Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) was to represent a political union between a strong and powerful Spain and the up-and-coming England; instead, she became a paragon of virtue. She was the first wife of King Henry VIII who never gave up the crown even after her husband had forsaken her in his quest for a male heir.

Catherine of Aragon was the last child born to the two reigning monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. She was born in the Castle of the Archbishop of Toledo where her mother took refuge after engaging in combat with the Moors. Catherine's childhood was filled with battles and celebrations as her parents worked to expand the realm of their influence.

Catherine's mother ascended the throne unexpectedly without the benefit of a formal education; she therefore brought scholars into Spain in an effort to give her daughters a broad knowledge of the world. Catherine was an attentive student who was capable of speaking Latin, French, Spanish, and later English. As a balance the girls were also trained in law, genealogy and domestic life, including embroidery, household management, dance, and music. The belief that a pious Christian life could be led within the world of the monarchy was passed to Catherine by her devoutly Catholic mother.

Knowing that the union of their daughters to other powerful nations could strengthen their foothold in Europe the King and Queen chose these alliances carefully. The Treaty of Medina del Campo in 1489 contained the promise of a bride for Prince Arthur of England, son of Henry VII. The daughter chosen was Catherine, but the actual treaties of marriage did not occur until August 1497 at Woodstock, England. In May 1499 the first of the wedding ceremonies occurred in Worcestershire after a Papal dispensation allowed Arthur, who was below the age of consent, to make his vows.


Life as Princess of Wales

A second proxy marriage occurred in 1500 in Ludlow, but it was not until the summer of 1501 that Catherine finally arrived in England as the Princess of Wales. The trip was physically difficult for her, but she was welcomed in England with great fanfare. Her final marriage vows were said in November 1501 in St. Peter's Cathedral, and a mere five months later, the Prince of Wales died. Until her death Catherine insisted that this marriage to Arthur was never consummated, a fact that her second husband was never able to publically deny.

The comforts that Catherine had enjoyed as a new bride were soon stripped as King Henry VII refused to support her household because her complete dowry had never been paid. In humiliation she was forced to live meagerly at court. She worried about her women in waiting who had accompanied her from Spain and for her own future as well. For seven years she continued in a state of limbo as the Princess Dowager (widow) of Wales, no longer under the care of her father and refused care by her father-in-law.


Life as Henry VIII's Queen

The death of Henry VII and the ascension of Henry VIII brought Catherine new hope of a marriage and the chance to take her rightful place as Queen of England. The king's council preferred a Hapsburg or a French marriage, as was the wish of Henry VII when he betrothed his son to the child Eleanor of Austria. Catherine insisted to those in her household that her marriage to Henry would occur although privately worried about her fate. Those fears were put to rest when Henry VIII went against council and took Catherine as his bride, a mere six weeks after ascending the throne. They were married in a church outside Greenwich Palace on June 11, 1509. The King was 18 years old and Catherine was five years his senior.

Speculation exists about why he chose her when he could have made a marriage with a number of women. According to The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, edited by Antonia Fraser, as he was dying, Henry VII advised his son to marry Catherine "to preserve the Spanish alliance." Other historians dispute this deathbed promise as unfounded, particularly given the poor treatment Catherine suffered at the hands of Henry VII. Another theory is that the new king wanted to quickly secure a successor. All indications suggest however, that Henry chose Catherine for the sake of romance. He could easily have been smitten with her as she was one of the few women that he had been able to speak with during his adolescence. Catherine was "dainty and graceful, with fine eyes." In regards to the young king, Fraser added that Henry "was young enough to be in love with love" and "became captivated by the Princess it was his duty to wed."

Further proof that he loved Catherine is exhibited by the fact that they shared a coronation day, which was highly unusual at the time. Normally a queen consort was coronated only after she bore an heir as had happened with the king's own mother. Instead Henry broke with tradition and Catherine rode with him through the city of London in lavish carriages and clothing as part of a joyous celebration. Catherine was well received by the English subjects as their Queen.

Catherine loved her young, athletic, charming husband. She wanted to please him and as a devoted wife, was determined to give Henry an heir. Their first child was a stillborn daughter in 1510. A son, Henry was born in January 1511 but sadly only lived 52 days. Catherine miscarried in October 1513 and in February 1515, had a stillborn son. In February 1516, there was happiness as Princess Mary was born. There was joy in the sign that Catherine could bear a vital child which kept alive the hope of a son. Sadness accompanied the birth as the Queen was finally informed of her father's death two weeks prior. In 1518 Catherine had another stillborn daughter and there would be no more children.

Catherine was comforted by Henry at each loss. In the beginning of their marriage Henry was not the heartless man that he is portrayed as later in his life. He showed open affection for Catherine as he jousted in her colors as Sir Loyal Heart. A love knot with their intertwined initials was emblazoned on his armor. Goblets were made with this same emblem of unity. Catherine also had her own personifying fertility and her own Spanish upbringing. Although Catherine adapted well to her role as English Queen, she still was bound to her land of origin.

While Henry was at war he named Catherine as the Queen Regent of the Kingdom which showed the great faith that he had in her. Given her upbringing amidst war she was well equipped to serve in the regent capacity. Reminiscent of her mother she addressed the English army as they prepared for an invasion by the Scots. Catherine sent Henry the bloodied coat of the Scot King who was killed in the battle as proof of her devotion and service to him.

