An earlier version was originally published at my long retired Tudor column at Suite101.
February 18, 1516.
The midwife put the sleeping child into her mother’s waiting arms. King Henry gazed at his newborn, healthy daughter. ‘We are young enough, there will be sons to follow,’ he consoled himself. He failed to notice his wife’s joy.
We are young enough, there will be sons to follow, said the confident twenty-five-year-old king. But not with Katherine of Aragon. Over five older than her husband and her body worn out from frequent pregnancies, 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. And 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.
Katherine and Henry appeared to have viewed the birth of their daughter Mary differently. By Henry’s future actions, it is easy to infer Henry perceived Katherine had failed in her duty as his queen and consort to provide him with a son and heir. The War of Roses was still very much in living memory. Henry VIII was only the second king of a dynasty that came to rule England upon shaky and bloody ground. The first Tudor king, Henry VII, had spent his reign stabilising his position, and he passed on to his son a safe, secure and financially sound kingdom. Henry VIII 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 a different light. Popes and Kings held Katherine’s mother in great esteem. Isabel of Castile was a crusader, 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 would have 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, when he fought a battle or two on the continent. He would have also remembered the other strong women in his life. His mother, his sister, and his grandmother Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Dying shortly after he became king, his grandmother was a woman respected for her intelligence as well as her piety. She had also been the woman entrusted to oversee the young Henry’s education.
I’m tempted to think Henry’s desire for a son boiled down to simple human desire, and had 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 miscarried a dead son. Henry’s words and actions often displayed a politician’s insincerity, but not this statement. It resonates down the centuries with human despair and deep disappointment. I think one of the reasons why the women in his life loved him, no matter the agony he inflicted on them, was that they could sense a core within Henry VIII that suffered.
Mary Tudor loved her father. How could she not love a father who doted on her from her earliest years? He delighted in freeing his little girl’s hair from it hairnet, to reveal to the court a cascade of silver-blonde hair tumbling down her back. Not only was Mary a pretty child, she was also intelligent. ‘Priest,’ she said at two, pointing to a musician who was also a cleric. When we remember Mary’s future, her first words documented by history were apt and prophetic.
Mary’s education was all one could expect for a princess born during the Renaissance – and a daughter of Katherine of Aragon. Like her parents, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, Katherine found for her daughter the best tutors. Katherine regarded Mary as the heir to her father’s kingdom. She would have remembered how unprepared her own mother had been when she ascended the Castilian throne. Isabel had come to the throne after the death of her brother, the boy raise as the possible heir to their half -brother, the king. Isabel of Castile ensured her four daughters received an education to prepare them for their future lives as leaders in their world.
And good thing too.
Katherine was betrothed to Arthur Tudor by the time she was three. She was educated to be a fit consort for a future king. Alas, for Katherine, her young husband died months after their marriage and she ended up married to his younger brother, Henry. Katherine had great influence on Henry VIII during the early years of their marriage. She was respected for her intelligence and piety. Katherine’s encouraged her husband’s better traits. Not long into Henry’s reign, the English court gained a reputation for scholarship and piety.
In the golden glow of these first years of Henry’s reign – when his subjects gloried in their handsome, noble King, possessing thighs of noble proportions – scholars of high repute visited his court. These years saw a young king – forgetful of his hunts for a time – labour 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 – when these golden years were drawing to a close – spent her childhood learning Latin, French, Spanish and Italian from respected scholars, and studying contemporary works from intellectuals such as William Lilly. While not the renowned linguist as her younger sister Elizabeth would one day be, she spoke Latin, French and Spanish fluently. Italian she could read and understand if spoken. Mary – also like her younger sister – loved to dance and inherited the musical gifts of her father. She played the spinet with great skill.
Now – was it because Henry fell so in love with Anne Boleyn, and would do anything to have her, the only reason he steered his kingdom into the blood-washed storms of ‘his great matter?’ It is possible. However, I do not believe Henry VIII would have rocked the boat if only one of Katherine’s sons had lived. The king would have kept Katherine for his Queen and Mary’s position would have been safe. We know from history – before he embarked on his unrelenting course to marry Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII considered 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?
But when his passion burned bright for a woman who refused to be his mistress, he began thinking upon other ways of achieving his desires. He was a king who wanted sons. Not because the lack of sons made his kingdom insecure but because the lack of sons hurt him where it hurt him most – his ego. Anne Boleyn was a woman who would have promised them to him. With Anne Boleyn waving that red rag before the eyes of this 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 not easy. Mary Tudor’s transition to womanhood was a hard road. I believe it emotionally damaged her, leaving the wings to her spirit broken – broken beyond repair.
The daughters of Henry VIII had many, many uneasy periods with their father. But I believe Mary Tudor 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 likely Mary – at close to twenty – placed her own mother’s death at her father’s door too. Henry VIII also denied Mary a daughter’s right to be at her dying mother’s side, holding her hand until her last breath.
Mary had a 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 Castile. The history books I have read all paint the picture of a mother and daughter who 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. 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 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. Biblical scholar that Henry VIII was, he could cite the relevant Bible passage to prove his point. But that didn’t make it less tragic for both mother and daughter.
Katherine was a wife and mother worth her salt. She refused to disappear from a marriage that had lasted twenty-two years. She was also 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 perhaps believed this separation would cause Katherine to stop and think about her actions, and force her to do what he wanted to get 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 wrote 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. There are several important issues that his sister Mary raises in this scene. The most important one being that Katherine had not failed to provide Henry with an heir; she had provided Henry with Mary. Henry’s sister pointed out to her brother he could take his intelligent daughter under his wing and trained for queenship. Mary also reminded him her niece could marry. She admitted deciding on the right husband for Mary was a hard choice. But it remained a valid solution. If fortune smiled upon the union, it would be a way to 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 be undone.
Henry arguments centred on his desire for a new, valid marriage and his desire for a legitimate son of ‘his body.’ But, in my imagined scene, there is one point he raised that could justify 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 especially 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 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. When he received 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 celebrate, dressing himself and his court in yellow. Anne Boleyn, now 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, and presented her to the court as their ‘princess Elizabeth. 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, Mary had lived through the annulment of her parents’ marriage, the withdrawal of her father’s open affection, the fears of an insecure step-mother, and the change of her status from heir to the English throne to the king’s bastard daughter. There is one episode in these years that tears at my heart.
After the birth of Elizabeth, Henry made it clear which of his daughters he regarded as legitimate, and the heir to his throne. Up to this time, Mary had her own establishment, an establishment providing her with support and 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. 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), Her separation from her mother 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 threaten her with punishment.
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, signalling 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 come. Mary locked her gaze on her father and 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