The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

“Divorced, beheaded, died, / Divorced, beheaded, survived.” That’s the mnemonic rhyme we used in school when we were studying the life of Larry King. Oops, that’s wrong. Just dug out my old notes. King Henry VIII of England.

have you seen my wife, mr. jones?

But a lot of the stuff you think you know about ‘Enery the Eighth is a bunch of Tudor twaddle. If you’re picturing him as a blimp of a man chewing on a giant turkey leg, for example, you might be surprised to hear that he was one of England’s most athletic kings ever—a tall, muscular man who liked to hunt and joust. (As with so many jocks, it was only later in life that he started to pack on the pounds.) Contrary to popular belief, he did not write the folk song “Greensleeves,” which uses an Italian form that didn’t even reach England until after his death. And—believe it or not—he never got divorced.

Divorce in 16th-century England was impossible under canon law. It simply didn’t exist. When Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon gave him a daughter instead of a son, he blamed her for the lack of a male heir (genetic science at the time not being what it is today) and tried to get the marriage annulled—that is, retroactively cancelled, as if it had never existed. This would leave his daughter Mary a bastard—but what did Henry care? He was already making eyes at his wife’s charming attendant Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII refused to go along, which led to Henry’s break with Rome. But the end of the marriage to Catherine, like his 1540 break with Wife #4, Anne of Cleves, was not a divorce, as we think of divorce today. It was an annulment.

Quick Quiz: What famous theater burned down in 1613 when a staged cannon shot went awry during a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.