Divorced, Beheaded, Died: A Guide to King Henry VIII’s 6 Wives

(Clockwise from yellow) Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
(Clockwise from yellow) Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. / (Background) Peter Zelei Images/Moment/Getty Images; (Paper doll outfits) The Print Collector/Getty Images

The love life of King Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 to 1547, quite literally changed the course of history. Though the story of his six wives has been told in countless books, shows, and other media, the most memorable version just might be the shortest: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

Catchy as it is, that slant-rhymed summary leaves more than a few questions unanswered. For example: What were their names? So here’s a slightly more detailed rundown of the infamous Tudor king’s three Catherines, two Annes, and one Jane.

1. Catherine of Aragon (Divorced)

portrait of catherine of aragon with pet monkey by lucas horenbout
A copy of a portrait of Catherine of Aragon with her pet monkey by Lucas Horenbout, circa 1525. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Catherine of Aragon was born in 1485 to Spanish co-rulers Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon (Christopher Columbus’s eventual sponsors) and married off to King Henry VII’s eldest son and heir, Arthur, in 1501. Upon Arthur’s death the very next year, Catherine got engaged to Arthur’s younger brother: the future Henry VIII. Due to a protracted dowry dispute with Catherine’s father, the two didn’t tie the knot until Henry became king of England in 1509. He was just shy of 18; she was 23.

Though their relationship was strong—Catherine even ruled England for a few years while Henry was off warring with France—they were wretchedly unsuccessful in growing their family. Just one of their six children (Mary Tudor, a.k.a. Mary I) lived beyond infancy, and Henry VIII’s impatience for a male heir soon eclipsed his love for Catherine. In 1527, he asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment, claiming that Catherine’s previous marriage to his brother made his own current one unlawful in the eyes of God. Catherine maintained that she’d never consummated her union with Arthur, and the pope—mainly worried about the political consequences of angering Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V—denied Henry’s petition.

So Henry broke from the Catholic Church and fashioned himself head of the Church of England in order to legitimize his divorce from Catherine and his marriage to her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Catherine was both banished from court and prevented from seeing her daughter, and the Church of England officially annulled her marriage in 1533. She lived out her final few years at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire and died, possibly from cancer, in January 1536 at age 50.

2. Anne Boleyn (Beheaded)

Anne Boleyn portrait on a 1935 cigarette card
Anne Boleyn as depicted on a cigarette card issued by John Player & Sons in 1935. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Anne Boleyn’s birth year is unknown: Some historians date it to 1501 or thereabouts, though others have argued for 1507. Her father, Thomas Boleyn, was an influential earl and a knight in Henry VIII’s court; her mother, Elizabeth Howard, was one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. Anne was educated under royalty in present-day Belgium and then France, and by the time she joined her family back in English court in 1522, her sister, Mary, had already become a mistress of Henry VIII. The sisters were both ladies-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and Anne—a skilled dancer with an alluring French air about her—soon caught the king’s eye. They started courting around 1526, kicking off Henry VIII’s storied battle to make her his second wife.

They married in secret in January 1533, before Henry VIII’s first marriage had even officially been annulled. That finally happened in May, and Anne was crowned queen the following week. She and Henry VIII welcomed their first child, the future Queen Elizabeth I, in September.

But Anne’s two subsequent pregnancies ended in tragedy: She had a miscarriage in 1534 and a stillborn baby boy in 1536. With Henry VIII growing ever desperate for a male heir, his close advisor, Thomas Cromwell, began mounting an adultery case against Anne. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London in early May 1536, and convicted of adultery, treason, and even incest (one of her purported paramours was her own brother) during a trial that lacked any evidence of her alleged crimes. On May 19, Anne was beheaded.

3. Jane Seymour (Died)

portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1536
A portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1536. / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The day after Anne’s death, Henry VIII got engaged to Jane Seymour, who had served as a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon before her. Jane was devout, docile, and very virtuous, once even turning down money from Henry on the grounds that “she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths.” Her moralistic streak appealed to Henry, and they married on May 30, 1536.

Jane’s motto was “Bound to obey and serve,” which she carried out in a big way by giving Henry his much-coveted male heir: the future Edward VI, born on October 12, 1537. She’s also credited with convincing Henry to reconcile with Mary Tudor, who had been ousted from court along with her mother. Jane and Mary, only about eight years apart in age, remained close throughout Jane’s tenure as queen.

Jane Seymour is often cited as Henry’s favorite wife, and he definitely did love her. But we have no way of knowing whether their relationship would have soured in some way had she lived longer: She died from childbirth complications less than two weeks after Edward was born.

