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December 2009 - January 2010


A much-married monarch!

by Anil Mehta

On the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne, a peek into the marital life of England’s most controversial but compelling monarch.

Henry VIII (1491-1547) is the most famous, controversial, and instantly recognisable monarch (1509-47) of England. The second son of Henry VII (Tudor dynasty), Henry became heir to the throne on the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, to whose widow Catherine of Aragon (daughter of king of Spain), he married in 1509. He is best known of English monarchs largely because of his six wives. This unrivalled record was partly due to his character and partly due to a complex chain of events and dynastic requirements such as the need for producing a male heir.

Henry’s first wife Catherine had a surviving daughter Mary, but had failed to produce a male heir. Henry was convinced that his marriage with his brother’s widow was unlawful (and to make things more complicated, his mistress Anne Boleyn was pregnant), so he appealed to the Pope in Rome to grant an annulment of his marriage but this was unsuccessful. Frustrated by this, Henry requested his newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer to annul (declare invalid) his marriage to Catherine, which he did. He also broke his ties with the Pope (Roman Catholic Church) and made himself Head of the Church of England which indirectly led to the establishment of Protestantism in England.

After divorcing Catherine, Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533 and later in the year to Henry’s disappointment she gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. Failure to produce a boy and an accusation of adultery (though evidence not clear) led to her execution in 1536. While all this was happening, Henry had set her eye on Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn, so, after Anne’s execution he married Jane, but she died shortly after giving birth to a son (future Edward VI) in 1537. Henry remembered Jane Seymour as his ‘only true wife’ as from a dynastic viewpoint she had achieved all that has been expected of her. Although Henry married three more times, there were no children.

Henry’s next marriage to the German (Protestant) Princess Anne of Cleves (1540) was an arranged diplomatic match as a means of securing alliance with the German Protestant rulers. However, king found her unattractive and the marriage was annulled in the same year.

Henry’s marital misfortune continued when he wed (1540) the youthful but unfaithful Catherine Howard whose disloyalty brought about her execution. Finally, Henry found more solace with his sixth and last wife Catherine Parr, a twice-widowed but childless woman, whom he married in 1543. By now in his middle age, Henry was overweight, irritable, and chronically ill, but Catherine, a sensible and devoted lady looked after him and his three children (Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth). Henry died in 1547 and was buried alongside his ‘true wife’ Jane Seymour in St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle. He was succeeded by his sickly son Edward VI in 1547 at the age of nine who survived another six years and died (unmarried) at the tender age of 15 in 1553. Of Henry’s six wives only Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr survived him. The latter remarried shortly after Henry’s death.

Henry was well-educated, well read in Latin, a man of cultural tastes and a great patron of arts (including music) and architecture. He achieved many things (such as strengthening the navy) during his almost four decades of reign, but in public memory, he is more remembered as a despotic and much-married monarch than for anything else. The fate of his six wives is commemorated in a simple verse:

Divorced, beheaded, died.

Divorced, beheaded, survived.

And finally, you can discover more about life and times of Henry VIII with a visit to a sumptuously decorated Hampton Court Palace (pictured) in Surrey. Situated on the river Thames, it was Henry’s residence for many years and serves as his pre-eminent memorial.

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