Catherine of Aragon: The King's Great Matter

The First Divorce of Henry VIII

Eugene Deveria painting of Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey among others
Henry VIII's divorce, Cardinal Wolsey with Catherine of Aragon, 1533, by Eugene Deveria (1805-1865). DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Continued from: Catherine of Aragon: Marriage to Henry VIII

The End of a Marriage

With England allied against Catherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles V, and with Henry VIII desperate for a legitimate male heir, the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, once a supportive and, it seemed, loving relationship, unraveled.

Henry had begun his flirtation with Anne Boleyn sometime in 1526 or 1527. Anne's sister, Mary Boleyn, had been Henry's mistress, and Anne had been a lady-in-waiting to Henry's sister, Mary, when she was Queen of France, and later a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon herself. Anne resisted Henry's pursuit, refusing to become his mistress. Henry, after all, wanted a legitimate male heir.

Always Invalid?

By 1527, Henry was citing Biblical verses Leviticus 18:1-9 and Leviticus 20:21, interpreting these to mean that his marriage to his brother's widow explained his lack of a male heir by Catherine.

That was the year, 1527, when Charles V's army sacked Rome and took Pope Clement VII prisoner. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor as well as king of Spain, was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon -- his mother was Catherine's sister, Joanna (known as Juana the Mad).

Henry VIII saw this as an opportunity to go to the bishops who could use the Pope's "incapacity" to themselves rule that Henry's marriage to Catherine had not been valid. In May of 1527, with the Pope still a prisoner of the Emperor, Cardinal Wolsey held a trial to examine whether the marriage was valid. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to support Henry's position.

In June of 1527, Henry asked Catherine for a formal separation, offering her an opportunity to retire to a nunnary. Catherine did not accept Henry's suggestion that she retire quietly so that he could remarry, on the grounds that she remained the true queen. Catherine asked her nephew Charles V to intervene and to try to influence the pope to refuse any request of Henry's to annul the marriage.

Appeals to the Pope

Henry sent an appeal with his secretary to Pope Clement VII in 1528, asking for his marriage to Catherine to be annulled. (This is often referred to as a divorce, but technically, Henry was asking for an annulment, a finding that his first marriage had not been a true marriage.) The request was amended quickly to also ask that the Pope permit Henry to marry "within the first degree of affinity" though not a brother's widow, and permit Henry to marry someone previously contracted to marry if the marriage was never consummated. These circumstances fit the situation with Anne Boleyn completely. He had previously had a relationship with Anne's sister, Mary.

Henry continued to muster scholarly and expert opinions to refine and extend his arguments. Catherine's argument against Henry's was simple: she simply affirmed that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, which would make the whole argument about consanguinity moot.

Campeggi's Trial

The Pope was no longer a prisoner of the Emperor, Catherine's nephew, in 1529, but he was still largely under the control of Charles. He sent his legate, Campeggi, to England to try to find some alternate solution. Campeggi convened a court in May of 1529 to hear the case. Both Catherine and Henry appeared and spoke. That Catherine knelt before Henry and appealed to him is likely an accurate depiction of that event.

But after that, Catherine stopped cooperating with Henry's legal actions. She left the court hearings and refused to return another day when ordered to do so. Campeggi's court adjourned without a verdict. It did not reconvene.

Catherine had continued to live at court, though Henry was often with Anne Boleyn. She even continued to make Henry's shirts, which enraged Anne Boleyn. Henry and Catherine fought publicly.

The End of Wolsey

Henry VIII had trusted his chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to handle what was called "the King's Great Matter." When Wolsey's work did not result in the action Henry expected, Henry dismissed Cardinal Wolsey from his position as chancellor. Henry replaced him with a lawyer, Thomas More, rather than a clergyman. Wolsey, charged with treason, died the next year before he could be tried.

Henry continued to marshal arguments for his divorce. In 1530, an treatise by a scholarly priest, Thomas Cranmer, that defended Henry's annulment, came to Henry's attention. Cranmer advised that Henry rely on the opinions of scholars in European universities rather than on the Pope. Henry increasingly relied on Cranmer's counsel.

The Pope, instead of responding positively to Henry's plea for a divorce, issued an order forbidding Henry from marrying until Rome came to a final decision on the divorce. The Pope also ordered secular and religious authorities in England to stay out of the matter.

So, in 1531, Henry held a clerical court that declared Henry the "Supreme Head" of the Church of England. This effectively overrode the Pope's authority to make decisions, not only about the marriage itself, but about those in the English church who cooperated with Henry's pursuit of the divorce.

