Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Belloc on Henry VIII's First Two Wives

Tomorrow (a little after 6:45 a.m. Central/7:45 a.m. Eastern) on the Son Rise Morning Show, Anna Mitchell and I will continue our discussion of Hilaire Belloc's Characters of the Reformation, looking at Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's first two wives.

One of the most interesting aspects of his analysis of Catherine of Aragon is that Belloc rejects the usual explanation of Henry VIII wanting to have his marriage to Catherine annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn--the desire for a legitimate male heir:

Now here arises an important point. To what extent was Henry influenced in the abominable thing he did by the desire for an heir? Did his wronging of Catherine have any excuse in his disappointment at having only a daughter to succeed him? 

The white-washers of Henry and the defenders of the great tragedy of the Reformation have argued with all their weight on that side. They have pretended in different degrees of sincerity that Catherine's ill success in providing him with an heir is the root of the affair. Not one who reads the contemporary documents of the time can believe that. 

The root of the affair was Henry's miserable infatuation with Anne Boleyn. But the first duty of the historian is to be just; and we must allow a certain weight to Henry's desire for a male heir. These things cannot be put in exact proportion or percentages, but if one attempts to put it thus and give the disappointment at the lack of an heir from one fifth to one quarter of his motive, one may perhaps roughly represent the weight which it bore. 

He was somewhat worried by not having a male heir because his throne was not too stable; his father had been a usurper and only captured the throne twenty-four years before his son's accession. It was in its way important to leave a son to carry on the dynasty; on the other hand the greatest thrones in Europe were handed on through women Spain itself was a splendid example — and the little Princess Mary was so popular with everyone and would have been so thoroughly supported that there was no real danger. 

Put forward as the main excuse for the divorce, the pretence that the necessity for a male heir was the leading motive was falsehood and hypocrisy. When it was clear that Catherine could bear no more children, Henry gradually deserted her. He had several affairs ; he took up with a woman whom he had known in boyhood — one Blount — and had a son by her whom he called the Duke of Richmond. He also took up with the daughter of a courtier and diplomat of his called Boleyn, a young lady of the name of Mary, and when he was tired of her he married her off to one of his other courtiers with a portion which did no credit to his generosity. 

He probably ceased to live with his wife as early as 1521, when he was no more than thirty, and she, poor woman, still under thirty-seven. Even by his own admission (and he was a great liar) he ceased to live with her within the next three or four years.

And then Anne Boleyn shows up in 1522 and Belloc also has a different view of Anne's influence on Henry VIII's actions:

Anne, then, was neither the cause nor the inspirer of the first movement away from Catholicism. But she is what I have called her, the pivot figure. It is because she was what she was, and did what she did, that England is what England is to-day. 

It is, therefore, of the first importance to history to under- stand what this woman really was and the real place of her action in the whole scheme of the time. From her day to our own it has been taken for granted by all national tradition and by every historian that she lay at the origins of the English Reformation, but latterly there has arisen an effort to weaken or question this sound tradition and to explain in other ways the quarrel between Henry and Rome and the ultimate effect of it. This effort at supplanting true history by false is part of the general scepticism of our time, which is usually ready to accept anything new because new falsehoods sound more picturesque as a rule than well- worn truths. But there is here a more powerful motive, to make the origins of the change of religion in England look a littie less ignoble than they really are. That is why Professor Pollard, for instance, who is the chief authority on the details of the period in England, tries to maintain the fantastic theory that Henry's attempt to get rid of his wife was not connected with Anne Boleyn, but with larger reasons of State, and that he had had the policy of getting rid of Catherine of Aragon in mind for many years before he met Anne Boleyn. The idea is not only fantastic, but desperate; it has no chance of being accepted out of England, and I do not think it will be accepted even in England save by those who are very hard up for material in the whitewashing of Henry VIII's character. 

No, Anne remains and will always remain at the origins of dire catastrophe. It behooves us therefore to understand her and her effect as best we can. Anne Boleyn was a Howard. That is the first thing to grasp in connection with her, and it is all the more important to grasp it because historians have failed to stress as strongly as they should have stressed this capital feature in her position. She was a Howard through her mother, who was the daughter of that old Duke of Norfolk, the victor of Flodden, and who was the sister of his son Thomas, third Duke of Norfolk, who played a great part throughout the whole of Henry VIII's reign. 
The Howards were semi-royal. . . .

And then Belloc comes to the Great Matter and Henry's intentions:

We have no documents; we can only judge by the nature of the case and by what followed. But it is fairly clear that some time before, or in the very early part of 1525, when Henry was thirty-four years of age, and Anne well over twenty, perhaps as much as twenty-three, there was some arrangement between them, and that Anne had already given Henry to understand that she would not be his mistress, but would envisage marriage if he could get rid of Catherine. In that year her father was raised to the peerage and given a new and more prominent position, and in that year we have also large gifts from Henry to Anne, and Henry interfering with her movements and saying where she is to stop. 

It does not follow that Henry had thus early accepted the idea of marrying Anne. He probably still thought she would become his mistress at last. To attempt the repudia- tion of Catherine, the niece of the Emperor of Germany and the King of Spain, the most prominent woman in the greatest family in Europe, would be a very serious business indeed, and Henry's hesitating and uncertain character would hardly come to a decision at once in the matter. . . . 

Fascinating, right? But does Belloc have it right? Tune in tomorrow!


  1. Only One wife..all the others were concubines

  2. Not true! When Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, both Catherine and Anne were dead: that was a valid marriage. The Church would have recognized that marriage and welcomed Henry back IF he would have repented and asked to return to the fold!