All of Henry VIII's wives were fascinating, unique individuals, not only because of who they were, but also because of what they lived through.
  Although they were Queens their power was restricted by the constraints put upon all women of the era.
  To understand them we must understand those constraints.


  Women were taught from birth they were inferior to men.
  The concept of female inferiority predates Christianity. But Medieval and Renaissance society was shaped by the Church in ways that Westerners find hard to fathom nowadays. And the Church was shaped by Paul's misogyny.
  Women were taught, and believed, they were instruments of the devil. Females were the authors of original sin who lured men away from God and salvation.
  Women were the only imperfection in God's creation.
  "Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man", John Knox, First Blast of the Trumpet against Monstrous Regiment of Women, 1558 (see Arts in Tudor England Page)


  Young girls were given hardly any personal freedom.
  Religion was at the very center of life in Tudor England. And girls were raised to obey their parents without question.
  Girls were taught their only function in life was to marry and bear children.
  They learned they were commanded by God to render unquestioning obedience to their husband and to learn in silence from him in all subjection, the same way they behaved at home to their parents.


  Only 4 of Henry VIII's 6 wives received any formal education: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr. Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard were barely literate.
  Most people in the first half of the 16th century didn't believe in education for women. They held the medieval belief that teaching girls to read and write would cause them to waste their time and skills on love letters.
  There are exceptions to that, though. Sir Thomas More saw to it all his daughters were educated. Lady Jane Grey was quite a scholar ("for a woman"). Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr were both educated and considered virtuous despite their education.
  But the idea of education for women really begins as a Renaissance concept.
  The education of girls was for the privileged and the rich. Its aim was to produce wives schooled in godly and moral precepts. It was not intended to promote independent thinking or problem solving.
  Most girls were taught the wifely arts, how to manage a household, needlework, herbs and wild plants that could be used in healing, meal preparation, and their duty to their future husband. But foremost was their strong religious training.
  Girls who were educated were generally taught by tutors hired by their father or male guardian. These tutors were generally clerics whose chief aim was to give the girl a strong foundation in religious dogma.


  Husbands of upper class girls were chosen for them by their fathers or other male relatives. Very few men and women of noble birth chose their own partners.
  Marriages were arranged for political reasons, to cement alliances, for riches, land, or status, and to forge bonds between two families. The idea of marrying for love was considered bizarre and foolish.
  Royal marriages were contracted largely for political, military, or trade advantages. It sometimes happened that the couple never saw each other until the day of their wedding.
  Kings allied themselves with other powers through marriage. They did not marry a subject for love. Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner, for love and the scandal spread throughout Europe. When their grandson Henry VIII married 4 women not of royal blood it passed almost without comment. Possibly because of a growing sense of English chauvinism.
  What did cause comment was he married most of his wives for love, a departure from the norm. It could be said they were political marriages as well since there were factions within Henry VIII's court that sought advantage through their master's various unions.
  Negotiations for royal marriages often took many years to finalize. They usually began during the childhood of one or both of the potential couple.
  Royal courtship consisted of formal letters declaring love, and symbolic gifts, usually jewelry.
  Usually the royal couple couldn't meet because of distance. Kings had to rely on descriptions by ambassadors, and portraits painted by court painters. That sometimes backfired, as in the case of Anne of Cleves. Henry liked Holbein's portrait, but didn't like Anne at all.
  There was no legal age for marriage. Marriage between children was not unknown. The usual age was around 14. No one questioned procreation at that age, since the life expectancy of women was about 30 years.
  All but one of Henry's wives were considered middle aged when they married him. Katherine Howard was 15, the usual age a girl expected to be wed. What excited comment was Henry was 49.
  Royal betrothals between two countries were called Pre contracts and the terms and conditions were set down in a formal treaty.
  Pre contracts for the rest of the nobility could be written or be a verbal intent to marry made before witnesses.
  The dowry, or marriage portion, was usually the chief issue in any . It could be land, money, jewelry, household goods, or a combination of them all.
  A girl's chances of marriage depended more on the wealth and social position of her family than on her beauty or accomplishments (though a comely appearance and a pleasing demeanor never hurt).
  The Pre contract would contain a clause calling out the terms of the bride's Dower Rights; the amount settled by her husband or father for her living expenses in case of widowhood.
  Even if she was widowed, she didn't gain and keep control of those funds unless she didn't return to her father's house or remarry.


