Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Epigraph: “O ye people! fear your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and created therefrom its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women; and fear Allah, in Whose name you appeal to one another, and fear Him particularly respecting ties of relationship. Indeed, Allah watches over you.” (Al Quran 4:2)
Catherine pleading her case against divorce from Henry. Painting by Henry Nelson O’Neil
Queen Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Queen Isabella of Spain and the first wife of King Henry VIII.
What does she or her biography have to teach us about the family values, especially the contrast of Christianity and Islam or the Bible and the Quran?
Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand are known for completing the Reconquista, ordering conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects and in supporting and financing Christopher Columbus‘ 1492 voyage that led to the opening of the “New World.” Isabella was granted the title Servant of God by the Catholic Church in 1974.
On 2 January 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand entered Granada to receive the keys of the city and the principal mosque was reconsecrated as a church. The Treaty of Granada was signed later that year, and in it Ferdinand and Isabella gave their word to allow the Muslims and Jews of Granada to live in peace. However they broke their promise soon after, and then began the Inquisition.
Isabella and Ferdinand had seven children. Five survived infancy and lived to adulthood. Queen Catherine of Aragon was the youngest.
She was the first of the six wives of King Henry VIII, whom he married one after another.
His six wives are six opportunities to contrast the teachings of Islam and Christianity about Family Values.
The six women to hold the title “queen consort” of King Henry VIII, between 1509 and 1547, were:
- Catherine of Aragon (marriage annulled; died while detained under guard at Kimbolton Castle);
- Anne Boleyn (executed);
- Jane Seymour (died days after giving birth, widely believed to be following birth complications);
- Anne of Cleves (marriage annulled);
- Catherine Howard (executed);
- Catherine Parr (widowed).
A common mnemonic device to remember the fates of Henry’s consorts is:
‘Divorced Beheaded Died;
- Divorced Beheaded Survived.’
There is also a rhyme:
King Henry the Eighth,
to six wives he was wedded.
One died, one survived,
two divorced, two beheaded.
However, Henry did not “divorce” two wives; he had the marriages annulled.
This article is about his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
She has two lessons to teach us in our comparison of Islam and Christianity, regarding family values, as will become apparent during the reading of this article.
She was the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella, the joint rulers of Spain, who successfully defeated and pushed out the last of the Muslims or the Moors from Spain. As was common for princesses of the day, her parents almost immediately began looking for a political match for her. When she was three year old, she was betrothed to Arthur, the son of Henry VII of England. Arthur was not even quite two at the time.
When she was almost 16, in 1501, Catherine made the journey to England. It took her three months, and her ships weathered several storms, but she safely made landfall at Plymouth on October 2, 1501. Catherine and Arthur were married on 14 November 1501 in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.
After the wedding and celebrations, the young couple moved to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border. Less than six months later, Arthur was dead, possibly of the ‘sweating sickness.’ She insisted all her life that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated.
She had to do that to justify her marriage to Arthur’s younger brother, King Henry the VIII, as there was a prohibition in the Old Testament, against marrying a brother’s widow:
If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless. (Leviticus 20:21)
When King Henry VII died in 1509 one of the new young king, Henry VIII’s first actions was to marry, his widow sister-in-law, Catherine. She was finally crowned Queen of England in a joint coronation ceremony with her husband Henry VIII on June 24, 1509.
Prince Henry was born on January 1, 1511 and the was christened on the 5th. There were great celebrations for the birth of the young prince, but they were halted by the baby’s death after 52 days of life.
On February 1516, she gave birth to a daughter named Mary, who later became queen.
But there were no sons from the marriage.
Henry was growing frustrated by his lack of a male heir, but he remained a devoted husband, for all royal purposes.
He had at least two mistresses that we know of: Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount and Mary Boleyn. By 1525 though, he had begun to separate from Catherine because he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, who was sister of his former mistress Mary Boleyn and later became his second wife.
It was in 1520s that the lives of Henry’s first and second wives begin to interweave. By the time his interest in Anne became common knowledge, Catherine was 42 years old and was no longer able to conceive.
Henry’s main goal now was to get a male heir, which his wife was not able to provide.
Somewhere along the way Henry began to look at the texts of Leviticus which say that if a man takes his brother’s wife, they shall be childless. He thought it to be self serving, in a climate, when monogamy was the law and divorce was not allowed.
As evidenced above, Catherine and Henry were far from childless, and still had one living child. But that child was a girl, and didn’t count in Henry’s mind.
