June 21, 1529 – Catherine of Aragon’s Epic Speech at Blackfriars

The Trial of Queen Catherine of Aragon, by Henry Nelson O’Neil (Public Domain via the Birmingham Museums and Wikimedia Commons)

This was a phenomenal speech, Catherine’s chance to plead her case before the world. And she did. Masterfully.

Some context: the “King’s Great Matter” started in 1527 or so. Henry was pursuing annulment the only way possible – through the Church. Annulment should have been a foregone conclusion – other monarchs had gotten them easily, and on much less legitimate grounds. The problem in this case was that Catherine’s nephew Charles V had just sacked Rome and therefore held the Pope essentially prisoner.

The Pope dickered for a long time, hoping the King would tire of Anne Boleyn and the issue would die, but that didn’t happen. Finally he made what looked like a concession – he agreed that a Legatine Court could hear the case in England and sent Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio to hear the case with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The first day, they called the King of England to the court – he gave the proper answer (“Here, my lords”). Then they called the Queen. Rather than answering (which would have acknowledged the court and its legitimacy), she rose, walked over to her husband, and threw herself on her knees to speak directly to him. George Cavendish (Wolsey’s gentleman-usher and then biographer) recorded the speech she gave:

Sir, I beseech you for all the loves there hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right, take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman and a stranger born out of your dominions. I have here no assured friend, and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you as to the head of justice within your realm. Alas! Sir, wherein have I offended you, or what occasion of displeasure have I designed against your will and pleasure? Intending (as I perceive) to put me from you, I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble, and obedient wife, ever conformable to your will and pleasure, that never said or did anything to the contrary thereof, being always well pleased and contented with all things wherein ye had any delight or dalliance, whether it were in little or much. I never grudged in word or countenance nor showed a visage or spark of discontentment. I loved all those whom ye loved only for your sake, whether I had cause or no and whether they were my friends or my enemies. This twenty years have I been your true wife, or more, and by me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them out of the world, which has been no fault of mine.

And when ye had me at the first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man; and whether it be true or no, I put it to your conscience. If there by any just cause by the law that ye can allege against me, either of dishonesty or any other impediment to banish and put me from you, I am well content to depart, to my great shame and disparagement; and if there be none, then here I most lowly beseech you let me remain in my former estate and receive justice at your princely hands. The king your father was in the time of his reign of such estimation through the world for his excellent wisdom, that he was accounted and called of all men the second Solomon; and my father Ferdinand, King of Spain, who was esteemed to be one of the wittiest princes that reigned in Spain many years before, were both wise and excellent kings in wisdom and princely behavior. It is not therefore to be doubted but that they elected and gathered as wise counselors about them as to their high discretions were thought meet. Also, as me-seemeth, they had in their days as wise, well-learned men, and men of good judgment as be at this present in both realms, who thought then the marriage between you and me good and lawful. Therefore is it a wonder to me to hear what new inventions are now invented against me, that never intended but honesty. And cause me to stand to the order and judgment of this new court, wherein ye may do me much wrong if ye intend any kind of cruelty; for ye may condemn me for lack of sufficient answer, having no indifferent counsel but such as be assigned me, with whose wisdom and learning I am not acquainted. Ye must consider that they cannot be indifferent counselors for my part which be your subjects, and taken out of your own council before, wherein they be made privy, and dare not for your displeasure, disobey your will and intent, being once made privy thereto. Therefore, I most humbly require you, in the way of charity and for the love of God, who is the just judge, to spare the extremity of this new court until I may be advertised what way and order my friends in Spain will advise me to take. And if ye will not extend to me so much indifferent favor, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my case.”

With that, “she rose up, making low courtesy to the king, and so departed from thence.”

A formidable woman.

[There’s lots more good stuff where this came from. Cavendish’s The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey is just wonderful! – You can access it through Archive.Org here]

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March 23, 1534 – First Act of Succession

Henry VIII in Parliament, from the Wriothesley Garter Book (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Henry VIII in Parliament, from the Wriothesley Garter Book (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Act of Succession (at the time referred to only as the “Act of Succession”) was a key step in Henry’s repudiation of Catherine of Aragon: it recognized Elizabeth, his daughter with Anne Boleyn, as the true heir to the throne (until of course a son was born to this marriage!), and made Mary, his daughter with Catherine, a bastard. While the Church of England had already declared the same thing, this Act of Parliament bound the people much more directly.

