Henry VIII's wives meet for the first time at Hampton Court Palace

By Ed Sexton | 15 April 2009
A portrait of a woman holding a monkey

Katherine of Aragon. Picture © Philip Mould Ltd

Henry's Women, Hampton Court Palace, London, April 10 – August 3 2009

Henry's Wives unites the King's six wives together for the first time, putting the portraits on display in a King's Council chamber which, until now, had never been seen by the public as part of 500th anniversary celebrations of the king's accession to the English throne.

The history of the mighty monarch's numerous wives is well known – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – and the portraits allow you to compare Henry's wives and view rare artefacts offering further insight into their doomed existences.

A portrait of a Tudor woman with her hands held together

Jane Seymour. Picture © Society of Antiquaries

Henry met his first wife Katherine of Aragon when she was betrothed to his brother Arthur, marrying her after Arthur died.

The portrait on display is the earliest surviving panel portrait of Katherine and contains symbols of her struggle to remain Henry's Queen, a six-year battle she eventually lost when she was divorced and replaced with Lady-in-Waiting Anne Boleyn.

Anne was an ambitious younger woman who drew Henry in with her dark eyes and French-schooled glamour. Their marriage, though, proved both tempestuous and destructive, and Henry ordered Anne's execution after she was found guilty of a heady cocktail of treason, adultery and incest.

A portrait of a woman in a black cloak

Catherine Howard. Picture © National Portrait Gallery, London

A rare music manuscript is displayed alongside Anne's portrait, and the decoration on the page shows Katherine of Aragon's badge - a pomegranate - being consumed by a falcon in a symbol of Anne's victory. The manuscript may have been owned by Anne's alleged lover, Marc Smeaton.

Henry married his third wife and latest Lady-in-Waiting, Jane Seymour, just 11 days after ordering the execution of Anne Boleyn. The successful marriage was cut short when Jane died 12 days after giving birth to her son – the victim of poor Tudor postnatal care.

A portrait of a woman with a detailed necklace

Katheryn Parr © Philip Mould Ltd

Her death greatly affected the king and her portrait remained on display at Hampton Court for a long time. On display next to her portrait is a Tudor ‘press release’ announcing the birth of her son.

Henry chose his fourth wife Anne of Cleves from a painting - a Tudor equivalent of Internet dating - and although the marriage between the mismatched couple did not work, they stayed friends and Anne remained a member of the King’s court.

Catherine Howard, the King’s fifth wife, was just a teenager when she married 49-year-old Henry and it is thought that Catherine had a colourful past when she wed the king.

Her supposedly wild ways eventually got the better of her and she was executed in the Tower - like her cousin Anne Boleyn.

A portrait of a woman in a heavily embroidered gown

Mary I © Society of Antiquaries

His sixth and final wife, Kateryn Parr, managed to survive the marriage unscathed. She married the king when she was 30 and had already been widowed twice, but managed to harmonise Henry's somewhat dysfunctional family and improve relations between the King and his two estranged daughters.

Henry's two daughters (Mary, his daughter from Katherine of Aragon and Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn) also feature in the exhibition.

A portrait of a woman in a red dress

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Picture © Sotheby's

The unconventional family scene is completed with one of the best surviving contemporary portraits of Henry VIII, based on Holbein's Whitehall Mural.

His rare and beautifully-crafted rosary is on display with his portrait, showing his ongoing commitment to his faith despite breaking away from Rome.

The exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the king, his wives and their lives.

For more information visit Historic Royal Palaces

Showing logo of HISTORY Channel with the letter H in gold

To celebrate the anniversary of ‘history heavyweight’ Henry VIII, HISTORY have lined up some great programmes which delve beneath the well known stories and uncover the secret world of Henry’s life.

Below you can see clips from Inside the Body of Henry VIII, which reveals the impact the King’s lifestyle had on his health – and ultimately the history of England – including some of the bizarre and gruesome treatments he endured.

The year long celebration of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace and the exhibition at the Tower of London have been supported with films developed in partnership with HISTORY. See the HISTORY website for more details and to take advantage of a special offer for Historic Royal Palaces membership.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:

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