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Queen Catherine Of Aragon: Noble Renown (Part 2)

February 3, 2018

Catherine of Aragon entered twentieth century fiction with her shining reputation intact — and what’s more surprising, she exited it in the same way. (Other Catholic mainstays like Thomas More wouldn’t be nearly so fortunate.) The last nineteenth century Boleyn novel that I’m aware of, My Friend Anne (1900) depicts a Catherine so saintly and kind that you have to wonder what kind of moral monster would contemplate leaving her even for a second. Our first glimpse of Catherine here depicts her “pac[ing] the room, wringing her beautiful hands, and uttering exclamations of distress and compassion in Spanish, or in English, which she spoke with much fluency …. `Alas, alas!’ she cried. `The poor creatures! hundreds starving; those would work, but cannot —! And the dear women — and the blessed little children!’”

When Henry answers her summons, she reveals that the cause of her distress is “the cruel sufferings caused by over-taxation among the working-classes in different parts of the country, but more especially in those counties where the trade of weaving had formerly flourished … Their wives and children starving, themselves reduced to a state of desperation, and in some places causing rebellion against the laws.” Henry, doubtful, asks “Art sure of thy facts, Kate?” “But too sure, your majesty,” she assures him, before going on to let him know that the instigator of the taxes was the very man with whom he’s about to go hunting, Cardinal Wolsey. The queen is engaging in politics, but she’s doing it for the noblest possible reason — never are we led to think, then or later, that Catherine has even an ounce of guile in her. Patience, the heroine of the novel, attends Catherine throughout the rest of the latter’s life, and her final verdict on Catherine runs:

As for the queen, in all that sad time, the long, troubled months and years that supervened, she did for the most part ever retain her usual calm tranquillity of mind, with sweet serenity and patience; and a loving and faithful dependence on the God whom she truly believed to be always with her in her darkest hours —yes, even to the bitter end — as I know well, who was brought into closer and more constant companionship with my dear royal mistress as her troubles deepened.

Patience is clearly modelled on Catherine’s maid Patience in Shakespeare’s (and Fletcher’s) Henry VIII, or, All Is True (1613), a play which was extremely popular in the nineteenth century, so it’s no surprise that the Catherine of My Friend Anne was as upstanding, virtuous, and assured of salvation as the Catherine who had first appeared in the play almost three hundred years before.

An exceptional — in every sense — portrayal of Catherine would appear just a few years later, in Mary Hastings Bradley’s The Favor Of Kings (1912). The title of the opening chapter, “The Queen’s Refusal”, lets us know that we shouldn’t have our expectations too high — and indeed this Catherine, far from being the ever-courteous but steely daughter of kings that earlier centuries had prepared us for, is a power-tripping, vicious shrew who’s all too happy to twist the knife in underlings who have displeased her for some reason. In this case, the “beetle-browed” Catherine takes up the role usually given to Wolsey — that of the villain who chooses not to intervene for Anne in the matter of her love affair with Henry Percy and takes great pleasure in letting her know this fact. “Percy is a boy and should be finding his happiness in his duty and not in stolen love tokens from silly maids,” Catherine informs a desperate, pleading Anne. “We will have no French ways here.” The last line reveals one of the roots of Catherine’s resentment: “The Spanish woman had no love for France and it was Anne’s misfortune that she had brought back from that court too much of its charm and freedom to be acceptable.”

Anne is furious, and as she would in many future novels, vows revenge on the person who stole her chance for happiness.

Just one word from the queen — one little word! And she would not say it! She had been glad to deny her, to taunt her. Even in that tumultuous instant Anne wondered whether the queen was aware of her own gladness. Catherine seemed to her so self-righteous, so smugly assured of her own purity of motive, that no such disturbing self-knowledge could ever reach her. Why should such as she have the power of life and death, the girl’s wild rebellion questioned. It was all unfair, unjust, iniquitous, this scheme of life! Chivalry and justice and mercy were only words of mocking lips. There was no reality but power.