It was a formidable weapon because it required every Englishman to swear an oath to recognize this Act, as well as the King’s supremacy:

And that all manner your subjects, as well spiritual as temporal … shall swear a like corporal oath, that they and every of them, without fraud or guile, to their cunning, wit, and uttermost of their powers, shall truly, firmly, and constantly observe, fulfil, maintain, defend, and keep the effects and contents contained and specified in this Act, or in any part thereof.

Those who refused – like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher – would be guilty of treason and executed. Henry wasn’t messing around!

[E]very such person and persons, of what estate, degree, or condition they be of … and their aiders, counsellors, maintainers, and abettors, and every of them, for every such offence shall be adjudged high traitors, and every such offence shall be adjudged high treason, and the offenders and their aiders, counsellors, maintainers, and abettors, and every of them… shall suffer pains of death, as in cases of high treason; and that also every such offender, being convicted as is aforesaid, shall lose and forfeit … all such manors, lands, tenements, rents, annuities, and hereditaments, which they had in possession as owners, or were sole seized of by or in any right, title, or means, or any other person or persons had to their use, of any estate of inheritance, at the day of such treasons and offences by them committed and done …

Interestingly, only two years later, the Act was superseded by the Second Act of Succession, passed in June 1536 and which vested the succession in Henry’s children by new wife Jane Seymour and made Elizabeth as illegitimate as Mary. Of course, since Henry did not as yet have any children by Jane Seymour, the Second Act also gave Henry “full and plenary power and authority” to choose a different successor in letters patent or through his final Will. Nor was this Henry’s final say on the matter: the Third Act of Succession, passed in July 1543, restored Mary and Elizabeth to the succession (though without removing their illegitimacy) behind Edward, Edward’s children, and any children Henry might yet have with then-wife Katherine Parr) – and of course subject to Henry’s continuing right to change his mind in letters patent or his Will…


Wikipedia for the First Act of Succession, the Second Act of Succession, and the Third Act of Succession

Luminarium for the full text of the First Act of Succession

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February 24, 1500 – Birth of Charles V

A Young Charles V, by Bernard van Orley (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A Young Charles V, by Bernard van Orley (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The reign of Charles V was a momentous era for Spain, indeed, all of Europe. It was also especially momentous for England: it was entirely because of Charles that the Pope refused to grant Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This should have been a slam dunk for Henry (it was relatively standard practice when a monarch’s marriage did not produce an heir), except that Catherine was Charles’ aunt – and Henry was not looking to replace her with another political marriage…

Charles V is also of particular interest to Tudor enthusiasts because of the way his reign can be viewed in tandem with Henry VIII’s. Indeed the sixteenth century saw a rare parallel of monarchs: Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, Charles V of Spain, and Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire were all born around the same time (Henry – 1491, Francis – 1494, Charles – 1500, Suleiman – 1494), acceded to their thrones around the same time (Henry – 1509, Francis – 1515, Charles – 1516, and Suleiman – 1520), reigned for similar lengths of time (35-45 years or so) during which they oversaw enormous cultural advances, then died around the same time (Henry and Francis – 1547, Charles – 1558 and Suleiman – 1566).

Of the European rulers, Charles V was the most powerful. As the heir to three of Europe’s leading dynasties (Hapsburg, Valois-Burgundy and Trastamara), Charles governed the Spanish Empire, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire (covering key parts of Germany, Italy…). As Wikipedia puts it, “his domains spanned nearly four million square kilometers, and were the first to be described as ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’. He might well have annexed France and England (though I could get beat up for saying this…), were it not for his ongoing border disputes with Suleiman, who ruled over 20-30 million people, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa.

In terms of looks, Charles was on the short side and inherited the unfortunate Hapsburg jaw. Perhaps this is why Henry was not as obsessively jealous of, and competitive with, him the way he was with Francis. It also helped that they began their respective reigns as allies, with Charles carefully deferring to his “elder uncle” for a time. Whatever the reason, the two countries spent more time as allies than as enemies over the Henry/Charles years, and set the stage for the marriage of Mary I with Charles’ son Philip II (though as a child she had been promised to Charles…talk about a limiting precontract!).


