Thoughts on Henry VIII’s Wives: Katherine of Aragon

Though I had not heard this particular saying until two years ago, it’s a common and helpful tool to remembering the six wives of Henry VIII:

Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.

The first time I ever heard about the giant monarch Henry VIII, I was ten years old and we were studying a brief overview of English history that would lead to the American Revolution and, obviously, we discussed Henry’s split with the Catholic church. I was horrified by the prospect that someone could kill their own wife and I thought to myself, “I better be careful about who I marry!”

Since then I have come to the realization that I don’t have to worry about being married to an axe-wielding, power-hungry king, but I’ve been fascinated by the history of Tudor England ever since, particularly with the six women that were married to one of the most infamous monarchs in history. Over the past year or two, I’ve watched just about every documentary series that I could find about this time period as well as the BBC series, Wolf Hall, and my fascination has grown even further as I’ve learned about the roles that each of the wives played in shaping history as we know it.

For right now, though, I want to focus on Katherine of Aragon.

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Portrait of a princess, thought to be Katherine of Aragon, circa 1502, by Michael Sittow.

When it comes to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, we tend to forget her strong will as a woman and she often gets lost in the shadow that Anne Boleyn casts over the rest of the wives. We dismiss Katherine as one of the lucky ones who managed to be divorced instead of beheaded. However, the fate she met was not a favorable one: to be cast aside by a husband of nearly twenty years and to die isolated from the people that she loved.

The marriage between Katherine and Henry was happy in the beginning, but before they married, Katherine had previously been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, but the marriage was allowed on the grounds that Katherine was still a virgin. Henry trusted his queen so much that he left her as regent while he went off to battle in France. During Katherine’s control, Scotland attempted to invade England, foreseeing Katherine’s regency as the perfect weakness for them to invade. Of course, history proves that they underestimated Katherine’s strength and ability as a leader and she claimed victory over the Scots.

I had no knowledge of this victory of Katherine’s until I watched the first episode of Wolf Hall. As Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey discuss Queen Katherine, Cromwell ventures the fact that when the Scots were defeated, Katherine wanted to send the Scottish king’s head to Henry in France as a gift.

“Meaning?” Wolsey inquired.

“She’s a fighter.”

I did a bit of research to see if there was history behind the conversation and I found that it was true! It’s also true that Katherine wanted to send James’ head to Henry. Hey, go big or go home, right?

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However, these victories were not enough in the eyes of so many. Katherine bore Henry six children, but five of the children Katherine bore were stillborn or died with days or weeks of birth. The only surviving child was one healthy girl: Mary. (Don’t get me started on Mary. I’ll probably post something about her in the future if I get fired up enough).

Despite Katherine’s exemplary performance against the Scots, few would consider Mary a viable choice for the throne. A son was needed and a son was just what Henry wanted. The Tudor dynasty was incredibly new and without an heir to secure the line, there was potential for civil war, for the older families with connection to the crown to step in and try to run the show.

This is where the trouble really starts. As Katherine ages, Henry is increasingly nervous about producing an heir, so he started to look elsewhere. He had had plenty of mistresses before, but when he tried to pursue Anne Boleyn, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to play the game. Desperate, Henry petitions to the pope for an annulment on the grounds that Katherine must not have been a virgin when they married, so they were cursed by God to be childless- in this case, meaning having no sons. He so desperately wants to be separated from Katherine that he’s willing to destroy her image. When he doesn’t get this annulment on his own, Henry breaks from Rome, makes himself head of the Church of England, and the rest is history.

I think we forget how difficult this must have been for Katherine. This isn’t an ordinary breakup, this is the end of a marriage that lasted for nearly twenty years, a marriage in which there was love and happiness (at least in the beginning). I can’t imagine the pain of being swept aside in such a way, especially for something beyond her control, but I admire Katherine for holding her own and refusing to step to the side when she faced Henry in “the great matter”. This is a testament to me of her integrity. She knew her divinity and regality and she wasn’t going to let that be taken from her and she held onto it to the end.

Her fate wasn’t a beheading at the tower, but it was one that was secluded and lonely. Henry sent her away from court and when she died, he did not attend the funeral nor did he let their daughter Mary attend. Katherine was also not buried as a queen, perhaps in another attempt to tarnish her position and reinforce the idea that she never was queen, but it’s undeniable in her character and actions even in her last letter to Henry that she was faithful, loyal, and strong: a queen through and through.

She wrote a letter to him just before she died in which she said:

“[M]y eyes desire you above all things.”

I would’ve been bitter. I would’ve had a more Ron Swanson approach in telling my spouse to go to hell if that had been me, but where we differ shows to me just how strong her feelings were.

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Leave it to me to incorporate a Parks and Rec quote into a serious discussion.
Those two decades meant something, those experiences that she shared with her husband meant something so dear to her that she would restate her love for the man who cast her aside for someone else.

Thankfully, Katherine has been given a proper burial for a queen since her first burial, it just took us a few centuries to do it. When I do go back to England- I say when and not if because I am very determined I’ll go back- I want to visit all of the burial places of Henry’s wives, I’ve only been to four so far. When I visit Katherine, I want to place a pomegranate at her grave. The fruit is part of her royal seal and it’s been a custom to place one on her grave as a reminder of her royal birth and heritage. I hope by doing so that I can convey my admiration, appreciation, and sorrow for her.

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Katherine’s grave at Peterborough Cathedral.
Henry and Anne Boleyn are referred to in a documentary title as “the lovers who changed history” and in terms of radical political change, this is true, but we shouldn’t underestimate the extent of Henry and Catherine’s feelings for each other. After all, her marriage is longer than all of the others combined.

Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.

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