Prior to re-reading Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed trilogyabout the reign of King Henry VIII of England and the career of one of his chief ministers, Thomas Cromwell, I have been looking at other works about the period. I have re-read Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons (1960); I have looked again at the play, The Book of Sir Thomas More (1590s); and I have just re-read J Fletcher and W Shakespeare’s play, The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII (written circa 1613).
In parallel, I have found and read the eye-witness account of certain events of the time, namely: Thomas Wolsey, late Cardinal – his Life and Death, written by George Cavendish, his gentleman-usher (Folio Society, ed R Lockyer, 1962).
There are close parallels between certain passages in the prior Thomas Wolsey and the later King Henry VIII. One is a source of the other, whether directly or indirectly (via Holinshed’s Chronicles).
At the height of his power, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Henry VIII’s chief minister, notorious for his avarice and ambition. It was Wolsey who was first entrusted by Henry with the task of persuading the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage (1509) to the Spanish princess, Catalina de Aragón y Castilla, known in England as Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon. Inevitably, Wolsey came into conflict with Katherine, who wished to stay married to Henry (see below).
The English negotiators’ failure to achieve an annulment finally resulted in the English Church being severed from the Roman Catholic Church, and the foundation of the Church of England, with the monarch as its Supreme Head. This was the first “Brexit” – somewhat like the UK’s exit from the European Union today!
From the pages of both Thomas Wolsey and Henry VIII, Katherine herself emerges as an admirable character – faithful and intelligent, and eloquent in her self-defence.
In 1529 the first phase of the divorce trial (Henry v Katherine) commenced – the Queen alone among an assembly of men. Katherine states her defence case in a magnificent speech, addressed primarily to the King himself, as follows:
Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right, take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman and a stranger born out of your dominion….Alas! Sir, wherein have I offended you….now that you intend (as I perceive) to put me from you?”[Page 114]
Katherine insists that she has been a “true, humble and obedient wife”, and that when she married Henry “I was a true maid without touch of man” .
The Queen goes on to allude to the wise judgement of Fernando (Ferdinand II of Aragon), her own father, and Henry VII, Henry’s father, who both considered the marriage to be “good and lawful.”
Katherine complains that false charges have been made against her. However, she lacks the independent advocates she needs:
Ye must consider that these men cannot be impartial counsellors for my part since they are your subjects….and dare not, for fear of your pleasure, disobey your will and intent.
The Queen asks to be spared “the extremity of this court” until she receives advice from Spain. Finally, she says, “And if ye will not extend to me so much impartial favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause!” .
Katherine then promptly leaves the court: “And even with that she rose up, making a low curtsy to the King, and so departed from thence” . She is called back into court but does not return! But in her absence the divorce mill grinds slowly and irrevocably on.
Compare Cavendish’s account [pages 112-117] with Henry VIII, Act II, Scene 4, where the story is extended. The Queen’s great speech itself is versified by Shakespeare in lines 13-57.
Katherine next appears in Cavendish’s account on pages 122f. She receives Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (Campeius) at home: they desire to talk to her further about the King’s demand that she submit to his wishes. Wolsey starts talking in Latin. She replies, “Nay, good my Lord, speak to me in English I beseech you, although I understand Latin.” Compare Henry VIII, III.1, 46ff. The content of their private interview is enlarged upon in the play. Katherine resists their arguments and makes word-play of their titles:
Holy men I thought ye,
Upon my soul, two reverend cardinal virtues;
But cardinal sins and hollow hearts I fear ye.[102ff]
Katherine now disappears from the eye-witness account, and Cavendish’s attention is focussed on Wolsey’s downfall and his death (compare Henry VIII, III.2.) In the play [Act IV, Scene 2], Katherine’s last hours (historically, in 1536) are imagined by John Fletcher, co-dramatist. Here, she is living in isolation, with a few servants, away from London. She is informed of the death of Wolsey (historically, in 1530). She is portrayed, with sympathy and pathos, as philosophical and resigned to her fate, and accepting of her imminent death. She is visited by a vision of “spirits of peace” – “a blessed troop/….whose bright faces/Cast thousand beams upon me like the sun” [83ff]. Eustace Chapuys (Capuchius), the Emperor’s ambassador visits her, and she asks him to pass on a message to Henry, commending her daughter Mary, and her own, servants to his care. Her final words are these:
In all humility unto his highness….
Tell him in death I blessed him,
For so I will…..
When I am dead, good wench,
Let me be used with honour; strew me over
With maiden flowers, that all the world may know
I was a chaste wife to my grave. Embalm me,
Then lay me forth; although unqueened, yet like
A queen, and daughter to a king, inter me.
I can no more.[160ff]
Katherine is both a tragic character, and a heroic one, standing up, as she did, to immense pressure. After her death she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral; and she is still remembered there.