I just read a book called Divorced – Beheaded – Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey and I have thoughts.
Of course, Henry VIII is best known for his quest for a health male child, which lead him to go to extreme lengths, including marrying six times and forming his own version of Christianity instead of Catholicism, when popes wouldn’t do his bidding regarding divorce.
His first wife was Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow and the sister of the king of Spain, a fact that eventually saved her from execution in fear of war. She was pregnant six times, with four stillborn or deaths right after birth, but she also gave birth to a son, who survived less than two months, and to Mary I. Catherine never conceded to their marriage being annulled and eventually died in isolation, probably of cancer.
The second wife was Ann Boleyn, who has the honor of being played by Greta Garbo in a movie. She is the mother of Elizabeth I and had three other miscarriages. She wasn’t protected by being foreign royalty, so she was accused of adultery (which probably never happened) and beheaded.
Then came Jane Seymour, of whom little is known. She did give Henry the son he so desired, but also died after complications from childbirth. His son, Edward VI became king at 9 and died at 15, so he never had children, which allowed Mary I and Elizabeth I to become queens.
Fifth wife was Kathryn Howard, who was beheaded like Ann Boleyn on charges of adultery, but this time they were true. Their marriage lasted only just over a year and there were no children.
The final wife was Katherine Parr, who was already 31 and twice-widowed at the time of the marriage, which was unusual, suggesting that Henry had at that point given up on sons or was happy with Edward and had moved on to making sure the next generation was safe. Katherine survived Henry, but since she had strong religious beliefs, which didn’t always follow Henry’s self-interested theology, she might have easily been executed for heresy.
So, I left out the fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. The reason is that she seems to be the only person covered with any depth, who was actually happy, in the whole book. Pretty much everyone else lived in a constant struggle. Everyone else is constantly walking a tightrope of trying to vie for power, but not burning their fingers at the same time. Henry could get rid of anyone who displeased him with the flimsiest of pretenses, unless they happened to be someone like Catharine of Aragon, who was protected by her lineage, but that didn’t save her from basically being imprisoned in the worst possible place he was able to put her.
But Anne was different. The marriage only lasted about six months and it appears it was never consummated (both parties made this claim). When Henry brought up the idea of a divorce (or annulment, I forget), she said yes. Henry was happy with this, made her his honorary sister, gave her a big annual stipend, several royal residences and access to the king and his daughters she was very fond of. The only rule was that she couldn’t return home to continental Europe, but she was happy not to go back to her relatives, who had been willing to give her as a wife to someone who had already executed one wife, left another to rot and there were rumors of Jane Seymour’s death as well. So, she just lived out the rest of her life as the King’s Sister. She didn’t live very long, dying in her early 40s (there’s some contention about her date of birth, so it’s not quite clear). At some points people did try to drag her into their political games, but she managed to keep out of them and lived a life of luxury for 17 years after the annulment. Remarrying Henry was also brought up after Kathryn Howard’s death, but she kept away from that as well.
This was a very tumultous era in England. There was a schism between Catholics and Protestants, which was made worse by both Henry’s inability to form a coherent religion beyond his own personal needs, and Mary’s fervent Catholicism, which caused an insurrection. Later during Elizabeth’s reign Catholics were persecuted and hunted.
Yet, Anne just managed to flow through all of this. She showed the deference required to Kathryn and Katherine, as well as Henry’s children. She knew she just needed to appear harmless and nonconfrontational to keep her position. She was smart and she was forced to play the game, but she knew well enough that the extent she needed to play the game was that she needed to know the rules to keep away from it as so many others were forced into it and faced the consequences, such as Jane Grey, who Edward VI named as his successor, which eventually cost her her life, when she was executed by Mary I. Jane Grey didn’t want anything to do with politics, but was coerced into it by her parents, who wanted to use her as a tool to gain more influence over the court.
Anne just knew better and while there are so many fascinating people from this era like Wolsey, Henry’s most trusted minister before falling out of grace, Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, Christoph Marlowe (who probably worked for Walsingham at one point), many of the royals themselves and so forth, Anne does also fascinate me. The reason it’s just somewhat stupid. She is fascinating, because she worked very effectively to be so boring.