The Unlikeliest Loophole

Eamon Duffy

  • Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett
    Faber, 458 pp, £9.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 23512 4

Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first and longest-lasting queen, at the heart of his glittering court for almost two decades. In the early years of their marriage, the Spanish princess, daughter of the most glamorous monarchs in Europe, must have seemed every bit as regal as her husband. Yet in the historiography of Tudor England she has become a shadowy figure, a sad frump eclipsed by her savage husband and the brazen mistress who supplanted her. Giles Tremlett’s splendid biography seeks to correct that perception. Notoriously, Henry came to hate the cast-off wife he once doted on, but it’s Tremlett’s contention that when Henry made Catherine his enemy, he found to his cost that he had never encountered a tougher opponent, ‘on, or off, the battlefield’. It is the book’s achievement to make that claim both intelligible and persuasive.

For a new and insecure dynasty on the western fringe of Europe, a marriage with the Spanish infanta was a tremendous prize. Catherine’s mother, Isabel of Castile, was the most powerful woman in Europe, a defiantly hands-on female ruler whose marriage to Ferdinand, king of the lesser Spanish kingdom of Aragon, created the germ of modern Spain and marked the arrival of a formidable new power in world politics. Their conquest of the Moorish emirate of Granada and their deployment of the Inquisition, forced conversion and, eventually, ethnic cleansing to rid Spain of its Jewish and Muslim populations, marked the end of a period of religious coexistence in the peninsula, and in modern times has made Ferdinand and Isabel seem bywords for blinkered bigotry. To contemporaries, fearfully conscious of the menace of the Turkish empire on Europe’s southern and eastern borders, they must have looked like the saviours of Christian civilisation. In 1496 that worldly sophisticate Pope Alexander VI recognised this by awarding Catherine’s parents the title of ‘Catholic Monarchs’. Shrewd dynastic marriages for their children linked the Catholic Monarchs to the rulers of Portugal, the Low Countries and Habsburg Germany and ensured that their grandson Charles V would rule an empire encompassing much of the known world. By these standards the betrothal of their fifth child to Prince Arthur of England was small beer. But not for England: the marriage of two successive heirs to the throne to the same daughter of the most formidable and militantly Christian monarchy in Europe represented the arriviste Tudor dynasty’s eager quest for international legitimacy and a potentially invaluable ally against England’s traditional enemy, France.

For the 16-year-old Catherine, by contrast, marriage to the Prince of Wales in November 1501 must have seemed like a parachute descent to an alien and unappealing planet. She spoke not a word of English, and both she and her entourage found English food, English social customs and English weather difficult to adjust to. Within weeks of her arrival, and despite the lavish celebrations that marked her wedding, she was desperately homesick, and her notoriously tight-fisted father-in-law, Henry VII, was reduced to cheering her up by giving her the run of the royal jewel-house. They were the last gifts she was to receive from him, for the courts of England and Aragon were soon bitterly at odds over delays in the delivery of her dowry.

Within a month of the wedding and in the dead of winter, she and her boy bridegroom were dispatched from the comforts of the court at Richmond to spend Christmas in the Welsh Marches so that Arthur could resume his duties as Prince of Wales. There had been doubts about whether Catherine should go. Some feared that too much sexual indulgence might sap the prince’s strength (Catherine’s newly-wed teenage brother Juan had died, it was said, from just such injudicious application to the duties of the marriage-bed). But in the end, bride and groom went together. The transition within a few months from the golden courts of the Alhambra to the dripping gloom of Ludlow Castle must have been devastating. By the spring, both Catherine and Arthur had fallen ill, perhaps with the sweating-sickness. She recovered, but on 2 April 1502, Arthur, who may already have been suffering from tuberculosis, succumbed to the illness and died.

