It’s the histo-remix! Brush up on your Tudor history before seeing the musical ‘Six’
Learn about the real events that inspired this feminist story about Henry VIII's wives.
“Welcome to the show, to the histo-remix!” This line in the opening song of Six, “Ex-Wives,” sets Six up perfectly. Six isn’t a totally accurate historical reenactment of Tudor history. But if you see the show on Broadway, you might guess that when you see the onstage rock band, glitzy costumes, and concert-like setup of Six before that line is even sung.
Six is all about the six wives of Henry VIII, who form a pop group and compete to be the lead singer by debating — with six catchy, pop-style songs — who Henry treated the worst. In short, Six is a feminist retelling of history that leaves Henry off stage entirely and puts the women at the microphone.
But how much do you already know about Tudor history? Maybe you remember the “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” rhyme used to remember the Queens, but little else. So if you didn’t pay attention during high-school history class or just need a royal refresher, we’ve got the lowdown on all things Tudor to know before seeing Six.
The real Queens wouldn’t have known about the pop-music style their characters sing, but you’ll find that much of the show’s content sticks to the Tudor facts. If all you wanna do is learn more about the history behind Six and where it comes up in the show, you’re in the right place.
What was the Tudor period?
The Tudor period was an era in England and Wales when members of a particular royal family, the House of Tudor, ruled Great Britain. The period lasted from 1485 to 1603, beginning with Henry VII after he beat Richard III in the Wars of the Roses and promptly dethroned him. But of course, the most famous — er, infamous — Tudor ruler is Henry VIII, known as much for his religious endeavors as his high-profile, short-lived marriages.
Elizabeth I was the last Tudor monarch. Her reign started off strong but ended with a bunch of socioeconomic troubles that eventually became James I’s — her successor — problem. During the prosperous years, culture thrived so much that historians call the Tudor period a “golden age” in English history. You might already know that if you’ve heard of a little playwright named William Shakespeare — when most people think of Elizabethan England, they think of his timeless plays. Since the era is known for innovations in theatre, it’s fitting that the Tudor period itself is now the subject of a hit show!
The Tudor myth
No, this isn’t a fantastical tale of heroes and monsters like the Greek myths — the Tudor myth was basically a 16th-century propaganda campaign. After Henry VII kicked off the Tudor period, historians and authors (including Shakespeare) wrote about Richard III’s rule as a dark, violent time in order to make the Tudor kings look better. But of course, the Tudor period wasn’t really a picnic, either, especially under Henry VIII. The Queens — especially the beheaded Anne and Katherine — can attest to their fair share of misery and bloodshed. And in Six, boy, do they.
The Queens and Henry VIII
You probably learned about them in school as “Henry VIII and his wives,” but we put the Queens first here because that’s what Six is all about. Here’s what you need to know about the six Queens (and the king) beyond “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,” including some fun facts your high school history book might have left out.
Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon was Henry’s first wife, but Henry VIII was her second husband. She first married Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died five months after their wedding. What’s most notable about Catherine of Aragon, though, is her historic political career.
Catherine served as ambassador of the Aragonese crown to England in 1507, making her the first known female ambassador in Europe. Also, while she was married to Henry, she governed England for five months as regent while Henry was in France, and was key in helping England win a major battle against Scotland during that time. No wonder she said “no way” when Henry wanted to break up with her!
In Six, she’s sharp and fierce, and her song is inspired by Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez.
“I broke England from the church; yes, I’m that sexy,” Boleyn sings in her Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne-inspired Six song. That is true: Henry denounced the Catholic church (the feeling was mutual) and started the Church of England primarily so he could divorce Catherine and marry Anne, which the Catholic church wouldn’t allow.
But Boleyn was so much more than “sexy.” She was a maid of honor to Queen Mary in France, and the archetypal Renaissance woman: She learned a ton about the French language and its culture, including dance, philosophy, literature, and yes, flirtation, and had a broad education in religious philosophy, poetry, art, and fashion.
Even before they were married, Boleyn was allowed to do things like receive and vouch for diplomats, and give patronage to artists. Once she and Henry tied the knot, Boleyn helped him secure an alliance between England and France.
Jane Seymour was unlike Henry’s previous wives: She is described in historical records as conservative and meek, with a knack for embroidery (which she passed on to Henry) and housework. She, too, had some political influence; she was involved in peacemaking efforts in Henry’s court, a natural fit for her gentle nature. She’s portrayed as such in Six, singing a power ballad inspired by Sia and Adele.
