Thank you to Amanda Glover for writing this guest article for us on the question of whether Catherine of Aragon's marriage to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, was consummated.
More than 500 years ago two teenagers married. Only four and a half months later the boy sadly died. Since then, historians have hotly debated whether the marriage was ever consummated.
The girl was called Catalina, known in England as Catherine of Aragon, and the boy was Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to the fledgling dynasty of the Tudors.
But why was the question of the consummation so important?
When Arthur died so tragically young, his ten-year-old brother, Henry became the heir to his father’s crown. In 1509, eight years after Arthur’s demise, the 17-year-old Henry ascended the throne as Henry VIII on the death of his father, Henry VII. One of his first acts was to marry Catherine, having obtained Papal dispensation, a necessity in the eyes of the Church because of Catherine’s first marriage to Arthur, which made the new couple “related”.
They were happily married for many years until Henry’s eyes fell on one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn. Although Catherine had had several pregnancies all but one had resulted in stillbirths or early death in infancy, the only survivor being a daughter, Mary who many years later became England's first crowned queen regnant.
Henry had not only become obsessed with Anne Boleyn, but also with the idea that he required a male heir to continue the dynasty, as no woman had previously ruled England.1 He convinced himself that God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow, and the solution was to him simple - he would obtain an annulment of the first marriage, for which he required Papal consent, and marry Anne, who would no doubt give him male children.
Papal consent would be a formality. His argument was a little novel, but there was plenty of precedent for the marriages of princes being annulled. Henry would rely on the book of Leviticus in the Bible which stated that a man should not marry his brother’s widow but that if he did, he would be childless. He conveniently argued that childless meant without a son. The novel part of his argument was that the Pope should never have given consent to the marriage in the first place, and that such consent was therefore void, as was the marriage.
For the Leviticus ground to have a chance of succeeding in Rome, the marriage between Catherine and Arthur would have to have been consummated. If it had not, then as far as the Church was concerned the marriage had never existed, and therefore there was no defect in the marriage between Catherine and Henry.2
Whether any pope would ever have accepted that the dispensation of his predecessor was in error is a matter for debate, but one way or another the annulment may well have been brought about but for the strongest opposition from Catherine herself, supported by her powerful nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
Throughout the entire ordeal from about 1527 to her death on the 7th of January 1536 Catherine never wavered. She maintained that she was not only the true wife and queen of Henry VIII but also that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. This is despite the increasing punishments imposed on her by Henry, from her initial banishment from court, her forced removal to increasingly unsuitable and
unhealthy houses and the confiscation of her jewels, to the separation from her beloved daughter Mary and the dismissal of her faithful friends and servants, and ultimately to her virtual imprisonment and actual death threats. She firmly believed that such threats could and would be carried out, as that was the penalty for all those who refused to accept the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Succession. These Acts had been passed in 1534 when Henry had given up waiting for the Pope to annul the marriage; he had split from Rome setting himself up as the head of the church in England, and he had divorced Catherine and married Anne. Anyone who refused to take an oath accepting that Henry was head of the Church, and that Catherine was simply the Dowager Princess of Wales, was guilty of treason and the punishment was death.
So why would Catherine suffer so much when Henry had offered to welcome her back to Court as the dowager Princess of Wales ranking after only the new queen, Anne, Catherine’s own daughter, Mary, and any future children the king may have, and to provide her with a generous financial settlement, if only she would accept an annulment and take a vow of chastity?3 . She had after all, not had a physical relationship with Henry for some considerable time. At some stage he had even offered to retain Mary’s status as legitimate and hence her right in the succession after any male children which Anne may have had, whereas if Catherine did not agree she would be declared a bastard as the child of a sinful relationship, which is indeed what occurred.
Despite the controversy amongst historians, I believe that it is because she was telling the truth and that she feared for her soul if she did not.
There is compelling evidence that Catherine did not consummate the marriage, and only the flimsiest of evidence that she did.
Let us now look at that evidence.
