King Henry VIII

For many people, divorce is enough. Relationships that have stacked it onto the rocks are sometimes best boxed up and stuffed in the loft, as in order for all parties to move on, the clean break offered by the courts is, in many ways, a blessing. The children might ache for the constant love that is now offered only by the family dog, but then divorce is a messy business and the alternative is sometimes far worse. Happiness for one, sometimes both, of the freshly minted divorcees remains a distinct possibility. In many cases divorce is not the only problem. Divorce can either be the catalyst for or result of other psychological flaws stepping out the shadows. Whilst it is a nasty bit of business if it’s going to happen, it is best just to get it done. Sign the papers and book a holiday. Yet for other people, divorce isn’t the only way out of a relationship that’s descended into bitterness and separate bath times. For those with the resources and a psychopathic leaning there are other options. Options that don’t even have to be legal when you are widely known about town as Your Royal Highness.

King Henry VIII was perhaps the man who first took a proper taste to getting out of a marriage that no longer panged the loins. Yet King Henry didn’t stop at divorce. Many of those who hung about the royal court thought Henry was a striking, educated and charismatic King. He was boisterous and flamboyant, both musician and poet; yet those who married the man are likely to have taken a somewhat different view. Famous for gout, a love of hunting, and telling the Pope where to go; King Henry VIII’s name now mostly pops up in a pub quiz where six points will often be available for those teams who can scratch down the exact sticky end of each of his six wives. Six. Not one or two, but six.

Henry took to the throne aged just seventeen; a difficult age often characterised by behaviour that suggests that all the leads are not yet fully plugged in. He very quickly decided to marry Catherine of Aragon claiming that it was his father’s dying wish. Catherine of Aragon by all accounts was a blue eyed beauty, with deep auburn hair. Yet she was not only hot, she was also a woman of real substance. Thomas Cromwell – Henry’s senior statesman and later one of the most ardent advocates of the English reformation– said of Catherine: “”If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History”. A proper woman then. Catherine was also the widow of Henry’s older brother Arthur, adding a further prickly twist to the courtship. Marriage to Catherine though, didn’t seem to stop the King in putting it about court. He had numerous affairs, one of which was with Catherine’s lady-in-waiting, Mary Boleyn. Mary went on to have two children, called Henry and Catherine which was must have made a few people feel a bit awkward. More so given the word behind the heavy velvet curtains was that Henry himself was the father, in which case the choice of names was outright weird. In the end it didn’t matter. Nothing was ever proven and the King took no interest in either of Mary’s children.

What he did take considerable interest in was Mary’s sister, Anne, who was also in the Queen’s entourage. Unlike Mary, Anne took no interest in Henry and refused to be seduced. Henry did not take no for an answer and famously went to considerable lengths to ensure that his marriage to Catherine was annulled. After suggesting where the Pope could take a holiday, and bending Anne’s will with a show of gold goblets and romantic endeavour, Catherine was stripped of her title as Queen and moved in to the gate house. Anne, after succumbing to the King’s charm, was officially installed as the new Queen. Henry’s problems though were not confined to being excommunicated by the Pope, for Anne was a spirited woman with a sharp intellect. The largely silent and ceremonial role of Queen did not sit well with his new bride.

It wasn’t long before cracks started to appear which a daughter, Elizabeth, failed to paper over. Anne’s lively and opinionated manner made her many enemies in the court and her failure to provide the King with a son was a source of increasing frustration. As he mulled his options, it was said he took another mistress, Madge Shelton who, as it turned out, was Anne’s cousin, keeping it all nice and tight. Anne’s, though, was a sorry end. Having miscarried a male heir, the marriage soured and having made many enemies on account of taste for power, her end was nigh. Amongst allegations of conspiracy, adultery and even witchcraft – the old favourite for those thirsty for revenge – Anne was found guilty, shoved in a taxi to Tower Green and executed. Ouch.

With questionable timing, the day after Anne’s execution, Henry popped the question to Jane Seymour who he had found, again, close to home as one of his Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. It was turning out to be a rich seam of potential conquests. The new Queen, who was more inclined to a spot of needlework than a high brow pow-pow over the political pinch points of the day, quickly fell pregnant. She gave birth to a son, Edward, who survived to grow into Edward VI. His mother, sadly, didn’t survive the birth. She remains the only one of Henry’s wives to be given a Queen’s funeral and be buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Despite evidence that he didn’t need much help, Henry’s advisors had a brainstorm over who the next Queen might be. At the time Henry was becoming a bit paranoid about some sort of foreign attack, potentially from the Roman Catholic Church and so it was suggested he might like to woo the sister of the Duke of Cleves who was seen as potentially an important ally in the event of such an attack. Having seen only a portrait of the German princess, painted in soft light by one Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry rashly agreed to marry her. As we all discover at some point in life, soft lighting hides many a blemish and Henry didn’t take to Anne in the flesh. He moved quickly to have the marriage annulled and Anne was packed off with the somewhat strange title of “The Queen’s Sister”, two houses and a juicy allowance. Given the fate of Anne Boleyn, you might well mutter “Well played Anne of Cleaves”. The biggest loser out of the annulment then was Thomas Cromwell, he of the misty eyed description of Catherine of Aragon who, largely as a result of the failed marriage fell victim to precipitous fall from power and was executed on the trumped up charge of treason. Bad day at the office.

In a savoury twist of fate Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, on the very same day that Cromwell was having his head chopped off on Tower Green. Catherine was seventeen years old, a bit green perhaps for someone of Henry’s ilk and was the niece of the Duke of Norfolk. Henry was thrilled with his new, nubile wife, and in further delicious twist, gave Catherine all of Cromwell’s land. Catherine though was undone by her own ripeness as it wasn’t long before she made the ill-judged move of having an affair of her own. Two, in fact. King Henry took a dim view of such behaviour and, true to form, sent her off to see his man. She was beheaded along with her two rueful suitors.

King Henry’s sixth, and last wife, indeed the only wife to outlive him, was Catherine Parr; herself not without a bit of form when it came to taking nuptial vows. Henry was Catherine’s third husband. Catherine was also a cousin although the description of how is too complicated and too far removed to delve into. Suffice to say they went way back. She also played a major role in helping reconcile Henry with his daughters from his first two marriages. Given that she herself had already had a run out with two husbands, she was perhaps well placed to be able to play such chewy family affairs with soft hands. After Henry died and the coronation of Edward VI, she retired to a big house in Chelsea where she rekindled a previous romance with one Thomas Seymour. Sir Thomas Seymour, as the name might suggest, was none other than the brother of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, which made him the Uncle of the new King. The editors of OK! magazine would have been barely able to breathe.

So that’s that then. Divorced, beheaded, died: Divorced, beheaded, survived. Six easy points for the next pub quiz.


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