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Hampton Court Palace: King Henry VIII’s 6 Intriguing Wives

Hampton Court Palace: King Henry VIII’s 6 Intriguing Wives

If you've ever made a trip to Hampton Court Palace then you probably have heard the story of King Henry the VIII's 6 wives. Here is the background story behind them.
Part One: Divorced, beheaded, died.

Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived. That was the monotonous phrase we were made to memorise far back in our glorious childhood days, as we were learning about and absorbing the bizarre but rather interesting history topic called ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’. For commoners, 16th century England was no ideal place to be, never mind live. But what about those pretentious, upper-class sots of the time, what were their lives really like? Well, I will let you in on a little secret: life was either gloriously great, or life-threateningly tragic – especially if you were a bit of a brave rebel who had a natural tendency to “misbehave”. So, with that bitter fact firmly embedded into our minds, let us delve into these vivid accounts of King Henry VIII’s 6 intriguing wives at Hampton Court Palace– Part One!

1) Catherine of Aragon (Divorced).

Oh that poor woman, Queen Catherine. The first and probably most endearing of King Henry VIII’s 6 intriguing wives. Originally Spanish, and the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, Princess Catherine was born on 16th December 1485, at Archbishop’s Palace of Alcala de Henares in Castile, Spain. At the age of just 3, she was betrothed to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, and they were wed when she was about 15 or 16. Sadly, fate took an unexpected turn for the princess, as her husband became fatally ill and died a mere 5 months after their wedding. This of course, left the bereaved Catherine at the hands of unrelenting Tudor court marriage traditions, in which she found herself awkwardly rejecting Henry VII’s marriage proposal (her former -and soon-to-be-again- father-in-law, gross!) All of this was so he could avoid the daunting obligation of having to pay back the 200,000 crowns of dowry (half of which he had not yet received) to her father, should she return back home. To settle the issue once and for all, it was decided (7 years after Arthur’s passing) that Catherine be married to his younger son, Prince Henry, who was 5 years her junior – she was 23, he was just days short of his 18th birthday.

It was said that Catherine of Aragon was very beautiful in her prime; she was described as quite short in stature, had a fair complexion with long, red hair, a round face and big, blue eyes. She was a devout Roman Catholic, extremely well educated and multi-lingual, excelling in Spanish, Latin, French and Greek. She was also taught a number of household skills, including dance, music, art, needlework and cooking! Sadly, with age, came misery and lack of good fortune, which inevitably took their toll on her appearance and wellbeing. Following a series of miscarriages, stillborn births and two cases of death in infancy, the unfortunate Queen was considered incapable of bearing any more children to the King (Mary I was their only surviving child), let alone an heir, which rendered her fully incompetent as Queen of England and eventually led to the King abandoning her and being granted a long-sought-after annulment in 1533, 24 years after they had wed! (How could you do that to her, Henry?!) Catherine outrightly opposed this and in her strikingly dignified manner, declared herself the King’s rightful wife and queen, whilst refusing to ever accept him as Supreme Head of the Church of England. But with Catherine of Aragon’s luck, the only thing she got out of this was the people’s sympathy and respect, as King Henry “stripped her of her title as Queen” and acknowledged her as a mere Dowager Princess of Wales. Does it get any worse? Yes, yes it does. As though that wasn’t enough, the unlucky Catherine was eventually banished from Hampton Court Palace to Kimbolton Castle. To make matters worse, it was at this very time that King Henry had already fallen under the spell of Anne Boleyn – who, in my view, was the dominating force behind Henry’s merciless, cold-shouldered decisions at Catherine’s bitter expense. Queen Catherine died on 7th January 1536 (from cancer of the heart, according to modern historians!) at the age of just 50, and the people mourned her greatly, just as much as they had loved and cherished her.


Catherine is remembered by many as a strong-willed, dignified and charitable woman. Even her supposed enemy at the time, Thomas Cromwell, noted of her, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” – (A very sexist comment, may I add, but nevertheless *smacks palm to forehead*). Queen Catherine is also greatly respected for her commitments to a comprehensive programme that provided aid to the poor (a charity she had established herself) as well as her successful appeal for the lives of the rebels involved in the Evil May Day, to help ease the grief of their families and loved ones. I personally think Queen Catherine of Aragon was an extraordinary lady, and certainly one of the most admirable in Hampton Court Palace and of King Henry VIII’s 6 intriguing wives!

2) Anne Boleyn (Beheaded).

Probably the most intriguing of all of Henry VIII’s 6 wives at Hampton Court Palace, Anne Boleyn remains a figure of much debate, enigma and controversy – 500 years after her death! Born to a wealthy, aristocratic family, Anne Boleyn was the daughter of the 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Thomas Boleyn, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, who was the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. There is much debate regarding Anne Boleyn’s exact date of birth, but most historians say it was between 1502 and 1507. She was educated in the Netherlands and in France, where many claim she learnt French etiquette and the “art of love and flirtation”. It was also said that Anne seemed to develop an interest in fashion as well as religious philosophy, shone at music, dancing and singing and was a great conversationalist and a very charitable woman, even sewing shirts for the poor. In her pastime, she fervently enjoyed gambling, gossiping and drinking wine, and was said to have been very passionate and quite ambitious.

Anne eventually returned to England as she began to blossom into a young lady, and was to be married off to her Irish cousin James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond; the marriage plans were broken off, and this led to the exciting but fatefully tragic chapter in Anne Boleyn’s life – the court of Henry VIII.


Following her return to England, around 1522, Anne Boleyn soon secured a post as Lady-in-Waiting (or Maid-of-Honour) to Henry VIII’s wife at the time, Catherine of Aragon…(hello, trouble). Shortly after, in 1523, she was betrothed for the second time, but this time in secret, to Henry Percy who was the son of the 5th Earl of Northumberland. Again, the marriage plans went nowhere since Percy’s father refused to support the engagement, and Anne was left single and ready to mingle (basically). She was sent back home to Hever Castle for some time, and it was upon her return to England, during a period around 1525, that Henry really started to become smitten by Anne and a (epically failed) series of attempts to seduce her, swiftly followed.

History tells us all the time about her ‘not particularly beautiful’ but strikingly attractive demeanour, her flirtatious, big brown eyes, her very forward, charismatic persona and even her hot-blooded temper! She was rather petite in stature and frame and had a somewhat olive complexion with very long, dark hair (all of which seem like stunningly gorgeous features by today’s standards, but by the standards of that time – when a pasty, white complexion, very light hair and eyes and a voluptuous figure were the ideal physical features of conventional, female beauty – Anne was deemed anything but “beautiful”). She had a very strong sense of pride, though, played ‘hard-to-get’ and refused to become Henry’s mistress (or shall we say ‘side-chick’ for lack of a better term, tehe) as her sister Mary was before her. Some historians say this was just her good manners and virtue, whilst others point the blame at her ambitions to become Queen of England. If you ask me, I have absolutely no idea what the woman’s intents or motives were, but one thing is certain – she sure knew how to play her cards well, as her behaviour finally led Henry to give up his empty pursuits and succumb to his helpless love for her, and what happened, is as follows: King Henry decided to break the Catholic Church’s power, annulling his marriage with poor Catherine and marrying Anne Boleyn formally on 25th January 1533. As a consequence, Henry was excommunicated by the Pope and this was the first time in English history that a break between the Church of England and Rome occurred, bringing the Church directly and solely under the English King’s power. – Lord have mercy, if that isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.

Anne was crowned Queen of England on 1st June 1533, and gave birth to a baby girl (the future Queen Elizabeth I) on 7th September of that same year. Naturally, Henry was not happy with the birth of a girl (sigh) and when a few miscarriages followed, he began courting Jane Seymour and simultaneously looking for excuses to annul his marriage with Anne (well, that escalated quickly). So, in April of 1536, slanderous gossip and rumours began to circulate (of course), and he had her investigated for high treason. Anne Boleyn was arrested on 2nd May, sent to the Tower of London and tried before a jury that included her ex Henry Percy, and her uncle Thomas Howard. She was found guilty 13 days later, and executed by beheading within a further 4 days, on 19th May 1536. – I know right, wow.


The commonly talked-about charges against Anne Boleyn, of adultery, incest and witchcraft are actually viewed as weak and unconvincing by modern historians. It has even been recorded that after the coronation of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn was venerated as a martyr and heroine by English Protestantism. She continues to fascinate and inspire feminists, historians and writers alike, as the most alluring of King Henry VIII’s 6 intriguing wives.

3) Jane Seymour (Died).

Ah, the good and kind Queen Jane. Born around 1508 to Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth, Jane Seymour’s birth place remains predominantly unclear, although historians seem to suggest either Wulfhall in Wiltshire or West Bower Manor. Interestingly, Jane and Henry VIII were actually fifth cousins through her maternal grandfather, and she also happened to share a great-grandmother – Elizabeth Cheney – with both his second wife Anne Boleyn, and his fifth wife Catherine Howard. Amazing, right?!

It was said that Jane Seymour did not boast the same level of educational upbringing as that of her predecessors, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. However, she did excel in household skills, particularly needlework, and was able to write and read a little – bless her! It was, and still is noted, that Jane’s needlework was beautifully elaborate, and her talent in the art indeed shone in some of her works that survived till 1652, after which they were reportedly given to the Seymour family. After her passing, it is recorded that even Henry himself was an “enthusiastic embroiderer”, which I just think is plain adorable.

