Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Boring One?

Was Katherine of Aragon the most boring of Henry's wives? Claire of The Anne Boleyn Files explores the question in a balanced manner. (Via Gareth Russell) Stubborn, passionate, implacable Queen Katherine is by far my favorite of Henry's wives. From what I have read about her, I believe that the loss of so many of their children cast a pall upon a once joyful union. Henry seemed to have so much guilt attached to his marriage with Katherine; one wonders if it was because she was, as Henry himself testified, "buxom" in the bedchamber. Katherine was a saint but also a woman. Even when he was trying to have her annulled he would still visit her; I think that deep down he loved Katherine, which makes his obsession with Anne Boleyn seem all the more unwholesome and unhinged. Share

28 comments:

Gareth Russell said...

I am so pleased to hear someone properly describe Henry's feelings towards Anne Boleyn as an obsession. In the re-edition of his biography of Henry, Professor J.J. Scarisbrick reflected that the more and more he thought of the story, the more he had come to the conclusion that Anne was "visited by the same brutal urge to humiliate and destroy that which had once been the object of a passionate desire to possess... Henry could have shed Anne quietly [but] instead, he wanted to destroy her and prevent anyone else possessing her." It's the possessiveness and even pseudo-stalkeresque tendencies Henry showed in the early stages of his pursuit of her which, I think, indicate from the get-go that his relationship to Anne was one that was obsessive, rather than loving. Scarisbrick writes that when he had loved or fallen out of love with a woman, Henry turned on her with astonishing cruelty - "Perhaps Anne of Cleves was spared precisely because she never aroused his fierce sexual appetite and was therefore never likely to become the object of vindictive revulsion."

It's hard not to conclude that Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and even Catherine Howard were all victims of their husband's imbalanced attitude to women and love.

I can't wait to hear what Claire writes about the other five.

The North Coast said...

I don't think that Henry loved ANYBODY, including his children. He seems to me, from this distance, to have been an absolute psychopath who would dispose of anybody who stood in the path of anything he desired at that moment. He visited his wife while he was trying to rid himself of her to have Boleyn because he had a sex urge, pure and simple.

His treatment of his wives, his children, and his close associates was abominable and it's recorded that they felt their lives to be in danger at his hands. Yes, even his children feared for their lives at that hands of this temperamental, power-addled sociopath. No one who loved his children would subject them to the living conditions that Mary was subjected to- she and her mother were reduced to ragged poverty for the rest of Catherine's life.

NOBODY should have the kind of power of life or death over the people he ruled, including his wives and children, that the monarchs of old had.

elena maria vidal said...

Gareth, I totally agree. Henry could have quietly annulled Anne but instead he made certain that she was completely destroyed. It was definitely a stalkeresque/ psychopathic relationship.

N.C., I do think Henry was a psychopath. I think he "loved" Katherine as much as he was capable of love and in his mind she was the ideal wife. As far as satisfying his urges he could have done that with anyone but the fact that he went back to Katherine is telling. The way he treated both Mary and Elizabeth was inexcusable. It is as if he just plain hated women.

Gareth Russell said...

North Coast, I completely agree, but if Elena Maria doesn't mind, I'd like to add two small caveats.

Katherine and Mary were reduced to relative poverty, not its actuality. They both lived in castles or manor houses - yes, uncomfortable ones, but again that's relative to the palaces and mansions they had once enjoyed in London. They both still had a large food allowance and household staff. Again, less than what they had once known, but in no way did either of them experience material want during the five years that followed Katherine's removal from Court. Several of the houses Katherine disliked (including The More) were considered luxurious and comfortable by foreign visitors to England and in terms of actual poverty, or even severe bad treatment, it would be utterly wrong to see Katherine or Mary as experiencing anything like the treatment meted out to Marie-Antoinette or her son Louis XVII in 1793 and much less anything like the imprisonment of the Romanovs in 1917-18.

In terms of Henry's power over people, his was unusual and exceptional within the world of old regime monarchies. And a lot of it was down to personality. In his study of the six Thomases of Henry's court (More, Wolsey, Howard, Wriothesley, Cranmer and Cromwell) Derek Wilson makes the point that working for Elizabeth was occasionaly difficult when the Queen became angry, but she never abandoned an adviser or threw them to his death because of his or her failures. Henry on the other hand had a psychotic chop-n-change attitude to his ministers, but it's hard to think of another example of such capricious brutality amongst any of his contemporaries, children (especially not his two daughters) or immediate predecessors. Still, it is true that the system of fear operating in England after the Yorkist insurrections of his father's time and then the Reformation allowed Henry to exert unprecedented and immoral power, especially since he himself was naturally cruel and vindictive.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Gareth, that is very helpful!

Julygirl said...

I think Henry VIII did sink into some sort of psychosis during his reign, perhaps haunted by his treatment of Katherine and Anne Bolyn, who can say. But we have to remember that monarchs who thought of themselves as autocrats felt they had the right to act in whatever manner they deemed necessary to dispose of people whom they felt impeded their accomplishing whatever got into their head.

