Keeping in mind yesterday's historical time period today's post will revolve around Henry's betrayals of his first wife, and will be the first in a series of 3. Today women are allowed to villify and divorce cheating spouses and cheating is looked upon with disdain and disgust but in the 1500s it was a different story. Women had almost no rights and faced the spectre of death if they were caught in adultery, no matter how badly they were treated by their husbands. They, however, were expected to be quiet and endure whatever humiliations were heaped on them by the men they were married to. This isn't new information though and not what the focus of the blog post will be. This particular post will take a look at Catherine of Aragon and Henry and give some background information on a situation that got very, very ugly.
Catherine was raised to be a queen, she was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (the sponsors of Christopher Columbus. Isabella was a formidable and spectacular queen in her own right and she raised her daughters to be every bit as regal and intelligent as she was. Catherine received the same education as her brother, learning several languages such as Latin and French, and studying religion and court etiquette among other things. Catherine married Henry at the age of 23 and she was six years his senior. She had been in England for a little over seven years, having been sent to marry his older brother Arthur who died shortly after their wedding. She was virtually held prisoner by Henry VII, who did not want to let go of her large dowry. Only half of the dowry had been paid at the time of Arthur's death and Henry VII wanted the rest of the money he felt he was due. He kept her in England by telling her father Ferdinand that he planned to marry her to Henry, and at one time considered marrying her himself after his queen, Elizabeth, died. Ferdinand, for his part, did his daughter no better. He was preoccupied with trying to wrest control of Castile from his daughter Juana after the death of Isabella. Juana was mad and contented herself with dragging her dead husband's body around Spain in a casket. But that is a post for another time. Back to Ferdinand. He sent Katherine very little money to live on, saying he had sent an exorbitant amount with her as her dowry and that she should live off of her dower funds. These funds, however, were controlled by her father in law, who was not about to give up any gold. The poor girl lived in poverty for seven years before Henry VII died and his son took the throne. Henry immediatly declared that he would be marrying Catherine, perhaps he thought he was the mythical knight on the white horse saving a damsel in distress,and she was more than willing to be rescued. A dispensation was needed from the pope in order for them to marry since Catherine had been married to Henry's brother. This dispensation was granted based on the fact that Catherine claimed she was still a virgin, that she and Arthur had never consumated their marriage. This she would swear to until her dying day. Was it true? No one will ever know, but it would have been the end of her chances at being queen if she ever admitted otherwise. This one detail ultimately proved to be her undoing anyway as Henry used it as the basis for his divorce suit.
Henry and Catherine were married for almost 24 years and by all accounts the marriage was a happy one. Catherine was Henry's intellectual equal and he obviously trusted her and thought her capable as he left her as regent in his absence when he went to fight the French. She proved herself to be a worthy leader as she foiled a Scottish border invasion and presented Henry with the bloody coat of James IV as a gift. Apparently your dead brother-in-laws clothing was considered a fitting gift. The destruction of this otherwise happy marriage came about because Catherine could not produce a son, or any living child except one,a daughter for Henry. Henry was obsessed with producing a male heir, not wanting to leave his kingdom in the hands of a woman, even if she was his daughter.
Although Henry had many affairs during his marriage to Catherine, including Anne Stafford, Mary Boleyn, and Bessie Blount (perhaps he was the Tiger Woods or Jesse James of his day?). She, for the most part was the epitomy of the dignified queen and she kept her pain and her anger to herself. Though she loved Henry, really, truly loved him, she knew that none of his mistresses was a threat to her power and Henry respected her position as queen and did not flaunt his indiscretions. The one exception to this may have been Bessie Blount, who bore him a son in 1519, but she and her son were housed and cared for away from court. Henry named his bastard son the Duke of Richmond and Somerset, titles that Henry had held as a child. Katherine was angered by the boy's titles, and angrily objected. Henry reacted by sending away three of her Spanish ladies,something he had done once before when she had objected to one of his affairs. Perhaps these types of reactions were another reason she kept quiet.
By 1526 Katherine was nearing the end of her childbearing years and Henry still had no heir. It was around this time that Henry met the young, black-eyed Anne Boleyn. Henry's ten year quest for a divorce from Katherine is legendary and it changed the official religion of England, all this for the love of a woman who was not his wife. Henry's desire to marry Anne consumed him, and led him on a mad quest that saw the death of his chief adviser Wolsey, his excommunication from the Catholic church, and the death of his friend Thomas More. Henry reasoned that he was king, and as such he would have his way. But in the end, was he really any different than any other husband who strays? Men cheating with multiple women has been in the news lately with the Tiger Woods and Jesse James scandals, but this isn't a new phenomenon, it happened 500 years ago and it's happening now. Today we have electronic media to help demonize these men who sleep their way through a slew of women, and a term for it, "sex addiction." In the 1500s all they had were scandal sheets, pamphlets printed and distributed that told of the scandalous actions of the nobility. Maybe Henry would have behaved better if he had been shamed on television. No matter what you call it though, betrayal is betrayal, even if you are the king.
Great Harry by Carolly Erikson
Tomorrow: Catherine's feelings about Henry, the good, the angry, and the sad.