Today, 480 years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer annulled the marriage of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Catherine was an incredible woman. She was the daughter of the King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille, the monarchs who finally united Spain. (They also commissioned Columbus to explore the New World.)
She left Spain and at the age of 16, she married Prince Arthur, the heir to the English throne. A year and a month later, he was dead. For the next seven years, Catherine was a pawn between her father – who wanted her dowry back – and her father-in-law, who wanted to keep it. Neither, it seems were concerned about her well-being.
In 1509, King Henry VII died and was succeeded by his second son Henry VIII. He quickly married Catherine, and for many years, they were very happy. Catherine was a very compassionate and intelligent woman. She was beloved in England for extensive charitable work, and was friends with the leading Renaissance humanists of the time like Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More. In fact, Catherine helped to set the fashion for educating women.
She was also pretty fierce. In 1513, when Henry was away fighting in France, the Scots invaded. Catherine summoned the English army and even rode some of the way north with them in full armor. The English ended up decimating the Scots at the Battle of Flodden Field, where King James IV of the Scots was killed – the last British monarch to die in battle.
Catherine and Henry had at least six children: three sons, one who died at 2 months, and two of whom lived for only a few hours, and three daughters, one who miscarried, one who lived for almost a week, and Mary. Mary was Catherine and Henry’s only surviving child and Henry was desperate for a male heir.
At some point, he decided that his lack of a son was a punishment from God for marrying his brother’s widow, contrary to Leviticus 19. They had received a papal dispensation because usually, such marriages were not allowed under canon law. In this case, however, Catherine had not consummated her first marriage so it wasn’t deemed valid.
That was not good enough for Henry though. At the same time, he was also falling in love with one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn. He requested an annulment from the pope but was denied. It was suggested that Catherine quickly “retire” into a convent but she wouldn’t have any of it. So in 1530, Henry banished Catherine and moved Anne into her rooms. Anne became his wife in all but name, but still, Catherine refused to cave.
Eventually, Henry took matters into his own hands. In May 1533, Thomas Cranmer, one of Henry’s supporters, annulled the marriage. Laws were passed so that all the clergy had to recognise the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England, including his right to make and break Canon Law (i.e. the laws of the Church.)
Five days later, Henry married Anne and she was crowned Queen by Cranmer. Catherine refused to accept the “marriage” or Henry’s title of “Supreme Head”. She kept deferentially, but defiantly, calling him her “lord husband”. She said that she was willing to anything to please him… so long as it was pleasing to God.
The English people supported her. They hated Anne. Her staunchest supporters though were St Thomas More and St John Fisher. Both were martyred in 1535 for refusing to acknowledge Henry as the Supreme Head.
Catherine died one year later in January 1536.
Henry and Anne celebrated her death gleefully but by that time, Henry and Anne’s own marriage was precarious. Anne miscarried on the same day Catherine was buried at Peterborough Abbey and in May that same year, Henry had her executed for treason. Her crime was failing to give Henry the son he wanted.
And within days Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour… And then his fourth, Anne of Cleves. And then his fifth, Catherine Howard. And finally his sixth, Catherine Parr. (To remember what happened to them, just remember divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.)
To me, Catherine of Aragon is a hero and something of a martyr. A martyr is someone who witnesses to the faith. Catherine stayed true to her marriage vows and to her faith, even when the easiest thing in the world would have been to go quietly. She may not be an official saint of the Church, but she is a hero of the faith and a particularly relevant one today. At a time like this, the beautiful sacrament of marriage is also under attack. People want to make it what they want, whether it’s about divorce, homosexuality or believing that it doesn’t matter at all.
These days, many Christians are also being pressured to cave on marriage, toe the party line and not upset the “kings” of our own age.
Catherine was in incredibly strong woman, and even Thomas Cromwell who arranged the annulment said that “if not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” I think she did something far harder. She defied the man who was her husband and her king, who had the power to lock her up, take her child from her, label her a liar, and deny their 24 years of marriage – all of which he did.
Her motto was “humble and loyal”, and by God, she was – through all that Henry put her through.
That makes her a hero in my eyes.