Much is made of the divorce, or more accurately the annulment, of the marriage between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Perhaps we naturally define any marriage which ends, by its ending. But with any marriage that ends there was much that went before. We do not need to define an event by its ending.
Of course it is not merely that it ended that overshadows the 24 year long marriage of Henry and Katherine, it's how it ended and more importantly who was involved. For Katherine is unfairly overshadowed by her successor, Anne Boleyn, but she was an incredible woman with an impressive lineage.
Let's start at the beginning. Katherine, despite being a Spanish princess was already in England before Henry decided to marry her, and had been for sometime. She first came to England in 1501 to marry Henry's older brother Arthur on which she became the Princess of Wales. Their marriage was cut short when Arthur died in April 1502, only 5 months after the lavish ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral, where Henry had taken a central role walking the bride down the aisle.
A battle of wills between Katherine's father, Ferdinand of Aragon, and father-in-law, Henry VII, meant that she remained in England despite being a teenage widow. Issues over her dowry payment, which was to be paid in two instalments and had made no provision for the early death of either partner, gave Henry VII time to plan and negotiate over what happened next for Katherine. The newly established Tudor family needed powerful allies to boost their position on the stage of European politics. Keeping Katherine in their possession gave the English the upper hand in negotiations. If she hadn't felt the brunt of being a political pawn before, she must have done now.
Katherine's stay in England was not over with the death of Henry VII however, Henry VIII had resolved to marry her. They married in a private ceremony with only two witnesses, a far cry from Katherine's first wedding, in June 1509 in the Queen's Closet (that's the Queen's private space within the chapel) at Greenwich Palace.
Over the course of the next 9 years Katherine gave birth at least 6 times. On New Year's Day. January 1511 she gave birth to their first son. Prince Henry, was born at Richmond Palace and christened on 6th January at the Church of the Observant Friars next to Richmond Palace. However the little Prince Henry, who's birth had been marked with huge celebration, was not long for this world and he died on 22nd February at Richmond Palace. He was buried with lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey. His parents were distraught. I think too many times, the feelings of parents who lived at times of high child mortality have been wrongly assumed to have been somewhat dulled by circumstance. In Henry VIII's case his grief was doubled by the incredible importance attached to the birth of a legitimate heir. With each stillbirth and short lived infant Henry may also have felt grief for his relationship to Katherine.
Their marriage was not all about children, however. Henry clearly respected Katherine's abilities and I believe, despite his later reputation, had great respect for women. His concerns over a female monarch not being their ability but their suitability in an age when kings still lead their armies into war.
In September 1513, Henry was away fighting the French and left Katherine as regent. While Henry was away, the Scots under James IV took advantage and invaded the North of England. The result was a thrashing of the Scots forces at Flodden in Northumberland and a decisive win for the English forces lead by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, under the name of their queen, Katherine. Katherine wrote a few days later to Henry VIII in a measured, diplomatic tone, to inform him of their great win.
To omit any discussion of the breakdown and eventual end of the marriage may seem odd but it would also take us over the allotted 5 minutes for this history fix and so that is a blog for another day.
Thank you for reading.
- Philippa Brewell
History Writer and History Tour Creator
Calling all Tudor Lovers who want to immerse themselves in the ultimate Tudor experience!
Sources and Further Reading:
David Starkey: The Wives of Henry VIII