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Henry VIII and his ‘cursed’ marriage

The King believed his first marriage had broken a biblical rule against marrying your brother’s wife

By on Thursday, 14 November 2013

Pope Francis has said that one should not 'jealously guard' his or her life (CNS)

Pope Francis has said that one should not 'jealously guard' his or her life (CNS)

Anne Boleyn’s coronation song, with its optimistic lyrics about her future childbearing capabilities, was performed again by schoolchildren as part of the procession during the Lord Mayor’s Show in the City of London. Only weeks before the song was first sung Henry VIII had made the final break with Rome, frustrated that the Pope would not dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Henry believed his first marriage had broken a biblical rule against marrying your brother’s wife, and that it had therefore been cursed. But Katherine insisted that her marriage to his brother Arthur had never been consummated, and was never, therefore valid. The revival of the Anne Boleyn song, prompts the old question, was Katherine telling the truth, or did she lie in a desperate attempt to save her marriage?

According to Katherine, the long days of entertainments following her wedding to the fifteen year old Arthur on November 14 1501, and his subsequent sickness meant the couple spent no more than seven nights in the same bed and they had never had sex before his death in April 1502. When Henry began seeking an annulment from Katherine, he produced witnesses who claimed that Arthur had, in fact, spoken after his wedding night about having spent the night “in the midst of Spain”. It may be that, since men valued virginity, Katherine was pretending that she had kept hers. It is also quite possible, however, that, despite these claims, Katherine was telling the truth.

The aged Louis XII of France made several extravagant claims about his passionate wedding night with Henry VIII’s teenage sister, Mary Tudor. But Louis’s heir, Francis, claimed he had information that the sickly old man was incapable of having children. Louis’s boasts were probably wide of the mark – and if Arthur ever said the words attributed to him, the same may have been true of him. Any number of diseases can cause impotence or lower the libido, including tuberculosis, which is often cited as the illness to which Arthur succumbed. TB is a slow killer that induces fatigue, and the genitourinary tract is the most common site, after the lungs, for infection. This is turn can spread to the testes, as it may have done in Arthur’s case.

And there is another possible explanation worth considering, which adds a psychological dimension to Arthur’s failure to have sexual intercourse with his wife: The teenager may have been uncertain what constituted the consummation of a marriage, or been so anxious to do so in a manner that was not considered sinful, that it impacted on his ability to maintain an erection.

These were earthy times, but it was also an era of powerful religious belief. Arthur’s father, Henry VII, had always been concerned to demonstrate his personal chastity and to maintain high standards of sexual propriety at Court. This was to distance his reign from the immorality associated with Edward IV’s later years, which Richard III had used as a tool in his usurpation of Edward V (claiming Edward IV’s children were bastards).Equally, Henry VII had been keen to promote national admiration for his saintly, but less than virile, Lancastrian half-uncle, Henry VI.

A biography of the ‘saint’ published in 1500, claimed that when in bed with his Queen, Henry VI had never “used her unseemly … but with all conjugal honesty and gravity”, and that he was distressed at the sight of nudity. It had taken Henry VI eight years to conceive a child. Was Arthur overcome by anxiety to have sex with his wife also with “honesty and gravity”?

Conceiving children was of vital importance to the succession, but it would not be surprising if there had been a prim atmosphere around Arthur. His father saw him as the future King of a new Camelot – and in Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur sexual immorality had lead to the destruction of Camelot and, ultimately, to Arthur’s death. The desire of Arthur’s servants to please Henry VII with their chastity may have left Arthur’s sexual education incomplete, and the boy confused.

Unsurprisingly, Henry VII was angered by Katherine’s claims, which not only cast aspersions on his son’s manhood, but also may have taken as a criticism of the way Arthur was raised. When he sought the papal dispensation permitting Katherine’s marriage to young Henry (who as her brother-in-law was within the forbidden degrees of kinship) it tactfully observed that the marriage to Arthur at least “may” have been consummated.

But for Henry VIII his wedding night proved to him Katherine was indeed a virgin – or so he believed at the time. He later claimed, when he wanted a divorce, that his own sexual inexperience and ignorance – despite being almost three years older than Arthur – had not made him the most competent of judges. The fact his marriage was cursed, he then added, was demonstrated by the fact Katherine had produced no sons.

On the day of Anne Bolyen’s coronation Henry was convinced she was pregnant with a son and he would be vindicated in all his actions. Instead, as we all know, she was to bear a daughter in the future Queen Elizabeth. Her coronation song was forgotten – until now, and here is a verse, with Anne represented by her badge of the white Falcon:

In chastity
Excelleth she
Most like a virgin bright
And worthy is
To live in bliss
Always the falcon bright

Three years after she was crowned Anne lost her head, executed for conspiring the death of the king with several lovers, who included her own brother.