The evidence of Catherine herself
As part of the annulment hearing a Legatine court was held at Blackfriars. On the 21st of June 1529 Henry and Catherine both attended. During the course of this hearing Catherine rose from her seat and walked steadily towards Henry, kneeling at his feet, where she gave a heartfelt speech addressing him. She told him that not only had she been a good, loyal, obedient and true wife but that “when you had me at first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man; and whether it be true or no I put it to your conscience”.
She had challenged Henry to contradict her. Henry could then and there have satisfied the court. He could have stood up and declared that Catherine was wrong - from his own knowledge and recollection he knew that Catherine had not been a virgin on their wedding night. He, the king would surely be believed above his wife. But Henry said nothing. He merely looked embarrassed as his queen walked out of the court and refused ever to return. This could only be because he knew that Catherine had indeed been a virgin.
The Pope had sent the elderly and sick Cardinal Campeggio to London to hear the case. Catherine made the shrewd decision to ask the cardinal to hear her confession. Under the seal of the confessional, she told him that she had shared a bed no more than seven times with Arthur and that at her marriage to Henry she had remained “as intact and uncorrupted as the day she left her mother's womb”. She authorised Campeggio to break the very strict confidentiality of the confessional by telling the Pope himself what she had said.4 It was a mortal sin to lie in the confessional, risking eternal damnation. Furthermore, the Pope was God's representative on Earth. Catherine was solemnly telling God’s representative on Earth that the marriage had not been consummated. She would not have lied.
Catherine wrote many times to the Pope during this time either direct or via his representatives, maintaining that she had been a virgin when she married Henry. Some have postulated that she may have lied in the confessional and elsewhere, intending to confess later that she had done so and to seek absolution. This seems most unlikely. She knew that the confessional was not a way to plan forgiveness for sins which were to be committed in the future. God would not forgive that. Besides which, life was fragile in the 16th century. Many people died suddenly at any age, of various causes-the sweating sickness for example, which could kill in a matter of hours was a continuing threat, and Catherine would surely not have risked death before being able to confess such a great sin of multiple planned lies to the Pope himself even if she had somehow hoped that there was a chance of being absolved.
We must remember that in the 16th century most people were very devout, and firmly believed in God’s retribution. Catherine was particularly pious. She spent huge amounts of time in prayer, fasting, abstinence, attending mass and reading the Bible and other religious books. This was so much the case, that in her youth, when she was betrothed to Henry, the Pope himself intervened and instructed Henry that Catherine's actions were jeopardising her health, and that he had the Pope’s authority to instruct her to reduce such activities.5
It has been suggested that senior clerics may have swayed Catherine by telling her that she would be forgiven for lying about the consummation if it were for the greater good. Presumably the greater good included defending the positions which God had ordained for Catherine and Mary.
She may have accepted that the odd lie might just be acceptable in certain circumstances, but to lie in the confessional or on oath was a very different thing altogether.
But the “lie” was not for the greater good of all that she held dear.
Even if Catherine had believed such assurances, which is doubtful, it was ultimately her actions which actually led to Henry breaking with Rome, and the dissolution of the monasteries, which was a disaster for Catherine's Roman Catholic Church.6 Her words achieved the very opposite of what she would have wanted. During the first few years of argument, she probably did believe that by standing firm Henry would eventually capitulate and reconcile with her. However, there must have come a time when even Catherine had to accept that that would never happen and that her “intransigence” was in fact harming her Church, her daughter, herself and her loyal supporters, some of whom were to be executed in her cause. Had she backed down at the right time it is probable that Henry would never have split from Rome, and quite possible that he would not have bastardised Mary. But Catherine stuck to her guns and maintained that she was the true queen of England and that she had never consummated her first marriage because that was the truth and to lie about such sacred things would cause her to lose her soul.
