Thursday, 21 August 2014

Myths About Henry VIII's Six Wives

The average person's knowledge of the six wives of Henry VIII will most likely have been shaped more by myths than by concrete historical fact. This may seem a bold claim to make, but the continuing popularity of ideas such as Anne of Cleves being 'a Flanders Mare', for example, or Anne Boleyn a six-fingered witch who slept with her brother, tends to support this statement. 

The myths, legends and stereotypes of the six wives have been explored in some depth by Claire Ridgway over on The Anne Boleyn Files. This blog post concentrates in less detail on the most well-known, occasionally sensational, myths concerning these women, looking at each wife in turn.

Katherine of Aragon: Queen 1509-1533
Myth: Katherine was a bloodthirsty and fanatical Catholic.
Myth: Katherine was sultry, dark-haired and olive-skinned. 

Katherine was Henry's first queen, marrying him in 1509. Their marriage officially lasted some twenty-four years by the time that it was annulled in spring 1533, although Henry VIII had been actively seeking an annulment of it since at least 1527. Katherine had been expelled from court in 1531, and never saw her daughter, Mary Tudor, again. She died, heartbroken, in January 1536, probably of cancer.

Admittedly, there are not as many myths concerning Katherine of Aragon as there are for Henry's other queens.  Perhaps one lingering myth is of Katherine being a bloodthirsty Catholic who was fanatical about her faith to the point of brutality. This was suggested in Joanna Denny's controversial biography of Anne Boleyn (2004). Katherine certainly was, as David Starkey notes, a conventional and pious Catholic, and was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, two dogmatic Roman Catholic rulers who had expelled the Jews from Granada in 1492. But there is no evidence of Katherine's supposed 'bloodthirstiness'. Some, perhaps seeking to explain Mary Tudor's religious policies as queen which infamously resulted in nearly 300 people being burned at the stake for heresy, have sought links with Katherine's Catholic faith, believing that she imposed her dogmatic religion on her daughter. There is no evidence of this. There is, in fact, little evidence of Katherine's personal beliefs on heresy, although it seems almost certain she viewed it with alarm and horror.

Above: a c.1502 portrait believed to depict Katherine as princess.

Another lingering myth about Katherine of Aragon is that she had a typical Spanish appearance: she was olive-skinned, dark-eyed, and black-haired. This is found in all varieties of popular culture: in the successful television series The Tudors, for example, Maria Doyle Kennedy depicts a brunette and swarthy Katherine. But as the above portrait shows (believed to be of Katherine in her youth), Katherine actually was of a very fair complexion, with long auburn hair and blue eyes. Attached to this myth is a belief that Katherine was physically ugly (in other words, looks were not her strong point). Yet historical evidence tends to confirm otherwise. During her lifetime, Katherine was described as being 'the most beautiful creature in the world', and Thomas More noted that there was 'nothing lacking in her that the most beautiful girl should have'. 

There are not as many myths about Katherine as there are, for instance, concerning her successor Anne Boleyn, but for many, Katherine of Aragon is visualised as a dogmatic, stubborn, dull and dowdy Spanish woman with a dark complexion. The truth is very different. She was fair, beautiful and well-educated, revered for her piety. 

Anne Boleyn: Queen 1533-1536
Myth: Anne Boleyn was deformed and disfigured, with six fingers.
Myth: Anne Boleyn was a witch. 
Myth: Anne Boleyn was a sexual predator. 

There seem to be more myths about Anne Boleyn, second queen of Henry VIII, than for any of his other wives. For many, Anne Boleyn was a six-fingered witch who likely slept with her brother. Others believe she was sexually 'corrupted' in France. Still others hold that she was physically disfigured, with moles and warts all over her body. 

Above: Anne Boleyn.

Nicholas Sander, a Catholic Reformation priest, invented a monstrous portrayal of Anne, whom he personally loathed and blamed for the development of the Reformation in England. He stated that she was very tall, with six fingers on one hand, a protruding tooth, and a wen under her chin. Sander reflected the Neoplatonic tradition, whereby a morally evil person was covered in deformities that revealed their true inner nature. George Wyatt, an apologist of the queen, amended Sander's characterisation to suggest that Anne had had a vestigial extra nail on one hand, but as Retha Warnicke as suggested, it is unlikely that Anne would have attracted the king had she even had this minor defect, at a time when deformities were regarded with horror and suspicion. Ambassadors who met Anne described her, surely accurately, as being of medium height, small-breasted, dark-haired, with a pretty mouth. No mention of deformities or warts there.

