The Wives of Henry VIII

A major issue in English politics of the early sixteenth century was Henry VIII’s effort to secure a male successor. Could the king have foreseen how well his daughter Elizabeth would govern he might have spared himself, his country, and his wives much agony.

Unable to look into the seeds of time and say which ones would grow, he divorced Catherine of Aragon and executed Anne Boleyn for failing to provide a son. Jane Seymour gave birth to the future Edward VI but died nine days later; Henry’s subsequent remarriages were undertaken at least in part to produce a second son in the event that Edward did not survive to adulthood, as in fact he did not.

Though the primary responsibility of Henry’s consorts was to provide a male heir, Fraser demonstrates that these women were not ciphers. Catherine of Aragon was accomplished in various languages and was governing as Regent when England defeated Scotland at the Battle of Flodden Field (1513). Anne Boleyn not only caused Henry’s rift with the pope but also promoted the English reformation, as did Katherine Parr, who almost lost the throne, if not her life, for arguing theology with her husband. Even the eighteen-year-old Katherine Howard demonstrated independence, though no great wisdom, in taking a lover after marrying the king.

The queen’s court provided women with employment and the possibility of social advancement: three of Henry’s wives had served as ladies-in-waiting. The wives of Henry VIII also exercised political influence through their relatives. The Seymours achieved prominence because of Jane’s marriage, her brother Edward rising to Duke of Somerset and acting as Protector during the regency of his nephew Edward. Conversely, when Katherine Howard fell from favor, a number of the other Howards suffered with her.

Fraser’s composite biography highlights six women deserving of recognition, and it presents a portrait of England under Henry VIII. It is also a joy to read.