Catherine never warms to Anne, then or later, nor does she treat her with anything but contempt — “take thy deformities to ride, mistress” says Catherine, after her maids have had an enjoyable round of mocking the helpless Anne for her sixth finger. But one thing this Catherine has in common with all the others is her stubborn dignity. Even as her world collapses around her and Anne seizes the opportunity to take Catherine’s place, the latter never bends for an instant; she knows that she’s Henry’s rightful wife, she knows that Anne is nothing but an upstart, and she won’t try to ingratiate herself with either one for a moment, no matter how much good it might do her. And as Catherine fades from court life, the author skilfully, quietly, pulls the rug right out from under the reader and turns the story on its head as we see Anne begin transforming into a second Catherine, and how her perspective on Catherine gradually changes as events unfold. There’s a real sense of time passing as we witness Anne’s slowly altering thoughts on Catherine and her high-handedness — she’ll never like her (this Catherine is unpleasant company from any perspective) but she’ll understand her. It’s upon Catherine’s death that we encounter a remarkable passage which shows us just how far away Anne is from her younger self.

She thought that it was strange that this was really the last of Catherine, and somehow an unbidden, repudiated pity for Catherine, the woman who had worn her crown and who was now being put away in a distant aisle of Peterborough, stole through her. She tried to lay it by firing her resentment with a memory of the wrongs Catherine had done her, but she remained curiously cold. The woman could not be blamed for clutching the crown she had worn so long. She had been a fool to do it, that was plain; she had embittered her own condition and wrecked her daughter’s hopes by maintaining the lost cause of her rights; she had been clearly in the wrong, of course, and should have recognized and been grateful, Anne felt, that she had been so long allowed to wear the crown that had never been rightfully hers. Yet it had been natural, natural. Anne’s rebellious mind could not but feel, and Anne went suddenly back to those old days to wake a deep-rooted hate. She recalled that terrible day when she had pled and Catherine had scorned, and her anger woke again, even against the dead, and self-pity stirred. Yet the next instant her truant thought swerved; she wondered ironically at her own despair, and smiled with dry eyes at those tears that had been poured for Henry Percy. She recalled the erratic, aloof and unconfiding man who too late had entered into the earldom of Northumberland, and she wondered fleetingly what had been his inner life.

After ten tumultuous years, Anne can hardly find the energy to feel much emotion about the people who were once so desperately important to her. You can sense her wonderment that she ever cared very much about them at all.

This negative, exceptionally antagonistic (unhistorically so — it’s highly unlikely that she had any role in thwarting Anne’s marriage) Catherine proved to be the exception. As the decades rolled on, a sturdily recognizable Catherine continued to appear over and over again — a woman whose patience is matched only by her stubbornness, who’s preternaturally gracious to her underlings (including her husband’s mistresses) and who knows her rights and her daughter’s rights and refuses to give them up for any consideration. She may be sharp and unpleasant to Anne on occasion, but almost always redeems herself on multiple other occasions, and besides, who could blame even a daughter of Spain for getting a bit touchy with the woman who’s become her designated successor? “The woman is always so insufferably right,” grouses the Anne of Brief Gaudy Hour (1949).

Catherine’s unpleasant side gets more of an airing in novels which featured an omniscient narrator and multiple points of view, and so had room both for scenes with Catherine confronting Anne and scenes showing Catherine alone, or with others, and displaying the vulnerability which she couldn’t let Anne see. In Anne Boleyn (1957) “Thanks to the King’s brutal display of preference, her natural dislike of Anne had become hatred. Once she had gone so far as to order Anne to stay upstairs and mind her dogs at one court function, because her nerves were quivering at the insult offered her so publicly. Furious, Henry had turned to his wife and ordered her loudly to send for Mistress Anne, and after dancing several measures with her he kept her by him for the rest of the evening.” However, Catherine is genuinely sweet and courteous to others, and her scenes with Henry, especially when she reasons and then pleads with him to take her back, are very affecting. Even Henry is almost tempted to scrap the endless, exhausting annulment project and hope that they’ll be able to manage the succession somehow — until Catherine makes the fatal mistake of insulting Anne by suggesting that she’s slept with Wyatt and Percy. “All her life,” we’re told, “she had disliked gossip” but in her fear and anger she gives in to temptation and insults Anne, and Henry is furious. “I love her too well to be blackened against her,” he says. “You’d have been wise to leave these things unsaid.” (Ironically, this Anne actually has slept with Wyatt, though neither Henry nor Catherine know this for a fact.) In The Concubine (1963) an ill, banished Catherine takes pleasure in hearing Chapuys’ gossip about Anne’s troubles — but even then she rebukes herself for it, thinking she should be better than that.