A second prevailing myth about Anne Boleyn is that she was actually a witch. This has been given impetus by Philippa Gregory's 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl, in which Anne consults with witches, produces a deformed child, and is said to seduce the king by witchcraft and sorcery. Sander depicted Anne as a witch and suggested that she had used the dark arts to become queen. Aside from this malicious propaganda, however, there is no evidence that Anne was a witch. She was never accused of witchcraft, contrary to popular belief. Henry VIII did state that he had been seduced into his second marriage by 'sortileges', but as Suzannah Lipscomb argues, this translates as 'divination' and suggests that Henry probably meant that he had been persuaded to marry Anne because of prophecies that she would bear a son. It does not necessarily translate as 'spells' or 'charms' that imply witchcraft. 

Above: Anne the sexual predator? Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

Thirdly, a more popular myth in recent times casts Anne Boleyn as a sexual predator who not only manipulated Henry VIII into marriage, but seduced Henry Percy some years earlier, and possibly embarked on several extramarital affairs while queen, for which she was found guilty and executed. The Other Boleyn Girl presents a scheming and malicious Anne who plots to 'steal' the king from her sister and later sleeps with her brother George to conceive a male heir. In the first season of The Tudors, Natalie Dormer offers a similar portrayal: Anne is frequently naked or half-dressed, luring Henry with promises of sexual fulfilment and the son he so craves. But this is a myth! Feminist Karen Lindsey and Joanna Denny both suggest that Anne may have been sexually harassed by the king, for she may not have wished to marry him, and even if she did, it doesn't mean she purposefully went after him and sought to break up his marriage. There is also no convincing evidence that she slept around as queen, either.

Jane Seymour: Queen 1536-1537
Myth: Jane Seymour was a devout Catholic.
Myth: Jane Seymour supported and admired Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor.
Myth: Jane Seymour wanted Anne Boleyn dead. 

Just eleven days after Anne Boleyn was beheaded, Henry VIII married for the third time to his late wife's maid of honour, Jane Seymour. Like Anne, historians have varied widely in their assessments of Jane. Alison Weir wrote admiringly of her that she was 'a strong-minded matriarch in the making', and Antonia Fraser also voiced admiration for her piety, gentleness and good character. On the other end of the spectrum, Joanna Denny condemned her for being 'sly', and David Starkey wrote scathingly in his 2004 study of the six queens: 'How Jane Seymour became Queen of England is a mystery. In Tudor terms she came from nowhere and was nothing'!

Above: Jane Seymour as queen.

Perhaps the number one myth about Jane Seymour is that she was a devout Catholic. Martin Luther did describe her as 'an enemy of the gospel', and historians have traditionally cited her supposed support for Katherine of Aragon (of which more below) and the Catholic faith, which set her up in opposition to the radical Boleyns. However, Pamela Gross found in her study of Jane that there is no convincing evidence that Jane was a devout and pious Catholic in a similar manner to that of Katherine. Her reign was essentially passive and there is no evidence of her personal religious beliefs. She did not act as patron for any religious works, unlike Henry's other queens. Alison Weir, nonetheless, wrote in her 1991 biography of Henry's wives that 'she was known to be an orthodox Catholic with no heretical tendencies whatsoever, one who favoured the old ways and who might use her influence to dissuade the King from continuing with his radical religious reforms'.

The second myth about Jane is closely connected with the first: many writers believe she was a strong supporter of Katherine of Aragon and that she admired and loved Mary Tudor, Katherine's daughter. The Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote that Jane 'suggested that the Princess [Mary] should be replaced in her former position.' Weir stated that 'Jane greatly admired Queen Katherine, and later used her as her own role model when she herself became queen'. As Gross and Retha Warnicke have both pointed out, however, there is no evidence of this. Linked to this, Jane has been credited as being a peacemaker who brought  Mary to court and reconciled her with her father. But Henry had insisted that Mary swear the Oath of Succession, thus agreeing that she was a bastard, and only restored her to favour and invited her to court in late 1536 when she had done so. Jane's involvement in this was minimal at best. 

