Written by Catherine Whitehouse.
In 2017 Six the Musical had it’s first performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and told the story of the six wives of Henry VIII re-imagined as a pop girl band. For centuries these women were known merely as one word in a nursery rhyme ‘Divorced, Beheaded Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’ but ‘Six’ was written to change this as they take the narrative back into their own hands all whilst battling it out to be the leading lady in the girl group aptly named ‘Six’. In a matter of years ‘Six’ has become one of the most talked about shows in the world playing on the West End and Broadway as well as in Australia and on tour. In the show the queens compare their lives to see who had it the hardest at the hands of the tyrannical Henry VIII in their own
individual number inspired by some of the great pop princesses of modern times such as Avril Lavigne and Beyoncé. It seems like everyone is talking about these six ill-fated queens but how realistic and true to life are these depictions to what Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr actually went through?
Its time to strip back the glitz and glamour to uncover the real lives of the ‘Six’ wives!
In this first part we will be looking at Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.
Catherine of Aragon - 'Divorced'
Catherine of Aragon
How is she portrayed in ‘SIX’?
Catherine of Aragon is the first Queen to perform and fight for the lead. She is portrayed as a strong-willed woman who despite living in a society dominated by patriarchal tradition, exudes feminist values demanding she as Queen deserved to be treated as equal to her husband regardless of her gender. She performs her song ‘No Way, in a style comparable to that of Beyoncé, and objects Henry VIII’s proposal of divorce in an act of powerful defiance as she has been loyal to him and he made her a wife, she’ll be queen 'til the end of her life. Many fans of the musical admire these traits in the character but how true to life is this representation of the first Tudor Queen?
Jarnéia "Jaye'J" Richard-Noel – Aragon on the West End
Devoted Wife haunted by tragedy!
From the moment she was born in Spain in December 1485, Catherine of Aragon was but a pawn for political, dynastic ambitions. She was the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile who, through a strategic dynastic marriage, ruled over a unified nation of Spain. It is therefore no surprise that she would be an asset to her father and used to strengthen his power and position, far from the feminist icon presented to us in ‘Six’!
In 1489 the Treaty of Medina del Campo was signed between Ferdinand and Henry VII of England to ratify the proposed marriage between Catherine and Prince Arthur, sealing her fate from infancy, forming a strong alliance for the future of the two nations. In 1501, when she was around 16 years old, she was shipped off to England where she was greeted by the impatient and power-hungry King Henry VII who insisted on going to collect the young princess himself. After fighting in the War of the Roses Henry was keen to secure his throne and ensure a Tudor Dynasty, a marriage alliance with a powerful nation was the perfect solution as with any luck it would produce an heir, a living, breathing symbol of the power alliance. As a result, Catherine and Arthur’s wedding was a largely extravagant affair, a full-on piece of royal propaganda!
However, their façade of marital bliss was short lived with the pair quickly becoming sick and Arthur dying just five months later. The young, recently widowed Princess now faced an uncertain future. Plans were made for marriage alliances between Henry’s younger son (who would become Henry VIII) and even at one stage the aging, widowed King himself but ultimately the Spanish alliance was abandoned in 1505 due to the fickle nature of the King and Ferdinand’s reluctance to pay her full dowry, but where did this leave Catherine? She had been held prisoner in Durham House in London this whole time with no money, having been cut off by her parents, unable to speak much English and battling her own ill health. She was left alone and abandoned and couldn’t even afford to sustain her own household. She had to pawn many of her belongings and her future in England looked bleak which understandably gave her tremendous anxiety, that was until Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509.
To the young King Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon was rather attractive politically. His father had tried to keep them apart but this was in vain as the defiant new King was set on this union that would not only guarantee the succession immediately but also secure an alliance with the powerful nation of Spain and reinstate Catherine of Aragon’s allowance from her father – in Henry VIII’s eyes this could not go wrong and the pair were married on 11th June 1509. However, the couple’s supposed marital bliss was to be short-lived. That same year Catherine became pregnant for the first time but miscarried shortly after, this was to be a common occurrence for the new Queen as she went on to have a number of miscarriages and stillbirths, two of which were male which enraged her insecure dynastic focused husband. Catherine of Aragon’s only surviving child was a daughter Mary Tudor (born February 1516 who would later become the infamous ‘Bloody Mary’) which ultimately would bring doom to her marriage of almost twenty-five years.
In 1519 Henry and his mistress Elizabeth Blount welcomed a son Henry Fitzroy which only exposed one case of his infidelity and left loyal Catherine of Aragon heartbroken. The King had had enough, he wanted a son, and this wasn’t going to happen if he stayed with his aging wife. The deeply religious Henry believed this was because God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s wife thus leaving him childless (Leviticus 20:21), in his eyes anyway and began to look for a way out thus beginning his infatuation with Anne Boleyn. King Henry VIII began to argue his marriage was invalid on these religious grounds while Catherine heavily defended herself as she claimed she never consummated her marriage with Arthur. While this was going on Catholic Henry orchestrated the break from Rome, as in the Catholic church divorce was forbidden, creating the Church of England with himself as the head meaning he could do whatever he wanted without any resistance which in this case would be to marry Anne.
