Or, basically he was Trump
Henry VIII was a narcissistic sociopath. I could write essay after essay about how narcissistic and out of control he was (and many other people have), but instead I chose to focus on the geneology of his marriages.
The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, at least up until the Protestant Reformation, had complete control over the political marriage game. Any political marriage had to be approved by the Church, and any marriage within seven degrees of consanguinity (first cousins, second cousins, all the way up to seventh cousins) was forbidden unless the couple obtained a Papal dispensation. Granted, that made basically all political marriages virtually impossible, given how frequently royal families intermarried. So, Papal dispensations were a dime a dozen.
At the same time, annulments were usually pretty easily obtained. Didn’t like how your marriage was turning out? Just pay the Pope a bunch of money and pull out some family charts. If you could prove you were within the prohibited seven degrees, you could probably have your marriage dissolved. Such was (hopefully) the case with Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. They were well within the seven degrees, and on top of that, Catherine was Henry’s brother’s widow. That made them siblings in the eyes of the Church. Granted, the Church gave them a Papal dispensation before the wedding that allowed Catherine to marry Henry regardless of her prior marriage, but these things were frequently overlooked. It was assumed that Henry would be able to have his marriage to Catherine dissolved, allowing him to take a second wife and hopefully have sons, something Catherine hadn’t given him.
Unfortunately for Henry (and the political scene of the early 16th century), the Pope became a virtual prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, which made it pretty awkward for him to grant an annulment. Henry ended up splitting from the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn, changing the course of history completely.
Anyway, the story is pretty well known. Sociopath Henry married six times, killing two of his wives and burying two others. I decided to figure out how closely he was related to each of his wives. He would have needed Papal dispensations for most of his marriages, except that after Catherine, he became the head of his own church and would no longer need them as he now controlled the political marriage game in England.
A disclaimer for all of these charts: As with all royal marriages of the times, several lines of descent were likely. The lines I have shown are either the best known, or the only ones I could find. It is likely, and probable, that more lines exist. For example, Henry was both third cousins and fourth cousins with Catherine of Aragon. See the final section for further explanation.
A further note: When I first published this essay, I went back and forth calling Henry a sociopath and a psychopath, Upon further investigation, I believe it’s more appropriate to call him a sociopath. It was physically possible for him to show genuine affection, occasionally for Jane Seymour or his children, though this happened less and less frequently as he grew older. Many ideas have been floated to explain his erratic behavior, from brain damage to diabetes to a rare genetic disorder called McLeod Syndrome. Whatever the cause, his symptoms are sadly something we are forced to witness again and again as history repeats itself.
Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII
This is the only marriage Henry obtained a Papal dispensation for. It’s also the marriage I suspected was the closest in relationship. Henry and Catherine were half third cousins once removed. John of Gaunt married three times, having children with all three wives. He had Catherine of Lancaster with his second wife, through whose line Catherine of Aragon descended. He had Joan Beaufort with his third wife, through whose line Henry VIII is descended.
Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII
I was surprised to see how distantly Anne (and Catherine Howard) was related to Henry. She was his seventh cousin once removed. It wasn’t until Edward III became king that the English started awarding people the title of “Duke,” and these titles were mostly only awarded to sons of the king. It is surprising, then, that Thomas de Mowbray, a distant cousin, was awarded the title Duke of Norfolk. In fact, I had to go all the way back to Edward I to find a common ancestor of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I suspect, however, that there is a closer common ancestor between Henry and Anne, I just couldn’t find them.
Jane Seymour and Henry VIII
Nothing very interesting about this line of descent, except to say that Jane was the lowest born of all of Henry’s wives. They were fifth cousins twice removed. Famed Tudor historian Alison Weir put forth a new theory which posits that instead of child bed fever, Jane may have died from a pulmonary embolism as a result of severe dehydration and enforced immobility after giving birth to Edward. It’s an interesting theory and one that I think has a fair amount of evidence behind it, but Alison Weir has also been known to blatantly make shit up (especially when it comes to Richard III since she’s rabidly against him), so I say this theory may need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII
This was the most surprising of all of the wives. I expected Anne of Cleves to be the farthest related to Henry, and thus the hardest to find a link between. But, as is extremely common among the royal families, intermarrying always occurs. It turns out that both Henry and Anne were descended from French royalty. And what’s really surprising is that Henry was as closely related to Anne of Cleves as he was to Anne Boleyn! They were also seventh cousins once removed. This is also the only marriage that was never consummated, so, had Henry stuck with the Catholic Church, it would have been the easiest to annul. No sexy-times, no marriage.
Catherine Howard and Henry VIII
This line is identical to the relationship between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, except instead of Elizabeth Howard, Catherine Howard was descended from Edmund Howard. She and Henry were seventh cousins once removed. Catherine Howard was the least educated of all of Henry’s wives, and has the worst reputation. She was way too young to be queen.
Catherine Parr and Henry VIII
Catherine Parr is often portrayed as more of a nursemaid than a wife for the ailing Henry. This would have been absurd; Henry had plenty of doctors, and Catherine was only in her 30s when she married Henry. He married her because she had a pretty face and a witty mind. Like the first Anne, however, Henry quickly tired of her wit. She managed to save herself from arrest, but most likely would have found more trouble later on had Henry not finally died, gross and obese. Henry and Catherine were the most closely related, both being descended from Joan Beaufort (who, if you’ve read my previous essay titled No one remembers ever remembers Joan Beaufort, you would know had approximately 3,000 children). They were 3rd cousins once removed.
Six wives, six cousins. One obese, insane, grotesque Henry. He put four queens in the ground and executed thousands of his own subjects. He has gone down in history as one of the most dynamic kings of England. We can only hope that
we can impeach his fat ass we’ll never see his like again.
A note on alternate lines of descent
European royalty liked to intermarry. As a result, cousins were often cousins several times over. I’ve shown the best known lines of descent of Henry and his wives. Alternate lines exist, and in some cases shift the relationship between Henry and his wives.
The Neville Line
This is the line I most frequently use for Henry. It goes through Katherine Swynford, one of my favorite characters in history. It is also the line that goes through the most women, as it goes from Katherine to her daughter Joan, then her granddaughter Cecily. Duchess of York Cecily Neville has her own badass story, one that I urge you to look into. This line deals with several love stories; John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Cecily Neville and Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.
The Beaufort Line
This line of descent has the same start and end points and the same number of steps as the Neville line, but goes through John and Katherine’s son, John Beaufort, the 1st Earl of Somerset. It also goes through Margaret Beaufort, who was particularly crazy (and I believe had the Princes in the Tower murdered), and Henry VII, who I have a particular dislike of (again, see my previous essay, No one ever remembers Joan Beaufort).
The York Line
This line of descent is the one that gave Edward IV a direct, male link to the royal throne. It adds an extra step between Edward III and Henry VIII, and would shift Henry down in his relationship to his wives.
The Mortimer Line
This is the line Edward IV used as his claim to the throne. Though through the female line, it is a more senior line of descent than the house of Lancaster as Lionel of Antwerp was an elder brother of John of Gaunt. This adds three extra steps between Edward III and Henry VIII, which would shift Henry much farther down in his relationship to his wives.
The Portuguese Line
The line of descent I showed for Catherine of Aragon was the Castillian Line, through John of Gaunt’s second wife, Constance of Castile. Catherine was also descended from John’s first wife, Blanche of Lancaster and their daughter Philippa, who married the king of Portugal. This line of descent adds a step, shifting Catherine down in her relationship to her husband.