Stories told from a single narrator’s point of view, however, are necessarily more limited in how much they can show of Catherine, and as a result her character flattens out somewhat. Even her bad moments don’t plumb the depths as much as they might. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) is typical of many books with their supernaturally patient Catherines:

Most strange to me is how Katherine, whose waiting lady still I am, regards me. She is neither deaf nor blind, must know my place in Henry’s heart, yet treats me kind as ever … She loves the King just as I loved Harry Percy, maybe more since I was just a girl and Henry’s been her beloved for many many years. I was made to watch, altho from far away, as Percy wed and bed another, as she must every day endure her husband’s infidelity.

In Doomed Queen Anne (2002), Anne tells us that “Through all of this, I was challenged to continue to play my role as a maid of honor to the queen. I was constantly in Catherine’s presence. She didn’t send me away, as well she might have.” Catherine’s worst action is to make a bitter joke to Anne over a card game. Even in Threads (2001), in which Katherine and Anne are reincarnated over and over and are destined to be antagonists no matter what their relationship to each other — “We have strong ties and strong loyalty to one another. All but Katherine” — the most famous incarnation of Catherine still manages to impress Anne. Her reaction to the collapse of Anne’s betrothal to Henry Percy is to give Anne permission to leave court for as long as she wants, and “in her eyes was a glimmer of compassion I would see little of, elsewhere …. That one look from Katherine, and my heartfelt gratitude, cost Henry eight years of courtship to win me.”

Wolf Hall (2009) which did so much to turn some characterizations on their heads, nonetheless produces a familiar — and impressive — Queen.

He, Cromwell, admires Katherine: he likes to see her moving about the royal palaces, as wide as she is high, stitched into gowns so bristling with gemstones that they look as if they are designed less for beauty than to withstand blows from a sword. Her auburn hair is faded and streaked with gray, tucked back under her gable hood like the modest wings of a city sparrow. Under her gowns she wears the habit of a Franciscan nun. Try always, Wolsey says, to find out what people wear under their clothes.

As much Cromwell may admire Catherine, he sees very little of her directly, mostly hearing of her through Wolsey. By the time Wolsey vanishes from court, Catherine is long gone as well. We get a glimpse of Catherine at the Blackfriars court, but never hear her speak — it’s all processed through Cromwell’s head, and in typical Cromwell fashion, he’s thinking about how he would have done it better. After Catherine leaves Blackfriars, refusing to acknowledge its authority, we’re told how Cromwell would have scotched all those ancient, dredged-up stories about Arthur and Catherine’s wedding night:

If he had been her adviser, he would have kept the queen in court, however much she squealed. Because, would the witnesses have spoken to her face as they spoke behind her back? She would be ashamed to face them, gnarled and grizzled and each equipped with perfect recollection; but he would have had her greet them cordially, and declare she would never have recognized them after so much time gone by; and ask if they have grandchildren, and whether the summer heat eases their elderly aches and pains? The greater shame would be theirs: would they not hesitate, would they not falter, under the steady gaze of the queen’s honest eyes?

It’s a rare moment when Cromwell takes an overly optimistic view of human nature.

One might be tempted to think that books with an openly Protestant bent might be more hostile to Catherine, much as books with an openly Catholic bent used to have to some fairly rough portrayals of Anne — Sow The Tempest (1962) and Frail Anne Boleyn (1931) being particularly egregious examples — but surprisingly enough that’s seldom the case. As in earlier centuries, Catherine might be surrounded by associates who are seething with evil intentions towards the glowingly innocent reformist heroes, but their baseness almost never touches Catherine herself. A rare exception is the openly murderous Catherine of In The Shadow Of Lions (2008), whose nastiness to Anne is only the tip of the iceberg. Since everyone is this book is completely obsessed with William Tyndale’s English Bible (the Hutchins Bible, as it was then known), Catherine decides that this Bible and Tyndale himself are the cause of all her troubles and that once Tyndale has been burned, Henry will come back to her and everything will be peaceful again. A cheery morning’s exchange between Catherine and Thomas More begins thus:

”There is a man being dragged through the streets behind a horse,” the queen began, looking only at her skirt and picking at it. “He carries a faggot of wood for burning, and a placard around his neck saying he is guilty of heresy.”

