What did King Henry VIII really want from a wife?

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1. A towering Tudor

Henry VIII: Britain’s most famous king. Big, bold and brash, he is the epitome of 'Merrie England'.

Ruling between 1509 and 1547, his marriages to a succession of six women became something of a Tudor soap opera and probably his most talked-about legacy.

So, as king of England and one of Europe’s most eligible royals, what did he want in a wife, and, more specifically, a queen?

2. The six wives of Henry VIII

Click on the portraits to find out more about Henry's queens including how they met, and what happened to them.

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3. A mother to a prince

A male heir was crucial to continuing the royal line and securing the kingdom. It was probably the queen’s most fundamental responsibility.

Henry was only the second Tudor monarch, and it was a dynasty founded primarily on conquest rather than heritage. A female heir was not good enough – in England there’d never been a ruling queen and a daughter’s accession could be challenged.

Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, became pregnant six times. Only one pregnancy produced a child that survived to adulthood – a daughter, Mary.

This became intolerable to Henry. In his crusade for a male heir he divorced her, creating the Church of England to do so.

Unfortunately, Anne Boleyn, the woman he married instead, also only provided him with a daughter – Elizabeth.

To make matters worse for Anne, one of the children she miscarried was believed to have had a deformity. This was associated with unfaithful or abnormal sexual practices and signalled the beginning of the end for her. She was executed in 1536.

When Henry finally did father a healthy son, Edward, the celebration was followed by sorrow. Jane Seymour, his third wife, died of postnatal complications 12 days later.

4. An unavailable beauty

Henry liked beautiful women. A desirable queen was an asset, and it was expected that a king of his stature should have an attractive wife.

Anne Boleyn was considered highly alluring. Her striking dark looks and sophisticated manners from the French court enchanted the king. They married in a secret ceremony in 1533 with Anne already pregnant.

Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, was perceived to be beautiful, young and innocent. She was only about 19 when they married and Henry called her his “rose without a thorn”.

Henry had never met Anne of Cleves, wife number four, before she landed in England to be his wife.

Tempted into marrying her after seeing a beautiful portrait by Hans Holbein, he was disappointed to discover she wasn’t as enchanting as he’d anticipated. He famously went on to call her the “Flanders Mare”.

The marriage was annulled almost immediately on the grounds it was never consummated. It was claimed he’d chosen to wait whilst he ensured she wasn't contracted to marry someone else.

However, Henry treated Anne kindly after the annulment and they stayed on good terms.

5. A faithful friend

Just being beautiful was not enough – Henry’s wives had to be loyal, trustworthy and faithful too.

As king, Henry had a reputation, a court and a kingdom to uphold. Any indiscretions – alleged or otherwise – had to be dealt with severely. For a queen, there was an etiquette to navigate between being attractive to courtiers, but definitely not available to them.

Both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard fell foul of this and were executed because of their extra-marital activities.

Catherine’s dalliance with courtier Thomas Culpeper earned her a conviction for adultery and treason. Henry is said to have publicly cried on hearing she’d been unfaithful.

It also transpired she’d previously been engaged to Francis Dereham, another of Henry’s courtiers. She was executed in 1542.

Anne Boleyn’s reported affairs were even more scandalous. She was accused of not only being unfaithful with other members of court but also her own brother in an apparently desperate attempt to produce a male heir.

She denied the accusations to the end. Some historians think the allegations were masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s ‘fixer’, to hasten the end of their marriage. She was beheaded at the Tower of London in 1536.

6. A lady of the court

Perhaps one of the reasons Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon lasted so long was because she could manage the court when he was away.

While he was waging war in France Catherine proved she could tend to royal affairs capably. This included stopping a Scottish invasion at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513.

Similarly, Catherine Parr was a shrewd queen. She was an intellectual who wrote books about religion and could negotiate court life.

Although she ran the gauntlet with Henry over theology, she succeeded in reconciling him with Mary and Elizabeth, his daughters by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. An accomplished nurse, she cared for his lame leg and soothed his temper.

Anne Boleyn, by contrast, publicly challenged Henry and was reputedly the only wife who argued with him. Essentially what made her an exciting lover also made her a bad queen. ‘‘A king should not have to stand that kind of treatment from a wife!”, he fumed.

Her successor Jane Seymour was quite the opposite – demure, quiet and agreeable. After her death she was given a queen’s funeral by a distraught Henry, and he was buried next to her at Windsor Castle when he died in 1547.

7. A date with death?

Unpredictable, unfaithful, disagreeable and deadly, why would any woman want to marry Henry?

Status

Detail from Katie Brebner, Buchan Queen 1975 by J Duthie (1977) (Aberdeenshire Museums Service).

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Ambitious families

Besides personal status for the wife, marriage could bring titles and positions for her family. Women were pushed forward for the benefit of their relatives.

Wealth

Detail from Castle and Bridge by E Gray (Lancaster City Council).

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Riches beyond dreams

One of Europe's richest men, Henry could provide a life of luxury and financial security. He was said to have inherited "ten millions of ready money in gold".

Diplomacy

Detail from Man in Armour by unknown artist (University of Bristol Theatre Collection).

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A political coalition

The marriages to Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves offered political guarantees and stability to the countries involved.

Attraction

Detail from Henry VIII by British School (c16th Century) (Hardwick Hall, National Trust).

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Handsome Hal

The young Henry was very good looking and charismatic. He was extremely fit and over 6ft tall – a rarity in Tudor England.