The Six Wives of Henry VIII: Facts and History

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  • 0:06 The King's Great Matter
  • 3:30 Thomas More
  • 5:09 Anne Boleyn and the…
  • 9:11 A Son at Last and…
  • 11:51 Catherine Parr and the…
  • 13:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
There's an old rhyme to help you remember Henry VIII's wives: 'divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.' Follow along as this lesson covers King Henry VIII's quest to produce a male heir and the acts of succession that followed.

The King's Great Matter

In the year 1525, Henry VIII, King of England, was facing a serious problem. Despite years of marriage, Henry had been unable to produce a male heir to his throne. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had only managed to provide him with one surviving daughter, Mary, before she became too old to have further children.

Henry's marriage to Catherine had been a matter of state, rather than a matter of the heart. Catherine was the daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the royal couple who had financed Columbus' expeditions to the New World. Their subsequent conquest of much of the Americas was making Spain incredibly rich and powerful.

Henry VIII's father, Henry VII - or simply Henry Tudor - was the founder of a new dynasty, mostly by merit of being the last one standing after the War of the Roses. Henry VII needed this royal wedding to give the Tudor line some legitimacy and to cement the bond between England and Spain. So Henry VII had married Catherine to his eldest son, Arthur. Unfortunately, Arthur died soon after their wedding.

Yet Catherine's royal parents made her not someone to be cast aside lightly. Still needing the alliance with Spain, Henry VII had arranged a second marriage for Catherine with his second son, Henry. Essentially, Henry VIII had been compelled to marry the widow of his elder brother for political reasons. Such is the burden of royalty.

Now Henry chafed under this state marriage. Henry set about looking for a new wife, even though he was already married. He found one in the lovely Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of Catherine's ladies in waiting. Though it is tempting to judge Henry for this behavior, it is important to remember that England had only just emerged from nearly a century of civil war. The War of the Roses was, first and foremost, a war of succession.

To keep his kingdom from falling apart all over again, Henry needed an heir now, and it was clear that Catherine was not going to provide one for him. So Henry attempted to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. However, the only person with the authority to annul a royal wedding was the Pope himself.

Unfortunately for Henry, the Pope was a bit preoccupied at the moment, having been effectively imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who just happened to be Catherine's nephew - and who obviously did not want to see his aunt cast aside. The Pope found himself torn between the will of two powerful monarchs: Henry VIII of England and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. So, the Pope did what authorities tend to do when caught between a rock and a hard place; he let someone else make the decision. The Pope delegated his authority on the matter to a pair of cardinals, including Henry's own Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey.

Wolsey tried to get Henry the annulment he wanted, but Charles V had the Pope in the palm of his hand, and Charles did not want that annulment to happen. Henry blamed Wolsey for the failure and relieved him of office, replacing him with someone he thought would prove more compliant: Thomas More.

Thomas More

More was a great theologian of his time; he had written several papers attacking the Protestant reformation and defending the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. More was also an accomplished author. His greatest work, Utopia, a work of fiction about a fabulous kingdom of tolerance and communal property, had made More famous in his own time.

Most importantly to Henry, though, More was someone he considered a close ally, who would get things done for him. More had already helped Henry deal with religious matters before. His work on Henry's decree condemning Lutheranism had earned Henry great respect among Catholics, earning him the title 'Defender of the Faith.' Henry likely thought More would prove just as helpful in his struggle against the faith of the Catholic Church. And at the outset, it seemed like More was going to live up to the king's expectations. With More breathing down their necks, the theologians of Oxford and Cambridge ruled that Henry's marriage to Catherine was null and void.

The theologian More was a close ally of Henry.
Thomas More

Catherine was exiled from court, and Anne Boleyn took her place as the new Queen of England. All of this was done without the approval of the Pope in Rome.

Though More had worked to make this transition possible, the precedent it set weighed heavily on his conscience. More worried that Henry would continue to challenge the authority of the Pope. It was perhaps for this reason that More refused to attend Anne's coronation, opening a rift between him and Henry that would only grow wider as the king continued to undermine the authority of the Pope.

The First Succession Act

In 1533, a pregnant Anne Boleyn seemed about to fulfill her marital role. Yet, Henry's hopes were dashed when Anne produced a daughter, Elizabeth. Henry was furious and refused to attend Elizabeth's christening. However, Anne's fertility had been demonstrated, and she persuaded Henry that a son would soon follow.

The next year, Henry pressured Parliament into passing the First Succession Act. This act did several things:

  • It officially declared that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was null and void.
  • It disinherited Henry's daughter by Catherine, Mary, and proclaimed any children of Anne as next in the line of succession.
  • It also required an oath of every citizen to respect the line of succession as written in the act.
  • And, just in case Rome hadn't gotten the point, the act explicitly denied the power of 'any foreign authority, prince or potentate.'

This was too much for poor Thomas More, who refused to take the oath and was locked in the Tower of London for his troubles.

Parliament passed several more acts, challenging the Pope's authority and eventually breaking away from the Church altogether. You can find a full description of this conflict in our lesson on Henry VIII and the Anglican Church. For the purpose of this lesson, it is enough to know that Henry refused to let the Church get between him and his quest for an heir.

Henry's disregard for the Church and fixation on creating an heir eventually led him to execute More on grounds of treason. Though More had been useful, his Catholic reservations had turned him into an obstacle. Henry had already found a better supporter in the inventive Thomas Cromwell, whose Protestant tendencies made him the ideal fellow to push Henry's religious reforms through Parliament.

Anne Boleyn & the Second Succession Act

Henry VIII with second wife Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII Anne Boleyn

Back on the home front, Anne turned out to be much more of a handful than Henry had anticipated. On the personal side, Anne's intellectual independence and her sometimes violent temper often embarrassed Henry at court. On the political side, Anne's outspoken Protestantism caused no end of trouble for Henry and threatened to undermine his deft balancing of Protestant and Catholic interests in England.

Anne was forever dabbling in politics, raising Protestants to high positions in both the Church and the State. Henry had to make concessions to his more orthodox subjects to keep his kingdom from descending into the religious warfare and political upheaval that was quickly consuming northern Europe.

None of this would have mattered so much if Anne had managed to produce the son she had promised. In this Anne failed, though it was not for want of trying. Anne suffered a series of miscarriages, culminating in 1536 with the stillborn birth of an identifiably male child.

It must have seemed to Henry that heaven itself was punishing him, or laughing at him. Eventually Henry had enough and decided that Anne had seduced him through witchcraft. In the same year, after a travesty of a trial, Anne Boleyn was sentenced to death by beheading, along with her brother and many of her kinsmen. As Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn had been deemed illegitimate, so too was the fruit of that union. In 1536, Henry pushed the Second Succession Act through Parliament declaring that Elizabeth (like Mary before her) was an illegitimate child. This, of course, left Henry without an heir.

So the act of succession also decreed that, in the lack of a direct heir, the king would be succeeded by whomever he chose. Moreover, insisting on the legitimacy of Elizabeth or Mary became punishable as treason. Yet, perhaps most telling is an amendment in the act that made it treason to criticize the execution of Thomas More, suggesting that the ghost of More was far harder to dispose of than More himself.

Jane Seymour: A Son at Last!

Jane Seymour provided Henry with a male heir.
Jane Seymour

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