If you’ve never heard of Six the Musical, it’s time to come out from under that rock. The historical extravaganza has been one of the biggest sensations in theatre over the last decade, skyrocketing writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss to musical royalty. The production was created while the duo were students at Cambridge University, but what is the actual history behind the musical?
It’s safe to say that most of Henry VIII’s relationships were a bit complicated. Six the Musical drags the stories of the King’s six wives into the modern world, presenting them in the form of an all-star pop group that rivals only the Spice Girls. There’s only one problem – the six Queens don’t have a lead singer. Throughout the musical, each Queen retells their personal story in an attempt to convince the audience that they suffered the most from Henry and should therefore be the lead singer.
Debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, the production was swiftly picked up by the West End and has gone on to tour internationally. The critical acclaim didn’t take long to come in either, with the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish calling the show ‘gloriously – persuasively – coherent, confident and inventive’. In 2019, the musical was nominated for five Olivier Awards – the Holy Grail of musical theatre – with Aimie Atkinson, Alexia McIntosh, Millie O’Connell, Natalie Paris, Maiya Quansah-Breed and Jarnéia Richard-Noel all picking up nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical.
While King Henry’s six wives may not have formed a pop band 450 years ago, the show doesn’t stray that far from the truth. Let’s take a look at the actual women who inspired our favourite Six the Musical characters:
Catherine of Aragon
The daughter of the Spanish monarch, Catherine of Aragon was a princess originally married to Henry’s brother Arthur. After he passed away five months later, Henry swooped in and took her hand in marriage. With her inability to conceive a male heir, the King decided to convert the whole country to Protestantism just so he could divorce Catherine. A bit over the top, but at least Catherine got away with her life.
In Six, Anne Boleyn sings ‘He wanted me, obviously, messaging me like every day. Couldn’t be better, then he sent me a letter’. She wasn’t lying either – Anne and Henry did send love letters back and forth despite Henry’s marriage to Catherine. The two eventually married but it didn’t end well for Anne, who got her head chopped off for having an affair.
Henry certainly doesn’t mess about when it comes to marriage – 13 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, the King married Jane Seymour. Jane later gave birth to the boy Henry so desperately wanted, but she died from post-natal complications 2 weeks after giving birth. In the musical, Jane sings ‘Jane Seymour, the only one he truly loved’ during the song ‘Ex-wives’. As Jane’s funeral was the only one Henry attended, it looks like she was telling the truth.
Anne of Cleves
Anne of Cleves catfished the King before catfishing was even a thing. Henry famously fell in love with Hans Holbein’s gorgeous painting of Anne of Cleves and convinced him to marry her before they had even met. In the musical Anne sings ‘When he saw my portrait he was like, ‘Jaa!’ But I didn’t look as good as I did in my pic.’ After marrying, Henry decided she wasn’t his type and they got divorced six months later.
Number 5 was Catherine Howard, who was a member of Anne of Cleves’ household. After catching the eye of the King, the two married while Catherine was still very young. Catherine has a reputation for her promiscuity, but the musical shines a light on the sex abuse that led to her situation. After committing adultery with her distant cousin Thomas Culpeper, Catherine was beheaded.
After a planned marriage to Thomas Seymour fell through, Catherin Parr was proposed to by the King and became the sixth wife of Henry VIII. The musical focuses on Catherine’s love for Thomas and her difficulty navigating it, shown in her lyrics, ‘Oh, I love you, boy. I wish that I could stay with you, and keep the life I made with you’. Catherine was the only wife to survive, living a year longer than Henry and eventually marrying her sweetheart Thomas Seymour.
Hearing the wives take to the mic in Six the Musical and give us their side of the story is one of the most exciting things to come out of theatre in years. If you still haven’t seen it – what are you waiting for? Book your tickets for summer 2021 today!