Thirdly, many continue to believe that Jane was not content with Henry annulling his marriage to Anne, but wanted her dead. The Victorian historian Agnes Strickland called Jane's conduct 'shameless' and condemned her for encouraging Henry's advances while Anne lay in terror in the Tower, awaiting the sentence of death. Some of Jane's conduct does appear calculating, for example in refusing a gift of gold sovereigns from the king in March 1536 which was calculated to inflame the king's ardour for her. But we do not know if Jane was being coached by her ambitious family, or whether she really was a virginal and chaste young woman who sought to protect her dignity and honour. There is no evidence that she wanted Anne dead, and we just do not know how she felt about her. 

Anne of Cleves: Queen 1540
Myth: Anne of Cleves was 'a Flanders mare'.

There is only one major myth related to Anne of Cleves, but it is a major one. It has become enshrined in historical and popular consciousness worldwide that Anne, fourth wife of Henry VIII, was so ugly that he called her 'a Flanders mare'. This is still repeated in both novels and non-fiction. But it is exactly that: a myth. Henry VIII never referred to her as such - the label 'Flanders mare' dates from 1759 (Smollett, A Complete History of England), some two hundred years later!

Above: Anne of Cleves. 

Anne is often depicted in popular culture as an ugly, awkward, disfigured but jolly woman who was too stupid to save her marriage, and blindly accepted the settlement which Henry bestowed upon her following the annulment of their marriage. But there is no evidence that Anne was unattractive. Christopher Mont, who resided in the household of Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, stated that: 'everybody praises the lady's beauty, both of face and body. One said that she excelled the Duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun doth the silver moon'. Anne was not smelly, a popular misconception. Retha Warnicke published a study of Anne in 2000, and suggested that Anne was actually a very attractive woman with pleasant features. It was not so much her physical appearance that offended the king, it was the fact that he believed that she was pre-contracted to the duke of Lorraine, consequently impeding the consummation of his marriage to Anne. Psychological and cultural factors were at stake, rather than appearance.

Anne does not appear to have been a stupid woman, either. She got on well with Katherine Howard, her successor, and she was close to all of Henry's children, especially Elizabeth. She was famed for her successful household, and was much praised by all who knew her. To me, this indicates an intelligent, resourceful and perceptive woman of good sense. The fact that she seems to have gotten on well with all who knew her also suggests she was pleasant, kind, and good company. Hardly a 'Flanders mare'.

Katherine Howard: Queen 1540-1541 
Myth: Katherine Howard was Henry VIII's 'rose without a thorn'. 

I have already covered in detail misconceptions of Katherine Howard on this blog, and you can read my biography of Katherine (available NOW on Amazon), if you would like to learn more about her. Here, though, I will concentrate on one major myth about her that has recently been demolished by Claire Ridgway: that she was the king's blushing 'rose without a thorn'.

Above: Portrait of a woman, c. 1540, possibly Katherine Howard.

Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century wrote of how Henry VIII ordered a coin struck in celebration of his marriage to Katherine, on which he referred to his new bride as his blushing 'rose without a thorn'. The name has since stuck - it was the title of Jean Plaidy's 1991 historical novel about Katherine, and is referenced by the likes of Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser and Joanna Denny. But the legend on the coin, 'HENRICUS VIII. RUTILANS ROSA SINE SPINA', actually refers to Henry VIII himself, as noted by Dye's Coin Encyclopaedia. Tony Clayton noted that the coin was first struck in 1526, when the king was married to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, so it had nothing to do with his marriage to Katherine Howard fourteen years later. David Starkey pointed out in his 2004 book that the motto/legend referred to Henry VIII and that the rose badge had nothing to do with Katherine, for she 'seems to have displayed no personal badge'. Sadly, then, for romantics, Katherine Howard was not affectionately nicknamed 'the rose without a thorn' by her adoring husband.

Katherine Parr: Queen 1543-1547
Myth: Katherine Parr was Henry VIII's nursemaid. 
Myth: Katherine Parr was a heretic who could have been burned alive. 
Myth: Katherine Parr was the least important of Henry VIII's wives. 

Above: Katherine Parr.