Sir Thomas nodded.

The queen stared at him. “You are too merciful.”

Catherine is convinced that the solution to all her problems is to “burn Hutchins and his poisonous books,” and what’s more, she has a large cash reward awaiting More once he manages to collar Hutchins/Tyndale. This is Catherine’s sole focus for most of the book, which renders it increasingly unreadable for anyone who’s aware that Tyndale opposed the divorce and told Henry to take Catherine back. Somehow she manages to be completely obsessed with Tyndale and still miss this rather noticeable plank in his platform. There’s room in the canon for a well-rendered Catherine who’s more overtly in the mold of her give-no-quarter parents (or daughter) but this really was not the way to go about it.

A gentler, more typical Protestant-drawn Catherine is the one in To Die For (2011) who is pious, high-minded, and depressingly somber. As the narrator (Margaret Wyatt) tells us,

I learnt that the king had not joined the queen in her bedchamber in many years, and that she had not had a monthly flux for many years, either. I learnt that she spent long hours praying in Spanish in a chapel aflame with candles, beseeching the Lord for a miracle son. While I didn’t share her zealous religious devotion, I admired her constancy to it. I learnt that though she was haughty to nearly all but her closest friends, when Henry did talk to her she was gentle, and perhaps too pleading to hold his respect or interest. I learnt that there were some principles she would not bend on — her marriage, her faith, and her daughter, Mary, even if it meant locking horns with Henry. I was shocked that a woman of such intelligence would not understand that locking horns with Henry on anything mean that she would lose, and lose badly.

In the classic manner, however, Catherine surrounded by evil henchmen. “I learnt through whispered conversations that although the queen would not cause direct harm to those in her path, there were others in her household who had no such scruples. They smelt blood, and as times became more desperate they would become bolder in protecting their mistress.” One of these “others” eventually sends Anne some poisoned Valencia oranges, just to be extra helpful in determining the sender’s loyalty. There’s never any suggestion, though — from Anne or anyone else — that Catherine knew anything about it.

Catherine’s greatest hurdle has been not Protestant novels, but modernized ones. These are the one subgenre in which her character at best is severely degraded and at worst is completely unrecognizable. It’s not surprising that it should be like this — finding modern corollaries to Anne and Henry, whether in an office, a Hollywood mansion, or a high school, is doable. As for most of the people who surrounded them, while some some people are harder to wrench into modern poses than others, it’s relatively easy to cut and alter those characters to make them work better in a modern setting. Catherine, however, is completely lost here. She needs to exist, or else the central conflict disappears — but she simply doesn’t have a real modern equivalent, at least not in the kinds of societies that modernizers write about; her determination that God had put her in her position and that she had to safeguard her daughter’s legitimacy, and thus her inheritance, is impossible to convey fully, especially since Henry’s historical behavior — taking a presumed inheritance from Mary, forcibly separating the two women, and confining them in residences of his choosing — can’t be precisely replicated in a modern novel without making him at best a creep and at worst a criminal. In neither case would that Henry be an appealing love object for a modern Anne, so his behavior is inevitably made more standard — he’s simply a wealthy man divorcing his wife of twenty years, and instead of taking her settlement and moving on, his wife just refuses to let go.

That some writers genuinely see Catherine as nothing more than a scorned wife who didn’t know when to cash in her chips and move on (presumably to online dating, beach vacations, and continuing education courses) is apparent in Susan Bordo’s nonfiction The Creation of Anne Boleyn, in which Catherine is given very short shrift. In holding out against Henry, we’re sneeringly told, Catherine was “impervious even to the disastrous consequences for her beloved Catholic Church” and that when she refused to take the veil, it was in part at least because she was “humiliated.”

Events might have played out very differently if she had been more invested in “the bigger picture” and less fixated on her own rights …This picture of Katherine [as stubborn and determined] will come as a surprise to those who have learned about Henry VIII’s “great matter” from popular history, where typically it’s not Katherine who appears as the stubborn, willful female power player in the drama, but Anne Boleyn.

