by Susan Flantzer
Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine of Aragon (Catalina in Spanish) was the first of the six wives of King Henry VIII of England and the mother of Queen Mary I of England. Born on December 15, 1485 at the Archbishops Palace in Alcalá de Henares in the Kingdom of Castile (now in Spain), Catherine was the youngest child of the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, whose marriage ultimately united Aragon and Castile into the Kingdom of Spain.
King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile; Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine had blue eyes and golden red hair which had come from her mother’s descent from the English House of Plantagenet. Catherine’s great-grandmother Catherine of Lancaster and her great great grandmother Philippa of Lancaster were daughters of John of Gaunt, a son of King Edward III of England. Alessandro Geraldini, a humanist scholar and later Bishop of Santo Domingo, served as tutor to Catherine and her siblings, all of whom received an excellent education.
Catherine of Aragon at age 11; Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine had four elder siblings:
- Isabella, Princess of Asturias from 1497–1498 (1470–1498), married (1) Prince Afonso of Portugal, no issue; (2) Prince Manuel, the future King Manuel I of Portugal, had Miguel da Paz, Crown Prince of both Portugal and Spain who died in infancy; Isabella died giving birth to Miguel
- Juan, Prince of Asturias (1478–1497), married Margaret of Austria, no issue
- Juana I, Queen of Castile, Queen of Aragon (1479–1555), married Philip the Handsome, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy; had issue, all of whom were kings or queens consorts: Eleanor, Queen of Portugal and Queen of France; Holy Roman Emperor Charles V/King Charles I of Spain; Isabella, Queen of Denmark; Mary, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia; Catherine, Queen of Portugal
- Maria (1482–1517), married King Manuel I of Portugal, the widower of her elder sister Isabella; had issue including King João III of Portugal and Cardinal-King, Henrique I of Portugal
When Catherine was only two years old, King Henry VII of England began negotiations for his son and heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales to marry Catherine. The Treaty of Medina del Campo, ratified by Spain in 1489 and by England in 1490, contained the marriage contract between Catherine and Arthur. Catherine left Spain in 1501, never to return, and on November 14, 1501, the two 15 year-olds, Catherine and Arthur, were married at the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She was escorted to the cathedral by the 10 year-old Henry, Duke of York, who would eventually become her second husband.
Arthur, Prince of Wales, circa 1501; Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine of Aragon, circa 1502; Credit – Wikipedia
Soon after their marriage, Catherine and Arthur went to live at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, close to Wales, where, as Prince of Wales, Arthur presided over the Council of Wales and the Marches. Less than five months later, on April 2, 1502, Arthur died, probably of the sweating sickness, and 16 year-old Catherine was left a widow. There was no issue from the marriage and it is doubtful that the marriage was even consummated, as Catherine in later years would claim.
King Henry VII did not want to lose Catherine of Aragon’s dowry or the alliance he had made with Spain, so he offered his new heir Henry, who was five years younger than Catherine, to be her husband. A number of problems with negotiations made it doubtful that the marriage would ever take place. With little money, Catherine lived as a virtual prisoner at Durham House in London from 1502 – 1509. King Henry VII died on April 21, 1509 and 17 year old Henry succeeded him.
King Henry VIII, 1509; Credit – Wikipedia
King Henry VIII married 23 year-old Catherine in June 11, 1509 at Grey Friar’s Church, Greenwich. On June 23, 1509, the traditional procession to Westminster, held the day before the coronation of English kings, was greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd. Following tradition, Henry and Catherine spent the night before their coronation at the Tower of London. King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine were anointed and crowned by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey on June 24, 1509.
16th century woodcut of the coronation of King Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon showing their heraldic badges, the Tudor Rose and the Pomegranate of Granada; Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine had six pregnancies, however only one child, the future Queen Mary I, survived.
- January 31, 1510: a premature stillborn girl
- January 1, 1511: Henry, Duke of Cornwall, died February 22, 1511
- September 17, 1513: a premature son, the second Henry, Duke of Cornwall, who died shortly after birth
- January 8, 1515: a stillborn boy
- February 18, 1516: Queen Mary I (1516 – 1558); married King Philip II of Spain, no issue
- November 10, 1518: a daughter, who died shortly after birth
Catherine and Henry’s daughter, later Queen Mary I; Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine was highly regarded as queen and Henry made her regent when he went on campaign in France and Flanders in 1513. While Henry was away, it was up to Catherine to supervise England’s defense when Scotland invaded. Ultimately, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Flodden and Catherine sent Henry the bloodstained coat of the defeated and dead King James IV of Scotland (who was married to Henry’s sister Margaret). In 1520, Catherine accompanied Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France where he met King François I of France.