In any event, even if the marriage had been consummated there would have been no reason for Catherine to have lied. As far as she, and indeed much of Europe and many of Henrys subjects were concerned, the Pope had given valid dispensation permitting the marriage between Henry and Catherine; there were plenty of precedents for dispensation in similar circumstances - this had not been an unusual case, but there were no cases in which an earlier dispensation had been set aside. Consummated or not she was therefore lawfully married to Henry, so why lie about it? Indeed, that is what the Pope ultimately determined; he did not even think there was any necessity to refer to the consummation issue in his decision.
More damning evidence against Henry’s argument, is that Catherine informed the Pope that she had told Henry that if he were prepared to swear an oath to the effect that when they married, she was not a virgin, she would capitulate.7 She must have been very certain of her case to do so. The Pope invited Henry to make the oath. He did not respond. Henry did not wish to risk his immortal soul by lying under oath.
The early evidence
Long before Henry had even married Catherine, let alone sought a divorce, there was already evidence that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated.
Shortly after Arthur’s death in 1502 rumours had already spread to Catherine's parents, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in Spain that the marriage had not been consummated. The rumours were sufficiently strong to cause Isabella to write to Catherine’s governess and senior lady Donna Elvira Manuel for information. Isabella was informed that Catherine “remained as she was when she left Spain”. Donna Elvira must have had good reason to believe this. It has been suggested that she may have lied, for her own ends. She is known to have been somewhat of a schemer, but there would have been little benefit to her in concocting such a story, and if she had done so she would have risked complete disgrace and dismissal from royal service had she been discovered, which would have been all too likely.
Initially it had generally been agreed that for Catherine and Henry to become betrothed papal dispensation was required because of the prior relationship with Arthur. However by about August 1503 Ferdinand wrote to F.de Rojas his ambassador to Rome “It is well known in England that the Princess is still a virgin…..[but] as the English are inclined to cavil openly it is prudent to provide for the case as though the marriage had actually been consummated and to obtain papal dispensation”.8
It would seem that by then the news of the non-consummation had reached Spain from more than the single source of Donna Elvira. Indeed, Catherine herself had actually confirmed it.9
When the Pope did ultimately give his dispensation, he indicated that the marriage had “perhaps” been consummated. Clearly, he had been told that it had not as there was no other reason for his using the word “perhaps”. At the very least therefore the Pope had his doubts. Possibly he fully accepted that the marriage had not been consummated, but as he had been asked despite this to provide the dispensation as though it had, for the reasons given by Ferdinand, he thought that by adding the word “perhaps” he would not be stating an untruth when granting the dispensation.
Upon Catherine’s first coming into England in 1501 Arthur’s father, Henry VII, had commissioned a detailed chronicle to be written about her arrival, the marriage celebrations and subsequent events. This document known as the Receyt of the Ladie Kateryne interestingly initially included the words “and thus these worthy persons concluded and consummated the effect and complement of the sacrament of matrimony”, but such words had been deleted.10 Is this because Henry VII himself accepted that the marriage had not been consummated and he had ordered the chronicle to be altered? There seems little reason for the original author to have removed these words had he not been instructed to do so by his patron. The words were however, ultimately reinstated, quite possibly many years later, on the orders of Henry VIII when he was trying to support his claim that the marriage had indeed been consummated.
Evidence given after the commencement of Henry's “great matter”
Although the court case that had commenced in Blackfriars in June 1529 dragged on interminably, and Henry had put forward many technical arguments as to why his marriage to Catherine may be invalid, despite all of Henry’s might he was unable to produce any witnesses who could substantiate his claim that Arthur’s marriage had been consummated.
Many witnesses said that they saw Arthur and Catherine taken to the marriage bed, but they all agreed that the couple were then left alone, and that the door of the bedchamber was firmly closed. They could merely assume that the marriage had been consummated. All the Earl of Shrewsbury could say when he gave evidence was that he was married at the age of 15 and that he had consummated his marriage immediately. He therefore assumed that Arthur had done so too. This was hardly evidence!
