February 18, 1516.
The wetnurse put the sleeping child into her mother’s waiting arms. The blanket, embroidered with a border of Tudor Roses, wrapped the baby so securely that only the top of the baby’s head could be seen, a sheen of silver-blonde pointing to the child’s future hair colouring. Gazing at his newborn, healthy daughter, King Hal consoled himself by saying, ‘We are young enough, there will be sons to follow.’ He failed to notice how his wife’s eyes brimmed with joy.
We are young enough, there will be sons to follow, so said the confident twenty-five-year-old King. But not with Katherine of Aragon. Close to five and half-years older than the King, her body tired out from frequent pregnancy, Katherine’s childbearing years were fast drawing to a close. One more pregnancy – resulting in another stillbirth in 1518 – followed the birth of her daughter Mary in 1516, then no more. Finis. In a sense this can only be regarded as a blessing. There is only so much heartbreak a woman can bear, and at least five dead babies are more than enough heartbreak for any woman. Mary would be the only child of Katherine of Aragon to survive infancy and grow into adulthood.
Documented history suggests Katherine and Henry possessed completely different viewpoints about the future of their newborn daughter. By the future actions of Henry, we can only infer that Henry perceived that Katherine had failed in her duty as his Queen and consort to provide him with a son and heir. The War of Roses was a memory from only 31 years ago, still very much in living history. The birth of a daughter was just not good enough. Indeed, let us here do Henry justice; he was only the second King of a dynasty that came to rule England upon very shaky and bloody ground. Henry VIII’s father had spent his reign stabilising his position as king, passing on to his son a safe, secure and financially sound Kingdom. Henry VIII desperately wanted a son to pass his Kingdom onto, and not to a daughter with all the inherent problems that entailed.
But Katherine – the fifth and last child of Isabel of Castile, a renowned Queen Regnant who could and did rule in her own right – would have viewed the birth of a daughter in an entirely different light. Katherine would have been aware of the esteem Popes and Kings held for her mother, knowing too that her mother, the Queen, was a crusader. Indeed, not only a crusader but a woman who commanded armies – Katherine herself was born during one of Isabel’s campaign – as she achieved her goal of driving the might of the Moors from her dominions. Yes. Katherine entertained no doubts on a woman’s ability to be a strong and able monarch.
Henry must have known it was possible too. He had no hesitation in entrusting his Kingdom to Katherine whenever he minded to do the knightly thing, going off to fight a battle or two on the continent. And, of course, he would remember the woman who had overseen his education – his grandmother Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Dying shortly after he became King, Margaret was highly respected for her intelligence as well as her piety.
Sometimes I’m very tempted to think his desire for a son could be brought down to a simply human desire, and had very little to do with the security of his Kingdom at all. ‘I see God will not give me male children,’ he said when his second wife Anne Boleyn gave birth to a dead son. For a man who often displayed a politician’s insincerity, this statement resonates down the centuries with human despair and deep disappointment, ringing loudly with simple truth. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the women in life loved him, no matter the agony he inflicted on them. With their female sensitivity, they could sense a core within Henry VIII that truly suffered.
Mary Tudor loved her father Henry VIII. Her earliest memories were of a devoted, doting father – a father who delighted in freeing his little girl from her hairnet, revealing to all a cascade of silver-blonde hair tumbling down her back. Not only was Mary a pretty child, she was also known to be very bright. ‘Priest,’ she said at two, pointing to a musician who was also a cleric. When we remember Mary’s future aspirations, her first historically documented word can be considered quite apt and prophetic.
Mary’s education was all one could expect for a princess born during the Renaissance. Just as Isabella and Ferninard – the parents of Katherine of Aragon – found for their children the best tutors in their dominions, Katherine of Aragon ensured the very same for her only surviving child. Regarding Mary as the heir to her father’s kingdom, Katherine, no doubt, would have remembered the stories of how unprepared her own mother had been when she ascended the Castilian throne. Inheriting the throne after the death of her half -brother, Isabel of Spain did not fail her four daughters as her own parents had her, leaving her to learn Latin – the language of diplomacy- as queen and adult.
And good thing too.
Katherine’s intelligence was something never in doubt. Betrothed to Arthur Tudor by the time she was three, her parents educated Katherine to be not only a fit consort to a King but also able to take on the mantle of a Queen. Indeed, during the early years of her marriage to Henry Tudor, the English court had a reputation for learning as well as piety, probably stemming greatly from the Queen’s encouragement of her husband’s better traits as well as her very own nature.
In the golden glow of these first years of Henry’s reign – when his subjects gloried in their handsome, noble King, possessing thighs nobly proportioned – scholars of high repute visited his court freely and Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia. These were also the years when a young King – forgetful of his hunts for a time- laboured to write a book defending the papacy. The book earned him the pope’s hard won gratitude and the award of a title: ‘Defender of the faith,’ a title still used by the British royal family today.
