The Six Wives of Henry VIII
I. Catherine of Aragon's Story
Catherine of Aragon was the first of Henry VIII's six wives. She was Queen of England from 1509 until 1533, when Henry divorced her to marry Anne Boleyn.
Catherine was born a Princess of Spain, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Catherine first came to England in 1501, at age fifteen, to marry the heir to the English throne. At the time, this was not Henry, but Henry's older brother Arthur Tudor.
The young Catherine was very pretty and petite, with red-gold hair and a fair complexion. She was intelligent, scholarly, artistic, and dignified yet fun-loving. Like Henry, she enjoyed physical activity such as riding and hunting. She was also very religious.
Catherine was very popular with the English people. Her in-laws and future husband Arthur were pleased with her as well. It was a great honor for a powerful country such as Spain to send one of its princesses to England. It was an even greater bonus that Catherine was attractive and intelligent, especially given the amount of inbreeding within the royal houses of Europe.
Shortly after his marriage to Catherine, Prince Arthur died. Catherine's father-in-law, Henry VII, wanted to keep her dowry, and did not let her return to Spain. Catherine stayed in England for six years, living in poverty because Henry VII would not pay for her support.
Finally, in 1509, Catherine's early troubles ended when Henry VII died, and his son Henry VIII inherited the English throne. Henry, who had been infatuated with Catherine for years, asked her to marry him. He was almost 18, and she was 23. Catherine was thrilled to marry Henry and be Queen of England after all these years.
Henry and Catherine had much in common, especially during the early years of their marriage. Both loved learning, music, pageantry, dancing, hunting, entertaining, literature and religion. There was also a great deal of physical attraction between them.
The main unhappiness in their marriage stemmed from their inability to have a son. Over a course of many years, Catherine had a series of failed pregnancies that left the couple saddened and frustrated. Particularly tragic was the death of a baby son just two months after his birth. Catherine and Henry were ecstatic to have a healthy daughter, the Princess Mary, who thrived and showed much promise. Henry, however, was obsessed with having a son and heir to the throne. This need was to consume Henry for almost his entire life.
Catherine was a strong Catholic, and spent much of her time in religious activities. This intensified with each failed pregnancy, which left her with less time for the lively activities Henry enjoyed. Over the years her figure expanded, and her face showed increased signs of age. She was nearly six years older than Henry to start with, and the age difference became more noticeable with time.
For the most part, Catherine was a loving, tolerant wife, who looked the other way on the few occasions when Henry took a mistress. In turn, Henry was generally discreet, and did not flaunt his affairs. The first noticeable rift in their marriage took place when one of Henry’s mistresses, Bessie Blount, gave birth to a boy.
Henry was thrilled to produce a son, and had many plans for the child. He acknowledged Bessie's boy as his own, and named him Henry FitzRoy. Without showing much regard for Catherine’s feelings, King Henry insisted that she attend the various ceremonies honoring young Henry. There was even talk of Henry FitzRoy being named as Henry’s heir. Catherine was patient to a point, but complained when the King made Henry FitzRoy one of the highest-ranking nobles in the land.
The marriage was also strained by the political situation in Europe. Catherine’s nephew Charles was the powerful emperor of the Austrian Empire, and threatened war with England. Although totally loyal to King Henry’s interests, Catherine was caught in the political crossfire between the two countries, and Henry was not pleased.
Catherine and Henry had been married for about 16 years when the main crisis in their marriage occurred. By this time, Catherine was past her prime childbearing years, and her many unsuccessful pregnancies had taken their toll. It was then that Henry met Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn was an English noblewoman in her early twenties, with long black hair and glorious dark eyes. She was slim, graceful, talented and witty, and totally mesmerized the King. Anne had been a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s sister Mary, and was later a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. (Anne’s life will not be discussed in great detail here, as another page is devoted to her. )
When Catherine first heard about Henry’s attraction to Anne, she wasn’t particularly worried. Henry had been interested in other women before, including Anne’s older sister Mary. He tended to be lighthearted about his affairs, and usually lost interest after a short time.
As time went on, however, it became clear that Anne did not intend to be Henry’s mistress. For various reasons, Anne was not content to play the same role as her sister. She wanted to either be Henry’s wife, or be left alone to live her life. This meant that the only way Henry could have Anne would be to make her his Queen. This would mean a divorce from Queen Catherine.