Catherine Sent Away

On July 11, 1531, Henry sent Catherine to live in relative isolation in Ludlow, and she was cut off from all contact with their daughter, Mary. She never saw Henry or Mary in person again.

In 1532, Henry obtained the support of Francis I, the French king, for his actions, and secretly married Anne Boleyn. Whether she became pregnant before or after that ceremony is not certain, but she was definitely pregnant before the second wedding ceremony on January 25, 1533. Catherine's household was moved several times to different locations on Henry's orders, and such close friends as her long-time companion (from before Catherine's marriage to Henry) Maria de Salinas were forbidden contact with Mary.

Another Trial

A new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, then convened a clerical court in May of 1533, and found Henry's marriage to Catherine null. Catherine refused to appear at the hearing. Catherine's title of Dowager Princess of Wales was restored -- as Arthur's widow -- but she refused to accept that title. Henry reduced her household further, and she was moved again.

On May 28, 1533, he declared Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn to be valid. Anne Boleyn was crowned as Queen on June 1, 1533, and on September 7, gave birth to a daughter they named Elizabeth, after both her grandmothers.

Catherine's Supporters

Catherine had much support, including Henry's sister, Mary, married to Henry's friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. She was also more popular with the general public than was Anne, seen as a usurper and interloper. Women seemed especially likely to support Catherine. The visionary Elizabeth Barton, called "the nun of Kent," was charged with treason for her outspoken opposition. Sir Thomas Elyot remained an advocate, but managed to avoid Henry's wrath. And she still had the support of her nephew, with his influence over the Pope.

Act of Supremacy and Act of Succession

When the Pope finally pronounced Henry and Catherine's marriage valid, on March 23, 1534, it was too late to influence any of Henry's actions. Also that month, Parliament passed an Act of Succession (legally described as being 1533, since the calendar year then changed at the end of March). Catherine was sent in May to Kimbolten Castle, with a much-reduced household. Even the Spanish ambassador was not permitted access to speak with her.

In November, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, recognizing the ruler of England as the supreme head of the Church of England. Parliament also passed an Act Respecting the Oath to the Succession, requiring of all English subjects an oath to support the Act of Succession. Catherine refused to swear any such oath, which would acknowledge Henry's position as head of the church, her own daughter as illegitimate and Anne's children as Henry's heirs.

More and Fisher

Thomas More, also unwilling to take an oath to support the Act of Succession, and having opposed Henry's marriage to Anne, was charged with treason, imprisoned, and executed. Bishop Fisher, an early and consistent opponent of the divorce and supporter of Catherine's marriage, was also imprisoned for refusing to recognize Henry as head of the church. While in prison, the new Pope, Paul III, made Fisher a cardinal, and Henry hurried Fisher's trial for treason. More and Fisher were both beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1886 and canonized in 1935.

Catherine's Last Years

In 1534 and 1535, when Catherine heard that her daughter Mary was ill, each time she asked to be able to see her and nurse her, but Henry refused to allow that. Catherine did get word out to her supporters to urge the Pope to excommunicate Henry.

When, in December 1535, Catherine's friend Maria de Salinas heard that Catherine was ill, she asked permission to see Catherine. Refused, she forced herself into Catherine's presence anyway. Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, was also allowed to see her. He left on January 4. On the night of January 6, Catherine dictated letters to be sent to Mary and to Henry, and she died on January 7, in the arms of her friend Maria. Henry and Anne were said to celebrate upon hearing of Catherine's death.

After Catherine's Death

When Catherine's body was examined after her death, a black growth was found on her heart. The physician of the time pronounced the cause "poisoning" which her supporters seized on as more reason to oppose Anne Boleyn. But most modern experts looking at the record would suggest that a more likely cause was cancer.

Catherine was buried as the Dowager Princess of Wales at Peterborough Abbey on January 29, 1536. Emblems used were of Wales and Spain, not of England.

Centuries later, Queen Mary, married to George V, had Catherine's gravesite improved and marked with the title "Katharine Queen of England."

Only when Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, did Henry invalidate his second marriage to Anne Boleyn and reaffirm the validity of his marriage to Catherine, restoring their daughter Mary to the succession after any later male heirs he might have.

Next: Catherine of Aragon Bibliography

About Catherine of Aragon: Catherine of Aragon Facts | Early Life and First Marriage | Marriage to Henry VIII | The King's Great Matter | Catherine of Aragon Books | Mary I | Anne Boleyn | Women in the Tudor Dynasty

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Catherine of Aragon: The King's Great Matter." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Catherine of Aragon: The King's Great Matter. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Catherine of Aragon: The King's Great Matter." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).