Even in his own lifetime, King Henry VIII became notorious throughout Europe for his serial marriages. When Henry was combing the Continent for a woman willing to become his fourth wife, English diplomats opened negotiations for the hand of the attractive young Duchess of Milan. The latter could summon little enthusiasm, for she had heard that Henry’s first wife ‘was poisoned, that the second was innocently put to death, and the third lost for lack of keeping in her childbed’. Henry’s ambassador protested that his master was ‘the most gentle gentleman that liveth’, but at this the Duchess found it hard to keep a straight face. Since Henry went on to divorce his fourth wife, beheaded his fifth, and contemplated arresting his sixth on capital charges of heresy, the Duchess’s scepticism was amply justified.
Oddly enough, Henry was in many ways an incurable romantic. To his chief minister he once ‘lamented the state of princes… in marriage’ for ‘princes take as is brought to them by others’ while ‘poor men be commonly at their own choice and liberty’. Yet whereas his fellow monarchs Francis