It is true to say that some witnesses claimed that Arthur had joked the following day about his having “being in Spain”, it being hot work and that having a wife was a good sport. However, this was mere innuendo implying, but by no means confirming consummation, and there are no reports at any time of Arthur having specifically confirmed that the marriage had been consummated.
Such words, if indeed they were actually said, could have been bravado on Arthur’s part. He would not have wanted to admit his failure on the wedding night, but perhaps he did not want to lie about it directly either.
None of this evidence truly conflicted with what Catherine had said. She agreed that they had spent seven nights together, but she maintained throughout that the marriage had never been consummated.
Catherine had found four witnesses in her favour in England, and it was a brave person who would give evidence against a king in his own Kingdom. However very conveniently for Henry their evidence was not permitted to be heard, on the grounds that all their statements had been incorrectly sworn.11
Catherine also managed to find some witnesses in Spain, having scoured the country to try to find people who had served her in England all those years before, and who had been close at hand at the time of the marriage. Some of these witnesses gave evidence at a hearing in Zaragoza in June 1531. Their evidence may not have been accepted in the English courts, but what they said was just as likely to be true as what their English counterparts had said.
One such witness was Juan de Gammara who stated that he had stayed in the Queens antechamber on the wedding night. He reported that “Prince Arthur got up very early which surprised everyone a lot”. He continued that when he went into Catherine's room that morning there was an atmosphere and the ladies seemed to be concerned and disappointed with Arthur. He specifically recalled that one of Catherine’s servants, Francesca de Caceres had been there, (as indeed she had been) and he had heard her telling the ladies that nothing had happened that night.
It is likely that Catherine’s ladies, and Juan would have kept this information to themselves, at least initially, because it was not in their mistress’s best interests. It had been her duty to consummate the marriage and to cement the alliance between England and Spain. However, possibly one or other of them eventually confided in a third party, which ultimately led to the rumours which found their way to Spain shortly after Arthur’s death, which rumours had been confirmed by Donna Elvira.
Another argument against Henry is that Catherine had claimed that in happier times Henry had stated more than once that when she married him, she came to him as a virgin. In 1533 Henry himself admitted this to Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, but claimed that it was in jest.12 One should consider whether it is likely that Henry would have jested about such a thing.
Possible reasons for the non-consummation
Some historians have argued that the marriage would have been consummated simply because “it would have been, wouldn't it?”, much as Henry's witnesses had said at the trial. However, there are various possible reasons why it was not.
On the marriage night itself, the young couple had had a gruelling day. There had been much celebration, and much imbibing of wine. As they were taken to the marriage bed, they were given more wine.
The couple hardly knew each other. Even during the celebrations most of the time they were apart, Catherine with her Spanish ladies, and Arthur with the English contingent.
They did not have a common language, other than Latin. Although they were competent in Latin, their practice of the language was quite possibly more of the written one than of the spoken one, and they may have had difficulty in communicating with each other.
By the time they were put to bed, they may have been far too inebriated to consummate the marriage. Even if they were not, after a long day they may have been exhausted, and of course one or both of them may have been shy as well as completely inexperienced in the marriage bed. Possibly Catherine did not even know fully what to expect. Catherine had been brought up in a female household, and Arthur in a male one. Their experience of the opposite sex was very limited. Perhaps they tried and failed or maybe they did not try at all. We will never know.
These facts combined may well have resulted in the marriage not being consummated that night. Perhaps the couple even agreed that they would allow others to assume that everything had gone smoothly. However, maybe Catherine herself could not keep up the pretence, and the observant Dona Elvira questioned Catherine, who could not or would not tell a direct lie.
So why was the marriage not consummated later?
It is of course possible that Catherine and Arthur thought that they would have plenty of time to get to know each other and that provided no one other than they knew that the marriage had not been consummated no harm was done by waiting a little longer, when hopefully some form of attraction or affection may have developed.
Furthermore, there is strong evidence that Arthur’s father had actually instructed them to stay apart for two or three years because the “Prince was frail and needed time to mature in strength”.