The death of Prince Arthur provoked consternation both in London and Granada. Though England still had an heir to the throne in the ten-year-old Prince Henry, the queen, Elizabeth of York, now dangerously old at 36, immediately sought to make assurance doubly sure by conceiving again: the pregnancy was to kill her. Isabel and Ferdinand, however, wanted to maintain the alliance that the marriage of Catherine and Arthur had cemented between England and Spain. For his part, Henry VII was determined never to relinquish Catherine’s dowry. It was agreed, therefore, that Catherine should marry little Prince Henry, just as soon as he reached puberty. But there was a hitch: marriage to a deceased brother’s wife was forbidden by the Church. Fortunately, the pope, for a consideration, could dispense with inconvenient laws of this kind. Here, however, ominous differences of interpretation emerged. Some theologians thought that not even the pope could legitimise a marriage between brother and sister-in-law, if the union had been consummated. The Spanish court soon asserted that, all appearances to the contrary, Catherine’s marriage with the sickly Arthur had never been consummated, and she was still a virgin. Years later, Catherine was to be a good deal more specific, swearing solemnly that Arthur had shared her bed on no more than seven occasions, on none of which had penetration been achieved. There was, on this account, no bar to the proposed alliance.

The English court took a different view. Though no one at the time probed the facts about consummation or non-consummation, even the unlikeliest loophole in the papal dispensation might cast doubt on the legitimacy of any offspring, and hence on the succession to the English throne. King Henry therefore insisted that the dispensation must specify that a marriage to Prince Henry would be valid and licit whether or not Catherine came to it a virgin. As King Ferdinand complained furiously to his ambassador to the Vatican, the truth of the matter was well known, but ‘the mad English … believe that the dispensation should say the marriage was consummated.’ In the end Pope Julius II hedged his bets and sent a dispensation permitting the marriage of Catherine to Henry, even though the marriage with Arthur had ‘perhaps’ been consummated. On that ambiguity, her happiness, and England’s allegiance to the Catholic Church, would one day founder.

Catherine’s life was now put on hold, and she was to remain an unhappy widow for another seven years. The death of Queen Isabel in 1504 reduced her dynastic desirability, for her elder sister Juana the Mad succeeded to the throne of Castile, and a marriage alliance with Ferdinand’s smaller and poorer kingdom of Aragon seemed no great catch for England. Disputes over her dowry enabled the less and less enthusiastic Henry VII to stall, while the young dowager princess was kept a virtual prisoner in Durham House in London. Mourning for her mother, desperately short of cash, and smarting under the humiliations of her sudden fall from favour, Catherine’s health deteriorated and her menstrual cycle became erratic. She took comfort in religion, her devout obedience to her rather dodgy Spanish confessor a matter of exasperation to King Henry. Starved of funds by her grasping father-in-law, she kept herself financially afloat and revenged herself on Henry by pawning items from her dwindling dowry.

But it was in these years too that her adamantine strength of character emerged. She proved quietly but unflinchingly defiant in the face of her father’s neglect and her father-in-law’s insolent bullying. She developed a talent as an adroit and determined political operator, and in 1507 Ferdinand appointed her his ambassador to the English court, a move that she made the most of and which led to a marked improvement in her status. And then, unexpectedly, her situation was decisively transformed by the death of Henry VII in April 1509. Within days of his accession, the 17-year-old King Henry VIII announced his intention to honour the marriage treaty and marry his brother’s widow. On 11 June 1509, in a quiet wedding ceremony at Greenwich, Catherine became queen of England.

Despite the difference in their ages – Henry had been a mischievous page at Catherine’s first wedding – the auguries for the marriage were good. The royal couple from the start seemed devoted to each other. They were, for one thing, physically well-matched. Catherine was never a raving beauty, but she had the glow of youth and new-found happiness, luxuriant pale auburn hair and a pretty rounded face, altogether much more the English rose than the Hispanic siren. She had a flair for the endearing public gesture and soon became hugely popular with Londoners. For his part, Henry was handsome, athletic and always dressed to kill: as an Italian observer noted, he was ‘above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair … and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman’.

And in their first years together, Henry seemed besotted not only with his bride but even with her father. Henry loved the idea of chivalry – jousting was a favourite pastime – and his father-in-law seemed a figure out of medieval romance: Ferdinand was the most successful crusader in Europe, the man who by force of arms rid Spain of its Islamic populations, the triumphant champion of a militant Christendom. There is a note of hero worship in Henry’s early correspondence with Ferdinand that went well beyond the usual compliments of diplomatic exchange.