As was customary of the time, Henry and Catherine maintained two separate households with large suites near one another. With over 140 persons attending her Catherine still insisted on embroidering the king's shirts herself. Catherine was also devoutly religious and defended the Catholic faith as evidenced by her title Fidei Defensor. Her piety increased with her age as did her interest in scholars for the continued improvement of herself and for the training of her daughter. Learning among women became fashionable much from the influence of Catherine. She was a benefactor of St. John's College in Cambridge, Queens College, Cardinal College in Oxford, and Corpus Christi.


Rejected by Henry

As time passed, it became more clear that two groups were present in the English court, those who were French-minded in their speaking, socializing, and dress, and those who were scholars and theologians. The King associated with both groups but Catherine isolated herself with the scholars. She presided in state functions but declined to participate in the dancing and antics of the court.

In June 1519, Henry's mistress, Bessie Blount, a maid in the court, gave birth to a son. This event did not bother Catherine until 1524 when the illegitimate child was given the title Duke of Richmond by Henry along with rights for ascension to the throne behind Princess Mary. Henry loved his daughter Mary and his later poor treatment of her was viewed as only a punishment to Catherine. In 1518, at the age of two, Mary was betrothed to the Dauphin of France which did not please her mother. Catherine campaigned for an alliance with her nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (was also King Charles I of Spain) instead and began the instruction of Mary as Queen of Spain. Henry counted on this alliance for political gain and was furious when Charles married another.

A king with no male heir feared for the succession of his throne. It was around this time that Anne Boleyn, a lady in waiting to Catherine, caught Henry's eye. Anne refused to be anything less than queen, so Henry needed a way out of his marriage. In 1527, Henry used a passage of Leviticus from the bible as proof that his marriage to his brother's wife was not viewed favorably by God and therefore was cursed with no sons. He claimed his conscience could not allow him to continue in the marriage and requested what in modern terms would be an annulment. Cardinal Wolsey set-up an official court to investigate the validity of the marriage. The Pope refused to allow the English court to try the case since a papal dispensation had been issued in 1509 at the time of the marriage, but delayed in making a decision for many years. Wolsey tried to get all the English bishops to agree that the marriage was invalid to force the hand of the Vatican but John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (who was later executed by Henry VIII) refused.


End of her Life

Catherine refused to withdraw from public life and retire to a nunnery. She firmly believed that her marriage to Henry was divinely ordained and to interfere with this would jeopardize her soul. Another concern to Catherine was the legitimacy and safety of her daughter. She was encouraged by some to invoke the aid of her nephew, Charles V, as many believed he controlled the pope. Others hoped he wouldn't stand for his aunt being cast aside and would return her to her rightful position, but Catherine refused. It is questionable whether he would have obliged and Catherine believed that a war would harm the citizens of England. The Catholic Church also attempted to pressure Charles V into re-instituting Catherine's claim as Queen, but that may have had more to do with keeping power in England rather than concern for a queen.

In 1531, Princess Mary and her household were removed to Ludlow by the King which greatly saddened Catherine. She was told that she could travel to be with Mary only when she accepted that her marriage to Henry was not valid. Catherine refused to deny her marriage and continued to view herself as Queen of England. Since Catherine refused to leave her husband he moved the entire court without her and secretly married Anne Boleyn. Before the birth of his first child by Anne, Catherine was moved to Bickden Palace in Huntingdonshire. In 1533 her marriage was declared invalid by the Archbishop of Canterbury and by order of the King she was to return to her title of Princess Dowager of Wales (meaning she was the widow of Prince Arthur).

In 1534 the Pope found for Catherine and validated her marriage but this made little difference as the King was preparing for the birth of his second child by Anne Boleyn. Henry officially broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and the Archbishop Lee of York and Bishop Tunstall of Durham brought the Oath of Succession for Catherine to swear to, which named Henry as head of the Church of England, her as Dowager to Prince Arthur, and Henry's children by Anne as his rightful heirs. Catherine refused. Parliament soon passed the Act of Supremacy, which made Henry head of the Church of England.

In the end, Henry was cruel to Catherine, forcing her to live in seclusion and refusing to allow her to see their daughter. She died at Kimbolton Castle near Huntington in 1536. In the end she was maintained less in the style of royalty and more like a nun. She had been stripped of her jewels by order of the King years earlier. Catherine was buried in Peterborough Cathedral under the emblem of Wales and Spain, not of England. Henry continued to seek an heir and in his rush to marry his third wife, his marriage to Catherine was eventually re-affirmed and his second marriage was deemed invalid.


Further Reading on Catherine of Aragon

Fraser, Antonia, The Wives of Henry VIII, Knopf, 1993.

Fraser, Antonia, ed. The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, University of California Press, 1995.

Luke, Mary M., Catherine, the Queen, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967.

Mattingly, Garrett, Catherine of Aragon, Little, Brown and Company, 1941.

Catherine of Aragon-The Six Wives of Henry VIII (videocassette series), BBC TV, New York: Time-Life Media, 1976.