Over the next couple of weeks and months we’re going to dig into Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, moving through the laborious process year by year. We have covered in the past when it was that Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, and we have also covered the six-month period between Anne’s private wedding with Henry at the end of 1532 and her presentation at court as queen in the spring of 1533. These posts will essentially cover the years in-between, taking a look at the legal, theological and diplomatic issues prompted by, well, Henry’s personal life.
We’re not going to get too in the weeds here on the actual divorce, because good God, I am starting to get burnt out by the ceaseless tabloid coverage of the late Princess of Wales. To be clear, I am all for commemorating her life as we approach the 20th anniversary of her death, but the dredging up of her marriage to the Prince of Wales and the constant speculation about her personal life – none of which is new – is a bit much. Nor can I imagine any of this is particularly helpful to her remaining family.
But the fact of the matter is, the attention Diana received stemmed from her marriage to Charles and that marriage ended 21 years ago today. Not all divorces are made equal and this one was certainly one of the most controversial of the last century. Simply put, it was unprecedented and you know how much I love unprecedented royal events, so here we go.
Today marks the anniversary of the announcement of Princess Margaret’s engagement to Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones, the photographer, who passed away earlier this year. Their marriage would famously end in divorce in 1978, the first for a senior member of the royal family in the House of Windsor, ironic only in that Tony would also be the first commoner in 400 years to marry a monarch’s daughter.
Tellingly, what would attract the couple to each other in the first place would, in many ways, be their undoing. And while they showed promise in the early stages of their marriage, and complemented one another when it came to tackling aspects of their public duties, they were wildly unmatched when it came to existing day-to-day, a fact that would become apparent within a few years of their wedding.
While Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn loom the largest of Henry VIII’s wives, all six women have provided controversy and prompted debate centuries after their deaths. Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, is no exception. Married to the King on July 28, 1540 and executed on February 13, 1542, her reign was brief but littered with misinformation and its legacy shaped by evolving views of female sexuality and abuse.
Katherine first joined court and met Henry in 1539 when she became a lady-in-waiting to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. At that point, Henry had been a widower for two years following the death of Jane Seymour, and his marriage was masterminded by his councilor, Thomas Cromwell, who was determined to find another queen consort who would complement the Protestant Church of England and the ongoing dissolution of the monasteries. Unfortunately for Cromwell, Anne failed to please Henry and he instead fell for the adolescent Katherine Howard, niece to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and cousin of his deceased second wife, Anne Boleyn.
On this day, January 7, in 1536, Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, died at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. Her body was buried in the nearby Peterborough Castle with all the honors accorded to a Dowager Princess of Wales, as the widow of long-dead Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, and, markedly, not as a queen consort.
In the last days of December 1535, Katherine wrote her will and one last letter to Henry VIII that read:
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.
News of her death reached Henry VIII and the royal court the next day. According to certain chroniclers, Henry and his second wife donned yellow, which was viewed by some as a disrespectful sign of celebration, and by others as a respectful nod to yellow as a traditional color of mourning. Regardless, on the day of Katherine’s funeral, Anne suffered a miscarriage and four months later she would be arrested, charged with treason, divorced and beheaded on Tower Hill.