It never seems to cross Bordo’s mind that Catherine felt that she genuinely did not have a vocation for the religious life and that her “stubbornness” was simply refusal to scuttle away quietly at the orders of a man — and that her stubbornness has been noted many times then and since, as otherwise there would have been no story. But apparently qualities that are admirable in Anne are supposed to be reviled in her predecessor. This dismissive nastiness towards Catherine peeks out in the semi-modernization The Queen of Subtleties (2004), in which Anne impatiently describes Catherine as a “stubborn and vindictive old cow” and nicknames her “Fat Cath.” When she’s told of Catherine’s performance at the Blackfriars court, she does allow herself a moment of admiration. “At the time I was appalled by the scene that my brother described to me. Yet more Spanish histrionics ….Now, looking back, I admit that I’m impressed. It was an awesome performance, and although it didn’t save her in the end (but what could?), it gained her time and allies. And her gain, on both counts, was my loss.” But Anne is nonetheless annoyed that Catherine could have “given in gracefully and accepted what everybody else knew: that her marriage to Henry was over.”

This Anne, although still living in the sixteenth century, is written in a deliberately jarring, contemporary style in order, presumably, to make the events feel more real and immediate. I will say at once that although it’s an interesting approach, the author does not succeed in making Anne’s voice particularly consistent, and lines like these are a big part of the reason why. Her marriage to Henry was over. What would a sentence like that mean in the sixteenth century? Those were the days when, officially at least, a marriage ended only when one its participants’ lives did as well. There was always, of course, the option of dying to the world by entering religious life, but this was one that Catherine expressly refused to contemplate. What Henry argued — and Catherine denied — was not that their marriage was over, it was that it had never existed in the first place. In a book full of deliberately discordant notes this is one of the least appealing.

Worse is to come. The Los Angeles-dwelling Catherine of Anne of Hollywood (2012) is a pill-addled mess who’s long since worn out her welcome with every rational human being in her orbit (one of them speculates that she’ll “OD on her own bitterness.”) She’s determined to destroy everyone who’s even tangentially involved with trying to push the
divorce through. As Anne puts it when she first meets Henry, “He’s a free man, officially single. For years he’s been legally separated from his wife, Catherine, as they work out the remaining fine points in what feels like the longest divorce in the history of the world. The delay has nothing to do with the custody of their teenage daughter. This is a battle over power, money, revenge (Catherine’s) and control.”

“I want the name of the judge who will decide in Henry’s favor,” Catherine wails at an acquaintance. “I’m going to expose him, write an op-ed about him in the L.A. Times.” The more she rambles, the more the reader is forced to conclude that Henry left her to protect his own sanity. “This is about my life, my daughter’s life,” says Catherine (although since her teenage daughter is at boarding school and isn’t being threatened with the loss of any inheritance it’s hard to see that she’s involved quite as deeply as that). “This is about a man who is being emotionally withholding and psychologically abusive. Aren’t you outraged about that?” Nobody is, including her father Ferdinand, still alive in this version, who thinks she ought to take her money and run (which does rather sound like Ferdinand, but still.) In the end, Catherine ends up getting scammed out of a large amount of money by the ingenious Carl Wolsey, but doesn’t have to worry about the consequences for long because she accidentally overdoses. Anne’s take on her death is about as sympathetic as you would expect, given the circumstances.

It’s an emotional time. Catherine’s death created tremendous upheaval and I know she would have been thrilled with that. She got her wish. Her unexpected exit affects Henry greatly. He wasn’t prepared for her to be gone so suddenly. Now Maren is motherless and Henry is being blamed for Catherine’s death …. My instinct is to protect my man but my defense only adds to his problems. I’m not good at tempering my thoughts when I’m upset and that leads to statements that can be easily taken out of context because the media couldn’t care less about context. The quote that gets me in trouble is “Catherine was a victim of her own anger.” I was making a point about how women often turn their anger inward, unlike men, who direct it toward the world, but my observation was ignored for the more salacious quote.

Also extremely disturbed is the Catherine of Anne And Henry (2015), who like all the other characters is still in high school. What’s brought, and kept, the two together has not been ill-considered passion but mourning (Catherine was older brother Arthur’s girlfriend until his untimely death on a hiking trip) and family demands. “My father died and left behind his ridiculous list of conditions and rules,” Henry gloomily narrates. “Go to an Ivy League school, immerse myself in politics, marry a Tudor-approved girl — or forget my inheritance.” The inheritance is a pretty creaky plot contrivance to get around a very deep flaw in the high school scenario — which is that Henry and Catherine do not have twenty years of history, do not have a daughter with inheritance prospects to consider, and do not have a God-given mandate to rule the filthy-rich suburb they both live in, and the only possible conclusion is that Catherine and every surviving member of Henry’s family is in desperate need of therapy, which, incidentally, they are all quite able to afford. Henry’s attempts to fob off Catherine by telling her that he doesn’t think they’re going to be together forever and this doesn’t seem like true love to him are more like desperate attempts to politely shake a stalker than someone attempting to end an actual relationship, even of the sort people have in high school.