Mary – during these same golden years – spent her childhood learning Latin, French, Spanish and Italian from respected scholars, studying contemporary works from intellectuals such as William Lilly. Not as a renowned linguist as her younger sister Elizabeth would one day be, nevertheless, she spoke fluently the first three languages while Italian she could read and understand if spoken. Mary – also like her younger sister – loved to dance and inherited some of the musical gifts of her father, being very accomplished on the spinet.
Now – was it simply because Henry fell so in love with Anne Boleyn and would do anything to possess her that he steered his Kingdom into the blood-washed storms of ‘his great matter?’ It is possible. However, I feel certain if only one of Katherine’s sons had lived the King would have not threatened the status quo and kept Katherine for his Queen and Mary’s position would have been safe. History tells us that – before embarking in his unrelenting course to marry Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII clearly thought hard on the possibility of Mary being one day Queen Regnant. Why else would he send his young daughter to Ludlow, where she learnt to govern over a court of her own? Interestingly though – speaking loudly his doubt to us down the long centuries – he didn’t rise her to the rank of ‘Princess of Wales’ before doing so.
Perhaps now – with his passion burning bright for a woman who refused to be his mistress – he pondered hard upon other ways of achieving his desires. My reading of the King’s character is that he was a man who wanted sons. Not just because the lack of sons made his kingdom insecure but because the lack of sons hurt him where it hurt him most – his ego. My reading of Anne Boleyn’s character is that she was a woman who would have promised them to him. And with Anne Boleyn waving that red rag before the eyes of the Tudor bull, nothing would prevent him from doing all he could to sire this elusive prince, not even Mary, the daughter who so adored him.
Transition from childhood to adulthood – no matter what century you are born in- is frequently difficult. Mary Tudor’s transition to womanhood was more than difficult – it emotionally damaged her, leaving the wings to her spirit broken – broken perhaps beyond repair.
The daughters of Henry VIII had many, many uneasy periods with their father. But I believe Mary Tudor probably suffered more than her much younger sister Elizabeth. Yes – Henry VIII did set in motion the judicial murder of Elizabeth’s mother, when Elizabeth was only two years and nine months, but it is also very likely that Mary – at close to twenty – placed her own mother’s death at her father’s door too. A death that saw Henry VIII deny Mary a daughter’s right to be at her dying mother’s side, holding her hand until her last breath.
Mary had a very loving relationship with her mother, Katherine of Aragon. For the first eleven years of Mary’s life, she was often by her mother’s side, learning the same lessons from Katherine that Katherine had learned from her own mother Isabel, the great Queen of Castille. The history books I have read all paint the picture of a mother and daughter who truly loved each other. Indeed, with Katherine of Aragon’s memories of dead baby followed by dead baby, Mary – her one living child – would have been very precious to her. And very central to this picture of a caring mother and a bright-eyed, fair-haired, zestful and dainty girl – whose feet so itched to dance – is a father in his prime, handsome, tall, athletic, musical gifted, full of life and bigger than life. An already powerful king who would become more powerful still – a king who called his young daughter, ‘the pearl of my kingdom’. No wonder Mary idolised him.
But by Mary’s twelfth year the winds of change were already blowing hard, making a lot of people close to the English crown very uncomfortable. The king had convinced himself that his marriage to Mary’s mother was unclean, incestuous. Katherine had been married his brother and so Henry’s own subsequent relationship with her was accursed. Bible scholar that Henry VIII was, he could easily cite the relevant Bible passage, but that didn’t make it less tragic for both mother and daughter.
Katherine – a wife and mother worth her salt and not inclined to disappear quietly from a marriage that had lasted twenty-two years – was determined to fight tooth and nail for her daughter’s rights and for her beloved husband’s imperilled soul. So Henry separated Mary from her mother. He probably believed this separation would cause Katherine to stop and think about her actions and whether doing what ‘the king’ expected might be a good idea if it gave her daughter back.
This is the moment I must pause and attempt my best to be fair to Bluff King Hal. In Dear Heart, How Like You This?, I have a scene where Henry and his sister Mary argue the rights and wrongs of his attempts to replace Katherine – England’s ‘beloved’ queen’ – with ‘Black-eyed Nan.’ Mary, dowager queen of France and duchess of Suffolk, placed herself very much in Katherine’s camp. In the scene I created, there were several important issues that his sister Mary raised, the most important one being that Katherine had not failed to provide Henry with an heir. She had provided Henry with Mary, clearly possessing so many of the Tudor characteristics, a young, intelligent girl who could be taken under her father’s wing and trained for queenship. Mary also reminded him that her niece could marry – just who would have been a hard choice for Henry, I admit, but it remains still a valid solution – and thus – if fortune smiled upon the union- provide the kingdom with male heirs, grandsons to the king. If Mary had married at eighteen, it is possible that an heir from her body would have been close to the age of majority by the time of the King’s death. The other argument that Mary voiced was that Katherine was queen anointed – a ritual of such deep meaning that it could never truly be undone.
