The Wives of Henry VIII

By Jennifer Dague

The six wives were very complicated and very different women, but each was portrayed simply and to the point, in the film titled The Wives of Henry VIII and narrated by David Starkey. The film is a biographical film based on historical facts with little artistic freedom taken and little embellishment. All the characters in this film were historically based with seemingly no fictional characters. The film mainly depicted the lives of these women once they had met Henry VIII and/or lived in his castle and thus the film mostly depicted scenes of court life with some private conversations, but not much outside of the royal court.

The first of Henry’s queens was Catherine of Aragon, a strong woman and definitely the most politically valuable of all of Henry’s wives. Catherine of Aragon was first married to Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother, but Arthur died shortly after their marriage. In order for England to maintain the political alliance that had been formed with Arthur and Catherine’s marriage, Henry became Catherine’s next groom. According to the film, their marriage was not always a very happy one and one that was filled with many disappointments. The result after twenty years of marriage and many pregnancies was only one daughter, no male heir for the Tudor dynasty. Eventually Henry became more and more uninterested in their marriage and began to fall in love with one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn. When Henry was refused a divorce by the Catholic Church, and for other religious reasons such as wanting power over the church, he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and granted himself a divorce claiming that the marriage was never valid.

The second of Henry’s wives was Anne Boleyn. It is mentioned in the film that Anne’s sister Mary had previously had an affair with Henry, but had been tossed aside afterwards. Anne would not allow this to be her end. Anne was sexy, smart, sharp tongued, and crafty. Anne knew how to get what she wanted and when she saw that the King was very unhappy with his marriage, she swooped in and stole Henry’s heart. She was very clever to withhold sex until she was guaranteed marriage. If she had done anything else the history books might have been very different. When, yet again, Henry did not receive a son, but instead only one surviving daughter (Elizabeth) after many tries with Anne, he started looking for a way out of that marriage. Henry created charges that Anne had cheated on him and thus, she would be executed and he would be free to marry his new mistress.

His new mistress had been another Lady in Waiting for his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Like Catherine, his new wife, Jane Seymour was a strong Catholic. Though Catherine was one of Henry’s more influential wives she still could not undo many of the reforms in the church that Anne had helped Henry introduce. When Jane tried to suggest undoing some of the reforms to the church Henry is quoted to have said, “Don’t meddle in my affairs. Remember Anne Boleyn.” According to the film, Jane was probably the best wife for Henry overall. She was submissive, obedient, and she produced a healthy son, but she died only a few days after giving birth to their first child. Henry was actually very saddened by Jane’s death and he even removed himself from court, allowing Cromwell to take charge of affairs of the state, while he was in mourning.

Henry’s fourth wife was a German princess; her name was Anne of Cleves. This marriage, like Henry’s first, was a politically arranged marriage. After Jane died, Henry was crushed and did not want to remarry. Eventually Cromwell persuaded Henry to get married again. According to the film, many proposals were offered , but no princess would accept (knowing Henry’s history with women). Finally they found a woman, Anne of Cleves, but Henry insisted that his new wife would be beautiful and demanded proof of her beauty. A portrait was made of her (that mainly focused on the dress) and Henry agreed, based on that image, to marry her. They did eventually get married, but not for long. Anne was 25 and very naïve as to what was going on. The truth was her husband could not stand her body. Henry wanted a divorce and eventually got one, due to lack of consummation.

Henry’s fifth wife was only a teenager when they married. Catherine Howard was young and promiscuous, though Henry believed she was a virgin. It was not long before Catherine’s past caught up with her and rumors began circulating about the Queen’s infidelity. When Henry discovered she had not been a virgin when they married and that she had even had an affair with a trusted associate in the court, Thomas Culpepper, he demanded that their marriage be tried, so that he might be able to obtain a divorce. Not only did Henry get his divorce but he also got Catherine Howard’s head, as well as those of her lovers.

In the film the last wife was Catherine Parr, a twice widowed woman with no children. According to the film when Henry VIII became interested in her and proposed to her, Catherine Parr said yes not because she wanted to be his wife (as the others had), but because she felt God wanted her to. In the film, she was portrayed as a good mother to her stepchildren, as a good wife to Henry, and also as a intellectually curious woman, especially about religion. She would be Henry’s last wife, for he would die in a few years after they had wed.

This film was primarily historical and set entirely in sixteenth century England. As has been reviewed earlier the film discussed the lives of Henry’s queens, how they came to power, how they acted as queen, and how they each left that role. All the characters in this film were historically accurate figures who really did live in that time period and really were involved in these events of Henry’s life.