She was also the first of Henry VIII’s wives to bring up the idea of female rulers. He wanted a son because there was no precedent for a female heir, and his wives only had daughters up to that point: Catherine had Mary, and Anne had Elizabeth. Both of those women eventually became queen, and while it was Catherine Parr that actually convinced Henry to restore them to the line of succession, Jane took the key first step. Jane ended up bearing his first son, Edward (who became king before the women), but she died in childbirth.
Anne of Cleves
Nope, that’s not a typo — even though she’s called “Anna of Cleves” in Six — likely because her name in German, her native language and country, was Anna von Kleve — she’s known in English as Anne. Her marriage to Henry only lasted six months before he annulled it — according to historical records, he was unenthusiastic about the marriage even before it happened after seeing what she looked like in person. (Shallow much?) He married her anyway.
Despite his lack of love, Henry didn’t kick her to the curb as harshly as he did Catherine. He gave her a large sum of money, which she used to live comfortably on her own for the rest of her days. She got the nickname “The King’s Beloved Sister” because of the comparatively nice way he treated her.
Even though Catherine Parr is known as “the one who survived,” Anne of Cleves actually lived the longest! Anne actually lived in Parr’s old house, where she lived after Henry died, toward the end of her own life.
In Six, her music and character are inspired by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna.
Her name is more commonly spelled Catherine, but three Catherines in one musical would get really confusing. Tudor history is already muddy enough — Howard is Anne Boleyn’s first cousin and Jane Seymour’s second cousin (which isn’t mentioned in the musical, but now you know). Henry married Howard only 19 days after annulling his marriage to Anne of Cleves, and Henry VIII was 30 years older than Howard.
Most of the surviving information about Katherine regards her relationships. Before Henry, she was pursued by her music teacher and her step-grandmother’s secretary, both of whom were older than her as well, and Henry ultimately beheaded her (she was only about 20 years old) because he thought she was cheating on him with his courtier Thomas Culpeper. All of this is detailed in Six in her Ariana Grande and Britney Spears-inspired song, “All You Wanna Do.”
Aside from these facts, we know that Katherine was a carefree and joyful individual, who enjoyed dressing up in lavish French fashion and had a soft spot for dogs.
Catherine Parr holds a lot of unique designations in English history. With four marriages to her name, she had the most marriages of any English queen. She ultimately convinced Henry to put his daughters in line for the English throne. And she was the first woman in England to publish an original English-language writing piece under her real name, a bestselling book called Prayers and Meditations. She followed it up with another later. She remains known for her loyalty, religious conviction, and strong support for writing and education for men and women.
In Six, Catherine Parr sings a sorrowful, Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé-inspired ballad, “I Don’t Need Your Love.” The song is in part about how she rejected her lover, Thomas Seymour, when Henry wanted to marry her. But in real life, Catherine got her happy ever after: Following Henry’s death, Thomas returned to court and proposed to her. She accepted. They were not married long before Catherine died, but she got to spend her last days with the man she loved. That’s even a more triumphant story than being “the one who survived.”
He’s the man that brings the six women together. Though he’s often associated with his string of marriages, he was known for many other things in his time — some good, some questionable. He founded the Church of England, which is still in place today, and got excommunicated from Catholicism for it.
He changed the English Constitution and came up with the “divine right of kings” theory, which held that God personally chose and preordained rulers. He is known as the “father of the Royal Navy,” as he was super invested in that particular branch of the military.
Historical records state that for much of his rule, his contemporaries considered him charismatic, educated, and accomplished. By the end, however, people thought he was lustful, egotistical, and tyrannical. With revisionist accounts like Six becoming so popular, that’s the way Henry is still remembered for the most part.
“Okay, ladies, let’s get in Reformation!” The Protestant Reformation was going on in response to Catholicism all over Europe. Every Tudor ruler took a different side and kept changing England’s official religion. Don’t lose your head when we try to explain it: Henry VIII broke off from Catholicism and started the Church of England, which was like Catholicism but without the parts Henry disliked. Then Edward VI’s rule switched to full Protestant, and Mary I’s rule was full Catholic. Finally, Elizabeth defined the Church of England as it exists today, with both Catholic and Protestant elements. Whew!
