Every account of the English king Henry VIII’s life should start with the same basic question. How hot was Henry VIII?
That is a private joke that is only funny to me. Every biography you read about Henry VIII and his wives begins with a line like “It’s essential to begin our account of Henry VIII by questioning the impact of religion upon the average person in sixteenth-century England” or “We must begin our account of the life of Anne Boleyn by asking the question that has plagued scholars for centuries: what impact did Thomas More have on Henry’s divorce proceedings?” Beats me! I don’t know! I have no idea about the answer to either of these questions except what I read in Hilary Mantel’s prizewinning novels. If quizzed, I will answer, “No one can say for sure.”
I am, however, able to answer my own question—the first question posed in this chapter—and the answer is: smoking.
No, I swear, Henry VIII was definitely hot.
I think anyone who did not watch the TV series The Tudors forgets that Henry VIII was really gorgeous. They think he was a jowly, gout-ridden man wearing a large fur hat, which is the impression that everyone gets from one painting and numerous Renaissance fairs. That impression is exceedingly off base.
In 1519 the Venetian ambassador Sebastian Giustinian described Henry: “Nature could not have done more for him. He is much handsomer than any sovereign in Christendom; a great deal handsomer than the King of France, very fair and his whole frame admirably proportioned.”
Would Sebastian Giustinian lie to you? Who knows? But let’s believe he would not, because everyone else from the Tudor period seems to agree that Henry was pretty much the most gorgeous man anyone had ever seen or was ever going to see. Thomas More claimed that “among a thousand noble companions, the king stands out the tallest, and his strength fits his majestic body. There is fiery power in his eyes, beauty in his face.” He stood six foot two, which is still an impressive height now, and his beard was supposed to appear golden.
If brains matter to you even a little bit, he was also one of the most intellectually accomplished princes in Europe. The theologian Erasmus claimed he was brilliant, with “a lively mentality which reached for the stars, and he was able beyond measure to bring to perfection whichever task he undertook.” He spoke French, Latin, and Spanish and was a keen musician: he owned five bagpipes, seventy-six recorders, ten trombones, and seventy-eight flutes (which frankly seems excessive). He supposedly (although maybe not) composed the folk songs “Greensleeves” and “Helas Madame.” He was an excellent hunter; he particularly enjoyed pursuing deer and wild boar on horseback, and, according to Giustinian, “never [took] his diversion without tiring eight or ten horses.” He was also a skilled tennis player and a jouster. He was an accomplished theologian who wrote the “Declaration of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther,” for which he was called “Defender of the Faith,” and he heard three to five masses a day. He aided the constitutional development of England by decreasing the power of nobles. During his reign, the English navy grew from five ships to fifty, which is why he was also called “the Father of the English Navy.”
If any of this sounds too intellectual, he was also apparently fun to gamble with.
Frankly, if a crazy person ever came up to you on the street, held a gun to your head, and demanded you answer the question “What was Henry VIII good at?” you could probably just pick anything. You could say he was an accomplished botanist. There are probably some historical documents to indicate that fact that we haven’t yet uncovered. He was good at everything.
Now back to how attractive Henry was, because the thing he was best at was being hot. (If you had lived in the sixteenth century, you would have spent days when you were not worrying about the plague having a huge crush on Henry.) Giustinian again: “His majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes upon: above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful that it would become a pretty woman.”
You know who was sadly not considered a pretty woman? Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry married Catherine, the widow of his brother, for political reasons in 1509, when he was eighteen and she was twenty-three. That may seem like a normal age gap; however, the French king remarked that Henry “has an old deformed wife, while he himself is young and handsome.”
Who knows how that opinion was formed because every single picture of women from this period looks the same. Seemingly every woman had a tiny mouth, no eyelashes, and a receding hairline. (That hairline wasn’t necessarily due to hair loss, because women plucked back their hairlines and eyelashes. Beauty rituals of the sixteenth century are another story for another excellent book.) To visualize the people in this story properly, you could try playing a game where you imagine them as the actors in The Tudors, but that’s not a good plan because on The Tudors even the allegedly deformed people look the way you or I would appear on the best day of our lives with a team of hair and makeup professionals standing by. So it’s best if you cast everyone in the story of Henry VIII as someone you know. Just make Catherine someone unattractive whom you don’t like very much. That is exactly what Catherine of Aragon looked like. You are very good at imagining historical characters.
Catherine also, critically, had not been able to give Henry a son, which was necessary if the Tudor dynasty was going to continue. As early as 1514 rumors were swirling that Henry was going to divorce Catherine because the three sons she bore him died very shortly after being born.
Five hundred years later, Anne Boleyn still looks like a pretty lady with excellent taste in lipstick.
Frankly, the fact that they eventually broke up is not surprising. Pretty much everyone who needs a dynasty breaks up with women who don’t bear sons. Napoleon divorced Josephine, with whom he was wildly in love—so in love that their relationship is remembered as one of the greatest love stories of our time—to marry a younger woman who could bear him sons. Since Henry was not, as far as we can tell, deeply or even a little in love with Catherine, it’s really only surprising that they didn’t break up sooner. When Henry met Anne Boleyn in 1525, it had been seven years since Catherine’s last pregnancy. Henry had certainly not been faithful during that period—Anne’s sister Mary was one of his mistresses—but given that Catherine was nearing age forty, his mind had likely turned more seriously to the possibility of divorce.
And Anne was spectacular. The year of her birth is disputed, but she is thought to have been in her early twenties, at least ten years younger than Henry when they met. She was known to be very attractive and sophisticated. She had been educated at the French court. This was considered, as it is today, extremely sexy. The bishop of Riez, Lancelot de Carle, wrote, “You would have never taken her for an English woman from her manner and behavior, but a native-born French lady.”
She was an excellent dancer. And she could also play the lute, which may have appealed to Henry’s musical nature. (I do not know how many lutes Henry owned, but I’m going to guess seven.) And judging from everything you read, she was very, very funny. Or if your idea of funny implies that she made excellent fart jokes, then she was witty. We’ll say she had a dry wit. But her greatest appeal might have lain in the fact that Anne Boleyn was, unlike nearly every single other woman from the period, very disinclined to become Henry’s mistress. When Henry suggested that she become his only mistress, which was the most serious commitment he could make without leaving his wife, Anne replied, “Your wife I cannot be, both in respect of mine own unworthiness, and also because you have a queen already. Your mistress I will not be.”
Being a mistress in the sixteenth century didn’t technically imply the same “home-wrecking hussy” stuff that it does today. The ideals of courtly love suggested that a man could take a mistress—a woman whom he idolized above all others at court. He would send her poems and small gifts, and she might give him a handkerchief or a hair ribbon to wear at jousts. It sounds really lovely, but Henry was not interested in that chaste arrangement, we assume. Maybe nobody actually thought that was what being a mistress entailed (with the possible exception of Eleanor of Aquitaine and probably not even her?). Maybe that was just a polite system set up to allow for extramarital affairs. And Anne was a bright enough lady to know that Henry was probably not asking for a hair ribbon.
Perhaps Anne was just politely rejecting Henry’s advances because she was genuinely uninterested. Some scholars have argued that Anne was really a victim of Henry’s sexual harassment, and that she truly wasn’t into him. However, if her initial rejection carried with it the demand that Henry could have her only if he married her and made her queen, then, wow, did she ever pick the right time to issue that ultimatum.
So you may wonder: How did Henry woo Anne Boleyn? Tell me more! Here is a letter Henry VIII sent to Anne in 1533:
Myne awne Sweetheart, this shall be to advertise you of the great ellingness that I find here since your departing, for I ensure you, me thinketh the Tyme longer since your departing now last than I was wont to do a whole Fortnight; I think your Kindness and my Fervence of Love causeth it, for otherwise I wolde not thought it possible, that for so little a while it should have grieved me, but now that I am comeing toward you, me thinketh my Pains by half released, and also I am right well comforted, insomuch that my Book maketh substantially for my Matter, in writing where of I have spent above IIII Hours this Day, which caused me now to write the shorter Letter to you at this Tyme, because some Payne in my Head, wishing myself (specially an Evening) in my Sweethearts Armes whose pritty Duckys I trust shortly to kysse [my emphasis]. Writen with the Hand of him that was, is, and shall be yours by his will,
1. Duckys is sixteenth-century slang for breasts, and it took me forever to figure that out. I spent a solid two hours Googling “kind of birds sixteenth-century women kept as pets? Ducks, maybe? Did people kiss ducks then, was that a thing?” But it’s a great term; I use it all the time.