Though the film revolved mainly around the lives of Henry VIII’s wives, it also discussed at some length the religious conflicts going on in the country as well as in the royal courts. The country was split between Catholic base and the Protestant opposition. Eventually even the King, called the Defender of the Faith, broke away from the church when Rome would not grant him a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. All of Henry’s wives were religious women with agendas except for maybe Catherine Howard.

There were many real historical characters in this film, but there were about ten figures who stood out in this story. First and foremost was Henry VIII himself. He was portrayed as a womanizer and a quick-tempered man. The next important character was Catherine of Aragon. She was presented as a pious Spanish princess. Her successor and another important figure was Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn was portrayed in this film as very different from Catherine. Anne was shown as fiery, sexy, smart, and sharp tongued. Anne knew how to get what she wanted, and she was very good at it. All of Henry’s wives were important characters in this film, but for Henry at least Jane Seymour was probably the most important since the film portrayed her as the perfect wife for Henry. Jane was presented as a deeply pious woman, who was submissive, and knew when to be obedient. The next wife was perhaps one of the minor wives, since she was Queen for less than a year. Anne of Cleves was portrayed as a naïve, unappealing (physically) German princess. After Anne came another Catherine. Catherine Howard was portrayed as young and flirtatious. Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr was portrayed as a pious and an intellectually curious woman, who would seem at times to be a radical reformer.

Three more important characters, but fairly minor in comparison were Cromwell, Gardner, and the Duke of Norfolk. One of the most important religious figures in this film was Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. He was portrayed as pious and conniving (to obtain what he wanted, for example Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves). Another important figure was Stephen Gardner, a Catholic cleric who was portrayed as very pious. Lastly, there was the Duke of Norfolk (both Anne Boleyn’s and Catherine Howard’s uncle). The Duke was represented as a conniving man who would do whatever it took to gain power and influence for his religious beliefs, including even using his own nieces.

In the film The Wives of Henry VIII everyday court life was depicted, but not much was shown about the average Englishman’s everyday life. The film showed the fancy dress of the women in the royal court, and the extravagant architecture and interiors of the palace. The film showed in great detail the dresses and jewelry of the various queens who reigned at one time or another while married to Henry. Only a few minor functionaries were shown, such as ladies in waiting and ministers (no common “downstairs” jobs were shown). What is done particularly well is mainly the costuming: the outfits of these important historical figures; much else was left to the imagination in this film.

I learned a lot from this film and would readily recommend it to anyone. Before this film I knew some things about Henry VIII, but the only wife I could have named and described was Anne Boleyn. With this film I was able to gain so much knowledge about what it was truly like to be a wife of Henry VIII. I also learned how strong most of these women were. I learned that although they were considered the lesser sex, they still held some power and influence, and maintained some control over their lives. I was particular ly impressed with both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr. I knew of Anne Boleyn before this film but I did not know to what extent she used her sex appeal and “sass” to get what she wanted. I did not know she was so clever and at times conniving. With Catherine Parr, I did not know who she was before this film. I was particularly impressed by her because she was a very strong woman like Anne Boleyn and was also a reformer, but that is where the similarities end. Catherine was twice a widow, who had taken care of two sick husbands before Henry and she even gave up love to fulfill her duty to God and marry the king. The one characteristic of both these women (but also of Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour) was their strength. The strength and intellect of these women was really quite impressive, in a time where women weren’t considered as important and valuable as they are today.

Every part of that film promoted historical knowledge. Each scene was based upon a real conversation or situation that had actually occurred at some point in the history of England. Although the actors did little actual audible talking, one could easily tell what was on their mind, by the actors’ actions and by the wishes of the church told through the narrator. Overall there is little one would wish to change about the film; perhaps more dialogue by the actual characters and less of the narrator, as well as more views of other palaces and churches where some of the important events took place could add texture. Although there is little about the everyday life of the common man, more authentic background would have been appreciated, but the film does portray what it set out to do, the lives of Henry’s wives. Watching this film brings to mind another movie The Other Boleyn Girl which is not just about Anne Boleyn’s relationship with the king, but also about her sister’s life (as lover of Henry VIII). Between this movie (The Wives of Henry VIII) and the movie The Other Boleyn Girl, one can learn a lot about what it was like to be a woman in Henry VIII’s life. There are also a number of books that should be recommended on this topic. These books include “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” by Alison Weir “Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey (who is actually the narrator of this film, and Henry VIII: Court, Church, and Conflict by David Loades. Anyone who enjoys learning about history will enjoy this film. One truly learns a lot in only a little over three hours. Henry VIII’s wives in the film and in reality were strong, mainly pious women whose individual legends would stand the test of time.