Each of Henry VIII’s wives chose their own motto and emblem. Anne Boleyn’s motto was ‘Most Happy.” After that Henry’s queens must have chosen their motto with rather a lot of care and not a little dread.
Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife. They married in 1509 with Henry honouring a promise to marry his brother’s widow. Catherine had become a penniless princess after Prince Arthur’s death in 1502 whilst her father-in-law and father argued about her dowry and whether she would marry Prince Henry or Henry VII or be sent home. The death of Henry VII enabled seventeen-year-old Henry to rescue his princess. Thomas More’s collection of poems celebrating the marriage of the royal couple, the so-called Coronation Suite, is liberally decorated with intertwined Tudor roses and pomegranates. The Museum of London houses a badge showing a pomegranate and a Tudor rose combined. Other examples of a rose morphing into a pomegranate have been found elsewhere and help demonstrate the popularity of the marriage between Henry and Catherine. Click on the image at the start of the post to open up a new window. For a while they were a fairy tale couple.
Catherine’s motto was ‘humble and loyal’ and her emblem was a crowned pomegranate. The pomegranate, originally the heraldic symbol for the city of Granada, represents life, fertility and marriage. The representation of marriage comes from the Greek myth featuring Hades and Persephone. Persophone was kidnapped by Hades and while she was in the Underworld she ate six pomegranate seeds. Persophone, as a consequence of eating the seeds and a ruling by Zeus, was required to spend six months of the year with Hades. The pomegranate came, somewhat ironically in Katherine’s case, to represent the insolubility of marriage. Clearly Katherine’s spouse had other ideas given that in May 1533 having failed to acquire a papal annulment he simply severed the insoluble tie by declaring himself to be head of the Church in England and divorcing himself from his wife of twenty-four years in order to marry Anne Boleyn who was a little bit pregnant. It had taken eight years for Henry to get what he wanted but ultimately Catherine, despite her stubbornness and determination, was removed and exiled to Kimbolton Castle where she would die in 1536 little mourned by Henry but revered by her subjects, by her friends and enemies alike – Thomas Cromwell, the agent of her fall, admired her immensely for her intellect and powers of argument.
During that all that time Catherine had indeed been humble and loyal. She’d done everything required of a queen from hand stitching Henry’s shirts, making blackwork popular and giving it its alternate name of Spanishwork, to being regent in his absence. Whilst Henry VIII was off on a jolly in France pretending to have a war in 1513 it was Catherine who oversaw the victory at Flodden which also saw the death of her brother-in-law James IV of Scotland.
In the Bible the pomegranate represents fertility and abundance. Sadly for Katherine the arrival of heirs produced one tragedy after another. One baby boy lived a month before dying. In 1516 the Princess Mary was born but the passage of time and one pregnancy after another was taking its toll on the queen in both her looks and outlook on life. The one thing that was required of a queen was to produce a male heir. Always pious, she turned increasingly to prayer for comfort bringing us to the final meaning of the pomegranate. In medieval art pomegranates are linked to resurrection and eternal life. Henry also turned to the Bible, for an explanation rather than consolation. He reasoned that he had sinned in taking his brother’s widow as his wife.
Katherine’s daughter Mary took her mother’s pomegranate emblem for her own. The British Library houses a book of Mary’s depicting the pomegranate on its cover.