Both a modern and a contemporary version of Catherine appear in Le Temps Viendra (2013/2014), in which the heroine ends up time traveling and inhabiting Anne’s body, living her life while being aware of what lies in the future. The modern Anne has been living a life with several parallels to the historic Anne’s — seeing a married man with a young daughter, wondering if he’ll ever leave his wife for her, fretting over time slipping by and occasional spasms of guilt. The boyfriend, Daniel, assures modern Anne that he and his wife had never truly loved each other and are only together for the sake of their daughter; modern Anne swallows this, hook, line and sinker. Although she (and we) never actually meet Daniel’s wife Rose, Anne vacillates between pitying her for being with “a man who had never truly loved her” and wishing she would just get out of the way already. When Daniel eventually does leave Rose, Anne takes a very Bordo-esque attitude — annoyance that the woman won’t just clear out at her husband’s behest so that Anne can take over. “I hoped that she would pragmatically accept the truth of this matter,” Anne thinks in one of the most unintentionally revealing passages, “that to be in a marriage with someone who did not love you must surely be greater torture than to have to carve out a life that one might proudly call one’s own.” Even Anne Boleyn’s own daughter Elizabeth, who once acidly proclaimed that “affection is false,” would probably have lifted an eyebrow at that one.

Unfortunately, the historic Catherine in this novel is too informed by the modern Rose to be allowed much in the way of historical nuance. “God, how I remember my first sight of the woman whom I came to loathe for her self-righteous obstinacy!” Anne tells us, recalling her first trip back in time to the English court. “In public, of course, she was always the gracious Queen, treating me cordially and with all due respect. Yet in private, with only her closest and most loyal ladies attending, she took every opportunity to make snide innuendos that questioned my integrity and morality.” But unlike the nasty Catherine of The Favor Of Kings, this one isn’t given enough time or characterization to allow us to truly understand why Anne dislikes her — or for Anne, in turn, to realize how it was that Catherine became what she is, and how she herself is has changed. In fact, considering how this Anne is characterized, it’s hard not to think that Catherine has a solid point in criticizing Anne’s behavior. But Catherine’s real problem is that Anne is a twenty-first century woman who has brought twenty-first century sensibilities to both her modern and historic love affairs. She simply doesn’t comprehend the depth of Catherine’s attachment to her position, or the religious faith that both women embraced in very different ways. (This Anne is so ignorant that she believes the sixteenth-century and modern Masses are similar enough to be mutually comprehensible). Modern Anne can’t have a serious belief in a divine mandate given to kings to rule, so historic Anne doesn’t have one either. But without this belief, the story simply can’t exist without being twisted almost beyond recognition.

This isn’t a problem peculiar to this modernization; they all suffer from it to some degree. But it shows itself most openly when the lead character is a modern woman who is literally inhabiting Anne’s body, and who sees the historic Catherine only with modern eyes. Take away her religion and her faith in a divine mandate that she should be where she is — and that her daughter should remain where she is — and the heart of Catherine is gone. Take away Henry’s mirrored faith in a different mandate, and he wilts into a generic, rather pathetic mid-life crisis — the more generic since his treatment of his first wife and daughter are inevitably altered rather than portrayed as the open abuse they would be considered now. Catherine is, and remains, one of the most impervious characters in the hundreds of retellings of the story, but she flourishes only in her own time. Transplant her to another, and she withers.

