On the 21st June 1529, Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII appeared at the Legatine Court. The full court had assembled between 9 and 10 o’clock on the Monday morning. Katherine had entered first, then the two Cardinals, Wolsey and Campeggio, and then finally Henry VIII himself.
George Cavendish, Wolsey’s Gentleman Usher and later biographer, describes it as ‘the strangest and newest sight that a King and Queen should appear in court (as common persons) to abide the judgement of their own subjects’. The judges’ commission was then read and the parties summoned into court. “King Henry of England, come into court!” the crier called. The King would then have answered “here, my lords!” as he rose from his throne.
The King addressed the court, asking for a swift decision ‘to determine the validity or nullity of his marriage, about which he had from the beginning felt a perpetual scruple’. Wolsey spoke after and said that, although he has received benefits from the King for many years, both he and Campeggio would judge the case only according to the facts and their conscience.
Katherine appeared next but she instead left her dais and went to the King, kneeling at his feet. She spoke to the King, but not as a king. She spoke to him as a poor loving wife to her husband. Cavendish records this speech:
“Sir, I beseech you for all the loves that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right, take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman, and a stranger born out of your dominion. I have here no assured friend, and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you as to the head of justice within this realm.
Alas! Sir, wherein have I offended you, or what occasion of displeasure? Have I designed against your will and pleasure; intending (as I perceive) to put me from you? I take God and all the world to witness, that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife, ever comfortable to your will and pleasure, that never said or did any thing to the contrary thereof, being always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance, whether it were in little or much. I never grudged in word or countenance, or showed a visage or spark of discontentation. I loved all those whom ye loved, only for your sake, whether I had cause or no; and whether they were my friends or my enemies. This twenty years I have been your true wife or more, and by me ye have had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them out of this world, which hath been no default in me.
And when ye had me at first, I take God to my judge, I was a true maid, without touch of man. And whether it be true or no, I put it to your conscience. If there be any just cause by the law that ye can allege against me either of dishonesty or any other impediment to banish and put me from you, I am well content to depart to my great shame and dishonour. And if there be none, then here, I most lowly beseech you, let me remain in my former estate and receive justice at your hands. The King your father was in the time of his reign of such estimation thorough the world for his excellent wisdom, that he was accounted and called of all men the second Solomon; and my father Ferdinand, King of Spain, who was esteemed to be one of the wittiest princes that reigned in Spain, many years before, were both wise and excellent kings in wisdom and princely behaviour. It is not therefore to be doubted, but that they elected and gathered as wise counsellors about them as to their high discretions was thought meet. Also, as me seemeth, there was in those days as wise, as well learned men, and men of as good judgment as be at this present in both realms, who thought then the marriage between you and me good and lawful. Therefore it is a wonder to hear what new inventions are now invented against me, that never intended but honesty. And cause me to stand to the order and judgment of this new court, wherein ye may do me much wrong, if ye intend any cruelty; for ye may condemn me for lack of sufficient answer, having no indifferent counsel, but such as be assigned me, with whose wisdom and learning I am not acquainted. Ye must consider that they cannot be indifferent counsellors for my part which be your subjects, and taken out of your own council before, wherein they be made privy, and dare not, for your displeasure, disobey your will and intent, being once made privy thereto.
Therefore, I most humbly require you, in the way of charity and for the love of God – who is the just judge – to spare me the extremity of this new court, until I may be advertised what way and order my friends in Spain will advise me to take. And if ye will not extend to me so much indifferent favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause!”
Twice Henry tried to raise her up, according to Campeggio, but still she knelt. She spoke in ‘broken English’ but, as David Starkey says, ‘made the speech of her life’. She then ‘rose up, making a low courtesy to the King, and departed from thence.’ People called after her and she was told to return to the court, but instead she ignored them. Her General Receiver, Mr Griffith (Richards) said to her ‘Madam, ye be called again.’ ‘On, on,’ she replied. ‘It makes no matter, for this is no indifferent court for me; therefore I will not tarry. Go on your ways.’
The Life of Cardinal Wolsey by George Cavendish, 3rd Edition, p104-107
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey, 2004, p40-242
Catherine kneeling in front of Henry and making her famous speech. Painted by Frank O. Salisbury in 1910