Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Catherine of Aragon at the Legatine Court, 1529

On June 21, 1529, a Papal Legatine court was held to determine the issue of Henry VIII’s request to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (the Cardinal Protector of England and Legate) from Rome convened the court at Blackfriar’s but Catherine circumvented their plans by speaking directly to Henry, asking for his mercy, and protesting at the unfairness of the proceedings.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight, she says:

Sir, I desire you do me right and justice;
And to bestow your pity on me: for
I am a most poor woman, and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions; having here
No judge indifferent, nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? what cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure,
That thus you should proceed to put me off,
And take your good grace from me?
Heaven witness,I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable;
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined: when was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire,
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? what friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger, did I
Continue in my liking? nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged. Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife, in this obedience,
Upward of twenty years, and have been blest
With many children by you: if, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honour aught,
My bond to wedlock, or my love and duty,
Against your sacred person, in God's name,
Turn me away; and let the foul'st contempt
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp'st kind of justice. Please you sir,
The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch'd wit and judgment: Ferdinand,
My father, king of Spain, was reckon'd one
The wisest prince that there had reign'd by many
A year before: it is not to be question'd
That they had gather'd a wise council to them
Of every realm, that did debate this business,
Who deem'd our marriage lawful: wherefore I humbly
Beseech you, sir, to spare me, till I may
Be by my friends in Spain advised; whose counsel
I will implore: if not, i' the name of God,
Your pleasure be fulfill'd!

Henry does not answer her; instead the two Cardinals and Catherine exchange comments about the fairness of the court and Wolsey’s influence on the king.

When she leaves the room, Henry does address her—his speech must reflect Catherine’s lingering popularity and good reputation in England in 1613 or so, when we know the play was performed at the Globe Theatre (a cannon shot caused the theatre to burn down!)

KING HENRY VIII Go thy ways, Kate:
That man i' the world who shall report he has
A better wife, let him in nought be trusted,
For speaking false in that: thou art, alone,
If thy rare qualities, sweet gentleness,
Thy meekness saint-like, wife-like government,
Obeying in commanding, and thy parts
Sovereign and pious else, could speak thee out,
The queen of earthly queens: she's noble born;
And, like her true nobility, she has
Carried herself towards me.

He then goes on to explain his doubts about the validity of their marriage, based in part upon the fact that Catherine never bore a son who survived the womb. This is of course incorrect, as their son Henry, Prince of Wales, died 52 days after birth on the lst of January 1511. Exactly as it occurred in 1529, the scene concludes with Cardinal Campegio declaring the court cannot proceed without Catherine present.

Anne Boleyn appears only briefly in the play and speaks in only one scene, also in very respectful tones about Catherine of Aragon. Anne Bullen, as she is billed, denies that she really wants to be queen herself, although her attendant (“Old Lady”) is cynical about that.

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