4. Anne of Cleves (Divorced)

portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1539
A portrait of Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1539. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Henry soon began to worry that the Holy Roman Empire and its fellow Roman Catholic ally France were plotting against England, which compelled him to marry a woman who could earn him some allies of his own. Thomas Cromwell chose the bride-to-be—Anne of Cleves, from the powerful German Protestant House of Cleves—and court painter Hans Holbein headed to Germany to paint a portrait of her. Henry agreed to the union after seeing the image, and 24-year-old Anne met her 48-year-old future husband in England in January 1540. Though Henry was much less impressed with her appearance in person, he went through with the marriage for political reasons anyway. But they never consummated their union, and when the threat of war fizzled out, Henry decided to divorce her. Their annulment was finalized on July 9, 1540.

Anne didn’t protest—a shrewd move that set her up to live out the rest of her life in luxury and comfort, free from all the queenly pressures that had led to the downfall of three wives before her. Henry VIII gave her a liberal annual stipend, two houses in England, and several other properties to rent out. She remained in the country, stayed on good terms with her ex-husband—they even called each other “brother” and “sister”—and ended up becoming friends with Elizabeth I. Though Anne was only 41 years old when she died in 1557, she had already outlived Henry by a decade, and she’s the only wife of his to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

5. Catherine Howard (Beheaded)

portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger believed to be of Catherine Howard, circa 1540
A portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger believed to be of Catherine Howard, circa 1540. / Royal Collection, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For wife number five, Henry VIII returned to his M.O. of selecting from the pool of his current queen’s ladies-in-waiting. One of Anne of Cleves’s attendants was Catherine Howard, a niece of the powerful Duke of Norfolk and a first cousin of Anne Boleyn. Catherine’s exact birth date is unknown, but she may have been born as late as 1524—meaning she was likely still a teenager when the middle-aged monarch married her on July 28, 1540, mere weeks after the ink had dried on his and Anne’s annulment papers.

During her (even) younger years, Catherine had been sexually abused by her music teacher—in her words, she “suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of [her] body”—and later had sexual relationships with her grandmother’s secretary, Francis Dereham, and one of Henry’s courtiers, Thomas Culpeper. In short, Catherine hadn’t entered her marriage to Henry as a virgin, and she’s also believed to have continued her affair with Culpeper during her marriage.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—who generally had it out for Catherine’s Catholic family—clued Henry into his wife’s history in October 1541, the king launched a full investigation, and Catherine herself copped to the accusations the following month. She was stripped of her title and beheaded at the Tower of London on February 13, 1542.

Modern historians have pointed out that Catherine’s young age essentially makes it impossible to hold her accountable for her relationships, all of which were with significantly older and more powerful men. But at least Culpeper and Dereham didn’t live happily ever after: They were executed for treason a couple months before Catherine’s death.

6. Catherine Parr (Survived)

catherine parr portrait by master john, circa 1545
A copy of a portrait of Catherine Parr by Master John, circa 1545. / Historical Picture Archive/GettyImages

Catherine Parr, born in 1512, was the daughter of one of Henry VIII’s advisors, Sir Thomas Parr, and one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, Maud. (In fact, she was actually named after the queen.) By spring 1543, she was twice widowed, working in Mary Tudor’s household, and looking forward to marrying Thomas Seymour (brother of the late Jane Seymour). Unfortunately, Henry VIII wanted her for himself, and Catherine, knowing that becoming queen would benefit her loved ones, eventually agreed to the union. They said “I do” on July 12, 1543. 

Catherine was only about four years older than Mary Tudor, and the two stayed close once Catherine became a member of the family. She was also a wonderful stepmother to Henry’s two younger children, Elizabeth and Edward, and an eager student of theology: In 1545, she even published a book called Prayers or Meditations—England’s first English-language book plainly credited to a female author. Her Protestant faith skewed radical, according to the standards of the era, and English conservatives did try to get her executed for heresy in 1546. But Catherine convinced Henry that she was innocent, and he ultimately did away with the warrant against her.

Overall, Catherine was a dedicated partner and pretty successful queen. Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, following a period of deteriorating health, and Catherine married Thomas Seymour later that year. Their marital bliss was short-lived. For one thing, Thomas caused a public scandal by trying and failing to woo the teenage princess Elizabeth, who he thought would be a more strategic match for him. Then, after Catherine gave birth to their daughter in late August 1548, she fell ill with puerperal fever and died within the week.