Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dates in June, 1509 and 1529

In addition to being the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, yesterday was also the 504th anniversary of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon's coronation in 1509. They had been married in a quiet ceremony in the chapel at Greenwich on June 11.  It was also in June, 20 years later (on the 21st) that Catherine of Aragon appeared the legatine court to defend the validity of that wedding day and marriage.

I cannot help but think of the juxtaposition of these dates in June, separated by momentous years and events. In June of 1509, Catherine and Henry were wed and crowned; 20 years later Catherine appeared in a court to try the validity of her marriage; six years after that dramatic trial, one of her strongest defenders was executed when Bishop John Fisher opposed the king's supremacy.

Garrett Mattingly notes in his biography of Catherine of Aragon, "It is hard to imagine Henry and Catherine at their coronation. Their images are pale as ghosts beside their later selves . . ." In 1509, Henry was young, tall, an athlete with a ruddy round-cheeked face, while Catherine was fresh, delicate, sweet and winsome. As Mattingly notes, "The Londoners thought her bonny . . . Henry thought her bonnier than any."

But in 1509, the month of June was filled, as Mattingly comments, with festivity, music, laughter, and dancing. The reign of Henry the Eighth and Catherine of Aragon had begun. As this website notes, everyone had great hopes:

After the serious solemnity of the ceremony came the party. An enormous feast was enjoyed by all the guests in Westminster Hall and continued long into the night. Further celebrations spilled over into the following days and included, dancing, concerts and jousting. The new king, Henry VIII, had not disappointed. He had confirmed the guests’ belief that this gregarious Prince knew how to celebrate like a King.

The poet, and former tutor of Henry, John Skelton, produced poetry to be read or sung during the celebrations. Skelton’s writing demonstrated that he believed the new King would always be fair and protect his people. However, the full extent of the joy experienced by the English on this day is beautifully surmised by a letter sent from Lord Mountjoy to the renowned Dutch Scholar, Erasmus: “Heaven and earth rejoices, everything is full of milk and honey and nectar. Avarice has fled the country. Our King is not after gold, or gems, or precious metals, but virtue, glory, immortality.”

This was unquestionably the feeling of the King as well as his people, for Henry was already looking towards the legend of King Arthur and the example of his own ancestor (and victor at the battle of Agincourt), Henry V, for his Royal inspiration.

And without doubt Henry’s need for glory and immortality would change England forever.
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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