  Once a Pre contract was made only intercourse was necessary to transform it into marriage. Though a few did go on and take vows in church, many did not.
  Sex before marriage was forbidden, though that didn't stop it from occurring even in the upper classes. As an example, Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's 5th wife, was sexually active before marriage. She also had a lover after she was married, which was treason and she was beheaded for it.
  Men were expected and even encouraged to become sexually active before marriage. Women who did were outcasts and ruined their chances for a suitable marriage.
  Weddings were performed according to the ancient Catholic rites in front of at least 2 witnesses. The ceremony was performed on the church porch. A nuptial mass was then held at the high altar.
  The service used required the bride to vow to be "Bonaire and buxom in bed and board". Loosely translated that means to be agreeable and cheerful.
  Henry VIII wed all his wives in private ceremonies. Only his marriages to Katherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour, and Anne of Cleves had public celebrations after the ceremonies.
  Public royal weddings were the usual practice up to the time of Henry VIII. When Katherine of Aragon married Arthur Tudor at St. Paul's Cathedral there was a procession through the streets with cheering crowds not unlike the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to the Prince of Wales almost 500 years later.
  After the ceremony there would be feasting and dancing. Bawdy remarks were usual.
  The newly married couple would be ceremoniously put to bed by their guests. The marriage bed would usually be blessed by a priest. Then the couple would be left alone to consummate their marriage.
  Once the marriage had been consummated the couple was actually viewed as one person. Sir Thomas More said the sexual union was to be regarded as similar to God's coupling with their souls.
  Theological doctrine taught that sex was base and sinful. Only the sacrament of marriage made the "damnable act" pure and without sin.
  Sex practiced within a marriage didn't have to be mentioned in the confessional. However, the church taught that sex was only for the procreation of children so the word of God could be passed down to the next generation and not for self-indulgent lust..
  It was believed that only what we know as the missionary position was allowable and proper. It was the only position, they thought, to use to create boys.
  They thought the male sperm was the seed of an entire person, just like an acorn contains an entire oak tree. The female was used as the earth is used. She was the place where the seed would be planted and would grow.
  The Tudor concept of marriage fit into what they believed was the divine order. God ruled the universe, the King ruled the country, and a husband ruled his family.
  Like subjects to a King, wives were bound in obedience to their husbands and masters.
  Men expected to rule their wives and thereby gain their love and reverence. They believed a man could make, shape and form the woman to his will. They thought a loving, virtuous, and obedient wife was a gift from God.
  For the woman, even queens, that meant total subjection to and domination by her husband, who was often a domestic tyrant.
  Marriage was a period of upheaval and adjustment for any woman. Even more so for a Queen. Often she had to face a dangerous journey to a new land and a stranger, leaving her home, family, and native land never to see them again.
  Royal wives could come to enjoy considerable power and influence as did both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. But all such power emanated from her husband. She had no authority or freedoms except those he allowed her. Without him she was nothing.
  Queen consorts were housewives on a grand scale with nominal charge of vast households and many estates which produced huge revenues.
  They had a battalion of officials to administer the estates for them. The Queen only controlled the income allowed to her by the King. No major transactions of any kind could even be considered without his consent.
  As a matter of fact, any decisions made, from financial matters to domestic issues, were subject to his approval. Usually the Queen had a privy council appointed by the King to oversee and advise him about her affairs.
  The chief duty of the Queen was to produce heirs for the succession. She was also to set a high moral tone for the court and kingdom by being the model wife, full of dignity and virtue.
  To depart from those expectations spelled disaster, as both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard found out. Katherine was promiscuous, both before and after marriage. Anne, I believe, was not promiscuous after marriage. She did lack modesty, circumspection, and humility and therefore made it easy for people to believe her guilty of immorality.


  The chief function of Queens and of wives of lesser status as well, was to produce sons to ensure continuation of her husband's dynasty.
  Pregnancy was usually an annual event.
  Many women and babies died in the childbed. Pregnancy and birth were extremely hazardous.
  The expectant mother not only prepared a layette and the nursery for her new baby, but also made arrangements for someone to care for her child if she died during childbirth.
  Even if she did survive the birth she could be physically scarred for life.
  There was such a lack of medical knowledge even doctors, who were usually only called in if there were complications, had no real idea of how to treat or even diagnose.
  Couple that with their almost total lack of understanding of even basic hygiene, and you begin to see why so many women died.
  Many babies died at birth or soon after.
  Fewer than half the children who did survive childbirth lived to adulthood.
  This is not supposed to be a course in comparative Obstetrics and Pediatrics, but:
  • Infants were given unsuitable foods (even for adults, nutrition was unknown)
  • No antibiotics
  • No caesarian sections or forceps deliveries
  • No immunizations
  • Lack of basic sanitation and hygiene, and so on
  Even after successful delivery, women were still at risk. Puerperal fever, infection caused by a tear, caused many deaths.


  Everyday dress of married women was dictated by strict convention.
  Hair, which was worn loose before marriage, must be hidden under a hood and veil.
  Queens might wear their hair long after marriage only on state occasions when they wore a crown.
  Hair was only cut to enter a cloister. Both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had hair long enough to sit on.
  Widows were required to wear a wimple and chin strap (called a barbe). This practice began to slowly die out during the reformation.
  Sleeves reached the wrist even in summer.
  Dresses were always long, reaching the floor.
  Women also wore a constricting corset of leather or even wood which flattened the breasts.
  Yet gowns could have a square neckline which exposed the upper breasts and that drew little comment.
  Attire of Queens brought about further restrictions. Though made of costly fabric, often embroidered, and studded with jewels what they wore was bulky and very heavy. Queenly regal bearing, though partly a matter of attitude, was also a matter of necessity.


  A woman's body and her goods became her husband's property when she married and the law allowed him to do whatever he wanted with them.
  Infidelity in a wife was not tolerated. Henry VIII made infidelity in a Queen treason because it threatened the succession.
  An adulterous wife of a peer could also be executed if the King granted her husband's petition to put her to death.
  A wife who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason, not murder. The punishment was death by burning.
  If a wife displeased her husband in any way, real or imagined, he would turn her out of the house with just a shift to cover her. And she had no right of redress.
  Wife beating was common and was considered righteous punishment for an erring and disobedient wife.
  Divorces were rare and only granted by Parliament in extreme cases.
  Annulments were granted by an ecclesiastical court or by the Pope. They were granted for: nonconsummation, near degree of relationship, insanity, or previous Pre contract with another.


Read more about it

  Weir, Alison, The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Ballantine Books, New York, 1992