The King began to petition the Pope for an annulment. At first, Catherine was kept in the dark about Henry’s plans for their annulment and when the news got to Catherine she was very upset. She was also at a great disadvantage since the court that would decide the case was far from impartial.
Catherine then appealed directly to the Pope, which she felt would listen to her case since her nephew was Charles V of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor.
The political and legal debate continued for six years. Catherine was adamant in that she and Arthur, her first husband and Henry’s brother, did not consummate their marriage and therefore were not truly husband and wife. Catherine sought not only to retain her position, but also that of her daughter Mary.
Proponents of the divorce, led by Henry’s lawyers and loyal clerics insisted that the marriage had been illegal from the beginning based on several passages in the Bible, particularly two passages from Leviticus. One has already been quoted and the other is Leviticus 18:16, “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness.”
If polygamy had been allowed this legal wrangling, which consumed most of Europe and Catholic Church, for several years, would have been totally unnecessary. The Holy Quran says about limiting the numbers of wives to four:
And if you fear that you will not be fair in dealing with the orphans, then marry of women as may be agreeable to you, two, or three, or four; and if you fear you will not deal justly, then marry only one or what your right hands possess. That is the nearest way for you to avoid injustice. (Al Quran 4:4)
As noted before, in 1525, Henry VIII became enamored by Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine who was 8 years younger than Henry. Henry began pursuing her; Catherine was no longer able to bear children by this time. Henry began to believe that his marriage was cursed and sought confirmation from the Bible, which he interpreted to say that if a man marries his brother’s wife, the couple will be childless. Even if her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated (and Catherine would insist to her dying day that she had come to Henry’s bed a virgin), Henry’s interpretation of that biblical passage meant that their marriage had been wrong in the eyes of God. Whether the Pope at the time of Henry and Catherine’s marriage had had the right to overrule Henry’s claimed scriptural impediment would become a hot topic in Henry’s campaign to wrest an annulment from the present Pope. It is possible that the idea of annulment had been suggested to Henry much earlier than this, and is highly probable that it was motivated by his desire for a son. Before Henry’s father ascended the throne, England was beset by civil warfare over rival claims to the English crown, and Henry may have wanted to avoid a similar uncertainty over the succession.
It soon became the one absorbing object of Henry’s desires to secure an annulment. Catherine was defiant when it was suggested that she quietly retire to a nunnery, saying, “God never called me to a nunnery. I am the King’s true and legitimate wife”. He set his hopes upon an appeal to the Holy See, acting independently of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, of England, whom he told nothing of his plans. William Knight, the King’s secretary, was sent to Pope Clement VII to sue for an annulment, on the grounds that the dispensing bull of Pope Julius II was obtained by false pretenses.
As the Pope was, at that time, the prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V, following the Sack of Rome in May 1527, Knight had difficulty in obtaining access to him. In the end, Henry’s envoy had to return without accomplishing much. Henry now had no choice but to put this great matter into the hands of Thomas Wolsey, and Wolsey did all he could to secure a decision in Henry’s favor.
Wolsey went so far as to convene an ecclesiastical court in England with a representative of the Pope presiding, and Henry and Catherine herself in attendance. The Pope had no intention of allowing a decision to be reached in England, and his legate was recalled. (How far the pope was influenced by Charles V is difficult to say, but it is clear Henry saw that the Pope was unlikely to annul his marriage to the Emperor’s aunt. The Pope forbade Henry to marry again before a decision was given in Rome. Wolsey had failed and was dismissed from public office in 1529. Wolsey then began a secret plot to have Anne Boleyn forced into exile and began communicating with the Pope to that end. When this was discovered, Henry ordered Wolsey’s arrest and, had he not been terminally ill and died in 1530, he might have been executed for treason. A year later, Catherine was banished from court, and her old rooms were given to Anne Boleyn. When Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, the Boleyn family’s chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed to the vacant position.
When Henry decided to annul his marriage to Catherine, John Fisher became her most trusted counsellor and one of her chief supporters. He appeared in the legates’ court on her behalf, where he shocked people with the directness of his language, and by declaring that, like John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. Henry was so enraged by this that he wrote a long Latin address to the legates in answer to Fisher’s speech. Fisher’s copy of this still exists, with his manuscript annotations in the margin which show how little he feared Henry’s anger. The removal of the cause to Rome ended Fisher’s role in the matter, but Henry never forgave him. Other people who supported Catherine’s case included Thomas More, Henry’s own sister Mary Tudor, Queen of France – though as a member of the Tudor family and of royal blood, she was safe from any punishment and execution – Maria de Salinas, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Paul III and Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and William Tyndale.
