Saturday 30 July 2011

July 28th, 1540: Henry VIII's fifth marriage

Even by the improbable standards set by Henry VIII's court, Catherine Howard's ascent to the throne had been a remarkably swift one. The pretty teenager had only been at court for seven months when she became queen, easily supplanting Anne of Cleves, the dowdy German princess whom she had first been brought to London to serve. Younger, prettier and certainly sexier than Queen Anne, according to her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Catherine had instantly attracted the king's attentions, almost from the moment he first clapped eyes on her back in December. Throughout the time of his farcical arranged marriage to Anne of Cleves, the nubile Howard girl had hovered in the monarch's imagination and some form of relationship between the pair had almost certainly begun during the Easter of 1540, by which point Henry was already preparing to divorce his new wife and replace her with Catherine. 

Anne of Cleves's last public appearance as queen consort took place at the Mayday jousts, in an eerie echo of another Queen Anne's. After that she was moved away from the court to live at Richmond Palace, officially because of the risk of plague in the capital, but in reality to prevent her from knowing about her impending divorce until it was too late. Catherine, too, was moved away for propriety's sake, but she did not join her former employer at Richmond. Instead, her relatives hustled her back to her grandmother's riverside mansion at Lambeth, where the king took to visiting her under the cover of darkness.

On July 13th, Parliament officially confirmed that the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves was null and void on grounds of pre-contract and non-consummation. The twenty-four year-old German queen co-operated fully with the divorce proceedings, although there is some evidence from later in her life to suggest that she actually felt the humiliation keenly despite the smiles she displayed at the time. Her co-operation was richly rewarded by the king, who was in a mood to be expansively generous now he had gotten his own way with a minimum of fuss, and the ex-queen received an enormous annual income, numerous estates, Anne Boleyn's childhood home at Hever Castle and the splendid palace at Richmond, which had been the pride and joy of Henry's late father. She was also confirmed as a courtesy member of the English royal family, provided that she remained in the kingdom and did not re-marry. Henry, it seems, was possessive even of the people he did not want. Or perhaps he did not want her repeating the humiliating secrets of their marriage bed. Who knows?

Having rid their master of an unwanted queen, the two houses of Parliament then very conveniently went through the usual masquerade of begging him to marry again for the sake of the realm. They made themselves even more preemptively useful by anticipating who that next queen might be and removed the impediment of consanguinity, an essential pre-amble since Catherine Howard was the first cousin of Anne Boleyn, at least one and possibly two of Henry's former mistresses and also of the widow of his illegitimate son. By sixteenth century standards, it was certainly a tangled union.

With all legal impediments now removed, the forty-nine year-old king could proceed with his marriage to a girl who was almost young enough to be his granddaughter by contemporary standards. At the time of his fifth marriage, Henry VIII was grossly overweight, increasingly temperamental, secretive, paranoid and the ulcer on his leg that he had incurred during a riding accident in 1536 had never properly healed over. Physically, he could not be described as anything other than terrifying and, to the eyes of someone as young and looks-conscious as Catherine, quite possibly disgusting as well. Catherine, for her part, cannot have been much older than seventeen at the time she married him and was quite possibly as young as fifteen. The daughter of an impoverished younger son of the mighty Howard clan, she had spent her childhood at the whims of her father's financial mismanagement and then in the capricious and patchy care of her often-absent grandmother. Although she was not nearly as intellectually stupid as subsequent historians and novelists would claim, she lacked both common sense and any form of self-discipline. Although she was kind hearted and certainly moved by stories of suffering, she was also extravagant, prone to teenage temper tantrums and compulsively flirtatious. Most importantly from Henry's point of view, however, she was vivacious, fun-loving, sexually titillating and incredibly attractive.

This mismatched couple travelled with a relatively small entourage to the palace of Oatlands in Surrey, one of the many new residences Henry had acquired thanks to the Dissolution. There, they were married on July 28th by the ultra-conservative Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, someone whom her family certainly approved of. On the very same day, Henry's former chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was brutally beheaded on Tower Hill. Cromwell had been left weakened by his support for the Cleves marriage and Henry's latent suspicion and resentment against him was fired up to the point that Anne's downfall had triggered Cromwell's, too. He had been arrested on charges of high treason and heresy, then sentenced to death without possibility of trial by Act of Attainder, which Cromwell himself had used with liberal abandon during his own days of success. The king ignored the grovelling letter Cromwell sent from prison, begging for mercy and a last-minute pardon. 

Indifferent to the death of the man he had mistrusted, disliked but simultaneously relied upon for so long, Henry only had eyes for his new wife and he was in such a state of sexual anticipation that he had difficulty in keeping his hands off her before they reached their bridal chamber. Once inside, the six foot and two inches tall, grossly overweight monarch, consummated his marriage to a petite teenager in a magnificent bed crafted from pearls and imported from France and the sixteen-month countdown to the tragedy of Catherine Howard began.


  1. Very good read. Love history about the Tudors.

  2. Hi Gareth. I enjoy reading your articles and wonder if you would be kind enough to help me out. I'm looking for the source for Katherine Howard sending clothing to Margaret Pole in the Tower - for some reason I apppear to have deleted it and cannot remember where I got it from.

    Would be very grateful if you can set me on the right path.


    Marilyn Roberts.


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