Décembre 2022 | Mother and Loyal Subject ? : Henry VIII’s Ideal Wife and Philippa Gregory’s Historical Novels

Alison Offe-Gorlier, Liverpool Hope University


Henry VIII is well-known for one thing in particular: he married six times. Philippa Gregory, bestselling author of Tudor historical novels, has imagined the lives these six women may have led as the wives of Henry VIII. A reflection on what we know about the real king’s objects of desire and a study of the image of female perfection at the time help determine the qualities Henry’s wife had to possess. Henry’s definition of the ideal wife can be described as a partner in life, a mother to his son(s), and a faithful friend at court. This article examines the way Gregory has represented Henry VIII’s quest for the ideal wife in her twenty-first century fiction as she portrays Henry’s six queens in five historical novels, sometimes directly contrasting their different personalities and Henry’s changes of heart as he always seems to see what he desires in another woman than his current wife. Having at heart to give voice to women of the past, Gregory delivers a modern depiction of Henry and his wives and adapts the conditions of sixteen-century married women and marriageable maids to twenty-first-century norms.



Henri VIII est connu pour une chose en particulier : il s’est marié six fois. Philippa Gregory, auteure à succès de romans historiques sur les Tudor, a imaginé la vie que ces six femmes ont pu mener en tant qu’épouses d’Henri VIII. Une réflexion sur ce que nous savons de l’objet de désir du roi et une étude de l’image de la perfection féminine du XVIe siècle permettent de déterminer les qualités que devait posséder l’épouse d’Henri. La définition qu’Henri donnait de son épouse idéale peut être décrite comme une partenaire de vie, une mère pour ses fils et une amie fidèle à la cour. Cet article examine la manière dont Gregory représente la quête d’Henri VIII pour son épouse idéale dans ses romans du XXIe siècle en opposant parfois directement leurs différentes personnalités et les changements de cœur du roi qui semble toujours voir ce qu’il désire chez une autre femme que son épouse actuelle. Ayant à cœur de donner la parole aux femmes du passé, Gregory livre une représentation moderne d’Henri et de ses épouses et adapte les conditions des femmes mariées et des jeunes femmes nubiles du XVIe siècle aux normes du XXIe siècle.


        Henry VIII, King of England, married six times. His reasons for marrying so often included his obsession with continuing the Tudor dynasty, which was very recent, his pursuit of love and his quest to find a woman capable of being queen of England, according to his criteria. The rhyme “divorced, beheaded and died; divorced, beheaded, survived” is well known but the reasons behind those brutal endings hide, notably, the quest for Henry VIII’s object of desire—the perfect wife who would fulfil all his expectations.
Monarchs were usually not free to choose whom they wanted to marry. Reasons of state normally governed their decisions and could be found in three principles: international prestige, diplomacy and the spouse had to be a foreigner so as not to favour one English noble family over another (Ives, “Marrying for Love”). Edward IV and his grandson Henry VIII chose to defy those traditions. They married for love. “Yet,” Tudor historian Eric Ives argues, “the underlying assumption has always been that reasons of state should determine royal marriages and that monarchs would, if necessary, satisfy their emotional needs elsewhere” (“Marrying for Love”). This, however, was the difference between the two kings. While Edward IV was a known philanderer, Elizabeth Woodville remained his wife till his death. As far as Henry VIII is concerned, Antonia Fraser mentions that:

All his life King Henry VIII had a happy capacity for falling in love: happy at least from his own point of view, given that he was able to secure the object of his passion with reasonable speed. (Of his six celebrated marriages, four were actually made for love, one for affection, bordering on love, the only marriage which was made for pure reasons of state was an instant disaster). (64)

        British historical novelist, Philippa Gregory, delves into Henry VIII’s relationships with his wives, and, from the point of view of these women, recounts the King’s quest for the ideal wife. Having at heart to give voice to women of the past, Gregory presents the wives of Henry VIII as capable of outwitting the King and manipulating him into thinking that they are his ideal wives, impersonating his objects of desire, while pursuing their own desires. History tells us that Henry VIII was in search of the mother of his son to secure the dynasty and strengthen his masculinity, but his wife should also be loyal and unconditionally devoted to him. In Gregory’s novels, Henry’s wives, far from being submissive women, play on his desires for them to act according to his expectations in order to gain their own objects of desire. Thus, motherhood becomes a way to rule, obedience is at best feigned but most of the time it is subtly reversed to gain the coveted prize.
During his reign, Henry VIII had one dominant obsession: having a male heir. For him, the kingdom depended on it. As Fraser points out: “It was received wisdom that ‘for quiet repose and tranquillity of our realm’, in the words of Henry VIII to François I in 1533, the King must have a son.” With each marriage Henry VIII contracted, the king expected the same result. Matters did not, however, happen the way he had planned. Tudor specialist David Starkey observes that:

