The Wives of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Part 2

Catherine of Aragon

Until Henry VIII began to seriously research the possibility of annulment of his union with Catherine of Aragon in order to seek the male heir he needed, the marriage of Henry and Catherine seems to have been a happy one. They had a great deal in common, both loving music and dancing, both well educated and pious. Henry sought Catherine’s counsel in a great many matters political and moral, and the early years of their marriage read like an extended honeymoon – dancing and feasting together, taking part in the masques which were so beloved in the court revels of the day, hunting and hawking tirelessly, worshipping and traveling together on the annual progresses necessary for the cleaning of the palaces and for giving the people the opportunity to see their rulers. The one source of friction between them seems to have been Henry’s fear that Catherine was attempting to advocate for Spain in all diplomatic matters with England, while Henry vacillated between alliances with his wife’s home country and France.

Henry joined forces with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and his father-in-law Ferdinand of Spain in October of 1511 in a Holy League against the schismatic Louis XII of France. In 1512 Pope Julius stripped Louis XII of his titles and bestowed his kingdom upon Henry, and in 1513 Henry, Ferdinand and Maximilian went to war with France in order to defeat Louis and take over his kingdom. Unfortunately for Henry’s dreams of martial prowess, he won only one major victory, the Battle of the Spurs, through which he conquered the cities of Thérouanne and Tournai. Meanwhile, taking advantage of Henry’s absence on the continent, the ever-ready Scots declared war on England, despite the fact that James IV of Scotland was married to Henry’s sister Margaret. Acting as Queen Regnant in Henry’s absence, Queen Catherine sent an army under Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, across the border to face the Scots. James IV was defeated and killed at the Battle of Flodden on 9 September, and Catherine sent James’ blood-stained coat to Henry as a token of the victory.

Flushed with success at this English double triumph, Henry was aggrieved to find that his allies Ferdinand and Maximilian had secretly negotiated a treaty with Louis in February of 1514, thus ending their participation in the French campaign and leaving Henry to fight on by himself. Unable to defeat France on his own, Henry was forced to negotiate a treaty as well. Since Pope Julius had died in March of 1513 and Louis had made peace with his successor, Pope Leo X, there was no longer any premise for going to war against France. The Anglo-French peace treaty was signed in August of 1514, wherein the English retained the city of Tournai and Louis married Henry’s younger sister, Mary.

Henry returned to England and resumed his life at court. His greatest concern now was the begetting of an heir to the English throne. He and Catherine had already borne the loss of several children through stillbirth and infant death – a stillborn daughter in 1510, a son in 1513 who died soon after birth, another in 1514 – and most painful of all, the birth of an apparently healthy son, Prince Henry, on New Year’s Day 1511, who only lived until 22 February. In each of these cases there is great evidence to support the view that Henry and Catherine grieved together and comforted one another after each loss, supporting and loving one another deeply. Their prayers were partially answered on 18 February 1516 when the Princess Mary was born and lived. Their continued hopes for producing a male heir were dashed, however, when another daughter died soon after birth in 1518, and no more children appeared before Catherine passed her childbearing years somewhere around 1524.

It is at this point that hints of dissatisfaction with the marriage on Henry’s part begin to surface. Catherine was nearly forty years old, while Henry was still an agile and energetic thirty-three. Grown too early old through repeated child-bearing and sorrow, Catherine spent increasingly long hours in prayer and meditation, while Henry sought solace for his troubles on the list field and hunting field, on the dance floor and in the feast hall. Their paths began to diverge, although they still maintained a loving relationship and shared a bed on occasion (separate apartments for king and queen were traditional). Henry relied almost solely now on the advice and counsel of his Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, an extremely able, savvy and tireless diplomat and administrator who had served Henry since his accession to the throne, first as his almoner, gradually rising to become the most powerful temporal minister and church prelate in the land. Wolsey’s predilection for the French did not sit well with Catherine’s loyalty to her Spanish heritage, and she constantly suspected him of leaning toward French interests, though they maintained an outwardly cordial relationship.

What actually triggered Henry’s early forays into the serious consideration of divorce or annulment was probably the questioning by the Bishop of Tarbes of the legitimacy of his daughter, the Princess Mary. The Bishop was not the first to question this – the issue of the legality of Henry’s marriage to Catherine had been raised as early as 1502 by Archbishop Warham of England. The Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament prohibited marriage between the widow of a man and that man’s brother – most theologians taking “marriage” to mean consummated wedlock, or that in which sex between the married couple had taken place. For Catherine there had never been a doubt of the legality of her marriage to Henry; not only was she in a position to know that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, but the Pope, urged on by Catherine’s parents, had issued a dispensation at the time of the wedding making the issue of consummation irrelevant. The couple had the Church’s blessing on and permission for the marriage regardless of any sexual relations Catherine might have had with Arthur. Several people, however, had questioned the Pope’s right to “overrule” the Levitical taboo, though it had been done in other cases, most notably in the instance of Catherine’s own sisters, Isabella and Maria, who had in turn married the same King of Portugal. Whether or not Arthur and Catherine had consummated their union, Henry chose to believe that the evidence of God’s displeasure with his marriage to his brother’s widow lay in the fact that they had no male heir. The passage in Leviticus stated that if a man slept with his brother’s widow “they shall be childless.” Henry and Catherine had a healthy daughter, Mary, but in Henry’s mind only a male child counted.

It was not immediately evident that Henry was questioning the Pope’s authority and therefore his own allegiance to the Vatican; what Henry gradually grew to want was a divorce from Catherine, sanctioned by the Pope, so that he could remarry while he was still young enough to father a male heir to the throne. He wanted the Pope to agree with him on the issue of the Levitical prohibition and quietly grant him the freedom to remarry, beget a son, and save England from the very real threat of foreign domination or internal strife. How much of Henry’s desire to be free was motivated by a more personal aim it is impossible, from this distance of time, to judge.

The idea that Henry’s desire would eventually result in a fissure between king and Pope which would rend Christendom asunder and lay waste the Catholic church in England, reconfiguring the power structures of the medieval world and catapulting the English people into centuries of religious and political seesawing, was not even a possibility on the most far-seeing oracle’s horizon in 1524. Like most, Cardinal Wolsey, who was more privy to the king’s thoughts than any other human, assumed that Henry was considering a practical and advantageous alliance with one of the French princesses, daughters of Henry’s fellow ruler Francis I. At what moment Henry cast his eyes on a different possibility it is difficult to say. Historians have no documentary evidence to prove at what point Anne Boleyn became an issue in the king’s growing desire to jettison his wife and take on a new queen. It may be that Henry had already become enamored of Anne by the time “the king’s great matter” edged its way into the national and international consciousness, first as an awed whisper in the galleries of Greenwich, and eventually as an outraged cry from houses, palaces and churches across Europe. There is evidence to suggest that the king was already troubled about his marriage before Anne Boleyn streaked across his line of vision. She was a minor player in the court when she first appears in the chronicles of Tudor history . She would eventually figure as the catalyst for the dissolution of the Catholic Church in England, the incentive for Henry to declare himself absolute monarch, and the mother of the greatest ruler England would ever know.