I believe he thought of Katherine as the only one who was his true wife. All his machinations to make things ligitimate on the surface did not really pass muster within his conscience.

J.C.Marrero said...

Also to be considered is Henry's jousting accident during his marriage to Anne that knocked him out and left him badly injured, including the leg sore that he would keep to his end. There is speculation that this incident produced brain damage that made a bad man into a monster. This raises the always tricky question of free will. Did the Henry who killed Houghton (and his brother Carthusians) and Fisher and More fully understand the monstrosity of his actions?

Julygirl said...

I have worked with Traumatic Brain Injured (TBI) young adults and have never seen the injury manifest itself in a personality disorder that makes one into a murderer. Also he was still capable of mastering activities of daily living as well as the political, etc. demands of a monarch, which would have strained his abilities were he suffering from brain injury/damage.

Gareth Russell said...

The jousting accident in question, which forms the central tenet in Susannah Lipscomb's new book on Henry's mental health, took place in January 1536 - after the executions of Houghton, Fisher and More and after the death of Katherine, also.

I'm not entirely convinced by arguments that Henry "became" a tyrant because of the fall from his horse in 1536. His physical health declined afterwards, since he wasn't capable of exercising as much (and we all know how that turned out!) but, this was still the man who had treated Empson and Dudley with casual cruelty in order to increase his own popularity in the wake of his father's death in 1509 and the way he treated Katherine of Aragon, Cardinal Wolsey and the Duke of Buckingham seem to say that Henry VIII was basically rotten to the core as a personality, from the get-go. As a young man, his good looks and charm blinded people, I think - maybe even Katherine.

Theresa Bruno said...

First, awesome discussion. I feel like I'm in college again. As for Catherine of Aragon, its not possible for her to be the boring one. She was practically raised on the battlefield, as she followed her mother on military campaigns against the Moors.

Her mother, Queen Isabella, had fought for her claim to the throne and was the dominant partner in her marriage to King Ferdinand. She was her mother's daughter, which meant she was far from boring.

Maybe she is considered the "boring one," because modern culture believes religious people are boring, hypocritical and self righteous. That isn't and has never been the case. Overtly religious people come in all shapes and sizes.

As for Henry VIII, I know he suffered from diabetes and injuries, but I doubt that was the root of his cruelty. As Gareth said, Henry VIII had obsessive tendencies. He would obsess over a woman, obsess over a particular idea and even obsess over his legacy. That, I believe, was the root of his cruelty.

Mercury said...

John Zmirak had a good article on Catherine a few months ago at Inside Catholic. In his typical style, it's funny, too:

http://www.insidecatholic.com/feature/a-new-patron-saint-for-chastity.html

I know she's not a canonized saint, but she seems to have been a devout woman who lived a life of ordinary Catholic virtue til the end - and proved that even ordinary virtue is NOT easy. She seems to have loved Henry and prayed for his soul even as he self-destructed.

I am personally involved in a somewhat similar situation, and it's good to see someone who lived out something even worse than I did with courage and virtue.

Elena - one question. What did 'buxom' mean in the 1500s? And why would that, of all things, had made Henry feel guilty, as he seems to have had no scruples whatsoever in the realm - I couldn't imagine him feeling bad about the licit pleasures of wedlock?

elena maria vidal said...

Mercury, "buxom" meant to be obedient and accommodating. Henry, it seems, did not think that he was genuinely married to Katherine because of the "curse of Leviticus." And I think Gareth is right when he says that Henry had issues with love and women in general.

Mercury said...

I see, so he used her and felt bad about it. I've always known Henry VIII as a jerk, but man, he more I read on the man, the more I have to wonder:

How can anyone be a loyal Anglican? :)

Mercury said...

BTW 'biegsam' is the German ford for 'pliant, bendable' ... it seems to be from the same source word. It's also related to 'bow'.

elena maria vidal said...

He had been in love with Katherine from the time he was ten years old and chose to marry her when he was of age. So he was attached to her psychologically for a long time. I think because so many of their children died Henry thought he was accursed by God and he called it the curse of Leviticus. But when I guess at his motives or feelings I am only speculating because who really knows how Henry's mind worked....

Matterhorn said...

I've noticed the posts here on Katherine of Aragon always get lots of comments. Further clear evidence that she was not "the boring one." :)

Mercury said...

Haven't people said that Catherine's miscarriages may have also had to do with veneral diseases Henry may have had due to his philandering with mistresses?

elena maria vidal said...

That's what I had originally heard, that Henry's syphilis caused the problems, although I recently heard that there is no proof that he even had syphilis. (Gareth will know.) I read somewhere that Katherine felt guilty about the Plantagenet heirs whom the Tudors had killed earlier and some thought that was why almost all her children died.

Gareth Russell said...

