Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.
Yes, in the first six words of Olivier Award–nominated musical Six, we learn the fate of each of Henry VIII’s wives. But how much do you know about their lives?
Writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss dug into the history of Tudor England and the royal court for the lyrics to their pop opera, and greater historical knowledge means greater appreciation of the nuances in Marlow and Moss’ writing. Here are the CliffsNotes to help you navigate this chapter in British history.
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Catherine of Aragon
Queen from 1509–1533
The “paragon of royalty” was the first wife of Henry VIII. A Spanish princess, she was the daughter of Isabelle and Ferdinand, hence the Latin beats and Spanish trumpets in her Six solo “No Way.” Catherine first married Arthur (Henry’s older brother and heir apparent to the English throne) in 1501 when she was 15. But five months after their wedding, Arthur died. Arthur’s father nearly had to return her dowry, but a King would never part with money—or European alliances. He married her off to his younger son, Henry VIII, in 1509, though Henry was five years her junior. She faithfully served England, ruling as regent in 1513 when Henry was away in France. But when she failed to produce a male heir, things got complicated. With her fifth pregnancy, Catherine gave birth to Mary (the future Mary I of England), but Henry became preoccupied with siring a boy. He became convinced that his marriage to his brother’s widow was cursed by God, or, as Catherine sings, “You say it’s a pity ‘cause quoting Leviticus ‘I’ll end up kidiless all my life.’”
It’s widely believed he used the Bible as an excuse to divorce the Spanish princess with a plan to marry her lady in waiting, Anne Boleyn. Catherine was furious he cast her aside; she had tolerated his affairs (“I’ve never lost control no matter how many times I knew you lied”) as any Queen was expected. Moreover, Catherine maintained that she had never consummated her marriage to Arthur—so that’s the marriage that was null. Complicated, we know. As the song suggests, Catherine refused an annulment, claiming until her death that she was the rightful Queen. Catherine was sent to a “nun-ry” but eventually moved to The More Castle. She died in 1536 at the age of 50, still maintaining she was the only legitimate wife of Henry VIII.
Queen from 1533–1536
Though affairs between the King and his Queen’s ladies in waiting were common and expected, no one expected him to leave Catherine to wed Anne—the sister of his former mistress, at that. Anne grew up at the court of the Queen of France before returning home to England to join the royal court.
Anne Boleyn is often depicted as the devious wife, allegedly plotting to dethrone Catherine—unsatisfied to be just a mistress, “some girl in a threesome.” Henry and Anne married in secret January 25, 1533; they got the Archbishop to declare Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and his new marriage to Anne valid—thus breaking from the Catholic Church and beginning the Church of England. Anne was crowned queen June 1, 1533; she soon gave birth to a girl, the future Elizabeth I. But after three miscarriages, Henry took a new mistress: Jane Seymour. Needing a way to rid himself of Anne, Henry claimed that Anne had bewitched him while he was married to Catherine. Anne perhaps flirted with some men “just to make him jel,” but that merely led to accusations of adultery and incest. She was beheaded at the Tower of London on May 15, 1536, at age 35.
Fun fact: Historians believe Henry VIII wrote “Greensleeves” for Anne Boleyn, whom he was trying to woo. Hence, the techno remix of “Greensleeves” in “Ex-Wives.”
Queen from 1536–1537
Just as Anne Boleyn overtook the woman she served, Jane Seymour was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne, after serving Queen Catherine. Henry VIII became betrothed to Jane one day after Anne’s execution. Jane gave birth to a son, Edward, in October 1537 and died two weeks later of postnatal complications. Jane is often thought of as the favorite, as she is the only wife Henry openly mourned and the only one to receive a queen’s funeral, which is why her song in Six is the most like a power ballad—even if it she sings that “without my son your love could disappear.” Henry VIII was eventually buried beside her at Windsor Castle.
Anne of Cleves
Queen from January 1540–July 1540
Anne of Cleves lasted only sixth months as Queen, but she kept her head. Artist Hans Holbein the Younger went to Germany to paint Anne and her sister, as Henry VIII considered which would be his fourth wife. (We learn about these travels in “Haus of Holbein.”)
But when Anne arrived after her portrait, Henry felt she “didn’t didn’t look like [her] profile picture.” She showed a general lack of sophistication, “sippin’ on mead and I spill it on my dress,” which also displeased the royal. Basically, the king made excuses for his displeasure with her and found another excuse to be rid of her, saying there was no way she was a virgin when they wed. Granted an annulment, Anne remained in favor with the King and often visited court during the reigns of the final two queens. She died in 1557.
Queen from 1540–1541
Catherine, better known as Kitty, was long the object of sexual attention as suggested in “All You Wanna Do.” She was molested by her music teacher, Henry Mannox, when he was 36 (not 23 as Six states) and she 13. At 15, she moved with her grandmother, “the dowager Duchess,” and became lovers with “sexy secretary” Francis Dereham—an affair that would come to haunt her later. Her grandmother discovered the affair and sent her to the Tudor court.
Like her cousin, Anne Boleyn, she served as a lady-in-waiting but in the court of Anne of Cleves. The king was 49 years old when he married the 16-year-old. But the gossips at court—some of whom had witnessed her behavior with Dereham—quickly spread word that Catherine was committing adultery behind Henry's back with Henry’s courtier Thomas Culpeper. Culpepper, Dereham, and Catherine were all executed (Dereham was drawn and quartered). Catherine, beheaded February 13, 1542, was buried in an unmarked grave.
Queen from 1543-1547
The final wife of Henry VIII lived in constant fear of her own execution. Prior to her marriage to King Henry VIII, she had two previous husbands and was widowed in both cases. She had fallen in love with Thomas Seymour (Jane’s brother) before she caught the eye of the King. And in “I Don’t Need Your Love,” she pleads with Thomas to leave her alone to save them both from the King’s wrath and certain death.
By the time she wed Henry, he was 52 and in ill health. Catherine ingratiated herself to the king by becoming a mother to his three children: Catherine of Aragon’s Mary, Anne Boleyn’s Elizabeth, and Jane Seymour’s Edward. She is the person who restored Mary and Elizabeth’s royal standing so that they would appear in the line of succession.
During her reign, Catherine was the first queen of England and Ireland; she was also the queen with the most diplomatic influence since Catherine of Aragon, as she served as regent when Henry traveled to France again. Catherine was an advocate of reformation in the Church, Protestantism. In fact, she published books on prayer in her own name—and was the first Queen of England to do so. So it’s true that she “fought for female education.” Before Henry VIII died January 28, 1547, he instructed that she be respected as the Queen of England even after his death—which is what happened. She stepped down from the throne when Prince Edward, Jane Seymour’s son, was ready to ascend in 1547. This time, she was the one to re-marry, to gentleman of the court Thomas Seymour. She died September 5, 1548.