There are two reasons for a man to marry so often. Either he does not take marriage seriously enough or, alternatively, he takes it far too seriously and expects too much from it. Henry VIII, though we think of him as a woman-devouring Bluebeard, in fact belonged to the second category, and spent his life in two quests: for a son and for a happy marriage, of which a son was an integral part. (6)

        Indeed, in spite of his popular portrait as a womanizer, Henry VIII did not take many mistresses, compared to his French counterpart Francis I for instance.[1] When he was in love with a woman, she could expect a marriage proposal, whether or not he was already married. Henry was desperately romantic (Ridgway). Marriage was primordial for the king, who desperately wanted a legitimate heir, and he did not considered kingship in any other way. Therefore, when a wife failed to grant him his desire, he would seek another one. Ives remarks that:

The relationships between Henry and Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard each began while the King was married to someone else. This meant that if Henry began to show interest in another woman, the current wife had to take the threat much more seriously than a conventional consort. (“Marrying”)

        Henry entered into his marriages for his personal satisfaction, “[a]nd, if they failed to satisfy him, he broke them” (Starkey 8).
In those days, a male heir was considered crucial to continuing the royal line and securing the throne. It was probably the queen’s most fundamental duty. As popular historian Alison Weir notes: “What was really required of a queen was that she produce heirs for the succession and set high moral standards for court and kingdom by being a model of wifely dignity and virtue” (Weir 9). Upon becoming King, the eighteen-year-old Henry—and his council—saw Catherine of Aragon as possessing every quality to be the ideal wife for him. She was twenty-three, “graceful, appealing . . . with her sweet nature and evident devotion to ‘the prince her husband’” (Fraser 64), “attractive in terms of founding the new dynasty” (Fraser 64) and presented a strategical choice for an alliance with Ferdinand of Aragon (Catherine’s father) against France. Catherine became pregnant several times during her marriage to Henry VIII but only Mary, born in 1516, would survive birth and childhood. Fraser remarks that: “Royally born, intelligent, pious and gracious, Queen Catherine incarnated in all ways but one—the provision of a male heir—the ideal of the early sixteenth-century consort” (100). Her last pregnancy in 1518 resulted in the delivery of a born-dead daughter.
Although his desire to divorce Catherine stems in part from the lack of legitimate male heir, Henry VIII’s attraction for Anne Boleyn drove him to wish for her as his wife when she refused to become his mistress (Ives, Life and Death 88). Anne did not bring international prestige or alliances like her predecessor did, but to prove her worth to those who would have preferred a foreign bride, she entered politics by endorsing patronage and she brought with her a powerful faction (102-3). Many historians agree that Henry and Anne Boleyn’s relationship, although seen by their contemporaries as “[a satisfaction of] royal passions” (101), must have been true and passionate for them to wait before consuming it. As yet unmarried in 1532, Henry VIII pressed the matter ahead when Anne became pregnant. Starkey notes: “the child for whom Henry had longed for so many years, had to be a boy. And his birth had to be legitimate” (466). Unfortunately for him, Anne would deliver a daughter and despite two more alleged pregnancies, she would not give him his wished-for son. By 1536, Anne would become on object of revulsion to Henry as it would seem that the old pattern reasserted itself (Starkey 553).
Jane Seymour became the focus of Henry’s attention while Anne was pregnant for the third time and, like Anne, she did not bring any political alliance except for a strong faction. Applying the same method as Anne of preserving her virginity to secure the King as her husband, “Henry’s love and desire . . . was [subsequently] wonderfully increased” (Starkey 590). In October 1537, Jane would finally deliver the son Henry desperately desired. However, the birth was a difficult one and a Caesarean operation might have been envisaged. More to the point, Henry’s object of desire was first and foremost a son and heir and the difficult delivery put it in peril. Some accounts allege that when asked who should be saved between the mother and the child if it came to that, the king “is said to have opted for the child, as other wives could easily be found” (Weir 365). By providing the king with his true desire, Jane became Henry’s ideal wife who would posthumously be enthroned as the purveyor of Henry’s “philoprogenitive desires” (Fraser 468) by figuring in the Whitehall mural in an “evocative representation of the male succession he had struggled so hard to establish” (Fraser 468), and that while Katherine Parr was the current queen.
Henry VIII’s relationship with Catherine Howard started while he was still married to Anne of Cleves—the only marriage made purely for political reasons which lasted about 7 months. Whereas Anne of Cleves was an instant object of revulsion, to Henry, Catherine was his rose without a thorn with whom he was “besottedly in love” (Fraser 405). Starkey argues that Henry’s love for Catherine Howard, although tender at first and most probably true, was also a physical reaction to his failed union with Anne of Cleves:

Physically repelled by Anne of Cleves, and humiliated by his sexual failure with her, he sought and found consolation from Catherine. We can also guess that sex, which had been impossible with Anne, was easy with her. And it was easy because she made it easy. Henry, lost in pleasure, never seems to have asked himself how she obtained such skill. Instead, he attributed it all to love and his own recovered youth. (649)

