Thursday 26 May 2011

Cameo Consorts

After yesterday's post on Britain's longest-serving royal consorts, it seemed only fair to include the top ten shortest serving. Unsurprisingly, five of Henry VIII's six unlucky wives made the list.

1. Lord Guildford Dudley (13 days) The controversial husband of Jane Grey, Dudley was married off to her as a teenager as part of his father's attempts to retain power if the young King Edward VI died without heirs. The Dudley family's attempt to preserve the Protestant monarchy by placing their teenage daughter-in-law on the throne ended in abysmal failure when Mary Tudor seized the throne with popular support. Jane and Guildford were both executed a year later, both still teenagers. Traditionally Guildford has been presented as a weak and self-indulged character, with a teenage fondness for wine and women. An account of his execution was posted on this blog in February.

2. Anne of Cleves (6 months) A minor German princess who was married to Henry VIII in 1540, Anne's marriage remained unconsummated, allegedly because her husband found her physically repulsive. She was divorced in July of the same year, but in return for her co-operation she received one of the most generous divorce settlements in history.

3. Jane Seymour (17 months) Henry VIII married his third wife in controversial circles, becoming engaged to her less than twenty-four hours after executing his second. She died as a result of post-natal complications in October 1537, after giving birth to the future King Edward VI.

4. Caroline of Brunswick (18 months) Unattractive, loud and cursed with deeply unfortunate body odour, it's difficult to imagine a wife more unsuited to the tastes of the urbane Prince George. The notoriously extravagant prince only consented to the marriage because Parliament, eager to secure the succession, promised to pay off his considerable debts if he did so. George found Caroline disgusting and she found him irritating. They had one child together, allegedly conceived on their wedding night, and Caroline later took off on a tour of Europe, where she drank heavily and indulged with a servant who many claimed was her lover. In a deeply undignified moment, George attempted to turn her away from his coronation when he finally became King George IV in 1820. Popular with the people, largely because of her husband's unpopularity, Caroline was loathed and ridiculed by the upper classes and she died eighteen months after becoming queen.

5. Catherine Howard (19 months) The fatally clueless teenage aristocrat became Henry VIII's fifth wife after he divorced Anne of Cleves. Devoted to a life of partying and pleasure, Catherine was young enough to be her husband's granddaughter by contemporary standards. Allegations about her private life resulted in an enquiry, which unearthed a love letter written by the young queen to a handsome young courtier. Both were later executed for their crimes, as were Catherine's secretary and one of her ladies-in-waiting.

6. Anne Neville (21 months) The daughter of one of the most powerful aristocrats in England, who had been deeply (some might say pivotally) involved in the War of the Roses, Anne Neville was first married to Henry VI's only son, the Prince of Wales, but she was left a young widow when he was killed in battle. Years later, she married one of his arch-rivals, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, whose brother had recently seized the throne as Edward IV. The marriage was controversial at the time because of Anne's previous marriage to the dead prince, but also because it contravened several points of Canon Law. Nonetheless, it does seem to have been a perfectly satisfactory royal marriage and the allegations that Richard poisoned her shortly after seizing the throne himself in 1483 as Richard III are certainly ludicrous. The true cause of her death at the age of twenty-eight was almost certainly tuberculosis.

7. Catherine de Valois (2 years, 2 months) Daughter of King Charles VI of France and the younger sister of a former queen of England as well, Catherine was married to the victorious Henry V in 1420 to cement England's victories in the wars against her native France. Legendarily beautiful, Catherine gave birth to a son, also named Henry, the year after her marriage, but she was left a widow when Henry died on military campaign in 1422. Sidelined from the regency government set up to rule for her baby son, who now became King Henry VI, Catherine caused a scandal when she eloped with her Welsh confidante, Owen Tudor. By him, she had three sons, including the father of the first Tudor sovereign, Edmund, Earl of Pembroke. She died in childbirth at the age of thirty-six in 1437.

8. Isabelle de Valois (2 years, 10 months) (Picture at the top of the article) Sister of the above, she was married at the age of six to the twenty-nine year old King Richard II of England, who had recently been left a widower thanks to the death of his beloved wife, Anne of Bohemia. Still grieving for Anne, Richard had no intention of rushing into a full marriage again so soon, but he could not ignore requests that he re-marry. A marriage to the infant French princess therefore seemed to offer the perfect solution. Isabelle lived in great luxury and seclusion and she was treated with great kindness by Richard, despite his mounting political and mental problems. She was sent back to France when Richard was deposed and murdered, where she subsequently married her cousin, the Duc d'OrlĂ©ans.

9. Anne Boleyn (3 years) The tragic brevity of Anne's time of queenship was famously immortalised in the nickname, "Anne of the Thousand Days." Enormously politically influential during the six years of her betrothal to Henry VIII, Anne polarised opinion in her lifetime and has continued to do so ever since. She gave birth to the future Elizabeth I in 1533, but struggled to carry a pregnancy to term after that. She was arrested and executed on false charges of adultery, incest and treason in May 1536. 

10. Katherine Parr (3 years, 6 months) Henry's sixth and final wife was already two times a widow when he married her in 1543. Gracious, elegant, charming and devoutly Protestant, she healed many of the rifts in the royal family caused by her husband's previous matrimonial endeavours. Following his death in 1547, she re-married for love to the Lord High Admiral, Thomas Seymour, but died in childbirth eighteen months later.


  1. Great article Gareth. However, I'd say Katherine Howard was actually only queen consort for 16 months rather than 19 - her title was stripped from her in November 1541.

    Jane Seymour was longer reigning

  2. Thank you for the correction, Conor. I think I will leave it in its original form, however.


Related Posts with Thumbnails