The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the Actresses Who Portray Them

Daniel Hautzinger

The story of King Henry VIII and his many marriages is well-trodden territory: just on TV, there have been both the steamy The Tudors and Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel's two novels told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell (available to stream for PBS Passport members). But the new series Secrets of the Six Wives re-examines the legend from the perspectives of Henry's spouses. Hosted by author and historian Lucy Worsley, it reveals that Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and the others were more than just “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.” The three-part series aired in January and Febraury, and is available to stream for Passport members. 

How do the actresses in both Secrets of the Six Wives and Wolf Hall compare with the real people they portray?

Katherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon: Paola Bontempi in Secrets of the Six Wives and Joanne Whalley in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; MASTERPIECE)Katherine of Aragon: Paola Bontempi in Secrets of the Six Wives and Joanne Whalley in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; MASTERPIECE) Katherine was an extraordinary figure who left an enviable legacy despite Henry’s later enmity. The daughter of the powerful Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, she became the ambassador to England at age twenty-two, making her the first female ambassador in Europe. She then married Henry, the younger brother of her deceased first husband. He annulled the marriage in order to marry Anne Boleyn, founding the Anglican Church in the process. Katherine commissioned a controversial book that argued for women’s right to education. She served as regent of England for six months and oversaw an important battle against Scotland. Thomas Cromwell said about her, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn: Claire Cooper in Secrets of the Six Wives and Claire Foy in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)Anne Boleyn: Claire Cooper in Secrets of the Six Wives and Claire Foy in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC) Infamous for being the reason Henry sought an annulment from Katherine and thus broke from the Catholic Church, Anne shrewdly resisted Henry’s attempts to make her his mistress, as he had her older sister Mary. He became obsessed with her and thereafter fought to marry her. But she carried influence even before the marriage. Intelligent and ambitious, she was especially significant in dealings with ambassadors. After giving birth to the future Elizabeth I but failing to produce a male heir, Henry grew tired of her and concocted charges of treason and adultery in order to have her beheaded.

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour: Elly Condron in Secrets of the Six Wives and Kate Phillips in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)Jane Seymour: Elly Condron in Secrets of the Six Wives and Kate Phillips in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC) Jane lacked the education of Henry’s first two queens, but served as an attendant to both of them. She took on a much more domestic role as Queen than her predecessors. She reconciled Henry with his first daughter, Mary, from his marriage with Katherine, thus setting the stage for Mary’s own bloody reign later. The birth of Edward VI, Henry’s only legitimate male heir, killed Jane−her labor lasted two nights and three days, and she died within two weeks. (Wolf Hall ended with Anne of Boleyn's execution, so the queens after Jane never appeared in that series.) 

Anne of Cleves

Rebecca Dyson Smith as Anne of Cleves. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd)Rebecca Dyson Smith as Anne of Cleves. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd) Queen for only seven months, Anne lived the longest of all Henry’s wives. The marriage was political--Anne was the daughter of a German duke, and Thomas Cromwell urged Henry to marry her to cement an alliance. Henry was disappointed upon meeting Anne, but it was too late to cancel the marriage. Instead, he blamed Cromwell and had him executed for treason. He also had the marriage annulled on the basis of it never having been consummated. After the death of his next wife, Anne sought to have Henry remarry her, but he refused. She died in relative obscurity in England. 

Catherine Howard

Lauren McQueen as Catherine Howard. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd)Lauren McQueen as Catherine Howard. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd) Like Jane Seymour, Catherine drew Henry’s attention while attending his previous wife, in this case Anne of Cleves. Also like Jane, her reign was short-lived. Too young to take on any duties, she was unable to leave much of a legacy. Instead, she was accused of adultery and executed with her attendant Jane Boleyn, the wife of Anne’s executed brother. At this point, you’re probably realizing executions happened quite often during Henry’s reign.

Catherine Parr

Alice Patten as Catherine Parr. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd)Alice Patten as Catherine Parr. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd) She was the third Catherine Henry married. Strangely enough, she was probably even named after Katherine of Aragon (the spellings are all disputed)−her mother was Katherine’s attendant and Katherine was her godmother. Well-educated, she learned French, Latin, Italian and Spanish, and published an English translation of the Bible’s Psalms as well as two other religious books. Strongly Protestant, she nearly received the same fate as some of Henry’s wives: enemies of the Protestants managed to have a warrant for her arrest drawn up, but she managed to prevent Henry from following through on it.

Henry VIII

King Henry VIII, the man with all the wives: Scott Arthur in Secrets of the Six Wives, and Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; Giles Keyte/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC)King Henry VIII, the man with all the wives: Scott Arthur in Secrets of the Six Wives, and Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall. (Laurence Cendrowicz / © Wall to Wall South Ltd; Giles Keyte/Playground & Company Pictures for MASTERPIECE/BBC) You get the picture by now.