        In April 1541, Catherine Howard thought herself to be pregnant but either it was not the case or she suffered an early miscarriage. “What is certain is that disappointment cast the King once more into a black mood, and in early May the Queen herself was visibly in low spirits owing to a rumour that Henry planned to get rid of her and take back Anne of Cleves” (Weir 440). While the rumour was unfounded, the lack of pregnancy for providing the spare heir did throw a veil of dissatisfaction over the marriage and degraded Catherine in Henry’s view. Nevertheless, he still loved her and did not believe at first the accusations of unfaithfulness against her. But upon receiving confirmation of her infidelity he cried openly (Weir 448, Starkey 671). Yet Starkey wonders: “Were his tears for Catherine? Or the loss of his own illusions?” (671) Catherine would be arrested and condemned to death by an Act of Attainder before her twenty-first birthday.
As for Katherine Parr, she is usually stereotyped as “The Mother Figure” (Fraser 509) yet she never bore the King any children. She was however of great influence over the King’s three children and reinforced the family bonds as no other queen did. Notwithstanding the much improved relationships with his three children, Henry VIII was certainly driven by the need for a spare, even in his latter years. As Fraser points out: “the intensely high rate of infant and child mortality meant that no one—and especially no king—could feel secure with only one son” (516). Thus, Henry VIII mainly married in the quest for sons.
Henry VIII’s idea of marriage was nevertheless shaped by the conventions of the sixteenth century. Like most men during that time, Henry believed in his own superiority over women, not only as king but also as a man. Scots reformer John Knox, in his treatise First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in 1558, wrote: “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man” (Weir 3). Indeed, Henry “expected total fidelity and absolute obedience” (Weir 81) from his wives. Consequently, his ideal wife would be the mother of his son and his most loyal subject, fulfilling the requirements that mark her as the object of his desire. Henry VIII’s wives, in addition to having been raised with the principle of woman’s inferiority, claimed their loyalty and obedience to their king and husband in their individual mottos that they adopted upon marriage: Catherine of Aragon’s was “Humble and Loyal,” Jane Seymour’s was “Bound to Obey and Serve” and Catherine Howard’s was “No Other Will Than His.” With the exception of Anne Boleyn, and partly because of her, Henry expected from all his subsequent wives’ total devotion to his person and respectful submission.
Many historians have noted that Henry’s wives were not extremely beautiful women. Fraser remarks that: “Queens however were not expected to be great beauties, and as with kings, it was more often a subject of surprised comment if they were . . . . Queens were expected to provide connections and a rich dowry on marriage, and carry out the functions of consort with requisite dignity thereafter” (Fraser 94) Yet, most of Henry’s wives brought neither connections, nor a rich dowry. Only Catherine of Aragon fulfilled those expectations, although she was of plump and small stature which several pregnancies enlarged. Anne Boleyn was not what was considered a great beauty by the standards of the sixteenth century. She was petite, with dark hair and dark eyes; her complexion was often described as sallow. As Fraser notes:

In theory, dark looks were regarded with suspicion and Anne Boleyn’s looks were conspicuously dark: she was ‘Brunet’ in the word of her admirer, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. Blondes like Mary Duchess of Suffolk or, in an earlier generation, the termagant beauty Catarina Sforza were the contemporary ideal. (150)

        Yet, Weir adds that “Anne’s charm lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her vivacious personality, her gracefulness, her quick wit and other accomplishments” (151). So although she did not correspond to the canons of beauty, she made herself desirable with personality traits could not fail to attract the king.
When Henry decided to turn away from Anne Boleyn, his attention focused on one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour who was blond, pale and in every way Anne’s opposite. For her part, she conformed to the beauty standards of her day as “[h]er most distinctive aspect was her famously ‘pure white’ complexion” (Fraser 290). But her attitude distinguished her completely from her predecessor. As Anne became an object of rejection, Jane, with a total contrast of physical beauty and behaviour became Henry’s new object of desire. If Anne, with her wits and dark looks could not get the King an heir, then pale meek Jane must surely be able to. Weir comments:

When Anne had been bold and fond of having her own way, Jane showed herself entirely subservient to Henry’s will; where Anne had, in the King’s view, been a wanton, Jane had shown herself to be inviolably chaste. And where Anne had been ruthless, he believed Jane to be naturally compassionate. He would in years to come remember her as the fairest, the most discreet, and the most meritorious of all his wives. (341)

        In her way, Katherine Parr was not outdone herself, as she was “a slim, attractive redhead whose unimpeachable reputation hid a sensual nature” (Porter), yet she was not a beauty by sixteenth-century standards: “Katherine’s looks, however, were not her chief attraction. People were drawn more to her warm and amiable personality and her intellectual qualities” (Weir 495). Since Henry was aged, ill, obese and probably impotent by the time he married Katherine Parr, “there can be little doubt that the King ‘deigned to marry’ her for the companionship she could give rather than for sensual pleasure or assuring the succession” (Weir 497).
In Philippa Gregory’s novels, Henry VIII’s wives must and do act ingeniously to become and remain the King’s objects of desire. In Gregory’s narrative, they are definitely not the submissive women that sixteenth century norms dictated but the author takes the liberty to empower her female protagonists to give them twenty-first-century realism and purposes. The revival of women from the past and their representation as real power-brokers have always been among Gregory’s fundamental goals in her historical novels. As she herself claims in one interview about the Tudor era:

