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The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

One of the most original and striking pieces in the |Sovereign' exhibition at the V. & A. last year to commemorate the Queen's 40 years on the throne was a little seen bust of Henry VIII as a child, by Guido Mazzoni. It is a masterpiece of expression and adult potential, and is reproduced as one of the many illustrations in this latest work on a much tried subject. The face and above all the eyes tell us much about the future Henry VIII: dependent, woman-orientated, perhaps almost uxorious, although not in the sense of Philip V of Spain, for example.

What was Henry VIII looking for in women, above all in his wives? What was his experience of women? His mother had died when he was eleven years old, and the royal household had then been dominated by his grandmother, a grande dame if ever there was one, Margaret Beaufort, intellectual, aesthetic and very powerful. She outlived the son who owed his slender claim to the crown to her, and then acted as Regent for her grandson, still only seventeen. She then died, just after his coronation and marriage to the Princess of Spain, who had been the cynosure of his adolescence, known to history as Catherine of Aragon. By any standards she was at that time the most beautiful of all his wives, and none of them were beautiful. But she was red-haired and truly pretty, as an early portrait complete with aureole shows. The looks faded, Henry himself developed and grew into a person almost unrecognizable from his early youth. Catherine simply did not belong to the person he was at thirty-five, whereas she had certainly belonged to the person he was at eighteen.

It is worth considering the notable and high profile position of royal women in the sixteenth century. In 1553, six years after Henry's death, the next ten persons in succession to the crown were all women. Elizabeth of York, Henry's mother, had had a better hereditary claim to the crown than his father; the position of his grandmother was partly because she too had a better prior claim to the crown than her own son.

Before being too judgemental to Henry, the position of marriage and divorce or anulment must also be put into perspective. Many sovereigns married several times, and many other royal persons besides. Mary Queen of Scots married three times: Henry's sister Margaret Tudor, the Queen of Scotland, married three times; William of Orange married four times; Philip II of Spain four times. What distinguished Henry was that he married six times, what one writer has described as |dividing the silly sheep from the giddy goats'. No-one notable has ever married more times in history, except Ivan IV of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, who certainly married seven times, and perhaps eight. Moreover, Henry's attitude to his wives was increasingly that they were dispensable. Divorce or annulment was not unknown: removal by execution certainly was. In his own eyes in any case Henry VIII was married only three times: to Jane Seymour, to Katherine Howard and to Katherine Parr. His |marriages' to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves were all annulled, they were declared to be no marriages at all. (In the eyes of Catholics of course the marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been declared valid by the Pope in 1534, but by this time Henry had repudiated all Papal authority). Nevertheless he had been through six ceremonies of marriage, and Anne Boleyn had actually been crowned and anointed as well.

Also, Henry had in a sense bad examples from his closest contemporaries: his own sister, Margaret Tudor, whom he chastised for obtaining a highly dubious annulment; and his best friend Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Brandon had jilted at least one lady in order to marry her wealthy aunt, and then, having got the inheritance of the latter, divorced her and went back to the original lady ... He had also married, as his third wife, but possibly only his second, the king's own sister, Mary Tudor, the widowed Queen of France. After her death he married a fourth time, a young heiress intended for his own son. So the background is clear and unambiguous: to many, especially the cynical and the worldly wise, marriage was a dispensable commodity. But one of the intriguing questions one is also faced with by Henry VIII is whether he was himself cynical or worldly wise. Self-deceptive certainly, but in a curious way he remained innocent.

So what did he expect of his wives? Fertility is the only answer which fits the first four; and then, companionship. Intellect and capability made him suspicious: his first wife probably had greater potential talents in the art of governing than he had, and this could not be brooked in a woman; neither could questioning intellect, which nearly brought his last wife to the block. Beauty and sexual attraction were quite obviously to him highly subjective. Jane Seymour was as plain as plain could be; Anne Boleyn, never described better than by Elizabeth Jenkins as |dazzling and disagreeable' and Katherine Howard a pathetically immature and ill-educated little girl, who nevertheless captivated the ageing king with her petite figure and red hair. Neither was Henry any better at judging his own daughters, both of whom he treated with a degree of cruelty and insensitivity bordering on the psychotic. Catherine of Aragon of course, the daughter of the great Isabella of Castile, saw no reason why her own daughter, Mary Tudor, should not also be a great woman sovereign. So she might have been, if history and Henry had left her alone.

Antonia Fraser is a writer of great distinction; she is, most commendably, her own researcher. But does she say anything new? One searches in vain for the one telling phrase that will be remembered about any of the wives: something like J. M. Neale's immortal and unforgettable line on Anne Boleyn, when she lost her last child who would have been a boy: |She had miscarried of her saviour'. The book is new in its approach, its wealth of illustrations and its genealogies, showing the common Plantagenet descent of Henry and his six wives. Yet here the descent of Jane Seymour from Edward III has always been questionable. Of interest too are the devices, coats of arms and mottoes which the queens adopted. Catherine of Aragon had a pomegranite in her arms: the symbol, ironically, of fertility: Katherine Howard adopted the rose with the device rosa sine spina, the rose without a thorn, and she had so many! Only Anne of Cleves, complaisant and pragmatic, adopted as her motto |God send me well to keep'. Any wife of Henry VIII needed that motto.
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Author:Nash, Michael L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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