Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died

Natasha sheldon - May 19, 2018

“Sire, I am confused and apprehensive to inform your majesty that there are rumours here of a new queen, although I do not know why, or how true it may be.” So wrote Francois Van der Delft in February 1546 to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Van der Delft was writing from the English Court of Henry VIII, where he was the imperial ambassador. The ambassador was not, however, speculating as to who would take the vacant seat at the King’s side. For Henry was already married, to what would be his final wife, Catherine Parr.

Van der Delft was picking up on rumors flying about the court that Queen Catherine was to be replaced by another Katherine, the recently widowed Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Willoughby. The Duchess had been the wife of one of Henry’s greatest friends, Charles Brandon and a friend of Henry’s too in her own right. While Queen Katherine had given Henry no children, Katherine Willoughby had proven fertility- and was only 27. Queen Catherine’s possible removal becomes more compelling in light of events of that summer when she narrowly escaped a plot to implicate her in heresy. So did Henry VIII plan to marry again- and to the wife of his dead best friend?

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died
Sketch of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk by Hans Holbein the Younger. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


Who was Katherine Willoughby?

Katherine Willoughby was born on March 22, 1519, the daughter of the eleventh Baron Willoughby and his wife Maria De Salinis, one of Katherine of Aragon’s original Spanish Ladies in Waiting. In March 1528, the Baron died without a son, making nine-year-old Katherine his only heir. Henry VIII controlled the little girl’s wardship- but that same year he sold it to Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, for £2,266, 13 shillings and 4d. Brandon was Henry’s best friend- and brother in law, having married Henry’s young sister, the widowed Queen of France, Mary Tudor. The Duke intended Katherine as a bride for his son, Henry. So Katherine was absorbed into the Brandon household.

However, plans changed. In June 1533, Mary Tudor died, and within three months, the fourteen-year-old Katherine was married- but not to young Henry Brandon. Instead, she wed her forty-nine-year-old guardian, the Duke of Suffolk himself. Brandon wanted Katherine’s fortune- something he would not control even if his eleven-year-old son had been of age to marry her. His unexpected loss was therefore timely and something he was quick to take advantage of- however distasteful it seemed.

Katherine’s thoughts and feelings on the matter are unknown. In truth, she would have had little choice. Within a year, she had provided Brandon with a new son, named Henry after his eldest brother and mother’s previous fiancé died the previous year. The godfather of Brandon’s new heir was none other than the King himself- a sign of great honor. In fact, Henry showed his regard for the couple and Katherine in particular by paying the attending midwife and nurse £4 in gratitude for the safe delivery.

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died
Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon c 1516. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

A further son, Charles followed in 1537. By this time, the Duchess of Suffolk and the King of England were firm friends. They had begun exchanging New Years gifts in 1534, just a year after Katherine’s marriage to Brandon and it was to Katherine that Henry turned for consolation after the death of Jane Seymour in 1538. Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador of the day, noted how Henry had been ‘masked and visiting her’ meaning that he was enjoying dancing and musical entertainment in the duchess’s company.

What else they enjoyed is a matter of speculation. Certainly, Henry wanted to keep the Duchess close. He appointed Katherine Willoughby as Lady in Waiting to each of his subsequent wives- including Catherine Parr. However, whatever the King’s preferences or feelings, Henry could not marry Katherine even if he desired it- because her husband remained alive. However, on August 22, 1546, Brandon died. Katherine was a widow at just 26. Henry in the meantime had married Catherine Parr three years previously, and the royal couple had just been through a decidedly sticky patch.

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died
Catherine Parr, 6th wife of King Henry VIII of England. After a lost portrait by Hans Eworth from c.1548. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Catherine Parr’s Crisis

On July 12, 1543, Henry married Catherine Parr in a small chapel at Hampton Court. Catherine was 31, childless and already widowed twice. The wedding was low key, with only 24 guests, which has been used by some to suggest that it was a marriage of convenience. Henry was 52 and ailing, his girth expanding as his ulcerated leg increasingly disabled him. Catherine Parr had experience of nursing elderly husbands and was an experienced and much-loved stepmother. She made the perfect companion and nurse for the King- and surrogate mother his younger children, Edward and Elizabeth.

Yet Henry married Catherine “with a joyful countenance” suggesting that to him at least; he was acquiring someone more than a live-in nurse. In the first year of their marriage, he showered Catherine with gifts and showed great trust in her by making her regent of England during his final war against France in 1544. Henry and his new Queen had a great deal in common. Both loved hunting and music, books- and learning. To a certain degree, Henry encouraged his new wife’s intellectual life. He allowed his printers to publish her Prayers or Meditations in 1545- making Catherine the first Queen of England to become a published author.

