“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, behind, survived.” It is a familiar rhyme, used to help remember the fates of the six women who married Henry VIII. So, why am I saying that he only had three wives? After all, he had six marriage ceremonies. The answer lies in the definition of an annulment which declared a marriage null and void, as if it had never happened, as opposed to a divorce which dissolves a valid marriage. Which of the women would Henry have considered to be his wife?
Katherine of Aragon
It is often said that England split from the Catholic Church because of Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon but what was actually sought was an annulment. The reason given was her prior marriage to Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur. At the time, the church forbade marriages between a man and his brother’s widow. Papal dispensation had been obtained to allow the marriage to go ahead but Henry now believed the Pope Julius II had overstepped his authority in granting the dispensation contrary to God’s will. Annulling the marriage soothed Henry’s conscience, freed him to marry Anne Boleyn and allowed him to declare the Princess Mary illegitimate, on the grounds he had never been married to her mother.
Verdict: Not a wife.
On 17th May 1536, Anne Boleyn’s alleged lovers were executed and, the same day, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared her marriage to Henry VIII to be null and void. The grounds given were Henry’s previous relationship with Anne’s sister, Mary (Anne’s possible pre-contract to the earl of Northumberland had been considered as grounds but wasn’t used). Unlike, with Katherine of Aragon, an annulment wasn’t necessary to allow Henry VIII to marry again – he would, after all, shortly be a widower – but it allowed the Princess Elizabeth to also be declared illegitimate.
Verdict: Not a wife
Anne of Cleves
Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a political match, arranged without him meeting her until her arrival in England for the wedding. The description of her as ‘the Flanders mare’ didn’t appear until the late seventeenth century but Henry clearly took a dislike to her. She was out of place at the English court, a young woman brought up to be serious with no skill at singing or playing instruments, thrown into a world of chivalric love and games. After just six months, the marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation – this was probably due to Henry’s impotence but publicly it was said that he had refrained from consummation due to a fear that Anne was pre-contracted to the duke of Lorraine.
Verdict: Not a wife
Marriage to the youthful Catherine Howard rejuvenated the King and he lavished her with jewels and clothing. However, she was out of her depth at the royal court and indiscreet in her desire to be with men younger and handsomer than her husband. She had not been a virgin when she entered into the marriage, suggesting a pre-contract, and she then went onto commit adultery with Thomas Culpepper. If it had just been the former, she might have escaped with an annulment but the second made a fool of the King. An Act of Attainder declared her guilty of treason and she was executed. It has sometimes been said that the marriage was annulled but there is no evidence of this. In fact, Henry appears to have said he didn’t want the pre-contract to be brought up and, with no children to complicate the succession, there was no pressing need for the marriage to be declared void.
Katherine Parr was already twice widowed when she married Henry, a match that seems to have been based on his desire for companionship. She had hoped to marry Sir Thomas Seymour but she accepted her with grace and appears to have had some skill in handing her husband. That is not to say that the marriage was not without difficulties. She was nearly undone by engaging in some in spirited religious debates with her husband at the same time as conservatives at court plotted against Protestants at court. An arrest warrant was issued against her but she submitted herself to him and was spared. She had just a few further months to endure before Henry VIII died in January 1547, leaving her a widow for the third time.