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During the 1500?s, European countries often wielded marriage alliances as an important weapon in the battle against political insecurity and mounting church corruption. Attempting to solidify peace between two countries, the monarchs would marry off their princesses creating dizzying family trees and the dehumanization of innocent girls. One of the pawns in this international game was Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, the King of Spain. It was arranged with King Henry VII of England that Catherine was to be married to his son Prince Arthur. Catherine was loaded onto a ship and carted to England where she met her husband, the fifteen-year-old Prince. When Arthur died prematurely five months later, Catherine was agreed to be married to Henry?s second son, who rose to the throne as Henry VIII. Little did Catherine know that this decision would lead to a life of torment for her and her friends.
In his book Catherine of Aragon and Her Friends, John E. Paul recounts the story of Catherine and those who stood beside her after she was disowned and banished by the King of England. This book shows how the papal corruption and the rise of Catherine?s nephew, Charles V, created a unique environment in Europe for some major changes. This period ushered in many reformations including the English reformation initiated by Henry VIII. The political reforms that Henry incurred stemmed from a religious controversy, that being his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After their first child, a daughter Mary, Henry and Catherine were unable to have any other children that lived past infancy. Determined to have a male heir, Henry began a struggle against the courts to divorce Catherine on the grounds that the marriage was incestuous since she had been married to his older brother. A long battle ensued in the court room and the population of England found themselves picking sides.
In a dramatic and unexpected courtroom scene, Catherine threw herself on the floor before the King and pleaded for him to testify to the truth and preserve the marriage. The trial was suspended just before the verdict and Henry took the matter into his own hands in the local court under Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer?s court found Henry?s marriage to Catherine to be sinful and verified his new marriage to Anne Boleyn. Catherine was deported to several different private dwellings for the rest of her life eventually dying at the Kimbolton Castle with only a handful of personal attendants.
The purpose of Paul?s book is not to detail a biography of Catherine?s life or of Henry VIII?s monarchy. Rather, Paul is trying to show how Henry?s emphatic denunciation of his first marriage affected the lives of so many others who were associated with the Queen. After his divorce, Henry passed the Supremacy Act which stated that anybody challenging the supremacy of his throne was guilty of treason. This charge included anyone who stood by Catherine in believing that their marriage was valid.
Even some people who sided with the King during the dispute were later disowned for treason including his loyal friend Thomas Woolsey. The Nun of Kent, another strong supporter of Catherine?s cause, and four of her close associates were executed. Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, a bishop, also were executed for holding strong to the truth of Henry and Catherine?s marriage. Margaret Pole served Catherine faithfully during her brief marriage to Arthur and later was a second mother and governess to Mary, Catherine?s daughter. Margaret, too, was executed by a crude beheading in 1541, even after Catherine had years before passed away.
Henry VIII is portrayed by Paul as a good seed who became corrupted by his power. He speaks well of him as a young child but the references become more and more sadistic as the book continues. Paul?s picture of Henry is a greedy tyrant rather than a leader of English reformation. He demonstrates that the Supremacy Act and the break with Rome were based on Henry?s selfishness and immorality. Henry executed his second wife, Anne Boleyn, which may have been better treatment than the misery he bestowed on Catherine. The object of Paul?s book was to evoke pity suffered by Catherine and her friends at the hand of Henry VII.
Besides gathering factual knowledge about Catherine of Aragon, Paul?s book helped me understand the European scene as a whole during the Age of Reformation. Because of all the marriages between royal families, the entire hierarchical structure of Europe seemed to be a tangled family tree. Catherine herself was from Spain, Queen of England, and aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Many of the royalty spoke several languages fluently and were instructed in them from a very young age. It seems as if this Europe had a great awareness of foreign affairs that I do not see in America. Because the European countries are smaller and in closer proximity to each other their respective fates are more closely related and finding strong allies was obviously very important.
The other aspect of the book that I found very interesting was how far Henry VIII went to eliminate any dissension towards his divorce and how quickly could turn on Catherine. It was amazing to see how thorough Henry was in the discovery and decimation of any opposition to his throne. When the pope was subdued in Rome, Henry seized the moment to establish himself as supreme using the power of parliament. His deliberation in exiling Catherine and keeping her from her daughter Mary, even years after the situation was settled, bordered on insanity. Paul succeeded in his goal of making see Henry VIII as a sick power monger and Catherine of Aragon and her friends as victims in his game.
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