Upon returning to Dover from a meeting with King Francis I of France in Calais, Henry married Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony. Some sources speculate that Anne was already pregnant at the time, but others testify that Anne (who had seen her sister Mary Boleyn taken up as the king’s mistress and summarily cast aside) refused to sleep with Henry until they were married. Henry defended the legality of their union by pointing out that Catherine had previously been married. If she and Arthur had consummated their marriage, Henry by canon law had the right to remarry.On 23 May 1533, Cranmer, sitting in judgment at a special court convened at Dunstable Priory to rule on the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, declared the marriage illegal, even though Catherine testified she and Arthur had never had physical relations. Cranmer ruled Henry and Anne’s marriage valid five days later, on 28 May 1533.
Until the end of her life, Catherine would refer to herself as Henry’s only lawful wedded wife and England’s only rightful queen, and her servants continued to address her by that title. However, Henry refused her the right to any title but “Dowager Princess of Wales” in recognition of her position as his brother’s widow.
Catherine went to live at The More castle in the winter of 1531/32. In 1535 she was transferred to Kimbolton Castle. There, she confined herself to one room (which she left only to attend Mass), dressed only in the hair shirt of the Order of St. Francis, and fasted continuously. While she was permitted to receive occasional visitors, she was forbidden to see her daughter Mary. They were also forbidden to communicate in writing, but sympathizers discreetly ferried letters between the two. Henry offered both mother and daughter better quarters and permission to see each other if they would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as his new Queen. Both refused.
In late December 1535, sensing her death was near, Catherine made her will, and wrote to her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, asking him to protect her daughter. She then penned one final letter to Henry, her “most dear lord and husband”:
My most dear lord, King and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I ouge [owe] thou forceth me, my case being such, to commend myselv to thou, and to put thou in remembrance with a few words of the healthe and safeguard of thine allm [soul] which thou ougte to preferce before all worldley matters, and before the care and pampering of thy body, for the which thoust have cast me into many calamities and thineselv into many troubles. For my part, I pardon thou everything, and I desire to devoutly pray God that He will pardon thou also. For the rest, I commend unto thou our doughtere Mary, beseeching thou to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat thou also, on behalve of my maides, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all mine other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I makest this vouge [vow], that mine eyes desire thou aboufe all things.
Katharine the Quene.
Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle on 7 January 1536. The following day, news of her death reached the king. At the time, there were rumors, that she was poisoned, possibly by Gregory di Casale. According to the chronicler Edward Hall, Anne Boleyn wore yellow for the mourning, which has been interpreted in various ways; Polydore Vergil interpreted this to mean that Anne did not mourn.
The Holy Quran does not put brother’s widow in the prohibited list:
Forbidden to you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your fathers’ sisters, and your mothers’ sisters, and brother’s daughters, and sister’s daughters, and your foster-mothers that have given you suck, and your foster-sisters, and the mothers of your wives, and your stepdaughters, who are your wards by your wives unto whom you have gone in — but if you have not gone in unto them, there shall be no sin upon you — and the wives of your sons that are from your loins; and it is forbidden to you to have two sisters together in marriage, except what has already passed; surely, Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful. (Al Quran 4:24)
The Bible has contradictory opinions on this issue.
To support the idea of prohibition for marrying brother’s widow from the Old Testament there is a passage from the New Testament, where John the Baptist rails against King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Mark 6:17-19 For Herod had sent soldiers to arrest and imprison John as a favor to Herodias. She had been his brother Philip’s wife, but Herod had married her. John kept telling Herod, “It is illegal for you to marry your brother’s wife.” Mar 6:19 Herodias was enraged and wanted John killed in revenge, but without Herod’s approval she was powerless.
Yet on the other side of the argument there are passages which just as strongly insist that a brother should take the widow of his brother to wed, especially if they have all been living in the same household.
Deuteronomy 25:5-10 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
And there is more support from Genesis:
Then Judah said to Er’s brother Onan, “You must marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. Her first son from you will be your brother’s heir.” (Genesis 38:8)
How persuasive were the arguments on either side of validity of Catherine’s marriage? The Pope was asked to grant the divorce. He dallied and dithered because he did not want to offend either Henry VIII nor the powerful relatives of his wife. The Pope’s indecision caused Henry to break his whole country off from the Catholic Church and order the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant him his divorce…and so began the Church of England.
Two Quranic verses, quoted in this article, would have prevented all of social, political and religious wrangling, about Catherine’s marriage or lack there of, which stretched over a decade and consumed many lives.