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I guess we could say that Jane Seymour first made her appearance at Hampton Court Palace around the year 1532, when she became Maid-of-Honour to Queen Catherine, although there is a possibility that she started serving her as early as 1527, before going on to serve Queen Anne. Henry began courting Jane in early 1536, and just a few months later, on 20th May, became betrothed to her – just a day after Anne Boleyn’s execution (which I personally think is cray-cray, but hey, life is cray-cray). Jane was then proclaimed queen on 4th June but never had a crowning ceremony, possibly for one of two reasons (or both): that the plague was sweeping over London – where the crowning ceremony would have taken place – or that the King might have been reluctant to crown her before she bore him a son and male heir – which was the sole duty of a queen consort. Either way, Queen Jane immediately won the hearts of the people and most courtiers because of her sympathetic devotion to Princess Mary and her mother, Catherine of Aragon. She continuously suggested to the King that the Princess be brought back to court and restored to the line of succession, and although her attempts at this particular case saw no outcome, she was still able to succeed in reconciling Mary with her father. Mary was forever grateful to her compassionate step-mother; in fact, a letter she wrote to her in 1536 thanking her for her efforts, survives till this day!

As Queen, Jane was said to have been very strict and formal, and exercised little-to-no power when it came to political affairs. Her motto was “Bound to obey and serve”, which was probably very wise of her considering the ill fates of her more head-strong predecessors, Catherine and Anne. She even got rid of the French fashions that Anne Boleyn had introduced and pretty much replaced the lavish, party-party ways of the court with a more serious, no-games, no-nonsense system. As a woman and wife, she was praised for her very calm and peaceful nature. John Russell, who was a royal minister and 1st Earl of Bedford, commented on Queen Jane saying “gentle a lady as ever I knew”, while the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys referred to her as “the Pacific”, denoting to her highly-praised peacemaking efforts at court. He also described her as a very pale woman of middling stature, and not of much beauty. John Russell, on the other hand, described her as “the fairest of all the King’s wives” (which really does sound like something right out of a fairytale), while the Italian historian, Polydore Vergil, stated that she was “a woman of the utmost charm in both character and appearance” – it’s clear that she was one of the most loved of King Henry VIII’s 6 intriguing wives!


So, onto the most interesting part: the birth of a boy! It all started when Jane fell pregnant (duh) some time in January of 1537. What I find most interesting is that she developed a pregnancy craving for quail, and was provided with “a constant supply of the birds from Calais”. Half-way through her pregnancy, she spent her summer away from the hustle and bustle of court life, and was attended to by the finest midwives and nurses of the kingdom (naturally). She then went into confinement in September; and after a very difficult labour, at exactly 2:00 am on 12th October 1537 in Hampton Court Palace, gave birth to the much anticipated male heir – the future King Edward VI (finally!). This little boy was Henry’s only legitimate son, so let us take a brief moment to understand Henry’s frustrations during the tediously long 27 years that had passed up until this moment…yikes.

Very sadly, good Queen Jane did not live to see her son grow up in Hampton Court Palace, let alone his eventual ascension to the throne. She fell seriously ill and passed away shortly after her boy’s christening, on 24th October 1537. Touchingly, her stepdaughter Mary acted as chief mourner at her funeral, and it is even said that Jane was the only one of Henry’s wives to receive a queen’s funeral! The King wore nothing but black for 3 consecutive months after her death, and it was at this period that Henry gained the excessive amount of weight his surviving portraits know him so well for, and even developed gout and diabetes. But Henry’s mourning for his beloved did not end here – he requested to be buried beside her, in a grave he himself had made for her, and it is where he lies till today – aawww!

If you ask me about Queen Jane’s legacy, I would immediately say that she is probably most known for her gentle nature, reconciling her stepdaughter Mary with her father and bearing the King a much-awaited heir to the throne. However, historians have also noted the great and positive impact her status as queen left on her natal family’s name. Two of Jane’s brothers, Thomas and Edward, benefited greatly from their sister to help increase their own rankings and improve their luck. Some even say that Thomas was pursuing the future Queen Elizabeth I, before he settled with marrying the queen dowager Catherine Parr instead. Edward on the other hand, became a self-proclaimed Lord Protector and supposedly illegitimate ruler of the kingdom. Of course, fate didn’t smile too long for these two, and they both fell from power and were eventually executed.


Well, it seems as though there have been no happy endings so far, doh. But maybe (just maybe) if you keep your eyes peeled for Part Two of King Henry VIII’s 6 Intriguing Wives at Hampton Court Palace  (Divorced, beheaded, survived), a happy ending could very well be awaiting you…or at least half happy…well, we shall see.

Have you heard the story of Hampton Court Palace and King Henry VIII? Let us know what you think in the comment section below!

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