King Henry VIII and his literate wives

The old saying “Behind every great man, there is a great woman” holds true in the case of Henry VIII, except in his case, there were three great women. A York University professor’s research into the libraries of Henry VIII and his wives has shed light on the considerable influence of their intellect on matters of church and state.

“You certainly see it in the books owned by Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Parr,” says Professor James Carley, author of The Books of Henry VIII and his Wives (British Libraries, 2005). Three of Henry’s six wives were what Carley calls “intellectual”, with carefully selected theological libraries. His research offers hard evidence that Henry’s most infamous spouse, Anne Boleyn, exerted considerable influence over the king’s religious beliefs and his eventual break with Rome.

Left: Catherine of Aragon

Carley found that she played an active role in shaping religious change, rather than merely serving as its catalyst. The texts show that the much-maligned Boleyn was a “convinced evangelical”, leaning towards Lutheranism despite Henry VIII’s ingrained anti-Lutheran stance, which had earlier earned him the title “Defender of the Faith”.

“She really got Henry going on questioning the church. In some ways, you can see her as the mother of the Church of England,” Carley says.

Right: Anne Boleyn

Many researchers view Henry VIII’s pursuit of a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, as politically motivated; the marriage had failed to produce an heir to the throne. But Carley’s evidence – in the form of Henry’s letters to Anne Boleyn – points to a king madly in love.

“It was only after he fell in love with Anne Boleyn that he started casting around for the evidence required for an annulment. This is when he first began to develop his research library,” says Carley.

His investigation of the libraries of Catherine of Aragon, and Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife, demonstrated that both were highly literate. The latter was an author in her own right, having penned Prayers and Meditations and Lamentations of a Sinner.

Right: Catherine Parr

“We see this often in history,” Carley says. “When we begin to examine the women associated with some very influential men, much is revealed.”

Carley, a distinguished research professor in York’s Department of English, has devoted two decades to the study of Henry VIII’s bibliography. He is also the author of The Libraries of King Henry VIII (British Libraries, 1999).