Katharine of Aragon: Give The Lady Her Due

Last evening while watching a few episodes of the old HBO juggernaut “The Tudors”  – the at-times laughably anachronistic television series about Henry VIII and his court – I could not help but think about one of my favorite hopeless causes: namely, the question of whether Katharine of Aragon should be considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.  The series itself gives her a reasonably fair shake, compared to some film treatments I have seen.  Yet the issue of whether she ought to be put forward for investigation by the Church is something that still seems to be lacking in proper quarters to give the lady her due.  Whether or not she is, in fact, a saint, I think she is at least worth consideration.

With respect to the television serial itself, certainly there are some good elements to the series, purely as a visual matter.  The costumes are beautifully rendered, for example, not cheap stuff.  As someone who dressed up as Philip of Spain for Halloween a couple of years ago, trying my best to base everything chosen on a couple of paintings of the Spanish monarch, I can appreciate the attention to detail with the proper choice of materials, chains of office, and so on.  Moreover, not all of the acting is of the scenery-chewing variety, though there are some eye-rollingly bad performances.

Yet for whatever reason, as is usually the case in any film dealing with Henry VIII which I have ever seen – with the exception of “A Man for All Seasons” and perhaps one or two others – the man gets off too lightly in the hands of the filmmakers.  It is admittedly difficult to make a long dramatic piece centered around an evil man, for clearly Henry became one whatever he may have been at the start of his reign, and not risk losing your audience altogether.  Great writers can do it, as Shakespeare could do in “Richard III”, and great television series can occasionally achieve it, such as in the “House of Cards” series with the wonderfully infernal Sir Francis Urquhart.  Yet Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, engaging as he is in other work of his I have seen, does not quite have the gravitas to be believable as this particular Tudor monarch: he looks like a gigolo and he acts like one.

Coming back to the point however, of Queen Katharine, she was treated very badly not only by her husband, but also, to be frank, by the Church, the State, and her own family.  Some years ago I had read historian Garrett Mattingly’s moving biography of her, which drew particularly on surviving correspondence.  She never wavered in knowing who she was, as a Catholic, a wife, and a monarch who had made vows to God, her husband, and to the English people whom she was to aid her husband in governing, that she would fulfill her vows no matter what the cost to her personally.

Her last letter to Henry, written the day she died 476 years ago this week, is brief, but poignant. It gives us a glimpse of how Katharine saw her relationship to him, as the spurned wife, as a mother, and as the head of a small household. Yet it also shows us someone who realized that she had to make one last appeal to him to save his immortal soul and repent of what he had done, even if it was too late for the two of them, and even though she was still deeply in love with her husband:

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 worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, 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,
January 7, 1536

Before you think that a letter such as this could move a heart of stone, and at least cause some level of regret or reflection, even if not full repentance, you should know that contemporary reports are that Henry greeted the news of Katharine’s death with rejoicing.

I hope my readers will forgive the apparent crudity of the following statement, but the truth is that Henry did not have the cojones, as one says in Spain, to produce viable male offspring with Katharine, a fact which of course he blamed her for. His subsequent poor track record on that score – which ultimately led to to the deaths of tens of thousands of people – with his subsequent wives, when viewed purely from a plumbing perspective, would seem to indicate that he was the cause of the problem, as was rumored increasingly at court as he went from one young and otherwise healthy wife to another. Nor did Henry have the cojones to execute Katharine herself, either, for fear that it would cause either a popular uprising against him by the common people who loved her dearly, or to an invasion by her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V.

As to why Katharine herself has not been considered for sainthood, there is in fact some movement underway, at last, to have the Church consider the matter.  I have seen comments to the effect that women who have been married and had children cannot be canonized, which is an ignorant statement.  St. Isabel of Portugal, St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Monica, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, to name a few, were all married women – some of whom were queens of their respective countries – who bore children and later went on to become canonized saints.

I have also seen comments that the ecumenical dialogue which the Catholic Church has attempted to broker with the Anglicans in recent years means that politically the question is too much of a hot potato, and there may be some truth to that. However given that there are now many martyrs under Henry and Elizabeth who have been canonized by the Church, it can hardly be said that Rome is seeking to defer to the wishes of Canterbury for the sake of appearances any longer.  If the Pope did not consult with Rowan Williams before establishing the Anglican Ordinariate for Anglicans wishing to come back into communion with Rome, and which celebrates its one-year anniversary this weekend, then I see no reason why he should consult with him before investigating the cause of Katharine of Aragon.

