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Reviving the wives: why Henry VIII’s queens are having a moment

Old royal stories are getting a feminist retelling. Is the new version any truer to history?

By Schuyler Velasco

The Tower of London, an ancient stone fortress perched on the north bank of the River Thames, has a millennium’s worth of stories to tell. Kings and queens awaited coronations there; a who’s who of prisoners awaited trial there. But the merchandise in the gift shop reveals a definitive box office favorite: Henry VIII and his wives.

The king who ruled England from 1509 to 1547 had a scandalous romantic life even by today’s reality TV standards. He had six wives, two of whom he divorced and two of whom he beheaded. To get his first divorce, he broke away from the Catholic Church and kickstarted the English Reformation. The Bachelor, eat your heart out.

That inglorious run is represented on nearly every shelf in the Tower of London Shop, from chocolates with portraits of the monarch and his spouses on their wrappers — like a pack of tasty baseball cards — to a replica pearl choker with the gold letter “B” at its center. (Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, was an early pioneer of vanity jewelry.) The books are almost entirely about the Tudor era, from Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning trilogy about royal advisor Thomas Cromwell to a novelty YA book that imagines what Henry VIII might have written in a modern-day blog. (One entry is titled “My Fit New Queen.”)

But in recent years, most of the Tudor-themed cultural output, inside the shop and beyond it, has focused on the women in the story — from explorations of Henry VIII’s wives to biographies of his daughter Elizabeth I, who ruled England for 44 golden-age years in the 16th century. It ranges from dignified Masterpiece Theatre treatments (The Virgin Queen; Wolf Hall) to soapy melodramas on Starz and the CW (Becoming Elizabeth; Reign). When Henry VIII, one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed history plays, ran at the Globe Theatre last summer, it included added dialogue and meatier female roles for Mary I and Catherine of Aragon. SIX, the musical in which Henry’s six wives put on a Spice Girls-esque pop concert, is in the midst of runs on London’s West End and Broadway, and touring around the world.

“No matter what time period, people are just people and they’re being messy.”

Anne Thériault, author of Queens of Infamy

These new retellings mix regurgitations of juicy historical gossip with more pointed meditations for modern consumption. They strive to center women’s experiences, question stereotypes that have persisted for centuries, and, occasionally, recast the Tudor women as Renaissance-era #girlbosses — or at least symbols of proto-feminism, even though the concept didn’t exist back then.

Whether all of that is any truer to real life is an open question. The historical record is scant in places, and British royals have always been inscrutable, leaving pop culture to color in the lines. When Queen Elizabeth II died this past September at age 96, remembrances focused more on the global and societal changes under her long tenure than her actual person out of necessity; the famously taciturn queen never sat for an interview, so TV shows like The Crown had to make their best guesses about her inner life.

The Tudor women, likewise, are enticing blank canvases for interpretation — but their dramatic history presents a challenge in the telling. The story of women adjacent to power is often also a story of women’s pain — SIX finds the queens in a bawdy competition over who suffered the most in their respective marriages, and it’s a heated contest. (“I had a daughter and he literally chopped my head off,” Anne Boleyn complains.) And much of today’s pop culture manages to simultaneously celebrate the Tudor women’s lives and turn their tragedies into kitsch. It’s common with other historical narratives involving women. The lighthearted tenor of items in the Tower of London Shop, for example, mirrors the way Salem, Massachusetts — the site of the horrific witch trials of the 1690s — is now overrun with toy brooms and crystals.

“It’s mostly misogynistic,” says Estelle Paranque, a history professor at Northeastern University London and the author of Blood, Fire, and Gold, a nonfiction book about the high-stakes relationship between Elizabeth I and France’s queen regent, Catherine de Medici. “We are respecting men’s lives more, even today. We don’t joke about Thomas More’s head in the same way we joke about Anne Boleyn’s head,” Paranque says, referring to one of the many advisers Henry VIII had killed. The artists who aim to give the Tudor wives their due are walking a tightrope: acknowledging the power these women had — or didn’t — without reducing historic suffering to lurid entertainment.

