Girls' schools are a notorious channel for transmitting salacious tales of sexual excess. The story that the Tsarina Catherine the Great died while attempting to copulate with a stallion has come down to us through two centuries of schoolgirl gossip. It is not true, of course; she died on the toilet. The fake news was set in motion by a disgruntled Pole whose entire country she had wiped off the map. Catholic girls' schools have encouraged the view that Henry VIII, husband of six wives, while in thrall to sexual lust, converted his unfortunate country to heresy and schism. Holbein's portrait perhaps encourages that view. Here we see Henry, six foot two, eyes of blue, legs astride, arms akimbo, codpiece resplendent, glaring regally down at the viewer. But is that the true picture?
Henry managed to sire, as far as we know, four children:
By Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Queen Mary (1516-1558)
By Elizabeth Blount (illegitimate), the Duke of Richmond (1519-1536)
By Anne Boleyn (?1501-1536), Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603)
By Jane Seymour (?1509-1537), King Edward VI (1537-1553).
That was hardly the output of a superstud. Charles II (not Henry's descendant) sired 13 bastard children and was known as “The Merry Monarch”. His Catholic brother, briefly James VII and II, was less ostentatious and less jolly, but sired 26 children, two from a shotgun marriage. But those were feeble efforts compared with August der Stark (Augustus the Strong) (1670-1733), “weak in bath but strong in bed”, King of Saxony and Poland, who begat more than 300 children. He was proud of this, his only achievement, and had the whole brood painted in the style of a school photograph. Henry, given that the nobility would be pressing their daughters on him, and that young women of the lower classes might hope at the very least for a decent pension and social advancement, is starting to appear unusually abstemious and, perhaps, in need of medical investigation.
Henry was a second son. His elder brother, Arthur (1486-1502), was married to Catherine of Aragon in 1501, when he was 15 and she 16. The reason for the marriage was to secure the North Sea trade. That has always been the prime consideration of English and British foreign policy until 2016, when insanity set in.
(Quos di delere volunt, prius dementant.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.)
Catherine's parents were Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, who jointly defeated the Emir of Granada, Boabdil, and set about persecuting the Moslems and the Jews, as well as equipping Columbus to challenge the Portuguese in the Americas. They also ruled what was then called Burgundy, which meant the Belgium and Netherlands of our own time. Arthur died in 1502. The first thing that Henry did when he came to the throne in 1509 was to marry his brother's widow, who was 24 years old to Henry's 18. The Papacy demanded a great deal of gold to sanction this marriage, quoting Leviticus xviii 16: “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife: it is thy brother's nakedness”. This text was reinforced by Leviticus xx 21: “And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless”. Of course any modern reader of the Bible would understand that the prohibition relates to the living brother's wife; anything more guaranteed to upset family relationships and tribal loyalties cannot be imagined.
It took the happy couple nearly seven years to have a baby. Nowadays they would have been directed to the fertility clinic. This again does not suggest that Henry was a superstud. It must not be supposed that Catherine was a poor oppressed little woman. She was a queen of Europe's proudest royal stock. When Henry invaded France at the Pope's request, having been bribed with two hundred parmesan cheeses, she was left to mind the kingdom. So when James IV of Scotland, in accordance with the Auld Alliance, invaded England, it was Catherine who appointed Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, as the English army commander and it was Catherine who organised the logistics. As a result the Scots were utterly crushed at Flodden (1513). After the birth of princess Mary, she went on to have a number of abortions and miscarriages. This makes me wonder whether she was rhesus negative.
