In terms of villainous men who collected and killed multiple wives, King Henry VIII is right up there with Bluebeard and King Shahryar of One Thousand and One Nights. The Spanish Princess, now airing on Starz on Sundays, presents us with a radically different Henry VIII. Instead of being the mad monarch who blew through women in pursuit of a male heir, he’s young, earnest, and frankly, he's a total dreamboat.
“Henry VIII has been maligned by history only in that people only know him as the man that he turned into,” Emma Frost, co-creator of The Spanish Princess, told Refinery29. “But the truth of the matter is: As a young man he was idealistic, and incredibly religious and devout, and he really loved [his first wife] Catherine. He had her initials painted all over the place.”
In The Spanish Princess, Henry (Ruairi O'Connor) and Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) traipse around in the pools of young love, happily unaware that their marriage (and its dramatic dissolution) will eventually alter the course of British history. Knowing the events that come after The Spanish Princess make the show all the more captivating and bittersweet. Were we ever so young?
Here’s what you need to know about Henry’s marriage history — all three Catherines, two Annes, and one Jane of it.
Wife 1: Catherine of Aragon
Who was she? Catherine was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. At age 15, she came to Britain to marry Henry’s older brother, Arthur (Angus Imrie in The Spanish Princess), heir to the throne. He died five months into their marriage. Seven years later, Catherine married Henry. They were able to receive papal dispensation to clear the canon law forbidding a man to marry his brother’s widow, as Catherine claimed that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage.
What was their marriage like? They were married for 24 years, the longest of Henry’s marriages. "The marriage only went wrong because of Henry’s increasing paranoia that God was judging him and not giving him a male heir because he’d married his brother’s wife," Matthew Graham, co-creator of The Spanish Princess, told Refinery29. Catherine had nine unsuccessful pregnancies. She had one living child, Mary.
What happened to Catherine? In 1525, Henry became convinced the marriage was cursed. He wanted to marry Anne Boleyn — and when the Catholic Church refused to give him dispensation to do so, he created a church of his own. In 1530, Henry declared himself absolute ruler in all areas of Britain, including religion. Three years later, the divorce was finalized. Catherine was cast aside and forbidden from seeing her daughter. She died in 1535.
Wife 2: Anne Boleyn
Who was she? Anne was a maid-of-honor to Catherine of Aragon. She came from an aristocratic family. Henry had already had an affair with her older sister, Mary Boleyn. By spring of 1526, he was yearning for Anne. She refused to become his mistress: Either it was marriage, or it was nothing. Saucy.
What was their marriage like? In 1533, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were secretly married. Anne pushed Henry to making more reforms in the church, which led to his declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. That year, they had a daughter, Elizabeth, who would grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I. But Anne was in danger. She wasn’t giving the king his sought-after male heir. He started having affairs with her maids-of-honor, Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour.
What happened to Anne? In 1535, Henry VIII orchestrated a scheme to eliminate Anne Boleyn. Boleyn was accused of "despising her marriage and entertaining malice against the King, and following daily her frail and carnal lust.” She was accused of outlandish crimes: Affairs with members of the court, plotting the king’s death, committing incest with her brother, and sorcery. She was tried and found guilty by a jury that included her own uncle. She was sentenced to death and beheaded on May 19, 1536. Her brother, George, was also sentenced to death.
Wife 3: Jane Seymour
Who was she? Jane Seymour was lady-in-waiting to both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Allegedly, she had a timid and reserved personality — far different from Catherine and Anne's. Jane's mother had given birth to six sons, which Henry took as a good sign of finally getting that heir.
What was their marriage like? Just about 11 days after Anne Boleyn was executed in the Tower of London, Jane Seymour and Henry were married. Jane encouraged Henry to reconcile with his eldest daughter, Mary — a difficult feat, considering Henry was a temperamental tyrant who had already executed one meddling wife. Jane was beloved by both the king and the public.
What happened to Jane? Jane gave birth to the long-awaited male heir, Edward VI, in October 1637. But she sickened quickly. At the age of 28, Jane died of puerperal fever, an infection that can occur after childbirth. Edward died when he was 15.
Wife 4: Anne of Cleves
Who was she? Fearing an attack from Roman Catholic countries, Henry married Anne out of pressure to form an alliance with her brother, William, duke of Cleves, who was a Protestant leader in Western Germany.
What was their marriage like? Short. Henry and the 22-year-old Anne were married for six months. The first time he saw Anne, Henry shouted, “I like her not! I like her not!” to his advisor, Thomas Cromwell. The morning after their wedding night, he claimed she had "very evil smells about her" and said they didn't consummate their marriage. He "could never be stirred to know her carnally.” With her lack of English, Anne struggled to navigate the gossipy Tudor social circles.
What happened to Anne? When the attack from Italy and France never materialized, the marriage was annulled. Anne outlived all of Henry's other wives. She was given possession of two palaces and a generous income for the rest of her life. She lived her remaining days in England and was known as — get this — the "King's beloved sister."
Wife 5: Catherine Howard
Who was she? Catherine Howard was a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves. She was just 19 when she met King Henry VII, who was pushing 50. She had a sunny, fun-loving personality, and was considered "a young lady of extraordinary beauty."
What was their marriage like? Catherine had grown up in a relaxed, unsupervised environment, which had ramifications when she became queen in 1640. As it turns out, she wasn't the pure "rose without thorn" Henry considered her to be — she likely didn't come into the marriage a virgin. She appointed one of her ex-lovers as a personal secretary and had extramarital affairs.
What happened to Catherine? Never mind the fact that Henry VIII had been carrying out affairs – it was unacceptable when Catherine did it. After her affair with courtier Thomas Culpepper and her long sexual history were discovered, Catherine was executed in February 1542. She was 21-years-old. Culpepper and her secretary, Francis Dereham, were killed, too.
Wife 6: Catherine Parr
Who was she? We've reached the third and final Catherine. Catherine Parr had been married twice before she married Henry in July 1943. She was in love with Thomas Seymour, Jane Seymour's brother, but married the king out of duty. After the execution of Catherine Howard, most courtiers would not give their daughters up for consideration.
What was their marriage like? It was good — King Henry VIII trusted Catherine enough to name her regent in his absence. She had a positive influence on unifying Henry's strange, sprawling family, and brought his three kids back into he fold. She also became a best-selling author of books about Christian living.
What happened to Catherine? After Henry VII died in 1547, Catherine married Thomas Seymour. After the king died, Catherine took custody of 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth. She died in 1548.