Katherine of Aragon
The reasons for the divorce of Katherine of Aragon have been much debated, both at the time and in the hundreds of years since. It seems that the primary reason for Henry’s wish to be rid of Katherine was that she hadn’t presented him with the male heir. She only had a daughter, Mary. Henry VIII wanted a son to follow him and secure the dynasty.
The second reason, which was used as an excuse to end the marriage, was that Katherine had been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur. There was debate over whether Katherine’s first marriage was consummated, because if so, then the passage in Leviticus could apply. You shouldn’t marry your brother’s widow or you’ll be childless. To Henry, no son was as good as being childless.
It was dependent on your own opinions as to whether Henry VIII was justified in his opinions and actions in getting rid of Katherine of Aragon. If the marriage was consummated, then Henry’s marriage to Katherine was most likely invalid in the eyes of the world at that time, but we will never know for sure.
Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest with five different men, including her own brother. It is largely now accepted that she was in fact innocent of these charges against her, as the evidence can largely be disproven (dates given where either Anne or the other party wasn’t where they were said to be in the indictment).
Like Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn had also failed to give birth to a son to secure the dynasty – only a single living girl, Elizabeth. There was a further element of Anne’s fall; Jane Seymour, who would become Henry’s third Queen two weeks after Anne’s death. Henry had fallen in love with her and she would give him the son he wanted so desperately.
Anne Boleyn’s fall from power is probably the most shocking of the four because Henry had spent seven years loving her against all reason and pulling apart his kingdom for her, but in the end, he treated her worst of all, probably because she had disappointed him in the biggest way, and publicly. Nevertheless, Henry was wrong to get rid of Anne, especially in the way he did.
Anne of Cleves
The Cleves marriage was the most short-lived of all Henry VIII’s marriages. Anne of Cleves was the only one Henry didn’t see in the flesh before he married her. It was doomed to fail from the start in my opinion. It was forced by international circumstances rather than any actual desire on Henry’s part. He would have preferred a French or Spanish bride.
Henry VIII had built up such high hopes of the marriage that when he first met her he was disappointed and wasn’t afraid to show it. She had been raised very differently to him and didn’t speak much English, which probably put Henry off a lot. He was used to English women, or at least women used to English ways. Henry expected too much in too short a time.
I think it was Henry’s disappointment that ended the marriage and this is shown in his kind treatment of Anne of Cleves as his sister, giving her money and several estates. Evidentially Henry saw the fiasco as Cromwell’s fault rather than Anne’s (as he was the one who lost his head), but matters were expedited by Henry’s love for one of Anne’s ladies, Katherine Howard.
Katherine Howard is probably the only wife of Henry VIII (as I see it) to have done anything wrong. She almost certainly was guilty of adultery, or at the very least intent to commit adultery, with one of the king’s grooms, Thomas Culpeper. However, like her cousin, Anne Boleyn, her marriage was annulled so she couldn’t technically be guilty of adultery.
It wasn’t just her affair with Culpeper either. What Katherine was originally accused of was dissolute living before her marriage, which was no crime per se. She had encouraged the attentions of her music master, Henry Manox, and then of another gentleman, Francis Dereham. Dereham and Culpeper were both executed as well as Katherine.
Initially the marriage was just to be annulled until Henry found out about Culpeper. Looking back to the 16th century, it is easy to see why Henry had Katherine executed. Adultery isn’t seen as a crime nowadays, but back then it was critical, especially in a Queen. It could affect the succession, and it certainly impacted the king’s manhood.
It was nearly five … Katherine Parr
Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, had a close escape from Henry’s wrath. She was warned by someone within the court that Henry had signed a warrant for her arrest. This was likely for heresy, as she and members of her household owned reformist books, and Katherine herself debated religion with the king. But this was dangerous.
Katherine’s sister, Lady Herbert, had already been arrested and questioned, but let go. This was more serious. She only avoided arrest because she went to Henry before the warrant was served and pleaded with him, saying that she debated with the king to learn from him and to take his mind off his sore leg. Close escape!
David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
David Starkey, Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII
Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII