Six Ways Shakespeare Impacted the History of the Last Medieval Queen (Guest Post)

Guest article by Cassidy Cash

But, I beseech you, what’s become of Katharine,
The princess dowager? how goes her business?
William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene I

When it came time to write his play, Henry VIII, Shakespeare painted a picture of Katharine of Aragon, one of the most famous figures of history and the first wife to Henry VIII. We recognize that truth is often stranger than fiction, but when it comes to historical fiction, we often take the fiction for granted.

Let’s take a look at what influence Shakespeare had on our understanding of The Last Medieval Queen, Katherine of Aragon, by comparing Shakespeare’s account with that of actual history.

One: Spelling

Shakespeare spells her name the exact way it is spelled on her tomb, Katharine. That seems to be a point of confusion for many historians who continually spell her name either Catherine, Katherine, or Katharine. Anne Boleyn is spelled Anne Bullen. Those are petty differences, perhaps, but notable.

Two: Divorce

In the play, Henry VIII divorced Katharine. In reality, he had the marriage annulled. Perhaps to Elizabethans that is the same thing. In the play, Katharine blames Cardinal Wolsey for Henry seeking to divorce her, thinking he drove that wedge in between them. In historical accounts of Henry, however, Henry was driven obsessive by the want of a male heir, which Katharine had not given him, so despite her tremendous loyalty and even love he may have felt towards her, he was decided he needed a male heir. Katharine being beyond child-bearing years, he sought to have a male child by Anne Boleyn, but in order for that child to be King one day, he would have to be born legitimate. So the King sought to marry Anne legally, by consent of the church. Cardinal Wolsey would actually be the one to deny the King his annulment. In the play, Cardinal Wolsey fights for the divorce, and appears to achieve it by manipulating the King. So reasons and motives get a little fuzzy in Shakespeare’s version.

Three: Katharine isn’t murdered

That’s true! Significantly in history, Katharine is not murdered as was the right of the King. Instead, he goes to great lengths to annul or divorce her. The amount of honor, power, and I believe, love, the King gave to Katharine spared her life. That perspective on Henry’s opinion of Katharine is echoed in the play, though she does die alone. In the play, as well as history, Katharine is removed to Kimbolton, where she falls ill. It’s significant that the King goes to such great lengths to keep her alive, to have her removed to an estate, instead of just finding her guilty of some sham offense so that she can be killed and replaced. The actions of the King both in the play, as well as historical accounts, indicate that even if he did not love her (and there’s ample evidence to suggest he did), he certainly cared for her and powerfully respected her for her contributions to his reign. Henry VIII known as someone who was more into games and sport than politics, likely would not have held his reign for the 20 years of his marriage to Katharine without her strong political knowledge and guidance. His choice to not murder her is strong evidence of the King’s affection for her personally.

Four: Shakespeare carries her reputation as a strong woman into perpetuity

In responding before nobles Katharine says,

“You know I am a woman, lacking wit
To make a seemly answer to such persons.”
(Act III, Scene I)

Later in the play during her trial she again reiterates her weakness as a woman, her state as a stranger, having not been born in England, and appeals to the nobles and the King as a woman who is inferior. Even in reading the words she is speaking, it’s never doubted that she actually held any belief that she was inferior to these men there present. Not only had seen been acting regent during any absence of the King himself, but the act of appealing to the expectations of the nobles and King in order to preserve her life while she shares unwelcome news, is vividly painted by Shakespeare as shrewdness from Katharine. Historical accounts echo this opinion of Katharine as someone who was very strong and opinionated. We even have records of Katharine leading a battle against the Scottish when the then King James IV himself, was killed, while King Henry VIII was away. So ever how wise and shrewd, she wasn’t demur or self deprecating. In the play, she walks out of the court in defiance of what she considered truly a stupid exhibition of male domination trying to falsely accuse her (she wasn’t wrong), and Shakespeare’s artistic depiction of her forever solidifies her reputation as a strong, elegant, woman of power.

Five: Her story is embellished for the sake of tragedy

Her first entrance is to be received, kissed, and honored by the King.

