PRINCESS DIANA PROBABLY THINKS that the sun never sets on an untroubled monarchial bed in the British Empire. At least her troubles pale next to the domestic difficulties of the original roistering royal—Henry VIII—whose 500th birthday is being celebrated across the realm this summer. Henry, born June 28, 1491, would have been a challenge to any woman. Possessed of gargantuan appetites, high-strung and paranoiac, he took matters into his own hands: When Pope Clement VII refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife, he simply left the Catholic Church. Henry’s six wives (divorced, beheaded, died, annulled, beheaded, survived) were playing with a loose—but stacked—deck.
Could modern-day therapies have improved the mercurial monarch’s marital lives? For a queen-by-queen analysis, PEOPLE turned to Zelda West-Meads, 45, national spokeswoman for RELATE, the British marriage-counseling organization for which Di serves as patron. West-Meads, herself married and the mother of two children, Tim, 26, and Caroline, 25, offers her observations with no ax to grind.
CATHERINE OF ARAGON
At 12, the new King Henry was betrothed to Catherine, 17, daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur. Intelligent and spirited, she made a good match but was unable to provide a male heir. As Catherine passed child-bearing age, Henry began to feel that God had cursed him for marrying his brother’s wife. Also, Anne Boleyn had taken his fancy. After 24 years of marriage, Catherine was banished.
“In counseling, we would have looked at how Henry felt about marrying his dead brother’s wife. It was to assuage his conscience that he had to blacken Catherine with the specter of incest. It wouldn’t have been easy to save this marriage.”
When Catherine was ordered to leave court, Henry, then 41, and Anne, 31, were secretly wed. By May 1533, when Henry’s first marriage was legally ended, Anne was pregnant—but with a girl (the future Elizabeth I). When she miscarried a son, Henry’s courtiers convinced him that she was a witch. Henry had by then cast his gaze on Jane Seymour. Two days before Anne was executed, the marriage was dissolved on the grounds of Henry’s prior adultery with Anne’s sister, Mary.
“If, as seems likely, Henry had an unloving relationship with his mother, he may have wanted to punish women. And Henry and Anne had nothing in common. She sounds a flighty little thing, and he’d been used to intellectual stimulus. The marriage was unsalvageable.”
Meek and gentle, Jane was a lady-in-waiting to both Catherine and Anne. The 28-year-old Queen bore Henry, 46, his male heir, Edward VI, probably by cesarean. Alas, the difficult delivery cost her her life.
“More than lust, this was a love match. Jane was similar to his first wife in temperament, but prettier. Cynics say Jane was fortunate to have died naturally, but this marriage might have survived.”
ANNE OF CLEVES
Two years passed before Henry remarried, this time a diplomatic match with a 24-year-old from a German state. But when the King laid eyes on Anne, he was repelled. Within six months, the marriage was annulled (grounds: nonconsummation).
“This had no chance. If someone finds his partner repulsive, no amount of counseling can change it.”
Henry wed this high-spirited 19-year-old 16 days after dismissing Anne of Cleves. At 49, His Majesty perked up, taking again to riding and dancing. But Catherine, promiscuous before her marriage, sought out younger men. After 19 months, chop chop.
“Henry was searching for his lost youth. By this time he was very fat, probably syphilitic and impotent. He probably knew of Howard’s promiscuous behavior before he married her but fell into the old trap of thinking he’d change her.”
Henry, losing his vigor, waited 18 months to remarry. The twice-widowed, scholarly Parr, 31, brought an unprecedented harmony to court. But she was as much nurse as wife to the ailing monarch, who died—possibly of syphilis—in 1547 at the age of 56.
“Henry had come full circle, with a woman he actually loved. The marriages that worked were the ones that he found intellectually stimulating. Of course when I say worked, I mean worked for the period they lasted.”
TERRY SMITH and MARGARET WRIGHT in London