We’re drawn to the Tudors in part because their tale is macabre and undeniably rich, checkered with behavior that was beyond the pale even then. Take the story of Henry VIII — a veritable Renaissance-era mashup of The Real Housewives and Survivor. Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn, breaking away from the Catholic Church in the process. He later had Boleyn executed on trumped-up charges of treason. Third wife Jane Seymour died almost immediately after birthing the male heir Henry always wanted. Fourth wife Anne of Cleves, a German princess, married and divorced quickly because Henry didn’t like the way she looked (so the story goes). Fifth wife Catherine Howard, a teenager, was beheaded for infidelity. Sixth wife Catherine Parr stuck around until his death. Schoolchildren learn the broad strokes in a handy rhyme: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.

Offing a wife, not to mention two of six, is shocking stuff in any century. It doesn’t hurt that the century of Tudor rule was a multilayered inflection point for England’s history — the era in which the island nation first began establishing itself as a European and global power. “The teaching of history in England has a lot to do with Britain’s place in the world.” says Alfred Hawkins, a curator at the Tower of London. “And the Tudors are the start of global Britain.”

In other words, these torrid personalities and sometimes random, selfish decisions had deep historical consequences — another reason the soap opera endures. “No matter what time period, people are just people and they’re being messy,” says Anne Thériault, author of Queens of Infamy, a series of comedic history essays about medieval and Renaissance history. “We kind of have this idea that with stiffer clothes and stiffer public moral codes that people were privately better behaved, but generally not.”

The idea of turning the six wives into a singular cultural unit — like the modern-day Disney princesses — came out of the Victorian era. “The ‘six’ first became a coherent group in the work of historian Agnes Strickland in the 1840s,” historian Lucy Worsley writes in the program notes for SIX’s West End production. “But just like all historians who have ever existed, Strickland wrote from the viewpoint of her own period. She looked out for aspects of the six which would particularly appeal to her Victorian readers.”

As a result, they became caricatures based on that buttoned-up moral code. In the Victorian-era telling, Catherine Parr is held up as a loving nursemaid in Henry’s final years, without historical evidence. Jane Seymour, meek and motherly, was good; Boleyn and Howard are slutty and bad.

“The ‘six’ first became a coherent group in the work of historian Agnes Strickland in the 1840s.”

Historian Lucy Worsley

Recent fiction and nonfiction continue to present the wives as a set — inviting us to declare allegiances, like we might for one particular Sex and the City gal or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. “You can tell everything you need to know about someone based on which wife of Henry VIII’s is their favorite,” Thériault wrote in 2018. “Do you prefer Catherine (or Catherine, or Catherine)? Do either of the Annes do it for you? Or, god forbid, are you a fan of the insufferable Jane F***ing Seymour?”

But in the past few years, their reputations have shifted. Howard has started to be understood more as a victim of circumstance — a girl who was probably sexually abused in her youth and then had that information weaponized by her family’s political enemies when she became queen. Parr, meanwhile, has been lauded more recently for her intellect than her bedside manner — among other achievements, she was the first woman in history to publish a book in the English language.

And much of the latest Tudor pop culture links the wives to 20th- and 21st-century ideas, such as the #MeToo movement and modern understandings of rape culture. In Blood, Fire, and Gold — which is sourced partly through gossipy letters sent among the royal court — Paranque reveals Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, to be a bookish, calculating, warm-blooded figure who used her status as a highly eligible bachelorette as a tool in foreign relations, extending hope to other European governments that they might be able to secure an alliance with her through marriage. She even has a #MeToo story: As a teenager, while being raised by Catherine Parr, she endured repeated sexual harassment (possibly assault), by Parr’s then-husband, Thomas Seymour. It’s a modern take on women’s potential that still acknowledges the social constraints of the time. So remarkable was Elizabeth’s position, Paranque points out, that she wasn’t even considered a “queen” as we think of it now, but as a “female king” — the word “queen” did not connote a ruler then, but a wife.

Wives are the full-on subjects of SIX, a smash hit musical on both sides of the Atlantic. In its musical direction, characterization, and racially diverse cast, the show aims to draw direct parallels between the tribulations of centuries ago and the pitfalls of womanhood that persist today. Each queen is explicitly modeled after a present-day pop star. Catherine of Aragon (wife number one), for example, gives off Lemonade-era Beyoncé, another publicly wronged celebrity who did not take the disrespect quietly (Catherine fought her divorce from Henry for six years). The costumes mix sparkly modern pop stagewear with Tudor-era signifiers — in pious Catherine’s case, bedazzled gold rhinestones in the shape of crosses and a headpiece that looks a lot like a crown of thorns.

