Catherine of Aragon
I don’t know what to tell you, frankly. You were married to Henry for twenty-four years, which apparently wasn’t enough time for you to learn his personality, which was easily irritated and soothed. Are you allergic to noticing which way the wind is blowing? Because that’s the only explanation I can think of for your self-destructive behavior. Henry was a simple man: he wanted literally everyone to love him without reserve or criticism, and he believed God created him to rule England and have sons. That’s it. That’s all you had to get about him. Half the time someone in his court was scheduled for execution, if they managed to get an in-person audience with him, he’d call the whole thing off and reduce their sentence to exile. Give the man what he wants! You’re not in Spain! You have no bargaining chips to speak of and the only thing your queenly pride got you was a drafty castle near I want to say Coventry and an early, lonely death. He loved you, probably, for a while. That’s as good as it gets, with Henry. Take what you can and get out.
When the king of England, who has been trying to divorce you for two years and out of love with you for seven, offers you the chance to say, “My lord! I see now what a mistake I have made, and that I have never truly been your lawful wife. I see it all now! I must have consummated my marriage with Arthur and forgotten, and consider you my dear brother, and will never bother you again,” you say it with a smile on your face. The man believed that your marriage was cursed! There’s no coming back from that. Cut your losses! You could have ended up like Anne of Cleves, rich as the devil and seeing the King every Christmas, when he’d shower you with jewels for being so accommodating. I guess you stuck to your guns, but what did it get you? A handful of servants who were willing to call you the Queen, a hair shirt, and nothing. Plus whenever they make movies about Queen Elizabeth they always make up the actress who plays your daughter Mary to look like a nightmare.
You’re my greatest disappointment. You had perhaps the most bargaining chips of any one of Henry’s queens this side of Jane Seymour, and you didn’t do a damn thing with them.
Annie! ANNIE. What is there to say to you, one of the greats? You came so close, my love. You were an incredible mistress. Superlative. You introduced oral sex to England, probably. And it’s not your fault that Henry’s jousting accident happened on your watch and (probably) destroyed his brain. Plus, you know…Elizabeth. Elizabeth! Without Good Queen Bess, what would Cate Blanchett have done in 1998? Joseph Fiennes’ career would be right out. I honestly don’t know what you could have done differently, except have had a son. Everyone likes to give you a hard time for fighting with Henry and reading Tyndale, but let’s be honest: no one would be talking about your “forceful personality” if you’d just had a son. Henry would have forgiven you everything. (Which, I know everyone wants to blame Henry for nowadays, the no sons thing, but look at Bessie Blount!)
I don’t think you could have done anything differently, except for be a completely different kind of person. It took an iron-willed bitch with a sixth sense for knowing just the right moment to show the king her boobs and when to emphasize her virginal purity to win him; it would have taken a meek and docile simperer to keep those “incestuous witch” rumors from sticking. Your vicious Protestantism, your violence against your rivals, your glorious mean-spiritedness – that’s what made Henry fall in love with you! I can’t tell you to become a wholly different woman after your wedding. Sure, I can say, conduct yourself as the Queen of England in such a fashion that you are unreproachable. I can say that it doesn’t matter whether you cheated on Henry (you probably didn’t, unlike the idiotic Catherine Howard), what matters is that people saw you as the kind of woman who would. But it’s awfully difficult to change horses mid-stream.
You gambled, and you lost. You still played your hand as well as you could.
You were smart. You got in, got what you needed, and got out. I’m inclined to dislike you right off and dismiss you as a docile simpleton, but I have to give you credit. Your queenly motto was Bound to obey and serve, an obvious dig at your predecessor. Smart. And you, perhaps wisely, died right after delivering Henry of a son. The son happened to be mostly useless, but Henry never lived long enough to realize it. Maybe the whole “not having a personality” was more of a deliberate calculation for surviving in the Tudor court, rather than a flaw. You actually might have been great, Jane Seymour. I’m sorry you died of puerperal fever. Maybe you were a secret genius.
Anne of Cleves
Catherine of Aragon, are you listening to this? Anne of Cleves not only accepted Henry’s dismissal with gracious good humor, she happily conceded his claims that she smelled bad, had saggy tits, and didn’t ‘look like a virgin,’ whatever that means. That is oceans worse than being asked to say you were the King’s rightful sister! And she did it with a smile on her beautiful German face.
That’s right, friends: Anne of Cleves was an attractive woman. The one downside to her total capitulation is that hundreds of years later, we’ve all fallen for the lie that Henry never slept with her because she wasn’t as babely as her portrait suggested, when what actually happened is that he, like an actual teenaged idiot, snuck into her room in disguise when she got to Dover, days before they were supposed to actually meet, and tried to flirt with her as just Some Fucking Guy, because he thought true lovers should recognize each other, and was absolutely CRUSHED when she rejected him, because OF COURSE SHE DID, because as far as she knew some weird mustachioed gentleman was trying to put the moves on her right before her WEDDING to the KING OF ENGLAND.
But no one ever got anywhere by upsetting Henry VIII. Anne sees this. Anne knows this. And do you know what Anne gets in return for letting Henry get what he wants? Richmond Palace. On the Thames. Ever heard of it? Houses in Kent and Sussex. Good counties, not those out-of-the-way marshes Catherine got. Blechingley. Penhurst. She got real estate. Her official position at Henry’s court was “The King’s Beloved Sister.” She was officially, legally ranked as the third most important woman in the country, behind Henry’s current wife and whichever daughter he felt like recognizing at the time. She outlived every other wife and Henry himself. You know how good Anne of Cleves was at surviving? Her brother-in-law was known as the “Champion of the Reformation” and she still converted to Catholicism when Mary took the throne, just to be safe. Anne was the only woman who ever truly understood Henry, I think. You don’t argue with Henry. You don’t try to hold your own, unless you’re reckless and named Anne of Boleyn, or maybe occasionally Catherine Parr. You don’t say no to what he offers you, no matter how much less it is than what you think you deserve. Marrying Henry is like marrying an entire improv troupe: you say “Yes, and” whenever it’s your turn to speak and you get the hell offstage when your part is finished.
Anne of Cleves, I have no advice to give you. I ask only that you teach me how to live.
I don’t know how to instruct you. Was it fair that by the time you got Henry, he was gouty and irritable and about thirty years older than you? Absolutely not.
But you were sixteen when Anne Boleyn died. You know the drill, or should have. You know what happens to queens who don’t produce sons and irritate the King. I’m grading you on a curve because you were only twenty when you got married and honestly, I would have cheated like hell on Henry in your position too.
I just can’t understand why you didn’t take your out when Henry offered you one! All you had to do was (probably) lie about your pre-contract with Francis Dereham and submit to humiliation and exile! WHICH IS NOT THAT BAD. Had you forgotten George Boleyn? Henry Norris? Thomas Cromwell? Henry Courtenay? People who don’t accept exile and humiliation when Henry is done with them get killed. You got the short end of the stick, sure, but then you constructed a gallows out of it.
The shortest of shrift, that’s what comes from being the last of six wives. It’s not your fault, Catherine! It’s not your fault. You were the first English queen to write a book! You acted as regent during Henry’s last, awful French campaign! You convinced Henry that your Protestant leanings were just something you made up to distract him from the pain of his leg injury! You outlived him! It’s not your fault that competent statecraft is less entertaining than incest witches and unfaithful teen brides and fights with the Pope. Shine on, you stable diamond.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.