Saturday, 11 June 2011

Anne Boleyn versus Catholicism: Round Two?

“In a strange twist of fate – in what could be viewed as a true Old Testament display of God’s wrath upon those who break his commandments – three weeks after Katharine died – Anne Boleyn delivered a stillborn son. Some believe Katharine was slowly poisoned at the distant instructions of Anne – some believe it was cancer – perhaps it was both.”
- From the position paper (written in 2009) arguing that Katherine of Aragon should be a saint in the Roman Catholic religion, "Katharine of Aragon: Forgotten Among The Blessed – Why is Her Name Omitted from the List of English Martyrs."

I love how some people think putting the word "perhaps" in a sentence means they can opine nonsense and get away with it.

Well, it really was only a matter of time before this kind of stuff reared its ugly head again under the umbrella of the recent Internet campaign to turn Katherine of Aragon into a saint.

So far, I have held back on giving my own thoughts on Katherine's proposed sainthood. To be quite honest, my faith in the Vatican and the current Pontiff is strong enough to believe that he and it will resist the attempt to make sentimentality the guiding light of spirituality. That Katherine of Aragon is still popular and that she was heroic is, to my mind, unsurprising. But heroism and tragedy does not make a saint - if it did, someone needs to fetch a halo for poor Marie-Antoinette. She too was devout, courageous and tragic and unlike Katherine, however, we don't have any recorded incidents of Marie-Antoinette indulging in acts like attempting to truss up the body of the slaughtered King of Scots as a grim trophy of war for absent hubby. Not exactly something you could imagine Bernadette Soubirous doing, is it?

I have nothing "against" Katherine of Aragon. I find her utterly fascinating and having studied her life in depth, I have revised many of my own personal feelings about her, several times over. I probably will again. If a good and sincere Christian chooses to look at the same facts and decides that the guiding light of Katherine's life was piety, rather than politics and position, then I respect that view utterly. Maybe one day, if I did more research and uncovered facts about her I have previously missed, I would be able to agree with them? 

On a personal level, my major concern about this is that it has kicked the hornet's nest of festering hatred for Katherine's successor. A casual perusal of this blog will indicate that I have spent most of my thinking life studying Anne Boleyn and, through her, the wider context of early modern monarchy. The story of these men and women is magnificent and we are, finally, beginning to appreciate a nuanced truth about their era. Mercifully, the old image that medieval Catholicism was a ludicrous absurdity is finally being banished by the work of some fantastic historians and we can appreciate, for instance, that Anne Boleyn herself was what we today would probably recognise as a fairly conventional, and indeed devout, Catholic. A Roman Catholic? No. Certainly not. But then given that the Papacy in the sixteenth century was basically being played like a game of ping pong between the mad, bad and dangerous to know of the Italian peninsula, that's not exactly entirely to her discredit. The Pope who condemned Anne's marriage as "immoral" was himself the father of multiple bastards and the scion of a family with a moral track record that made the Corleones look like the Waltons. 

Claire Ridgway at The Anne Boleyn Files has been moved to eloquent fury by some of the hard-line Catholic reactions to Anne Boleyn which have been stirred up the proposed canonisation of Katherine of Aragon and by the above quote in particular. Which, as a woman and a Christian, I can understand her find particularly abhorrent. Are we just conveniently forgetting the six babies this fearsome Old Testament God apparently "killed" in Katherine's womb? What did she do? If two of Anne's deserved to die, surely, by an extension of such sublime logic, Katherine must be three times as bad? No? Does that sound stupid? That's because it is.

On some Catholic websites, Anne is still described as Henry's "immoral mistress," not his wife. One writes that she had "a hobby of burning saints." Leaving out the fact that the only people burned during Anne Boleyn's political career were those Protestants consigned to the flames by Saint Thomas More; one commentator revoltingly admitted to cheering at the scene in Anne of the Thousand Days when the character of Anne Boleyn is beheaded and another breezily declared, "I thought that the portrayal of Anne Boleyn was accurate in The Other Boleyn Girl because it shows the elements of how she was nothing but a whore and ruthless woman". Don't think we're dealing with a bibliophile or Ivy League graduate here, kids.