  • kentgeordie

    Instead of all the hypotheses outlined above, surely the strongest argument in support of Katherine is her personal integrity. It is inconceivable that a woman whose strong faith bore her through so many difficult years would have staked her soul on a lie.

  • Cestius

    As I understand it, though, the papal dispensation that validified Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine was not conditional on Katherine being a virgin after her marriage to Arthur, and the assumption that intercourse could have taken place was the reason for the dispensation. Therefore her marriage to Henry VIII was perfectly valid in any case, and she had no motive to lie about it.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    She should be canonized a saint. Katherine of Aragon pray for us!

  • Irenaeus of New York

    I wouldn’t believe a thing Henry VIII said. Integrity is a lot like virginity. Once you give it up, it’s gone.

  • cjkeeffe

    Only one person came out of that marriage with dignity and horror in tact and that was the Queen. If H8 was so concerned about the scritpure around marriage he would hardly had shacked up with Anne Bolyen afetr having an affair with her sister thus setting up teh same impediment he calimed against his marriage to Catherine.

  • kentgeordie

    Absolutely. We still read in ‘respectable’ history books that Henry’s Christian conscience was deeply troubled that his ‘first’ marriage was sinful. It’s a pity his conscience didn’t warn him also about destroying the monasteries, plundering the resources of the Church to fund his pointless wars, murdering his opponents, and tearing asunder the fabric of Catholic civilisation.
    The people of England suffer every day from the misdeeds of this terrible man.

  • ostrava

    “It had taken Henry VI eight years to conceive a child.”

    That was a miracle if you like even if it took six years.

    Perhaps you meant that it took him six years to beget a child!

  • m parker

    “The King believed his first marriage had broken a biblical rule against marrying your brother’s wife”
    Only because Catherine did not produce a male heir, if the first living child had been a son, historical events would have taken a very different turn. Of course Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid, no matter which way you want to look at it,Henry himself would know full well it was too, but was driven to produce a son to rule in his place when he was gone.Unfortunately this urge to produce a male heir, blinded his morality. This failing, together with his scheming advisors with their own political agendas, “snowballed” into an even greater evil, the Great Schism, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

  • Stephen

    Well, whatever the validity of the annulment of Henry’s marriage with Katherine and his subsequent marriage with Anne Boleyn, the fact remains that these events gave us our greatest monarch in the person of Elizabeth I.

    Without Elizabeth, English history would have been very, very different. British history too. Would there have been a Britain? Would the struggle between the Crown and Parliament taken another route? Would we have had our own versions of absolutism and the French Revolution? Would there even be a monarchy today?

    Whether or not you agree with what happened in the past, one thing is sure. Be thankful it happened because had it not, you might not be here to debate the morality of it today.

  • U.S.

    “Anne Boleyn’s coronation song, with its optimistic lyrics about her future childbearing capabilities, was performed again by schoolchildren as part of the procession during the Lord Mayor’s Show in the City of London…Her coronation song was forgotten – until now, and here is a verse…” This all sounds very strange. What is going on over there ?

  • kentgeordie

    You talk of certainties but you mostly ask questions. I am not inclined to be thankful for those who tore apart the fabric of England.

  • m parker

    You could argue that if Henry had not been so self willed, and had been content to live within Gods will, by being happy with a female heir, as nature had dictated, England would have been spared much evil. kentgeordie puts it very well:

    “It’s a pity his conscience didn’t warn him also about destroying the monasteries, plundering the resources of the Church to fund his pointless wars, murdering his opponents, and tearing asunder the fabric of Catholic civilisation.”

  • Stephen

    The only certainties we have are the facts of what happened. Anything else is conjecture.

    In my opinion, we tend to assign too much importance to Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. It may have been the match the set the tinder of the Reformation alight in England, but the tinder was there ready to be ignited anyway and probably would have been whether the king had wanted a new wife or not. Nothing like the King’s Great Matter happened in any of the Scandinavian countries or Northern Germany, yet they still rejected Catholicism. Given England’s cultural similarities with Northern rather than Southern Europe, it seems pretty inevitable to me that we would have broken away from Rome sooner or later.

    But again, deviating from the known facts takes us down a path of conjecture that leads to nowhere particularly useful. Wishful thinking can’t change the past.

  • kentgeordie

    Had Henry been a faithful Catholic, and brought up his children to be such, it is hard to imagine an English Reformation taking place.

    Where did any reformation take place other than as an alliance between the political interests of the ruler and the ideology of a small but determined protestant party?