From → Brief Lives, Essays

  1. re: Hilary Mantel’s Catherine – it might be in “Bring up the Bodies” rather than “Wolf Hall”, but I recall at least one memorable direct scene between her and Cromwell, where Catherine says she never let her loathing for Wolsey influence her love for “our mother, the Church”, and Cromwell thinks in reply he never let his love for Wolsey influence how he feels about “our mother, the Church”, either. In the same scene, he also reflects that Catherine not going into a nunnery made his own push for reform possible and that she would have served her own cause better if, etc., i.e. the same argument Susan Bordo uses. But he still admires her and pities her daughter. (Am morbidly looking forward to Mantel’s rendering of the Cromwell & Mary relationship in the third novel. Wasn’t after Cromwell’s own fall gossip by his enemies about him having had romantic intentions?) The published version of the two “Wolf Hall” theatre plays which have the letters Mantel wrote to the characters paint an admiring picture of Catherine as well, but with the same argument – she’d have saved England for the Catholic Church if she’d withdrawn into a nunnery.

    Leaving aside the ahistorical hindsight – how was Catherine to know that Henry’s use of the reform-minded faction during the “Great Matter” years would have lasting effects? especially knowing Henry, and his traditional religious inclinations? – , this also ignores what you point out in this post, that Catherine was fighting for her daughter’s rights as well. And here I think the public perception of Mary makes all the difference. If Mary had had a successful rule and the kind of popular image Elizabeth has, Catherine would have been praised for making it possible. And seriously, the daughter of Isabella of Castile would have no reason to believe a Queen would in any way shortchange the realm.

    re: the impossibility of doing Catherine justice in any modern day scenario: yes, I can’t come up with something that works, either, at least not in Western society…

    • sonetka permalink

      THANK YOU! I thought I remembered a scene like that but I was looking through the books and couldn’t locate it and wondered if I had imagined it (it’s easy to do with more than hundred books, I always have to double-check because it’s so easy to imagine something, or for the memory of one book to bleed into another). I must have accidentally missed it when I was searching. I’ll take another look and edit as necessary. I really appreciate how much you know about these books.

      Re the argument that Catherine could have helped her own cause better by doing what she was asked — I remember Mantel’s making it, and it’s not actually an argument I object to per se. Of course, Cromwell is presented as Thomas Cromwell, Suuuuper Genius, so it’s not impossible that he would have thought that Catherine was shooting herself in the foot even at the time, though even he couldn’t possibly have realized just how successful he would end up being. It’s very likely true that Catherine damaged herself by holding out, though as you say, it’s impossible that she could have predicted it at the time and it’s completely unfair to blame her for it. The reason I cited Bordo wasn’t so much the content of the argument as the sneering, hindsight-laden dismissiveness with which she makes it, as if it were patently obvious that holding out would be a disaster and only a fool would have thought otherwise. It’s a very twenty-first century perspective which is reflected in the modernized Catherines.

      As for Cromwell and Mary — there’s that scene in “Wolf Hall” where one of his servants(?) says something like “Haven’t you noticed, master, that the older you get the prettier the girls are?” So I suppose it’s an outside possibility :). Given how Mantel has handled him so far, though, I really doubt it; if anything he’ll be feeling paternal towards her. She’s not so far from the age his daughter Anne would have been if she had lived.

  2. Found it for you! It’s in “Bring up the Bodies”, page 85 to 91, and it’s a very good scene. They talk about Anne and Mary too, in addition to Wolsey, and Katherine gets to be sarcastic in a way she’s not often in fiction. And Cromwell makes the argument not just in thought but in actual words to her: “Do you never think that, if you had bowed to the king’s wishes years ago, if you had entered a convent and allowed him to remarry, he would never have broken with Rome? (…) You drove him to this extremity. You, not he, split Christendom.” (…)
    There is a pause, while she turns the great pages of her volume o frage, and puts her finger on just the right word. “What you say, Cromwell, is…contemptible.”
    She’s probably right, he thinks. But I will keep tormenting her, revealing her to herself, stripping her of any illusion, and I will do it for her daughter’s sake: Mary is the future, the only grown child the king has, England’s only prospect if God calls away Henry and the throne is suddenly empty.”

    I hadn’t remembered “Mary is the future”. Which makes sense at this particular point – no Edward yet, and even if Mantel hasn’t Cromwell already alienated from Anne beyond repair yet, she has him concluding there’s no way the country would stand for baby Elizabeth over Mary and a Boleyn regency.

    In terms of how Mantel will describe Cromwell’s relationship with Mary in the third novel, I think you’re right re: his own feelings, they’ll be paternal if anything, and probably political just in case Edward dies, but in the letter/character portrait from the play, she writes “your dazed relationship with Thomas Cromwell” to Mary, so she might see it as Mary having subconsciously mixed feelings?

