Katherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon

Catalina of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon (1452–1516) and Isabella of Castile (1451–1504), was born in 1485. She was named after Isabella's grandmother Catalina of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt.

According to her biographer: "During her early years Catalina followed her parents, and in particular her mother, in their travels through large parts of Spain, as the war against the Muslim emirate of Granada continued. As a small child she was present at the ceremonial conquest of the capital of the former Nasrid kingdom, on 2 January 1492.... Along with her older sisters, Catalina received an education fitting for one who was intended for marriage with foreign rulers, bearing children for them and thus linking Castile and Aragon to neighbouring powers by ties of blood as well as friendship."

It has been claimed that Henry VII first suggested that Catalina might be a good wife for his son, Arthur, when the princess was only two. The new Tudor monarch thought that the marriage would provide him with extra security. In 1487 Ferdinand of Aragon agreed to send ambassadors to England to discuss political and economic relations and to negotiate the marriage of Catalina and Arthur. Henry VII was worried that England might be invaded by Spain, the most powerful country in Europe. In 1488 Henry signed a treaty with King Ferdinand of Spain. By this treaty Henry agreed that his eldest son, Arthur, should marry Catalina (her name was invariably spelt as Katherine in England).

On 14 November 1501, Arthur, who was just fifteen, married Katherine at St Paul's Cathedral in London. She later admitted that they had shared a bed for no more than seven nights, and that she had remained "as intact and incorrupt as when she emerged from her mother's womb". Arthur died of tuberculosis on 2nd April 1502.

Henry VII was keen that England and Spain should remain united and began negotiating for his other surviving son. Henry, to marry Katherine. Ferdinand of Aragon agreed and a formal treaty was concluded in June 1503. At that time, Christians believed it was wrong for a man to marry his brother's wife. Henry VII therefore had to gain special permission from the Pope before the marriage could go ahead.

According to Hilary Mantel: "Within weeks of his accession to the throne in 1509, the teenage Henry had married a pre-used bride... Henry was her rescuer; he was in love with her, he told everyone, this was no cold political arrangement. Katherine was the daughter of two reigning monarchs: educated, gracious and regal, she had been trained for queenship and saw it as her vocation. She had been a tiny auburn-haired beauty when she came to England."

In 1509 Henry VII died. His son Henry now became king of England. It was very important to Henry VIII that his wife, should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died. Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England. Katherine gave birth to six children but five died within a few weeks of being born. Only one child, Mary, born in 1516, survived into adulthood.

In 1526 Henry got to know Anne Boleyn, Katherine's maid of honour. She was a good musician and a talented singer. She was also extremely intelligent and her time in the French court provided her with a great deal of interesting conversation. One member of court claimed that "no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman". Henry seemed to find her very entertaining and was often seen dancing with her. One contemporary wrote that Anne was "not one of the handsomest women in the world" she had a "swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact had nothing but the king's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful and take great effect".

It was not long before Henry had fallen deeply in love with Anne. Ever since 1524 Henry had been planning to divorce Katherine. Now he knew who he wanted to replace her with. Christopher Morris, the author of The Tudors (1955), has argued: "Henry found her not easily tamed, for it is clear that she had the strength of will to withhold her favours until she was sure of being made his queen... Henry's passion was genuine enough but it was strangely mixed with political calculation and with the qualms of a tormented, if elastic, conscience."

Henry wrote Anne a series of passionate love letters. In 1526 he wrote: "Seeing I cannot be present in person with you, I send you the nearest thing to that possible, that is, my picture set in bracelets ... wishing myself in their place, when it shall please you." Soon afterwards he wrote during a hunting exhibition: "I send you this letter begging you to give me an account of the state you are in... I send you by this bearer a buck killed late last night by my hand, hoping, when you eat it, you will think of the hunter."

