“The Greatest Pearl in the Kingdom”

Henry VIII

Mary was born to King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon, at the palace of Greenwich on February 18, 1516. She was a healthy baby and gave every indication of surviving. Katherine’s first child had been still born. A son born in 1511 lived for a few months but since then no child lived beyond a month. Henry was still optimistic, “The Queen and I are still young. If it is a daughter this time, by the grace of God, son’s will follow.” Katherine was thirty and the king was twenty-five. Katherine, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, had come to England, at the age of 15, to marry Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother. A few months after the wedding Arthur died and Katherine was left a widow without a future in a foreign land. She claimed until she died that the marriage had never been consummated and this would be vital if a marriage with Arthur’s brother could take place, as this would be a violation of canon law marrying the wife of a dead brother required dispensation from the Pope. During the reign of Henry VII Katherine languished in near poverty while her fate was being decided by her father Ferdinand and father-in-law. Upon the death of Henry VII his son, Henry VIII, promised on his accession to marry her. They were married in May 1509 and crowned together June 24 in Westminster Abbey.    

Katherine of Aragon

Henry was a tall, muscular youth of 18 with auburn hair and a pink and white complexion. His wife was a grey-eyed redhead, short of stature, and 23 years old. In the years between her marriages she had matured into a responsible and serious-minded young woman. Henry was devoted to her and relied on her judgment, listened to her advice and her opinions. They seemed well matched as they shared intellectual tastes as well as interests in music and dance. When he left for war against France he left Katherine as regent. Compared to other royal marriages of the time they behaved as a devoted married couple. Into this family Mary was welcomed with affection from both her parents.

After her christening, in which she was named Mary after the king’s younger sister, she was sent to live in her own household. Her staff was attired in her personal colors of blue and green. She was brought to court on special occasions and Henry, fond of babies, liked to carry her and show her off to the court claiming that “she never cries”. As she grew, she combined her father’s fair complexion with her mother’s grey eyes along with their red hair. She was always small for her age and tended toward thinness. Henry liked to show her off to foreign visitors and was known to take off her cap to reveal her long hair. At the age of 2 she was engaged to the dauphin of France, the first of a series of politically advantages matches. By her adulthood the court dramatist, John Heywood described Mary as a “most noble lady,” whose “beauty twinkleth like a star within the frosty night.”

Mary received a superior education. In an age when girls, even of the nobility, received a minimal amount of higher education, Mary was given the best tutors and studied the works of leading scholars: Linacre, William Lily, Sir Thomas More, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and the Spanish humanist, Vives. She spoke Latin, French, Spanish and understood Italian. She learned the basic skills of riding side-saddle, sewing and embroidery and had a natural musical talent. She, like her father, excelled at the spinet and virginals. She looked for every excuse on which to display her musical talents. Her later inventory books show many entries for repair of instruments, restringing and purchases.

After ten years of marriage, Henry began to worry about his lack of a son, a prince to succeed him. Queen Katherine’s last pregnancy was in 1518 and resulted in a still born daughter. The difference in their ages was apparent now and she had become a middle-aged matron, while Henry still seemed in the prime of life. It was at this time Henry took a recognized mistress, Elizabeth Blount, who in 1519 succeeded in presenting him with a son named Henry. He was created Duke of Richmond and Somerset, given the Order of the Garter and the rank of Lord High Admiral – all in his infancy. Henry inquired into ways to legitimize him. The boy was given a princely household and Henry ordered that he was to have precedence over everyone else at court, even Mary. This infuriated Queen Katherine. The next step would be to have him created Prince of Wales. But Henry instead sent Mary to Ludlow castle in Wales with an establishment of her own. Ludlow was the seat of power usually associated with the Princes of Wales and from where they governed Wales. Mary, only nine, was probably sent there as a first step of her future role as heir to the throne. By the time she returned to court in 1527 she no longer had to be concerned about her half-brother, instead her whole life was to be turned upside down because the king had fallen in love.  

Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She and her elder sister Mary were educated in France and had developed a sense of style and demeanor that was more French than English. Mary Boleyn returned in the 1520’s and quickly became the mistress of the king. Anne came back after another year or two and she too attracted attention at court. She seems to have fallen in love with Henry Percy, son the of the Earl of Northumberland, but by 1526 Henry had tired of Mary Boleyn and had turned his attentions to Anne. She captivated Henry and learned a lesson from her sister Mary not to give in to the King and repeat the same fate. She had a cool nerve and ambition and demanded marriage. When Henry realized this, he was determined to make her his wife.

Henry’s plan was to divorce Queen Katherine. He based his case on the Old Testament text: ‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing…. they shall remain childless.’  For the past eighteen years, he reasoned, he and Katherine had been living in incestuous adultery.  Mary was begotten from his brother’s wife, and not a lawful daughter. When Katherine heard of the threat to the legality of her marriage and to her daughter’s legitimacy she appealed to her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to prevent her case being heard in England. He agreed and sent a lawyer to Rome to back her case. Katherine always maintained that she had been a virgin when Arthur died and was so when she married Henry.

Katherine Before Henry by Frank Cowper

In 1529 Katherine appeared before the legatine court which was brought to investigate the marriage of the king. Kneeling in front of Henry in the hall of Blackfriars, London, she begged him, for all the love that had been between them to let her have justice and take pity on her. She had always been his true, humble, obedient wife. “When ye had me at the first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of a man; and whether it be true or no I put to your conscience.”

In July 1531, Henry separated from Katherine. Anne Boleyn now accompanied the king everywhere. By 1532 she was at Henry’s side on a state visit to France. By Christmas she was sure she was pregnant. Henry moved quickly now. He was married to Anne quietly in January 1533. Thomas Cranmer was given orders to set up a court to enquire into the king’s ‘great cause of matrimony’ and by May 28 had pronounced Henry’s first marriage null and void and his second good and lawful. Three days later Anne rode through London to her coronation.

Katherine was now shut up in Kimbolton Castle. Unable to see her daughter, she continued a letter writing campaign to Henry to be allowed to visit Mary. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. Mary, separated from her mother, lived her early teen years in confusion. Torn between the two people she wanted to please most in life.

Books on Henry, Katherine and Mary: Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII by Robert Hutchinson, The Spanish Queen by Carolly Erickson, The King’s Pearl by Melita Thomas