Recently, I was at a dinner party in Leicestershire and I had the pleasure of sitting next to a published Tudor historian. Conversation turned to the six wives of Henry VIII and it was generally agreed that the wife you'd want to hit the town for a couple of martinis with was definitely Anne Boleyn. Discussion of Anne's chic glamour soon led to a game of comparisons with Henry's other queens and, in particular, Anne's predecessor - Katherine of Aragon.
Whilst Anne has a decidedly chequered historical reputation - with people loving and loathing her in equal measure - Katherine of Aragon rests much more securely in her position as a de facto kind of saint. (There's a movement to turn her into a de jure one, too, but I digress.) She is the archetype and symbol of the wronged woman, the original president of the "first wives' club" and all the qualities traditionally associated with the perfect royal woman have been attributed to her. It is rare, to the point of startling, to find anyone who is prepared to query this - let alone to criticise. Which is why I remember being distinctly shocked (putting-down-the-glass-of-wine-shocked), when the historian to my right said, with passion, "But she could be so cruel to people. She could be so, so cruel."
Well, she's right. Katherine of Aragon was capable of perfectly vile acts of nastiness, which in popular legend are usually attributed to queens like Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth Woodville. Her vindictive bullying of her father's Jewish ambassador, her vicious desire to ritually humiliate the corpse of King James IV of Scotland and her complete indifference to anything but her own position make Katherine, in my eyes at least, an often thoroughly unpleasant character. Her melodramatic insistence that her living conditions during her widowhood and then divorce were purgatorial are patently untrue and we can tell that by looking at the surviving accounts book. That Henry VIII's first wife was also dignified, intelligent and magnificently tenacious is also beyond doubt. Katherine of Aragon is a far more interesting and more complex, but perhaps significantly less sympathetic, character than the saint created by the relentless PR machine set-up in her own lifetime.
Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, who ranks as my personal favourite of the six, was in many ways a much more fragile character than both her enemies and supporters like to think. What Anne Boleyn had, almost seeping out of her fingertips, was charm and charisma. As it turns out, a dangerous gift. She had something that we would now recognise as star quality; what the French recognised, even then, as je ne sais quoi. Like most naturally clever people, she was often accused of being manipulative or disingenuous. Like Katherine, she could also be unpleasantly oblivious to the humanitarian cost of her political causes. Unlike Katherine, she was neurotic, although both women shared a slightly hysterical bent to their characters. Anne was explosively temperamental and she got worse as she got older. The unmistakable impression given off in eyewitness accounts of the final months of Anne's life is that of a young woman trying desperately to hold everything together, as her life fell inexplicably and irretrievably apart. There are ample anecdotes of Anne's personal kindness and her generosity to those around her, but there are almost moments where she behaved recklessly and foolishly. To paraphrase a Tudor novelist of the 1950s, in many ways Anne Boleyn was clever, but she was not always wise.
Jane Seymour is another problematic soul. The romantic legend that she was the great love of Henry VIII's life and the perfect antidote to Katherine's pride and Anne's temper is sheer nonsense. Evidently, the couple married quickly and, as the old saying goes: marry in haste and repent at leisure. Within a few weeks, Henry was commenting on his new wife's pretty maids of honour and lamenting that he had not met them before marriage to the queen. The problem with figuring out Jane Seymour's actual personality is that there is almost nothing in any source that gives us an example of her doing anything proactively. In fact, of doing anything, at all. Her supposed support for Mary Tudor counted for less than nothing, because she only showed favour to Mary after Henry had publicly humiliated her, forced her to acknowledge the Reformation and brought her back to court to be paraded as the regime's number one prize turncoat. Given the scars left on Mary's psychology, health and spirit, Jane's gift of a diamond ring doesn't seem like it would have helped that much. Although, I suppose a diamond didn't hurt.
Similarly, there is absolutely no documentary evidence to support the idea that Jane took a protective interest in Anne Boleyn's motherless baby, Elizabeth. A slightly obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with controlling her maids and a pregnancy-inspired craving for quails from Calais are the only glimpses we get into Jane Seymour's day-to-day-life as queen. Then, eighteen months after securing the crown, she was struck down in unimaginable agony and died as a result of post-childbirth complications - like thousands of poor souls both before and after her. She rests today in Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, beneath a black marble stone as inscrutable as she herself was in life.
In direct opposition to how it's often played out in life, history can be quite kind to ugly girls. Especially if they're fat and a bit jolly. Anne of Cleves, the "ugo" of Henry's marital misadventures, is therefore rather fondly remember in Britain today, because of her metaphorical love for a strudel and a giggle. Divorced after only six months as queen because Henry allegedly found her sexually repulsive, Anne accepted a generous divorce settlement and actually got on rather well with her replacement, Catherine Howard. The two women even held a New Year's party together at Hampton Court and went through the deliciously Hilton-sisters-meets-Kardashian-style ritual of exchanging gifts of pet puppies and some bling. It is often assumed, therefore, that German Anne was contented with her lot and lived the last two decades of her life in perfect peace and happiness - thoroughly relieved to have escaped a life of being trapped under the sweating, ulcerous man-mountain that was Henry VIII.
In fact, like most things in history, it was a good deal more complicated than that. Whilst Anne had partied hard with Catherine Howard, she was moved to fits of furious weeping when she heard that her ex-husband was going to marry Katherine Parr in 1543. Far from being relieved that she was no longer queen, Anne took her husband's sixth marriage as a slap in the face. She claimed that she was far prettier than Katherine and she had apparently believed a rumour that with Catherine Howard now dead, Henry was going to come back to her. There is no record of any puppy-giving fiestas to wifey number six. Apparently, even for this sensible and jolly woman, the allure of the crown and the prestige of human attention was too much to walk away from.
Anne's replacement - the sexy and nubile Catherine Howard - is a Tudor novelist's wet dream. Sometimes, I fear, quite literally. The teenage daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, the story goes that Catherine was forced into the middle-aged monarch's sight-line by her ambitious and amoral uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who essentially pimped her out to his royal master. Slipped in between the monarch's sheets in the spring of 1540, he speedily chucked Anne of Cleves for her and beheaded his chief minister, for good measure. (Chop and change, etc.) Showered with gifts, jewels and parties, Catherine was the ultimate trophy wife. A sensuous young bimbo on the arm of a hideous and obese wealthy businessman. Then, she was caught with the sexy pool boy - or, one of her husband's grooms, in this case. Him, her, a helpful lady-in-waiting and one of the queen's pre-marital lovers were all shipped off to the executioner's block, where the poor girl ended her life before her twentieth birthday. A sacrifice to the illogical fantasies of men and kings and the appalling double standard of western sexuality.
Much of that is true. Catherine died horribly for something that she need not have died for under English law; it was Henry's insistence that she die that made her death an inevitability. She was also the King's middle-aged fantasy. But to shift all blame off Catherine for her own actions is unfair and inaccurate. At times, she behaved with near-suicidal levels of stupidity and self-indulgent recklessness. Sometimes, this was because she listened to truly terrible advice from her family and ladies-in-waiting; other times, it was because she herself was bored and wanted distractions. Capable of acts of thoughtful kindness, particularly to those less fortunate than herself, as well as being fun-loving and surprisingly elegant when carrying out her public duties, Catherine Howard's story is one that shows the terrifying way in which a human life can be shaped, and even ended, by a combination of bad decisions, bad advice and bad luck.
In contrast to Catherine the nymphet, Henry's sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, is usually presented as an elegant and intelligent bookworm. The perfect stepmother, if you like. For Victorians, the fact that Katherine was a devout Protestant made her more easily related to. She seemed like one of them. And that's how she's been remembered - as the perfect Victorian lady, in a gorgeous Tudor frock. In reality, Protestantism in the 1540s was a much more passionate affair than the sedate Anglicanism of Victoria's era. And Katherine gave herself over to the new religion with all the vigour of a woman throwing herself into the arms of a new lover. She was possessed and consumed by it; penning near-hysterical prayer books, extolling Protestantism's "born again" theology of justification by faith alone and sola scriptura. She came to loath the Catholic faith of her childhood and only by, quite literally, throwing herself at her husband's feet, did she escape being burned alive for heresy in 1546.
Although the Victorian version of Katherine as loving, charming and well-read is certainly true, there is therefore another side to her personality - passionate, outrageous and a risk-taker. It helps explain why she earned the dislike (one suspects) of both her stepdaughters in May 1547, when she eloped with Thomas Seymour, only a few months after King Henry's death. It was a gutsy move, made for love, which her eldest stepdaughter Mary was outraged by and which even the young Elizabeth confessed to being uncomfortable with.
The six wives of Henry VIII hover in our collective imagination, fulfilling our need for female stereotypes or historical fantasies. From the stereotypes' point of view, they respectively stand-in for the noble queen, the scheming temptress, the wallflower, the fat girl, the sexy bimbo and the sexless governess. We form opinions on them based on the impression we have of their characters. I should know; I've done it myself. And we are extremely reluctant to abandon those preconceptions, even when faced with an avalanche of contradictory evidence. Their lives were often tragic, often inspirational and invariably much, much more interesting than what they've been reduced to.