For this article, my immediate sources came from Wikipedia – their many entries about Charles V, Henry VIII, Francis I, Suleiman the Magnificent, and so many more. I can’t tell you who first led me to see the four monarchs as contemporaries that shaped each others’ lives…

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September 25, 1534 – Death of Pope Clement VII

Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1531

Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1531

Pope Clement VII was born Giulio di Giuliano de’Medici. He was Pope from 1523 until his death in 1534, the key years of Henry VIII’s Great Matter. Arguably, he caused the schism that created the Church of England given the vacillating and contradictory signals he sent.

Normally, Henry VIII should have been able to count on an annulment – Popes had done no less for every other ruler in need of an heir, based on facts that were far less persuasive than those that Henry put forth. That was one of the reasons that Thomas Cardinal Wolsey was so confident at the start of the ordeal – of course, at the time he was making arrangements for Henry to marry a French princess. When it became clear that the King intended to marry a subject, Anne Boleyn, everything changed. Suddenly Henry’s motives looked suspicious, and his determination questionable – which explains a lot of Clement’s dilatory tactics: he assumed (as most people did) that Henry would soon tire of his affair and the storm would blow over. Clement was wrong.

Clement was also wrong about the lengths to which the English monarch would be willing to go in this matter. Of course, the ever-artful Anne Boleyn timed her surrender perfectly: when she found herself pregnant in January 1533, the final important steps to implement the breach with Rome were all taken in rapid succession. The pregnancy was kept quiet until the papal bulls arrived to allow Thomas Cranmer to be consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury (Clement had, incredibly, provided them despite the Emperor’s warnings – it was one of the only concessions he could make to England and he thought this would help appease Henry). From there, the bill forbidding appeals to Rome, at which point Cranmer could invalidate the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and confirm his union with Anne Boleyn. Thus Anne was anointed and crowned on June 1, the final step needed to assure legitimacy of the son she was surely carrying.

Of course, Clement deeply resented the way he’d been duped. He finally ordered Henry to return to Catherine, issuing a bull of excommunication to show ow serious he was (though the sentence was still stayed….). But this was too late. Did it give the King pause? Yes. The news came days before Anne was scheduled to take to her chamber, and he kept the news from her to avoid upsetting her. But even after a daughter was born instead of the son he needed, he remained resolute. Of course, this issue had gained a financial element: the King was now keeping for himself the taxes on ecclesiastical income rather than paying them to Rome. Then Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534, and the Church of England was complete.

Would things have been different if Clement had acted earlier? Catherine of Aragon believed so, she constantly warned that an immediate decision was imperative. I have to agree with her. Henry was profoundly religious, and the seven years he spent fighting created a mounting justification of the rightness of his cause. What would Henry have become if he had been forced to stay with Catherine? Would he have avoided the descent into suspicion and madness that marked his later years? Or would it have started earlier, with an order to have Catherine poisoned? We will never know.


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April 9, 1533 – Deputation Informs Catherine of Aragon of Her New Title

April 9, 1533 - A deputation informed Catherine of Aragon of her new title. She never accepted it. Read about it on www.janetwertman.com

Catherine of Aragon – the Horenbout Miniature

Let us not forget that Anne Boleyn became Queen of England well before her June coronation, even before Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had formally been declared invalid by Thomas Cranmer (that happened on May 23rd).

Technically she became Queen upon her marriage to Henry in a private ceremony in January 1533, though they continued to keep this secret for some time. On February 3rd, Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which limited the authority of the Pope to that of any other foreign Bishop (and changed his title to “Bishop of Rome”) and therefore allowed the matter of the annulment to be tried in an English court. Around February 15, Anne could not resist letting people know she was pregnant, announcing that she had a “furious desire to eat apples” (I wrote a blog post about this if you want to read more about this wild story). In March, Cranmer received the papal bulls confirming his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury – and in April the royal couple went public. The announcement was made on Easter Sunday, to liken their marriage to England’s own resurrection. Anne went to mass with the King dressed in cloth of gold and wearing Catherine’s jewels and waited for congregations across the land to be told for the first time to pray for their sovereigns, King Henry and his wife Queen Anne.

