When Henry VIII married Katherine of Aragon – a peek behind the drapes

Alison Weir looks back at the six weddings of Britiain's most-married monarch, starting with his wedding to his late brother's widow.

When Henry VIII married Katherine of Aragon – a peek behind the drapes © Getty Images

Henry VIII’s six weddings were all private. When, not quite 18, he became king in 1509, it was a matter of political and dynastic necessity that he marry and beget an heir as soon as possible, to ensure the continuation of the Tudor dynasty. Surviving members of the rival House of York arguably had a better claim to the throne than Henry, and the spectre of the Wars of the Roses still loomed large.

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The new King’s councillors urged him to marry Katherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess to whom he had been betrothed since 1503 and the widow of his late elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. Katherine had a great dowry, and the prospect of war with France – England’s hereditary enemy – made an alliance with Spain all the more desirable. Her father, King Ferdinand of Aragon, was pressing Henry to marry her immediately, and promising him many political advantages if he did so.

But Henry hesitated. He was uneasy in his conscience, wondering if he would commit a sin by marrying the widow of his deceased brother, as such unions were forbidden in Scripture.

King Ferdinand hastened to reassure him that the marriage would be perfectly lawful, as the Pope had given a dispensation for it. He felt certain that Henry would enjoy the greatest happiness with Katherine, and leave numerous children behind him.

The Privy Council also put pressure on the King. “We have the Pope’s dispensation,” they said. “Will you be more scrupulous than he is?”

Henry agreed that there were many good reasons for the marriage. Above all, he declared, he desired Katherine above all women; he loved her and longed to wed her. Despite her six years’ seniority, he found her attractive, with her long golden hair and fair skin, her dignity, lineage and graciousness. Everything about her proclaimed her
a fit mate for the King of England.

What Henry felt for her seems to have been love in its most chivalrous form, coupled with deep respect. And honour demanded that he marry her and, like a knight errant of old, rescue her from the penury in which his father had kept her, and so win her love and gratitude. It was a grand gesture that appealed vastly to the King’s youthful conceit.

Happy beginnings

One day in early June, 1509, the King arrived at Katherine’s apartments in Greenwich Palace. He came alone, dismissed her attendants and, raising her from her curtsey, declared his love for her, and asked her to be his queen. Without hesitation, she joyfully agreed.

They were married on 11 June, the feast day of St Barnabas, in the Queen’s closet at Greenwich, with William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, officiating. Katherine wore virginal white, with her long hair loose under a gold circlet. After the nuptials, the small wedding party proceeded to the chapel of the Observant Friars adjacent to the palace to hear Mass.

There is no record of Henry and his new Queen being publicly put to bed together, as was generally the custom, but there was never any doubt that the marriage was consummated that night, for Katherine became pregnant immediately.

If, as the evidence strongly suggests, she had emerged from her first marriage virgo intacta, the chances are that
Henry too was a virgin on his wedding night.

There is no suggestion in any source that he was sexually active before his accession. He had led an almost cloistered life, closely supervised by his father and his tutors, and it is likely there had been no opportunities for dalliances with girls.

The marriage of Henry and Katherine was proclaimed four days later, on 15 June. On that same day Katherine first appeared at court as Queen of England.

She had adopted as her personal badge the pomegranate, a symbol of fertility since ancient times, and yet she failed to bear Henry the son he needed to ensure the succession. Of her six known children only one, the Princess Mary, survived infancy.

At that time, it was unthinkable that a woman should rule England and wield dominion over men. By 1524, it was known that the Queen would bear no more children, and by 1526, Henry had fallen passionately in love with her maid-of-honour, the vivacious, accomplished and ambitious Anne Boleyn.

In 1527, Henry began to voice doubts that his marriage to his brother’s widow was lawful, and asked the Pope for an annulment, only to be kept dangling in hope for the next seven years.

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By then, frustrated and alienated, he had broken with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, and Thomas Cranmer, his new Archbishop of Canterbury, had declared Henry’s union with Katherine null and void, and confirmed his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry had not waited for the formalities.

Read the rest of this article in the May 2018 issue of History Revealed, on sale now in all good newsagents and available for purchase here.