There's no point in engaging too much with opinions that are, quite simply, idiotic. Nothing I can say is going to convince these people I'm right. Facts are not something they find overly troubling. What riles me most, however, is not their demonisation of Anne Boleyn. After all, what difference is a little more going to make after five centuries? It's ironically the version of Catholicism that these people are conveying which makes me want to bang their heads together. They're basically shredding every last bit of historiographical work that's been done trying to restore a balance to Catholicism's place in British history. These ranting morons are once again giving anti-Catholics the opportunity to present the entire Catholic version of history as self-indulgent, blinkered, bitter, delusional, two-dimensional spite. You can be a devout Roman Catholic and write excellent, thought-provoking versions of history. Elena Maria Vidal, the novelist, Stephanie A. Mann, Leanda de Lisle and Professor Eamon Duffy are all practicing Roman Catholics and not one of them has ever penned a book which caters to this kind of low-end prejudice. In fact, quite the reverse. If you go on either Elena Maria Vidal or Stephanie Mann's blog, you will find articles that are sympathetic to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn; to Catholics, non-Catholics and sometimes even anti-Catholics. And yet, a pro-Catholic view of the past is resoundingly and often movingly, conveyed. And why? Because if you believe your cause is the right one, you shouldn't have to resort to name-calling, a manipulation of the facts or venom.

For a very long time, I considered saying nothing about the proposition to create "Blessed Katherine of Aragon." After everything she had gone through, I thought - "Well, I won't be cheering, but, why not?" But then I read Claire's article and it reminded me that, right out of the gate, the campaign to make Katherine of Aragon into a saint's seminal proposition paper decided to pontificate on Anne Boleyn's miscarriage and use it as evidence of Katherine's sanctity. And for that reason, and a plethora of others, it's time several voices were raised in opposition to this attempt to suck the empathy out of history and the seriousness out of Catholicism. This is the first and last time I will comment on the campaign publicly. To those who support it, I wish you luck. I just don't agree with you and I certainly don't agree with the reaction it's generating. 

Katherine of Aragon is not going to be made a saint. Or, at the very least, I hope she isn't. I don't think it's even going to get close to the Vatican. But, if she does, I hope people will understand that simply because Katherine of Aragon was a saint, it does not mean Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer should be seen as the devil. Katherine's story will continue to inspire and move people, as it should. It's the story of a tremendously brave woman who, unlike so many others, had the guts and the tenacity to stand up to the crushing misogyny of her period in which royal woman were often discarded at whim by husbands in search of something younger and more fertile. 

Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were remarkable women - strong, vivacious, clever, passionate, determined and yet flawed. They, and the religion they followed, deserve better than this.

"If you remember, I have spoken before about one website that is arguing for Catherine of Aragon to be made a saint or to be added to the list of English martyrs. Well, although I don’t believe that Catherine was a martyr, in that she did not die for her faith, I believe that she was an admirable woman who deserves recognition for the way that she stood up to Henry and fought for her marriage and her daughter’s rights; however, I hate the way that this site falls into the whole Team Catherine vs Team Anne, Saint vs Whore trap. When I read bits like “In a strange twist of fate – in what could be viewed as a true Old Testament display of God’s wrath upon those who break his commandments – three weeks after Katharine died – Anne Boleyn delivered a stillborn son. Some believe Katharine was slowly poisoned at the distant instructions of Anne – some believe it was cancer – perhaps it was both”, it makes me so angry. So, Anne’s miscarriage was a judgement from God?! Well, that’s not the God I believe in!
It’s like the emails I get from Catherine of Aragon “fans” who abuse me for running an Anne Boleyn website – ahem, I admire Catherine of Aragon too! – or the offensive comments I get on The Elizabeth Files accusing me of defending a murderess, or the people who think that you have to pick sides and then attack anyone and everyone who is on the other side – Anne Boleyn vs Catherine, Anne Boleyn vs Jane Seymour, Elizabeth I vs Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I vs Mary I, Catholicism vs Protestantism. It’s horrible! What really upsets me is that the hatred is expressed in forums which are Church forums, by people who should believe in peace, love and friendship, in unity."

For Claire Ridgway's full article, click here


  1. Thank you for the kind mention, Gareth. I understand the frustration of having studied a historical personage and then see people blithely dismiss them and put them in a box which ignores the complexity of the person. I think both Anne and Katherine are tragic; I think the entire family is tragic; I feel for them all. I happen to like Katherine best but I must say since reading your blog I have come to have a much different view of Anne than I once had.

    I don't know if Katherine will ever be canonized or not. St. Louis IX had people burned at the stake so I don't know if Katherine's treatment of the King of Scots would necessarily go against her in regard to a cause for beatification, taking into account the times, etc. It is rare for someone involved in a complicated political situation as was Katherine to be canonized but then anything might happen. (It took Joan of Arc and Thomas More hundreds of years to be canonized because of their involvement on politics.)

    But I am thinking right now about Anne. Would she mind if Katherine were canonized? Since she denied the papal supremacy I doubt that she would give a fig for anything the pope did. She wouldn't care, because it really has nothing to do with her. If Katherine is canonized it will be because it has been determined that she displayed the heroic virtues of faith, hope and charity when under extreme duress. Anne and Katherine were both mistreated by Henry. It was Henry's decision and within his power to mistreat Katherine and destroy the monasteries, and kill the Carthusians, etc. It is a reflection on Henry, not Anne. Katherine was faithful to the Church she believed in and if that Church someday wants to raise her to the honors of the altar then it can, but it's nothing against Anne.