The new status quo was reinforced with a deputation to Catherine informing her that she was never to use the title Queen again, that henceforth she would be known only as the Princess Dowager.

Catherine never accepted this change. Indeed, she clung to her title until her death (she wrote Henry an amazing last letter, I wrote a post on this too), and insisted that those around her do the same. This was the day that started that phase of her life.


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April 2, 1502: Prince Arthur Dies

April 2, 1502 - Prince Arthur Tudor dies, leaving Catherine of Aragon a widow...but was she a virgin? Read more on www.janetwertman.com

Catherine of Aragon, Aged Around 16, by Michel Sittow (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Less than a week ago, I posted about the anniversary of the betrothal of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon. Almost exactly thirteen years later, everything changed when Arthur died suddenly, leaving Catherine a sixteen-year-old widow.

The initial plan was to have Catherine marry Henry Tudor, Arthur’s younger brother. That would preserve the important alliance, it would simplify payment of the dowry. The issue of canon law prohibiting a man marrying his brother’s wife was not as formidable as it might have been – the Pope quickly granted a dispensation for the marriage to proceed even if it had “perhaps” been consummated (though Catherine always claimed that it had not been). More important impediments were encountered when Catherine’s mother, Isabella of Castille, died. Her kingdom, a much larger one than her husband Ferdinand’s Aragon, was inherited by their oldest daughter Juana. Spain was now a splintered power, and Catherine’s value as a bride was significantly decreased. For the next seven years she waited for Henry VII to permit the marriage to proceed – but he never did. It was Henry VIII who made the decision to marry her – which he did within two months of acceding to the throne.

That should have settled everything. But twenty years later, the question of her first marriage arose again. Henry claimed that her five month marriage to Arthur must have been consummated, since God had denied them a son and heir. Henry VIII was convinced that the initial papal dispensation must have been invalid, that he must be free to remarry. But by this time the Spanish kingdom had been reunited in Charles V, whose armies surrounded the Pope and effectively controlled him. Catherine endured another seven year stretch of waiting to find out whether she was indeed to be confirmed as Henry’s lawful wife. Although the Pope finally ruled in her favor, Henry ignored him and founded the Church of England to decide the matter locally.

Did she or didn’t she? Right before she died, Catherine swore on the Eucharist that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, in the hope of finally settling the issue once and for all. At that point, though, it’s not like Henry cared…



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March 27, 1489: Catherine of Aragon Betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor

March 27, 1489 - Catherine of Aragon first betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor (the betrothal was confirmed in 1497, when the two were 12 and 11, respectively.

Catherine of Aragon, Aged Around 11, by Juan de Flandes

In 1489, Henry VII had reigned for only four years. To solidify his somewhat shaky hold on the throne, he sought to arrange an illustrious marriage for his three year old son, Arthur. And he found one.

The four-year-old Princess Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, was the perfect choice. The family was one of the most powerful in Europe. Isabella was descended from Edward III of England – some said that she had a better claim to the English throne than Henry VII himself. Indeed, Henry VII was thrilled to secure such a bride for his son.

The betrothal was formally confirmed in 1497, when Arthur was eleven and Catherine was twelve. The couple were married by proxy on May 19, 1499, but it was not until 1501 (when Arthur turned fifteen) that Catherine left Spain to take up residence in England. The two were formally married on November 14, 1501, and for the next five months all was well.

It is such a strange thing to think back to this time, when the world expected a future King Arthur to rule justly over England with his Spanish bride. It is so difficult not to let subsequent events creep into our minds – either to add a sense of wistfulness for what might have been, or simply sadness over what was to happen later. The betrothal of Arthur and Catherine is another occasion that calls us to wonder about an alternative history…

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February 18, 1516: Birth of Mary I

The Lady Mary, by Master John (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1516, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon had been married for seven years. Catherine had been pregnant more than seven times, though all her children had been stillborn or died shortly after birth – most notably a son, Henry, who lived for 52 days before sloughing his mortal coil.

