I have been reading a lot about the Tudor period of English history. It is a rich mine for historians to delve into. What has been very interesting to me are the circumstances surrounding his divorce of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. One of the major points that Henry used in justifying this divorce was that Catherine was never his legal wife because she indeed did have sexual relations with her first husband, Arthur, Prince of Wales, elder brother of Henry VIII. Even though Pope Julius II granted the couple a dispensation in December of 1503 (6 years before the actual marriage) Henry VIII stated that despite the Pope’s dispensation God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow, something forbidden in the Book of Leviticus. In Henry’s mind this punishment took the form of no sons resulting from the union and many miscarriages and still-births.
This justification from Henry has always raised several questions for me. Did Henry truly believe that God was punishing him, or was that just the excuse he needed to divorce his wife to marry Anne Boleyn? Catherine maintained all her life that she and Arthur never consummated their marriage. Would Henry have been able to tell if his wife was a virgin when they married? These are a couple of the questions I want to examine. Was it possible that Catherine was lying?
I will look at the first issue today: What were the religious beliefs of King Henry VIII? First of all, today we know that it is the male sperm that determines the sex of the baby. Henry blamed everyone but himself. I guess the ego of a powerful King of England would allow him to see that maybe he was part of the problem? Society was much more religious than it is today. In those days religious superstitions were more rampant as science had yet to supplant these age-old wives tails. Therefore attributing the lack of sons as evidence of divine punishment.
However devout Henry’s religious beliefs were, and I have no doubt he was a sincere Catholic, he does exhibit inconsistencies in his beliefs. Those inconsistencies are pretty easy to explain. Although devout as a Catholic and his faith in God it was easy for him to justify his affairs and his natural children because that was his right as a man and a king. Underwriting much of his beliefs were societies attitude toward woman and the need for social order. At the time Henry lived women were seen as inferior to men and their property with only the rights allowed them by men. Therefore this societal view gave Henry every right to use women for his sexual proclivities. As you go up in the hierarchy of society this behavior was not frowned upon..at least when it remained private.
Another important belief of Henry’s was the belief in social order and social structure. These beliefs also had divine origin. Henry was a supporter of the theory of the divine right of kings in that he was on the throne by the Will of God and that he was answerable only to God himself and not any man. Henry also believed that this belief lead to the stratification of society and that everyone was born to a certain station to fulfill God’s will and maintaining this social order was vitally important to the stabilization of a civil society.
Therefore in light of all of this Henry believed that it was the right of the woman to obey him in all areas including his desire to divorce. He saw his lack of thriving sons as divine punishment and he saw that it was his wife’s duty to step aside to allow him to sire healthy sons to continue the succession. For at the heart of this matter was keeping his realm stable. The Tudors had come to the throne after decades of civil war over who should possess the throne. Despite having a thriving daughter Henry feared that without a son the throne would be vulnerable for reigniting the War of the Roses.
Henry also believed in the sanctity of marriage…despite his affairs divorce was seen as a sin. Therefore he needed to find scriptural justification to divorce his wife. This justification was found in Leviticus 20:21 “‘If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” Even though Pope Julius II gave the couple a dispensation to marry, Henry firmly believe that no man could undo God’s laws. Therefore to Henry he was never his wife’s legal husband and he was free to marry.
There was one other related issue that assured Henry that Catherine of Aragon was not his lawful wife. For in order for the Levitical injunction to apply to Catherine and himself would be the fact that Catherine indeed consummated her union with his brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. If the union was never consummated, as Catherine claimed, than Henry and Catherine were legally wed. If the marriage had been consummated than Henry did have scriptural grounds for a divorce as he saw it.
This leads us to our next question which I will examine next week: Was the union between Catherine and Prince Arthur consummated?