The hero worship did not last. Christian champion or not, Ferdinand was the most devious of politicians, and in 1512 he lured Henry into a futile Continental adventure, ostensibly for a joint invasion of Aquitaine (to which England laid claim) but in fact designed to annex Navarre to the Spanish crown: Henry had been tricked into an expensive military shambles to serve Ferdinand’s ends. The episode drove a wedge between Ferdinand and Catherine, now fluent in English and determinedly identifying herself with English interests. Unexpectedly, she proved a far greater asset to Henry than his father-in-law could ever be. In 1513, when Henry launched a fresh military campaign in France, he left Catherine in charge at home as queen regent. She took to the role with panache: when the Scottish King James IV tried to exploit Henry’s absence by declaring war, Catherine revealed a decisive gift for organisation, masterminding the equipping and dispatch of English forces north. She even commissioned a jewelled armoured helmet and set out for Scotland herself. The rout of the Scottish army at Flodden and the death of the Scottish king crowned Catherine’s triumph (though she never came anywhere near the fighting).

The crucial victories of a queen consort were won in the bed, however, not on the battlefield, and there things were going much less well. Catherine had presented Henry with the longed-for male heir on New Year’s Day 1511, but the boy survived only a few weeks, and as the years went by multiple stillbirths and miscarriages made it clear that Catherine was not a good breeder. Only one of their children was to survive into adulthood, a girl, Mary, born in February 1516. Henry professed himself delighted, and in due course the little Princess of Wales was sent to the castle at Ludlow to assume the duties of the heir to the throne. But it was not to beget daughters that Henry had married Catherine. As the years passed, and the queen’s puppy fat congealed into stoutness, Henry’s eye began to wander. In 1519, one of Catherine’s maids-in-waiting, Elizabeth Blount, presented the king with a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, whom Henry acknowledged and showered with affection and titles. Catherine remained an honoured presence at Henry’s side, a patron of the fashionable humanistic learning, a valuable link with her nephew, Emperor Charles V, and influential enough in Henry’s counsels to arouse the jealousy of his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey. But she had to learn to turn a smiling face on their fading personal idyll.

In 1527, the bombshell fell. Anne Boleyn, a pert young Frenchified Norfolk girl, trained to royal service in Brussels and Paris, had returned to England in 1521 and become a notable presence at the English court. Her married sister, Mary, was already one of Henry’s mistresses. He now fell hopelessly in love with Anne: shrewder than her sister, Anne set a wedding ring as the price of admission to her bed.

No one knows for sure who planted the idea of annulling the marriage in Henry’s head. According to Henry, the French ambassador, in the course of negotiations for a marriage between Princess Mary and a member of the French royal family, suggested that Mary might be a bastard because of the doubts surrounding the papal dispensation for her parents’ marriage. Catherine was convinced that Wolsey was the culprit, determined to oust her and drive a wedge between Henry and Charles V, who had refused to support Wolsey’s ambitions for the papacy. Whoever had the idea, Henry now set his heart on having his marriage declared null and void. The Bible sent conflicting messages. A verse in Leviticus cursed any marriage with a dead brother’s wife; a verse in Deuteronomy recommended marriage with and children by a dead brother’s wife as a pious family obligation. Henry claimed his conscience was tormented by the curse in Leviticus: he and Catherine had sinned in sleeping together, and this, he said, was why he was childless (a convenient and characteristic obliteration of Mary’s existence). Secret commissions of lawyers and theologians assembled the case, university faculties of law and theology were nobbled or bullied, envoys were sent to Rome laden with bribes and rumours that Catherine had horrible genital deformities. No one mentioned Anne Boleyn, though everyone knew that was what the whole thing was about. Henry may initially have hoped that Catherine would accept defeat and honourable retirement to some country house as princess dowager. If so, he misjudged her. For the next six years she would protest undying love and obedience to her husband, while she resolutely defied and brilliantly sabotaged all his attempts to be rid of her. She was to fight the divorce proceedings to her final breath.

‘The King’s Great Matter’ divided the political elite of England and brought Henry’s regime close to ruin. Catherine was popular, cheered to the rafters whenever she appeared in public, especially by women: when Anne was eventually crowned queen of England, sullen crowds would watch her coronation procession in silence. Popular prophets like the visionary ‘nun of Kent’, Elizabeth Barton, predicted God’s curse on Henry if he discarded his queen: she and her followers were executed. The leaders of the Church and the political elite one by one caved in to royal pressure to support the king’s proceedings: those who would not, like Bishop Fisher of Rochester and Thomas More, went to the block, protesting that they died for the Catholic religion.

