As so often happens, acquiring a book for a specific reason leads to something else that is quite thought-provoking. In this case, the book is The Medieval Python: The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones, in which the subject of one of the eighteen contributions is Catherine of Aragon and her two marriages.
Do not make the mistake of thinking this volume is light or Pythonesque, because Terry Jones is not only brilliant when it comes to humour, but also very dedicated, knowledgeable and educated on medieval matters. The sections within the pages are not all by Terry himself, but by illustrious names that include Chris Given-Wilson, and Nigel Saul.
Now, before I get to the nitty-gritty, let me say that the item that prompted the essay A Prayer Roll Fit for a Tudor Prince, by John J. Thompson, is a fairly recent acquisition of the British Library (MS Additional 88929), and for a brief explanation about it, I suggest a quick glance at http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/02/henry-viii-prayer-roll.html, which describes the roll as follows:
21 February 2011 – by Andrea Clarke
Henry VIII Prayer Roll
“The British Library has recently acquired a unique medieval prayer roll that once belonged to Henry VIII, and contains one of only three surviving examples of his handwriting from before his accession in 1509. Produced in England in the late 15th century, it is one of the finest English prayer rolls, and consists of four parchment strips sewn end to end that measure some four metres long when fully unrolled. The roll contains thirteen illuminations — images of Christ, focusing on the Passion, its Instruments and the Sacred Blood, as well as depictions of various saints and their martyrdoms. Accompanying these are prayers in Latin and rubrics (religious instructions) in English. The rubrics promise that the recital of certain of the prayers will offer safety from physical danger, sickness or disease; others will shorten, by specified amounts, the agony of Purgatory, while the placing of the roll on the belly of a woman in labour will ensure a safe childbirth.
“The prayer roll was once owned and used by Prince Henry, evidenced by the inclusion of his royal badges at the head of the roll. These include two Tudor roses, the Prince of Wales crowned ostrich feather, as well as Katherine of Aragon’s personal symbol of the arrow-sheaf of Aragon. At some point prior to 1509 Henry presented the roll to William Thomas, a Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, and added an inscription at the top of the second membrane, under the central image of Christ’s Passion: ‘Wylliam thomas I pray yow pray for me your lovyng master Prynce Henry’.
“The Henry VIII Prayer Roll is now London, British Library, MS Additional 88929. It is currently on display in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, and will also be displayed in our Royal exhibition which opens in November 2011.”
The roll displays Tudor badges and emblems, but also the sheaf of arrows (maybe arrows passing through a tower) of Katherine of Aragon, who in November 1501 married Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthur died six months later, at Ludlow Castle, of the “sweating sickness”, and was buried in Worcester Cathedral. His tomb displays the same Tudor symbols as the roll.
Arthur’s younger brother, Henry (to be Henry VIII) soon became Prince of Wales. His father, Henry VII, waited until he was sure the widowed Katherine was not pregnant and then proposed that she married the new Prince of Wales. Katherine swore her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. This was essential, because the Church forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow. It was, and still is, in the Bible, and is one of the Ten Commandments.
The roll does not name a Prince of Wales, but it was surely made for Arthur, and emerges as a very important relic of this fraught time in history. It cannot be dated to much before 1490, when Arthur became Prince of Wales, and if it includes Katherine’s emblem, then it was probably around the time of their engagement or marriage. Its later ownership by the young Henry VIII is confirmed by his writing on it, and it is suggested that what he wrote reveals him to have been as devout a Catholic as everyone else. At least, he was at that point. Then the roll came into the hands of a devoted Tudor servant, William Thomas, before disappearing from history for 500 years, reappearing in the 19th century. If it were not for it coming to light again, its existence would never have been known at all. Its real purpose is still not known.
It is usually imagined that Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon were content enough together (I certainly had that impression), but now a truly remarkable fact has been uncovered in the register of briefs in the Vatican archives. It is dated 20th October 1505 and notes Pope Julius II’s response to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who by that date had been dead for over three years. So Arthur had to have sent a letter to the pope, whose answer had been mislaid or at least misfiled. The prince’s request also contained mention of his wife, so had to have been written within that six-month period before the prince died.
The pope’s response has not survived, and we do not know if it was ever sent (I strongly suspect it did, and it arrived in England) but it apparently granted papal authority to Prince Arthur to restrain his wife (Katherine of Aragon) from continuing to engage in “excessive religious observances injurious to her health since these would imperil the maritalis consuetudo (marital custom) of Roman law and endanger her ability to bear children”.
So, when it was too late, the Pope authorised Arthur to insist his pious wife conduct less strenuous religious exercises, these to be determined on the advice of her confessor. From which, it would seem all was not well in the young people’s marriage. Arthur (and Henry VII, no doubt!) was alarmed by discovering just how intensely devout his new wife was. I do not know what Katherine was doing to cause such concern, but whatever it was, she was clearly going far further than the conventional Tudors liked. Well, conventional at that time, because Henry VIII’s Great Matter lay in the future. The begetting of heirs was the whole point of royal marriage, so anything that might get in the way of this was to be stopped immediately, if not sooner!
After Arthur’s untimely death, a treaty for marriage was drawn up for the widowed Katherine to marry his younger brother, the future King Henry VIII. It was signed on 23rd June 1504, and the two were formally betrothed on 25th June. Henry was 12, Katherine 17. Two years later, on 27th June, 1505, Henry appeared before Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, and the Lord Privy Seal. The young prince had reached his maturity, and wished it to be formally recorded that he disowned his part of the marriage contract.
Now, why? What brought this about? Had the Pope’s response to Arthur finally arrived, and Prince Henry seen it? Whenever the letter from Rome turned up, I think that Henry read it in the first half of 1505.
The fact that the register of briefs at the Vatican is dated October 1505, does not mean the pope’s letter was written then. It merely records the letter. So was Henry now warned of exactly how extreme and pious his new bride would be? Arthur had learned too late, after marriage. Henry, Prince of Wales, may have also been devout, but clearly not to the same degree as Katherine. However, on the death in 1509 of his father, Henry VII, the marriage took place anyway. Something else had clearly happened since his appearance before Bishop Fox. Might it have been that the Pope’s instructions had taken effect, and Katherine had moderated her religious devotions? I have no idea what else it might have been, only that once old Henry VII was dead and buried, his son married Katherine after all.
It is always said that for a number of years Henry and Katherine were happy together, until the absence of a male heir—and the increasing likelihood of Katherine’s age preventing such an heir—prompted Henry to start looking around. Had this lack of an heir caused such anxiety to Katherine that she resumed her former devotions? Certainly she would turn to God for divine help.
Did it then become a vicious circle, with Henry being more and more alienated by such extreme religion, and Katherine seeking more and more comfort from her devotions? Was this another cause of his suggestion that she and Arthur had after all consummated their marriage, making his own marriage to her invalid? If such a charge could be made to stick, so to speak, it would certainly rid him of an increasingly inconvenient wife. By then he wanted to marry the enchanting vixen Anne Boleyn, of course, but infuriatingly, the Pope wouldn’t agree to it! If the Pope had granted Henry his wish, would we still be a predominantly Catholic country? Certainly we would have been for a lot longer than actually happened.
The fact that Arthur had approached the Pope on the matter of Katherine’s religious activities being detrimental to the bearing of children, was something that I believe Henry pounced upon. Leviticus 20:21 was very clear: “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”
So, was it in Henry’s mind that by continuing such extreme devotions, Katherine was knowingly preventing further living births? Did he believe that this was why his marriage had resulted in one living child, a girl, all other pregnancies having ended in miscarriages or stillbirths? It would also have been easy enough for Henry to convince himself that Katherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated. All this, and fascinatingly desirable Anne Boleyn was there, tantalising Henry with her inaccessible charms. But even without Anne, would Henry have wanted to end his marriage anyway, because he so desperately wanted a male heir and knew that Katherine’s age, apart from anything else, was against such a likelihood?
So, was Anne only one aspect of Henry’s wish to be free of Katherine? Were there in fact two Great Matters wrapped up as one? The first due to religion having led to childlessness; the other due to lust, that was to prompt a change of religion?
The above has been prompted by the essay by John J. Thompson, and is my conclusion from the facts as presented. I recommend that the essay be read in its entirety, because its details about the prayer roll are fascinating. Although, one thing does need pointing out. Henry VII was never the Duke of Richmond!