The dissolution of a royal marriage like this was almost unheard-of in those times, especially over a commoner like Anne Boleyn. Royalty was expected to marry royalty in arranged marriages, and to make the best of the situation. Marriages were made for reasons of state, and to produce heirs, not for love or sexual attraction. In addition, kings did not generally marry commoners. Henry’s grandfather King Edward IV was one of the first to take a non-royal wife (Elisabeth Woodville). This marriage was very unpopular, and caused much jealousy and infighting among the nobles.
Until the death of his brother Arthur, Prince Henry had been raised to be a leading member of the English clergy. He saw himself as very devout, and a strong defender of his religion. Henry’s personality was an intriguing combination of religious devotion, energy, intelligence, artistry, athleticism, conscience, and ego, with ego playing a large part. He liked pageantry, and wanted to present a grand, glorious image to his country. He worried about what others thought of him, and didn’t like to be questioned. He was not, however, particularly control-oriented when it came to statecraft and the governing of his country. He preferred to have others such as Cardinal Wolsey do the actual governing of England for him, while he pursued more entertaining activities.
About the time he met Anne Boleyn, Henry had begun to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine. Henry discovered a passage in the Bible that condemned the marriage of a man to his brother’s widow, and stated that such a marriage would be childless. Since Henry already had a legitimate daughter and an illegitimate son, he interpreted this to mean that his union with Catherine would never produce a living legitimate male heir to the throne.
The fly in the ointment, however, was the fact that Catherine claimed to be a virgin when she married Henry. Therefore the argument regarding the unclean marriage did not apply to her. When Henry married his brother's widow Catherine, the Pope had granted him special permission to do so, as her marriage to the sickly Arthur was never consummated. Now, years later, Henry wanted out of his marriage, using the same argument that had been overridden by the Pope’s dispensation allowing Henry and Catherine to wed.
Driven by his desires for Anne Boleyn, and for a son to succeed him, Henry approached Catherine regarding a divorce. The year was 1527, and the couple had been married for 18 years. Henry used the argument that his conscience would no longer allow him to remain living in sin with his brother’s widow, in an unclean union that was "no marriage at all". His conclusion was that God had shown his displeasure by not giving them a living son.
Since Catherine had most always been a respectful, cooperative wife, he expected her to immediately comply with his wishes. In turn, Henry was prepared to be generous. As long as she agreed to his terms, and allowed the marriage to be annulled, Catherine could continue to live in the royal style to which she was accustomed. She would have to consent to Henry’s putting her daughter Mary lower in the succession to the throne, behind any children he would have with a new "legitimate" wife, and to give up the title of Queen. She would henceforth have the title of "Princess Dowager of Wales", to reflect her status as Arthur’s widow. Henry felt that the matter could be settled quickly, and allow him to marry Anne in plenty of time to produce many fine sons.
When Catherine heard the news, she burst out crying. She dearly loved her husband, and thought that Henry had been influenced by meddling advisors who wanted him to discard her in order to marry a younger, foreign princess. Henry didn’t help matters by telling her he loved and respected her above all women, and would stay with her if only their immortal souls would not be endangered by his false marriage. Catherine disagreed. With her strong religious convictions, she knew that the Pope would not have given them permission to marry if the marriage were unclean.
In Catherine’s mind, she was married to Henry for life. After 18 years, she was not going to turn around and say that she had never been married, and that her daughter was illegitimate. She thought that all that was needed was for the Pope to review the matter, and assure Henry that the dispensation allowing their marriage was completely valid.
Henry was angered by Catherine’s response. He was used to his subjects following his orders quickly, and without question. He thought she was being stubborn and obstinate. In the meantime, he was becoming more and more impatient to marry Anne Boleyn.
Henry’s next strategy was to appeal to Catherine’s religious faith. He strongly suggested that she become a nun. This would acceptably end the marriage in the eyes of the church. She could live in one of the richer abbeys, in a very comfortable style. In those days, it was not uncommon for wealthy older women to enter a convent to live out their later years. This seemed like a logical solution, since she spent so much time in prayer anyway. Catherine surprised everyone by using her religious convictions to reject the idea. She claimed that she had no vocation to be a nun, and that her calling was to be a wife and mother to Henry VIII and Mary. Anything else would be false to her conscience, and a mortal sin.
When this plan didn’t work, the battle lines were drawn. Slowly Catherine began to realize that Henry’s infatuation with Anne was turning into something more serious than a passionate (although unfulfilled) affair. Catherine absolutely refused to give her husband a divorce, and thus displace Mary from the succession to the throne. Henry was equally determined to end the marriage. With the help of his right-hand man and chief administrator, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry tried to convince the Pope that his marriage was invalid, and to nullify the marriage.
