This time around, the drama involves a topic that is not quite hidden beneath the surface. For many of us, the story of Henry VIII and his lovely wives was an introductory sip of tea to the wonderful lives of Europe’s very problematic royals. As we’ve mentioned before in this blog, the monarchs of the 15th and 16th centuries were quite obsessed with procreating and ensuring their family line — so obsessed that many would marry off their children to very close relatives for the sake of preserving power. Luckily, Henry VIIIstrayed away from incestous bondings, but his characteristic desire for a male heir was without a doubt a driving force when it came to choosing (and getting rid of) his spouses. On this edition of Royal Tea, we will be discussing the first two of Henry VIII’s wives: Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.
When Catherine of Aragon was just three years old, she got engaged to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. In a very early event of misfortune, the beloved newly-wed croaked only a couple months later, leaving the very youthful and very beautiful Catherine single. Consequently, Catherine was betrothed to her dead husband’s younger brother, Henry. (Side note: while many of the famous depictions of Henry VIII portray a very robust, thick and well-fed Henry, in his youth he was actually quite the catch: he was 6-foot-2, extremely slim and described as quite the Adonis.) Though the socio-political motives behind Henry’s marriage to Catherine were unstable, after the sudden death of the King and Henry’s (very sudden) coronation, the couple tied the knot. The union between 18-year-old Henry and 23-year-old Catherine would be the very thing that Henry would fight relentlessly against in his quest to wed his controversial mistress Anne Boleyn.
After a string of miscarriages and stillborn children, Catherine of Aragon had failed to provide Henry with the one thing he desired the most: a son. (Side note, once again: amidst various failed pregnancies, Catherine did give birth to a healthy child, but unfortunately, she had one x-chromosome too many… perhaps we’ll feature the famed ‘Bloody Mary’ in a future episode of Royal Tea…). After nearly two decades of patiently waiting for a son, Henry had to find a way to release his pent up frustration, and with a plethora of young ladies-in-waiting at the royal court, it didn’t take long. The tragic love story of Henry and Anne Boleyn actually starts off with a less tasteful fact: before having his heart stolen, Henry had engaged in a love affair with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, who was considered to be the more attractive of the two. But the signature ambition attributed to Anne overpowered any sexual appeal belonging to Mary, who is rumored to have born Henry a child. When Henry sent Anne a letter stating,“If you… give yourself up, heart, body and soul to me… I will take you for my only mistress, rejecting from thought and affection all others save yourself, to serve only you.” She (quite surprisingly) rejected him, refusing to conform to no other title than wife.
In an action that certainly deserves an award with a caption of “doing the most” and “most desperate act of the year,” Henry decided to hit the books and read a bible. Citing a biblical passage that states that a man who marries his brother’s wife shall remain childless, Henry started a religious and political debate against the Church, who refused to allow an annulment so that he could marry his beloved mistress. Eventually, Anne discovered that she was with child, and Henry, stating “Screw it!” (because he already had), decided to give a fat, flying middle finger to the Church and marry Anne anyway. The disdain behind his middle-finger mindset was so potent that he established the Church of England, marking England’s distance from the Roman church. Henry’s excitement, thorough love and infatuation for his newly coronated (yet publically despised) queen didn’t last for long, as he eventually became coquettish with Anne’s ladies-in-waiting. Anne, as intelligent and clever as she was, didn’t adapt well to the role of queen. Even if she had good intentions, the English public deemed her a whore, and she refused to accept the fact that infidelity was common behavior for Kings, becoming overly (although rightfully) jealous and obsessive. The inability for the couple to bear a son, rising tensions and the unpopularity of Queen Anne would result in the downfall of Henry’s second marriage.
In 1536, it became conspicuous that Henry had lost any drop of affection he had left for his sonless Queen, and he detained Anne at the Tower London on charges of conspiracy, incest and infidelity. While the accusations are widely believed to be false, the court deemed Anne guilty and subjected her to execution. On May 19, 1536, a melancholy yet level-headed Anne famously stated, “I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul,” before being executed. Henry, the impatient antagonist of this story, didn’t even wait a full 24 hours before wedding the woman of his newest infatuations, Jane Seymour, Anne’s second cousin. Unfortunately for the new girl, Henry had established a trend of switching and ditching wives — a trend he would continue way past the time of Jane.