King Henry VIII’s wives are back in the spotlight thanks to the new PBS series Secrets of the Six Wives, and the show’s host, historian Lucy Worsley, is bringing to light hidden “hints at independence” in the women who lived alongside England’s 16th-century king. Among the series’ biggest revelations about each of the royal wives:
Divorced: Catherine of Aragon
At her divorce trial in London, Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, stood up for herself against the might of the crown and the establishment. Henry had been frustrated in his bid to have a male heir and wanted to move on to Anne Boleyn. “What dignity she had!” says Worsley. “Catherine’s magnificent — I hope we have done her justice.” Catherine’s personal symbol is the seed-rich pomegranate, but the “irony is that she was wrongly thought to be infertile. She gave birth six times [only one child, Mary, survived] and the pomegranate link slightly tugs at the heartstrings,” notes Worsley.
Beheaded: Anne Boleyn
She was secretly with Henry for many years while he tried to leave Catherine of Aragon, but she kept him waiting to consummate their relationship “until she was Queen,” says Worsley, who is chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and is based at Henry’s famous home, Hampton Court Palace. She appeals to modern royal fans because “she appeared to create her own destiny.” However, she only lasted three years, after being executed at the Tower of London in 1536. Anne left the world with a significant heiress: Her daughter with Henry became one of the world’s best-known monarchs, Elizabeth I.
Died: Jane Seymour
She’s believed to be the love of Henry’s life because he chose to buried alongside her at Windsor Castle. But, Worsley tells PEOPLE, “she died [soon after having her son, Edward] before he went off her. That’s why she stands out for him in his memory.” (Edward was king for six years from age nine.) Her symbol was the phoenix — a bird who kills itself. “This is weirdly poignant and ironic that she dies after giving birth to the thing that he wanted,” Worsley adds.
Divorced: Anne of Cleves
Worsley traveled to the Holland-German border to trace the story of Cleves’s ancestry. Henry had picked her from a portrait, and never met her when he chose her as a queen. And then, when he failed to consummate the marriage (with courtiers peering on), Henry’s side claimed that she was unattractive to him – thereby masking the possibility that he was infertile at this point. She became the richest woman in England after negotiating her divorce settlement. And she outlived his other wives and was present at the coronation of Elizabeth I: “In many ways, she’s the best of the bunch.”
Beheaded: Catherine Howard
Just 20 when she was beheaded, she arrived at court as a teenager. She encouraged the aging king to lose weight. “She took him out riding, and he would say, ‘My new wife has rejuvenated me,’ ” Worsley notes. This is the wife in which Six Wives has made the “biggest shift” away from popular opinion. She had been a victim of “abusive sexual relationships in her step grandmother’s household, and you can imagine people using that information against her and blackmailing her,” Worsley says. Howard was buried at the Tower of London after her execution – and even asked if she could try out the chopping block so she would know what it would feel like.
Survived: Catherine Parr
A groundbreaker, she’s the first woman to have written and published books in 16th century England. But she was a role model for another reason too. She looked after the stepchildren — Elizabeth and Mary, both of whom would become formidable queens. “She trained them up,” says Worsley. Her legacy could be that. “The deep irony is that his male heir dies in his teens and his daughters turn out to be fantastic monarchs, very much in his mould,” Worsley adds. Parr outlived Henry, who died at 55 in 1547, and soon after married for love.