England’s King Henry VIII may have gone down in history for his book-smarts, athletic ability, and charismatic ambition…if it weren’t for his knack for marrying, then getting rid of, a series of unfortunate women. His obsession with ensuring his family’s legacy through the birth of sons wound up being his undoing, as he’s best remembered now as a sort of tragic Bluebeard figure. History has also been kinder than he ever was to the six women unfortunate enough to have found themselves as his wives. These six recent nonfiction works about the wives of Henry VIII examine who these women were, both inside and outside of their doomed marriages to the notorious King.
Wife #1: Katherine of Aragon
Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
Katherine of Aragon came from a family of Spanish royals, including her sister Juana, who would marry Philip of Burgundy. This first dual biography reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right. Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships.
Wife #2: Anne Boleyn
Part biography, part cultural history, this is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Susan Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.
Wife #3: Jane Seymour
Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love by Elizabeth Norton
While most of Henry VIII’s wives are the subject to numerous biographies, this work is the first work dedicated entirely to Jane Seymour. Often portrayed as meek and mild, this work suggests the real Jane was a very different character, demure and submissive yet with a ruthless streak. From the lowliest origins of any of Henry’s wives, her rise shows an ambition every bit as great as that of Anne Boleyn’s.
Wife #4: Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride by Elizabeth Norton
Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as a stupid and comical figure. The real Anne was both intelligent and practical, ensuring that, whilst she was queen for the shortest period, she was the last of all Henry VIII’s wives to survive. After only seven months of marriage, Henry was desperate to rid himself of Anne of Cleves, which, combined with her cleverness, left her with one of the biggest divorce settlements in English history. As this biography outlines, she led a dramatic and often dangerous life but, for all this, of Henry VIII’s six wives, she is truly the wife that survived.
Wife #5: Catherine Howard
Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII by Gareth Russell
Unlike previous accounts of Catherine Howard’s life, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, this compelling and authoritative biography reexamines her motives and shows her in her context. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs worlds as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution.
Wife #6: Katherine Parr
Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr by Linda Porter
The general perception of Katherine Parr is that she was a provincial nobody who became queen of England because the king needed a matronly consort to nurse him as his health declined. Yet the real Katherine Parr was attractive, passionate, ambitious and highly intelligent. Twice widowed, held hostage by the northern rebels during the great uprising of 1536–37, her life had been dramatic even before she became queen. It would remain so after Henry’s death, when she hastily and secretly married her old flame, the rakish Sir Thomas Seymour. This is the first full-scale, accessible biography of this fascinating woman who was, in reality, one of the most influential and active queen consorts in English history.
What other books do you love about the wives of Henry VIII? Get even more historical with our list of must-read medieval books.