Katherine Parr was thirty-one when she became the sixth wife of Henry VIII in the summer of 1543. A prevailing myth about her, given both her age and Henry VIII's infirmities, is that she was not so much Henry's wife as she was his nursemaid. Legend has it that she applied poultices to the ageing king's leg ulcer and soothing him. Popular culture often follows this myth: in the 1970 BBC TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr is a dowdy and frumpy middle-aged woman who nurses her ageing husband, and even in The Tudors, the glamorous Joely Richardson applies poultices to Henry's ulcer. As with the aforementioned myth concerning Katherine Howard, however, it seems this myth of Katherine Parr as nursemaid originated with the Victorian historian Agnes Strickland. David Starkey dismissed it contemptuously, and noted that the idea of a Tudor queen being her husband's nurse would have been both repulsive and unthinkable to the Tudors. There is no evidence that Katherine was her husband's nursemaid, contrary to popular belief.

A second prevailing myth about the sixth wife is that she was a Protestant heretic who could have been - and who almost was - burned at the stake for heresy in the mid-1540s. Katherine was definitely a reformist, and Antonia Fraser, among others, has consequently described her as the first Protestant queen of England. However, Parr's biographer Linda Porter notes that the Parr family 'were associated with reform and not ostentatiously so'. Katherine's printed works, including Prayers Stirring the Mind unto Heavenly Meditations, establishes her as an ardent evangelical who believed that the Bible should be in English. But Katherine cannot necessarily be called a heretic who was almost burned alive. John Foxe, in his "Book of Martyrs", depicted both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Parr as ardent Protestant queens who rescued England from the evils of the papacy, representing Anne as a martyr for her faith and Katherine nearly so, and he associated Katherine with the Protestant Anne Askew, who was burned alive in 1546 having been tortured. But we do not know how factual this account was, and it is uncertain if Katherine Parr really did come close to being charged with heresy. 

Above: Katherine Parr as queen.

Finally, Katherine is often dismissed as the least important of Henry VIII's wives (beginning with historian Martin Hume in 1905), and as being boring and dull. However, she was far from that, and was one of the most important of his queens. Aside from her religious roles and activities, Katherine was an excellent stepmother who brought all three of Henry's children to court, establishing strong relationships with them (although she experienced conflict with Mary when Katherine remarried very soon after Henry VIII's death). Linda Porter describes how Katherine and Mary were close companions who shared a love of jewellery and fashion, music and dancing, and suggests that Katherine acted as a mother for the younger children, Elizabeth and Edward. Henry VIII also evidently trusted and respected Katherine enough to appoint her as his regent in 1544, when he left to pursue a war in France. Only Katherine of Aragon (in 1513) had previously occupied this honoured and trusted position. Her three month regency proved to be a success. Katherine was also the first Queen of England to become an author.

In conclusion, many myths and legends exist about the six wives of Henry VIII. This article has sought to demolish the most famous ones, seeking to offer the truth behind the legend. 


  1. some of your arguments more convincing than others. I see no reason to disbelieve that henry found Anne of Cleeves unatrractive - he seems to have been keen enough on the marriage until he met her. And if eustace Chapuys said jane seymour showed an interest in restoring mary to her former position, i see no reason to disbelieve that either.

    1. Sorry to be so late to the party, but I only just discovered this blog. One theory that's been gaining a lot of traction (supported by Karen Lindsay, and Philippa Gregory took it and ran with it in The Boleyn Inheritance) is that Anne wasn't at all unattractive, but that her first meeting with Henry forever tainted his view of her--because SHE was the one who found HIM unattractive. When he showed up at her chamber in disguise, his ego and self-delusion were so great that he expected her to be captivated with the handsome stranger who was bringing her a message, and delighted to find out that this was the king. But she didn't react to him as if he were the handsome young man he thought himself to be--she looked at him as if he were a fat, middle-aged, unattractive man who wasn't at all distinctive or special. And when he did reveal himself as king, perhaps, she allowed horror and shock to show on her face even if just for a split-second. Rather than deal with himself as he was, Henry projected it all back onto her--it wasn't HIM who was overweight, unattractive, and smelly, it was HER!

  2. I want to thank you for debunking many of the false information written about Henry's Queens.My feeling about Anne of Cleves, and based on her portrait, she seem to have been a very attractive woman.I think even more than most of other wives, in particular Jane Seymour.