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'The Queens Of Henry VIII'

"Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived" is how English school children remember King Henry VIII and the fate of his wives. Now, there's a better way to learn about 16th century Britain than the typical dry history book.

"Six Wives: The Queens Of Henry VIII" offers a fresh look at an old story. It is the work of historian David Starkey, who produced it along with a TV special that is to air on PBS. Starkey tells The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm, the king was a "man in love."

He says, "There was something about Henry. He could fit now on your show as a celebrity with a problem. I want a wife who loves me. He marries for love. So often women married him for love. He is not this great monster the whole of the time. He is profoundly attractive to women, gentle to them, sweet to them, up until that fatal moment that he cuts the head off."

If you have forgotten the particulars of the story, here is a little history:

Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain originally married the heir to the English throne, Arthur, who died of illness only a few years after they married.

After years of negotiations between the two countries, the death of King Henry VII, and the payment of Catherine's dowry by Ferdinand, Catherine eventually marries Henry VIII, who at that point, was already king.

She was 24 and he was 18 at the time of their marriage - his goal apparently to be closely allied to King Ferdinand to wage war against France. After several miscarriages, Catherine eventually gave birth to Mary, but not a son - or heir - to the House of Tudor.

King Henry had an affair and illegitimate son whom he treated as his heir. He tried to divorce Catherine, a proposition she rejected and exposed to the Church. After years of legal battles in both England and Rome, the public and the Pope sided with Catherine.

Starkey says, "Everybody believed that Catherine was a bit like George Washington and couldn't tell a lie. She swore blind she didn't have sex with Arthur. I show that she did that; she even lies about her first pregnancy to Henry. What's extraordinary, this is information, which has been available to historians for 150 years and they haven't used it because they were in love with the perfect saintly Catherine."

King Henry then set up house with his new love, Anne Boleyn. Thus, he, and England, left the Catholic Church; this was the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Starkey says he did it because he loved Ann Boleyn and would do anything for her. Breaking from the Catholic Church was just an incidental. So why did he behead her?

He says, "She was brilliant as a mistress but a disaster as a wife, as I'm told it often happens with good mistresses who become bad wives. She was assertive and vigorous and strident. He was turned on by that amazingly before he married her. Then he was turned off when he had married her."

Maybe the happiest marriage of all is marriage number three to Jane Seymour. She produced an heir and died after childbirth.

Starkey says of her death, "It was the smartest career move. At that point she produced a son and becomes the saintly, the perfect, wife who can do no wrong. Just like the Victorian model. She goes up to heaven and wears white ever after."

Then comes the ill-fated wife, Anne of Cleves. Starkey describes how the king tries to get eyewitnesses of her, what she looked like. But it was a disaster from the moment when she arrived in England. Starkey says, "He falls in love with a picture and then the reality turns him off. What is wonderful about this marriage is that we have all of Henry's discussions with his doctor after the failure of the marriage."

The next wife, Catherine Howard, was sort of a good -time girl, but she got the axe in the end as well. Starkey notes, "There is this funny notion that sex was invented in sort of 1963. It wasn't. This is a girl who has at least two partners before she marries Henry. Loves sex, controlled sex with the men that she has. I think she does it with Henry, too. She is in so many ways so completely, a woman in charge of herself. She breaks the rules."

"Six Wives: The Queens Of Henry VIII" is a universal story that Starkey says is very pertinent to today. He notes, "The wives of Henry VIII are the reason why Britain became Protestant, which leads directly to the colonization of America, Britain's split with the Continent, why Blair stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush on Iraq- all of it goes back to then, produced by one man's relations with six women."

Read an excerpt from Chapter One.