Finally, Catherine gave birth at Greenwich to a healthy girl. The delighted parents named her Mary, and christened her “with great ceremony” three days later at the Church of Observant Friars. Her godparents included her great-aunt the Countess of Devon, Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, and the Duchess of Norfolk. Henry was immensely proud of his daughter, doted on her….but became more and more disappointed that no little brother came to join her in the nursery.

In 1516, Catherine was only 31, there was still time for the royal couple to be blessed. Unfortunately, Catherine became pregnant for the last time in 1518, giving birth to a daughter on November 10 who lived only a short time after birth.  The couple continued to try for another decade, even after it because increasingly obvious that their efforts would be in vain.

In Catherine’s eyes, Mary was a fine heir to the throne of England. After all, her own mother – the great Isabella of Castille – had been a formidable queen, marrying Ferdinand of Aragon and uniting Spain into a great power. Catherine believed in bloodline, in destiny. If God saw fit to send only a girl, she must be destined for great things.

Unfortunately, Henry disagreed.  He believed, and many shared his view, that any prince Mary married would hold the true power – and convert England into little more than a foreign province.  This was to be avoided at all costs. In 1519, Henry’s mistress Bessie Blount gave birth to a son, Henry. The King took this as confirmation that the failure lay entirely with Catherine – and showed off his success by giving the boy the surname FitzRoy (“Fitz” = son, “Roy” = of the King).  Many believe that Henry had started by 1525 to seek ways to legitimize his bastard son – that was the year he named the healthy six year old Duke of Richmond and Somerset. He might have continued on this path, except that Anne Boleyn appeared on the scene and offered yet another alternative…

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January 24, 1536 – Henry VIII’s Jousting Accident

January 24, 1536 - Henry VIII's Jousting Accident. Read about the life-changing event on www.janetwertman.com

Henry VIII’s Armor

Today in history, Henry VIII, fully armored, was thrown from his horse in a joust. His horse, also fully armored, fell on top of him. Henry was unconscious for two hours after the fall, and people thought he had actually died or that his death was inevitable. Many historians see this as the incident that turned the King into the tyrant he was in his later years, for several reasons:

  • Doctors today theorize that Henry suffered a traumatic brain injury which profoundly affected his personality (National Geographic did a wonderful documentary about this called Inside the Body of Henry VIII).
  • Henry exacerbated the sore on his leg.  Painful unhealing ulcers plagued him the rest of his life, the pain often making him irascible and even more prone to rages.
  • His near-death experience is believed to have intensified his obsessive quest for a son. Had he in fact died, it is clear that the country would not look the same today. Although all of England had sworn the Oath of Succession that they would honor the rights of the Princess Elizabeth to the throne, she was not even three years years old and definitely not the right bet. Henry Fitzroy would have been the natural choice of the English people – he was a boy after all. And now that Mary was technically as illegitimate as he was, he would have the upper hand. But Charles V would have invaded to put his niece on the throne….and then rule in her name afterwards.  The scenario Henry feared, that England would become a province of Spain, would be all but inevitable. This, too, would have sealed Anne Boleyn’s fate when she “miscarried her savior” a few days later.

The irony of all this:  while technically in honor of St. Paul (staged on the eve of the anniversary of his conversion), the joust might have been planned as another way to celebrate of Catherine of Aragon’s death. We know there were archery tournaments and jousts that went on for days – this might well have been another unseemly display. Of course, the superstitious among us already point to the fact that Anne’s miscarriage occurred on the day of Catherine’s funeral. But I like to think she also got in a zinger at Henry…

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January 7, 1536 – Catherine of Aragon’s Last Letter to Henry VIII

January 7, 1536 - Catherine of Aragon's last letter to Henry VIII. Now *this* is a deathbed letter! Read it on www.janetwertman.com

Catherine of Aragon, By Lucas Hornebolte (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Just before she was about to die, Catherine of Aragon wrote her final letter to her (former?) husband, Henry VIII (also on her bucket list: swearing before she took communion for the last time that she had never been “known” by Prince Arthur, Henry’s brother, thus validating the Pope’s decision in her favor and preserving the succession rights of Mary, her daughter….). This letter stands in eloquent testimony to her position and personality. It was not lost on anyone that  she claimed her title mantle up until the very end. Perhaps that is why no copy of this letter survives today.

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth 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 to 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.

Katharine the Quene.

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