In this extended article, Rebecca Fachner looks at the story of King Henry VIII’s seventh wife – the one that got away. We venture in to the tale of Catherine Willoughby, one of the most enchanting women of her age and Henry VIII’s would-be wife.

A portrait of King Henry VIII of England from the National Maritime Museum, London.

A portrait of King Henry VIII of England from the National Maritime Museum, London.

The study of Henry VIII’s wives has been well documented, studied and even gossiped about from Henry’s era to the present day. There has even been a certain well-costumed TV series about his exploits that has brought the story into our living rooms in HD. What the series lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for in revealing clothing, but it is a useful exercise to see the drama unfold in something like real time. The way the narrative generally goes is that after five dramatic marital entanglements, Henry found himself a sixth wife and settled down to a contented, albeit brief, domesticity with her. She was as much a nurse as wife and was selected to see him though his last years placidly.

That narrative is comforting and provides a nice bookend, but there was actually more drama with Henry’s sixth wife than is generally supposed. For one thing, while Henry wanted to marry her, Catherine Parr was by no means keen to marry him. She was twice widowed already and in love with another man, Thomas Seymour, brother to Jane Seymour the late mother of Henry’s heir. Henry was not in love with her, at least not in the way he had been with several previous wives, but was hoping for someone who could be more of a helpmeet than bedmate.

In other words, this was no love match. There was presumably some affection on both sides, but more than any of Henry’s other marriages (save Anne of Cleves), this marriage was one of convenience. And if Catherine Parr was forced to marry a man she did not love, she consoled herself with the religious implications of her match. Parr was a fervent Protestant, embracing the so-called “New Learning” and the Protestant Reformation, and she considered it an honor to be the consort of the king who had freed England from Rome. She hoped that as his wife, she might be able to further his religious reformation and promote this New Learning throughout England. The problem with this idea, she quickly discovered, was her new husband. 

Henry was not at all interested in being a religious reformer, and in fact was quite conservative in all religious matters. He had broken with Rome because he disagreed with the Pope, not Catholicism. Henry had wanted a divorce, and the Pope did not grant him one, which precipitated the break with Rome, but he was no evangelical. Other than his belief that he was head of the Church in England, Henry did not deviate from the Church on matters of doctrine; indeed, he considered himself a loyal Catholic until the end of his life. From his perspective, it was the Church that had wronged him, not the other way around. It was a great disappointment to his Protestant would-be reformers, including his sixth wife, but Henry had no interest in sweeping religious change.

Despite this, or perhaps in spite of this, Catherine Parr gave her patronage as Queen to reform minded Protestants, even having a serious reformer as her private minister. She was close friends with several known reformers, including Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. She was bravely outspoken about her beliefs, and predictably earned enemies among Henry’s more conservative ministers. It eventually got her into real trouble with her husband, to the point where he was planning on having her arrested and taken to the Tower for interrogation. There were even rumors that he had a seventh wife already picked out as a replacement.

Catherine Parr.

Catherine Parr.

Rumors about a seventh wife

The rumored seventh wife was an even stranger pick for Henry than his sixth wife. Catherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, was one of the most intelligent, fascinating women of her age. She was decades younger than Henry, but that was by no means an impediment to their marriage; it was much more common and accepted in Tudor England for large age differences between husband and wife. Henry’s fifth wife was decades younger than him, his sixth was only four years older than his daughter Mary, and Catherine Willoughby had been 15 when she married her first husband who was 47. What was more problematic was that her previous husband had been one of Henry’s oldest and closest friends, Charles Brandon. Henry had known Brandon since childhood, and one of his previous wives (like the king, Brandon had many marriages) was Henry’s sister, Princess Mary. 

Another strike against the Duchess was her parentage and upbringing. She was the daughter of Maria de Salinas, the best and oldest friend of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife (to borrow a phrase from the Bard, it was indeed a tangled web they wove). She had been childhood friends with Princess Mary and very likely enjoyed the same humanist education as Mary. And although it might have been awkward, her association with Henry’s first wife would not have been an insurmountable obstacle. The real problem was that Catherine Willoughby was just as radically Protestant as Catherine Parr, more outspoken about it, and possessed of a sharp tongue and a biting wit.

