The King’s “Great matter”

The King’s “Great Matter” was the euphemism used by those surrounding Henry VIII for his interminable effort to get a legal divorce from his original Queen so he could marry someone who could provide him with a legal heir. For us today the term might be better used for the real reason why he was so desperate to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. This, which had nothing to do with his having “fallen in love,” with Anne, as the romantic modern biographers would have it, but as everyone at the Court must have been aware, had everything to do with the political necessity of having at least one, preferably two legitimate male heirs so that the Tudors would remain in power after he died. Why Henry failed in this, and why so many had to die for his efforts, is a very “Great Matter” indeed for English history, or at least it should be. That for reasons of shame and national pride it’s been hidden for so long makes the hiding of the truth about Shakespeare’s identity seem much less surprising. 

Having ascended to the throne at eighteen, the first ten years of Henry’s reign promised great things for England. At over six feet tall, he was every inch the image of a great Renaissance prince. His blond good looks, athletic build, love of music and literature plus his efforts to raise the level of studies at the universities, spread his fame throughout the Courts of Europe. 

Faced with the political impasse into which his older brother Arthur’s death had cast his dynastic marriage to Katherine of Aragon––primarily to retain the support of her powerful father, Ferdinand II, King of Spain, and his son, Charles V, future Holy Roman Emperor––Henry married Katherine himself, who soon became pregnant with what everyone was certain would be the all-important heir to the English throne. 

However, since the dynastic nature of his legal marriage placed no moral constraints on the royal libido, as soon as Henry began feeling the urge in his mid to late teens, he had sex with every fair maiden who caught his eye. While his Victorian biographers are insufferably coy about this, the facts speak for themselves. One after another he took the more attractive members of his wife’s corps of ladies and their daughters to bed, and when they got pregnant, married them off to one or another of his younger male cohorts. Nor did he deny himself the one-nighters with pretty dairy maids and lissome laundresses that kings with a “healthy” sex drive back then regarded as their royal right.   

Unfortunately the child Katherine was carrying was born dead. When she had miscarried for the fifth and final time in November 1518, having produced but a single living child, a daughter (of small value where the throne is the objective), six months later, his current mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, another of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, gave birth to a living son, on whom the King bestowed an elaborate title appropriate to his exalted patrimony. When Henry moved on to the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, Bessie was married off to another courtier. 

Anne Boleyn, the queen for whom he broke off relations with Rome (the Pope having refused to give him a divorce from Katherine), was already pregnant when they married in May of 1533. Sadly for her, the pregnancy provided yet another female (Elizabeth). Her subsequent failures to sustain another pregnancy must have begun early as there’s evidence in a letter from a year later that Henry was already losing interest in the wife for whom he had severed English relations with Rome and every other European state. John Dewhurst, the Victorian physician who wrote on the subject of these royal pregnancies, quoted a letter from that time: “Since the King began to doubt whether his lady was enceinte or not, he has renewed and increased the love he formerly had for [another] beautiful damsel of the court.”

Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage, a male child of about three months, may have been the last straw for the touchy monarch. Condemned to death on the absurd charge of having sex with five men of the Court (including her own brother)  Henry married Jane Seymour within hours of beheading the woman for whom he had overturned England’s religion and its alliances with all the Courts of Europe.

Still without a legitimate heir, the King prepared his son by Bessie Blount for legitimization by giving him a royal education and naming him Duke of Richmond and Earl of Nottingham. Unfortunately the young Duke died at age seventeen of consumption, their term for tuberculosis––the same diagnosis historians would give the heir born to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. This boy, who became Edward VI at age nine when his father died of the disease that had turned him in a monster. Following Henry’s death, his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, died in agony giving birth to her second husband’s child, who also died.

When the boy king himself died at fifteen of what, once again, the historians continue to call consumption––despite the horrific details as reported by Frederick Chamberlin––this left only the two unworthy females who, as heirs “of the kings’ body,” were legally entitled to inherit the throne. The eldest, Katherine’s daughter Mary, who vainly strove to get pregnant by her husband, Philip of Spain, died in pain four years later, of exactly what can’t be determined from the evidence. Her symptoms adhere to those listed as signs of inherited syphilis.

