Documentary Notes – ‘Henry VIII and his Six Wives’ with Suzannah Lipscomb & Dan Jones – Episode 1, Katherine of Aragon

Henry VIII c.1537.
Henry VIII c.1537.

Henry VIII most infamous monarch in English history

38 year reign, 6 marriages

Divorced, beheaded died, divorced, beheaded, survived

Women more than wives – also queens

Formidable individuals, all changed history and shaped Henry VIII and England

What was it really like to be married to Henry VIII?

Passions, obsessions and betrayals


Katherine of Aragon

Often overlooked

Warrior queen who taught Henry how to be a king

Love, passions and tragedies that tore them apart

November 14 1501 Katherine prepared for wedding night in London, aged 15

1000 miles from home speaking little English

In front of thousands of people in St Paul’s Cathedral married Prince Arthur, heir to English throne

Katherine was to be English queen

Marriage hugely important – allied Tudor dynasty with Spanish royal family

Expected to produce son and heir – future of dynasty

What went on under the sheets that night had consequences that would change England forever

December 1501 Arthur and Katherine moved to Ludlow Castle – Arthur to begin training for kingship

Ludlow not updated, rather cold and damp, and Katherine and Arthur fell ill in March 1502

Anonymous portrait of Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York c.1501.
Anonymous portrait of Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York c.1501.

2 April 1502 Prince Arthur died

After a fight Katherine pulled through

Married for just 5 months when Arthur died – threw Katherine back into sickness and mourning

Katherine’s life not only one turned upside down

Eltham Palace – Prince Henry aged 10, bright and intelligent, brought up surrounded by women and never prepared for rule

Prince Henry now next in line to English throne

Less than a year after Arthur’s death Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother, also died

No more sons so Henry had dynasty on his shoulders

Drilled into Henry the paramount importance of securing the dynasty and having a son

No say in who he would marry

Henry VII made a strategic choice – Henry would marry Katherine

Getting the throne would take all the fight Katherine had

June 1503 marriage agreement 11 year old Prince Henry & 17 year old Katherine, scheduled to marry in 2 years time

Condition of marriage was that her father provide dowry of plate, jewels and coins in advance of marriage

Katherine’s father didn’t pay in time – stalemate

Katherine in limbo and starved of money, household sinking into debt

Wrote to her father appealing for help – letters kept at British Library

Princess from great royal house saying that she has to sell jewellery to buy food and clothes

Henry VII kept Katherine penniless and made no promises about her future

Even considered suicide – so desperate

21 April 1509 Henry VII died of tuberculosis

Within hours Henry VIII proclaimed – tall, good-looking and accomplished

Universal acclaim at home and abroad

Most eligible bachelor in England

Wanted a queen to help him bring glory to England and produce batch of healthy sons

Only one woman for Henry – Katherine

7 years of hardship for Katherine but would finally be queen

Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte
Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte

11 June 1509 Katherine and Henry married at Greenwich in small, private ceremony

Why did Henry choose Katherine? – physically attracted to her and wanted a queen not just a wife

7 years struggle to marry Henry – one long job interview?

Katherine had strength of character – ultimate prize of the crown

World at her feet and she would make an impression

Katherine adored Henry and wrote to her father to thank him for allowing her to be so well married

Seems to have been a love match

Did their duty to the dynasty and Katherine fell pregnant just months into the marriage

31 January 1510 happiness turned to sorrow as baby stillborn at 8 months

Katherine devastated and suffered sense of shame – wrote to her father describing it as an ill omen, but the will of god

Henry didn’t blame Katherine

Stillbirth kept a closely guarded secret – only 4 people knew about it other than royal couple

Katherine soon fell pregnant again – all hopes rested on healthy son and heir

Blamed herself for losing the first child

Henry needed a son and heir to continue Tudor line

1.30am 1 January 1511 Katherine gave birth to a boy

Katherine’s status had never been so high and people celebrated across the country

A year and a half into marriage Henry already had a son – probably more in love with Katherine at that moment than any other in their marriage

Child called Henry – happiness not to last as child died 8 weeks after birth

Death of Prince Henry tore Katherine apart – Henry VIII devastated

Tried to hide his grief from Katherine – blow to kingly prestige

King needed to boost self-image so went to war with France and Katherine encouraged his ambitions

1513 at Dover Castle Henry appointed Katherine regent

Declared publicly that he was leaving England in the hands of a woman whose excellence couldn’t be doubted

Strength of marriage despite miscarriage and death of a son

Regency was Katherine’s greatest challenge so far

Katherine had been educated by her mother Isabella of Castile – women could be as strong and powerful as men

Katherine never forgot the lesson

2 months after Henry left England Katherine’s ability was tested

James IV King of Scotland invaded England with 30,000 men – captured 3 English castles

Katherine took command and rallied English troops – 2 armies

Katherine also marched north at the head of a third army

Katherine was prepared to fight to defend her husband’s crown

9 September 1513 Flodden Field – Katherine’s army commanded by Earl of Surrey and Scots by James IV himself

James attacked on right flank and it crumbled

Panicked gripped English army but Scottish forces then hit boggy ground

English archers fired and James IV struck in the jaw then killed

Battle became a bloodbath with the Scottish king dead

1,500 Englishmen were killed, but real massacre of Scots (12,000)

Katherine’s victory was total

Katherine sent Henry the bloodstained coat of James IV of Scotland along with a letter – Henry probably greeted it with mixed emotions

1513 moment when Katherine showed Henry how to be a king

Henry VIII won a couple of skirmishes and couple of minor towns

Touch of boasting in Katherine’s letter – annihilated the Scots, England’s enemy

Hard to imagine a more perfect queen

Needed a wife who could give him a son – harder than Henry could imagine

Another son lost the end of 1513 and another in autumn 1514

Cycle of grief

Deeply upsetting – no problem getting pregnant but failed to live

Seen as Katherine’s problem – began to take their toll on the marriage

Henry VIII growing more and more desperate – throne in jeopardy

Mary I 1544 by Master John.
Mary I 1544 by Master John.

February 1516 Katherine went into labour for the 5th time – 18 February healthy child born but it was a daughter, Mary

News of the birth sent to Henry – still young boys will follow

Only 3 women attempted to rule England as queen and ended in civil war

Following 9 years Katherine only conceived once more – a daughter who died at birth

Katherine now in her late 30s and wouldn’t conceive again

Henry fathered a son with his mistress, one of Katherine’s ladies in waiting – christened Henry Fitzroy

Fitzroy’s birth confirmed Henry wasn’t to blame for lack of an heir

Tudors in danger of disappearing

Henry’s heart left the marriage and he was looking for a way out

1526 Henry found it –another of Katherine’s ladies – Anne Boleyn

Katherine had seen Henry’s interest before, not great womaniser but had 2 short-lived affairs

Thought he would have his way and move on – this time different

Anne intelligent, charming and witty – learnt from Archduchess of Austria and Queen of France

Henry VIII became obsessed – secret love letters

Depth of infatuation “stricken with the dart of love” – real raw physical longing

Henry begging Anne to become his mistress “cast off all others beside you”

None of Anne’s replies survive

Doesn’t seem like Anne wants to fall into the royal bed – why?

Possible that Anne was holding out for a greater prize – mid 20s and needed to find a husband

Henry VIII had always gone back to his wife

No woman had gone from mistress to queen – latest mistress had been her sister, Mary

Anne’s unwillingness inflamed Henry’s spirits

After a year Henry’s tactics finally worked

British Library – Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, Henry and Anne wrote to each other in French “Henry R always”

Page shows biblical man of sorrows

Anne’s response – “by daily proof you shall me find to be unto you both loving and kind”

Page shows Virgin Mary being told by angel she will be produce a son

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Anne offered Henry a son and heir

Henry had greatest reason to end his marriage

Katherine had no intention of giving up husband or crown without a fight

Henry very pious and student of scripture

Turned to bible to try and justify failure of marriage and reason to end it – Leviticus

Proof that marriage to Katherine had been illegal right from the start – convinced that god was on Henry’s side

Asked pope to annul marriage

Extraordinary decision – smitten with Anne Boleyn and doubted validity of marriage

Henry had grown up 17 years into reign

Katherine taught him fundamentals of kingship but Henry wanted a mother to a son and not a teacher

Henry told Katherine their marriage was against god’s law 1527

Mortal sin – separate to save their immortal souls

Katherine could have accepted it and retired from court in comfort and security

Not in Katherine’s character

Had fought to get Henry and would now fight to keep him

Henry’s case for an annulment rested on the fact that Katherine was his brother’s widow

Katherine had a shock in store for Henry

Katherine said that she and Prince Arthur had slept in the same bed but sleep was all they did – no consummation

Never had sex so marriage unconsummated

In legal terms this meant that Katherine and Arthur had never been married

Katherine’s defiance pulled apart Henry’s case so pope refused to allow quick annulment

Henry decided to change tactics

Henry tried to discredit Katherine with smear campaign

Wolsey wrote to the pope saying that Katherine had a sexual disease and that she was consumed by ravenous desire

Showed how far Henry was willing to go

Henry’s lawyers petitioned Katherine to step down as queen but she refused

April 1528 tensions boiled over and Katherine confronted Henry

Katherine wanted to defend herself – public court

Henry wanted to keep annulment quiet but had little choice in the matter

Katherine had a chance to save her crown and keep her husband who she still loved

Fight for the future of the dynasty and Henry refused to let Katherine stand in the way

Katherine was brave, majestic and determined

Showed Henry how to be a king

One lesson that Katherine never meant to teach – learned how to be cruel

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