Henry were betrothed. And on May 30, 1536, they were secretly married in the Queen’s Chamber at Whitehall.
People wondered what was going through Jane’s mind. Did she spare a thought for Anne, who, until recently, slept in the same bed? But Jane gave nothing away. She remained as polite and even-tempered as ever.
Few people knew what to make of Jane when she became queen, but she quickly won them over.
As soon as she was married, she begged Henry to bring back Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary from exile, so they could be a family.
Jane went out of her way to treat her stepdaughter kindly, and they became friends. They sent each other presents, not just jewels and clothes, but little things, such as fresh cucumbers.
Jane adored horses and owned a poodle. She liked to sit with her needlework and embroidery and loved gardening.
As for Henry, he seemed liberated after months of squabbling with Anne, and threw himself into the pursuit of pleasure, from dances to tennis. Life at court found a new harmony. Jane’s personal motto, ‘Bound to obey and serve’, captured the mood. Nobody could imagine Anne choosing anything like that.
In the spring of 1537, after a year of marriage, Jane was expecting a child.
In late September, Jane withdrew to the apartments at Hampton Court. The days went by, and excitement grew. Then, at 2am on October 12, the cry of a new-born baby rang out.
It was a boy, Edward. At last, Henry had the heir he wanted.
But within days Jane was running a fever. Childbirth then was risky. Thousands of women died of infection every year.
Just before midnight on October 24, Jane’s breathing slowed, faltered then faded into silence.
The girl from Wolf Hall was dead. She was 28, and was married for less than two years.
After 12 days, Edward had lost his mother. And once again, Henry was looking for a wife.
Mail order bride Henry couldn’t stand
Wife No.4: Anne of Cleeves
With Jane’s death, Henry’s gaze turned abroad. A new wife might mean a new alliance, which would be useful against the French.
Chief adviser Thomas Cromwell suggested a young princess from Duren — now in Germany, but then part of the Duchy of Cleves.
In the summer of 1538, Anne of Cleves was 23. Quiet, kind and unassuming, Anne could only speak German. She had never been taught to sing, and could not play an instrument. She spent her days sewing in her chamber.
Everyone said she was pretty. But to be sure, Henry asked his favourite artist, Hans Holbein, to go to Cleves and paint Anne’s portrait. When Holbein returned, his canvas showed a serious, thoughtful young woman, with grey eyes, a broad forehead and a slightly wide nose.
When he saw it, Henry smiled.
How they met
Anne packed her bags and set off to be Queen of England. On December 27 1539 she landed in England, and by New Year’s Day was staying at the Bishop’s Palace in Rochester, Kent.
As she stood at a window, watching bull-baiting, three men in multi-coloured hoods leapt into the room, laughing. The burliest offered a gift from the King.
Baffled, Anne took it then turned back to the window. The stranger said something.
Anne muttered in German and turned away again. There was a long silence. The man stood, flummoxed. Then, frustrated, he left.
Moments later he returned, this time wearing a magnificent purple robe. Only now did Anne realise he was her future husband. She tried to smile, but it was too late.
Afterwards the King told his friends: ‘I see nothing in this woman as men report of her.’
There were no highs. The whole thing was a complete disaster.
Henry did all he could to get out of the wedding. But he couldn’t afford to annoy the ruler of Cleves, so had to go through with it.
The day after he and Anne were married, he told his doctors he found the Queen so unattractive he could barely kiss her. Yet no one else could see anything wrong with Anne. She really wasn’t ugly.
So why had Henry taken such a violent dislike to her?
Perhaps, Henry saw himself as a hero of legend, and dreamed of having a stylish, graceful queen, who hung on his every word. But Anne of Cleves was not stylish. She was bland and boring.
The marriage lasted just six months. In July 1540, Henry persuaded poor Anne to accept a deal. He gave her two palaces, several manors — including Hever Castle in Kent — buckets of money and jewels. In return, she agreed to a divorce, and that was that.
Fun-loving but not faithful
Wife No.5: Catherine Howard
Pretty, fun-loving Catherine Howard was born in about 1523. She spent her teenage years living with her father’s step-mother, Agnes Howard, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, at her manor house in Sussex.
Catherine was one of several girls who slept in the Maidens’ Chamber,. They served as Lady Howard’s ladies-in-waiting, and learned the skills expected of princesses.
The atmosphere, though, was giddier than in any school. When Catherine was 15, Lady Howard caught her kissing the music teacher, and smacked her twice on the head.
A year later, Catherine had a new beau — a distant relative, Francis Dereham. Family gossip says Catherine persuaded a servant to steal the key to the Maidens’ Chamber, that was locked at night. After lights out, she would let Dereham and his friends sneak in for secret parties that included midnight feasts and all kinds of kissing and tickling.