The real problem is that there needs to be a build-up at the local level of interest in and consideration of Katharine, if she is ever to be properly considered by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  It is fine if people in America or Spain want to talk about her for example, and promote her cause, but if the real base for that effort does not come from English Catholics, then chances are it will never happen.  And this is unfortunate, because we should consider what a great patroness she would be, if she is indeed in Heaven, for wives and mothers abandoned by their husbands, or who have their children taken away from them.

While Katharine’s candidacy for sainthood may be a lost cause, it is one that on a personal level I will continue to advocate.  As a Catholic, as an Anglo- Catalan, and as a gentleman, the way she was treated still makes my blood boil at the injustice and indignity she suffered, nearly half a millenia after all of it occurred.  And even if we cannot have a St. Katharine of Aragon, would that someone in Hollywood would make a film of her life, drawn from her perspective, rather than continuing to be fascinated by her disgusting reprobate of a husband.

Portrait of Katharine of Aragon by Michael Sittow (1502)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The National Cathedral: No, It’s Not Catholic

While much of the news coverage of yesterday’s earthquake here on the East Coast of the United States was focused on the commuter problems and apartment/office building damage, I was captivated by the news of the damage to Washington National Cathedral, the giant, Gothic Revival Episcopalian church that is the highest point in the city. It is, despite appearances to the contrary, not a Catholic building.  I have been surprised to read quite a few comments on Twitter and elsewhere that people are, for some reason, unaware of this distinction.

Anyone who has been to Washington knows that the National Cathedral can be seen from all over town. The structure took about a century to build, and is somewhat reminiscent of the mainly 13th-14th century Lincoln Cathedral, in England, which of course was built by Catholics before the Protestant Reformation.  It was originally supposed to be built about where L’Enfant Plaza now stands, but the site was later moved up to near the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue (aka “Embassy Row”) north of Georgetown/Glover Park.  It  is an architecturally and historically significant building, as you know if you have seen any of the Presidential funerals that have taken place there in recent years.

The fact that as a result of yesterday’s earthquake the Cathedral has lost some of its decorative elements, including several of the pinnacles – one of which could fall any moment, as shown in the image below – is not as disturbing as the fact that there are, according to various news outlets, cracks in one or more of the flying buttresses. While no one is foreseeing a Beauvais situation, which would be pretty spectacularly bad, medieval construction methods as practiced by 20th century builders always make me a bit nervous.  Hopefully the problem can be addressed speedily, and modern technology through the use of various computers and technical equipment will make sure that a large crash does not take place.

Readers both Catholic and otherwise should not confuse the “National Cathedral”, which is Protestant, with the “National Shrine”, i.e. the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is Catholic, and on the other side of the city.  St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the center of downtown is the Catholic cathedral for the Archdiocese of Washington, and is considerably smaller than either the National Cathedral or the National Shrine, or “The Basilica”, as DC Catholics tend simply to refer to it.  At the present time the city only has one basilica, but of course if we ever get a second one, things may start to get confusing.

Truthfully, the presently-lone Basilica is a fairly awful building, apart from the crypt church. It is substantially larger than the National Cathedral, though built in a sort of Neo-Byzantine style instead of Neo-Gothic. And while it can also be seen all over the city, it is not a view that I can particularly commend. It looks something like a cross between a fantasy mosque from “I Dream of Jeannie”, and a matte painting building of the planet of Coruscant in “Star Wars”.

That being said, while some elements of the Basilica, when examined up close, are actually better than the sum of its parts, personally I have never been a huge fan of the National Cathedral at all, when examined up close.  It is one of those structures which looks better from a distance.  Some of its details – like the “Creation” sequence over the West Front – are, in truth, quite pleasing.  However, it is something of a majestic pastiche, which on examination of the details makes one think less, rather than more, of the architecture.  It is a modern Protestant attempt to copy old Catholic ideas, and as a Catholic, I always gets the sense when visiting this building that it is lacking in some way.

This puts me in mind of the time a few years ago that a friend took me to see the church off Times Square in Manhattan known as “Smoky St. Mary’s”, which I had never previously heard of.  We walked around with him pointing out the various altars, images, and so on, and at the conclusion he asked what I thought of it. I explained that it was nice, but that he was trying to trick me because it was clearly not a Catholic Church.  There was something about it that seemed like someone playing dress up, despite the candles, images of saints, and so on.

Even so, let not the reader think that I am pleased in any way to see the damage the building has suffered. Fortunately no one was injured, but the work to repair the structure is going to be more complicated than simply tacking up some siding or running a row of brick.  You cannot drop by the local home supply store and pick up carved, Indiana granite finials.   My best wishes to the community at the National Cathedral as they go about making sure their house of worship is safe, and that it can be repaired and restored soon.

Detail of a badly damaged pinnacle at Washington National Cathedral.