2. Letters from people during this era are just awful to read. I’ll say this for ancient Romans: their letters are straightforward and concise and easy to read. Punctuation was seemingly something that the barbarians just took possession of during the Dark Ages, and it doesn’t make a fully triumphant return in England until well into the seventeenth century. (Shakespeare is largely credited with finding a treasure trove of commas and semicolons in a cave near Germany in 1602.)
I guess Anne liked these letters more than I, because she and Henry did, after some time, become lovers. But securing a divorce from Catherine proved difficult, especially because Henry had the title “Defender of the Faith.” That would be the Catholic faith, a religion that does not believe in divorce. However, he ultimately annulled his marriage to Catherine, claiming that she had previously been wed to his brother, and quoting a passage of the Bible that said that a couple would not have children if a man married his brother’s wife.
If you were a Catholic during the period (welcome to the twenty-first century, time traveler! Admire our wealth of semicolons!) or Thomas More in particular, Henry’s divorce from Catherine was probably the ultimate bad breakup in this story. Everyone else is going to find what happened next to be worse, though. Despite the pope’s strong objections, Anne and Henry married on January 25, 1533, and in September she gave birth to Elizabeth. On the one hand, this was great news! It meant Anne was fertile; she could bear children! And also, the baby grew up to be Queen Elizabeth, one of the greatest monarchs in English history.
On the other hand, the infant was a girl, so everyone was miserable.
The couple hoped more children would follow. They did not. Instead, there were three miscarriages.
This was probably Henry’s fault—some scholars speculate that he might have had syphilis, which could have led to his wives’ many miscarriages—though at the time miscarrying was always blamed on the woman and possibly taken as a sign that she was a witch.
Following his divorce from Catherine, and the religious and political repercussions that followed, Henry was not in a rush to divorce another wife. However, Anne possessed a very different personality than Catherine. While Catherine’s motto had been humble and loyal, Anne’s was the most happy. And she would not stand for unhappiness. While Catherine had looked the other way throughout Henry’s liaisons with other women, Anne raged. This was especially inconvenient given that, as early as 1536, rumors were circulating that Henry planned to remarry, this time to Jane Seymour.
You may be thinking, Great! I hope Anne gets angry! Things work out great when women refuse to tolerate poor treatment by their husbands and get really ballsy and just decide to Take Over the Country! Did Anne, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, decide to do that? Whoa, hold up there, reader, you are getting ahead of yourself. Eleanor of Aquitaine had approximately seven million times more power and political influence than Anne, and five more sons. Also, Henry II was a better person than Henry VIII, who would, presumably, not have taken such a rebellion so well. Anne did not stage a coup.
So rather than divorcing the increasingly unfriendly Anne, Henry accused her of bewitching him and engaging in adulterous affairs. Now, it’s possible that Anne did have lovers. Some believe that she was in a complicated relationship with the poet Thomas Wyatt based on his poem “Whoso List to Hunt,” in which Anne Boleyn is compared to a wild deer who has deserted her former master and now belongs to Caesar:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas! I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means, my wearied mind
Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain;
And graven in diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild to hold, though I seem tame.”
I do not believe they were lovers based on this poem. If the poet Charles Bukowski proved anything, it is that poems can definitely just be drunken lies and speculation. I do believe they were lovers because before Henry and Anne married, Thomas Wyatt told Henry:
Sir, I am credibly informed that your grace intendeth to take to your wife the Lady Anne Boleyn, wherein I Beseech your grace to be well advised what you do, for she is not meet to be coupled with your grace. Her conversation [way of life] hath been so loose and base; which thing I know not so much by hearsay as by my own experience as one that have had my carnal pleasure with her.
Wyatt very clearly and in no uncertain terms says he’s slept with Anne. However, that does not mean that Anne was unfaithful when she was married to Henry.
It is also probably not true that she was guilty of witchcraft. Witches aren’t real (at least not in the non-Wiccan-hippie-Devil-harlot way Henry VIII meant). None of this, however, made any difference when it came time to imprison Anne. She was tried for a host of crimes—including plotting to poison Catherine and praying for the king’s death. And she was found guilty, despite supposedly remaining exquisitely calm in the courtroom, and sentenced to death.
At this point Anne went about handling her breakup better than anybody else in history ever has or ever will again. She apparently replied to the verdict with perfect composure. Lancelot de Carle wrote that Anne stepped forward and addressed the court: “I do not say that I have always borne towards the king the humility which I owed him, considering his kindness and the great honor he showed me and the great respect he always paid me; I admit, too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him . . . But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong.”
Henry granted her request that she be executed by beheading with a sword, not an ax. People often remember this as some sort of chivalrous gesture. I remember my mom taking me to the Tower of London when I was ten and telling me that Henry believed Anne Boleyn was too beautiful to be beheaded by an ax. Wow, he must have still loved her, I thought at the time. Even though she was a witch.
I no longer think that. I now think beheading people is bad regardless of the instrument employed.
Immediately after agreeing that Anne would be beheaded with a sword, Henry declared Elizabeth, their daughter, a bastard. All things considered, I think Anne probably would have traded the sword for not having their daughter declared illegitimate. But if she was furious—and she had every right to be (because Henry was the second worst, next to Norman Mailer)—she never showed it. The morning of her execution she even made little jokes. The constable of the Tower of London met with her, and wrote that
this morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency always to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, “Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.” I told her it should be no pain . . . And then she said, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”
And then, right before her execution, she stood up and told everyone that Henry was a very nice guy. Her last words were:
Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.
My God, think about the way we talk about our exes today. We go on and on about how they were evil, manipulative, sociopathic narcissists because they cheated on us one time. Meanwhile Anne Boleyn was able to speak well about her ex when her head was on the chopping block. What a superhuman amount of poise that must have required.
I’m not saying that composure is necessarily what everyone should strive toward. There’s probably something healthy about venting your frustrations with your ex to some friends, especially when you think they did behave badly toward you. Different people have different coping techniques. But I will say that Anne Boleyn is my personal breakup role model. Honestly, I’m such a jerk about breakups. Even when things have gone wrong for completely understandable reasons and it’s clear that we’re incompatible, after someone breaks up with me, on some level I still want to think that it is because they have fundamental personality defects that make them unlovable or unable to love. Your ex is, as likely as not, not really a narcissist or a sociopath or emotionally disturbed or any of the other accusations that you’ve come up with to make yourself feel better about the relationship being over. Those are often just things we tell ourselves because feeling angry is more satisfying than feeling sad.
That does not change the fact that you may not immediately feel like speaking in glowing terms about someone who just dumped you. And honestly, if any woman in the sixteenth century was capable of coming up with witty but mean-spirited cracks about her ex, it was almost certainly Anne Boleyn. The seeming sincerity of her speech is more startling given that she’d always been a very forward-thinking, clever, spirited woman. Obviously, most of us have never succeeded in being as polite about exes as Anne was immediately after her breakup, and none of them sentenced us to death for being a witch. (When I wrote that witches aren’t real, I was trying to throw you off the scent. I actually am a witch.)
I can’t resist interjecting a quote by Rudyard Kipling here. He wrote, “If you can keep your head about you while all others are losing theirs . . . then you’ll be a [really good person].” But that is a weird reference when talking about a beheaded person. Though Anne did make a joke right before her execution about how some rulers were remembered as the Great or the Terrible, and she would be remembered as “the Headless.” She was the best. She was absolutely the bee’s knees. I wish we could go out and have a Scotch with her right now because she would be a great friend for us. (She seems like a Scotch drinker, right? Or do you think she’d order fruity cocktails to make fun of how absurd they are? Discuss in a group.)
It’s really not surprising that people are more apt to remember her than Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, and the second to be beheaded. Maybe that’s because Catherine erred more on the side of behaving the way most of us do after a breakup.
Following Anne’s beheading, Henry did marry Jane Seymour. She died giving birth to his sickly son, Edward VI. Then Henry married Anne of Cleves—a marriage that was later annulled. Anne of Cleves, of all of Henry’s wives, may have gotten the best deal. Henry was supposedly unable to consummate the marriage and decreed that she would live on as his sister and be free to remarry.
And in 1540 he met the young Catherine Howard. She was Anne Boleyn’s cousin and bore a physical resemblance to her, which she cultivated. She dressed her ladies in the French fashion. However, she adopted the motto no other wish but his. She seemed more docile than her late cousin.
I honestly cannot imagine why she would emulate Anne Boleyn, because it’s not as though Henry was in a state of great mourning for that wife. He was married to Jane less than two weeks after Anne was beheaded. So maybe Henry just liked French dresses, and that was a style that worked well on young women.
It’s still a little baffling why Catherine Howard styled her whole look after Anne Boleyn because things did not work out well for Anne.
Catherine was unlike Anne in that she did not withhold sex as a stratagem. She had grown up in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who was known for taking in young, aristocratic charges and then letting them raise themselves. By the time Catherine was thirteen, she was sexually active with her music teacher, Henry Mannox. He claimed of Catherine, “I know her well enough . . . And she loves me and I love her, and she hath said to me that I shall have her maidenhead, though it be painful to her, and not doubting but I will be good to her hereafter.”
Whether or not he actually took her virginity is still in dispute. A little later, she was very probably raped by Francis Dereham. In 1541 she contended: “Frauncez Derame [sic] by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose and obteyned first to lye uppon my bedde with his doblett and hose and after within the bedde fynally he lay with me nakyd and used me in suche sort as a many dothe his wife many and sondry tymez but how often I know not.” (Sixteenth-century letters are the worst. You read these, and you could swear they were just making up words.) Dereham then began referring to Catherine as his wife, which by the standards of the time might have signified they were precontracted to marry, which meant that though the finer details of their engagement had not been worked out, she could not marry another. Basically it was like having a boyfriend. But, in this case, one who raped you and whom you did not want to date.
But the main point here is that by the time Catherine was a teenager she was already sexually experienced. That was sad for two reasons. First, because she was raped as a fourteen-year-old. Second, because it would ultimately cause her to be beheaded.
You see, Henry believed that Catherine was a virgin. The queen of England was supposed to be a virgin to ensure that any sons were indeed Henry’s. Anne almost certainly was not a virgin, but Henry had been alerted to that fact before the marriage and just chose to believe that Thomas Wyatt was lying, or decided he really didn’t care. Maybe he felt that since Anne resisted him for so long she’d resisted other suitors. Catherine, on the other hand, did not resist him and was supposedly great in bed. And Henry seemingly attributed her sexual skills to the fact that . . . she loved him? They were in love? And that made her know how to do all the sex stuff?
I think you can find a partner who is absolutely untouched, or you can find a partner who has bedroom skills, but you can’t have both. You pick. (I would 100 percent choose the sex-stuff option, but I am not a sixteenth-century ruler of England.)
In any case, the marriage started out extremely well. The French ambassador, Charles de Marillac, wrote, “The King is so amorous of her that he cannot treat her well enough and caresses her more than he did the others.” He lavished gifts upon her—the number of jewels he gave her must have gone into the hundreds.
And Catherine responded pretty much the way any teenager would act when a much, much older man who was no longer hot and weighed three hundred pounds dotes on them.
She found a younger lover. Sorry! Sorry, old guy readers.
It’s not that loving and happy relationships between much younger women and much older men don’t exist. They do. It’s simply that Catherine sleeping with a man closer in age to her teenage years was not entirely surprising.
She chose a lover whom she’d probably slept with before she met Henry. Thomas Culpeper was a gentleman in Henry’s privy chamber, which meant he was a high-ranking man at court, and very close to Henry himself. He was young and attractive, and many women in court doted on him as they might once have doted on Henry. He and Catherine supposedly had a tempestuous relationship before she married Henry, with a lot of speculation about whether or not they might get engaged. If you’re interested, Thomas Culpeper was also a rapist (there’s a lot of rape in this part). There’s a story the religious activist Richard Hilles tells in Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation that states:
Culpeper had violated the wife of a certain park-keeper in a woody thicket, while, horrid to relate! three or four of his most profligate attendants were holding her at his bidding. For this act of wickedness he was, notwithstanding, pardoned by the King, after he had been delivered into custody by the villagers on account of his crime, and likewise a murder which he had committed in his resistance to them, when they first endeavored to apprehend him.
It makes me proud and excited that people in this historical era were able to see that rape was different from consensual sex and that it was “horrid.” Civilization is on the march! Being not horrible is becoming a thing, already, even in a world without grammar.
This news either didn’t make its way to Catherine or didn’t bother her. She and Thomas began exchanging gifts, which, again, was not completely uncommon given that courtly love was thought to be acceptable. As long as she did not actually sleep with them, it was assumed the queen might have admirers. However, she also started writing Thomas letters. Consider this one, which is preserved in her own handwriting:
Master Culpeper, I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you were sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you, praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. The which doth comfort me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die, to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. Yet my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you then that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here, for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man, which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him, for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you. One thing I pray you, to give me a horse for my man, for I have much ado to get one, and therefore I pray send me one by him, and in so doing I am as I said afore; and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again, and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you,
Yours as long as life endures,
At this point, I’m just putting up letters from this period so you have to suffer through them with me. Basically, she’s sad he is sick, and she wants a horse, and she loves him and wants to be with him forever and always. Catherine has the concerns of a teenager, most likely because she is a teenager. On second thought, that is not a fair comment. Eternal love and a horse are the things everyone wants, in any age, at any age. Most people just hide their desires better in their letters.
Catherine was incapable of hiding any emotion she ever had. Anne of Cleves once noted that “she was too much a child to deny herself any sweet thing she wanted.” Which is fine, but do not put anything in writing. The fact that she was composing love letters at all, while married to a man who had famously killed her cousin for being an adulterous witch, strikes me as a kind of stupidity akin to women in horror movies walking into abandoned factories all by themselves. Of course he’s going to kill you, Catherine! You are definitely going to die! Why did she have no friends to point this out to her?
Unsurprisingly, Catherine’s infidelity came to light.
The court tried to let her off the hook by stating that if she had been precontracted to Francis Dereham, her marriage to Henry was not binding and Henry could annul the arrangement. She would likely have been exiled, and her reputation would be ruined, but she would not have been dead. She could have retired to a nunnery or gone overseas.
Anne Boleyn would have taken this deal in about one hot minute. She would have moved to France and made a lot of jokes and been fine. Catherine, whether because of some sort of deeply felt allegiance to honesty or because she stupidly thought she could win Henry back, continued to claim that Francis Dereham had raped her and that they were not precontracted.
I think Catherine was very truthful. I believe she had integrity or at least enough conviction to know that one fact—that she had definitely been raped—was accurate. Those are admirable qualities. Still, this was one of the dumbest moves in history. Ancient Romans were terrified of exile, and that makes sense because it often meant life in a wildly inhospitable no-man’s-land, but things weren’t that bad by the sixteenth century. Anne Boleyn, before she was executed, supposedly prayed that Henry might let her retire to a nunnery rather than lopping off her head. And considering that she was the cause of the rise of the Church of England, Anne would probably not have done well at a nunnery.
I think Catherine somehow could not conceive of the fact that she might actually die. She would, though. She didn’t pull off her execution with Anne Boleyn’s aplomb. There was a second where it seemed as if she might. She had the chopping block sent to her cell so she could practice placing her head on it in the most dignified fashion, but I think Catherine just thought this was an elaborate kind of playacting, and that afterward she would walk offstage and resume her life as a pampered, sex-kitteny queen. Unlike Anne, who went boldly to the block, when Catherine approached she was, according to Marillac, “so weak that she could hardly speak.” On the scaffolding, she is said to have said that she was justly condemned and “required that people take example [from her] for amendment of their ungodly lives and gladly to obey the king in all things.”
People often say that the ending—this likely historically accurate ending—was in keeping with the mores of the period and similar to Anne Boleyn’s. I don’t think it was. Saying that someone should obey the king is not quite the same as saying that Henry was a good or just king.
My favorite part of Catherine’s story is the folklore relating to her beheading. I like to believe this story, though it is very likely apocryphal. It’s rumored that her last words were “I die a queen, but I would rather die the wife of Thomas Culpeper!” Yes. Most of us would also rather be the wife of a known rapist/killer than a guy who was actively in the process of beheading us, though neither option sounds great to a twenty-first-century onlooker. But more than that, yes, if it is true, it was probably the first truly modern response to a breakup.