Thus was the door opened to the last and until Mary’s death, the least significant of Henry’s heirs, his daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor, who true to her original determination, never married, never gave birth and, despite rampant rumors, never got pregnant. Records of Elizabeth’s various illnesses, closely studied by Frederick Chamberlain (1921), shows symptoms of the same “Great Matter” that brought about all these other deaths, and although he sought to dispel the rumors, he did not stint in reporting their cause. 

This brief account of the deadly shadow that appears to have frustrated the King’s attempts to get an heir, that destroyed his wives and their children, that turned England into a religious pariah among the nations of Europe, leaves little doubt that as early as 1513 he had been infected by the epidemic that attacked Europe and its ruling houses at the turn of the sixteenth century, what the English called “the Great Pox,” what today we call syphilis (Andreski). Why is there no record of any treatment for it, nor any other record that would support this view? The answer is simple: shame; shame then, shame now, maybe shame forever.  

As for those who continue to refute “the suggestion” that Henry had syphilis because “his doctors never mentioned it,” of course they would never have discussed it with anyone outside the small inner circle that tended to his body on a daily basis, including the King himself. They didn’t need to, for everyone at that time would have known enough about this most dreaded of all the many diseases prevalent then, and for the centuries that would pass before doctors intent on finding its cure succeeded in discovering penicillin. 

Proofs that this is the truth about Henry, the deaths of his wives and children, his break with Rome, his ruthless destruction of so many good and loyal servants like Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell, his greed in taking for himself the wealth of the English Church and every other ancient institution that in his diseased madness he saw as his for the taking. By matching each period of increasingly ruthless destruction, greed or revenge with one of the three stages of syphilis, easily referenced today by articles and photographs online, there can be no denial that this was the real cause of the King’s insanity, and the diseases and deaths of his wives and children, attributed by historians to “consumption.” 

Our search for the truth about the Shakespeare canon has led to more than one long held, strongly defended national secret, but at the heart of all of the lesser secrets is the “Great Matter” of the disease that led to Henry’s divorce and its effect on English history. One of those effects was the reaction when the men who must have known the truth fled to Strasbourg and Geneva when Henry’s Catholic daughter took the throne, where, disgusted and horrified by what sex had done to their once great King, they adopted Calvin’s extreme form of Sin-obsessed, sex-averse protestantism. These were the men who, following Mary’s death, put Henry’s other daughter on the throne, who, over the 40 years of her reign, turned the once merry English into the chilly hands-off culture that it became under Elizabeth, whose hunger for love and laughter was transferred by Shakespeare to the Court Stage, then to the public stage, where it has since spread to the rest of the world.


4 thoughts on “The King’s “Great matter”

  1. Charles V was the grandson of Ferdinand, being the son of Juana the Mad ( poor lady), the sister of Katherine of Aragon.

    I would suggest you perhaps overdo the coyness of the present day British about the monstrous Henry VIII

  2. Stephanie, you have stopped short of diagnosing whether or not Elizabeth I also carried the syphilitic contagion throughout her life. Her bad teeth has been noted. Can you comment on this?

    Also, as a student of the SAQ, I would much appreciate it if you would provide more citations for your sources, especially of such detailed and intimate aspects of the Tudors and their era. No disrespect, but I think it’s fair for an objective reader to ask, “How does she know that?”

    1. One of my main reasons for believing that Elizabeth was in fact the virgin that she and others claimed is that she, and others in the Court’s inner circle, were well aware that her father had the Pox, and that that is the reason why his children seemed to die young of similar symptoms. This meant that she had it too, as is clear from her medical history. She did not dare to have sex, first because it could make her pregnant, which could mean her death, and second because it could infect someone she loved.

  3. I can’t think of an article that so succinctly and persuasively gets to the medically frightening truth that shadows Henry’s “Great Matter.” Shakespeare’s (De Vere’s) remarkable run of immortal plays and poems must then count as the prime example of artistic (and erotic) sublimation in all human history.

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