10 January 2021

The Love Story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

By Joannes Corvus via Wikimedia Commons

Few people today realize that England's King Henry VIII actually enjoyed a long marriage with his first wife. The couple had been engaged after her first husband, Henry's older brother Prince Arthur died. At the time of their engagement, Catherine was 17 and Henry was a precocious 11. Over the next several years, Catherine was a pawn in the political wrangling between her father, the King of Aragon, and Henry's father. For a brief moment, it was even possible that she might be married off to her father-in-law while other European princesses were sought for Henry. The princess was often low on funds and left alone in the country side. She struggled under the strain of her uncertain situation.

(For more about the "courtship" of Henry and Catherine, see my earlier post, The Most Neglected Princess.)

Nevertheless, Henry married Catherine within two months of ascending the throne at the age of 17. Deeply in love with each other (okay, he was probably in love with the idea of being her hero), Catherine and Henry had a happy marriage for the first several years, marred only by the death of a premature daughter. Their next child was a little boy named Henry. The king threw elaborate parties and held tournaments in honor of the newborn but the baby only lived a few weeks. In the meantime, Catherine was also devastated to discover that Henry had a mistress. He is believed to have been very discreet about such matters and it was certainly normal for men to engage in such things, but Catherine was heartbroken. They had a huge fight and Catherine did not emerge the winner. It damaged their relationship, but they still continued to have a stable and happy married life.

In fact, Henry had so much respect for Catherine that he left her as Regent while he traveled to fight in France. While he was gone, the Scots invaded England. At Flodden, the English thoroughly destroyed the Scots and the Scottish king (husband of Henry's sister Margaret) was killed. Catherine ordered the Scottish king's head to be sent to her and she forwarded it on to Henry in France. Henry was proud of Catherine's actions in his absence but may have been a bit jealous because he had less military success. Shortly before his return, she delivered another premature child who died shortly after birth.

Catherine finally had a healthy child, the future Queen Mary, in 1516. Henry was a doting daddy who, for a short time, began to view Mary as his heir, but later he became increasingly concerned about having a son. As Catherine neared menopause, Henry was still young and virile. As a deeply religious and philosophical person who was also receiving outside encouragement, he started to wonder whether his marriage to Catherine, his brother's widow, was invalid despite the dispensation they had received from the Pope, and that's why he had no sons.

For her part, Catherine had always been a highly obedient and untroublesome wife. When Henry informed her that he believed their marriage was against God's wishes, Henry fully expected that she would comply. He underestimated both her religious piety and her deep love for her daughter (Henry's plan would--and did--make Mary a bastard).

The Pope, who was being held captive by Catherine's nephew, supported her. And that is why Henry VIII created the Church of England and made himself the head of it. Contrary to popular belief, he remained an ardent Catholic. Several of his future wives, particularly the last one, had to hide their Protestant beliefs from him in order to avoid the executioner.

Henry divorced Catherine and declared their marriage null, he made Mary a bastard and married Anne Boleyn, who soon gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth. When Anne also failed to produce sons (and acted like a total pain in the arse), he had her executed, annulled their marriage and made Elizabeth a bastard, too. At about the same time, a lonely Catherine, still devoted to Henry as her true husband, passed away. With both of his first wives safely deceased, Henry felt he could finally make a valid marriage. When Wife #3, Jane Seymour gave him a son, the future Edward VI, it reaffirmed all of his beliefs.

He was sentimental about Jane, who died soon after her son was born, and thought her his best wife. Nevertheless, I think that the bride of his youth, Catherine, was his favorite. He certainly loved her for a longer time than he did any of the others. They were married nearly 20 years before he decided to end it and almost 24 years by the time of the annulment. Their marriage was longer than his other five marriages combined.

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