Religion mostly comes into play in Six during Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s songs. With plenty of pop flair, they explain that the whole reason Henry VIII broke from the Catholic church was because he fell for Anne while he was married to Catherine, and he wanted to marry her instead since Catherine hadn’t had any sons to be his heir. But the pope wouldn’t annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and the church doesn’t recognize regular divorce. So what did he do? He started his own religion and made his own rules, the first rule granting him permission to annul his own marriages whenever he wanted.
Now that he’d done that, he was free to banish Catherine (she got a lot of public sympathy even then) and marry Anne. That marriage didn’t last, of course, but the Church of England sure did. It’s still England’s official church and has remained much the same since Elizabeth I.
If there’s one thing that Six teaches us about Tudor art, it’s that custom portrait-painting was huge back then. If you could afford a portrait of yourself (and had the time in your day to sit and pose for it), you were a big deal. One of the most prolific royal painters was Hans Holbein the Younger, who gets a German funk song dedicated to him in Six: “Haus of Holbein.” According to the Queens, sitting through a Holbein portrait session was uncomfortable and kind of demeaning, but at least he made you look good!
Before “Get Down,” Anne of Cleves sums up how Henry married her based on her Holbein portrait (picking her out of multiple portraits in a Tinder-inspired sequence), and promptly divorced her when she looked different in real life.
Catherine Parr’s portrait is notable for a different reason. The final Queen proudly sings, “I even got a woman to paint my picture,” which was rare back then, in “I Don’t Need Your Love.” In real life, Parr actually employed three female painters in her court: Susannah Hornebolt, Levina Teerlinc, and Margaret Holsewyther.
We’ve got to talk about Tudor music in an article about the Tudor musical. The Six music mostly features a modern pop sound that’s younger than the Queens by a good few centuries. But when you walk into the theatre, you’ll hear some Tudor-esque music playing through the speakers. Listen for a lute, trumpet, cornet, and even bagpipes, as they were all popular instruments at the time. Did you know that the recorder — yes, the same one you learned to play in elementary school — was popular then, too?
Anne Boleyn even mentions a specific Tudor song in Six: “Greensleeves.” The folk ballad was first registered in 1580 under the name “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves,” and six more related songs followed. In the musical’s title song, Anne sings, “Henry sent me a poem all about my green sleeves…,” referring to the widespread belief that the king himself composed the original “Greensleeves.”
As the legend goes, Anne wasn’t having it at first with Henry’s flirting, so he wrote the song to win her over. It’s probably not true, as the song was written in an Italian musical style that didn’t reach England until after Henry died. But the song made a wonderful inspiration for Anne’s striking green Six costume nonetheless!
Based on surviving portraits, we know that high-class Tudor women, like the Queens, wore intricately detailed dresses — the more fabric, jewels, lace, and ribbons, the better — and a headdress. The Queens in particular were fashion trailblazers: Catherine of Aragon popularized the farthingale, a hula hoop-like undergarment that made your waist look smaller and your skirt look bigger, and each of the first three Queens had a distinctive style of hood that they wore under their hats.
The costumes in Six are modeled on today’s pop stars’ concert outfits, but there’s plenty of Tudor-era inspiration in the details. The necklines and corset-like structures of the Queens’ tops are inspired by Tudor dresses. Anne Boleyn, Anna of Cleves, and Catherine Uzele’s costumes all have Tudor-era puffy sleeves (with sparkles added). And Katherine Howard’s skirt resembles a classic Tudor dress style where an overskirt is layered atop a different-colored underskirt that peeks out in the front.
What life was like for women during the Tudor period
Women received no formal schooling during the Tudor period; they were taught that their life’s main purpose was to get married. That’s likely why all the Queens, from the least literate like Katherine Howard to the most extensively educated like Catherine Parr, all ended up marrying Henry: They were kind of told they had to, even if they became educated and could have managed on their own. Especially because it was the king. And most marriages in the Tudor period were prearranged anyway.
Obviously, society’s come a long way. That’s what makes Six so exciting: We see an alternate reality for these women who were smart, respectable, strong, and fun in real life — an alternate reality in which they got to experience Britney Spears and Rihanna, that is. Music- and costume-wise, Six lives up to its name as a “histo-remix.” But the story is just real history — or rather, her-story — that’s typically left out of schoolbooks.
So now that you know all about Tudor history and the real-life Queens, there’s no way you can miss Six!