It is a folk tradition in Spain that if a Spanish man marries a Basque woman, God will not look kindly on their attempts to raise a family. The reason is, as we now know, is that the Basques have a high percentage of rhesus negative people in their population. This has been suggested as an explanation for the long isolation and survival of the Basque nation and language. [My own wife was rhesus negative. She just happened to work for the research team that produced the Anti-D Serum that prevents the ill-effects of rhesus incompatibility, and she was the third woman in the entire world to be injected with it. So our being able to raise a family was due to astonishing good fortune.] Henry became persuaded that his marriage lacked divine approval on account of the Leviticus texts quoted above. But I wonder, alternatively, whether Catherine had told her husband about the Basques. She was, after all, Catherine of Aragon, and her chances of being rhesus negative were far higher than those of the rest of Europe's population.
Henry does not seem to have been a good scholar. He spent his spare time hunting and jousting, to demonstrate his toughness. If he had had better Latin, he might have found Deuteronomy xv 5,6: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.” This injunction is known as the “Levirate”. If he had read as far as Deuteronomy, he would have found that he did precisely the right thing in marrying Catherine. One supposes that his clerical courtiers directed him to those texts that would worry him. Anyway, Catherine was not producing live babies, she was getting older, she was probably depressed and ill, and Henry still had no male heir to secure the dynasty, which, let's face it, was only in existence because his father usurped the kingdom in 1485.
An unexplained historical mystery is this: why did Henry suppose the Pope might grant him a divorce? Bandying biblical texts will not answer this question. The problem was entirely political. Catherine's nephew, who was King of Spain and a lot of Europe besides, as well as Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V), had invaded Italy in 1527. His German troops were mainly drawn from newly Protestant areas, and they went on a rampage of rape and pillage in Rome. In consequence the Pope (Clement VII) found himself the Emperor's prisoner. So how he could have been expected to accede to Charles's aunt's divorce and degradation is hard to understand. Presumably Henry thought it was simply a matter of greasing the right palms, as his marriage had been.
Henry did sire one son outside wedlock. He was Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. He was born in 1519 to Elizabeth Blount. Clearly his names and title suggest that his father was contemplating grooming him for the succession. The boy was made Lieutenant of Ireland at the age of ten, then married to Mary Howard, daughter of the the Third Duke of Norfolk. Unfortunately he was a sickly child and he died in 1536, a crucial year for the King.
Henry dallied with Mary Boleyn*, who seems to have been cheerfully complaisant, but he developed an obsession with her sister Anne, who played hard to get. The Boleyns were cousins of the Howards. That was probably the cause of Anne's downfall, for the King's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, made enemies of the Howard family. Anne and Cromwell originally combined to promote religious reform, especially in declaring that Henry was head of the Church in England. Thus he declared himself divorced and married Anne. But she gave birth to Princess Elizabeth, not a son, in 1533, followed by a stillborn son in 1536. Anne was probably collateral damage in Cromwell's pursuit of those who had encompassed the destruction of his beloved master Cardinal Wolsey in 1530. At any rate, he bullied and tortured confessions to some very unlikely crimes, and the Duke of Norfolk presided over the court that sentenced Anne to death. Presumably keeping in with Henry prevailed over justice or family loyalty. Hilary Mantel, in her wonderful novels Wolf Hall and Bring out the Bodies, interprets these goings on as a Jacobean revenge tragedy, which, as a novelist, she has the right to do.
Just two days after Anne's execution Henry married Jane Seymour, who bore him the much longed-for son in 1537, but died in the process.
“Queen Jane lay in labour, for nine days or more” - folk song.
Around this time Henry, who in his youth liked to be called “Bluff King Hal” and wished to be seen as everybody's friend, had a jousting accident that very nearly killed him. It is thought that he suffered brain damage, for he exhibited paranoid symptons thereafter. It is also possible that Deuteronomy xxiii 1 applied: “He that hath been wounded in the stones, or that hath had his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord”. And Henry could have read that, since Cromwell had had the Bible in English installed in every parish church, supposedly as the gift of His Majesty.