  2. Elena Maria, thanks for such a fantastic comment. I agree that if Katherine was canonised, it should be nothing against Anne. And I absolutely agree with your assessment of Katherine's bravery and private devotion to her faith.

    Perhaps it's the high church protestant in me that can't help but smile at your description of Anne's reaction to the proposed canonisation of her predecessor!

    Thanks again for your comments. And in regards your thoughts on the tragedy of the royal family under Henry VIII, flip around 'Katherine' with 'Anne' and they're my thoughts exactly. I happen to like Anne more, but I can never understand why people seem to think it's a game of "pick one".

  3. A television series on Katherine's life from first marriage onwards would make fantastic viewing!

  4. It's a shame that there is this "either or" attitude to Katherine and Anne. There is no reason why we cannot objectively appreciate both women, as you say. Still, I can understand why people tend to oppose the two, since they *were* rivals and opponents, after all.

    I have been frustrated with a very strange attitude among those interested in the Belgian Royal Family- many people seem to think that admiring Queen Astrid, the first wife of King Leopold III, means that one has to detest Princess Lilian, his second wife. This makes even less sense than the Team Katherine/Team Anne rivalry, since Astrid and Lilian were never enemies, and Leopold was already a widower when he courted and married Lilian. It's the weirdest thing ever to act as if Lilian were somehow "the other woman"!

  5. Matterhorn, the Astrid/Lilian comparison is even stranger, you're right. I suppose it still boils down to a latent tendency to try and make women fit the old stereotypes - fairy godmother, wicked witch, perfect wife, whore, bimbo ... If Astrid was perfect then Lilian, by an extension of that attitude, becomes objectionable. Strange!

  6. I echo Elena Maria--thanks for the kind comment.

    I have to say on the other hand I have seen some incredibly ahistorical "protestant" websites that attempt to canonize Anne Boleyn--one even claims that Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More brought about her execution (nevermind that both were dead at the time!) [search for Saint Anne Boleyn, Queen in Heaven] And then the Joanna Denny biography of Anne that makes every Catholic out to be evil and twisted. It's clear that the prejudice cuts both ways and it is deplorably inhumane and unhistorical, in that order of offense.

    The Saint Anne Boleyn site even contains some laughable line about the ruins of the monasteries--something about "why are the ruins still standing? perhaps the Vatican wants to make mosques out of them?"* Of course, the trouble is that once someone hates someone else, it is very hard to reason with them and even be able to point little errors in logic and fact. *Like, the English Heritage commission keeps the monastery ruins up for visits and educational purposes, not the Vatican!

    Good work and God bless you!

  7. Stephanie is right about hatred. When people have hatred in their hearts they cannot be objective and they twist the evidence in bizarre ways. Hatred for Katherine or Anne deprives them of their humanity and the ability to see the truth of the entire situation.

  8. My love for Anne Boleyn began in Neosho, MO in 1970. I was in gradeschool, and we were visiting my grandparents, and I don't know why, but my mom insisted that I go to the old movie theatre that was in the town square and see Anne of the Thousand Days. Being a kid, it didn't sound interesting, but my mom insisted, probably to get me out of my grandparents small house and away from my four brothers/sister. I fell in love with Anne Bolyen the minute the movie started. I remember how sad and disturbed I was when she was executed and when we drove home, I sat and stared out the window for 3 1/2 THINKING about Anne. That's when my study of her began in earnest. I am a Catholic, and she is my favorite Queen of England even though some thought and maybe rightfully so, she was one of the instigators for religious reform, however, also as a Catholic, I don't harbor any feelings for C(K)atherine of Aragon other than I thought she was made mad with her devout fanatisim to her religion and the fact that she wasn't going to let Henry go. I don't think she should be canonized, because I think she was human, and used not so nice tactics to save her marriage and to protect Mary. I didn't think Saints exhibited bad behavior and hated people and prayed for God to strike them down somehow. I didn't even know C(K)atherine was even up for cannonization. I'm certainly not for it. She may of been devout, but she wasn't saintly. The one queen I detest is Jane Seymour. I have more pity for Catherine and Anne than any of the other queens. Poor Anne, I think,is a victim of Henry not wanting to go through 8 years of hell with her like he did with Catherine trying to get a divorce. Just opining. Thanks for the chance to give my two cents worth.
    P.S. I think Anne might be a little miffed if Catherine was cannonized, but what can she do about it, eh?


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