Divorced, beheaded, died…

Today we’re taking a slight detour from my own family tree to delve into the genealogy of a man who needs no introduction: King Henry VIII of England (1491-1547). The image of the gout-ridden, middle-aged Tudor monarch sporting a ginger beard, with his large frame and defiant look is all too well-known to us all. Many of you will also associate him with the children’s riddle Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived, which refers of course to the fate of his six wives.

What is not commonly known is that Henry VIII was related to all six of them, from the undoubtedly blue-blooded Catherine of Aragon to the relatively obscure Jane Seymour. But let’s analyse these relationships one by one, shall we?

Wife #1: Catherine of Aragon

Catherine (or Catalina, as she was known in her native Spain) had been born in Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, in 1485. Her parents, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, became living legends during Catherine’s own lifetime, as they consolidated the reconquista of Spain in 1492, the same year that they sponsored Columbus’s first sea voyage across the Atlantic (eventually leading to the discovery of America) and, more infamously, the same year they decreed the expulsion or Spain’s Jews.

The marriage of Catherine’s parents, like Catherine’s own two marriages would turn out to be, was unquestionably a political match, but their union was a personal triumph as well. They unified two branches of the same dynasty, the Trastámaras, which had split into two lines (the Castilian and the Aragonese) just two generations earlier. Because of this, Ferdinand and Isabella were closely related, being second cousins. Interestingly, English blood flowed through Isabella’s veins too – her paternal grandmother was Catherine of Lancaster, a Plantagenet with a good claim to the English throne, since she was a child (albeit a daughter – not a great advantage in those days even if you were a royal) of John of Gaunt and his second wife, Constance of Castile.

As the blood of her Castilian and English forefathers had began to mix generations before her own birth, it was not surprising that Catherine of Aragon should be considered as a prospective bride of the future king of England. So, when Catherine married Arthur, Prince of Wales in 1501 a papal dispensation was required not only on the grounds of their youth, but also because of their consanguinity, being third cousins once removed.

Wives #2 and #5: Anne Boleyn & Catherine Howard

If you know your Tudor history, you may be aware that Henry’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (both of whom were executed under the King’s orders in 1536 and 1542, respectively) were actually first cousins, both being granddaughters of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his first wife, the former Elizabeth Tilney.

The recent genealogy of Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn might suggest he belonged to the middling landed aristocracy, or even to an uppity gentry family – his grandfather, Sir Geoffrey, had been a mercer – albeit a wealthy one at that-, but through his Irish mother’s family he claimed a direct link to the Earls of Ormond and, further still, to the Earls of Arundel, Warwick, Northampton, Salisbury and March. In fact, it is thanks to one of these lines that the Boleyns claimed a direct descent from Eleanor Plantagenet, a great-granddaughter of Henry III through a junior branch of England’s ruling dynasty.

But one need not go that far back in history to find a link between Anne Boleyn and her royal husband. Anne’s mother, Lady Elizabeth Howard, belonged to the powerful Howard family, and it is through this line of the Dukes of Norfolk that she was a seven-times great-granddaughter of Edward I, making Henry VIII a fifth cousin to both Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth Howard, and thus making him a fifth cousin once removed of Anne Boleyn.

By extension, the same could be said of Henry’s fifth wife, the ill-fated Catherine Howard, who was also a descendant of Eleanor Plantagenet and, like her cousin Anne Boleyn, a direct descendant of Edward I, making her also a fifth cousin once removed of Henry VIII.

Wife #3: Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour’s immediate ancestry was certainly not as glamorous or grandiose as that of her two royal predecessors, the royal Catherine of Aragon and the worldly Anne Boleyn. But that is not to say that she didn’t share genes in common with the King: her royal connection to Henry VIII came via her maternal grandfather, Sir Henry Wentworth, whose grandmother had been born Elizabeth Percy, daughter of Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy. As you may know from history books, Hotspur’s wife (another Elizabeth) was a granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence and one of the sons of Edward III.

Curiously, however, this is not the closest blood link between Henry VIII and his third (and some say favourite) wife. Both were descended from John Stourton (Jane from the latter’s first marriage to Catherine Beaumont and Henry from his second marriage to Joan Basset). The Stourtons were not ranked among the greatest families of England; they owned some land in Wiltshire and became involved in politics in the 1400s, some members of the family becoming MPs and Speakers of the House of Commons. It was thanks to subsequent advantageous marriages that they rose to prominence and within four generations were able to claim a link to the royal family. It is thanks to this connection that Henry VIII was a fourth cousin, once removed, of his third wife Jane Seymour.

Wife #4: Anne of Cleves

If Jane Seymour is said to have been Henry’s favourite wife, we can safely assume Anne of Cleves was his least-favourite – even though, unlike some of his other wives, she had a comparatively happier existence. Unlike four of Henry’s five other wives, Anne was not a commoner. As her name suggests, she was a princess by birth. Her father, the Duke of Cleves, Marck, Jülich and Berg (among other titles) was a minor German prince and one of the earliest rulers in 16th-century Europe to embrace Lutheranism – a fact which endeared his daughter to Henry VIII’s advisers and helped to push her case forward when the widowed king was looking for a fourth wife.

By climbing Anne’s family trace on both branches, we will soon find dynasties which resonate with the history books: Wittelsbachs, Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs… The list goes on and on. To find her blood link to Henry VIII via the English royal family we must trace her lineage back to her great-great-grandmother Mary of Burgundy, whose great-great-great-great-grandfather was none other than Edward I of England. However, this was far from being their closest blood link: Anne and Henry were related through the powerful Visconti family which ruled over Milan during the middle ages and the Renaissance. As great-great-great-great-grandchildren of Bernabò Visconti and his wife Anna Beatrice della Scala, the two were in fact fifth cousins.

Wife #6: Catherine Parr

Henry’s sixth and last wife descended from families that gave England some of its best-known courtiers and noble families: the Woodvilles, the Throckmortons, the Nevilles… It was through the latter, in fact, that Henry and Catherine shared not only their shared royal ancestry but could also trace their most recent common ancestors, for both were fourth and fifth-generation descendants of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, and his wife Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt and his lover (and future wife) Katherine de Roët.

Curiously, Catherine could also claim a very close connection to one of Henry’s other wives, because after the king died in 1547, she married (as her fourth husband) Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley, a brother of Jane Seymour and therefore the King’s former brother-in-law (and fourth-cousin once removed).

We have analysed the different ways (and there are obviously many more we haven’t mentioned) in which Henry VIII was related to his six wives, but one curious detail remains to be revealed, and that is their nearest common ancestor. That honour must go to King Edward I of England, who, through his two marriages, is a direct ancestor to Henry VIII and his six wives, as shown in the family tree below.

Isn’t genealogy just fantastic?


Family tree showing the shared descent, from Edward I, of Henry VIII and his six wives. Credit: TudorHistory.org.

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1 Response to Divorced, beheaded, died…

  1. gentraveling says:

    Great post! It was nice to have a refresher.

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