The Twentieth century British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point." I think of his quote often and never more than while I was writing Thorns in a Realm of Roses and The Great Matter Monologues.Though Henry is a central character in both, they are primarily about his wives because much of what infused his life was related to his perception and treatment of women.
Both the perception and treatment were cruel, especially for his first two wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, who were faced with the same dilemma, give birth to a son or perish. The former died of neglect, living in exile in cold, damp castles, forbidden to see her daughter; the latter of beheading, falsely accused of adultery and treason. The manner of their deaths are facts in history. It is through closer examination of their words and deeds that we discover their courage at the testing point, their emotional and psychological strength, their keen awareness of themselves as women in a world ruled by men, never believing their sex limited them in terms of power and influence.
Jane Seymour did what her predecessors failed to do. She gave birth to a son, though in doing so she died on Henry's cross, sacrificed to his cause. Henry repelled his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, sending her away under the guise of caring for her safety from plague, whereas in truth he desired a younger, more attractive wife. Katherine Howard, sixteen years of age, endured perhaps the harshest testing point, having not only been accused of not being a virgin when she married Henry, but of also having committed adultery with one of Henry's courtiers. Whether she was guilty or not has long been debated by historians. Regardless, her story is indicative of how men viewed women as seductresses, daughters of Eve, the downfall of men. Thus, she was guilty solely on the basis of being a woman. The manner of her death is both poignant and courageous. Imagine a teenage girl practicing with the executioner's block in her Tower cell, desiring to be prepared for the moment her head would be severed from her neck.
Imagine also the courage it took for Katherine Parr, Henry's sixth wife, to marry while being aware that those who preceded her were dispatched so cruelly. Still, she lived courageously, writing books on theology at a time when women were told to be seen but not heard. In the end, her intelligence triumphed when she used her wits to deflect being imprisoned due to her religious beliefs.
Henry's story is only worth telling because of the women who comprised his wives. Their strength and resiliency, living and succeeding as they did in a culture of men, among limitations carrying the weight of hundreds of years, should inspire any man or woman who believes in the courage and indestructibility of the human spirit.
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