Henry VIII became king of England in 1509. He was only 17 years old and he was very strong and active. He enjoyed hunting, wrestling and tennis. He liked listening to music and he could play and sing. People who knew him then said he was very handsome. He married a Spanish princess called Catherine of Aragon and they had a daughter named Mary. They lived very happily together, but Henry wanted a son to rule as king after him and Catherine was getting older. Soon she would be too old to have babies and Henry began to think that if he was to have a son he must find another wife. He had his eye on a lady called Anne Boleyn and he asked his advisers to help him divorce Catherine and set him free to marry her.
Divorce was against the laws of the Church and only the Pope, the head of the Church, could give Henry permission to end his marriage. In spite of everything Henry and his advisers could say, the Pope would not agree. So Henry quarrelled with the Pope and announced that from then on he would be head of the Church in England. He divorced Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn became queen of England. But she couldn't give him a son either.
There was only one child from their marriage, a daughter named Elizabeth.
The king blamed Anne for her failure to have a boy and he began to fall out of love with her.
One of her ladies-in-waiting was a young girl called Jane Seymour. Henry wanted to marry her so he told his advisers to get rid of Anne Boleyn. They accused her of being unfaithful to the king and she was sent to the Tower of London where an executioner cut off her head. Henry VIII married Jane Seymour just 11 days later and this new queen succeeded in giving him a son. He was named Edward. Jane Seymour died a few days after his birth and Henry was on the lookout for a fourth wife. This time he decided to marry a foreign princess, which was a way of making friends with a ruler from another country. They could help each other against their enemies. He looked around for some time before he settled on the sister of the German Duke of Cleves. He had never met her, and he wanted to know what she looked like so he sent an artist to paint her portrait. Henry was very pleased with the portrait and with what he heard about her, but when she got to England and he saw her for the first time he was horrified because he thought her so ugly and dull. He could not love her and six months later they were divorced.
His fifth wife was Catherine Howard. She was young and pretty and Henry showered her with presents. But his advisers discovered that she was having affairs with other men and, like Anne Boleyn, she went to the Tower and was beheaded. Katharine Parr was his last wife. She took care of him when he became old and ill and was kind to her three stepchildren. Henry and Katharine were married for three years until, in 1547, Henry died. He was buried alongside Jane Seymour, the mother of his son.
In 1515, the Venetian ambassador wrote this description of Henry:
"His Majesty is above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, his throat being rather long and thick.
He speaks French, English, and Latin, and a little Italian, plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvelously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince; and I, who have now seen all the sovereigns in Christendom, and last of all these two of France and England in such great state, might well rest content."
(And later that year....) "His Majesty came into our arbor, and addressing me in French, said: 'Talk with me awhile! The King of France, is he as tall as I am?' I told him there was but little difference. He continued, 'Is he as stout?' I said he was not; and he then inquired, 'What sort of legs has he?' I replied 'Spare'. Whereupon he opened the front of his doublet, and placing his hand on his thigh, said 'Look here! and I have also a good calf to my leg.' After dinner, his Majesty and many others armed themselves, and he chose us to see him joust, running upwards of 30 courses, in one of which he capsized his opponent (who is the finest jouster in the whole kingdom), horse and all. He then took off his helmet, and came under the windows where we were, and talked and laughed with us to our very great honor, and to the surprise of all beholders."
Catherine of Aragon
Born in 1485, she married Henry in 1509, gave birth to his first child, Mary I, in 1516. Divorced by Henry in 1533; died 1536. Photograph by NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Married Henry in 1533; mother of Elizabeth I. She was the first English queen to be publically executed, on May 19 1536. Photograph by BRIDGEMAN ART LIBARY
Married Henry 11 days after Anne Boleyn beheaded. Only wife to give Henry a son, Edward VI. She died 12 days after his birth. Photograph by AKG
Anne of Cleves
Married Henry in 1540. They divorced just six months later; Henry gave her a large settlement in return for a quick divorce. Photograph by AKG
Married Henry in 1540. A cousin of Anne Boleyn, Catherine shared her fate and was beheaded for adultery two years later. Photograph by NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Married Henry in 1543. Katharine outlived the king, and finally married the man she loved, Thomas Seymour. Photograph by BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY