Henry VIII is one of royal history’s most recognisable faces ‒ best known for his tyrannical rule, the break from Rome and subsequent formation of the Church of England and, of course, his six wives. But Henry was poised to marry for a seventh time and rumours were rife that a new Queen had been lined up. So convinced were members of Henry’s court that this was a genuine plan, rulers across Europe were notified of it.
In February 1546, imperial ambassador François van der Delft wrote to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to tell him the remarkable news.
He said: “Sire, I am confused and apprehensive to inform Your Majesty that there are rumours here of a new Queen, although I do not know why, or how true it may be.
“Some people attribute it to the sterility of the present Queen [Catherine Parr] while others say that there will be no change whilst the present war [with France] lasts.
“Madame Suffolk is much talked about, and is in great favour; but the King shows no alteration in his demeanour towards the Queen, though the latter, as I am informed, is somewhat annoyed at the rumours.”
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Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk was lined up as Henry VIII’s seventh wife
Historian David Baldwin shed more light on this, writing: “‘Madame Suffolk’ was Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, the widow of Henry VIII’s closest friend, Charles Brandon, who had died in August 1545.
“Married to Brandon in 1533 when she was 14 and he nearly 50, Katherine had many opportunities to meet the King socially in the 1530s and 1540s.
“Henry undoubtedly liked her – they began exchanging New Year gifts in 1534 – and Eustace Chapuys, van der Delft’s predecessor as imperial ambassador, noted that he had been ‘masking and visiting’ with her in March 1538, only months after Jane Seymour’s death.”
Rumours of a seventh marriage spiralled out of control as Henry’s agent in Antwerp, Stephen Vaughan, told diplomats in March 1546: “‘This day came to my lodging a merchant of this town, saying that he had dined with certain friends, one of whom offered to lay a wager with him that the King’s majesty would have another wife; and he prayed me to show him the truth.
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Henry VIII’s first two wives: Catherine of Aragon (left) and Anne Boleyn (right)
“‘He would not tell me who offered the wager, and I said that I never heard of any such thing, and that there was no such thing.
“Many folks talk of this matter, and from whence it comes I cannot learn.”
Mr Baldwin, in his piece for BBC HistoryExtra, suggested that Henry “would have wed Katherine in the years after Jane Seymour’s death if she had been single, but Brandon’s longevity denied him the chance”.
He continued: “By February 1546, when the rumours about a new wife were swirling, Henry had been married to Catherine Parr for two and a half years, and their relationship was not always amicable.
“Any hopes that she would give him a second son remained unrealised, and he sometimes found her forthright Protestant opinions too challenging for his liking.”
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Henry VIII’s third and fourth wife: Jayne Seymour (right) and Anne of Cleves (left)
Henry VIII’s fifth and sixth wives: Catherine Howard (right) and Catherine Parr (left)
John Foxe ‒ of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs fame ‒ claimed that Henry considered investigating his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, for treason and heresy.
Had he proceeded with the plan, it would have paved the way for a seventh marriage.
The infamous protestant writer even claimed that conservative bishop Stephen Gardiner offered to obtain evidence that the Queen’s views were “treason cloaked with the cloak of heresy” and merited death.
But when Henry told his physician about the charges, he is said to have had a dramatic change of heart.
Queen Catharine seized the initiative and was able to nullify his lust for both execution and a seventh bride.
After she managed to bring him round, Mr Baldwin wrote, Henry “was mollified”.
The King said to her: “And is it even so sweet heart?
“And tended your arguments to no worse end? Then perfect friends we are now again, as ever at any time heretofore.”
Mr Baldwin concluded: “It is possible that the capricious monarch had seriously considered changing his wife again but had decided against it at the last moment.”
Henry died just months after these events transpired, in January 1547.
Katharine Willoughby, his would-be seventh wife, still had many years to live.
Henry VIII died in 1547, while married to Catherine Parr
Edward VI, Henry’s only son, ascended the throne after his death
She married and had another son and daughter with a nobleman called Richard Bertie and later managed to avoid involvement in the conspiracy built around her step-granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey.
After this episode, she spent four years in exile in Europe while Henry’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, ruled England.
She returned when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne and died in 1580.
A monument to her can still be seen in Spilsby, Lincolnshire.
The episode was not the only time Henry’s good nature won out, despite his bloodthirsty reputation.
Juan Luis Vives is “missing from English history books,” according to Tim Darcy Ellis, who has written a fascinating novel on Mr Vives based on historical accounts.
In his book, ‘The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives,’ Mr Ellis explores the 500-year-old tale of how Mr Vives became trapped in the divorce feud between Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Mr Ellis told Express.co.uk how Mr Vives played a pivotal role in the process by “working both sides” to support his own goals of “making sure Christian rulers took care of everyone in their realms”.
He noted how Mr Vives “supported Catherine of Aragon against Henry when he was trying to divorce her and he ended up in prison just before he was finally expelled from England”.
Henry’s disagreement with Pope Clement VII over his divorce led him to initiate the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from papal authority.
He appointed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England and dissolved convents and monasteries, for which he was excommunicated.
Eventually, Mr Vives was imprisoned for going against Henry and warning him of his “arrogance,” but escaped before the break.
Queen Mary I ruled from 1553 to 1558
Queen Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603
Mr Ellis explained: “He was imprisoned for six weeks and then given a day to get out.
“By the time the break with the Church happened in the 1530s he was safely back in Flanders, and that was a point in his life where he was really giving thought about attacking the Church.”
During his 36-year reign as King of England, Henry executed around 57,000 people.
He married Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jayne Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.
‘The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives’ is published by Tellwell Talent and available to purchase here.