“Arise, and take place by us: half your suit
Never name to us; you have half our power;
The other moiety, ere you ask, is given;
Repeat your will and take it.”
(Act I, Scene II)

Then later, at her trial where they attempt to find her guilty of anything worth divorcing her from the King, she not only defends herself beautifully, but the King himself honors her and tells the court she has the right to leave, that her actions are honorable, and that she is a “queen’s queen.” His compliment to her, and expression of admiration and love make her eventual death even more tragic. as I believe, Shakespeare intended. Was King Henry VIII quite so loving? Was he, a man often labeled as harsh, cynical, and selfish, able to love someone as the King in the play so plainly loves Katharine? History debates this fact, and without personal testimony we can’t know for sure, but such is the power of the theater. You can paint the picture you most want to see.

Six: The timeline is off

In the pay, Katharine is informed of Wolsey’s death from her own deathbed, when in fact, Wolsey died years before Katharine. Additionally, in the 17th century babies were christened within days of their birth (which is how we are able to estimate Shakespeare’s birthday, incidentally) but in the play, Elizabeth is christened right after Katharine’s death. Elizabeth was three years old when her mother died, so that fact is a little off in the play.

While Shakespeare plays around with the timeline, that can be attributed to the actual theater convention common to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, where when writing about history, you have to condense it a bit and fit the entire story into a play. That often necessitates rather ignoring the actual time between key events. Overall, the play paints a beautiful and honorable portrait of Katharine, such a tragic heroine throughout the play. By sheer cause of their shock value, the scandal of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s general appetites would take center stage in our minds of this time in history without Shakespeare calling our attention to her story. By painting such an elegant picture of the human nature of the players involved, Shakespeare, as he is so good at doing, causes us to ask complicated questions about the true nature of what happened so long ago. Can we rely merely on facts to know the past, or must we also consider the humanity of long ago?

This particular play is considered perhaps one of Shakespeare’s worst history plays (I know, I don’t understand that either) but it’s interesting to me that it is also one that does not veer too far from actual historical record. Shakespeare takes what’s known about Katharine of Aragon and breathes life into what is our image, or mental statue, of who she might have been. He asks us to get to know her when he paints this picture of her, without bringing up any significant controversy of the historical record.

If you’re now as intrigued to read the entire play as I hoped you would be, you can check out a full an unabridged copy of Henry VIII at this website. (not affiliated, just enthusiastic)

About the Author:

Cassidy Cash is a Shakespearean, writer, and artist. Cassidy believes that if you want to successfully master Shakespeare’s plays, then understanding the history of William Shakespeare the man is essential. She produces weekly youtube episodes asking “Did Shakespeare?” and is the host of “That Shakespeare Life” the podcast that peaks behind the curtain of the plays to look inside the life of William Shakespeare. (Launches April 23, 2018). Connect with Cassidy at her website or on Twitter @ThatShakespeare

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History Katherine of Aragon

17 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Katharine of Aragon did not get divorced from Henry the Eight. Pope Clement the Seventh in 1534, pronounced the marriage valid. Now, of coarse, it seemed as if Anne Boleyn won but in the long run, she did not win. Even though during Mary the First reign, there were three rebellions, one in 1554, one in 1556 and one in 1557, she was the acknowleged Queen and none tried to assinate her. Whereas, there were few really that could accept Elizabeth. There would always be plots to dethrone her.

    • Shakespeare’s version of her story seems to stress the fact that Henry wanted a male heir, unable to get one from Katharine, he sought to have their marriage annulled. I always felt that decision showed true affection from Henry to Katharine, particularly given his propensity to kill off his wives when they had served their purpose, or got in the way.

  2. I do not consider Catherine of Aragon a “medieval queen”. Historically, she is referred to as one of the first queens of the Renaissance period. I’ve compared Shakespeare’s rendition of her famous Black friar speech and the historical eyewitness accounts. Shakespeare was accurate.

    • I think it’s incredible that Henry VIII responded to her in kind. This event must have made a great impression on the collective consciousness for Shakespeare to feel it necessary to stick so closely to the historical fact in representing her speech.

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