Catherine worked hard to plead her case to keep the marriage intact. Catherine had several factors working on her side. She was extremely popular with her subjects, who were horrified that Henry would try to replace his aging but exceedingly good Queen with a younger woman. Rumors circulated that the King was in love with a commoner, "Nan Bullen", who he wanted to make his wife. For the most part, Anne Boleyn was not well-liked by the English people. Another plus for Catherine was the fact that Rome, and consequently the Pope, was currently under the control of her nephew Charles, the Emperor of Austria. Charles did not want his aunt harmed. Lastly, and most important of all, the Pope and his Cardinals found the marriage of Henry and Catherine to be legitimate. The original Papal dispensation that allowed them to marry in the first place was as valid now as it was nearly 20 years ago. This frustrated Henry to no end. He arranged for a hearing where he could plead his case to cardinals of the Church, and allow Catherine to respond. The hearing was inconclusive, and "the King’s Great Matter" dragged on for years without satisfaction for Henry.
In the meantime, Catherine was punished for her stubbornness. This took place by degrees, over a course of several years. At first, she remained at Court as the official Queen, but Henry’s private visits to her diminished. Next, he moved her away from court to a series of other residences. As time went on, he took away more and more of her household, including her dearest friend Maria de Salinas from Spain. Worst of all, Henry separated Catherine from her beloved daughter Mary. Henry hoped that these tactics would bring Catherine to her senses, and cause her to grant him the long-sought divorce.
Catherine, however, clung to her beliefs, and refused to give up her place as Queen of England and wife to King Henry. Like many women throughout the ages, she truly believed that Henry would eventually come to his senses, give up his obsession with the "the other woman", and return to his family. However, Catherine underestimated Anne’s staying power. Very few women in the history of the world have enraptured a ruling monarch to the extent that Anne did. As the years went by, and Anne’s potential childbearing years diminished, Henry became even more determined to bring the matter to a close.
After several years of negotiations with the Pope and other leading Roman Catholic officials, Henry was no closer to a divorce than when he started the process. Cardinal Wolsey had failed miserably in his efforts to work with Rome and end the King’s marriage. Wolsey, who had risen from a butcher’s son to one of the most powerful men in England, began to fall from favor with the King.
In frustration, King Henry turned to scholars and members of the English clergy to try to find a solution to his problem. In response, a new idea was planted in Henry’s mind. Largely due to the efforts of Thomas Cromwell, an obscure lawyer, and Thomas Cranmer, a minor cleric and the Boleyn family chaplain, the concept of King Henry as the head of the Church of England was born.
This new argument stated that if the King of England were truly a King of his realm, he wouldn’t be answerable to any foreign leader, including the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, the Pope would have no bearing on the affairs of England and English state policy. This would leave King Henry free to marry and divorce as he chose, as long as the basic tenets of Christianity were observed.
Henry liked this idea, and began taking steps to break from the Roman Catholic Church. This horrified many of his subjects, especially the high-ranking Church officials. Some of the church establishments had grown rich over the years, free from control of the English government. Understandably, they did not want this flow of wealth stopped. There was also the fear of excommunication, and of the damnation of the English peoples’ immortal souls.
None of this stopped Henry from pursuing his goals. He and his allies discovered an obscure law called "praemunire", and used it to uphold the King’s authority over the clergy. The law of praemunire was interpreted to support the idea that the King of England was answerable to no one, even the head of the Church in Rome. Using this law, Henry convinced the clergy, under threat of treason, to support his claim to supremacy over the English Church.
The issue of the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of wealth and money was also addressed. Many churchmen, including the King’s chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, lived in splendor rivaling the nobility. This seemed contrary to the idea of humility and service that the clergy were supposed to embrace.
Additional events spurred the English Church's break with Rome. In 1532, Anne finally surrendered and became Henry’s lover. By this time, Anne was sufficiently assured that Henry planned to make her his Queen. It was now to her advantage to become pregnant without delay, and give Henry one of the many sons she had promised him. To Henry’s delight, Anne was "expecting" by the end of the year.
This new development brought Henry’s "Great Matter" to a head. Anne could not hide her pregnancy for long, and Henry wanted the child to be born in wedlock.
In January of 1533, Henry and Anne were secretly married in Whitehall Palace. Now Henry had to take decisive steps to legalize his new marriage, and end his old one. Conveniently for Henry, the conservative head of the Catholic Church in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had recently died. Henry lost no time in installing his ally Thomas Cranmer as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and Primate of the English church.