However, in 1546, Catherine took this license too far when she decided to lecture the King on religion. In his declining years, Henry had back peddled somewhat regarding religion, preferring a more conservative Protestantism that was closer to the Catholicism of his youth. On the other hand, Catherine’s Protestantism was much more radical-dangerously so. So when she presumed to try to instruct Henry on the merits of her beliefs, the King turned on her. His irritation towards the Queen continued, with Henry remarking later “a good hearing it is when women become such clerks; and a thing much to my comfort, to come in mine old days to be taught by my wife.”

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died
Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew by Robert Crowley. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain Image.

The arch-conservative Bishop Gardiner who was jealous of Queen Catherine’s influence scented an opportunity. In 1546, those with radical reforming views were in danger of being arrested and executed for heresy. In May 1546, one, Anne askew, was arrested. Gardiner and his ally, Henry Wriothesley, the Lord Chancellor tortured her to try and get her to implicate the queen. The interrogators questioned Askew closely about “My lady of Suffolk, my lady of Sussex, my lady of Hertford, my lady Denny, and my Lady Fitzwilliams” All were protestant members of Catherine’s inner circle. Interestingly, “My Lady Suffolk” was Katherine Willoughby herself.

The bishop had all of the ladies searched for forbidden books and Katherine herself wisely spirited away any copies of her own controversial reading matter. Nothing was found. In July 1546, Ann Askew was burnt for heresy without implicating the Queen or any of those around her. Yet the danger was not over for the queen. Gardiner and Wriothesley continued their investigations- with the full knowledge of the King who even consented to his wife’s arrest. But was Henry seriously trying to rid himself of his sixth wife so he could marry Katherine Willoughby?

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died
The Death of Henry VIII, January 1547. Google Images.

A Seventh Wife for Henry VIII?

Henry VIII may have been angry with Catherine Parr. However, there is no real evidence that he intended to replace her with Katherine Willoughby. Aside from the fact that Gardiner’s investigations would have implicated the King’s friend as well as his wife, Henry made it all too easy for Catherine Parr to wriggle free of the heresy situation. And that was unusual, for when Henry decided to rid himself of a wife, he was inexorable. Instead, Catherine was somehow warned about the King’s intentions. When she next attended upon the King, Henry brought the conversation around to religion in an unusual and contrived way.

Forewarned, Catherine demurely stated she would not presume to instruct the King in religion and in that matter as in all others; she would defer to him. She then went on to explain that she had only argued with him previously, to “profit from his learned discourse,” – and take his mind off his leg! “And is it, even so, sweetheart? And tended your arguments no worse end?” asked Henry. Catherine assured him it was so. “Then perfect friends we are now again,” promised her husband. Henry had what he wanted- deferral and a retraction. He merely wanted to put her in her place. If he had wanted her gone, he would not even have spoken to her.

Indeed, by the time Charles Brandon died, and Katherine Willoughby was free, in August 1546 this royal drama had played itself out, and Henry and Catherine reconciled. The royal couple even took themselves off on a second honeymoon that autumn. This sequence of events makes no sense if Henry really wanted to marry the Duchess of Suffolk. If he wanted to contrive charges against Catherine it would have made more sense to do this after Charles Brandon was dead- and he had no way of knowing when that would be.

Henry VIII May Have Had His Eye on a Seventh Wife Before He Died
Bust of Katherine Willoughby, on the tomb built for herself and her second husband. Photograph by David Hitchborne. Wikimedia Commons. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

In fact, Henry’s own death probably preoccupied him more than the possibility of another wife. By the latter half of 1546, Henry weighed close to 400 pounds. He could barely walk due to his leg ulcer, and muscle weakness and his eyesight was going. He was aware his end was drawing near. All that mattered now was to put his affairs in order. Just before Christmas 1546, he parted from Catherine for the last time. He died on January 28, 1547.

The rumors that formed the basis of Van der Delft’s letter were nothing more than that. Indeed, what people were basing their assumptions on something that had existed for years between Henry and Katherine Willoughby. Perhaps at some point, they had been lovers. They may have simply have only been friends. However, that aside, as well as Katherine’s unavailability and Henry’s satisfactory marriage to Catherine Parr, if Henry had seriously intended to his queen with her lady in waiting, it is unlikely the two women would have remained friends. Which they did . For it was Katherine Willoughby who eventually took in Catherine Parr’s daughter by Thomas Seymour after the couple’s deaths.


Where do we get our stuff? Here are our sources:

A Seventh Wife for Henry VIII?, David Baldwin, History Extra/BBC History Magazine, March 2014

Did Henry VIII Love his Last Wife Katherine Parr? Linda Porter, History Extra/BBC History Magazine, March 2010

Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, Sarah Bryson, The Tudor Society, 2016

The Jousting Accident that turned Henry VIII into a tyrant, Michael Mccarthy, The Independent, April 17, 2009.

Catherine Parr in Danger, Elizabeth Norton, The Anne Boleyn Files, June 8, 2010

John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Onlineor TAMO (1576 edition) (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011)