It must be said that Catherine Willoughby did have several critical advantages. Henry knew her well, and so if he was indeed contemplating marriage, he must have known what he was getting himself into. She was the widow of a much older man already, so she had experience caring for an aging husband. She was young enough to bear him children, but she only had two with the Duke and therefore any failure to conceive could be blamed on her and not any possible impotence on Henry’s part. She was also wealthy and influential in her own right, and while Henry did not need her money, he could be reasonably assured that she was not the tool of a faction at court with an agenda of its own, as Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had been. Having been burned before by grasping factions at court, Henry selected Catherine Parr by himself; it stands to reason that he would do that again. Perhaps most crucially, like Parr, she was a widow. As Karen Lindsay points out in her study of Henry’s wives, marrying a widow had distinct advantages for someone with Henry’s marital record. He had proven an imprecise judge of a woman’s virginity upon marriage, for example, thinking that Catherine Howard had been a virgin when he married her but later discovering she was not. Marrying a respectable widow made the question of virginity a moot point, which suited Henry just fine.

Catherine Willoughby was born to Maria de Salinas and William Willoughby, the eleventh Baron Willoughby de Eresby, on March 22, 1519. As her father did not have any surviving sons, she inherited his title and lands upon his death when she was seven. She grew up at court, as her mother attended Queen Catherine of Aragon, but after her father’s death she became the ward of Charles Brandon, first Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to the King. It was common practice to have wealthy minor children become the ward of a powerful courtier to safeguard their inheritance. She was sent to live with the Duke and Duchess at their estates, which kept her at relatively safe distance when Henry VIII decided to repudiate Queen Catherine. Initially the Duke planned to have his young ward marry his heir, Henry Brandon, hoping, not unreasonably, to keep her rather large inheritance in the family. When his Duchess died unexpectedly, Suffolk decided to marry the young heiress himself. His heir Henry died a year later, and he and his young Duchess had two more sons, Henry and Charles. The Duke died in August 1545, around the time that Henry was becoming disenchanted with Catherine Parr. 


Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk.

Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk.

How serious was Henry VIII about taking another wife?

It is hard to know how seriously Henry contemplated marrying Willoughby; he did not leave any direct evidence either way. It is true that he had grown disenchanted with Parr, and he was one to look for a new wife before shedding his present one. Had Catherine Parr been executed, it is reasonable to assume he would have married again; he obviously enjoyed being married and wanted someone to care for him in his old age.

The rumors that the King was inclined in Willoughby’s favor come from letters that the Imperial Ambassador, Francis van der Delft sent to the Emperor. In Calendar of Letters, Despatches, and State Papers, relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain, it is noted:

I am confused and apprehensive to have to inform your Majesty that there are rumors here of a new Queen, although I do not know why, or how true it may be. Some people attribute it to the sterility of the present Queen, whilst others say there will be no change whilst the present war lasts.

Madame Suffolk is much talked about and in great favour.


Willoughby’s biographer Evelyn Read dismisses the rumors, and claims that van der Delft was making this up, but does not offer any explanation as to why the Imperial Ambassador would invent something so specific to report to the Emperor. It may be that van der Delft was uninformed; however, his letter to the Emperor makes it appear that he is reluctant to discuss it, but feels that it is important enough to warrant a mention. Why would the Imperial Ambassador make up this story out of thin air to pass on to his employer? It seems unlikely that the Imperial Ambassador spent his time inventing rumors and gossip to impress his boss. He did not simply report that Henry was considering another wife, he named names. If the Duchess of Suffolk’s name was not attached to this rumor already, what reason would van der Delft have to falsely link her to the King’s plans? More likely, he heard the gossip somewhere at court and reported it. This does not make the rumor true, but clearly van der Delft heard this gossip somewhere credible enough to be worth reporting to the Emperor. 

Needless to say, Henry did not take a seventh wife; Catherine Parr talked her way out of the jam she was in with the King, regained his good favor, and Henry died about a year later. Catherine Parr and the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk remained close friends until the end of Catherine Parr’s life, and when Parr’s young daughter by Thomas Seymour became orphaned, Willoughby became her guardian. Willoughby continued her advocacy of Protestantism, even fleeing to the continent when Queen Mary restored Catholicism to England. And she did marry again, to a fellow Protestant in her employ, Richard Bertie, and had two more children by him, Susan and Peregrine Bertie, thirteenth Baron Willoughby de Eresby. Catherine Willoughby died on September 19, 1581 aged 60 at Grimsthorpe, the home she had inherited from the Duke. 


What do you think? How close was Henry VIII of England to having a seventh wife?


Meanwhile, you can read more about King Henry VIII and how he impacted the English Civil War here.


Hume, Martin A.S., ed. Calendar of Letters, Despatches, and State Papers, relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain, preserved in the Archives at Simancas, Vienna, Brussels and elsewhere. Vol. VIII Henry VIII 1545-1546. London: Mackie and Co. Ltd., 1904.

Lindsay, Karen. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived; A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Read, Evelyn. My Lady Suffolk; A Portrait of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1963.