With the help of Thomas Cromwell, who was fast becoming Henry’s right-hand man, Cranmer gathered the opinions of various clerics and scholars regarding Henry’s position. To no one’s surprise, they favored Henry, and concluded that the King was living in sin with his brother’s widow. Cranmer advised Henry of these findings, and, with Henry’s consent, his first marriage was officially dissolved. Anne was then declared Henry’s legal wife in the eyes of the English Church. Anne was crowned Queen of England shortly thereafter.
Upon hearing the news, the Pope issued an excommunication. Nevertheless, Henry and the English parliament pressed on, and passed several acts of legislation that solidified Henry’s position as supreme head of the English Church. The English Church was now known as the Church of England, as opposed to a branch of the Church of Rome. It was, in essence, the same Catholic church it had been before the split, but with a different name, and a different supreme authority.
In the meantime, Catherine was suffering miserably from the loss of her daughter, and from living in a series of increasingly unhealthy country residences. She was forbidden from moving about among the people, for fear that she might incite a rebellion against the King. Her household expenses were drastically cut, making her situation reminiscent of her earlier days as the widowed Princess Dowager, following the death of her first husband, Arthur. Catherine’s health began to deteriorate to the point of serious illness.
Now that Henry had his divorce, Catherine was informed that she was now officially the Princess Dowager of Wales, and could no longer call herself Queen. In addition, her daughter would henceforth no longer be a royal princess in line for the throne. At this time, Catherine was given another chance to reunite with Mary, and be restored to a position of comfort and respect. The condition was that Catherine would have to sign a document agreeing to Henry’s terms, once and for all. There was still the fear that Catherine and Mary could stir up a rebellion during these tumultuous times. Once again, Catherine refused to meet Henry’s demands. She would call herself Queen of England until the day she died.
In the fall of 1533, Anne gave birth to a child. To Henry’s disappointment, the baby was a girl, the Princess Elizabeth. From that point, Anne began to fall from favor with the King, and grew desperate to retain her position. Anne was also determined to keep her daughter first in the succession to the throne. Like Catherine before her, Anne suffered a series of miscarriages that resulted in only one healthy daughter. She felt threatened by the King’s daughter Mary, and treated her most unkindly.
It was partly due to Anne’s paranoia that the Act of Succession was created. This Act declared Henry’s supremacy over the Church, validated Henry’s new marriage, and awarded the succession to the Crown to the heirs of Henry and Anne. Many of England’s citizens, including some of the country’s foremost spiritual and intellectual leaders, lost their lives by refusing to sign this Act. Sir Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor and best friend, was one of those who died because of the Act of Succession.
The effect of all this was the further deterioration of Catherine’s position and health. Both Catherine and Mary suffered under the hostility of Queen Anne, who blamed her delayed marriage and lost childbearing years on Catherine’s obstinacy. Catherine was moved to Kimbolton Castle, an unhealthy, drafty place with an unfriendly staff. Her household allowance was cut to practically nothing. The former Princess Mary, now called Lady Mary, was forced to serve as a lady-in-waiting to the baby Princess Elizabeth. Rumors began to circulate that Catherine was being poisoned, with Anne behind it. The quality of her food and water very poor, with little nutritional value. The climate was moist and damp, and the house was very cold.
At the end of 1535, when she was almost 50 years old, Catherine became very sick. It is not know exactly what disease she had. It was probably a heart condition, or possibly cancer. She had pains in her chest that worsened as days went by. Knowing that she would probably die, she begged to see her daughter. Henry refused. Catherine did receive final visits from two of her dearest friends, the Spanish Ambassador Eustace de Chapuys, and her Spanish lady-in-waiting Maria de Salinas.
Catherine clung to life until January 7, 1536. She spent most of the morning in prayer, and died in mid-afternoon. Her final thoughts reflect her devotion and undying belief that Henry was her true husband. Shortly before she died, she sent Henry a letter stating that "mine eyes desire you above all things".
Additional Reading About Catherine of Aragon
For additional reading about Catherine of Aragon, her daughter Mary I, King Henry VIII, and Henry's other wives, here are some books that may be ordered from Amazon.com.
To bring up the details about a particular book, please click on the underlined link beside the picture of the book you are interested in.
Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Wier
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
Henry VIII : The King and His Court by Alison Wier
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Wier
Bloody Mary by Carolly Erickson
The Tudors (A Royal History of England) by Neville Williams, Antonia Fraser (Editor)
The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England by Antonia Fraser (Editor)
The Kings and Queens of England and Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Peter Fry
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