Team Catherine of Aragon vs. Team Anne Boleyn: How Henry VIII's Two Strong Wives Compare
Henry VIII spent many years trying to cut loose his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, only to then wed Anne Boleyn for a mere three years before her beheading.
The fickle monarch would ultimately leave a trail of six wives, whose individual stories are now being told by historian Lucy Worsley in PBS’s new series Secrets of the Six Wives, which airs alongside the new Masterpiece series Victoria on Sunday evenings in the U.S.
But the first two are typically regarded as the most famous and strong-minded of Henry’s wives.
Catherine of Aragon was married to the notorious king for nearly 24 years. And, as the show portrays, she defended herself in court as Henry battled to institute divorce in England. “What dignity she had,” Worsley tells PEOPLE. “My favorite scene is when she is at Blackfriars’ divorce court and she speaks up for herself, which nobody was expecting her to do.”
“She’s magnificent. I thought, ‘How have we overlooked this woman for year?’ I hope we have done her justice.”
For more about the secret lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, pick up a copy of this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now
Anne Boleyn, who had been maid-in-waiting to her predecessor, was beheaded in May 1536 after just three years of marriage, after being accused (likely wrongly) of adultery.
“They were happily married for two years and then it went wrong quickly and suddenly,” explains Worsley. “This was linked to the death of Catherine of Aragon. While Catherine was alive, Anne was quite safe because he could never admit that he’d made a mistake — then he would have had to go back to her and she would have been right all along.” That changed in January 1536, when she died.
Despite secretly being with Henry for several years while he tried to leave his wife, Boleyn kept him waiting to consummate their relationship “until she was Queen,” Worsley notes.
Anne is wildly popular among Tudor fans and is seen as being more “bewitching and sexy,” says Worsley. (Catherine is often portrayed as the more conservative of the two in a square headdress, while Anne wears a French hood, which more closely resembles a headband.)
But there’s no doubt who’s the favorite of the historian, who’s also chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces (and works out of Henry’s famed Hampton Court Palace on the banks of the River Thames southwest of London). Says Worsley: “I’m more team Catherine of Aragon for her dignity, integrity, grace.”