Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Plea of Catherine of Aragon

On June 21, 1529, Catherine of Aragón knelt before her husband in front of two cardinals and the nobility of England and begged him not to proceed with the annulment of their 20-year-long marriage.

Henry VIII informed his Spanish wife two years earlier that his conscience troubled him, that he believed their lack of male heirs proved that God was displeased by their union. In marrying Catherine, his older brother's widow, he claimed he violated Old Testament law.

Catherine, five years older than Henry VIII, was, quite simply, not having it. The proud daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón insisted her marriage was legally valid and refused to cooperate with her second husband's effort to annul the marriage. We can only assume that her discovery that King Henry was passionately in love with a younger woman of the court, a charismatic commoner named Anne Boleyn, hardened her resolve even further. Catherine and Henry had produced a daughter, the accomplished Princess Mary, and in eyes of the queen--as well as a significant portion of the nobility--Mary was a perfectly acceptable heiress to the throne.

Cardinal Campeggio eventually made his way to England to hear the case, along with English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in an ecclesiastical court held in Blackfriars, the magnificent priory of the Dominican friars in London. Blackfriars itself has long fascinated me. I set several chapters of my second novel The Chalice inside its walls. On a trip to London I spent hours trying to find a trace of it. (Read the blog post here.)

But for the purposes of this post, I'd like to pay tribute to Catherine's decision to kneel before Henry and beg for her marriage and her rights. The king was surprised, dismayed, and twice tried to raise her to her feet. She would not do so. She was determined to have her say.

Shakespeare re-created this moving and powerful scene in his play Henry VIII, which I saw performed in Central Park almost 20 years ago. The bard embellished historical record only slightly. What follows is quite close to what Catherine said, according to contemporary records:

Sir, I desire you do me right and justice;
And to bestow your pity on me: for
I am a most poor woman, and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions; having here
No judge indifferent, nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? what cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure,
That thus you should proceed to put me off,
And take your good grace from me?
Heaven witness,I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable;
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined: when was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire,
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? what friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger, did I
Continue in my liking? nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged. Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife, in this obedience,
Upward of twenty years, and have been blest
With many children by you: if, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honour aught,
My bond to wedlock, or my love and duty,
Against your sacred person, in God's name,
Turn me away; and let the foul'st contempt
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp'st kind of justice. Please you sir,
The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch'd wit and judgment: Ferdinand,
My father, king of Spain, was reckon'd one
The wisest prince that there had reign'd by many
A year before: it is not to be question'd
That they had gather'd a wise council to them
Of every realm, that did debate this business,
Who deem'd our marriage lawful: wherefore I humbly
Beseech you, sir, to spare me, till I may
Be by my friends in Spain advised; whose counsel
I will implore: if not, i' the name of God,
Your pleasure be fulfill'd!

Of course it did not work. Henry VIII would not be deterred. Catherine was eventually banished from court and Henry married Anne Boleyn. Queen Catherine suffered anguish, depression and fear over her shattered marriage. Yet she never wavered. The queen died of a painful illness, abandoned, in January 1536.

I have been married 21 years to my husband, and, for that and many other reasons, I take a moment today to salute a woman who fought for her rights, her throne, and her daughter.


  1. Catherine remains on of the most underestimated, unappreciated and misunderstood of history's Queens.

  2. Indeed! She deserves far more respect -- and a good historical novel or two! I'm so sick of books about Ann Boleyn!

    1. Perhaps she has passed too easily into history as she was followed by the tragic and charismatic anne boleyn and others like katherine howard who become more prominant in the king henry saga, probably more sex appeal than the start of events but less politically important because it changed the religion of the country!!!

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