Yes, on the subject of the venereal disease, I'm afraid that's an old historical canard - a bit like Queen Victoria being unamused or Marie-Antoinette doling out advice based on cake.

Syphilis was not widespread in Europe until the 1540s and after, which means that statistically it's highly unlikely that Henry could have contracted it in time for it to have had any impact on the 1510 - 1518 pregnancies of his first marriage. If he had been infected by the 1510s by any of his early, aristocratic lovers (unlikely), then by the time he reached the 1530s or 1540s we might expect to have seen signs of secondary or tertiary syphilis, which we don't.

On the subject of whether or not Henry had an STI or STD in general, we can be certain that he didn't. He had the best physicians in the land and the universal way to treat syphilis or a venereal disease in the 16th century was with recurring courses of mercury - as were administered to Lord Darnley in the 1560s and apparently to Francis I of France, Henry's exact contemporary. Sir Arthur MacNulty in his study of Henry's life as a patient shows from Henry's complete surviving medical records that his apothecary and pharmacy never stocked or order mercury, which they would have had to order in the belief it would prolong their royal patient's life. None of Henry's physical ailments or mental behavioural patterns conform necessarily or universally with the highly visible and traumatic effects of syphilis in the 16th century. Finally, and this is just a personal opinion, I don't think there's any need to rely on syphilis or venereal disease to explain the tragedy of Katherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn's childbearing histories. Miscarriages of that frequency were common enough amongst the women of their class at the time - childbearing was a risky business and often lethal or unsuccessful. It was simply a much harder period in which to be a human being.

I think one day I'll do a blogpost on the legend of Henry's syphilis. Like Marie-Antoinette's cake, it's a fascinating and long-living myth!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Gareth. I knew you would know.

April said...

Henry's such an interesting and conflicted character(in a repulsive sort of way). It's always struck me that there was a huge element of self hatred in the way he turned on Anne Boleyn. Interesting discussion!

Christina said...

Catherine has always been my favorite of Henry's queens. It's interesting to speculate on just how different history might have been if their little son had survived to adulthood and become king - or if Henry had accepted God's will and raised Mary to be heir to his throne. Imagine England still Catholic! God's ways are mysterious to us poor humans...

Mercury said...

Thanks Gareth ... I never knew that was a myth.

It's sad that people in those days thought that God would punish THEM by taking the lives of innocent children before they could be baptized.

J.C.Marrero said...

The National Geographic network re-aired last night an episode on Henry's health history. It reported that he had two serious jousting accidents the first in 1524 which left him susceptible to severe migraines. He also contracted chronic malaria, producing episodic flare-ups. (In Henry's case, I am all with the mosquito.) The tight garters then in fashion may have thrombosed his elegant legs, causing him no end of trouble. Not to mention a crushed foot incurred while playing some form of early tennis. Since such travails must have been typical for king and commoners, it is a wonder that people had the energy to get through the day, especially when they were regularly bled by "doctors" to balance their "humours". So on top of it all, they had physician-induced anemia.

Theresa Bruno said...

Gareth,

I agree that Henry VIII didn't have syphilis. I wrote a post about it awhile back. He had type two diabetes, which affected his fertility in later years. But he never showed signs of syphilis. Below is a link to my post, if anyone is interested.

http://historywasneverlikethat.blogspot.com/2010/09/dont-let-it-fester-henry-dont-let-it.html

Archduchess Maria Carollton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephanie A. Mann said...

I agree with Theresa; this is a great conversation.

My two cents: Once Henry VIII found that he COULD do what he willed, little could stop him. That was the danger all his advisers faced and once they started helping him achieve his ends, they could never stop, never do enough. I think Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr fell into that trap too with their efforts to influence him on religious matters (although Parr escaped--just barely). The exercise of power and the result of getting his way seems to have overwhelmed any thought of mercy or even compromise--it became a pattern of behavior. Decide what you want/destroy anyone who gets in your way/decide you don't want it anymore/destroy what you wanted--except for his son.

I agree with Gareth, citing Scarisbrick, that he wanted to destroy what he had once loved--except that I would extend that to include men -- having given Wolsey and Cromwell great power, he was brutal when he took it away (More to lesser extent on the power scale, but same brutal reaction). If Jane hadn't died and Anne of Cleves hadn't gone along with the annulment so readily, they would have discovered that horror (Jane did a little with the warning about meddling).

epiphany said...

Kind of late to the game here, but I agree, there's no reason to think Henry had syphilis, or any other STD that contributed to his wive's multiple miscarriages/stillbirths.
What MAY have been a factor his Henry's attraction to very small women. KoA was apparently less than 5 feet tall; Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour were also described as petite, while Henry was almost a giant for his time (6'3") - perhaps these women were too tiny and delicate to carry to full term the large babies that such a man would sire?
It's ironic, but Anne of Cleves was described as a big, robust gal; she just may have been the wife that could have given him a nursery full of healthy sons.