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Having seen Elizabeth Blount and her own sister discarded once the king’s interest faded, Anne wanted more. She wanted to become Henry’s wife and queen, not his mistress. Unfortunately, Katherine was in her way.

But this is where fortune’s wheel favored Anne, not the queen. For Henry now had scruples about the legality of his marriage, and it is far more likely that these scruples developed before he was bewitched by Anne than afterward. She merely crystallized them, focused them, and gave him an additional reason to exploit them.

A few years ago, while pursuing my MA in history, I had a professor who remarked that nearly every historical thesis can be boiled down to the same basic point: The situations under discussion were far more complicated than we previously thought.

Think about your own recent history. If you really consider each major occurrence or decision, how many of them can be explained easily and directed back to one single cause?

England’s split from papal jurisdiction in the early 16th century is undeniably inextricably linked to Henry’s doubts about the legality of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, but it is a vast understatement to say that it is all because of his lust for Anne Boleyn. To assert this is the only cause is to do a colossal disservice to all those involved, 500 years ago. So here are some of the other points that I think are important to consider. They are by no means all of the causes and influences, and I am of course giving very brief explanations, but hopefully it’ll get some of you thinking.

First, as Julia Fox points out in the passage quoted above, Henry’s doubts about his marriage begin before Anne Boleyn starts showing up in the court records in any significant way, if at all.

It is common practice but in my opinion unfair to dismiss Henry as a lazy, selfish hedonist who took credit for others’ writings and efforts. While certainly true to some extent – he was selfish, he hated the physical effort of writing himself, and he loved banquets and tournaments and pageants – consider today’s politicians. How many of them write their own speeches without any help from professional speechwriters? As far as I know, there’s not much evidence to say that Henry had no hand at all in documents like the pamphlet Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which won him the title of “Defender of the Faith” from a grateful pope.

David Starkey’s book about Henry before he came to the throne is an interesting read. The child exuded charisma from every pore, and he was apparently the epitome of the ideal Renaissance prince. He was well-educated, very intelligent, interested in matters of philosophy, theology, music, art, literature, history, and war. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was the king’s right-hand man for years, is reported to have warned other counselors to be careful “what matter ye put into his head, for ye shall never put it out again.”

He was genuinely interested in matters of theology. This really can’t be stressed enough. His scruples about his marriage to his brother’s widow are legitimate. Biblical verses give conflicting instructions on the question of marrying a deceased brother’s wife. Other royal marriages involving similar relationship networks bore children – why didn’t his? If the pope’s dispensation was issued in error, if the pope had no right to issue such a dispensation to evade canon law, then that gets into frightening questions of papal authority and infallibility.

It is easy to view Henry through the lens of 500 years of 20/20 hindsight. We know he married six women, two of whom died at his command. But when he was struggling with the Katherine question, nobody had any way of seeing the bloodbath and upheaval that was to come. We are too prone to seeing him as the bloated, violent, vindictive monster he became.

The second point I think it important to discuss further is some of the reasoning for Henry’s obsession with getting an undeniably legitimate male heir.

Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, 24 years after his father defeated the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, in battle at Bosworth Field. 1485 is given as the official end to the decades-long Wars of the Roses, the conflict between opposing royal claims from the houses of York and Lancaster (yes, the loose basis for Stark and Lannister in Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin didn’t exactly break a sweat on that one). It’s basically nearly a century of civil war, royal restorations/usurpations (depending on who you asked), fear, and turmoil. The reign of Henry VII, troubled though it was by the occasional pretender to the throne claiming to be one of the lost “Princes in the Tower,” was one of the longest periods of relative stability in generations.

Henry VIII was terrified of leaving his country without a solid, uncontestable heir to the Tudor dynasty because to do so would be to throw the country back into the Wars of the Roses.

To his mind, a solid, uncontestable heir meant a male heir, and this is an issue that also takes a little thought on our part. We know, because we know how the last 500 years went, that three of England’s longest-reigning, most-solidly-on-their-thrones monarchs were women. Elizabeth I reigned for 45 years. Victoria reigned for 64 years. Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952 and is still going. And yes, the monarchy today is a far cry from what it was in the 16th century, but still. We know a woman can inherit the crown and rule without letting the country dissolve into civil war.

Henry VIII didn’t. The last (and only) time that England had the prospect of a queen regnant was Matilda, in the middle of the 12th century. Her attempt to succeed her father, Henry I, resulted in some twenty years of civil war as her forces clashed with those of her cousin Stephen, who was crowned upon Henry’s death in 1135. In the sixteenth century, England believed that a woman inheriting the crown was equivalent to civil war.

And thus the quest for a legitimate male heir whose right to succeed could not possibly be challenged.

Next Up: The Story of Land and Sea: A Novel, by Katy Simpson Smith