For the king’s marriage had opened Pandora’s box. The pope, that gutless Medici by-blow Clement VII, was in the power of Catherine’s nephew Charles V, whose armies sacked Rome in 1527. Whatever he thought of his predecessor’s dispensation, Clement was afraid to grant Henry’s request. He took to weeping in public about his dilemma: if only the queen of England would simply die! He dispatched a legate, Cardinal Campeggio, to hear the case in a special court in London alongside Wolsey. Campeggio pleaded with the queen to let the pope off the hook and release her husband by taking a vow of chastity and retiring to a convent. She refused. And in June 1529 she brilliantly exploited Campeggio’s Legatine Court and confounded Henry in a magnificent coup de théâtre. The court itself, held publicly at Blackfriars, was sensational enough, with the king and queen of England summoned before two cardinals to have their grievances aired in public. Henry, all anguished innocence, paraded his lacerated conscience, only to be struck dumb when Catherine threw herself at his feet, protested her love and absolute devotion to him, and challenged him on his honour as a king and a man to deny that she had come to him a virgin. Henry blustered, but neither then nor ever afterwards did he contradict her, the most telling piece of evidence that she spoke the truth. She then swept from the court, refusing its jurisdiction because she could not have a fair hearing in England, and appealed directly to the pope. It was game, set and match for Catherine. But it was also the beginning of the end of Catholic England.

In the early 1520s, Henry had rivalled the Catholic orthodoxy of his Spanish in-laws by launching a vigorous campaign against the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation. Protestant books, and some of their authors, were condemned and burned, and the king wrote a treatise against Martin Luther, for which the pope gave him the title Defender of the Faith. But the Church was now failing Henry over the divorce. If the pope would not oblige, then the king would make himself pope in England. Stooge theologians concocted a theory of the spiritual sovereignty of English kings, and a bogus history to back it, and in 1534 England broke finally away from papal obedience.

For Catherine, life was now an unrelenting struggle against adversity. As Henry’s animosity against her festered, indignities were heaped on her: her entourage was dismissed, she was stripped of the name and honours of a queen, her jewels were confiscated and given to Anne Boleyn. Worst of all, she was separated permanently from Princess Mary, a crushing blow for both of them, and possibly the most despicable act of Henry’s despicable life. She remained dignified and defiant, and, with the possibility of rebellion in her favour at home and the threat of invasion from abroad, a real danger to her husband. She refused to have anyone about her who would not call her queen and declared her willingness to die to vindicate her truthfulness. Execution was a real possibility, but privation and disease released her from her jail in Kimbolton on 7 January 1536.

Henry and Anne Boleyn celebrated the news of her death with a succession of parties. But Anne’s days too were numbered. She had been no more successful than Catherine in providing a male heir. She was a good deal more assertive in public with Henry than Catherine had ever been. She made many enemies and few friends, and she had aroused the hostility of the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. She was arrested at the beginning of May 1536 on trumped up charges of incest, adultery and plotting to murder the king, and beheaded on Tower Green on 19 May. Tremlett does not say, but it was widely rumoured that the same morning, the candles round Catherine’s grave in Peterborough Cathedral burst spontaneously into flame.

Any biography of Catherine has to stand comparison with David Starkey’s brilliant full-length portrait in Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. Starkey has an unrivalled grasp of the intricacies of Tudor court politics, and his portrait of Catherine offers a richer and surer sense of the wider ramifications of her marital problems. But Tremlett is fuller on Catherine’s Spanish background, and he differs from Starkey in allowing more credence to Catherine’s repeated insistence that her marriage with Arthur was never consummated. After their wedding night Arthur boasted that he had been all night ‘in the midst of Spain’, and Starkey is inclined to believe him. Ultimate judgments on Catherine depend on whether one gives more weight to the sexual boastings of a boy with face to lose, or the solemn oaths of a devout and courageous woman. The flustered Spanish cleric who heard her final confession forgot to ask her, so, as both Starkey and Tremlett admit, only God knows for sure. We are fortunate in having the two books to choose between. Maddeningly, one has to go online to consult Tremlett’s footnotes; but his biography is popular historical writing as it should be done, securely based on the sources and superbly written.