EP 034: This Night in Spain

EP 034: THIS NIGHT IN SPAIN Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What happens when you pay for a wife and lose the husband? This time, we're talking about what Prince Arthur did (or didn't do) in Spain, where Henry VII found his crown, and who really won The King's Great Matter. 

We’re dishing out some very handy medieval marriage tips today, so grab your partner, your career, or whatever else keeps you warm at night, and remember to subscribe and come and join us on Instagram and Facebook, which are excellent places to celebrate not being shacked up with Henry VIII.

I know you’ve heard of him, because who hasn’t, but also because we’ve spoken about him on the podcast before. All the way back In episode 4, we spoke about Henry VIII’s catastrophic first meeting with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Breakups made Henry pretty mean, and Anne came out of the marriage with her reputation and dignity in tatters. But she also got a very nice house, a good income, and – and I really don’t want to underplay this – her head, still attached.

The state of the divorce courts today might leave you cynical and sad, but in the mid 1500’s, as the wife of the king of England, even a watertight prenup was no guarantee of a safe exit. Henry might be remembered by many as History’s most prolific divorcee, but he was, actually only divorced twice. He did orchestrate the divorcing of two of his wives’ heads from the rest of them, but technically speaking, that doesn’t really count.

Anne of Cleves was the second real divorce, and all things considered, it was very amicable. She agreed quite quickly to Henry’s bizarre suggestion that she should become his sister instead of his wife. By refraining from pointing out that a) one can neither divorce nor marry one’s sister, or b) that Henry was making some very adolescent sheep’s eyes at his second wife’s cousin, Anne earned herself something rarer, for women, than a title: independence.

Henry’s first wife, Catharine of Aragon, did not fare so well. Through no fault of her own, she was the OG of his failed marriages, and their divorce changed not only their own lives, and those of the five women who came after her, but the lives of women throughout England.

And the funny thing is, she had never intended to marry him.

Catharine was the youngest surviving child of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, both Spanish kingdoms – although Spain didn’t look then quite as it does now. At the very tender age of three – a time when most children are happily falling out of trees while their parents pour over lists of affordable schools – Catharine was betrothed to Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother. The Tudors were a new dynasty, after Henry the 7th had – quite literally – picked up the crown of England from the mud on a battlefield. Of course, they had some claim to it – he wasn’t just out there on the battlefield looking for lost pennies. But their claim came from a line of illegitimate children. Technically speaking, Catharine herself had a better claim, through her mother’s side. At this point, monarchs throughout Europe were playing an extended game of Mean Girls, and treating the Tudors like the new kid at school. Desperate for a seat at the cool table, it was agreed that a marriage between Arthur and Catharine would secure the Tudor claim – particularly once they got around to generating a few heirs.

As a sidebar – if you swap marriage for the more ambiguous ‘romance,’ what you have here is the plot of every school-set rom com from the early 90’s onwards.

Catharine and Arthur were married by proxy in 1499, aged about 14 and 13 respectively. They wrote letters to one another until Catharine was fifteen, when it was decreed that the were both old enough to get married, buy a house and settle down. Except, of course, the house was a castle, and they didn’t have to pay for it.

Catharine was shipped off, and almost drowned in a horrendous storm on the way over. When she arrived in England, they encountered another difficulty – Catharine and Arthur both spoke slightly different dialects of Latin. In letter form, this was okay, but they couldn’t actually understand each other when they spoke in person. (Having never been married myself, I’m unsure whether this would be a pro or a con. Any indications from those involved have not survived).

Fortunately, this problem didn’t last for very long. Unfortunately, that’s because Arthur died.

They’d been married for less than five months when the household at Ludlow Castle in Wales was taken by what was then called ‘the sweating sickness.’ Catharine herself was very ill, and when she recovered consciousness, she was a widow. Not much survives to indicate what feelings between the two had existed, although if they’d been absolutely abysmal we’d probably have heard about it. Apart from the loss of a son and heir, and the death of his wife not long thereafter, Arthur’s father had another problem. With Catharine so quickly widowed and facing a return to Spain, he would be obliged to pay back her dowry. Ferdinand (Catharine’s father) was quite keen on that. Henry the 7th was less so. The Tudors, despite appearances, were not yet particularly flush with cash. And so the problem arose of what to do with Catharine, and – in true celebrity style – some very private issues became immediately public. The burning question was whether Arthur and Catharine had ever consummated their marriage. When asked, Catharine swore that they had not. The only evidence to the contrary came from a few words Arthur himself had spoken after the wedding night. Calling for wine, he informed his friends that he was terrifically thirsty because he had spent the night in Spain.

These words would return to haunt Catharine thirty years later.  

At this point, England was still Catholic. And according to canon law, a man was not allowed to marry his brother’s wife. Also according to canon law, a marriage could be dissolved if the marriage hadn’t been consummated. Canon law was a little murky on the question of marrying one’s daughter in law (probably because it assumed, incorrectly, that the situation required little more than common sense). Henry VII, ordinarily possessed of rather a lot of common sense, abandoned it completely and suggested that he marry Catharine himself. When it was pointed out that the legality of such a marriage would always be questionable, he wrote to the Pope and received permission for Catharine to marry his younger son, Henry VIII, on the grounds that her marriage to his first son had never been fully realized.

In his defense, he could not have predicted that his son would become a serial wife swapper, but this dispensation became the grounds for exactly the kind of dispute Henry VII had himself wanted to avoid.

And poor Arthur, who had only been 15 at the time, had his words paraded through the English courts during the King’s Great Matter – Henry VIII’s first divorce from Catharine of Aragon. She was immensely popular, and well-known as an exceptionally honest and deeply religious individual. Most historians – and, in fact, most of her contemporaries – believed that there was simply no possibility that she would have, as she would have believed, endangered her immortal soul, simply for the sake of being Queen. That sort of thing was reserved for wives two and five, but more on that another time.  In fact she herself wrote that  she “would rather be a poor beggar’s wife and be sure of heaven, than queen of all the world and stand in doubt thereof by reason of [her] own consent.”

There is a common misconception that Henry VIII wanted his first divorce because Catherine had never been able to give him a son. The truth is actually more tragic – she gave him several, but most were stillborn, or died within a few days. One son survived for almost two months, and Catharine’s joy was, apparently, comparable only to her grief when he died. But Henry had no living sons, and had decided that it was a punishment from God. God, apparently, did work in mysterious ways, because He had seen fit to punish Henry by giving him a series of mistresses, a few illegitimate children of both varieties, a living, intelligent daughter, and a new, and very beautiful love interest.

But Henry was absolutely determined to get rid of Catharine, and he spent a great deal of time and effort trying to make what was probably the shy, youthful boasting of his fifteen year old brother into proof that his wife had lied and cursed his children. When that didn’t work, and when it was pointed out that the Pope (and by extension, God), had given their permission for him to marry Catharine, he changed tack and decided to question whether the Pope had the authority to speak for God in the first place. This has all the hallmarks of being quite a progressive move, and Henry was very influenced by the work of Martin Luther that was spreading through Europe at the time. But not wanting to get anyone too excited about progress, he took a sharp left and decided that only he could speak for God, made himself the Head of the Church, and granted his own divorce.

Catharine was banished to a series of progressively ill-equipped residences, and barred from seeing or writing to her only surviving child. In her last home, she took to staying in a single room, leaving it only to attend Mass. She had been assured that if she would acknowledge the new Queen and renounce her titles, she would be allowed to visit her daughter, and possibly be made more comfortable, but she never did.

She wrote to Henry from her deathbed, using considerably less rude words than I myself would have done:

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you force[s] me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her… Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katharine the Quene.

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