Henry VIII and his ‘cursed’ marriage

Pope Francis has said that one should not 'jealously guard' his or her life (CNS)

Anne Boleyn’s coronation song, with its optimistic lyrics about her future childbearing capabilities, was performed again by schoolchildren as part of the procession during the Lord Mayor’s Show in the City of London. Only weeks before the song was first sung Henry VIII had made the final break with Rome, frustrated that the Pope would not dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

Henry believed his first marriage had broken a biblical rule against marrying your brother’s wife, and that it had therefore been cursed. But Katherine insisted that her marriage to his brother Arthur had never been consummated, and was never, therefore valid. The revival of the Anne Boleyn song, prompts the old question, was Katherine telling the truth, or did she lie in a desperate attempt to save her marriage?

According to Katherine, the long days of entertainments following her wedding to the fifteen year old Arthur on November 14 1501, and his subsequent sickness meant the couple spent no more than seven nights in the same bed and they had never had sex before his death in April 1502. When Henry began seeking an annulment from Katherine, he produced witnesses who claimed that Arthur had, in fact, spoken after his wedding night about having spent the night “in the midst of Spain”. It may be that, since men valued virginity, Katherine was pretending that she had kept hers. It is also quite possible, however, that, despite these claims, Katherine was telling the truth.

The aged Louis XII of France made several extravagant claims about his passionate wedding night with Henry VIII’s teenage sister, Mary Tudor. But Louis’s heir, Francis, claimed he had information that the sickly old man was incapable of having children. Louis’s boasts were probably wide of the mark – and if Arthur ever said the words attributed to him, the same may have been true of him. Any number of diseases can cause impotence or lower the libido, including tuberculosis, which is often cited as the illness to which Arthur succumbed. TB is a slow killer that induces fatigue, and the genitourinary tract is the most common site, after the lungs, for infection. This is turn can spread to the testes, as it may have done in Arthur’s case.

And there is another possible explanation worth considering, which adds a psychological dimension to Arthur’s failure to have sexual intercourse with his wife: The teenager may have been uncertain what constituted the consummation of a marriage, or been so anxious to do so in a manner that was not considered sinful, that it impacted on his ability to maintain an erection.

These were earthy times, but it was also an era of powerful religious belief. Arthur’s father, Henry VII, had always been concerned to demonstrate his personal chastity and to maintain high standards of sexual propriety at Court. This was to distance his reign from the immorality associated with Edward IV’s later years, which Richard III had used as a tool in his usurpation of Edward V (claiming Edward IV’s children were bastards).Equally, Henry VII had been keen to promote national admiration for his saintly, but less than virile, Lancastrian half-uncle, Henry VI.

A biography of the ‘saint’ published in 1500, claimed that when in bed with his Queen, Henry VI had never “used her unseemly … but with all conjugal honesty and gravity”, and that he was distressed at the sight of nudity. It had taken Henry VI eight years to conceive a child. Was Arthur overcome by anxiety to have sex with his wife also with “honesty and gravity”?

Conceiving children was of vital importance to the succession, but it would not be surprising if there had been a prim atmosphere around Arthur. His father saw him as the future King of a new Camelot – and in Thomas Malory’s The Death of Arthur sexual immorality had lead to the destruction of Camelot and, ultimately, to Arthur’s death. The desire of Arthur’s servants to please Henry VII with their chastity may have left Arthur’s sexual education incomplete, and the boy confused.

Unsurprisingly, Henry VII was angered by Katherine’s claims, which not only cast aspersions on his son’s manhood, but also may have taken as a criticism of the way Arthur was raised. When he sought the papal dispensation permitting Katherine’s marriage to young Henry (who as her brother-in-law was within the forbidden degrees of kinship) it tactfully observed that the marriage to Arthur at least “may” have been consummated.

But for Henry VIII his wedding night proved to him Katherine was indeed a virgin – or so he believed at the time. He later claimed, when he wanted a divorce, that his own sexual inexperience and ignorance – despite being almost three years older than Arthur – had not made him the most competent of judges. The fact his marriage was cursed, he then added, was demonstrated by the fact Katherine had produced no sons.

On the day of Anne Bolyen’s coronation Henry was convinced she was pregnant with a son and he would be vindicated in all his actions. Instead, as we all know, she was to bear a daughter in the future Queen Elizabeth. Her coronation song was forgotten – until now, and here is a verse, with Anne represented by her badge of the white Falcon:

In chastity
Excelleth she
Most like a virgin bright
And worthy is
To live in bliss
Always the falcon bright

Three years after she was crowned Anne lost her head, executed for conspiring the death of the king with several lovers, who included her own brother.