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In a clause of the treaty which mentions the dispensation of the Pope, it is stated that the princess Katherine consummated her marriage with Prince Arthur. The fact, however, is, that although they were wedded, Prince Arthur and Princess Katherine never consummated the marriage. It is well known in England that the Princess is still a virgin. But as the English are much disposed to cavil, it has seemed to be more prudent to provide for the case as though the marriage had been consummated…

What an impact a single word can make.

Thanks to the popular fictional representations of Tudor history presented by the Showtime series The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, many people have at least a vague idea of the story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to his longtime love Anne Boleyn. There are many ways in which the situation has been oversimplified and exaggerated in popular imagination – rumors of Henry having syphilis, cynical assumptions that his split from the church of Rome was simply for sexual gratification, that Katherine was a dour old religious fanatic – I could write extensive arguments on each of these subjects.

I am quite pleased, though not surprised, that Julia Fox looks in detail at the wording of the Papal dispensation allowing the widowed Katherine to marry her brother-in-law Henry.  Her previous work examining the marriage contract of Jane Parker to George Boleyn showed her skill in dissecting the details and ramifications of sixteenth-century legal documents. In spite of what critics may think of the work as a whole – Fox’s style tends towards excessive speculation about motives and emotions that cannot be proven at this distance of time – the examination of documents is impressive.

In a nutshell, the situation of Katherine of Aragon, a widow at sixteen: The youngest child of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Katherine was brought up to consider herself destined to be Queen of England. She was betrothed to Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII of England and his wife, Elizabeth of York, when both were still toddlers. At fifteen, they married and went to Arthur’s princely seat at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches. After five months, Arthur became ill and died. When it became clear that Katherine would not give birth to a posthumous child, her parents and her parents-in-law set about arguing over her person and her dowry – the Spanish monarchs wanted Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry. The English monarchs thought that they could perhaps do better, especially once Katherine’s formidable mother Isabella died and the unification of Aragon and Castile fell apart. However, Katherine and Henry were betrothed with the blessing of a Papal dispensation allowing for siblings-in-law to wed.

The issue that plagued Katherine again when the matter of the legality of her marriage to Henry came up in the 1520s, when Henry’s distress over not having a male heir led him to doubt his marriage and wish to form a new alliance with the woman who was seemingly the love of his life, was the question of whether her brief marriage to Arthur had ever been consummated. If it had, as Henry argued, their subsequent marriage was not legal. Katherine held to the line that though she and Arthur had on several occasions slept in the same bed, she came to Henry a virgin.  This was the argument when the dispensation was originally sought, too.

Ferdinand, a notoriously wily political operator, was willing to shrug his shoulders and allow a dispensation that assumed consummation had taken place, in spite of Katherine’s (and some of her most trusted household staff’s) vigorous assertions that it had not. Eventually the document included the word “forsitan” – perhaps. The marriage had perhaps been consummated. The passage I quoted at the start of this post is Ferdinand’s own words on the subject, in a message to his ambassador in Rome.

We still don’t know. The only people who knew were Arthur and Katherine – Katherine always asserted it had not been consummated, and Arthur’s teenage boastings about being “this night in the midst of Spain” may simply be the result of a teenage boy’s pride. Or perhaps Katherine was her parents’ daughter, wise to the ways of politics and determined to fulfill the role God called her to – Queen of England, wife to the King of England, no matter what dissembling was required of her in order to achieve her destiny.

Many point to the many historical instances when a single vote has determined the course of events. Less attention is given to the impact of a single word inserted into a document or mis-heard.

In Sarah Vowell’s essay collection The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she writes about a visit then-Presidential-Candidate Al Gore made to a middle school. A student got up and asked how citizens of their age could get more involved, and he told a story about a girl who wrote a letter from western Tennessee about how the water tasted funny and people were getting sick at an alarming rate. He said investigations found the water was contaminated, and that they then remembered similar occurrences in a place called Love Canal. But the letter from the girl, he said – that was the one that started it all.

Reporters present at the event misquoted Vice President Gore by one word. Soon the story went viral, showing Gore’s habit of taking far too much credit had struck once again. “I was the one that started it all,” the reporters quoted him as saying.

Vowell argues that reporters and citizens alike are too prone to projecting the character and story we expect from each given candidate onto them, at the expense of paying properly close attention. Gore had a habit of taking credit for things – he said he invented the Internet, that he was the inspiration for the movie Love Story – so the exhausted reporters following the candidate on his campaign trail automatically assumed he was once again taking credit, this time for exposing the environmental contamination at Love Canal, New York and Toone, Tennessee.

One word.

Just one word misquoted in a story that is actually inspirational – a candidate spoke to an audience, answered a good question with a relevant anecdote, and the audience really listened. The misquotation turned it into a joke.

One word was inserted into the dispensation allowing Katherine and Henry to marry. Five hundred years later and we’re still debating what that “perhaps” means.