  • RhysT

    Anne Boleyn is not canonised a saint, in fact she is known as the wife that ‘had her head chopped off’ or ‘had a third breast’ hardly a saint.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    I was referring to Katherine of Aragon, not Anne.

  • Agnus

    ” these events gave us our greatest monarch in the person of Elizabeth I.”

    I think you need to beg pardon of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The senseless butchering of some of the greatest Saints of Christian History is NOT something to be applauded.

    What a lie – so called “Bloody” Mary only killed 384 people during her entire reign – whereas apparently “Good” Queen Bess butchered an estimated 10,000 in the first year of her diabolical reign alone!

    Catholic William Shakespeare’s play “All’s Well that end’s well” was so-named to state his relief that she had finally died. He married in a Parish 20 miles away so that he and his bride Anne Hathaway could be married by a known Catholic Priest. Read the book by

    Queen Elizabeth, writes Philip Hughes:

    ” . . . enacted a definition of heresy that made life safe for all who believed in the Trinity and the Incarnation. But the statute left intact that heresy was, by common law, an offense punishable by death. An English Servetus could have been burned under Elizabeth, and, in fact, in 1589 she burned an Arian.” (45:274)

    And as the Reformation in England progressed in age, its ingenious methods for bringing the knowledge of the true God to the people progressed likewise. Some of the subjects chosen for inducting progressed likewise. Some of the subjects chosen for inducting of religion into, “were burned before a slow fire; some were put on the rack and tortured to death; whilst others, like Ambrose Cahill and James O’Reilly, were not only slain with the greatest cruelty, but their inanimate bodies were torn into fragments, and scattered before the wind.” The fate of the gentle and saintly Archbishop Plunkett is only too well known: “His speech ended and the cap drawn over his eyes, Oliver Plunkett again recommended his happy soul, with raptures of devotion into the hands of Jesus, his Saviour, for whose sake he died—till the cart was drawn from under him. Thus then he hung betwixt Heaven and earth, an open sacrifice to God for innocence and religion; and as soon as he expired the executioner ripped his body open and pulled out his heart and bowels, and threw them in the fire already kindled near the gallows for that purpose”

    Stoddard chronicles further persecution in England – of the Dissenters. Under Elizabeth, Presbyterians, for example, were “branded, . . . imprisoned, banished, mutilated and even put to death. A few Anabaptists and Unitarians were burned alive.” (92:205)

    Anglican Bishops were silent accomplices and witnesses of much torture. (92:205-6)

    “The proximate cause of that great revolution, which cost James (57) his crown, was the publication by the King of an edict of religious toleration! . . . The first and only time the Church of England has made war on the Crown, was when the Crown had declared its intention of tolerating . . . the rival religions of the country!” (58)

    The honest Scottish Protestant Dr. Smiles sums up the Elizabeth work in Ireland,

    “Men, women and children wherever found were put indiscriminately to death. The soldiery was mad for blood. Priests were murdered at the altar, children at their mother’s breast. The beauty of woman, the venerableness of age, the innocence of youth was no protection against these sanguinary demons in human form.”(127)

    During the Protestant Cromwell’s reign or terror, the entire catholic population ( about three thousand innocent men, woman, children and babies ) of the Irish city of Drogheda, put to the sword (by the orders of Cromwell) there crime was being Roman Catholic.In his despatchs to the speaker of the House of Commons Cromwell wrote

    “It has pleased God to bless our endeavor at Drogheda. . . the enemy were about three thousand strong in the town. I believe we put to the sword the whole number. . . . This hath been a marvelous great mercy. . . . I wish that all honest hearts may give the glory of this to God alone, to whom indeed the praise of this mercy belongs.” (127)

    “In this very place (St. Peter’s Church), a thousand of them were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety. . . .And now give me leave to say how this work was wrought. It was set upon some of our hearts that a great thing should be done, not by power or might, but by the spirit of God. And is it not so, clearly?”(127)

    On October 2, 1649, the English Parliament appoint a national Thanksgiving Day in celebration of the dreadful slaughter— and by unanimous vote place upon the Parliamentary records—

    “That the House does approve of the execution done a t Drogheda as an act of both justice to them [the butchered ones] and mercy to others who may be warned by it.”(127)


    45. Hughes, Philip, A Popular History of the Reformation, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1957.
    57. James II, King of England from 1685-88 (a Catholic).
    58. Buckle, Henry T., History of Civilization in England, NY: 1913, v.1, p.308.
    92. Stoddard, John L., Rebuilding a Lost Faith, NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922.
    127. Seumas MacManus,The STORY of the IRISH RACE, 1920*