The Six Wives According to Retha Warnicke

The Tudors Complete Series box set (US) contains a talk from historian Retha Warnicke as part of its special features. In the video, entitled “Henry’s Wives Club”, Warnicke, author of “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn”, talks about each wife in turn. Here is what she had to say about these six women:-

Catherine of Aragon

Warnicke started by saying that although every one of Henry’s wives had an impact on history, it was Catherine of Aragon who had the most impact. Warnicke argued that if Catherine had retired to a nunnery and had not used the imperial power of her nephew over Henry, if she had just done what Henry wanted her to do, i.e. fade into the background, then, although Henry would have married Anne Boleyn and had Elizabeth I, the English Reformation would not have occurred at this time. Warnicke believes that Catherine’s refusal to step aside was the catalyst of the Reformation, not Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Interesting theory! I’m sure Catherine would be turning in her grave hearing that someone was blaming her for the English Reformation!

Warnicke talked of how it was Catherine’s concern for the future of her daughter that prevented her retiring to her nunnery. Catherine knew that an annulment would mean that Mary was declared illegitimate and so Mary would not be able to become queen. Catherine believed that Mary could and should become queen and therefore it was vital that she remain legitimate.

Anne Boleyn

In this section, Warnicke described the three theories, as she sees them, regarding Anne Boleyn’s downfall:-

  1. That Anne brought it on herself by being “too flirtatious for her own good” and enjoying courtly love exchanges.
  2. That Anne Boleyn was actually guilty – Here, Warnicke talked of how this theory now has some credence in England today, obviously referring to the work of G W Bernard.
  3. Warnicke’s own controversial theory regarding the deformed foetus – Warnicke spoke of how although she cannot prove that Anne Boleyn miscarried a deformed foetus in January 1536 the charges of adultery, which involved Anne having sexual relations with 5 men between October 1533 and December 1535, point to Henry trying to declare to the world that he was not the father of the miscarried baby. Warnicke explains that it was a great dishonour in Tudor times for a man to be cuckolded and that the only thing worse than that was for the man’s wife to give birth to a deformed baby as this was a punishment from God for “gross, illicit sexual activity”. At the time that Anne miscarried this baby, Henry had just declared himself head of the church in England so how could God be punishing him? It is Warnicke’s opinion that Henry truly believed that Anne had been involved in gross, illicit sexual acts and that the deformed baby was God’s punishment for her behaviour. Of course, Warnicke’s theory only makes sense if you believe in the whole deformed foetus story and seeing as it is only mentioned by Nicholas Sander, a recusant Catholic writing during the reign of Elizabeth I, and not backed up by any contemporary sources, I find this theory hard to believe.

I find it interesting that Warnicke made no mention of a plot against Anne being a possible reason, people wanting to remove Anne from power, when I would say that the majority of historians today believe that Anne was framed.

Jane Seymour

Warnicke talked about Jane Seymour’s death and how it was only at the end of the 19th century that orders were given for midwives and health professional to wash their hands. Warnicke believes that Jane’s midwife probably did not wash her hands and that Jane died from a uterine infection as a result of this. She pointed out that there is no truth in the story that was put about by Catholics, that Jane died after a caesarean section.

Warnicke also believes that if Jane had survived “Henry would have adored her for ever”.

Anne of Cleves

Here, Warnicke talked about why Henry was turned off by Anne of Cleves’ appearance. She believes that it was nothing to do with Holbein’s portrait as an English ambassador wrote of how it was an exact likeness, but that it was more to do with Tudor beliefs regarding virginity. Warnicke explains that as well as having an intact hymen, a virgin was also supposed to be flat chested and flat stomached. Women who were ‘rotund’ or large breasted were not seen as virginal and so when Henry saw Anne of Cleves’ body, and “the looseness of her breasts”, he questioned her virginity. In Warnicke’s words, “he got Marilyn Monroe and he wanted Audrey Hepburn”!

Catherine Howard

In this section, Warnicke spoke of how Henry VIII had been suffering with psychological impotence but, as nothing was known about it then, he believed that a witch was “zapping him” during his marriage to Anne of Cleves and preventing him from being able to consummate their marriage. When he met Catherine Howard, who was young, pretty and English, he fell in love and felt like a man again when he was with her.

Warnicke explained how Catherine’s downfall was due to her previous sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, which was reported by one of the women who had shared a dormitory with her and who had heard what was going on in Catherine’s bed. This woman, Mary Lascelles, told her brother of Catherine’s behaviour and he reported it to the King’s council. Warnicke spoke of how nobody dared to tell the King so Archbishop Cranmer had to leave a note in the King’s pew in the chapel. Henry, who did not believe it, launched an investigation and Catherine confessed to it. Obviously the whole Culpeper affair also came to light at this time.

Warnicke said that the fact that Henry did not have anyone waiting in the wings when Catherine was executed in February 1542, and that he did not look for another wife until a year later, shows the King’s remorse and grief .

Catherine Parr

Warnicke spoke of how it was not clear how Henry actually met Catherine Parr, but that Catherine was probably a member of his daughter Mary’s household. Warnicke described Catherine as being older than Henry’s other wives and as being more interested in religious pursuits. Her greatest attribute, according to Warnicke, was that she survived, managing to outlive the King and then marry the man she had really wanted to marry. However, she died in childbirth in 1548.

I’m definitely not with Warnicke on this. To say that Catherine Parr’s greatest attribute was her survival makes a mockery of her life and her time as queen, in my eyes. What about the fact that she was a published author? What about her courage and skill in handling the plot against her? What about the way that she gave Henry a family life and helped reconcile him with his children? What about her time as regent? Also, a technicality – she did not die in childbirth, like Jane Semour she died of an infection after childbirth.

Henry’s Two Great Loves

Warnicke ended her talk by saying that out of his six wives two women stand out: Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

  • Anne Boleyn – Warnicke spoke of the love letters that Henry sent to Anne and that we can still read today
  • Catherine Howard – Warnicke explained how Henry’s griefstricken reaction to Catherine’s alleged adultery, his emotional distress, a reaction which he never displayed after the divorce or death of his previous wives, shows his love for Catherine.

But what about Jane Seymour, the woman who Henry chose to be buried with and the woman he referred to as his true love? She gave him the best gift of all: a son. Also, what about Catherine of Aragon, the damsel in distress who Henry, as a handsome Renaissance prince, saved from an uncertain future and was married to for over 23 years? I rather think that Henry’s tears over Catherine Howard were more to do with the fact that she had made a fool of him and that he was faced with the fact that he was old and obese, not really with love.

What do you think?


Please read my series on Henry VIII’s six wives:-

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