    • sonetka permalink

      Thank you so much! I can’t believe I missed it. I’ll amend the entry soon with credit — not that it changes the central idea but it sheds a little more light on that portrayal of Catherine. I can see Mary having “dazed” feelings towards any man who takes a serious interest in her wellbeing and mental/emotional state. Cromwell is a middle-aged man with several relationships behind him and so is much more experienced at calibrating his feelings, but Mary is in her teens/early twenties and can’t safely form any sort of relationship with a man without it being potentially hazardous or at the very least talked about. For Cromwell, their conversations might be another day at the office, for Mary, they could well be an extremely important emotional outlet. Of course, there’s Chapuys, but she can’t actually see him all that often and he’s working from a different angle anyway.

  3. Esther permalink

    The big difference between the Tudor era Katherine and the Katherine in the modern settings is the existence divorce (in the modern sense), where the marriage is deemed valid but ended. Henry didn’t want a divorce in the modern sense, he wanted an annulment (the marriage was invalid from the get go, so he and Katherine had never been married). The Tudor era Katherine could not agree to an annulment because it would mean she was not a virtuous wife, but a whore, who had slept with a man not her husband. None of the Katherines in the modern-era stories have that problem.

    Also, the real Katherine was offered the opportunity to go into a convent in 1528 — when Henry’s “ruthlessness” had been illustrated by the killing of his father’s chief thumbscrews and the execution of the Duke of Buckingham. There was nothing in this record to show that Henry would make war on his own daughter and his Church.

    • sonetka permalink

      That’s the chief problem of the “their marriage had ended” take. He wasn’t saying their marriage had ended, he was saying it never existed, along with everything that implied. Technically speaking, they would not have been considered guilty since they had acted in good faith, but it would have been a terrible blow nonetheless — and Catherine had Mary’s status to worry about. I can’t think of a modern equivalent to the situation Catherine was in when it comes to the sheer humiliation and disgrace she was feeling; religious annulments of course still exist but they have no bearing on legal marriages now — you can’t get one until the legal marriage is ended, but it doesn’t retroactively make the legal marriage, and everything that goes with it, not happen. Non-religious annulments still exist but they’re a very small subset of marital dissolutions. The only way I think it could work in a modernized novel would be if Henry was accusing Catherine of having had an affair and that Mary’s father was actually someone else — but even that situation, awful as it would be, could be resolved with a DNA test.

      I agree that there was no way Catherine could possibly have known what was going to happen — hell, even Henry almost certainly had no idea where the ride would end. I can plausibly see Cromwell looking back from 1536 and speculating about whether Catherine might have done better by yielding, but the armchair critics who criticize Catherine for not taking the veil in 1528? No way.

  4. I think even if Catherine had gone into a convent, then an English Reformation would have taken place. Both Anne and Cromwell would have influenced Henry into some changes, although how far down the line we do not know.

    After all, Anne herself told Kingston when she was imprisoned in the Tower, that she would be sent to a convent. At the time, she was desperately grasping at straws. The irony of the situation, that Catherine refused point blank to go to a convent but Anne saw it as a means of her escaping with her life, is rather tragic.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’m sure it would have happened — reform was coming for everyone in varying degrees. The question for me is how far Henry would have let things go. If Catherine had gone into a convent as soon as requested, Henry would have succeeded at his goal in the system he was used to and would have had little reason to rebel to the extent that he eventually did. As for Anne — assuming that she became queen at all and wasn’t nosed out by Renee of France, she too would have achieved her goal within the existing system. While I can see her still pushing for her goals, I think Cromwell is the real question mark. I really have no idea how far he might have gotten, or how his goals might have changed, with a happily remarried Henry who had increased odds of a few living sons and therefore the obvious stamp of divine approval. The vernacular Bible almost certainly, but the dissolution of the monasteries?

      Anne’s saying that she would go to a convent really underlines just how incredibly unlikely her fate was. It was one of those things where everyone must have been saying “There’s no way that could possibly happen” until it actually did. And after all, convents were a traditional receptacle for inconvenient wives, and after life with Henry, religious life might have looked downright appealing. After everything she had seen with Catherine’s refusals, not to mention less personal examples, it would seem natural to instinctively grasp at that idea that she would end up in one.

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