If you’ve ever studied British history (or have ever heard mention of the Tudors), you’re familiar with the rhyme: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Henry VIII famously had six wives, but the general population doesn’t know much about the women beyond that. Six sets out to change that in a concert setting. The six wives — Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, Katherine Parr — have gathered to tell their stories through song. The purpose of the concert is for the audience to choose which of the women had it hardest. The show presents itself as a high energy rock version of a long-debated comparison.
Catherine of Aragon is first up in this competition. She was married to Henry VIII for twenty-four years. Previously, she had been married to Arthur, Henry’s brother. A few years after Arthur died, Catherine married Henry. Catherine’s song is in reaction to his attempt to get rid of her because he had fallen for Anne Boleyn. The pope would not annul the marriage, so Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury do it. Catherine is outraged; she says despite all Henry has done, she has stayed faithful and kept her cool. She says that she “will be queen to the end of my life.” Catherine is kicked from the court, though historically, she considered herself queen for the rest of her life.
Next up is Anne Boleyn. She’s a young party girl who comes into contact with the king while he is still married. She tells of the letters exchanged and of how she ended up moving in with the king and queen. After Henry and Anne marry, she complains about how Henry sleeps around. In turn, she decides to flirt with other men. Henry finds out, is outraged, and beheads her. The song exudes the confidence and ignorance of a young girl. Throughout it, she says she’s “sorry not sorry ‘bout what I said,” as well as asking, “What was I meant to do?” As upbeat as the song is, it serves as a reminder of Anne’s real situation.
Jane Seymour’s song changes the mood drastically. Known as the one true love of Henry’s life and the one who gave him a male heir, her song is a powerful ballad about the struggles of loving such a man, as well as the sorrows of dying before she could raise her son, Edward. She says that her heart is made of stone — not in that she is cold, but that she is strong and unchangeable. By flipping the image on its head, she manages to make her narrative clearly different from the others: it feels as if she is in command of the situation. Even then, she cannot cheat death. Jane Seymour died two weeks after Edward was born.
Before Anne of Cleves gets her moment on stage, we get some club music context from the House of Holbein. For Henry’s next wife, he orders Hans Holbein to paint portraits of beautiful women throughout Europe (this is the show’s plot — it didn’t exactly happen this way). From these, he will choose a wife. He chooses Anne of Cleves. However, when they meet, Henry doesn't think she looks enough like her “profile picture.” Anne doesn't protest his annulment of the marriage and lives the rest of her life in Hever Castle. Throughout the song, she explains that she didn’t have it hard. She doesn’t care what Henry thinks; she says she is “more rad than Lutheranism.” She then disqualifies herself from the competition. Her life was amazing and she makes that very clear.
Kathryn Howard’s song tells of four suitors, including Henry VIII. The song appears at first as a standard, sexy pop song. Throughout the tale of these lovers, Kathryn tells the same story again and again: she thinks a guy is different from the others, but all they “wanna do is touch me, love me, can’t get enough, see?” She never has a true friendship with any of them. She thought she had a special connection with a courtier (while married to Henry VIII), but all he wanted was her body. Kathryn Howard was eventually executed for promiscuous activity in 1542.
Katherine Parr is the last of the six wives. She had been married twice before marrying Henry VIII, though she says she didn’t love her husbands, and only married them “to survive.” After the death of her second husband, she falls in love with a man named Thomas. However, she never gets a chance to marry him because Henry VIII chooses her as his next wife. Katherine’s song, “I Don’t Need Your Love,” is about her trying to tell her love goodbye, while also saying she doesn’t need the love of either him or Henry. She makes the point that to even be in this competition, she has to sing about her time with Henry. She does not get to tell her whole story. She tells the audience that she was a writer and fought for women’s education.
While trying to decide who had it the worst, three of the wives get into a fight. What first starts this is when one of them brings up their miscarriages. This draws attention to the reality of the situation — that is a horrific tragedy that should not be compared with other moments. This argument makes the audience realize the gravity of this setup. The six women have become less than human through their comparison. The only reason they are even spoken of is that they were all married to the same disgusting man. In the titular song, the six women get to tell alternate stories. Stories of what they could have been and what they could have done if their lives hadn’t been taken over by the infamous Tudor king. The finale reminds the audience that these women are real people, as well as how many women have been lost to history because they weren’t tied to important men.
A note: Additional historical information came from the writer’s study of European history. If you are interested in sources, most of the information used can also be found here.
(Photo by Idil Sukan)