Julie Wheeler considers the politics of marriage within Henry VIII’s reign.
The marital politics of the sixteenth-century were often centred on a policy of retaining familial wealth. Therefore it was not unusual, during this time, to find yourself married to a cousin at the behest of your relatives. It didn’t stop there, when it came to wealth and sometimes love, any number of connections that today would seem dubious, in the Tudor period, were part of a socially accepted norm.
Henry VIII and his wives provide a snapshot that illuminates this trend.
Henry and Catherine of Aragon
Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon shared a common ancestor in John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and son of the English king Edward III. Catherine descended from the Duke’s second marriage to Constance of Castile and Henry followed the illegitimate Beaufort line created by his affair with, and subsequent marriage to, Katherine Swynford.
Catherine may have been Henry’s first wife but he wasn’t her first husband. Prior to Henry, Catherine had married his older brother Arthur (pictured) and been left widowed at just 16. It did not take long for powers still keen on an Anglo-Spanish alliance to float the idea of the widow marrying her brother-in-law.
Henry and Anne Boleyn
When Henry VIII decided to take Anne Boleyn as his second wife, he was already more than familiar with her sister Mary. During her affair with the King, Mary Boleyn had two children, Catherine in 1524 and Henry in 1526. The King refused to publicly recognise these as his, but Mary’s Husband, William Carey, was awarded with appointments to stewardships and bestowed with royal annuities for four years running, 1522-1525.
Having enjoyed Mary’s company and ‘shared’ her with Francis I of France, Henry calmly moved on from their intimacy to openly pursue her sister.
As his marriage to Anne Boleyn progressed Henry began to experience disillusionment within the relationship and he took one of her cousins, Madge Shelton, as a mistress.
Henry and Katherine Howard
After the death of Anne Boleyn (and two subsequent wives through death and divorce), Henry had no compunction in marrying within her family. Fifth wife Katherine Howard, like Anne Boleyn, was part of the powerful Howard dynasty. Katherine’s father, Edmund Howard, was brother to Anne’s mother, Lady Elizabeth Howard, making them first cousins.
Young Katherine was also no stranger to amorous associations with relatives. A lover she took before marrying the king, Francis Dereham, was yet another cousin of the Howard family, and Thomas Culpepper, with whom she had a very dangerous liaison, was a distant relation on her mother Jocasta Culpepper’s side.
Although sometimes such relations may have earned the odd frown, justification and exoneration could usually be extracted from the Papacy in Rome in the form of a legal document known as a dispensation in the instance of marriage. As long as one didn’t marry into an inferior social class, it seems the pursuit of in-laws and cousins presented many opportunities for happiness and the financial or dynastic expansion of the family.