It’s well known that everyone’s favourite religious reformer and psychopath, Henry VIII, called six different women his wife. He may have claimed that four of them never counted, he may have had two of those killed. Nonetheless, he got married on six different occasions. Henry VIII had six wives.
But the reason we’re hammering this home is that the phrase is nonetheless just a tiny bit misleading. Referring blithely to “the six wives of Henry VIII” creates an impression of parity: it suggests a line of unfortunate women of similar degrees of importance to national life and English history.
Run the numbers, though, and you can instantly see that the phrase is deeply unfair to poor, abandoned Catherine of Aragon:
Catherine was queen for 24 years. That’s nearly seven times longer than her nearest successor. It’s nearly 50 times longer than Anne of Cleves, who was queen for all of six months. There was barely time to adjust the headband on the crown.
Frame it a pie chart (what’s more fun than a historical pie chart?) and you can see that Catherine was queen for nearly two-thirds of Henry’s entire reign.
No wonder she was miffed at being pushed out. “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”? If Catherine hadn’t been dead for 479 years, she would sue.