The Wives of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Part 3

Catherine of Aragon

Where was Catherine of Aragon during Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s newly fledged romance? When the evidence appeared that Henry was setting up another flirt – possibly even another mistress to supplant Mary Boleyn – Catherine probably sighed the sigh of the resigned and took up her embroidery philosophically. Henry was a man and a king; it was not in Catherine’s nature nor in her training to deny him his pleasures, nor to question his preoccupations. She was still his beloved wife, adored by his subjects and acknowledged as queen, despite the cessation of physical relations between herself and Henry. In her wildest imagination she could never have dreamed that future years would see her set aside and banished in favor of a usurper. Her own eyes told her that Anne was taking precedence in the king’s estimation, but the patient and forgiving Catherine merely informed others that she held Anne “in more estimation for the King’s sake than she had before.” She assumed that Anne, like her sister Mary and Bessie Blount, would go the way of the discarded mistress in time, leaving Catherine’s position as queen and wife unassailed.

She was disabused of her complacency in May of 1527 when Wolsey managed to convene a secret ecclesiastical court at Westminster to try the legality of the king’s marriage. Henry himself did not confess the true state of matters to her until 22 June, and even then he only informed her that his conscience was troubled, and that he would separate from her until matters could be sorted out. Catherine was shattered, but the king was not to be foresworn. In spite of every evidence that Henry was following his heart, Catherine refused to the very end to believe that Henry no longer loved her, and chose instead to believe that he was being led astray by Anne, by Wolsey, by unnamed evil sources – but never that he was acting of his own accord, even when his personal animosity over her intransigence grew great, and he separated her forever from their daughter and banished her from court.

Between 1527 and 1532 Henry tried every means possible to gain his freedom from Catherine. Catherine, for her part, communicated secretly with her nephew Charles, who had become Holy Roman Emperor upon the death of Maximilian in 1521, and he promised to do all that he could to aid her. The ecclesiastical court at Westminster had not really the authority to grant Henry his divorce, which could only come from the Pope, and to that end Wolsey went to visit His Holiness in Spring of 1527, only to find that Emperor Charles had sacked Rome and sent Pope Clement VII scurrying to the hill city of Orvieto for refuge. From there, naturally, under the thumb of Catherine’s nephew, the Pope could scarcely issue an annulment of Catherine’s marriage. Eventually, at the urging of Cardinal Wolsey, he agreed to dispatch one Cardinal Campeggio to England to try the case in the Pope’s name, but Campeggio’s arrival was delayed until autumn, 1528, partly because of the cardinal’s ill health and partly because the delay was favorable to the Pope, who desired to avoid making a decision in the case at any cost. Once Campeggio was in England and the trial commenced, Wolsey assured the king, all would be well, and he guaranteed Henry his ultimate freedom. Wolsey had initially begged the king with tears not to attempt to obtain the divorce, but faced with the king’s determination Wolsey at last threw the whole weight of his diplomacy behind the issue, probably hoping in secret that Henry would eventually fall out of the spell of Anne Boleyn and agree to a more propitious marriage.

The actual trial did not begin until 31 May 1529, by which time both Henry and Anne were worn down with anxiety, but convinced that their goal was all but achieved. History records the confrontation between Henry and Catherine at the court at Blackfriars on 21 June, wherein Catherine challenged Henry to deny her virginity at the time of their marriage, threw herself upon his mercy, and appealed her case to Rome before walking out of the court, never to return. Henry was outraged. He had offered her the option of retiring in great dignity and wealth to a convent to take up the religious life which was little more than what she was already leading by her own choice. He had offered to set her up in her own manor houses with her own income and the title of Dowager Princess of Wales, if only she would be amenable to the divorce. She refused, and continued to style herself as “Queen” long after the rest of the court had been commanded to refer to her by the lesser title.

By this obstinacy she lost forever Henry’s love, and even his good will. Henry was further enraged when Campeggio, following the spirit if not the direct instructions of the Pope, adjourned the court at Blackfriars at the end of July, leaving the issue unresolved and the king frantic with frustration. This failure of Henry and Wolsey’s scheme brought about Wolsey’s downfall. Urged on by Anne, who had nourished a hatred of Wolsey ever since his severance of her engagement to Henry Percy, King Henry blamed Wolsey for Campeggio’s actions and banished the man from court. Wolsey’s fall was ignominious and complete. He went from the most powerful man beneath the king in both church and state matters to a mere cleric, and only escaped eventual judgment, conviction and execution by dying on his way to his trial.

Anne had no role to play in all this public upheaval; Henry felt it paramount to maintain the illusion that his desire for a divorce was based solely on issues of dynasty, but it is certain that her pressure from the background spurred the king on. Eventually Henry banished Catherine and their daughter Mary from court, and the two never saw one another again. Catherine would live in exile, poor and lonely, banned from receiving visitors or communicating with the outside world, until her death in 1536.

Henry continued his attempts to free himself from his marriage through the Pope, until a growing faction of Protestant-leaning advisors convinced him that his only option was to declare his autonomy from papal authority and make himself the head of his own church in England. This church could then declare his marriage annulled. Henry eventually adopted this plan with much initial hesitation and ultimate satisfaction, not wavering even when the Pope responded by excommunicating him. Henry passed through Parliament the Act of Supremacy on 11 February 1531 making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England. He based this on what was called “praemunire,” which assertion stated that to put the will of anyone ahead of the will of the king was treason. Unwilling to accept Henry’s authority over that of the Pope, such renowned men as Thomas More, Prior John Houghton and Bishop Fox went to the block rather than foreswear their papal allegiance. Many others died with them. Henry was finding that the tools of the tyrant were often more effective than the tools of the diplomat. He would attempt to use these tools to drive Catherine into disavowing their marriage and admitting the illegitimacy of their daughter Mary, but in this one case Henry would find himself thwarted. Catherine would remain adamant to the end. She died on 7 January, 1536, nearly alone, poor and ill. She had never been allowed to see her daughter again; stripped of title, wealth, position and the love of her husband, this remarkable woman never gave up hope that God would rescue the king from his own blindness and cause him to bring his rightful queen back to court and favor. In her final letter to Henry, written on her deathbed, Catherine painfully scrawled these words:

Lastly, I vow that mine eyes desire you above all things.