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December 2015 Meeting Report

Six into One by Frances Saltmarsh

This was a very novel and fascinating approach to the subject of the six wives of Henry VIII.  Most of us vaguely remember the schoolboy doggerel "Divorced, beheaded, she died, divorced, beheaded, survived", but probably struggle to remember their names.

Frances brought them back to life with the aid of a dressmaker's dummy, a Tudor style lady's dress and a range of accessories.  The fashion then was for a flat chest, so they wore a corset over a simple shift.  The corset was called a pair of bodies which were tied on tightly, and from which the word bodice originated. Sleeves were not sewn onto the dress but merely pinned on.  The skirt of the dress was cut away at the front in an inverted V, and the underskirt covered the shift. By changing the sleeves and the underskirt, and also the head-dress and jewellery, Frances was able to illustrate the very different characters of each queen.

The first was Catherine of Aragon.  She had been brought to England to marry Henry's older brother Arthur. After the wedding they set up court in Ludlow Castle, but Arthur soon died, leaving Henry as heir to the throne.  Henry obtained a dispensation from the Pope to marry Catherine on the grounds that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.  They were married for 24 years, while his 5 other marriages only lasted a total of 10 years.  Although Catherine had many pregnancies, she only had one surviving child, Mary, and Henry needed a son and heir.

Anne Boleyn had been brought up in France, spoke French and Latin fluently and had many lady-like and sophisticated accomplishments. When she returned to England she became a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine, and soon caught the eye of Henry, who had already had an affair with her sister Mary.  Anne's refusal to become his mistress, and the Pope's refusal to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine, led to the break from Rome and the creation of the Church of England with Henry at the head.  Anne gave him another daughter, Elizabeth, but her son was stillborn, and Henry began to tire of her. Charges of dubious validity of adultery were brought against her, leading to her execution.  Henry was finding the increased power as head of the church was very useful to him.

Jane Seymour was the next to catch Henry's eye.  She had been a lady-in-waiting to both Catherine and Anne.  Henry married her just 10 days after the beheading of Anne, so she had probably already been his mistress.  She was a much quieter character than Anne, but she gave him a son, Edward. However, within 12 days she was dead of puerperal fever. Henry was genuinely distressed, and she is the only wife to receive a proper queen's burial, and when he died he was buried beside her.

The next brief wife was a German princess, Anne of Cleves.  Following the break from Rome, politics dictated that the next alliance had to be with a protestant country, and Anne was a Lutheran.  Holbein was dispatched to paint all the available candidates, and Henry chose Anne.  However, when he saw her in the flesh, he was not so pleased, but politics required him to go through with the marriage.  By this time he had become grossly overweight and suffered from a suppurating jousting wound on his leg, and appears to have been quite unable to perform his duty as a husband.  The marriage was annulled on the grounds that she had been previously been pre-contracted to marry the Duke of Lorraine. Anne may have been naive when she came to England, but she was a fast learner. She agreed to the annulment, and was given Hever Castle, the former home of the Boleyns, and the title of the King's sister. She became a friend to him and his three children.  She outlived him and his two subsequent wives.

Katherine Howard, a cousin of Anne Boleyn but lacking her intelligence was the next one up.  She was only 15 and he was 49 and ought to have known better had he not been so self indulgent, and she was no better than she ought to have been.  When her past and current misdemeanours came to light he had the marriage annulled and her beheaded.

The final wife was the already twice widowed Catherine Parr who really did not want to marry him, but he was a man to whom you did not say no.  She became his nurse during the last five years of his life, and, like Anne of Cleves, brought the three children together in domestic harmony. Perhaps Catherine's most significant achievement was Henry's passing of an act that confirmed both Mary's and Elizabeth's line in succession for the throne, despite the fact that they had both been made illegitimate by divorce or remarriage. Such was Henry's trust in Catherine that he chose her to rule as Regent while he was attending to the War in France and in the unlikely event of the loss of his life, she was to rule as Regent until nine-year-old Edward came of age. After Henry's death, she married Thomas Seymour, uncle of Edward VI of England, to whom she had formed an attachment prior to her marriage with Henry.

Jim Butchart

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