The interesting thing about it, is that it’s a period with very strong women in it—if you look at Henry’s wives [ . . . they] are women who people would find very remarkable today. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn being very headstrong. Jane Seymour does . . . stand out for her religion against the King and Catherine Howard is too young really to know what she is to make of her life. Anne of Cleves, a fascinating woman, got herself a very good divorce settlement and lived happily ever after in England as a single woman, what could be nicer. Katherine Parr was married three[sic] times by the end of her life and was a very powerful, determined, self-driven woman. (HarperCollins)

        In the first novel of her Tudor series entitled The Constant Princess, young King Henry desires his wife to be a mother. However, the author presents his wife Catherine of Aragon as a maternal figure for Henry VIII himself. Catalina[2] has, since the first time she met him, seen Henry as a child. He was ten years old then: “this was a sunny boy who looked as if he had never had a serious thought in his head. He did not take after his lean-faced father, he had the look of a boy for whom life came easily . . . his blue eyes shone as if he was accustomed to seeing a very pleasing world” (43). This impression will stay with Catalina throughout her life with Henry and she will use it as a strategy to hold power over Henry. Catalina pictures herself as quite capable of managing him as if he were her own son:

“A child.” She shot a sideways little smile even as she silently criticized him. “A child of eleven. All boasting and boyishness.” . . . “A woman could rule a boy like that,” she thought. “A woman could be a very great queen if she married such a boy. For the first ten years he would know nothing, and by then perhaps he might be in such a habit of obedience that he would let his wife continue to rule. (238)

        The example of such a situation is clearly set up in the novel with Henry’s father, Henry VII, who is ruled by his own strong-willed mother, Margaret Beaufort. Catalina, therefore, thinks it quite possible to keep the king in his childhood illusion by endorsing the maternal role, and thus ruling through her future husband.
Although Catalina wishes very much to become the mother of England’s heir, her maternal instinct reaches farther than her own immediate family. She sees herself as the mother of England, protecting her country. In this aspect, Gregory presents Catalina as a strong female figure capable of sacrificing her own desires in order to assure her country’s security against the Scots while Henry is in France:

My hope, a strong sweet hope, is that when Henry sailed to France he left me with child. I will tell no-one, not even my women. I can imagine the outcry if they knew I was riding every day, and preparing for battle when I am with child, or even in hopes of a child. I dare not tell them, for in all truth, I do not dare do anything which might tilt the balance in this campaign against us. Of course, nothing could be more important than a son for England—except this one thing: holding England for that son to inherit. I have to grit my teeth on the risk I am taking, and take it anyway. (474)

        The objects of Catalina’s and Henry’s desires are similar: they both desire to have a son. Their desire is twofold, as on the one hand they wish to fulfil their duties as monarchs and to have a son to inherit; on the other hand, they also wish to have a family and fulfil their natural wish to be parents. Yet, Henry’s and Catalina’s desires correspond only up to a point: Catalina desires to be the mother of a son, yet her desire reaches outward to her country and she acts like a mother figure to the king and to England; while Henry’s desire is reduced to his own person as he wishes to remain a boyish man, seeking the attention of a mother. Gregory consequently portrays Henry’s ideal wife, in the first years of his reign, as the woman who would bring him security as his mother (dead in 1503 of puerperal fever) and his grandmother, who died in 1509, a couple of months after his accession to the throne, had always done. It is probably Catalina’s resilience and resourcefulness that Gregory wants to portray as the source of the attraction which made Henry VIII desire her in the first place.
Interestingly, Catherine of Aragon is the only one of the six wives that Gregory truly pictures as a mother figure, either to a child or to Henry. Although Anne Boleyn’s future undeniably depends upon her delivering a son, she does not display any maternal instinct. Her own object of desire is not the child she may carry but the unassailable position she can obtain if she delivers the precious heir. In The Other Boleyn Girl, in order to fulfil her desire to become Queen of England, she is even prepared to steal her sister’s son from her:

Slowly, I started to think. “So you have a son, Henry’s son. You have a son who is a Tudor by birth. If he marries you then in the same ceremony he gets a son.” She nodded. . . . “And of course, this way, you take my son away from me. So I am less desirable to Henry. In one move you make yourself the mother of the king’s son and you take away my great claim to his attention.” (243)