It was normal amongst royalty for both parties to a marriage to be at least 16 before it was consummated. Catherine was almost 16 at the date of the marriage, but Arthur was only 15. It would not therefore have been unusual for the consummation to be delayed a little.
Isabella's ambassador Don Pedro de Ayala sent a detailed report to Isabella towards the end of December 1501 explaining the situation.13
King Henry had given him several reasons as to why he thought it best that the couple should abstain. He sought Ayala’s opinion as to whether it would be better for Catherine to remain with Henry and the queen while Arthur was sent to his home at Ludlow Castle, or whether Catherine should go with Arthur but abstain from a physical relationship. Henry’s own advisors were divided on the point. Henry himself felt it best that the pair were kept apart.
Ayala informed the king that it “would be preferable in many respects and especially because the Prince and Princess would more easily bear being separated and [their abstinence from] intercourse if she remained with him and the queen, who could alleviate her sorrow for being separated from the prince, a thing which it would be much more difficult to bear if she were to live in the house in Wales”. In other words, if they lived apart from each other they would not be tempted!
Ayala continued that he had told Henry that both he and Donna Elvira understood that Isabella's and Ferdinand's wishes were that Catherine and Arthur should not live together, “knowing the tender age of the prince”.
It took four days for Henry to decide but eventually he ordered that Catherine should go with Arthur, although this was for significant financial reasons rather than anything else, Henry being famous for his miserly ways.
It was clear however that the pair had been ordered to abstain from intercourse whether they were living together or not.
It is quite possible that Henry had instructed them to consummate the marriage on the first night, and thereafter to abstain, but that despite their failure on the wedding night for whatsoever reason, the couple obeyed the rest of the instructions and did not try again. It is equally possible that on those other few nights that they lay together, they made more attempts, but failed due to Arthur’s immaturity or infirmity.
Henry wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella on the 20th of February 1502 informing them that Catherine had been sent to Ludlow with Arthur because although many were opposed, he was “unwilling to allow them to be separated at any distance from each other even to the danger of our own son”.14 Henry seemed to be implying strongly that his son was not yet fit enough to perform his duties in bed. The “danger” was that Arthur would ignore his father’s orders because of the temptation of Catherine being with him. But Catherine, was ever dutiful, even telling Henry that she had no will “but his”. She would not have defied her father in law’s instructions. Furthermore, Catherine herself had suffered the loss of her own brother, Juan, at the age of 18, shortly after his marriage. The cause of death was stated to have been sexual overexertion by a sickly young man. Whilst this is unlikely actually to have been the cause this is what was believed, and Catherine may well have feared that the same thing could happen to Arthur.
Arthur's physical condition is unknown, but it certainly seems that his father was concerned about his health or his development. Possibly he was a weakly young man, which was not a rare occurrence in the 16th century, or maybe he had still not matured physically, which is not particularly rare in a 15-year-old.
At the hearing in Zaragoza in 1531, the nephew of Catherine's doctor at the time of the marriage, Dr Alcaraz, had stated that his uncle had been shocked by Arthur’s condition and that his limbs “were so weak that he had never seen a man whose legs and other bits of his body were so thin”. This may of course have been an exaggeration, but perhaps it was not.
Whether it was sexual immaturity or physical weakness his condition was certainly enough to make his parents concerned and it could well have been sufficient to prevent him from consummating the marriage even if he had been told to do so.
The cause of Arthur’s death could also be relevant. No one knows the actual cause but there were two reports from the English contingent, and one from Catherine's physician. Lord St. John in 1529 recalled that from Shrovetide (the 8th February in 1501), Arthur “began to decay and was never so lusty in body and courage until his death”. Possibly nearly 30 years later Lord St. John had his dates wrong, and Arthur was already ailing by 14th November 1501, being the date of the marriage. Perhaps he was already unwell, but it was not manifest to others until Shrovetide.
It was reported in the 1530s that Dr Alcarez had at the time of Arthur’s death indicated that Arthur “had been denied the strength necessary to know a woman, as if he was a cold piece of stone... because he was in the final stages of tisis”.15 Tisis was a Spanish name for a wasting disease; possibly tuberculosis was the cause.
