Do we have to be ‘Team Catherine’ or ‘Team Anne’ when it comes to Henry VIII’s wives?

Henry VIII’s first two queens are often portrayed as opposing rivals: the scorned Catholic on one side and the reformist seductress on the other. But, argues Kate McCaffrey, the devotional books owned by both women suggest they may have shared more in common than the histories make out…

Side-by-side portraits of Henry VIII's first two wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are two of 16th-century England’s most recognisable names: the first two of Henry VIII’s six wives. For centuries, they have been pitted against one another, with historical narratives delighting in their famed rivalry and perpetuating their differences. They were adversaries in love, in power and in religion. Whilst they may have shared a husband, they shared little else.

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This traditional history, which has often painted Catherine of Aragon as the scorned Catholic wife and Anne Boleyn as the bewitching reformist seductress, has never been a fair portrayal of either queen. It is a reductive tale that succeeds by tapping into the outdated social dynamic of praising one woman only to the direct detriment of another.

There has been a confused rush to declare oneself as either ‘Team Catherine’ or ‘Team Anne’, which has only ever increased the division between them. Of course, the two queens had many crucial differences, but a closer look might remind us that they also shared a lot in common.

Sharing in their devotion

A newly uncovered connection between Catherine and Anne might just be the necessary spark for us to remember what united, as well as divided, these remarkable women. The link in question was found amidst recent research into a humble, printed ‘Book of Hours’ once owned, and written in, by Anne.

Books of Hours, perhaps most succinctly described as scriptural prayer books, are generally acknowledged as the first popular books of the medieval era. Written primarily in Latin, they contained prayer cycles and psalms from the eight canonical hours (hence the name) that governed everyday life.

These beautifully illuminated devotional books were meant to be used frequently – in fact, some wealthy people owned more than one copy. The fashion of having a Book of Hours rose even more after the advent of print and their increased accessibility. Even when printed, they were often highly decorated and customised with the addition of certain prayers and illuminations. It was also common for owners to write on the pages themselves, inscribing them with passages, dates and names of personal significance.

Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, held open on an illuminated page by a curator
Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours at Hever Castle. At the bottom left of the book, in Anne’s own hand, are the words ‘Remember me when you do pray/that hope doth lead from day to day’ (Photo by Alamy)

Today, because of this level of personalisation, they offer intimate insights into their individual owners. They are also remembered for their ‘special relationship’ with women, as an ‘appropriate outlet’ for female literacy. It is known that both Catherine and Anne owned at least three Books of Hours each.

Anne’s printed Book of Hours, the subject of new research, was produced by the prolific Parisian printer Germain Hardouin in 1527 and is currently held at Anne’s childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. One discovery of this research was that a copy of this same Hardouin printing is held in the Morgan Library in New York and was once owned by none other than Anne’s supposed rival, Catherine.

This is an intriguing connection between our two opposing queens. Despite all their differences, Catherine and Anne both owned and used the same prayerbook, possibly even at the same time.

Different, but the same

Reflecting their famed differences, the level of decoration across both copies of this book of hours is revealingly varied. Anne’s copy is illuminated to a significantly greater standard than Catherine’s.

Anne’s book has full-length, gold borders adorning pages featuring images, extra red and blue corner decoration, and elliptical frames around every section inscribed with prayers. Catherine’s copy does not feature this extra decoration.

Of course, this could simply be representative of Anne’s personal preference, as it is well-known that she enjoyed opulently illuminated books, but it could be an insight into something more suggestive: Anne’s personal ambition. In owning a book decorated to a higher standard than even the queen’s, she was arguably emulating a royal status that Catherine currently held and in only seven years’ time, Anne would hold instead.

It is significant here to remember the year of this book’s production, a crucial point in the changing structure of the Henrician court. By 1527, the Henry VIII had decided that his marriage to Catherine was over and must be annulled, and by the end of the year Anne had accepted his marriage proposal. The balance of power had well and truly shifted.

The ownership of the same book by our two queens comes at a time when Anne’s star was on the meteoric rise, and Catherine’s was on the catastrophic wane. This was a time of extreme personal strife and turmoil in both of their lives. Here they were, arguably at their most divided, yet united by a small book used in the most peaceful of moments: prayer.

Queens and mothers

Owning the same Book of Hours was certainly not the only unifying factor between Henry’s first two wives. Catherine and Anne shared many characteristics in common.

Both queens were highly intelligent, involved and pious women who enjoyed international, humanist educations: Catherine at the cultured court of Spain and Anne at the prestigious courts of Margaret of Austria and later Claude of France.

They were both at the mercy of their mercurial husband and the 16th-century patriarchy; both had to endure Henry’s wandering eye and ferocious wrath; and both suffered cataclysmic downfalls – Catherine’s gradual and prolonged, Anne’s sudden and sweeping. Both also failed in their one queenly duty to provide Henry with a surviving son.

Yet both Catherine and Anne were loving, protective mothers to England’s first two queens regnant, Mary I and Elizabeth I. This, perhaps, is their ultimate point of unity. They were mothers of two unwanted daughters whose legacies ironically outshine that of Henry’s longed-for male heir by Jane Seymour, who would reign as Edward VI.

Undoubtedly, in certain aspects of their lives, these two women were rivals. But they were both uncompromising, active and influential women in a world made for, and by, men. This alone is a unifying feat worth celebrating.

Catherine and Anne’s shared Book of Hours can perhaps epitomise the relationship between them. Their book was the same copy of the same printing, but differently decorated and differently used. It is possible to understand the nuance of their disparities without pitting them against one another and without forgetting their similarities.

If teams must be chosen, then surely now it is possible to proudly choose ‘Team Catherine and Anne’.

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Kate McCaffrey is the Assistant Curator at Hever Castle in Kent, whose current research into Anne Boleyn’s Books of Hours is revealing new insights into the life of Henry VIII’s second queen. Find out more at kateemccaffrey.wordpress.com. You can also find her on Twitter @kateemccaffrey