        Anne is no mother, and certainly not Henry’s. While it would sometimes be the right attitude to adopt in order to soothe the King’s temper by acting like Catalina, and even like his former mistress Mary Boleyn, Anne refuses the maternal role: “‘He likes comfort,’ I said. ‘A little soothing. Pet him, tell him he is wonderful, praise him, and be kind to him.’ She looked as blankly at me as if I were speaking Hebrew. ‘I am his lover, not his mother,’ she said flatly” (483). Besides, Anne wants to be Henry’s object of desire in a sexual, not a motherly, way and she promises to fulfil all he has ever desired—marriage and a son: “If she were to conceive a child by him right now, he might marry her. He’s so desperate for her he might do that. He’s desperate for her, he’s desperate for a child, the two desires might come together” (193). In doing so, she obtains her heart’s desire as well.
Having a child, and especially a son, is also a means for the King to show off his masculinity. Fathering children exhibits his virility in a way that exults his power as king. Remembering his first years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he says:

“I was virile,” he said. “And potent. Everyone knows that. And she took with child straightaway. D’you know how soon after the wedding she felt her baby quicken?” I shook my head. “Four months!” he said. “Think of it. I had her in foal in the first month of marriage. How is that for potency?” (164)

        Similarly, Anne Boleyn becomes the most desirable object for him when she conceives only a few months after consummating their relationship. His masculinity and virility are saved from dishonour in his view:

Now he thought that Anne’s ready fertility vindicated him completely. God had cursed him for marrying his brother’s wife and now God was lifting the curse by making his wife-to-be (his first wife, in Henry’s adaptable conscience) so fertile that she conceived within months of lying with him. He treated her with immense tenderness and respect, and he rushed through a new law, so that they might be legally married, under the new English law, in the new English church. (348-49)

Yet, when a wife fails to conceive and deliver the promised son, he accuses her for the failure and she becomes an object of revulsion. When Catalina delivers her last born-dead daughter, he unashamedly attributes the fault to her:

“No sons and a daughter who looks like the next winter might blow her away? I have no heir. I have no-one to come after me. . . . It’s the queen, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s what you’re thinking. That’s what they’re all thinking. . . . It’s that damned marriage,” he said. “I should never have done it. My father didn’t want it. He said she could stay in England as a widowed princess, ours for the ordering. But I thought … I wanted …” He broke off. He did not want to remember how deeply and faithfully he had loved her. (183)

        Here, Henry reveals a hegemonic masculinity as constructed nowadays and perceived as toxic. Generally, the term toxic masculinity “is used to refer to a loosely interrelated collection of norms, beliefs and behaviours associated with masculinity, which are harmful to women, men, children and society more broadly” (Sculos 3). Associated with a fear of infertility which developed into a crisis around the 1990s,[3] Henry is represented as an insecure macho man who strives—and fails—to attain the ideal of hegemonic masculinity.
In a fashion which echoes the values of 21st century feminism, Gregory depicts some of her female characters as forgers of their own futures, in order to claim that self-willed Tudor women were in control of their own lives and did not need men to guide them—even if this is not always realistic. Cooper and Short remark:

A good number of these [historical novels] such as Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2003), represent a fictionalised account of the life of a real woman (or women), providing a counter-narrative to the male-authored histories which precede them. Gregory in particular joins a growing tradition of female historians and writers who play upon, add to, and knowingly embellish the life of Boleyn and her sister, and who thereby critique claims to authenticity and accuracy made by male historians and writers. (3)

        In her first two Tudor novels, The Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory reverses Henry’s desire for his ideal wife to be submissive and depicts women who control the king. Gregory, indeed, portrays in those two novels a king who is submitted to his wives. The power play between the characters is evident and the queens very cleverly direct Henry by playing with different aspects of his personality. They lure him with things he desires to then gain their desires.
In The Constant Princess, Catalina acts upon Henry’s self-image as a strategical tool to obtain what she wants. First, she plays on his vanity so as to make him marry her: “Harry is vain . . . . On the one hand this might make him marry me, for he will want to be seen to be doing the right thing—honouring his promise, even rescuing me” (310). Then, Catalina always highlights Henry’s intelligence and places herself—and by extension her wish—as his object of desire to subtly lure him: “On the rare occasions that I have caught a moment with him in private I ask him to read to me and we discuss our thoughts on great writers. I make sure that he knows that I find him illuminating. He is a clever boy” (311). In order to coax him into making certain decisions, she accentuates his wish for authority:

“You have to be cunning,” she said softly. “You have to be skilled in saying one thing and thinking another.” . . . “I am not a liar.” “No, for you told him last time that the vain ambition of his king would be corrected by you. . . . You could not have been more clear. Now is the time for you to greet [the French ambassador] with a smile. You do not need to spell out your campaign. We will keep our own counsel. We will not share it with such as him.” (361)

        In doing so, she defines for him his attitude and his political strategy. She gently amalgamates her desire with his own as the “you” becomes “we” and her lesson becomes their tactics.
Likewise, Gregory presents Anne Boleyn as someone who has realised that Henry must be persuaded into making a decision. Anne also brings the king round to her viewpoint by praising and stimulating Henry’s intelligence. Although the break with Rome and the Reformation are almost completely absent in The Other Boleyn Girl, the reader can see Anne leading Henry to them through scholarship:

It was Anne who had the brain he needed, and Anne alone who had the ability to turn some theological tangle into a joke that could make him laugh, even as he puzzled over it. They walked together, every afternoon, her hand tucked in the crook of his elbow, their heads as close together as a pair of conspirators. They looked like lovers but when I lingered beside them I would hear Anne say: “Yes, but St Paul is very clear in his discussion of this…” and Henry would reply: “You think that is what he means? I always thought that he was referring to another passage?” (184)

        Anne subtly diverts Henry’s love of theological studies to bring him to her conclusions, thus shaping her desire into his. Gregory’s Anne has understood that Henry will submit to his wife if she controls his mind, as she tells her sister Mary:

The woman who manages him will be one who never stops for a moment remembering that she is there for strategy. You are all ready for the pleasure of bed and board. But the woman who manages Henry will know that her pleasure must be in managing his thoughts, every minute of the day. It would not be a marriage of sensual lust at all, though Henry would think that it was what he was getting. It would be an affair of unending skill. (37)

        However, it also turns against her as she becomes an object of revulsion for Henry when she fails to deliver a son and he is attracted to Jane Seymour: “But it was me who taught him to follow his desires. Worse than that, I filled his stupid head with the new learning. Now he thinks that his desires are God’s manifestations. He only has to want something to think it is God’s will. He doesn’t have to confirm it with priest, bishop, or Pope. His whims are holy. How can anyone make such a man return to his wife?” (483). The King rejects Anne Boleyn because of her own manipulations. The Other Boleyn Girl explicitly portrays Anne as an ambitious woman who deploys strategies to win her place in the world, but Gregory also denounces ambition which changes people into cruel tormentors. Every character who ruthlessly advances their personal agenda distorts their personality. The reproach is mainly addressed to Anne Boleyn who was killed as a result of her ambition in the novel. Because of her ambition, Gregory did not make Anne the real heroine of the novel; Mary Boleyn has that role. As the author states in an interview: Anne is undeniably an interesting character, she’s incredibly courageous but I wouldn’t regard her as a heroine in the sense that she is utterly unscrupulous and her intentions are purely her own satisfaction, her own ambition” (Fahle). In The Boleyn Inheritance, Jane Boleyn recounts Anne’s fall from grace, Henry’s descent into cruelty and transformation into a monster as a result.
In the early years of his reign, Gregory presents Henry’s ideal wife as the woman who would take control; she would still flatter him but he would be like a puppet in his wife’s hands. Most of Henry’s wives appears more cunning than he is. After The Other Boleyn Girl[4], Gregory portrays Henry as having changed, now desiring to be the puppet-master with his ideal wife firmly submitted to him. However, he still does not realise that his wives act according to their own wishes. In The Boleyn Inheritance, Catherine Howard is consciously aware that she is a sexually attractive girl and she plays on the King’s ego to attract him:

And I, looking up at him, fluttering my eyelashes down as if I am overwhelmed by him, say: ‘Oh, Your Grace! I should quite forget my steps if I were to dance for you. I would have to be guided, every step of the way. You would have to lead me wherever you wanted.’ So he says: “Pretty little thing, I know where I would lead you, if I could.” Oh, do you? I think. Well, you naughty old man. Can’t muster a salute for your own wife and yet whispering to me. (215)

        Finally, in The Taming of the Queen, the reader sees a king who wishes to mould his last wife, Katherine Parr, into his own perfect queen. This time, Henry wants to model her according to his own attitudes so that Kateryn[5] actually conforms to his desires:

“I am going to teach you to be Queen of England,” Henry says quietly into my ear. “You shall look at these wealthy and powerful men and know that you command each and every one of them; I have set you above them. You are my wife and my helpmeet, Kateryn. I am going to make you into a great and powerful woman, a true wife to me, the greatest woman in England, as I am the greatest man.” (90)

        It is Kateryn’s own choice, however, to become the queen she wants to be. Gregory presents her as someone not easily manipulated, although she lets the king think she is: “I have been compared, to my detriment, to the saintly Jane Seymour ever since I was married; I don’t want to suffer from a comparison to Thomas Wolsey too. I don’t want anyone to say that Katherine of Aragon was a better regent than Kateryn Parr” (148). Kateryn’s object of desire is to distinguish herself. She might be the sixth wife but she will be the most able, at least politically and diplomatically speaking. Kateryn desires to prove her worth by displaying agency.
Philippa Gregory reverses Henry’s expectations that his wives will be submissive women by portraying them as women who control him, usually without him knowing it. She gives agency and intelligence to her female characters and, in a modern reworking of history, turns her female characters into strong women who can reach a modern readership.
Philippa Gregory chooses, in her novels, to attribute beautiful features to all her female protagonists as well as making them sensual, thus accrediting all six queens with beauty and charm of their own. The Constant Princess shows a Catherine of Aragon who is alluring and uses her body to hold power over the court: “The girls were all good-looking but none of them outshone the princess who stood, composed, and then raised her hands and clapped, to order the musicians to play. He noticed at once that she moved like a sensual woman” (39). She never appears plump or small but elegant, even sexy. She appeals to the novel’s men’s desires with her body and her beauty, even trying to arouse them to obtain what she wants. She is conscious of her desirability and beauty and consequently uses them in the hope of becoming the future queen of England:

She saw him blush even redder, even his ears turned pink. She held his gaze for a long moment, she took in a little breath, and parted her lips as if to whisper a word to him. She saw his blue eyes focus on her mouth and darken with desire, and then, calculating her effect, she looked down. (238)

        Gregory has argued that the reason for her characterising Catherine of Aragon in this manner has been to present another side of the queen’s complex personality and to step aside from the image of the old discarded wife that she has acquired in history (Gregory and Snow). In The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn decides her own style and personality, in part to be a contrast to her sister, in another to be strikingly different from any other English lady, an attitude which could not fail to appeal to the King. As she tells her sister: “I shall be dark and French and fashionable and difficult and you shall be sweet and open and English and fair. What a pair we shall be. What man could resist us?” (7). More than adopting a particular style, she develops a behavioural strategy to attract the King’s favour. The Other Boleyn Girl certainly portrays Anne as an enterprising young woman who has a clear view of the world she lives in. She uses strategies and uses her sensuality to obtain what she covets:

Documents of the time state clearly that she does stamp her feet and shout at Henry and gets away with it. So there’s that picture of Anne that we today don’t seem to have. Also as she was the mother of the great Protestant Queen there’s two dramatically different views of her, one is of her as a malformed witch, which are Catholic Spanish observations of her, so I don’t quote these as I know that they were most probably made up. The other is the notion of her being very highly sexually charged which I don’t really buy either as any woman who can court a man and keep him at arm’s length for six years is not a woman driven by lust, but a woman driven by ambition. So I think my picture of her is very beautiful, very skilful, very calculating. (HarperCollins)

        Even Anne of Cleves, whom Henry reputedly rejected on sight, was portrayed in The Boleyn Inheritance as a pretty woman. The narrator remarks, however, that it was Anne’s attitude that did not please the King, asserting from the beginning of the novel that this woman would not be an object of Henry’s desire:

 She will never please him, poor child, not in a lifetime, not in a thousand years . . . . His preference runs to quick-witted, dainty, smiling women with an air that promises everything. Even Jane Seymour, though she was quiet and obedient, radiated a docile warmth that hinted at sensual pleasure. (48)

        The six wives of Henry VIII are more beautiful and more openly sensual than they would have been in the sixteenth century. The twenty-first century appears to be a time of liberation for women’s sexuality and Gregory’s feminism is visible in her novels. She shows that women in power can be feminine and sensual, even gaining power thanks to their charms and using their physiques unapologetically. They are thus clearly cast as modern women.
The modernisation of the characters equally appears on the covers of Gregory’s novels. The three novels The Constant Princess (Harper Collins, 2011), The Other Boleyn Girl (Harper Collins, 2011) and The Boleyn Inheritance (Harper Collins, 2011) display portraits of young women, made up with eye shadow, blusher and lipstick and dressed up in sixteenth-century clothes. On the covers, the three women have their chins up, they look haughty but not hostile, and their lips are full. All three look straight at the readers, enticing them to read the novel. By mixing Tudor costumes (clothes) with modern elements (21st century makeup, strong-wills and sensuality) they become objects of desire in themselves. Likewise, the 2016 Touchstone cover of The Taming of the Queen portrays a girl running in a castle corridor and it emphasises the sensual aspect of the protagonist with an off-the-shoulder dress, inviting the readers to follow her. The Simon and Schuster editions of The Other Boleyn Girl and The Constant Princess have similarly insisted on the colourful aspect with characters looking intensely at the reader with faces made up in the twenty-first century fashion. Other editions of the novels show either women looking away from the covers (Pocket Books, 2008; Washington Square Press, 2006), cultivating mystery, or display the bodies of women with their faces half cut-off (Harper Collins, 2006; Touchstone, 2003), insisting on the sensuality and commodification of the female body which is also a recurring theme in Gregory’s novels.
Gregory emphasises her female characters’ sensualities and sexualities, picturing them as openly charming. They are determined to achieve their goals. To become queen, they each scheme and strive to become Henry VIII’s object of desire. They promise him sons, loyalty and obedience, but truly act to attain their own desires. In her novels, they transcend their status as historical figures to grow into politically active women resonant with the twenty-first century feminist wave. She asserts in her non-fiction book The Women of the Cousins’ War:

Many historians in the past 600 years had difficulty in describing women making history, taking events into their own hands and being agents of change, because they simply could not believe that it could be done. If it was done, then it must have been done by someone who was in some way male. Amazingly, this view of women was not left in the medieval period: “The coverage of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, for example, has been notable for its emphasis on her appearance, with endless scathing comments on her unwomanly ambition and her coldly tenacious style.” (25)

        Philippa Gregory’s feminism is noticeable through her female characters who have a strong voice and their own distinctive forceful behaviours. She argues that a woman should be strong, dignified and stay firm on her positions in order to succeed and that is what her female characters display. In Gregory’s novels, Catherine of Aragon is no longer the old, neglected wife but a fierce, persevering queen who fights for her rights and her promised destiny. Anne of Cleves is no longer an ugly, rejected bride but a young and beautiful foreign princess who manages to adapt to her new country through willpower. Even Anne Boleyn, though it has been remarked that she is despicable in The Other Boleyn Girl (Bordo), displays strength and determination to forge herself a future that seems unattainable. According to Cooper and Short:

Although arguably all historical fiction marks a fictionalised re-telling, it seems that these modern fictions are confident to move much further from the perceived or accepted truths about certain times and personages. Modern readers are wholly unperturbed by narratives such as Gregory’s heavily fictionalised re-imagining of the life of Anne Boleyn, in which the author elevates the levels of passion and intrigues in an already familiar history. (6)


Works Cited

Bordo, Susan. “Fact, Fiction and Philippa Gregory.” The Creation of Anne Boleyn.com. 19.12.2011. Web. 19/04/2022.

Cooper, Katherine and Emma Short. The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Fahle, Rich. “Philippa Gregory Talks about The Other Boleyn Girl.” Bordersmedia. 02.03.2008. YouTube. Web. 14/09/2022.

Fraser, Antonia. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. 1992. London: Phoenix, 2002. Print.

Gregory, Philippa. The Constant Princess. 2005. London: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

—. The Other Boleyn Girl. 2001. London: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

—. The Boleyn Inheritance. 2006. London: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

—. The Taming of the Queen. London: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Print.

—. “Introduction.” The Women of the Cousin’s War: The Real White Queen and her Rivals. London: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

Gregory, Philippa and Dan Snow. “In Conversation with Dan Snow.” Facebook. 25.05.2017. Web. 16/09/2022.

Harpercollins Publishers Australia. “Author Interview: Philippa Gregory.” Web. 16/09/2022.

Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

—. “Marrying for Love: The Experience of Edward IV and Henry VIII.” History Today 50.12 (December 2000). Web. 16/09/2022.

Porter, Linda. “Did Henry VIII Love His Last Wife Katherine Parr?” BBC History Magazine 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 16/09/2022.

Ridgway, Claire. “Henry VIII the Romantic Soul.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 14 February 2012. Web. 16/09/2022.

Sculos, Bryant W. “Who’s Afraid of ‘Toxic Masculinity’?” U.S. Labour and Social Justice 5.3, art. 6, 2017. Web. 16/09/2022.

Starkey, David. Elizabeth: Apprenticeship. London: Vintage, 2001. Print.

—. Six Wives, the Queens of Henry VIII. 2003. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. 1991. London: Vintage, 2007. Print.



Alison Offe-Gorlier Alison Gorlier holds a PhD in Culture, Media and Communication Studies from Liverpool Hope University and the Université Catholique de Lille since February 2021. Her research concerns the phenomenon of Tudormania in Britain between 1995 and 2015. Recent publications include “Popularising the Tudors: The Case of Anne Boleyn,” in the 2017 Theorising the Popular journal and “From History to Page to Screen: A Mise-en-Abyme of History in The Other Boleyn Girl Novel and Film,” published online in Culture-Com La Revue (FLSH UCL), 2019.



Alison Gorlier est docteur en Culture, Média et Communication depuis février 2021. Ses recherches portent sur le phénomène des Tudors en Grande-Bretagne entre 1995 et 2015 et examinent la façon dont ces figures historiques célèbres et les événements de cette époque sont adaptés à leur public désigné. Publications récentes: “Popularising the Tudors: The Case of Anne Boleyn,” Theorising the Popular, ed. Michael Brennan, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, “From History to Page to Screen: A Mise-en-Abyme of History in The Other Boleyn Girl Novel and Film,” publié en ligne dans Culture-Com La Revue (FLSH UCL), 2019.

[1] Only three women are counted as serious mistresses of Henry VIII in books such as The Mistresses of Henry VIII (2009) by Kelly Hart and The Other TudorsHenry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards (2009) by Philippa Jones whereas Francis I is supposed to have had seven serious mistresses that we know of (See Les Femmes de François Ier [2005] by Christiane Gil).

[2] For the purpose of this article, Catherine of Aragon will be referred to as Catalina when speaking about the character in the novel.

[3] The term of “male infertility crisis” was driven to prominence by the popular media especially during the 1990s when it became more commonly studied.

[4] In chronological order of History and not regarding the dates of publication of the novels.

[5] As spelled in the novel.