Could Catherine of Aragon have saved her daughter from illegitimacy?


Unlike my teenage self, I’m not too quick to defend Henry VIII.  I used to – perhaps somewhat precociously – try and convince my history teacher that his savage treatment of his wives could be justified by his fear of a ‘war of the roses relapse.’  While I don’t discount this argument entirely, I no longer believe it provides the late king with a blank cheque of justification.

So when it comes to his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, I tend to side with the wronged woman.  As I’ve blogged recently, I believe her when she says she entered her marriage to Henry a virgin, the crux of his case to obtain a divorce.

Catherine went to her grave maintaining that she remained both Henry’s true wife and the Queen of England.   This has often been deemed to be a sure sign of her grit, determination and noble perseverance.  I believe it was all of those things.  But it was also a radical display of pride.

I doubt there’s anything Catherine could have done to save herself, but the question I’m really interested in is – could she have cast her pride aside in the interest of saving her only child?

Let’s recap for a minute.  Henry and Catherine had just one child who survived infancy, the Princess Mary.  Mary, every inch her mother’s daughter, swung firmly behind Catherine and, perhaps in part because of her defiance, was declared illegitimate and unable to inherit once Henry had split from Rome and obtained his divorce.

Mary was robbed of her royal status, separated from Catherine and eventually made to serve her infant sister Elizabeth.  She was alienated and demeaned.

The trauma caused the teenager to develop health problems that lasted the rest of her life.

Catherine would ‘commend Mary’ to Henry with her dying breath, but could she actually have done more to protect her?

Let me explain.

There was probably no circumstance in which Henry would rest until he was rid of his first wife, but the humbling of Mary did not have to automatically follow.  When couples had their marriages annulled, it was possible that the children of the union could retain their legitimacy if it was deemed that their parents had married in ‘good faith.’  This wasn’t just a theoretical exemption; in 1527, Henry VIII’s sister Margaret had divorced the Earl of Angus  and their daughter, the English-resident Lady Margaret Douglas, experienced no change in status.  It was a scenario fresh on the Tudor consciousness.

Of course, I cannot prove that Henry would have been prepared to give any ground and it’s certainly conceivable that Anne Boleyn would not have been able to tolerate Mary remaining in the line of succession.   But when the King wanted rid of wife number 4 (Anne of Cleves), he showed he was prepared to give her a good deal so long as he ultimately got what he wanted.

Could Catherine not have sensed which way the wind was blowing and entered negotiations?  Perhaps she could have looked past her own pride and made her daughter’s legitimacy a condition of her ‘going quietly.’  Mary would still have been displaced in the succession by the birth of children to Anne, but she would have been spared the stain of bastardy and able to maintain her status as a Princess.  She would not have been publicly disgraced.

None of this changes that fact that I still believe Catherine was the injured party and Henry was fundamentally to blame for the cruel treatment of Mary.  But Catherine is not free from guilt.  A parent’s job, both in Tudor times as it is now, is to forsake their own happiness in order to do everything possible for their child.  Catherine’s high pride blinded her from her maternal duties and Mary would live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

Okay geeks…what do you think?  Have I been way to harsh on Catherine?  Have I over-estimated Henry’s capacity to compromise?  Would Mary have ever been satisfied with this deal?  I want to know what YOU think!

2 thoughts on “Could Catherine of Aragon have saved her daughter from illegitimacy?

  1. I absolutely agree! Catherine was so sure she was in the right on the matter of the marriage that she could not see her own faults. I have often thought she crossed the line from righteous to self-righteous at Mary’s expense. And Mary followed that example all too well as her own reign shows.

    1. Yes, you don’t need to be an expert in developmental psychology to see how it affected all the horrible things that happened in Mary’s reign!

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