by Thomas J. Craughwell
Katharine of Aragon (1485-1536), the first wife of the much-married English king, Henry VIII, has a new champion. Gregory Nassif St. John, a retired New York stage actor now living in Georgia, has begun the process that he hopes and prays will lead to the Catholic Church declaring that Katharine (Nassif St. John uses the traditional English spelling) is a saint.
Nassif St. John learned of Katharine's story via The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the award-winning BBC series that aired in 1970. Katharine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain (the royal couple who bankrolled Columbus' voyage to what turned to be the Americas). In 1509 she married Henry. It was a love match, at least at the beginning, but after 18 years of marriage and the birth of six children, only one of whom, Mary, survived to adulthood, Henry grew tired of his wife. Infidelity was commonplace among kings, and Henry was no better than his brother monarchs, but about the time Katharine stopped conceiving, he became particularly infatuated with one his wife's ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Anne was intelligent, ambitious, vivacious, sexy, and she was candid about her terms: she didn't want to be Henry's concubine, she wanted to be his wife and queen.
As a Catholic, Henry could not divorce Katharine, so the only alternative was to have their marriage annulled. Only the pope could declare that what had appeared to all the world as marriage had been invalid from the beginning. In presenting his case Henry argued that because he had married his elder brother's widow their union was cursed by God -- they had no child (by "child" he meant a boy; Mary, as a girl, didn't count). Katharine countered that she and Henry's elder brother Arthur had been married only three months before the sickly fourteen-year-old died, and during that time they had never consummated their marriage. When he married Henry, she said bluntly, she was still a virgin -- a fact well known to him.
The case dragged on as Pope Clement VII dithered about what to do. After four years of waiting, Henry took matters into his own hands. He had his obliging archbishop of Canterbury annul his marriage with Katharine. He married Anne Boleyn. Then he severed England's ties with Rome and proclaimed himself head of the Church in England. In short order Anne was crowned queen and Parliament declared her children would be heirs to the throne of England. As for Katharine and Mary, they were shipped off two different castles. Katharine was stripped of her title, "Queen of England," henceforth she would be known as "Dowager Princess of Wales." As for Mary, she was declared illegitimate. Katharine absolutely refused to accept such a settlement. Her marriage was valid; her daughter was Princess of Wales; and the pope did have authority over such matters. But under Henry's new political and religious order, such sentiments were treason. Those who supported Katharine, including Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, were beheaded. Other supporters were hanged, drawn, and quartered; starved to death in the Tower of London; or in the case of Katharine's confessor, roasted to death over a slow fire. When Henry sent two envoys to threaten Katharine with death if she did not conform to the king's will, she fully expected that she would die a martyr like her friends. (Read the whole article here.)
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- Fr. Christopher George Phillips
- Fr. Phillips is the founding pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church, the first Anglican Use parish, established on August 15, 1983. Not that there is any confusion, but he is on the left, shown in his younger, less gray-headed days.