Divorced, beheaded died: on the trail of Henry’s wives

Divorced, beheaded died: on the trail of Henry’s wives

The history of Henry VIII and his wives can still be found around the country in the houses and palaces that they visited, and in which they lived and were finally buried. Here are some of the best places to get a feel for their lives and times – all are open to the public, writes Suzannah Lipscomb in The Sunday Telegraph on 17 April 2016.

Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire: final resting place of Katherine of Aragon

The striking cathedral in Peterborough looks much as it would have done when Katherine of Aragon was buried here in 1536, although her original tomb was destroyed in 1643 by Cromwell’s troops. Her grave – fitted with a 19th-century black slab, after an appeal to those with the name of Katherine – has become something of a pilgrimage site – often freshly laid with pomegranates, flowers, and palm crosses – and the cathedral holds a service of remembrance for her every year on the anniversary of her death. Katherine died on 7 January 1536, five years after Henry had put her aside, 27 years after she had married him and been crowned Queen of England, and 35 years after she first arrived in England from her native Spain.

Hever Castle, Kent: childhood home of Anne Boleyn

Despite the fact that one of Henry VIII’s other wives, Anne of Cleves, owned this house after her divorce settlement of 1540, the beautiful Hever Castle is best remembered as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. It was here that Anne lived (after her birth at Blickling Hall in Norfolk) before going to serve as a lady-in-waiting in France, and here that she received letters from Henry VIII when she retired to Hever in the late 1520s with ‘sweating sickness’. Hever still retains her Books of Hours – illuminated prayer books – inscribed, in her hand, with the phrase, ‘Le temps viendra/ Je Anne Boleyn’, referring to Anne’s evangelical faith in the Second Coming of Christ, but maybe also to her dreams of a royal future.

Hever Castle in Kent, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey: where Jane Seymour gave Henry VIII his son

The finest remaining Tudor palace in England, built by Henry VIII and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, bears visual marks of all Henry VIII’s wives – from the pomegranate of Katherine of Aragon to the falcon of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, can be seen in the leather mâché badges on the ceiling of the Great Watching Chamber, and in the initials either side of the entrance to the Chapel Royal. For Hampton Court’s central story is that it was here that Jane gave birth to the king’s long-awaited legitimate son and heir, Edward, later Edward VI. Edward was christened under the gorgeous blue and gold starred ceiling of the Chapel, but the dutiful Jane did not survive the childbed where she had given Henry VIII his heart’s desire.

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace

Rochester Castle, Kent: the moment that determined Anne of Cleves’s fate

The medieval fortress at Rochester has been at the centre of some pivotal events in Britain’s history, but it was also the site of a crucial moment in the very personal history of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Henry VIII – keen to see his new bride, and playing out a courtly love ritual – travelled in disguise to Rochester to meet Anne on New Year’s Day 1540. He burst into the room where she stood surveying the bull-baiting on the green below and tried to embrace her, and she, bewildered, embarrassed, and disgusted at the obese and unknown man pawing her – ignored him. Their short-lived marriage and her demotion to the place of ‘King’s sister’ were effectively determined from that point on.

Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire: where Catherine Howard betrayed Henry VIII’s trust

Today, the once-mighty Pontefract Castle lies in ruins, but its history is dark and treacherous. Here Richard II was, probably, starved to death, and here a major rebellion against Henry VIII gathered in 1536. It was here, too, that when Henry VIII and his fifth wife, the young Catherine Howard, were on progress in 1541, she received Thomas Culpeper for ‘many stolen interviews’ – meetings that would spell the execution of both. Catherine, to whom Henry was devoted, had not disclosed her sexual history to the king, and in meeting Culpeper – whether or not the pair were actually lovers – she appeared to be perpetuating a life of lies and betrayal.

Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire
Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire: the home andtomb of Kateryn Parr

The gorgeous Sudeley Castle was the home and final resting place of Henry’s sixth wife, Kateryn Parr. Kateryn was a bright, attractive woman, whose self-authored books and lock of strawberry-blonde hair can both be seen at Sudeley. Twice-widowed, she married Henry VIII in 1543 and despite her religious differences from her husband, she survived a coup against her, and outlived the old king. With rash haste, she married for a fourth time, choosing the dashing Sir Thomas Seymour with whom she lived at Sudeley, and by whom she became pregnant for the first time. She sadly died in childbirth, and was buried in Sudeley’s church, where her effigy can still be seen.

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones present Henry VIII and his Six Wives on Friday nights at 8pm on Channel 5.