It’s always important to point out—as Julian Barnes does in England, England—that the past wasn’t just a giant costume party. People did not behave the same in the Middle Ages as they do today, no matter how trendy movie directors try to make that life seem. (Sixteenth-century aristocrats swore all the time and listened to the Sex Pistols! No, they did not. They mostly listened to the Ramones and some Blondie.) Concerns were fundamentally different than they are today. No one said their main life goal was “to be happy” or find “work-life balance.” Instead, simply surviving was a very real, daily concern for many people. Then there were the questions of how to live honorably and how to get into heaven when you died.
Anne died in a way that was absolutely in keeping with the values of her time. Her concern on the scaffold was not sharing her feelings; it was being remembered in an honorable light and preserving the monarchy in the country. And I admire those values. Even today we can understand that avoiding talking terribly about a not-so-great ex is taking a higher road than shouting insults about how you wish you’d never met that person. And when an ex was obviously terrible, as everyone knew Henry was, it just makes you look really composed and forgiving and great.
But we may relate more to Catherine. We live in a time that admires being truthful and sharing your feelings. There’s a premium placed on emotional honesty—think about all the people you have heard derided for being “fake.” The premium we place on being “real” may be a youthful luxury that we indulge in before we start thinking about our legacies. The fact that Catherine possibly went to her death ranting reminds us of her youth. I sympathize with her. Didn’t she respond to her breakup the way most of us did when we were teenagers? I mean, hopefully very few of us had breakups that ended in beheadings, but still.
If you want to see the two breakups as a sort of Thunderdome between Anne and Catherine and say, “Who broke up better?” well, that sounds like a fun game and one I would like to play with you at our costume drama movie nights. You know I’d be Team Anne. You know who else was Team Anne Boleyn? Thomas Wyatt, who once advised Henry not to marry her. He wrote about Anne’s death in his poem “Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt Me Inimici Mei”:
These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.
Anne had the good fortune to have slept with a really talented poet in her younger years. That, coupled with her quick-witted and supposedly seductive ways, and, of course, the dramatic nature of her death, means that Anne is remembered fondly. She has been depicted by actresses from Merle Oberon to Geneviève Bujold to Charlotte Rampling to Natalie Portman to Natalie Dormer. (There seems to be a contractual obligation for the most beautiful actresses of the day to appear in at least one adaptation of the life of Anne Boleyn.) You’ll find plenty of people who will take Anne Boleyn’s side.
I imagine the Catherine Howard camp is smaller, although she was portrayed by the actresses Emily Blunt—who depicts her screaming as she is about to be executed—and Binnie Barnes, and, bizarrely, comes up in one episode of The Simpsons.
But whether you think that you should repress your feelings and maybe just drink martinis quietly, or whether you think people should hear the truth about what’s going on with you, whether you respond to being dumped by taking the high road or taking a slightly lower path, there are going to be people who understand.
And you know whose side no one ever, ever takes? Henry’s.
All of this wife killing did not work out well for him. According to Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador to England, Henry mourned Catherine’s passing more than that of any of his other wives. Though Chapuys didn’t necessarily think that was because he loved Catherine more. He wrote:
I should say that this King’s case resembles very much that of the woman who cried more bitterly at the loss of her tenth husband than she had cried on the deaths of the other nine put together, though all of them had been equally worthy people and good husbands to her. The reason [is] that she had never buried one of them without being sure of the next. But after the tenth husband, she had no other one in view: hence her sorrow and her lamentation.
In the years between Anne and Catherine, Henry had gone from being a good-looking, middle-aged man to the bloated, drumstick-gnawing monster you remember from royal portraits. And he still could have been a superstar if he’d just not started killing his wives. The breakups killed his reputation.
Normally the takeaway from these stories is “Your breakup will not define your life. In the story of you, this will not be the central narrative.” However, Henry VIII beheaded not one but two wives. So maybe the takeaway should be “Your breakup will not define your life. In the story of you, this will not be the central narrative unless you murder not one but two spouses, in which case it totally will; then it will be the central narrative for sure.”
I can’t help feeling pleased that while Anne and Catherine might have lost their heads, they’re both remembered well. They’re played by lovely, America’s Sweetheart–type actresses, whereas Henry VIII is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers with an increasingly crazy glint in his eyes. If people today are asked about Henry VIII, the one thing they will say is “the guy who killed his wives?” Henry is the only one in this story who we have decided isn’t getting into heaven, regardless of what Anne Boleyn might have said. Which is sad, because, you know, he was probably a really good botanist.
Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Wright