…THAT KING HENRY VIII DID NOT HAVE SIX WIVES.
Ok, hopefully that got your attention.
It is mostly the case that the study of History requires a degree of contextual empathy that is often lacking in the manner by which the subject is taught - particularly when that subject is a supposedly ‘well known’ one. As in the case of King Henry VIII. Too often we are guilty of examining the subject from our ‘future’ vantage point and looking backwards in time, examining it, if you will, at a ‘contextual distance’ and not from the contingent perspective of the time occupied by the subject. It is often easier to merely repeat the basic historical tropes - Henry VIII had six wives - than it is to evaluate their authenticity. Putting it in a simpler form, if you were king Henry VIII, in the 16th Century, how would you have replied to the following question, presuming that it had been put to you at the end of your reign: “How many wives did you have, sire?”. The authentic reply would most likely have been, “I have had three wives”.
Without exploring the semantics embedded within the language of marriage too deeply, the key difference (as I see it) between the History we can often be taught in school versus the contemporary experiences as they were lived at the time, is distilled perfectly, microcosmically-speaking, in the difference between two words: annulment and divorce. Only one of these are we routinely taught when exploring Henry and his ‘wives’: divorce.
A divorce is the legal dissolution of a valid marriage - an acknowledgement that there used to be a marriage, and always will have been one in the eyes of the law and therefore of history; an annulment, is a legal recognition that a marriage was never valid in the first place and thus never actually existed - both legally and historically. Of course, the language of annulment is very clearly designed to create a legal and historical ‘resetting of the clock back to zero’, so that whatever follows, maritally-speaking, will always take precedence over what has gone before. Which, technically, is nothing.
Cardinal Wolsey laboured unsuccessfully to get Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Thomas Cromwell was able to get the annulment, but ultimately fell foul of Henry's executioner.
Both Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell expended great energies navigating the legal language of their king’s ‘marriages’. And with particular reason. The semantic and legal tenor of the word 'annulment' was incredibly helpful for King Henry because he needed to void any claim of Mary (the child he shared with Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (the child he shared with Anne Boleyn) to the Tudor throne. He needed a male heir - which was provided to him by Jane Seymour the moment she gave birth to Edward.
And so, if Henry had been asked in the year of his death how many wives he had had, he almost certainly would have replied (particularly having irreparably altered the legal and religious landscape of England by his marital maneuverings) that his first wife was Jane Seymour, his second was Catherine Howard, and the third and final was Catherine Parr. He would, no doubt, claim that he had never actually been married to either Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn or Anne of Cleves. Legally, and thus historically, speaking, he never was.
By saying that Henry had six wives instead of three, while simultaneously using the historically redundant noun ‘divorce’ in our teaching of the subject, we may be guilty of historical laziness at best, or historical disingenuity at worst.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
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