Henry arguments mostly centred on his desire for a new, valid marriage and his desire for a legitimate son of ‘his body.’ But, in this imagined scene, there is one point he raised that could be seen as a justification for his decision now to turn away from the possibility of Mary as queen regnant. Mary, being very much her mother’s daughter, was very drawn to her ‘mother’s kin.’ As a six-year old, she had met Charles V, the head of this family, was, indeed, betrothed to him. Despite his marriage to someone else, her loyalty to this family, Charles specially and later his son Philip, steered the course of much of her life. This loyalty was something that likely worried Henry. He was a nationalistic king and would not have desired England to become just one of the many dominions belonging to the Habsburg royal family.
The demise of Katherine of Aragon in 1536 brought great relief to Henry VIII. Receiving the ‘glad tidings’ of her death, the king cried to Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, ‘God be praised, the old harridan is dead, we are free from all suspicion of war.’ The king, ‘transported with joy’ (Chapuys’ words), decided to really celebrate, dressing himself and his court in yellow. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, excused this to the same ambassador by saying yellow was the colour of Royal Spanish mourning (Chapman 1974, p.185).
But Chapuys had eyes and a mind for himself. He knew what it meant when the king took his two year-old daughter Elizabeth – garbed also in yellow – in his arms, blithely presenting her to the court as their ‘princess Elizabeth, clearly putting aside Mary, now nearing her twentieth birthday. Chapuys was good friend to both Mary and Katherine. Indeed, Katherine said to him, just days before her death, after learning her husband had denied her the presence of Mary, “I can die in your arms, not abandoned- like one of the beasts” (Mattingly 1942, p. 305). Katherine was to die not in Chapuys’ arms, but two days later in the arms of her childhood friend, Maria Salinas (Mattingly 1942, p. 307).
For Mary, her mother’s death climaxed years of disillusionment, grief and despair. During the years 1528-36, when Mary grappled with not only the annulment of her parents marriage, the withdrawal of her father’s open affection, the fears of an insecure step-mother, but also change of her status from heir to the English throne to the king’s bastard daughter, there is one episode that tears at my heart.
After the birth of Elizabeth, Henry had to make it perfectly clear which of his daughters he regarded as legitimate, therefore heir to his throne. Up to this time, Mary had her own establishment, an establishment providing her with support and still privately acknowledging her as ‘princess’. Now her father sent her to Hatfield, to be part of the establishment of her baby sister, the princess Elizabeth of England.
Mary had a miserable time at Hatfield. She was willing to recognize Elizabeth as her sister, and call her such, but princess? For Mary there was only one queen, her own loved mother, and only her daughter, meaning herself, had right to bear the title of princess. Being unable to freely visit her own mother – since the year 1531, Mary and Katherine had only seen each other one brief time in 1534, when Mary was seriously ill and Henry allowed Katherine to visit her – (Loades 1992, p.81) made Mary more determined to be true to her mother’s expectations, even if this meant making her father angry and made the people overseeing her utter threats of violence.
During this awful period of Mary’s life, there was a time when her father visited the nursery of Elizabeth, but he chose not to summon Mary. Henry had one major weakness (and he had many) when it came to women. He had no resilience against a woman’s tears. Many times, crying women melted his resolve, making him do other than he planned or wished. Knowing this, Henry often chose the tactic of avoidance. What he did not see would not touch him. The king knew Mary possessed many good reasons to weep, but he did not want to give her an opportunity to inflict her tears on him.
So, the teenage Mary waited alone in her chamber, waiting for the summons that never came. Then she heard the hunting horns, signaling her father’s departure. Running to the palace’s high balcony, she watched him mount his horse, and begin to ride away. She stood there, no doubt with her heart beating fast, and praying he would look up, notice her. One of his courtiers moved his horse near, whispering to the king. The king glanced over his shoulder and then reined in his horse before wheeling it around the way it had just come. Locking her gaze with that of her father, Mary didn’t move, then she saw him lift his cap to her and, without further ado, he rode away.
Hester Chapman, The challenge of Anne Boleyn, U.S.A, 1974
David Loades, 1992. Mary Tudor: A Life. Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.
Garrett Mattingly, Catherine of Aragon, 1942, page 305