Queen, lover, mother, outcast, victim and survivor - this is how historian and series narrator David Starkey assigns the roles of the six wives of Britain's most famous monarch Henry VIII in the sexual intrigue and cut-throat power politics of his long reign from 1509 to 1547.
The series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" takes a fresh approach and presents each wife's story from her perspective. Through the women's own words and powerful dramatizations, we learn that the wives were not pitiful victims or pawns but rather knowing players in a high-stakes game and remarkable individuals who managed to show great dignity even when facing exile and death.
The daughter of Spain's King Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine was just 16 when she married Henry's older brother Arthur in 1501. When Arthur died shortly thereafter, Catherine was left stranded. It wasn't until seven years later that she was able to marry Henry, who had become king. Henry believed that his union with Catherine would make Spain an ally in an imminent war with France. When war did break out, Catherine, like her mother before her, proved to be an excellent military strategist -- a "warrior queen." But as queen, Catherine's foremost job was to produce a male heir, and after many pregnancies, stillborns and children who died in infancy, only a daughter, Mary, survived. Henry was desperate for a son -- and after 20 years of marriage, he had fallen in love with a younger woman in his court. He sought an annulment, but as a Catholic, was unable to obtain permission from Rome. The younger woman, Anne Boleyn, convinced Henry that if he broke from the Catholic church, he would be able to declare the annulment himself -- and make her his new Queen.
Raised by aristocratic parents and schooled in the Netherlands in the court of Archduchess Margaret, Anne long aspired to play a significant role in the English court. Chic and flirtatious, Anne became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, where she quickly caught the attention of the king. But she refused to become Henry's mistress, insisting instead that the king marry her. As the king lobbied for permission to end his marriage to Catherine, the English public -- who adored the queen -- came to view Anne as a gold digger and heretic. Though Rome failed to grant the annulment, a new book, "The Obedience of a Christian Man," asserted that the king -- and not the Pope -- should maintain authority over the Church of England. Henry declared himself Supreme Head On Earth of the church, was excommunicated by Rome and finally married Anne Boleyn, thus sparking the religious upheaval that converted England from a Catholic nation into a Protestant one. Amid the turmoil, Anne's sharp tongue and refusal to play the role of obedient wife continued to make the masses uneasy. When she too failed to produce a male heir -- only a daughter, Elizabeth -- Henry began to seek another wife. Casting Anne as a seductress, he masterminded accusations of incest and adultery. After a trial at which her own uncle presided, she was sentenced to death by beheading.
Waiting in the wings when Anne died was Jane Seymour, a submissive woman of noble birth who seemed the perfect Tudor wife. Moreover, she was a devout Catholic, and the king's advisors hoped her religious beliefs would bring Henry back to his original religion. Jane was active in politics, and went so far as to question her husband's authority and nearly accuse him of treason. But her efforts to restore Catholicism failed. Meanwhile, Henry's adoration of Jane remained strong. In 1537, Jane gave birth to a long-awaited son - an heir, Edward. Just 12 days later, she died from complications, leaving Henry beside himself. Hoping to allay his pain, and concerned that Edward would not survive long enough to inherit the throne, Henry sent his advisors out in search of yet another wife. Henry's advisor Thomas Cromwell thought the West German princess Anne of Cleves was an excellent candidate because of her religious connections and prestigious family. Since Henry refused to commit himself without seeing what the princess looked like, Cromwell commissioned artist Hans Holbein to capture her beauty on canvas, which he did, in a most flattering manner. Henry was drawn to the portrait, but when he met the young woman in person, he found her completely unattractive and realized that Cromwell had manipulated reality for political purposes. Cromwell convinced the king that for the sake of the country, Anne was still a good choice, and the two were discreetly married. But Henry found his new wife so repugnant that lovemaking was impossible. Instead, he focused his affections on one of her ladies-in-waiting, the very young, very vivacious Katherine Howard. The court decreed that Henry and Anne had never consummated their marriage, and Anne was asked to leave the palace.
A promiscuous niece of the Duke of Norfolk, and a cousin of Anne Boleyn, Catherine caught the king's attention while serving as lady-in-waiting for Queen Anne. The duke believed that a relationship between his niece and the king would be an excellent political move, and at the tender age of 16, Catherine married Henry. Her feisty personality rejuvenated the aging king, but he found it difficult to keep up with her nonetheless. When she was still not pregnant after six months of marriage, the king slipped into a depression and shut her out of his life for a week. Though the marriage appeared to continue after that, rumors began surfacing about the queen's pre-marital relationships -- and the adulterous ones she still maintained. Though Henry found it difficult to believe Katherine was unfaithful, he was presented with proof. She was found guilty of "presumptive treason" and, like her cousin before her, was executed. The widow Catherine Parr was in love with Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane, when Henry became smitten with her. To eradicate the competition, the king assigned Seymour to a diplomatic post in Brussels, and proposed to Catherine. Catherine accepted because, she claimed, God had told her to do so. Catherine believed it was her duty to complete the conversion of her husband and the rest of the country to the Protestant faith, and even published a book expressing her views. High-ranking religious officials began to accuse her of heresy, but she reassured the ailing king that her opinions were merely those of a woman and, thus, meant nothing. The debate became moot when Henry died in 1547. Catherine later married Seymour and gave birth to a daughter, but she too fell ill and died. She was buried as Henry's widow, marking the first Protestant royal funeral.