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Early Modern Britain

Friends & Foes of Henry's Wives

From Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series by Doctor David Starkey, September 2001

Part 1: Catherine of Aragon

Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516) and Isabella of Castille (1451-1504)

Through their marriage, Ferdinand II, king of Aragon and Isabella I, queen of Castile united the two kingdoms which later became known as Spain. Pope Alexander VI gave them the title of the 'Catholic Kings'.

Their joint rule was rigidly centralised. The infamous Inquisition council was established in 1480 using torture, public burnings, and secret tribunals to eradicate what it called heresy. This started with Marranos (Christianised Jews who practised their religion in private), and Moriscos (Christianised Moors), and then extended to humanists, protestants, and others who did not agree with the regime's policies. Nevertheless, Ferdinand and Isabella's administration was to become the most modern in Europe.

On Isabella's death in 1504 the union of the kingdoms nearly collapsed when the couple's daughter Joanna and her husband Philip, with the backing of the grandees, tried to snatch the Castilian throne. With Philip's death, Ferdinand got himself recognised as regent of Castile, taking power from his insane daughter.

Ferdinand went on to forge greater international alliances, including one with England but although, at the time of his death (1516), Spain was well placed on the world stage, many of his children and their issue were to die, leaving the country to Joanna and then Charles I, who favoured his position as Holy Roman emperor.

Arthur, prince of Wales (1486-1502)

With Arthur's birth in 1486, Henry VII of England was happy that he had a son who would ensure the security of his line following from his reign, which began just a year earlier. The choice of name was meant to encapsulate this hope of a happy future, harking back to the magic of the legendary 'King Arthur' of the fifth or sixth century, about whom little was known but much was imagined.

Arthur was to die in his teens (1502), a few months after marrying Catherine of Aragon and beginning what appears to have been a happy relationship. His younger brother Henry was to benefit from his untimely demise.

Part 1: Catherine of Aragon
Part 2: Anne Boleyn
Part 3: Jane & Anne of Cleves
Part 4: Catherine & Katherine

Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530)

Son of an Ipswich butcher, he became one of the most influential men in Europe. His efficient working methods led Henry VII to appoint him as chaplain in 1507. After the king's death he quickly rose in the ranks of Henry VIII's politicians. He became both cardinal and chancellor in 1515, bridging both political and ecclesiastical positions and giving him power second only to the king.

His power gave him huge wealth, enabling him to buy a number of homes including Hampton Court, and York Place which stood on the same spot as the current Whitehall in London. His attacks on clerics and papal authority won Henry support from the laity and paved the way for the Reformation - England's break with Rome. His reforms to the judiciary and the offices of state also had far-reaching consequences to the current day.

His ambitions knew no bounds, but therein lay his downfall. Wolsey took a weak position against Rome on the issue of the divorce from Catherine of Aragon, partly because he hoped one day to become pope. When Spain and France allied behind his back, his dream became an impossibility and he became in Henry's eyes untrustworthy. In 1530 he was charged with high treason, but died before trial.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

The son of a judge, More was successful in law and wrote the book Utopia. When Wolsey was disgraced it was he who was appointed chancellor.

A true fan of Catherine of Aragon, More was a devout Catholic who disliked Protestantism. His writings protested against William Tyndale's New Testament and the Lutheran movement.

Fatally, More also objected to the Reformation and refused to take the oath of the Succession Act 1534 which invalidated Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon, declared his children with Anne Boleyn to be legitimate heirs, and repudiated the pope. His defiance was seen as treason. He was sent to the Tower of London to be beheaded the following year.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)

Cromwell began his rise under Wolsey and, in 1534, he became secretary to Henry VIII - the architect behind government and much of the Reformation. Supporting Protestantism, he had Henry declared head of the Church, kept a stranglehold on monasteries, and tried to destroy any opposition. Critically intertwined with this was the divorce from Catherine.

Cromwell's enthusiasm for forming alliances to support his Protestant sympathies took him one step too far. The disastrous match with Anne of Cleves in order to ally England with German aristocrats called for Henry to become Lutheran and support the German princes' wars with the Holy Roman empire. Henry liked neither the bargain nor his new bride.

Cromwell's enemies, notably the duke of Norfolk, used the division which now opened between Cromwell and the king to sow more seeds of distrust. The minister was taken to the Tower and was refused a fair trial, before an Act of Attainder of 1540 allowed him to be convicted of treason and heresy and then to be beheaded.

Mary I (1516-1558)

Daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was given a strong humanist education by Margaret, countess of Salisbury, which gave prime importance to human rather than supernatural or divine ideas, laying the grounds for the Renaissance. She was barred from seeing her mother from 1531, and with the 1534 Act of Succession aimed at preventing her taking the throne, she was declared illegitimate.

Neither this, nor a conspiracy to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, stopped her from rising to become queen of England from 1553. She married Philip II of Spain in 1554 and returned papal supremacy to England as a devout Catholic.

Her ruthless attacks on Protestants gave her the nickname Bloody Mary. She plunged the country into crippling wars and died without an heir.



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