The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Was Henry a one-woman man?
A study laying bare the truth about the only English king to have had six wives (so far)
By Paul Johnson
23 Aug 1992
The Sunday Telegraph, London; Page 113
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Henry VIII is one of the few historical characters who is real to ordinary people. All
over England, pubs hold "Henry VIII nights" of a pseudo-Rabelaisian kind with
food served on "platters" by "wenches". What interests the patrons, of
course, is not the many important things Henry did - he left his heavy mark on almost
every aspect of our national life - but the fact he had six wives.
Antonia Fraser has thus picked a wonderfully popular subject. She has succeeded Cecil
Woodham-Smith and C. V. Wedgwood as our leading historical entertainer, a writer whose
command of sources, eye for detail, perception of character and shrewd judgment enables
her to bring the past truthfully to life. In this book she lays bare the battle of the
sexes among the early Tudor ruling classes in a way that has never been done before.
The fact that Henry had six wives was what struck his contemporaries too. As Martin
Luther put it: "Junker Heinz will be God and do whatever he lusts." But Antonia
Fraser tells us his sexual appetite was not remarkable. She authenticates the old saying,
beloved of tour-guides, that he was the only king who had more wives than mistresses,
since she can find only three of the latter for sure.
She says rightly that he was driven more by political-dynastic motives than sexual
ones. After all, as she points out, he was married to his first, true wife, Catherine of
Aragon for nearly 20 years, seven times as long as to any of his other spouses.
Anne Boleyn, "never one to mince her words" as Fraser puts it, claimed Henry
was incapable of satisfying a woman, having neither "vertu" (skill) nor
"puissance" (staying power). He may have suffered from premature ejaculation
He was certainly no stud. He informed his physician, Dr Butts, that he could not make
love to Anna of Cleves. He had been excited by her portrait but found the reality
disappointing. Worse, as he sharply told Thomas Cromwell, who was foolish enough to
enquire on the morrow of the wedding-night how things went - the Tudors were down to earth
in many ways - "I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse." He
complained of Anna's "loathsomeness" and gave Butts horrible details of the
"hanging of her breasts and looseness of her flesh". He tried repeatedly but it
was no go; and, he added to Butts, there was nothing wrong with him since during this
period he had "dues pollutiones nocturnas in somno" (two "wet
What his wives thought of him is not on the whole recorded. He was a big, handsome and
active man in youth but once his chronic varicose ulcers, or osteomyelitis, or whatever it
was (caused by jousting falls) forced him to give up exercise, he put on weight quickly.
By his mid-forties he had a 54 inch waist and 57 inch chest, rather like a run-to-seed
rugger player. His face, says Fraser, was "a vast potato marked with eyes and mouth
to resemble a man".
He was undoubtedly cruel, as was shown by his execution of the elderly Lady Salisbury -
he could not get his hands on her son, Cardinal Pole - an atrocity made worse by an
incompetent axeman who "hacked her head and shoulders to pieces". Some have
compared him to Stalin, and he certainly spent a lot of time reading the detailed
confessions of his victims while keeping well clear of the trials and judicial murders. He
had a cowardly streak - his valiant daughter, Elizabeth, got her courage from her
redoubtable mother, Anne Boleyn.
I have often thought that the key to Henry lies in the fact that his father intended
him, as a second son, to be Archbishop of Canterbury and guided his education accordingly.
He had the nit-picking self-conceit of a half-trained theologian, who thought he knew all
the moral answers and had a direct line to the deity. It is no accident then that he ran
in effect a theocracy, which turned him into a monster but gave him also a terrible
self-righteousness which was his strength.
Fraser deals severely but justly with Henry and she is fair to all the wives. She is an
industrious ferreter-out of details. She tells us that the coffin of the last wife,
Catherine Parr, was 5 foot 10 inches, so she must have been tall for the age; that a lock
of her hair, still showing "chestnut and golden lights", survives; that she was
slow to pay her dressmakers, and was spotted nursing Henry's painful, ulcerated leg on her
knees - indeed Henry married her as a nurse as much as a wife.
Fraser's eye for details is helped by Henry's marital life involving him in so much
litigation, with long, sworn statements for trials and dissolutions - Archbishop Cranmer
acting like a specialist divorce-solicitor.
Tudor court life was oddly intimate anyway. Fraser tells us that Henry, aged 10 but
tall for his age, led Catherine of Aragon up the aisle for her first marriage to his elder
brother, Arthur. In his younger days he shared a bed with Thomas Culpeper, whom he later
executed as Catherine Howard's lover. Anne Boleyn was furious when she discovered that
Henry was still sending his shirts along the corridor to the estranged Catherine, whose
needlework was superb - but the two women still played cards together.
