Blog Tour: Medical Downfall of the Tudors




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Join us today for the blog tour of Sylvia Barbara Soberton’s new book Medical Downfall of the Tudors with an article called: When did Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon stop sleeping together?

When did Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon stop sleeping together?

Open any nonfiction book about the Tudors, and you will learn that that by 1524 Henry VIII had stopped sleeping with Katharine of Aragon.1 This, however, is one of the most enduring myths about Henry’s marriage to his first wife. In 1527, Henry VIII initiated a divorce case known in its early stages as the Great Matter. The King’s infatuation with Katharine’s maid of honour, Anne Boleyn, was cited among many courtiers as the real reason behind the royal divorce. However, Henry maintained that the fact that Katharine was previously married to his elder brother was the reason for his decision.

Katharine and menopause

Popular, as well as academic narratives, will tell you that Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon stopped having sexual relations in 1524 and that by 1527 Katharine was already menopausal. The available evidence does not suggest that this is the case, however. While it is true that Katharine was forty-two when Henry decided to terminate their marriage, there is no evidence that she was going through menopause at the time or even before the year 1527. However, the Venetian ambassador probably wasn’t alone in thinking that Henry sought a divorce because Katharine was his late brother’s widow and because she was “of such an age” that he could no longer hope for offspring from her.2 Henry never referred to Katharine’s inability to bear children in general. Still, he always maintained that she was unable to bear him sons because she was his brother’s widow, and therefore God punished them with the lack of male heirs. His main reason to repudiate Katharine and marry Anne Boleyn was his desire to produce male children. Katharine was unable to produce sons, not because she was already menopausal, but because their union was cursed and offensive to God, in Henry’s view at least. This was Henry’s line of defence, and this he would strenuously maintain until the end of the proceedings.

Fertility was certainly not Katharine of Aragon’s problem. She conceived on a regular basis, although her pregnancies resulted either in stillbirths or the early death of infants (another persisting myth is that she endured numerous miscarriages). Only Princess Mary survived the perils of early childhood and lived to reach adulthood. Katharine’s last recorded pregnancy occurred in 1518, when she was thirty-three, about the same age Anne Boleyn was when she gave birth to her first child in 1533. If Henry feared Katharine was unable to bear him any more children, then why didn’t he say anything? The answer seems clear: Katharine was still deemed able to conceive.

Sleeping with the King

During the Blackfriars trial of the royal marriage in 1529, Thomas Boleyn said that it was common knowledge that “the King and Queen cohabited till about two years ago when he heard that the King was advised by his confessor to abstain from intercourse with the Queen, so as not to offend his conscience”.3 As the father of Henry VIII’s wife-to-be, Thomas Boleyn was certainly well informed about the goings-on in the royal bedchamber, and he said that Henry and Katharine stopped sleeping together in 1527. A letter from Cardinal Wolsey to the King’s representative in Rome said that Henry shunned Katharine’s bed because of “certain diseases in the Queen defying all remedy”.4 The implication was clear: Katharine’s unspeakable “diseases” were of an intimate nature. But if Katharine was indeed diseased, why didn’t Henry react earlier? Perhaps because, as Katharine of Aragon’s modern biographer asserts, “the Queen was not diseased”, and Wolsey was desperate to obtain the annulment.5

A year later Henry resumed visits to Katharine’s bedchamber, and according to the Imperial ambassador, “they dine and sleep together”. This, the ambassador thought, was because Henry wanted to avoid accusations of “acting in defiance of the Queen’s conjugal rights”, as the lack of conjugal relations in a marriage was strongly condemned by religious authorities.6 There is no certainty that they had resumed a sexual relationship, but it is contradictory to earlier reports about Katharine’s mysterious diseases, which allegedly led Henry to shun her bed. Katharine’s staunch supporter, Eustace Chapuys, believed in 1535 that she was still fertile, and he based that observation on interviews with her physicians.7 If Katharine was menopausal at the beginning of the divorce case in 1527, Henry VIII could well have used that as proof that she was physically unable to bear him more children, as the stoppage of menstrual courses was understood as the end of a woman’s childbearing years. Yet he never did that.

Medical Downfall of the Tudors by Sylvia Barbara Soberton is available now in both the UK and the US

  1. See, for example, Robert Hutchinson, Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII, p. 134, Josephine Wilkinson, Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress, Chapter 7.
  2. Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, Volume 4, n. 236.
  3. Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, Volume 4, n. 14.
  4. Ibid., n. 3644.
  5. Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII, p. 276.
  6. Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII, p. 276.
  7. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1, n. 165.






About Moniek 1821 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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