The official report in the Receyt of the Ladie Kateryne said that Arthur had suffered “the most pitiful disease and sickness that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven in the singular parts of him inward; that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish and overcome the pure and friendfull blood without all manner of physical help and remedy”.
We also know that Catherine was ill at the same time as Arthur, but that she recovered. Considering all these facts it is not unlikely that Arthur was already suffering from some debilitation or disease, which weakened him, and that the final illness which struck both him and Catherine killed him because he was already weak.
Tuberculosis normally takes months or even years to kill and possibly therefore Arthur had contracted TB months before his death, which would have rendered him unable to consummate the marriage. What finished him off could have been a virulent form of influenza or even the sweating sickness, either of which could also have been contracted by Catherine. This scenario would fit with both Lord St John’s and Dr Alcarez’s reports, and certainly could have meant that Arthur would have been in no position to consummate the marriage at any time.
Trying to decipher the wording in the Receyt is very difficult. The chronicler seems to be describing Arthur’s body when he states that the illness had “driven in the singular parts of him inward”. What these “singular parts” were is open to conjecture. However, this phrase would seem to be a euphemism, and there would be little need to use euphemisms when describing any affected part of the body other than the genitals. Maybe therefore Arthur had testicular cancer, or indeed some other disorder of the genitals. Testicular cancer, although not
particularly common is the most common form of cancer in young men and thus this is certainly possible. The cancer may not have killed him, because the disease suffered by both Katherine and Arthur took him first, but the author of the Receyt would have thought that the physical signs on Arthurs’ body were caused by the fatal disease.
If Arthur had had any form of swelling or other deformity in his genitals, he would certainly not have wished Catherine to have seen this and it may also have actually prevented him from having intercourse.
Catherine strongly believed that she would suffer eternal damnation if she were to lie in the confessional or under oath. She both confessed and swore that the marriage had not been consummated.
There was no need for her to have lied. Papal dispensation had been given on the basis that the marriage may have been consummated. It would not and could not be revoked.
Henry refused to swear that Catherine had not been a virgin when they married.
Henry VII had ordered the couple to abstain from intercourse.
Arthur was immature, ill or both and incapable of the act.
Catherine did not lie!
- On the death of Henry I in 1135, his daughter Matilda came close to it but she was never crowned and her claim was disputed, leading to civil war.
- In fact because of the contract for marriage, if non -consummated a more common papal dispensation would still have been required for the impediment of public honesty- but this is not relevant to the Leviticus question.
- Tremlett at p.287 states that Campeggio, the papal legate and Cardinal Wolsey even collaborated to try to persuade Catherine, to accept Henry’s offer, Campeggio telling her that it would not offend God or her conscience.
- Scarisbrick at p.189 referred to Catherine as making a solemn oath, and Fox at p293 indicates that a separate oath was found in the Spanish archives, thus suggesting that Catherine not only confirmed her virginity in the confessional but also on oath, and thus risking her soul twice, had she been lying.
- Tremlett, p.115.
- The Pope had predicted Henry’s break with Rome by 1529, wishing that Catherine was “in her grave” so that he did not have to find in her favour and see it come to pass. Tremlett, p.304.
- Tremlett, p.337.
- Mumby, p47.
- Scarisbrick, pp.8, 88.
- Mumby, p.14.
- Tremlett, p.337.
- Scarisbrick, p.188.
- Mumby, p.19 et seq. A full copy of Ayala’s report commences at p.16.
- Mumby, p.24.
- Soberton, p.75.
- The Receyt of the Ladie Kateryne (1502), edited by Gordon Kipling, 1990.
- Frank Arthur Mumby, The youth of Henry VIII, 1919.
- J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, 1997.
- Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon, 2010.
- Julia Fox, Sister Queens, 2011.
- Sylvia Barbara Soberton, Medical Downfall of the Tudors, 2020.