Anna of Cleves danced with her successor, Catherine Howard. All the wives were expected
to wear their predecessors' formal gowns, which were royal property rather than personal
Jane Seymour was Henry's favourite wife because she was the only one to give him a son
who lived (if Catherine of Aragon's son Henry, who died aged seven weeks, had survived,
Fraser thinks Henry VIII would have been monogamous). Fraser thinks a further reason was
that Jane conformed closely to the contemporary ideal of a wife.
Catherine Howard, however, was the opposite: silly, feckless, an impulsive adulteress,
her only surviving holograph letter being an ill-spelt but loving scrawl to Culpeper.
Fraser's account confirms my view that the most interesting of the lot was Anne Boleyn,
with her brilliant eyes - "the King's goggle-eyed whore" as her enemies called
her - outspokenness, wit and laughter. Not exactly an Elizabeth Bennet, however, since she
had a bluestocking streak she transmitted to her even more gifted daughter, Elizabeth,
whom Fraser shows, aged 11, translating Catherine Parr's book of devotions into French,
Italian and Latin.
It was Boleyn rather than Seymour who was the strong Protestant. Far from being
promiscuous, she liked to talk about theology. The chronicler Latymer says she never dined
with Henry "without some argument of Scripture thoroughly debated", and as early
as 1529 she warned him he ought not to dispute with her, as she always won.
This was all very well at first and her brainy sharpness undoubtedly intrigued the
king. But as Dr Johnson observed, "Supposing a wife to be of a studious or
argumentative turn, it would be very troublesome - if a woman should continually dwell
upon the subject of the Aryan heresy." Boleyn did not exactly do that but her
dwelling on Protestant themes irritated Henry after she failed to produce a son - in his
superstitious mind a sign of divine disfavour - and his growing distaste for disputatious
women hurried her to the block.
Her execution, unlike Lady Salisbury's, was swift and professional, and Fraser tells us
exactly how the expert from Calais, using a sword, carried it out. But no wonder Boleyn's
daughter grew up to dislike theological rows.
Culpepper Connections Note: Amazon.com has this book listed, but shown
as special order since it is out of print.
From Kirkus Reviews
Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir, Ballantine Books
15 Jan 1992
Weir (the genealogical Britain's Royal Family--not reviewed) here uses the many public
records and personal letters of the early 1500's to offer a comprehensive, factual version
of the tempestuous private and public lives of Henry VIII and his six wives.
The story is dominated by Henry and the devolution of his character from an
"affable," "gentle," and gifted (he wrote poetry) lover, soldier, and
ruler into a porcine, paranoid, impotent old man who was exploited and manipulated by
courtiers and women, some of whom he imprisoned, beheaded, or hanged.
Henry's brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, six years the king's senior, became at 24
his first wife. Thirty years later, she was set aside for the ambitious "virago"
Anne Boleyn, who was in turn beheaded to make room for the gentle Jane Seymour, who died
in childbirth and was replaced by the repugnant and scholarly Anne of Cleves. Soon, Anne
was retired for Catherine Howard, a 15-year-old "empty- headed wanton" who,
despite Henry's passion for her, was executed- -along with three alleged but innocent
lovers--and replaced by the king's most "agreeable wife," Catherine Parr, who
narrowly escaped execution herself for religious quarreling.
Vowing in marriage to be "bonair and buxom/amiable/in bed and at board" and
to produce heirs, Henry's wives illustrate to Weir, through their pregnancies,
miscarriages, and infants' deaths, both the profligacy of nature and the dependence of
political power on sexual prowess. Yet Weir offers this sensational chapter in history in
the cautious tone of a college term paper, doggedly and unimaginatively piling up facts
and occasionally lapsing into naivet, as when Mary (whose mother, Catherine of Aragon, had
been banished to die alone) and Elizabeth (still too young to understand that Henry had
beheaded her mother, Anne Boleyn, in order to marry Jane) are invited to court: "At
last the King," Weir writes, "was settling down to something resembling family
life." (Sixteen pages of b&w illustrations; 74 pages of responsible
bibliographical essays.) (Book-of-the-Month Dual Selection for May) -- Copyright
©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP.
Connections Note: A paperback reprint edition (March 1993) of Weir's book is
available for $10.00 from Amazon.com (As of 9 Feb
Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015