Now we come to the Anne of Cleves story. This has not been well explained in the history books. What we are told is that Henry rode all the way to Dover to greet his new bride, found her to be ugly and smelly (Queen Elizabeth, we are told, had a bath once a year whether she needed it or not. Perhaps Anne was not so fastidious.) and called her “The Flanders Mare”. He annulled the marriage on the grounds of non-consummation and pensioned her off. However, as in most marriages of contemporary digitaries, there was a political component. Anne's elder sister was the wife of the very same Elector of Saxony who protected Luther and made the Protestant Reformation possible. Her father, the Duke of Kleve (a small duchy that lay on the German side of the present Netherlands border), had inflated ambitions and sought to play a leading role in the religious revolution. The Protestant powers in Germany formed the League of Schmalkalde to resist the Catholic Emperor, and the Duke liked to consider himself at the head of it. Thomas Cromwell sought to ally England with the Continental reform movement by marrying his King to the Duke's younger daughter. That is the point of the Cleves marriage.
So Cromwell dispatched Holbein to Kleve to paint a flattering portrait of Anne that would suitably impress the King. Holbein seems to have hedged his bets, for the portrait suggests a young woman of little beauty and less intelligence. In answer to all this Protestant stirring, France and Spain joined forces, an unheard-of thing, and Spanish troops marched into Kleve and deposed the Duke. The new allies also blockaded the North Sea ports. Now much of Henry's revenue was derived from customs duties levied on trade with the Continent. So Henry was hit in the Exchequer, where it hurt most. Cromwell's enemies blamed him for the disaster, and persuaded Henry to cut his head off. Anne lived out the rest of her life in peace and what in those days counted as luxury; she died in 1557 in Mary's reign. Spain and France quickly resumed their habitual hostility.
Now that the Howards were again in the ascendant, they capitalised on their good fortune by finding a pretty young Howard, namely Catherine, to be Henry's fifth wife. The year was 1540 and she was 19, that is, thirty years younger than her royal husband. Catherine did not see why marriage should involve “forsaking all other” and continued seeing her boyfriend Thomas Culpeper. The late Thomas Cromwell's friends grassed her up, and Henry took condign revenge. Catherine's men friends, real or supposed, were put to death hideously, and she got her head cut off as was now traditional. Her last words were: “I had rather die Culpeper's whore than live as wife to the King of England”. That was in 1542.
The next year Henry married a widow woman called Catherine Parr. Really, she was his nurse. She looked after Henry well, and was especially kind to his two daughters. Henry died in 1547, and Catherine promptly married a fourth husband, only to die in childbirth the following year. She is the only person in this whole narrative who seems to have been a genuinely likeable human being.
Henry's matrimonial tribulations were the cause of great amusement abroad. His almost exact contemporary, François I of France, made it his business to keep himself informed of Henry's humiliations. Even worse, for Henry, a great deal of his pomp and swagger and ostentatious extravagance had been put on to impress François. As soon as he heard of Henry's death, François himself died – from laughing.
What morals can we draw from this rather unedifying narrative? Some might draw the rather obvious conclusion that religion should not be allowed to influence one's personal conduct. Clearly, also, interpretations of history approved by the Holy Catholic Church are to be invariably mistrusted. But perhaps the most practical moral is that men who feel it necessary to demonstrate to the world how tough they are may very well be lacking “in the trouser department”. Have you been listening, you girls at the back there?
* In accordance with the orthography of those days, the name was pronounced “Bullen”.
Note: Biblical quotations are taken from the Authorised Version, otherwise known as the King James Bible. It seems that English-speaking atheists feel a special anxiety to defend this historic text.
CORRECTIONS AND ADDITIONS
The Duke of Cleves mentioned was the brother, not the father, of Anne.
We shall never know when, or indeed if, Henry discovered how the Church had ripped him off at the time of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It would have taken a brave man (or woman) to tell him. Perhaps some of the steps he took against the Church of Rome were an attempt to get his money back.
The film Carry On Henry is explicitly stated to be, as history, “all cobblers”. But its depiction of the venality of church officers seems reasonably accurate.