International Women’s Day: Catherine of Aragon

For me, Catherine of Aragon was the strongest of Henry VIII’s wives. Probably even as strong as Elizabeth I – the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn.

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Born on 16 December 1485, and daughter to Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, she was given an education almost as strong as her brother’s, and we all know that knowledge is power.

She was originally married to Henry the VIII’s older brother Arthur, having been betrothed at the age of three. But their marriage was short-lived as Arthur died soon after at the young age of 16. She was then married to Henry VIII to keep the allegiance between her home country and Henry’s.

Why does she deserve a blog post for International Women’s Day? Because she was quite an interesting and strong character.

When she first came to Britain she couldn’t speak English. Gradually, her Spanish maids-in-waiting were taken from her, and replaced with English women. In essence, she was expected to forget who she was, to become fully English as the future Queen of England. Despite her homesickness, she endeavoured to learn English – which she barely spoke a word of on her arrival – and to win the hearts of the English public.

Even on her wedding day to Arthur, she defied public expectation by showing her Spanish heritage through riding into London side-saddle on a mule. Despite this, she soon won the public’s heart. So much so that when Henry VIII demanded a divorce from her years later, it was to great public disapproval. And the public continued to support her, during Henry’s long drawn-out attempts to claim a divorce from the Pope, making it an international spectacle, and probably the most public divorce you could ask for. All the more humiliating for Catherine, who was now known as the Queen who couldn’t produce a male heir (and who was no longer attractive to the king).

Even though she fought hard against the divorce, in the end she could do little more than sit back and watch as her royal status was slowly taken from her – her home, her waiting staff, her title, and even her daughter Mary. All the while she knew that once upon a time, she had stood in for Henry when he went to war in France in 1513, when he appointed her Regent or Governor of England. In his absence, she had even rode North in full armour, to defend England against the Scots, and was even heavily pregnant at the time. Of course, her daughter Mary never forgot her mother’s integrity, especially that of her religious integrity, and eventually became known as Bloody Mary.

For more information, read David Starkey’s Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII.

Hampton Court Palace in Pictures

The other weekend I took a trip with my partner and housemate to Hampton Court Palace, which is just down the road from where I live. Here are my pictures and thoughts on the day. I’m not going to call it an online tour: that might put you off reading. Having read a number of books and seen programmes on the Tudors and the history of this period since the last time I visited a few years ago, I spent most of the time informing my companions about the history of the place. I’m sure they enjoyed listening as much as I enjoyed talking. I’m sure they did. In fact, sometimes they enjoyed what I said so much I had to say it again.

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The first thing you tend to notice about the Palace is its colossal number of chimneys. Chimneys were a sign of wealth in the old, old days. Chimneys = fires = wood for burning = a wealthy houseowner who could either afford a lot of wood or had a vast amount of land to grow and fell trees for firewood. The design of the chimneys derives from the original design back when the palace belonged to Thomas Wolsey, before it became Henry VIII’s. Thomas Wolsey is more widely known as Cardinal Wolsey – Henry VIII’s advisor whom he held close to him. That is until Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and was arrested. He died before Henry had a chance to kill him.

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Anyway, the above picture shows the area outside the main entrance. I said to my housemates I reckoned there was once water here, like some sort of moat, as you can see the change in the brickwork colour. Sure enough, during last week, I saw an old news story from the 4th January, literally the day before I went to visit, reporting that this moat had been flooded for the first time in ten years – which would explain the green tinge of the brickwork.

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Felt like a right historian, I did.

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The Tudor kitchens. You can still have parties and weddings here. The Tudor diet consisted of 75% meat.

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Notice the “GR” meaning George Rex, denoting that the mailbox was cast during the time of George (VI?).

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The Great Hall – England’s last great medieval hall, decorated with tapestries featuring The Story of Abraham. Tapestries were a prominent wall decoration in medieval times. Wolsey had more than 600 tapestries himself, and would have the tapestries displayed in his rooms changed every week.

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Henry VIII was a great sportsman in his youth. He was great at jousting, games such as real tennis, and of course, hunting, which is why most of the London parks contain freely roaming deer.

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This, of course, is Henry VIII. Not the most famous of portraits, which involves him wearing a massive cloak and, er, codpiece to emphasize his manliness, yet near enough the same. His wide stance also suggests a tough guy, as well as his curved calves, which many of his contemporaries praised, as strong, muscular calves were beheld as an element of beauty on a man in those days. Why the massive codpiece? Despite having had six wives, many of their offspring died, and only one male heir survived him. Yet not for long – Edward VI died at 15 years old. The codpiece is more or less Henry saying, “I am capable of having a strong male heir – honest!”

It is widely suggested that the many babies Henry fathered died at such young ages, or were stillborn, because he had syphilis. He had other syphilitic symptoms – an ulcerated knee, and his extremely unpredictable behaviour as he aged. Yet, in no written documents does it say that he had syphilis, and medics in those days were very familiar with the illness and its symptoms. Instead, his behaviour and apparent tyranny may be attributed to a head injury following a jousting accident in 1536, that left him out cold for two hours. In the same accident, an old wound on his knee was reopened, leading him to suffer immense pain from it for the rest of his life, as ulcers repeatedly appeared on it. It is said that you could tell when Henry was coming towards the room you were in, as you could actually smell the wound. This knee, combined with possible gout and diabetes would also explain his obesity.