How they met
Catherine moved to Greenwich Palace early in 1540, as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. Henry couldn’t take his eyes off her.
She was tiny and attractive, with sparkling eyes. And unlike poor Anne of Cleves, she was great fun.
The power-hungry Howard family were thrilled and the girl was drilled in ‘how to behave to the King’. Her step-grandmother taught her when to smile and curtsey, how to make Henry laugh and how to keep his interest. The Howards threw parties, so the pair could meet.
It worked. By spring, the King was smitten, despite an age gap of at least 30 years.
On July 28 1540 Henry had his adviser Thomas Cromwell, instigator of the Cleves marriage, beheaded for high treason. That same day, Henry married Catherine Howard.
At first, Henry’s fifth marriage seemed a roaring success. Overjoyed with his young bride, he began every day with a spring in his step. Determined to lose weight, he got up before 6am, went to church then set off hunting.
As for Catherine, she was walking on air. She was the Queen, with more jewels than she had ever imagined.
In summer 1541, the royal couple visited northern England. Crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of their pretty young Queen.
Henry was thrilled. He gave Catherine a golden brooch — an ideal gift, he said, for a perfect wife, a model of ‘virtue and good behaviour’.
But days later everything changed.
On November 2, 1541, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, sent Henry a note telling him that Catherine had lied about her life before her marriage, and might still be lying.
Henry refused to believe it. But when he asked his councillors to investigate, they reported the rumours about Catherine’s music teacher and Francis Dereham.
A tearful Henry ranted like a madman. It was his councillors’ fault, he sobbed. They must have known!
Catherine must pay for humiliating him. If he had a sword, he would kill her on the spot. Eventually he calmed down, and seemed tempted to be merciful. Catherine was, after all, young.
Then more stories came out. It emerged that as Queen, Catherine had fallen for a handsome nobleman, Thomas Culpepper.
Foolishly, she had sent him gifts and love letters. Worse, she had let Culpepper sneak up to her bedchamber on the northern tour.
For Henry, that was the final straw. Weeping and begging for forgiveness, Catherine was dragged to the Tower. Her end came on February 13, 1542, executed on the same spot where Anne Boleyn lost her head.
Catherine Parr’s father had died of the plague when she was just five, but in other respects her childhood had been safe and happy.
Her mother, who had been one of Catherine of Aragon’s attendants, made sure that her own Catherine was well educated. She could read Latin, spoke excellent French and was fascinated by new ideas. She was also kind-hearted and fun, and everybody liked her.
When she was just 17, her mother arranged for her to marry a weedy young man called Sir Edward Burgh, but he died after just four years.
Next, Catherine married the nobleman Lord Latimer. Widowed with two children, he had a fine London townhouse and a Yorkshire castle. He treated Catherine kindly, and when he died nearly a decade later in 1543 he left her two manors and lots of money.
She had played her cards perfectly. She was still young enough to have children, and now she could take her time and pick a husband she really wanted.
How they met
Unfortunately for the 31-year-old Catherine, it was at this point that Henry barged in. He was lonely, and needed a wife to look after his children.
But there could be no repeat of the Howard fiasco.
As he said himself, he’d had ‘more than enough of taking young wives’, and was determined to find himself a nice, sensible widow. Catherine was perfect, so Henry proposed.
By now in his early 50s, he had a 54-inch waistline and stinking ulcers on his leg. To clean out his insides, the doctors would push a greased metal tube up his bottom, so they could squirt milk and honey into his bowels. Presented with such a suitor, most sane women would have run a mile.
But Henry was not just any fat man in his 50s. He was the King. So, reluctantly, Catherine said yes.
Catherine and Henry were married on July 12, 1543, at Hampton Court. And life wasn’t really that bad for her.
She spent her time talking about books and art with her ladies and dancing, and had her own troupe of musicians from Italy.
She liked parrots, and had a spaniel called Rig, with a velvet collar. She also loved fashion — she ran up huge bills for gowns, and bought 47 new pairs of shoes in a single year. Henry, meanwhile, seemed pleased with his new bride, and trusted her.
The last years of Henry’s reign were miserable. He struggled to sleep, spent hours on the toilet, and his leg could get so swollen he’d lie in bed for days.
All this put him in a terrible mood. And when Catherine mistakenly lectured him about the latest Protestant ideas, it seemed she might be for the chop.
But she thought fast. Forewarned by Henry’s doctor, she offered a grovelling apology. She knew she had ‘meddled’, she said. But she had only done it to distract Henry from the pain in his legs, and to learn from him. It was a lie, of course. But it was exactly what he wanted to hear, so Catherine was safe.
Henry’s health weakened further, and Catherine kept her head down. At last, on January 28, 1547, the king took a final shuddering breath, and it was all over.
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