Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Katherine of Aragon's last letter

Portrait of Katherine of Aragon by Michel Sittow (1502)
My most dear Lord, King and Husband, 
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all considerations of the world or flesh whatsoever. For the which you have cast me into many calamities, and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. 
Katharine the Quene.
Above is a version of Katherine of Aragon's last letter to Henry VIII, which was written shortly before her death on the 7th January 1536. It is one of the most famous and emotive letters that we know of from the Tudor period, but some question whether it was a genuine letter written by Katherine or if it is just a myth. In his 2011 biography of Katherine, Giles Tremlett expressed his view that the letter 'is almost certainly fictitious'. Others may also take this view as there is no physical version of the original letter in existence and the notion of her 'last letter' only surfaced many years after her death. These two doubts could be countered with the argument that, if real, the letter was written 477 years ago so it would be unsurprising if it had been lost/damaged/destroyed at some point and that knowledge of the letter's existence would only have surfaced years after her death as it was a personal letter to the king so it would have taken time for people to have learnt about it. But this is just speculation.

Miniature of Katherine by Lucas Horenbout
painted in 1525 

 One of the earliest mentions of the letter comes from Polydore Vergil, who wrote the 'Anglica Historia' or 'History of England' for Henry VII and then Henry VIII, he recorded in the 27th book of his history that before her death Katherine had dictated a letter to Henry. Some people go so far as to suggest that Vergil had the original letter in his possession. According to Vergil she had expressed her forgiveness, begged him to care for Mary and concluded that 'I vow that mine eyes desire you above all things'. This vague outline of the letter's content is similar to other mentions of it and the versions in circulation today.

The letter is one of the most well-known from the Tudor period due to William Shakespeare mentioning it in his play 'Henry VIII' (which is sometimes called 'All is true'). An extract from the play is below, Patience is a maid to Katherine and Caputius is Eustace Chapuys the Imperial ambassador:
Shakespeare's Henry VIII performed at the globe theatre in 2010, with 
Kate DuchĂȘne (right) playing Katherine of Aragon
Katherine: Patience, is that letter I caused you write yet sent away? 
Patience: No, madam. 
Katherine (to Caputius): Sir, I most humbly pray you to deliver this to my lord the King. The letter is given to Caputius. 
Caputius: Most willing, madam. 
Katherine: In which I have commended to his goodness the model of our chaste loves, his young daughter- the dews of heaven fall thick in blessings on her- beseeching him to give her virtuous breeding. She is young and of a noble modest nature. I hope she will deserve well- and a little to love her for her mother's sake, that loved him, heaven knows how dearly. My next poor petition is that his noble grace would have some pity upon my wretched women that so long have followed both my fortunes faithfully; of which there is not one, I dare avow- and now I should not lie- but will but will deserve for virtue and true beauty of the soul, for honesty and decent carriage, a right good husband. Let him be a noble, and sure those men are happy that shall have 'em. The last is for my men- they are the poorest, but poverty could never draw 'em from me- that they may have their wages duly paid 'em,  and something over to remember me by. If heaven had pleased to have given me longer life and able means, we had not parted thus. These are the whole contents; and, good my lord, by that you love the dearest in this world, as you wish Christian peace to souls departed, stand these poor people's friend and urge the King to do me this last rite. 
Caputius: By heaven I will, or let me lose the fashion of a man. 
Katherine: I thank you, honest lord. Remember me in all humility unto his highness. Say his long trouble is now passing out of this world. Tell him, in death I blessed him, for so I will. Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell, my lord.  
Shakespeare's interpretation of the letter bears many similarities to Vergil's description and today's version of the letter so this could support the argument for the letter having been genuine; although there is still the possibility that they all stem from the same fictitious source! Therefore the authenticity of the letter will never be proved unless the original letter is found somewhere deep within the archives.

But regardless of the letter's authenticity, from what is known of Katherine's character and state of mind prior to her death the content of the letter gives a believable reflection of what she may have been feeling towards Henry. The letter reflects Katherine's intense piety as it chastises Henry for indulging his mortal body instead of caring for his immortal soul. In the letter Katherine forgives Henry and this demonstrates that she had still not accepted that Henry of his own free will had decided to divorce her; to the end she was blinded by her devotion to him so she blamed those around him i.e. Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, courtiers...for the instigation of the 'Great Matter'. The letter also highlights Katherine's caring nature as she entrusts her beloved daughter to Henry and asks that her servants are provided for as she has nothing left to give them. The requests in the letter are logical as in the 16th century married women could not make wills so their only way of making their final wishes known was by using their husbands. As Katherine rejected the divorce and believed herself to still be Henry's wife it would have been natural for her to have made these requests to him. The last line declares her love for Henry one last time as the letter reveals that she wishes to see him again before she dies. But for all the letter's wifely love and devotion it ends on a defiant note with the signature 'Katherine the Quene'. So even if Katherine never wrote a last letter to Henry, this letter provides an idea of what she might have written.
Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire which is where Katherine died and where she would have written the letter

King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare 
Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly 
Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett 
Sister Queens by Julia Fox

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