Scenes from a Few Marriages


Installation view, Henry VIII and His Six Wives, 1999, Hiroshi Sugimoto

Tomorrow is the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s first wedding to Catherine of Aragon, and the occasion has me thinking about Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “portraits” of Henry VIII and his six wives, which Charlotte recently wrote about. It’s one of my favorite exhibitions to show my friends, as it allows me to gossip like a schoolgirl about the sordid stories behind each of the wives!


Catherine of Aragon was a Spanish princess, originally married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, who was sickly and died. After several years, Henry began to freak out about being married to his brother’s wife, so he had the marriage annulled.


Anne Boleyn, meanwhile, had been successfully waging a six-year campaign of seduction of Henry. After they married, she failed in the son-bearing department. Henry decided she had beguiled him with witchcraft so she was charged with adultery, conspiracy, and incest, and then executed. She also was said to have had an extra finger on one of her hands.


Jane Seymour was said to be Henry’s favorite wife. She was very well behaved and also bore him a son. She died shortly after childbirth.


After Jane’s death Henry sent court painters out into the world to make portraits of potential wives. He found Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves particularly fetching. When Anne arrived, however, he found her less than stunning, said she had “evil smells,” and called her the “Flanders Mare.” He ended the marriage within the year, deeming her his “Good Sister,” with a severance of property and stipend.


Catherine Howard was a cheerful fifteen-year-old; Henry was fifty. She raised his spirits during his deteriorating health until he found out that she was having affairs with two men. Heartbroken, he had her executed.


Catherine Parr was a caring nurse to Henry and his painful leg ulcers. Dignified, educated, and fashionable, her only hiccup was nearly getting arrested for heresy due to a penchant for spirited religious debate. Henry was most appreciative of her when he died, and left her a generous annuity and allowed her to keep her queen jewels. She then married Jane Seymour’s dashing brother Thomas, but died in childbirth a few years later.

Sarah Bay Williams, Ralph M. Parsons Fellow, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department

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