Is there justice after death? Henry VIII’s Wives think so.

by | Nov 7, 2022 | Pop Culture

Warning: spoilers for the theatrical musical Six.

“Divorced, Beheaded, Died.” A group of women in silhouette line the stage. “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.” Each one of them strikes a dynamic pose as the lights flash. “And tonight we are … live.” The once dark stage lights up to reveal neon colors along a brash set. So begins the tale of Henry VIII’s six wives as envisioned by the musical Six, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. The show is energetic and delightfully anachronistic, mixing the culture of the 16th-century with references to social media and throwing shade. Yet, despite its cloy colors and #hashtag references, Six is not easily dismissed. Neither is it subtle with its artistic agenda. In the opening song, “Ex-Wives”, Katherine Howard, one of the beheaded wives, sings: “Tonight we gonna do ourselves justice / ‘Cause we’re taking you to court.” Indeed, Six ventures to find some kind of justice for these women who suffered both at the hands of their tyrannical husband and the patriarchal system that reproduced their stories in history. 

Each queen has her own song in the style of contemporary artists. Catherine of Aragon bemoans her cheating husband with echoes of Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, while Catherine Parr sings an Alicia Keys-style ballad. The songs move quickly and the short runtime means that the audience is never bored. Yet, as the final song began, I felt remorse. Six had, for me, entirely failed in its project, because no amount of imagination and historical revisionism could bring back these women or alter the tragic aspects of their life. The joyful lyrics of the final song, “Six” imagine alternative stories of how the women’s lives might have turned out. Catherine Of Aragon refuses Henry’s marriage and joins a convent. Anne Boleyn reappropriates the famous Greensleeves poem for her own career advancement. Jane Seymour doesn’t die in childbirth but instead raises her own family. Anne Of Cleves, unaffected by Henry’s rejection, enjoys her autonomy in Germany. Katherine Howard, having rejected the advances of her abusive lovers, develops her own musical skills. Lastly, Catherine Parr gathers all of the women together to tell their story. This is a romanticized, alternative history. But it’s not true, and it didn’t happen. 

When we look at the historical facts and the histories in which subjected people are presented, we really can never reach anything like justice for the dead. The African-American studies professor Saidiya Hartman reaches a similar conclusion in her essay “Venus in Two Acts.” She examines, through the archive of Atlantic slavery, the figure of Venus, an emblematic figure of the enslaved African woman in the Atlantic world. While women like Venus are present in the historical record, the stories told do not concern them; rather, the stories are about the “violence, excess, mendacity, and reason that seized hold of their lives, transformed them into commodities and corpses, and identified them with names tossed-off as insults and crass jokes.” 1 History in this view becomes a space to display the grotesqueness of the injustice done. Moreover, it remains impossible to grasp Venus’ life as it might have been. While Venus and the six wives of Henry the VIII do not experience the same or even comparable levels of suffering and injustice, the six did suffer not just in the histories being told but by the very histories that captured them.

Six is not the only musical to engage in using historical persons. Hamilton also engages in historical revisionism but for more obvious political reasons, namely to recast the American foundational myth as an immigrant’s story thereby legitimizing many immigrants’ desire to posit a new American identity. Six, on the other hand, raises questions of what we owe to the dead? In the Catholic Church, the dead are a present reality to us in a way markedly different than in the secular world or in secular discourse, more specifically. We pray for the dead, and we pray to the dead. I begin having a conversation with Mary or St. Joseph, trusting that through the Holy Spirit they hear me and are speaking back. This is especially common in Ignatian modes of prayer, the tradition in which I have been trained, and I live my life out of those experiences, trusting that God is trying to say something to me through the words spoken in prayer through these conversations with saints. 

Hartman does not dare to engage in this kind of speculation. Rather, she decides not to engage Venus with imagination out of fear. As she states, “I feared what I might invent, and it would have been a romance.” Six is the romance that Hartman fears so much in her own intellectual project. In attempting to find solace, the musical creates stories for its protagonists that ultimately betray them. While Katherine Howard’s song “All You Wanna Do” begins with her strong and assertive, it ends with her emotionally desolate. She recounts how she was taken advantage of and sexually abused by several older men at a young age; yet even this accurate account does not capture everything. We do not learn of how the British parliament passed The Royal Assent by Commission Act 1541 in order to make Howard retroactively culpable of an executable offense. Nor do we hear her panicked screams as she was manhandled into the barge that would escort her to her final prison and place of execution. We do not see her alone on the night before her execution, a defeated young woman practicing how to lay her head upon the execution block, which she had specifically requested. 2. And even these scenes which I have painted rely on the historical record with all of its problems. 

This is why I lamented rather than rejoiced at the end of the show; despite all the glee present in the actors’ intonations, the reality remained that these historical figures have suffered a great deal of injustice. Out of nowhere, I thanked God for my faith. “How does one tell impossible stories?” Hartman asks. There is no justice for these women on Earth, and there never can be. However, Faith adds a transcendent axis to history, and it must be along that vector where Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr receive their Justice. For the Earth has none. 

Yes, enjoy Six! Still, it’s important to remember that our retellings of these stories omit important, tragic details, and we cannot pretend that these stories “redeem” those who suffered and suffer in the retelling of the story. There are limitations to our culture’s ideas of justice which are rooted on a merely worldly account of our story. Death is perhaps the greatest and most mysterious stumbling block for secular discourse, and it is precisely here that our faith has so much to offer. As Hartman states, “the loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.” My reading of Hartman and my viewing of Six has sharpened a singular need and desire, to be present to the dead in prayer, especially those dead who suffered intense injustice, without bias or agenda. For prayer is fundamentally about relationship, which God makes possible through God’s very self. 

Afterall, Catherine of Aragon persevered in her faith despite the consequences. Is it too much to hope that she is with God? Let us pray for her, if not to her, and for all the dead in this season of remembrance. 


  1. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts.”
  2. Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. p. 480

Andrew Milewski, SJ   /   All posts by Andrew