Historical Fiction: The wives of Henry VIII

Divorced, beheaded, died
Divorced, beheaded, survived

So much historical fiction relates to King Henry VIII in some way: his mother, his sister, his niece, his Church, his advisors, his children and his wives. Most of us have a blurred idea of who these wives were and which ones were executed, though many readers know Anne Boleyn was one of them, thanks to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance. The well-known mnemonic device above is meant to help us remember who was who on the chopping block.

The Other Boleyn Girl book jacket from library catalogHenry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, were married 24 years and though they had a daughter, Mary (later known as Bloody Mary) they failed to produce a male heir, which made the king nervous. Smitten with Anne Boleyn, Henry maneuvered a divorce from Catherine by creating the Church of England and breaking with the Pope, so he could remarry. (A simplistic explanation, I know.) An excellent novel by the prolific Norah Lofts, The King’s Pleasure, tells the story of Catherine and her tragic attempts to produce an heir. Robin Maxwell’s steamy romantic historical novel, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, illuminates Anne’s later life.

The Favored Queen book jacket from library catalogAfter Anne was executed for treason, the King married Jane Seymour, his third wife. Carolly Erickson, in The Favored Queen, follows Jane’s life as she works as maidservant to first Catherine of Aragon, then to Anne Boleyn and eventually capturing Henry’s heart. The ditty tells you she dies, but I’ll leave it to Erickson to dramatize that sad event and move on to Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. After only six months, Henry had the marriage annulled – it was never consummated. Rumor has it the real reason he spurned her was because she wasn’t beautiful. Almost immediately following the annulment, Henry married vivacious Catherine Howard, one of Anne’s ladies in waiting. Catherine loses her head (literally) over another man, as witnessed by Nan Bassett. Carolly Erickson describes her as yet another maid of honor rumored to be the king’s mistress in The Unfaithful Queen.

The Sixth Wife book jacketThe tangle of relationships and political maneuvering in the royal household continued after Jane Howard’s execution, with Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who, like Henry, had been married before – three times! Parr became the king’s helpmeet, trusted counselor and caregiver, eventually outliving him. The prolific Carolly Erickson fictionalizes Parr in The Last Wife of Henry VIII as does Jean Plaidy, in The Sixth Wife. Catherine married Thomas Seymour six months after Henry’s death, but she died less than two years later. Still, she is said to have “survived” marriage to the King – a feat only she accomplished.

Confused? No wonder with three Catherines and two Annes!

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One Response to Historical Fiction: The wives of Henry VIII

  1. Jen says:

    Thanks for suggesting the PBS Henry VIII production and the great notes and “frivolous bits” to accompany it. Sometimes the “bits” are fascinating!

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