The Six Wives of Henry VIII is the first studio album from the English keyboardist and composer Rick Wakeman as a solo artist, released in January 1973 on A&M Records. It is an instrumental progressive rock album with its concept based on his interpretations of the musical characteristics of the six wives of Henry VIII. Wakeman decided on the concept in 1972 while he toured the United States with the progressive rock band Yes. As he read a book about the wives on his travels, melodies he wrote the previous year came to him and were noted down. Musicians from Yes and Strawbs, who he performed with prior to Yes, also play on the album.
The album received generally positive reviews from music critics. It reached number 7 on the UK Albums Chart and number 30 on the US Billboard 200. It was certified gold in 1975 by the Recording Industry Association of America and has sold 15 million copies worldwide. In 2009, Wakeman performed the album live for the first time at Hampton Court Palace for the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne. Each track was re-scored with added elements that could not be there due to time restrictions on the vinyl record.
In August 1971, Rick Wakeman joined Yes to replace keyboardist Tony Kaye. In early 1972, while on tour of the United States to promote Fragile (1971), he bought four books at an airport bookstall in Richmond, Virginia, one of them being The Private Life of Henry VIII by Nancy Brysson Morrison. As he read about Anne Boleyn on the subsequent flight to Chicago, a theme he recorded in November 1971 ran through his mind. He often scribbled down pieces of music while travelling, but could not find a theme to put them to. Said Wakeman, "I had been searching for a style to write in and suddenly I found it in writing music about these six ladies...I would concentrate on one of the wives and then music just came into my head and I would write it down. Sometimes I was flying, other times I was on stage, or just in front of the piano at home...The "Six Wives" theme gave me the thread, the link, I needed to give me a reason for putting these pieces of music together." He explains the album's concept in its liner notes: "The album is based around my interpretations of the musical characteristics of the wives of Henry VIII. Although the style may not always be in keeping with their individual history, it is my personal conception of their characters in relation to keyboard instruments."
Recording for the album began in February 1972 with an advance of £4,000 from A&M Records. Seven musicians from Yes and Strawbs, the folk rock group Wakeman performed with prior to Yes, perform on the record. The basis of "Catherine of Aragon" was originally a piece that Wakeman wrote for Fragile titled "Handle With Care". Recorded at Trident Studios in London, the track features Yes's guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire with percussionist Ray Cooper. While recording "Anne Boleyn" at Morgan Studios, featuring Yes drummer Bill Bruford, a dream Wakeman had about attending her execution caused him to include a version of "St. Clement", the tune to the hymn "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended" written by John Ellerton. Though E. J. Hopkins is credited on the album, the piece is generally attributed to Reverend Clement Scholefield.
By the time production began on "Catherine Howard", engineer Ken Scott was replaced by Paul Tregurtha. Strawbs member Chas Cronk, who plays the bass guitar on the track, recalled the "total confusion" during the recording and "couldn't make head or tail of what [we] were doing. We were going through it part by part and I couldn't see how all the parts were going to match up." He noted that Rick "knew exactly what he was going to do although he had nothing written down. It was all stored in his head." The organ on "Jane Seymour" was recorded at St Giles-without-Cripplegate church in London. "I couldn't reproduce the sound I needed on an electronic organ, so we got permission to move the recording equipment into St Giles," said Wakeman. "It was quite an experience playing a lovely instrument like that." Wakeman describes "Anne of Cleves" as a "rather free-form" track, "almost having no form at all, there was a contradiction in what everyone was playing. The guys in the band thought I was completely barking, but it had to be like that."
The album was to be titled Henry VIII and His Six Wives with a track dedicated for Henry himself, but Wakeman claimed that he recorded the tracks on the wives first and had used up the space available on a vinyl record. The track was then discarded and the album renamed. When recording ended in October 1972, the final cost for the record had reached around £25,000. Wakeman described working on the record as "difficult and cumbersome", but said that the album was a "finally rewarding project". The album's cover photograph was taken at Madame Tussauds wax museum in London, where a figure of Richard Nixon can be seen in the background as the curtain was not fully closed.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII launched on national television in the United Kingdom on 16 January 1973, with Wakeman performing excerpts of the album on the BBC 2 music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. An audience of around 10 million planned to watch a controversial film about American pop figure Andy Warhol on ITV, but was temporarily banned for screening. As Wakeman noted, "It seems most of them, rather than watch repeats, switched over to Whistle Test and saw my preview of "Henry"...and suddenly it seemed as if the whole country had discovered my music...it was a tremendous break." The album made its general release on 23 January, and it topped the album charts in four countries. It peaked at number 7 on the UK Albums Chart and number 30 on the US Billboard 200. By July 1973, the record had sold 300,000 copies. A year later Wakeman was presented a platinum record at the Midem Festival for sales exceeding two million. The figure grew to six million after five years, and the album went on to sell 15 million copies in total. The album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1975.
The album received some negative reaction upon its release. Wakeman recalled "dreadful reviews" and management at A&M calling the record "unsellable" since it was an instrumental concept album. An initial 12,500 copies were pressed by A&M in hope of earning back the money used for production. Though the album was seen by some as one of the worst examples of the progressive rock genre, the record was well received by others. Time magazine named it one of the best pop albums of 1973, describing the album as "an astonishing classic-rock hybrid".Rolling Stone noted Wakeman had "a brilliant feel for tasteful impressionistic composition", having made "an exceptionally interesting instrumental album with superb production". Mike DeGange of Allmusic described Wakeman's use of his synthesizers as "masterful" and "instrumentally stunning", and rated the album 4.5 out of 5.
"When the opportunity came to re-score all these pieces for Hampton Court suddenly, there was no time limit. There were no rules and regulations about how the music had to be. And I could go back, revisit them, keep all of the elements that there were originally, and add the other little elements that could never be there."
In 1973, Wakeman wrote a letter asking to perform the album live at Hampton Court Palace. He was denied permission, and "got the impression that what [he] had asked was tantamount to treason". The show was never held until he was asked to perform the album in its entirety for the 500th anniversary to Henry's accession to the throne, 36 years later. A stage was constructed outside the main palace entrance to seat 5,000 people. Wakeman performed with his band The English Rock Ensemble, the English Chamber Choir and the Orchestra Europa, on 1 and 2 May 2009. Featured in the setlist was "Defender of the Faith", the track Wakeman wrote about Henry before it was omitted from the album due to time constraints. The shows were released on CD, DVD and Blu-ray titled The Six Wives of Henry VIII Live at Hampton Court Palace on 5 October that year.