The six wives of Henry VIII finally get their day in court

February 07, 1993|By Ann Hellmuth | Ann Hellmuth,Orlando Sentinel


Antonia Fraser.


$25. 479 pages.

Mention the name Henry VIII and most people immediately conjure up visions of a monstrously fat, bearded man whose wives are remembered more by the manner of their departure than their contributions at court.

But it has taken Antonia Fraser, a master at putting 16th-century monarchs into 20th-century perspective, to give the six women the substance they deserve. Ms. Fraser, author of "Mary Queen of Scots," performs that task with wit, intelligence and verve.

Ms. Fraser believes Henry's wives were all victims of male power in an era when it was believed women were created merely to serve men. What she stresses is that these were, for their time and even by today's standards, six extraordinary women.

Wife No. 1 was Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand. The redoubtable Isabella, mindful of her own lack of preparation for the throne, was determined that her daughter would be well prepared to be a royal consort. Catherine was drilled in Latin and religion, as well as music, art and drawing.

Catherine, engaged while still a child to Arthur, the elder brother of the future Henry VIII, was shipped to England along with a generous dowry while barely in her teens. But less than two years after their wedding, the frail Arthur died at the age of 15, leaving his 16-year-old widow at the mercy of her penny-pinching, dour father-in-law, Henry VII. Rather than give back the dowry, Henry proposed that Catherine be married to his younger son.

The two were married for 24 years, and, for most of those years, it was a good marriage except for Catherine's inability to provide a son-and-heir, although she did have a daughter, the future Queen Mary I.

Wife No. 2 was the graceful, black-eyed Anne Boleyn, the daughter of a diplomat who had spent years at the French court. From the moment she first caught the king's eye, Anne had no intention of surrendering meekly. She tantalized and enthralled Henry, while at the same time refusing to embark on a full-blooded affair until he was committed to making her his queen.

Henry was forced to try to get his marriage to Catherine annulled on the grounds that she had previously been married to his brother. When the pope refused his request, he broke with the Church of Rome.

Henry and Anne's marriage was to be brief. She gave him one daughter, the future Elizabeth I, but no son. She also never captured the hearts of the English people, who stayed loyal to Queen Catherine. When Henry's wandering eye alighted on Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting at Anne's court, his second queen's fate was sealed. Anne was accused of taking a lover, imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried, and beheaded.

Jane was to provide Henry with his longed-for son, but she died almost immediately afterward, to be mourned forever as his true love.

Henry then married the solemn and plain-faced Anne of Cleves, a German princess he had been persuaded to marry after seeing her portrait by Holbein. He hated her on sight. This Anne was smart enough to go quietly when Henry, after humiliating her at court, arranged a divorce partially on the grounds that he had been unable to consummate the marriage.

Wife No. 5, the flighty, 20-year-old Katherine Howard, lasted barely 18 months as queen before literally losing her head over a lover. She faced death bravely, praying as she lay on the block "for the preservation of the King."

By the time he married wife No. 6, Catherine Parr, Henry was looking more for a nurse than a lover. She outlived Henry, who died in 1547 at the age of 55. He had reigned for almost 38 years; amazingly, it was only in the last 15 that he embarked on the series of marriages that were to make his name synonymous with ruthless infidelity.

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