Monday, February 9, 2009
In the spring of 1527, Henry VIII began questioning the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Always the theologian, the king turned to Leviticus as proof of his unnatural union. Scripture conveniently stated that anyone who married his brother’s wife would have no children. Bingo. Henry had done just that by marrying Catherine, his brother Arthur's widow and now he desperately needed an heir. So Henry sent his minions running off to Rome to seek a divorce from Catherine in what had become the King’s ‘Great Matter.’ Yet somewhere between guilt and the desire for a do-over, Henry met the enigmatic Anne Boleyn and decided to make her his queen.
The 17 love letters from Henry to Anne span two very different time periods in their courtship. They begin with the heady first days of infatuation to the tender promises of two betrothed lovers. Unfortunately, the letters are undated leaving historians to grapple with the most important question of all – when did their affair begin? This question leads to a far weightier question: Did Henry seek a divorce from Catherine of Aragon to ease his conscience and secure an heir? Or was Henry’s burning desire to extricate himself from his marriage influenced by the burning desire in his nether regions?
If we assign an earlier date to the letters, Anne becomes the catalyst that ended Henry’s marriage and the impetus behind the whole English Reformation – surely a heavy cross to bear. If we assign a later date to the letters than Henry’s motive to divorce Catherine lies in his own troubled conscience and his even more troublesome need for an heir to protect the future of England. Antonia Fraser, Eric Ives, and Alison Weir believe Henry first noticed Anne at Shrovetide in 1526 and the love letters soon followed. Starkey believes the affair could have started as early as 1525. Who is right? And even if the affair did begin in 1525, how much did Anne influence Henry to begin divorce proceeding? I will be exploring all theories in the next posts.
How we got the letters
The love letters resurfaced in the 17th century in the Vatican Archives probably stolen from Anne’s residence at Hever Castle. The letters do contain several clues as to when they were written, but how they are numbered does not. When they first came to the Vatican, some disgruntled archivist took the thin velum and transferred them to Parchment and numbered them in either random order or the order in which they were found. Throughout the next week’s posts, I will be referencing the letters by their numbers, but keep in mind that this is not the order in which they were written.
Where are Anne's letters?
The letters are also very one-sided because none of Anne's letters to Henry have survived. Most likely, Henry destroyed her letters, along with her portraits, when he ceased to need mementos of their affair. Henry could have also destroyed the letters as soon as they were read because the rules of courtly love deemed it indiscreet to save love letters. (It was especially tacky if the love letters were not from your wife.) But considering that Henry hated to write letters, we are lucky to have any relics of his love affair with the mysterious Brunet.
Stay tuned for next post on who stole the letters.
Art Note: Picture of Henry VIII's writing desk from the Victoria and Albert Museum