The Royal Seven Year Itch

As a follow up to Hannah’s excellent post on Henry’s need for a son, I decided to do a couple of posts on the intricacies of Henry’s divorce, also known as the Great Matter.  But a little background first, on Henry’s perception of his relationship with Catherine, with respect to the need for a son. Even though the King remained a perfect gentleman and did his duty by the Queen (namely, sleep with her and escort her on royal occasions), the bond between them was broken long before Anne Boleyn entered the picture.

In 1514, there were rumours circulating that Henry wanted to divorce Catherine, but this was never substantiated. This could be because Henry took a new mistress at this point, Elizabeth Blount. This was the first time that the King strayed from his marriage. There were reports of Catherine having lost her beauty by 1515, from various visitors to the Tudor Court. By 1519, there were reports that Catherine was seldom seen at Court. In 1524, there was talk of Henry divorcing Catherine and marrying a French Princess, a scheme Wolsey seemed to be in favour of. And in 1525, Henry met Anne.

Catherine meanwhile, spent her time doing good works, spending twelve to fourteen hours on her knees in prayer, making pilgrimages, devoting herself to her daughter’s studies and getting pregnant. Unfortunately, none of the pregnancies resulted in the much sought after son, but it made the Queen fat, ungainly and possibly, increasingly depressed. She stopped attending Court ceremonies unless absolutely required and devoted herself to her religion.

Catherine’s last letter to Henry is often cited as proof of their deep love which Henry eschewed for a matter of lust. But in tune with the facts cited above, it is hardly possible that they were deeply in love.

My most dear Lord, Kind and husband. The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forces me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles.

For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish and devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants, I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.

Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

What was a wife’s duty in the sixteenth century? Love and obey her husband above all things. Catherine failed to obey her husband, so she might have made it a point to leave a declaration of love. It is possible that she wanted to do the right thing by Henry and hope that Mary’s future would be secure. But all this is speculation. The declaration of love was mere words. Her actions, however, speak loud and clear. The letter reads more like an exhortation to behave by a religious person, rather than any declaration of love from a wife to a husband. By 1536, all respect and love between the parties had been lost. But the relationship had started deteriorating sometime in 1515 itself, as seen above.

Now that the background is established, let’s skip forward to the actual events of the King’s divorce. in 1525, Henry met Anne, but another momentous event took place as well. Henry Fitzroy was acknowledged as the King’s son and was showered with princely titles, thus paving the way for a future change of heirs. But at the same time, the governance of Wales, the stronghold of English princes and heirs to the throne, was given to Mary. This was a decisive wavering among the legitimate but female heiress and the illegitimate but male heir. But by 1527, Henry was deeply in love with Anne Boleyn, and she reciprocated with agreeing to his proposal. Things changed and then came the biggest struggle of Henry’s life so far.

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless – Leviticus 20:21

These words resonated with Henry, who had not only fallen out of love with Catherine but also begun to have serious doubts about the status of his marriage. He had a healthy son begotten of another woman, so why not a legitimate son? At this point, Henry had two ways to get out of the entanglement that was his marriage – one, to find inconsistencies in the dispensation and use them to invalidate it, and two, to invalidate the dispensation by the mere presumption that the Biblical word carried greater weight than any Papal dispensation. And it was here that the Papal dispensation was basically dispensed with.  According to Henry, not even the Pope could set aside God’s law as set down in the Bible.

The first person consulted was, ironically, Bishop John Fisher, soon to be the King’s biggest opponent. Though he admitted that the question was complex and scholars basically disagreed upon it, he finally chose to commit himself to the opinion that this did not apply to the King’s case. And for this, he chose another Biblical phrase, this time from the Deuteronomy.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. – Deuteronomy 25:5

The battle begins.


David Starkey: Six Wives – The Queens of Henry VIII

Richard Rex: Henry VIII and the English Reformation

8 thoughts on “The Royal Seven Year Itch

  1. Great post. A few points, though. First, that Catherine disobeyed her husband didn’t show that she didn’t love him (IMO); the duty to obey G-d always came first, and Catherine believed that obeying Henry would be disobeying G-d. Second, I can’t help thinking that, during the last years of her life, Catherine was living a great deal in the past, such that her letter to Henry was addressed more to the “young Henry” she loved and married, instead of the Henry that existed in 1536. Third, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if Henry had taken Catherine at her word regarding the consummation of her marriage with Arthur — according to JJ Scarisbrick (whose biography of Henry VIII includes a chapter on the applicable canon law), Henry’s case for an invalid marriage would have been stronger if the marriage was not consummated! According to Scarisbrick, the Church long recognized the “Deuteronomy exception” to the rule of Leviticus. However, there was a defect in the dispensation, which only dissolved the impediment of affinity (which only existed if the marriage to Arthur was consummated), but did not dissolve the impediment of “public honesty” (which rested on the public wedding and Catherine and Arthur living and holding themselves out as husband and wife … and would apply even if the marriage was not consummated).

  2. Thanks for commenting, Esther. That is a very interesting take on the matter. Of course, the entire procedure was so convoluted and involved that people must definitely have lost track at some point. There were a lot of church law precedents to vindicate all the viewpoints, so we cannot say today whose case was stronger.

    Is the bio any good? I am a little wary of Henry bios, my blood pressure is very likely to shoot up.

    • I found it fascinating, especially the details on canon law (but I’m a lawyer). Is there some specific issue in most bios that affects your blood pressure? If so, I will try to let you know if this one shares the same defect.

      • I dislike judgemental pronouncements. I dislike half-truths and outright lies, just so that authors can support their pov. Otherwise, I am happy with a well researched book, whatever side of the matter it presents.

  3. I didn’t find it overly judgmental (it may state, for example, that Henry had “a weak case”), but I’ve been reading a lot of the books written in the Victorian era, which were judgmental in the extreme — Scarisbrick may seem milder, just by comparison. If there are any outright lies, I haven’t caught them (but you seem more knowledgeable than I, so you might). It does give more emphasis to the political, rather than to the “personal”, and it can be very hard reading at times.

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