1. Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536)
The first wife of King Henry VIII of England. The refusal of Pope Clement VII to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine triggered the break between Henry and Rome and led to the English Reformation.
Catherine was the youngest daughter of the Spanish rulers Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. In 1501 she married Prince Arthur, eldest son of King Henry VII of England. Arthur died the following year, and shortly afterward she was betrothed to Prince Henry, the second son of Henry VII. But subsequent rivalry between England and Spain and Ferdinand's refusal to pay the full dowry prevented the marriage from taking place until her fiancÚ assumed the throne as Henry VIII in 1509. For some years the couple lived happily. Catherine matched the breadth of her husband's intellectual interests, and she was a competent regent while he was campaigning against the French (1512-14).
Between 1510 and 1518 Catherine gave birth to six children, including two sons, but all except Mary (later queen of England, 1553-58) either were stillborn or died in early infancy. Henry's desire for a legitimate male heir prompted him in 1527 to appeal to Rome for an annulment on the grounds that the marriage had violated the biblical prohibition against a union between a man and his brother's widow. Catherine appealed to Pope Clement VII, contending that her marriage to Henry was valid because the previous marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.
For seven years the Pope avoided issuing the annulment because he could not alienate Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. Finally Henry separated from Catherine in July 1531. On May 23, 1533 - five months after he married Anne Boleyn - he had his own archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, annul the marriage to Catherine. Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy repudiating all papal jurisdiction in England and making the king head of the English church. Although Catherine had always been loved by the English people, Henry forced her to spend her last years isolated from all public life.
2. Anne Boleyn (1507-1536)
The second wife of King Henry VIII of England and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. The events surrounding the annulment of Henry's marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Anne led him to break with the Roman Catholic church and brought about the English Reformation.
Anne's father was Sir Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde. After spending part of her childhood in France, she returned to England in 1522 and lived at Henry's court and drew many admirers. A desired marriage with Lord Henry Percy was prevented on Henry's order by Cardinal Wolsey, and at some undetermined point the king himself fell in love with her.
In 1527 Henry initiated secret proceedings to obtain an annulment from his wife, the aging Catherine of Aragon; his ultimate aim was to father a legitimate male heir to the throne. For six years Pope Clement VII, under pressure from Henry's rival Charles V, refused to grant the annulment, but all the while Henry's passion for Anne was strengthening his determination to rid himself of his queen. About January 25, 1533, Henry and Anne were secretly married. The union was made public on Easter of that year, and on May 23 Henry had the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, pronounce the marriage to Catherine null and void. In September Anne gave birth to a daughter, the future queen Elizabeth I.
Anne's arrogant behaviour soon made her unpopular at court. Although Henry lost interest in her and began liaisons with other women, the birth of a son might have saved the marriage. Anne had a miscarriage in 1534, and in January 1536 she gave birth to a stillborn male child. On May 2, 1536, Henry had her committed to the Tower of London on a charge of adultery with various men and even incest with her own brother. She was tried by a court of peers, unanimously convicted, and beheaded on May 19. On May 30 Henry married Jane Seymour. That Anne was guilty as charged is unlikely; she was the apparent victim of a temporary court faction supported by Thomas Cromwell.
3. Jane Seymour (1509-1537)
Jane's father was Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall, Savernake, Wiltshire. She became a lady in waiting to Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and then to Anne Boleyn, who married the King in 1533. Henry probably became attracted to Jane in 1535, when he visited her father at Wolf Hall, but, though willing to marry him, she refused to be his mistress. That determination undoubtedly helped bring about Anne Boleyn's downfall and execution (May 19, 1536). On May 30, 1536, Henry and Jane were married privately.
During the remaining 17 months of her life Jane managed to restore Mary, Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon, to the King's favour. Mary was a Roman Catholic, and some scholars have interpreted Jane's intercession to mean that she had little sympathy with the English Reformation. The future Edward VI was born on October 12, 1537, but, to Henry's genuine sorrow, Jane died 12 days later.
Jane's family enjoyed Henry's favour until the end of his reign. On the accession of Edward VI to the throne, Jane's brother, Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, became regent as lord protector with the title duke of Somerset. Another brother, Thomas Seymour of Sudeley, was lord high admiral from 1547 to 1549.
4. Anne of Cleves (1515-1557)
The fourth wife of King Henry VIII of England. Henry married Anne because he believed that he needed to form a political alliance with her brother William, duke of Cleves, who was a leader of the Protestants of western Germany. He thought the alliance was necessary because in 1539 it appeared that the two major Roman Catholic powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire, were about to join together to attack Protestant England. That threat prompted Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, to arrange the marriage to establish ties between England and the Lutheran enemies of the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V.
On Jan. 1, 1540, Anne arrived in England to meet her fiancÚ for the first time. Five days later the wedding took place. Henry was keenly disappointed, Anne being less attractive than he had been led to expect, and he soon came to resent her lack of sophistication and limited command of the English language.
When the alliance between the Catholic powers failed to materialize, the marriage became a political embarrassment and was annulled by an Anglican convocation (July 9, 1540). Anne acquiesced and was rewarded with a large income, on the condition that she remain in England. She lived at Richmond or Bletchingley, with occasional visits to court, until her death.
5. Catherine Howard (died 1542)
Catherine was one of 10 children of Lord Edmund Howard (died 1539), a poverty-stricken younger son of Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk. Henry VIII first became attracted to the young girl in 1540, when he was seeking to end his politically motivated marriage to Anne of Cleves, to whom Catherine was a maid of honour. He had his marriage to Anne annulled on July 9, and on July 28 Henry and Catherine were privately married. He publicly acknowledged her as queen on August 8.
For the next 14 months Henry appeared to be much enamoured of his bride. But in November 1541, he learned that before their marriage Catherine had had affairs: Henry Mannock, a music teacher; Francis Dereham, who had called her his wife; and her cousin, Thomas Culpepper, to whom she had been engaged. After her marriage to Henry, Catherine had made Dereham her secretary, and it is probable - though still unproved - that she had committed adultery with Culpepper.
The King, initially incredulous, became incensed with these revelations. On February 11, 1542, Parliament passed a bill of attainder declaring it treason for an unchaste woman to marry the king. Two days later Catherine was beheaded in the Tower of London.
6. Catherine Parr (1512-1548)
She was a daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendall, an official of the royal household. Catherine had been widowed twice - in marriages to Edward Borough (died c. 1529) and to John Neville, Lord Latimer (died 1542 or 1543) - by the time she married Henry on July 12, 1543.
Her tactfulness enabled her to exert a beneficial influence on the King during the last years of his reign. She developed close friendships with the three children Henry had by previous marriages and devoted herself to their education. A Humanist, she was friendly with Protestant reformers. Timely access to the King saved her from conservatives, especially Stephen Gardiner, who were bent on her destruction in 1546.
After Henry's death in January 1547 she married a former suitor, Thomas, Lord Seymour of Sudeley, who was admiral of England from 1547 to 1549, but she died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. A learned and deeply religious woman, she wrote A Lamentacion or Complaynt of a Sinner in the last year of her life.