This letter was written by Katharine about seven months after the birth of Henry VIII’s daughter with Anne Boleyn. Henry had demanded that Mary take the oath to the Act of Succession, thus acknowledging the invalidity of her parents’ marriage as well as her own illegitimacy. Mary understandably refused, but her resolve was faltering. Henry would not allow her to visit her mother; he also dismissed her household and placed her in the care of Lady Anne Shelton, the aunt of Anne Boleyn. Mary was miserable and quickly fell ill. She had never been robust and the constant emotional turmoil of her life affected her physical health. She understandably looked to her mother for advice and support. In this letter, Katharine tells Mary to follow her own strategy – obey Henry in all things except those which would offend God.
As the letter indicates, Katharine herself genuinely feared for Mary’s life, as well as her own. But she was determined to remain true to her conscience, and none of Henry VIII’s threats would persuade her otherwise. Mary would eventually betray her mother’s wishes and accede to the Act of Succession; her letter to Henry VIII is included in the Primary Sources section and is a remarkable document.
In this letter, Katharine mentions Lady Salisbury. This was Margaret de la Pole, countess of Salisbury; she was also a Plantagenet heir and cousin of Henry VIII’s. She had been Mary’s governess for many years and was very close to both Katharine and Mary. Upon Mary’s disobedience, Henry dismissed her from Mary’s service; Margaret was eventually executed on trumped-up charges of treason in 1541. Her death was perhaps the most blatant act of judicial murder in Henry’s bloody reign.
I find this letter psychologically interesting. Katharine became increasingly pious as her marriage to Henry dissolved into ceaseless acrimony and misery. Religious fervor became her only comfort. In this, she perhaps inadvertently over-stressed its importance to her daughter. She placed Mary in an untenable and dangerous position, essentially telling her that it was God’s will to disobey her father, even as she assumed God was on her side in the annulment proceedings. But Henry was equally convinced of the religious righteousness of his cause. Poor Mary, torn between two bullying parents, inevitably turned to her mother. After all, Katharine’s situation was far more sympathetic and she was badly treated (after she refused many generous offers to accept Henry’s wishes.) But the effect on Mary’s personality was devastating. She remained emotionally insecure for the rest of her life.
Daughter, I heard such tidings today that I do perceive if it be true, the time is come that Almighty God will prove you; and I am very glad of it, for I trust He doth handle you with a good love. I beseech you agree of His pleasure with a merry heart; and be sure that, without fail, He will not suffer you to perish if you beware to offend Him. I pray you, good daughter, to offer yourself to Him. If any pangs come to you, shrive yourself; first make you clean; take heed of His commandments, and keep them as near as He will give you grace to do, for then you are sure armed. And if this lady [Anne Shelton] do come to you as it is spoken, if she do bring you a letter from the King, I am sure in the self same letter you shall be commanded what you shall do. Answer with few words, obeying the King, your father, in everything, save only that you will not offend God and lose your own soul; and go no further with learning and disputation in the matter. And wheresoever, and in whatsoever company you shall come, observe the King’s commandments. Speak you few words and meddle nothing. I will send you two books in Latin; the one shall be De Vita Christi with a declaration of the Gospels, and the other the Epistles of St Jerome that he did write to Paul and Eustochium, and in them I trust you shall see good things. And sometimes for your recreation use your virginals or lute if you have any.
But one thing I especially desire you, for the love that you do owe unto God and unto me, to keep your heart with a chaste mind, and your body from all ill and wanton company, not thinking or desiring any husband for Christ’s passion; neither determine yourself to any manner of living till this troublesome time be past. For I dare make sure that you shall see a very good end, and better than you can desire. I would God, good daughter, that you did know with how good a heart I do write this letter unto you. I never did one with a better, for I perceive very well that God loveth you. I beseech Him of His goodness to continue it; and if it fortune that you shall have nobody with you of your acquaintance, I think it best you keep your keys yourself, for howsoever it is, so shall be done as shall please them.
And now you shall begin, and by likelihood I shall follow. I set not a rush by it; for when they have done the uttermost they can, than I am sure of the amendment. I pray you, recommend me unto my good lady of Salisbury, and pray her to have a good heart, for we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles.
Daughter, whatsoever you come, take no pain to send unto me, for if I may, I will send to you.
Your loving mother,
Katharine the Queen.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Letter of Katharine of Aragon to her daughter, Princess Mary April 1534" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/letter-katharine-aragon-daughter-princess-mary-april-1534/, February 24, 2015