In this series of posts, I will be exploring the transition of power between the women behind the throne of Henry VIII. There will be five posts in total, delving deeper into the lives of Henry’s wives than I ever have before, spanning all the way from Catherine of Aragon (whom will be discussed today) to Katherine Parr, the widow who outlived him, how they gained their positions of power and either held onto or lost them, as well as their relationship with the king.
The first wife we have to uncover is Catalina d’Aragona, a Spanish princess and daughter to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella I of Castile (both regions would later make up the Spanish Empire). Catherine, as the English would call her, was a few years older than Henry VIII, born in 1485 in Castile’s Alcalá de Henares, a city noted today for it’s rich archaeology and the University of Alcalá. She was well-educated, highly religious, and beautiful, but the future Henry VIII was not the first match her parents considered; from a very early age, Catherine was betrothed instead to Henry’s older brother Arthur, the Prince of Wales, and she made her way to London in 1501 at the age of just fifteen in order to marry him. However, an epidemic was sweeping through England at the time and both members of the royal couple contracted the unknown disease, simply dubbed the Sweating Sickness, and while Catherine recovered, Arthur died just before his sixteenth birthday, leaving his bride a teenage widow in a strange country after only a few months of marriage. Not wanting to return the 200,000 crown dowry her parents payed, the prince’s father, Henry VII, kept Catherine in England as he decided what to do with her. His own beloved wife, Elizabeth of York, had just died in childbirth, so there were rumors that the king was looking to marry her himself, but ultimately, after a special dispensation from the Pope, it was decided that Catherine would remain in England and marry his second son, who was then the Duke of York. Just days after the Prince’s father died in 1509, the newly-crowned King Henry VIII married Catherine in a private ceremony when she was twenty-three and he was not yet eighteen.
The new Queen proved a great influence on both Henry and England as a whole during her reign. She was given the task of being Henry’s Regent while he spent time in France on military campaign in 1513 and made it fashionable for women of the time to be educated, something not well-considered before. She still read often and practiced Catholicism even more feverently as she got older, especially after her failed pregnancies. Six times she became pregnant, yet only one child survived infancy, a daughter named Mary. Though she and the king doted on the little girl, Henry was the last surviving male heir of the newly established Tudor Dynasty; he needed a son to carry on the family name and to protect his right to the throne from other members of royal blood who many thought had greater claims than he did. His father won the crown by Right of Conquest – he knew that no matter how tight his grip on power was, he was not safe unless a smooth succession was established.
By 1525, Catherine could no longer have children, and Henry had begun taking on more mistresses, most notably Elizabeth Blount, who gave birth to a boy as a result of the affair and proved that despite rumors saying otherwise, the king was indeed capable of fathering sons. He searched for a way to get himself a legitimate heir when he met and fell fatally in love with Anne Boleyn, possibly at a dance where his sister was performing shortly after her return to England from the royal court in France. While not considered a great beauty as many believe, Anne was witty and charismatic, and like a magnet Henry was drawn to her charm and sought to make her his mistress. He bombarded Anne with gifts and love letters, hoping to gain her favor, but she only had one response for him; the only way she would go to bed with him was as his wife. With that single reply, Catherine’s days as Queen of England were numbered.
Whether or not Anne sought to break up Henry’s marriage is not certain. Tradition portrays her as a cutthroat social climber, but there is very little evidence to support this. She was also not a commoner; she was nobility, the daughter of Thomas Boleyn the Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond who was also the ambassador to France at the time, and her mother was the daughter of the Duke or Norfolk. Her family’s connections allowed her to be educated in both Austria and in France, and she was rarely after her childhood home in her native England until the death of King Louis XII of France, who was married to Henry’s sister Mary, and Anne served as one of her Ladies in Waiting before returning home and being brought under the employ of Queen Catherine. She made quite the impression when she came to court. With dark hair and eyes and a silver tongue, it was hard for her not to stand out among her peers, nor did it apparently take Henry a long time to notice her, and he was so infatuated that he was willing to do whatever it took in order to have her.
He began his pursuit in 1526 after Anne had two betrothals broken off. Sometime between then and the family’s return to England in 1521, Henry began a short-lived affair with Anne’s older sister Mary, whose children were rumored to be his, but there is no evidence to support this. But it was Anne who kept his attention. She dressed in the latest fashions and showed off her dark hair in a manner that was considered racy for the time, and she could dance and sing and was remarkably intelligent and progressive compared to some of the other women at court. Anne escaped court frequently for her ancestral home at Hever Castle in Kent, where Henry’s love letters would reach her. It took a year before she accepted his marriage proposal and several more years before the king was able to divorce his first wife.
Obtaining a divorce was not easy, even for a king. Catherine was Spanish royalty; her sister Juana (also known as Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castile and Aragon, and all of Joanna’s six children grew up to be kings and queens – the eldest, Charles, was not only the first Hapsburg to become King of Spain, but also elected Holy Roman Emperor. Not only that but a special papal dispensation was obtained so that the two could be married in the first place since Catherine was originally his brother’s widow. That detail, Henry thought, was the key to not a divorce, but an anhullemnt. In the words of Leviticus, a man who married his brother’s wife would be childless and cursed as she was his sister in the eyes of God, and a devout Henry took this to heart.
The rest of Catherine’s life was one of humiliation and sorrow. She was forced to stand trial and reveal intimate secrets of her first marriage, namely whether or not she had entered her marriage to Henry a virgin. The whole matter may seem horrifying or even laughable today, but it was of great importance at the time; the consummation of a marriage was what cemented it in the eyes of God, and if Catherine had ever been physical with Prince Arthur during her brief marriage, it would be cause for an annulment, even if many people – including Henry’s own sister – took the wronged Queen’s side during what became known as the King’s Great Matter.
Catherine was a devout Catholic, and she swore before the court that she had never been intimate with another man other than Henry VIII, but the king was not to be swayed. Nor was Catherine. It was suggested that instead of going through with the trial, she simply give Henry what he wanted and retire to a nunnery, but she refused, saying “I am the King’s lawful and true wife. God did not call me to a convent.” The Pope refused the divorce as well as the annulment, and so Henry in his rage, declared that the Papacy would no longer have any jurisdiction in England. He created a new church – The Church of England – and placed himself at the head, effectively granting himself his own divorce. Henry married Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony in 1532, nearly a year before the Archbishop of Canterbury declared officially that the marriage between him and Catherine was dissolved, and soon, Anne was pregnant. Catherine was stripped of her jewels and titles save for one; she became the Dowager Princess of Wales as Arthur’s widow, though her servants continued to address her and she would continue to call herself Queen.
For a royal like her, the affair must have been humiliating. Her defiance against the king was met with the harsher punishment of banishment from court to the confines of Kimbolton Castle, and the king’s refusal to ever let her see her daughter Mary again. The harsh wet climate damaged Catherine’s health. She rarely left her rooms except for Sunday Mass and occasionally was allowed visitors, but she was ordered to stop all communication with her beloved daughter, who was no longer considered to be a princess or heir to the throne. Henry offered to reunite them and even give Catherine better quarters, but this would mean them both accepting Anne Boleyn as the new Queen, and both women refused to do this. Catherine died in confinement on 7 January 1536 at the age of fifty, leaving Anne the uncontested queen and her own daughter Elizabeth as heir apparent. The betrayed Queen was laid to rest in Peterborough Cathedral with a modest cermony definitely not suited for a woman of her stature. Mary was forbidden to attend the funeral and on the same day, Anne Boleyn suffered a miscarriage. Little did anybody know, that that single day would be the start of Anne’s epic and fatal fall from grace.