In June 1529, Queen Katherine of Aragon came in person before the legatine court at the Dominican Priory of the Black Friars. At stake was a divorce proposed by her husband, Henry VIII. Henry was desperate to marry Anne Boleyn and sire a male heir and needed his marriage to Katherine to be nullified. He wanted the case to be heard in England. Katherine did not agree.
Katherine of Aragon
The situation was designed to intimidate her. The room in the Dominican Priory was, by definition, exclusively male, and the men she faced carried the full authority of the Catholic Church: Archbishop Warham, six other bishops, and the duplicitous Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who hoped to broker the deal. His line was that he was impartial and well able to deal with the case in England.
The Court Room
Katherine, every inch the daughter of the formidable Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, read out a protest which made it clear that she distrusted the impartiality of both the legates and Cardinal Wolsey; she made a formal appeal to the pope that the case be heard in Rome. Then, perhaps recognizing the impact of a dramatic gesture, she fell to her knees before her husband and swore that she had been his lawful and faithful wife for twenty years. Impasse.
Pomegranate bollard in Granada, emblem of the royal house of Castile and, ironically, a symbol of fertility
I was thinking of all this when I recently visited the Apothecaries Hall, home of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and built on the site of that same Blackfriars Priory. We were shown the Court Room where, tradition had it, Katherine had appealed to Rome on that fateful day in June 1529. Of course, it wasn’t really the same room – the original Apothecaries Hall had burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt in 1671. But it occupied the same footprint. I was perhaps standing in the same space where Katherine had once stood to defend herself.
Main Landing just outside the Court Room
I have no idea if Katherine’s ghost haunts the Court Room but is an imposing place with its dark panelling, stained-glass windows and pictures of worthy men in heavy gilt frames. It was not difficult to imagine Katherine in that sombre atmosphere.
The Apothecaries Hall courtyard today
As I came out of the Apothecaries Hall and walked across its elegant 18th century courtyard into the spring sunshine, I thought about Katherine. In her youth, she had been a political pawn on the royal marriage market; she had borne Henry at least five children, of whom only Mary had survived; Henry had forcibly divorced her, parted her from her daughter, and forced her to live in penury and obscurity for the rest of her life. I felt for her.
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