Catherine fought against the King’s actions not because she wanted to be seen as his equal but rather out of necessity as another failed marriage would leave her in ruin once again – she needed to stay with Henry to secure her future.
She was defiant, refusing the option of living in a nunnery as she intended to live and die a married woman however this may have been a decision she would come to regret. Once the divorce had been finalised in 1533 Catherine was dismissed from court and imprisoned without access to her daughter. This is where she would stay virtually alone and isolated with very little contact with the outside world or those close to her living at the mercy of her ex-husband. Catherine of Aragon died on 7th January 1536 following two hours of desperate prayer following her final Holy Communion granted to her by the King.
Upon her death people were devastated across the nation and Europe as she was a popular Queen and rumours that she had been poisoned quickly spread but were unlikely to be true. While she is portrayed to be powerful, defiant and headstrong in ‘Six’ and her fate of divorce belittled by the others who claimed to have it worse in reality her life was one tragedy after another stemming right back from the premature death of Prince Arthur in 1501. She constantly had to fight to survive and ultimately died a prisoner at the hands of a cruel, manipulative and power-hungry Monarch who years earlier seemed to be her ticket to a comfortable and content life.
Anne Boleyn - 'Beheaded'
How is she portrayed in ‘SIX’?
Anne Boleyn is the second Queen to take to the stage in order to win the crown. Not only does she have her song ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’ performed in an energetic, youthful and flirty style compared to that of Avril Lavigne but she also has an introduction verse depicting her as a temptress and a mystery who is the popular and ‘really famous’ one of the six who ultimately paid the price for her fun-loving, carefree ways. She also is seen to have a priority for the arts and enjoying herself claiming politics was ‘not her thing’. She is without doubt one of the most loved characters with the fanbase and her song is often played and used across social media platforms particularly by young girls who ‘just want to have some fun’ but what would the real Anne Boleyn make of this and is there a darker, more serious side to this sassy and seemingly light-hearted Tudor Queen?
Courtney Bowman – Boleyn on the West End
An ambitious, cultured Queen doomed by dynastic and political tensions.
By the time Henry began to express an interest in Anne Boleyn, she had already spent a significant part of her early life in various courts in Austria and France and had been praised with glowing reviews before returning to England in 1522. Anne was famed for her beauty and had an array of admirers fighting for her hand including Henry, Earl of Northumberland and Thomas Wyatt, a married man who used her as subject for his love poetry, but she was from a strong and driven family meaning an advantageous marriage was certainly on the cards.
For many years Anne served in the English court and became a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine, which is where she would catch the King’s attention in 1526. At first the King attempted to seduce her as a mistress, but she refused it is believed on the basis of her devout Protestant faith although her sister Mary was an alleged mistress of the King. Following her rejection of the royal advances she fled to Hever Castle in Kent, adamant that she would not give herself to the King as he was already married. However, less than a year later and with the continuation of the Tudor Dynasty on their minds the couple were engaged and in May 1527 Henry began actively seeking to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in divorce. While the divorce had major implications for religion in England sparking the Break from Rome, we will be instead focusing on what would become of the new Queen after she was crowned in 1533, spoiler alert it wasn’t pretty!
When Anne came to the throne despite being adored by the King, she faced a public who pined for Catherine who had been their Catholic Queen for almost 25 years. England now had to adapt to a new way of living and worshipping as the nation became Anglican following the Church of England which had Henry VIII as the head instead of the Pope. Anne, as aforementioned, was devoutly Protestant and was an integral part in many major religious, cultural and social changes including the publication of the Holy Bible in English where previously it had only been available in Latin. She was highly educated and skilled and for as long as she could she made great attempts to be a positive influence and make a difference, a stark difference from the ditzy, fun-loving girl we are introduced to in ‘Six’! Unfortunately for Anne her downfall would come due to Henry’s growing desire for a male heir.
During their three-year long marriage Anne Boleyn suffered at least two confirmed miscarriages with her only surviving chid being Elizabeth, born in September 1533. Henry was now growing impatient. He had been married twice and only had two legitimate daughters to show for it, he needed a male heir and needed one fast. To add insult to injury, Anne’s sister Mary gave birth to a son named Henry and it was widely believed that the King was the father. On top of this, the Holy Roman Empire, one of the major powers in Europe, refused to ratify the marriage as the Emperor was Catholic and a relative of Henry’s first wife. Things were not looking good, that was until Jane Seymour, who had served as Lady in Waiting to both of his wives, caught his attention.
