Wife, Spinster or Nun…?

Anne Boleyn (Anne of the Thousand Days)

Anne Boleyn lived in a time when there were few defined choices for women. Those born into royalty or great families were either married, remained childless spinsters or took religious orders. The notion of an independent woman would have been thought of as ridiculous and unnatural. Daughters were lawfully the property of their fathers until they were ‘given away’ at the time of their marriage and afterwards became the property of their husbands.


This week we look at how Katherine of Aragon is a good example of how royal princesses were used as bargaining chips to sweeten foreign alliance treaties. Aswell as looking at what was expected once you did tie the knot.

Katherine was the daughter of the great Catholic monarchs of Spain, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. She had been raised with those around her continually offering the deference due to a Spanish Infanta (Princess).

Ferdinand of Aragon & Isabella of Castile

Furthermore at the age of 4 Katherine’s father betrothed her to Henry VII of England’s older son Arthur, Prince of Wales. This necessitated that she be educated and schooled by her mother and other tutors in all the qualities and compulsory attributes that would make her a successful wife and future Queen of England. By the time she left Spain in September 1501 she had never had to contemplate any other future than wife, mother and Queen.

Katherine of Aragon

European Princesses, such as Katherine, entering into dynastic marriages were expected to perform a very delicate balancing act. Being a good wife dictated that the woman be quiet, obedient and subservient to her husband, while their responsibilities as a daughter simultaneously required them to promote the interests of their parents and the land of their birth.


A wife’s duty to her husband was bound in law and a 16th century women, royal or otherwise would vow at her wedding to be ‘bonnie and buxom at bed and board’, ie to be good and to obey. Henry VIII as a traditionalist would have anticipated nothing less.

As the protagonists in these dynastic marriages were more often than not very young and sometimes had only met for the first time days or even on the day of their marriage there was very seldom any love involved. The marriage treaties would have been negotiated at length years before for political alliance, so love was not the primary driving force. If love did develop later on then that was well and good, but for the elite you married as a duty to your family and found your comfort elsewhere.

Mary Boleyn

Royal mistresses therefore were common and some kings such as Henry VIII’s maternal grandfather Edward IV were notorious for their love of the ladies. Unlike his grandfather we only have evidence that Henry VIII had two mistresses. The first recorded mistress was the very beautiful Elizabeth Blount and later Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary.

These two affairs seem to have followed the usual pattern of attraction, courtship, acquiescence and then with Mary Boleyn a gradual peatering out. It could be argued that his relationship with Elizabeth Blount ended when she found herself pregnant with Henry’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy.

Elizabeth Blount

In next week’s blog we will find out how Anne Boleyn would not agree to the proposition of becoming the King’s mistress and how she eventually created a position by the King’s side, which often shocked and annoyed courtiers, but held the King in her thrall for years to come.

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