SIX’s chief objective, besides delivering a banger of a pop concert, is to question the way the wives’ histories have been told. “We want to provide a different perspective on the six queens, separate from their status as wives,” creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss write in the show’s program notes. The show is interested in power (and how little the wives had), but it also grapples with the limitations of feminist readings of times when women were essentially property. Characters acknowledge that we only know their names because they were married to a king; the births of daughters were considered such non-news in that era that for most, no one even bothered to write down the year they were born.

By necessity, SIX’s approach involves making assumptions — just as past historians have, since when it comes to the wives, there’s often sparse documentation. Catherine Howard (wife number five) is modeled after teen stars like Britney Spears. Her solo song, delivered in a breathy, sexy-baby voice familiar to anyone who listened to pop radio in the ’90s, runs down a list of older men who took advantage of her throughout her short life. “I thought this guy was different, but it’s never EVER different,” she fumes at the end.

This interpretation isn’t any more supported by the historical record than the prevailing cliché of Howard as an “emptyheaded wanton,” as historian Alison Weir described her as recently as the 1990s. Instead, it’s clearly influenced by the times — it’s impossible not to think of the #FreeBritney movement while watching the number. But meticulous historical accuracy isn’t really the point; this is a show that has Anne of Cleves rapping like Nicki Minaj, after all.

Modern grievances are also superimposed onto the Tudor tale in the work of Sue Copsey, the British novelist who wrote the 2020 novel Wife After Wife under the pen name Olivia Hayfield. Her book sets the Henry VIII story in the modern-day corporate world, where the checkered romantic past of media mogul Harry Rose comes under scrutiny. A sequel, Sister to Sister, follows his daughter Eliza as she takes over the family business.

In an interview, Copsey says she was fascinated by the Tudor saga from a young age, and especially incensed by Henry VIII’s treatment of Boleyn — a fury that bubbled up again when she witnessed the #MeToo movement on both sides of the Atlantic. “I was just so outraged that he could do this to this woman that he’d loved. And it stuck with me, and I’d always wanted, so deep inside, to give this awful man his comeuppance,” she says.

But like the writers of SIX, Copsey says, she had to take liberties — with Henry’s later wives in particular — due to the paucity of the historical record. “You take Jane Seymour, and I couldn’t find anything interesting about her at all,” Copsey says of researching Wife After Wife. “All I could find was that she was good at needlework. She was like this really smug little goody-goody.”

Thériault, the Canadian writer and comedian, takes her own liberties in the Tudor installment of her Queens of Infamy series, an arch retelling of historical events that ran on the Longreads website from 2018 to 2022. To infuse her long-dead royal subjects with some unkempt humanity, she imagines modern dialogue between queens and their boneheaded husbands. “I respect a good hustle, and Anne’s hustle was iconic — my god, how she hustled!” Thériault writes in her entry on Boleyn. “Even if you think Anne Boleyn was a king-seducing homewrecker extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer audacity of it all.”

But Thériault is wary of imposing her own standards on historical figures without acknowledging the realities of the past. For instance, Boleyn was no champion for women in her own time, she argues. “None of the queens were feminists,” she says. “Obviously that concept didn’t exist; none of them were like, ‘Oh, I want to materially make things better for all women in the kingdom.’ They were like, ‘I want to materially make things better for me personally.’

“It’s hard to avoid with any history, projecting modern sensibilities onto it,” she adds. “We know facts and dates — who, where, what, and everything — but there’s no real way to accurately recapture the mood of a time.”

Still, if a story this old, this ingrained in the English-speaking psyche, can be reevaluated, it invites us to look at present-day assumptions and narratives with a more critical eye. Contemporary examples are everywhere, from the experiences of Britney Spears and Hillary Clinton to the recent, competing revisionist histories around the breakup of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. And to many creators, unpacking the women’s stories, and setting them to a modern beat, is a long overdue rebalancing act.

“What do you remember Henry for?” Copsey asks, echoing a point made in SIX. “Is it the Reformation? Is it his religious reforms? No, it’s his wives.”

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience’s deputy editor. Previously, her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Salon, The Forward, and others.


Top photo: The cast of SIX perform at the Tony Awards in June 2022. Photo by Mary Kouw/CBS via Getty Images


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