Henry’s new muse lead to Anne Boleyn quickly becoming vilified across the Kingdom as he sought a way out.
She was slandered and branded as an adulterer and a witch despite little evidence on either front causing her to be remembered as nothing more than a six fingered whore.
It is highly agreed amongst historians that all the rumours and allegations were exaggerated and spread by the King’s advisor Thomas Cromwell who had been in a long-standing power struggle with Anne over the Poor Law. Anne stood up for herself and was politically minded which Cromwell detested and he used this to advantage to offer the King a way out. Anne was charged with high treason in April 1536 and was executed shortly after. Unlike with his first wife, Henry showed Anne mercy by using a sword upon her request resulting in a swift execution.
To this day Anne Boleyn is a mystery. Most portraits we have of her were commissioned by her daughter, who would go on to be Elizabeth I and we know little about her personal life but what we do know is that she was highly educated and ambitious. Her influence was resented and envied by others and perhaps if she had borne Henry VIII a son we may have seen or heard more of her achievements as she was popular with those in power.
Jane Seymour - 'Died'
How is she portrayed in ‘SIX’?
Jane Seymour’s performance follows the energetic numbers of the two queens who preceded her and sets a very different tone. Her song ‘Heart of Stone’ is a power ballad similar to that of modern-day artists like Adele and speaks of an undying love for her husband and new-born son. She is seen as the ‘ideal’ wife and mother and thankfully for her the fact that she gave Henry the heir he so desperately desired meant that it was likely she would enjoy a long marriage with arguably a genuine love from the King who she loyally and dutifully served. However, the song then goes on to show her heartbreak at her early death leaving her son without a mother and it often reduces the audience to tears as the feel the new mother’s pain. Was the real-life Jane Seymour’s life and relationship with the King as pure and loving as the musical portrays solidified by the fact that they had a son together? It certainly seems that way.
Natalie Paris – Seymour on the West End
A loyal wife and mother struck by tragedy who left her mark on the King’s heart.
Jane Seymour had a seemingly idyllic upbringing. She was born around 1509 in England into a wealthy family, her father was Sir John Seymour. Her family had a lot to offer and even though she was not particularly well educated and somewhat illiterate, she could only write her name, she was able to enjoy the finer things in life and become skilled in needlework and gardening. She was also a natural in household tasks making her perfect wife material. Jane went on to serve as Lady in Waiting to both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, which is where she ultimately caught the attention of her future husband, King Henry VIII. She was young and beautiful, had no previous romantic engagements that we know of and compared to his first two wives she was modest and soft-spoken – how could the King keep away from such a woman? It was alleged that Henry first took an interest in Jane shortly after Anne Boleyn’s second miscarriage in 1535 on a visit to her family home.
The King quickly became besotted with Jane and it was clear a new marriage and a new Tudor Queen would come imminently. The pair married on May 30th, 1536, just 11 days after Anne Boleyn was executed by Swordsman. She was declared Queen immediately and even though she was never coronated, due to her unexpected, untimely demise the couple seemed to get on well. Had the King finally secured a successful marriage that would secure his Dynasty for generations? Well yes and no.
Jane quickly fell pregnant and on October 12th 1537 she welcomed a son, Prince Edward, at the picturesque Hampton Court Palace much to the delight of the King who had been pining for a son for well over two decades. At first there was no sign of concern, Jane appeared to be recovering and Edward was christened with the King on the 15th at the palace chapel. Jane did not attend but this was customary at the time as according to Biblical law women had to go through a period of purification after childbirth. The King was filled with joy and it is likely that he felt he had achieved everything he had set out to do, but this was to be short-lived. Jane Seymour died just nine days after her son's birth, due to complications caused by a puerperal infection, she was 28 years old. The King was devastated by the news, not only had he lost his wife, but he had also lost the women who had given him a son and heir.
Following Jane’s death, it is believed that the King wore all black as a sign of his unsurmountable grief and would not re-marry until three years later in 1540, which is a significant amount of time compared to the rest of his marriages.
Jane Seymour was buried at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and when King Henry died, he was buried beside her, yet another sign of his love and devotion to her. While it can be argued that Jane’s fate may have been different had she given birth to a son, her life was far smoother than those of many of the women who came before and after her. We will never know how ‘genuine’ this love was, but it certainly had a lot of promise and she absolutely had a great impact on the King for the rest of his life including her inclusion in Henry’s family portrait commissioned circa 1543-1547.
Written by Catherine Whitehouse.
Catherine Whitehouse is a final year Politics student at the University of Essex. She has a keen interest in history particularly that of the Kings and Queens of England as well as Political/Electoral history. She LOVES musical theatre (and founded the musical theatre appreciation society at her university), jalapeños, Games including Dungeons and Dragons and the animals in her life: Ollie, Lottie, Buddy, Buster & Forrest the hamster.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.