Field of the Cloth of Gold; Credit – Wikipedia
Catherine was instrumental in reviving an interest in gardening which had been all but forgotten during the time England was plagued by the Wars of the Roses. Henry imported a gardener from Flanders and the gardens at Hampton Court Palace were the premier gardens in England. Part of Henry’s garden layout still survive at Hampton Court Palace’s Pond Garden.
Pond Garden at Hampton Court Palace; Photo Credit – Susan Flantzer
By the time Catherine turned 40 in 1525, it was very unlikely that she would produce the male heir that Henry yearned for. Henry had three options. He could legitimize his illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy. He could marry his daughter Mary and hope for a grandson. He could reject Catherine and marry someone of childbearing age. Henry became convinced that his marriage was cursed because Leviticus 20:21 says, “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” Around the same time, Henry became enamored of Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine, and Henry began pursuing her.
Henry instructed Cardinal Wolsey to start negotiations with the Vatican to have his marriage with Catherine annulled. Catherine put up a valiant fight to save her marriage and was supported by her nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. After several long years of negotiations, Cardinal Wolsey failed to obtain the annulment incurring the anger of Anne Boleyn, who brought about Wolsey’s dismissal as Chancellor. A far more reaching consequence was Henry’s break with Rome which was to lead to the Reformation in England and the establishment of the Church of England. In 1533, Henry nominated Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury and in May of 1533, Cranmer declared that because Henry and Catherine’s marriage was against the law of God, it was null and void. Catherine had testified that she and Arthur had never had physical relations.
Catherine was banished from the court and Henry refused her the right to any title but “Dowager Princess of Wales” in recognition of her position as his brother’s widow. She was forbidden to see her daughter Mary. Catherine suffered these indignities with patience and told her women not to curse the new queen, Anne Boleyn. She spent most of her time doing needlework and praying. Catherine refused to accept the 1533 Act of Succession which made her daughter Mary a bastard and made Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth Henry’s successor.
By 1535, with no hope of ever seeing her daughter Mary, who suffered great humiliation at the court of Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s health deteriorated and she was taken to Kimbolton Castle. Catherine knew by December of 1535 that she would not live much longer. She put her will in order, wrote to her nephew Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor asking him to protect Mary, and wrote her final letter to King Henry VIII:
My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.
Catherine died on January 7, 1536 at the age of 50. Rumors were circulated that she had been poisoned. Her embalmer described her heart as “quite black and hideous to look at” with a “black round body stuck to the outside.” Modern doctors have agreed that her heart’s discoloration was due to cancer. Catherine was buried at Peterborough Cathedral on January 29, 1536, but her daughter Mary was not allowed to attend her funeral. A cortege from Kimbolton Castle brought Catherine’s remains to Peterborough Abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral. It was the nearest great religious place and Henry did not want to move her remains to London as it would have given the wrong message. The cortege was covered in black velvet, pulled by six horses, and accompanied by 50 servants in suits made of black fabric, carrying banners and torches. The cortege was met by four bishops and six abbots, and 1,000 candles lit up the abbey, where three masses were held as part of the funeral.
Catherine was buried in an elaborate black marble tomb gilded with gold. The gold was stolen by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers during the English Civil War. The marble tomb survived into the 18th century when it was taken apart by one of the deans of the cathedral for the floor of his summer house. In 1895, Katharine Clayton, the wife of one of the canons at the cathedral, decided something should be done to restore Catherine’s tomb, so she launched an appeal for Katharines/Katherines/Catherines around the England to donate money towards the project. Every year around the anniversary of her death, a service commemorating Catherine of Aragon’s life is held at Peterborough Catherdal. Catherine’s grave is visited by many people each year, some of who leave flowers and pomegranates, Catherine’s heraldic symbol.
Grave of Catherine of Aragon at Peterborough Cathedral; Photo Credit – Wikipedia
Wikipedia: Catherine of Aragon