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Heading into the other part of Hampton Court Palace – the world of William III and Mary II.

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In William and Mary’s private bedroom, they had a remote locking system; using a pulley, they were able to lock the doors without leaving the comfort of their own bed – note the wire attached to the top of the lock. Almost like the modern day app system Wemo which allows you to do things like switch off your lamp remotely from your phone. Kind of reminds me of that awful old-school film about the computer called Electric Dreams

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It’s crazy how many beds and closets the king had – the closet having developed from a small room for the king to retreat to, to a much larger room or rooms. Interesting to note, when we were walking round, a visitor asked an attendant where Henry VIII’s bedroom was. He obviously hadn’t been paying attention. She said they didn’t exist anymore as William had effectively rebuilt over some of Henry’s old rooms including his bedroom, which is why some of the palace is completely red brick with floral carvings … and the other parts look like this:

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For William, I guess he liked the palace, yet wanted something more fashionable for the times. Which is why Hampton Court Palace, the home of two halves, is such a fascinating place to visit.

After the Summer

Prior to last week’s post, I hadn’t posted anything in a while – soz. As the autumn and winter months draw in, I’ll no doubt be posting a lot more. Summer kind of takes hold, and I did have a busy summer, though I haven’t stopped talking about and thinking about history the whole time. Even on my holiday in Portugal – a relaxing, sunny holiday – I wasn’t completely satisfied until we visited the old town of Sitges, home to a castle from the Middle Ages and an archaeological museum.

But now the Autumn has set in. And there’s something about this time of year, that for some reason always takes me back to my insatiable interest in WWI.

It’s a strange thing.

It’s the smell on the air – damp, muddy, fresh smell. It reminds me of visiting the old battlefields, the memorials, the cemeteries, the preserved trenches, especially when I went there three years ago at the end of October.  I feel like I need to go back there this time of year every year. It’s a strange calling I have.

Instead, I have to make do with entertaining myself with WWI related stuff. Like War Horse – watched that last weekend. It was interesting. I liked the idea. I’ve never read the book. My main criticism of the film? The filters/lighting of the scenes were a little too strong. But obviously that’s more technical. My favourite part? The charge of the cavalry – that realisation that being an arrogant Brit won’t save you from death, especially when you run into machine guns head on, armed with nothing more than a sword.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual excelled at playing a well bred English man in this film, and also in Parade’s End – a strange five part BBC drama. Featuring WWI (again) and suffragettes. Quite interesting, but strange as it jumped forward a lot through time. It would spend ten minutes on one scene – a conversation between two people – then jump forward a year. I reckon the books probably fill in the gaps a bit better, a set of three written by Ford Madox Ford in the twenties. I think I’ll have to read them at some point; there’s something comforting knowing a book was written close to the time of the events it references. It’s interesting to see the difference in perspective between then and now.

I also bought Birdsong on blu-ray, the BBC drama, produced by Working Title. Felt that should definitely have won some awards, but it didn’t. People seemed to love it or hate it when it was on in January and I obviously loved it.

I also have three books on my shelf to read. I started reading The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston last year. It’s Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiography. I mostly got it as I wanted to read about his time in the war and about his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and his friendship with Wilfred Owen. So I thought I’d get the full autobiography, learn about life in the English countryside before the war etc.

Turns out that Sassoon completely omitted Owen from the biography, as he was anxious not to show his relationship with him as homosexually intimate – as it wasn’t. Or to give any readers the slightest impression that it was – it was just a friendship. I didn’t even get to that bit, and I was already a bit disappointed; this was also because I kind of got a bit bored with stories about cricket and fox hunting. Not a massive interest in either and pretty much half of it is about those two things so far. But it’s cool – I gave up reading purposely at the point when he decides to sign up to the army, so it won’t be too hard to get back into.

I also have to read a new novel on World War One, though I’m a bit dubious of reading more recent war novels, after the awkward ending of Ben Elton’s The First Casualty. I didn’t like the ending or even really like the main character of that book. Anyway, the new book I have is called My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Found this after seeing a link to another fairly new war book, hailed as the new Birdsong. As some reviewers on Amazon disagreed with this, I decided not to get it, but got the My Dear… book instead, as most people gave it five stars.

And as a present to my manager when I left my job as a planner for Viasat History the other week, I got her Strange Meeting by Susan Hill – my favourite war book. Even more than Regeneration by Pat Barker. And as my leaving present? The Faces of World War I: The Tragedy of the Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur – an amazing book with haunting images.

Anyway, this was only meant to be a quick catch up, and I’m waffling on as if this is a review blog. Well, it isn’t. So I’m stopping there.

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Separate point – was in a pub in Streatham the other weekend and was struck by this portrait:

The pub was called Earl Ferrers. This was a title not a name. This particular portrait is of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers…and the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in this country. He was hanged on 5th May 1760, for shooting an old family steward. I just thought it was a strange painting especially as the noose is too small.