Philippa Jones has suggested in Elizabeth: Virgin Queen? (2010) that this was part of Anne's strategy to become Henry's wife: "Anne frequently commented in her letters to the King that although her heart and soul were his to enjoy, her body would never be. By refusing to become Henry's mistress, Anne caught and retained his interest. Henry might find casual sexual gratification with others, but it was Anne that he truly wanted."

Anne's biographer, Eric Ives, has argued: "At first, however, Henry had no thought of marriage. He saw Anne as someone to replace her sister, Mary (wife of one of the privy chamber staff, William Carey), who had just ceased to be the royal mistress. Certainly the physical side of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was already over and, with no male heir, Henry decided by the spring of 1527 that he had never validly been married and that his first marriage must be annulled.... However, Anne continued to refuse his advances, and the king realized that by marrying her he could kill two birds with one stone, possess Anne and gain a new wife."

Henry VIII sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Katherine had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. When Katherine discovered Henry's plans she informed King Charles (Carlos) of Spain and Emperor Charles (Karl) V of the Holy Roman Empire. Unwilling to have his aunt lose her position, Charles warned the Pope that he would be very angry if he granted Henry a divorce. The Pope knew that once he made a decision, he would upset one of these two powerful monarchs. In an attempt to keep the peace, the Pope put off making a decision about Henry's marriage.

Eric Ives has argued: "Henry remained doubtful about the validity of any annulment in defiance of Rome, and when in September 1532 Anne was created marchioness of Pembroke, the remainder was to her offspring, legitimate or not. But late in 1532 (probably in Calais in November where François I may have promised support, or on the leisurely journey home) Anne grew confident that if she became pregnant the king would now commit himself, and she thus began to sleep with him."

In January 1533 Henry discovered that Anne Boleyn was pregnant. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead. Thomas More, Henry's Lord Chancellor, was opposed to the king's plans to divorce Katherine of Aragon and resigned from office.

Henry hoped that Anne would provide him with a son. He was therefore disappointed when, in September 1533, Anne gave birth to a daughter called Elizabeth. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of Katherine were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne.

In March 1534 Pope Clement VII eventually made his decision. He announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed an act that stated that Henry VIII was now the Head of the Church of England. When Thomas More refused to support this move he was convicted of high treason. Still refusing to recant, he was executed at the Tower of London.

Katherine was sent into retirement at Ampthill, Bedfordshire. In May 1534 Katherine declared that she would refuse to swear the oath recognizing Anne Boleyn's children as Henry's legitimate succession. This was an offence that carried the death penalty but Henry VIII, who described Katherine as "a proud and intractable woman" decided against taking action against her.

Katherine of Aragon became seriously ill in December, 1535. She died at Kimbolton Castle on 7th January, 1536. Her doctor claimed that she had been suffering from "slow poisoning". She was buried at Peterborough Abbey on 29th January 1536.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Hilary Mantel, Anne Boleyn (11th May, 2012)

Within weeks of his accession to the throne in 1509, the teenage Henry had married a pre-used bride. Katherine of Aragon had originally been brought to England to marry his elder brother. But some four months after the marriage, Arthur died. For seven years Katherine lived neglected in London, her splendid title of Dowager Princess of Wales disguising her frugal housekeeping arrangements and dwindling hopes. Henry was her rescuer; he was in love with her, he told everyone, this was no cold political arrangement. Katherine was the daughter of two reigning monarchs: educated, gracious and regal, she had been trained for queenship and saw it as her vocation. She had been a tiny auburn-haired beauty when she came to England. Seven years older than Henry, she was shapeless and showing her age by the time Anne glided on to the scene. Katherine had many pregnancies, but her babies died before or soon after birth. Only one child survived, a daughter, Mary; but Henry needed a son. Private misfortune, by the mid-1520s, was beginning to look like public disaster. Henry wondered if he should marry again. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's chief minister, began to survey the available French princesses.

It was only in theory, and for humble people, that marriage was for life. The rulers of Europe could and did obtain annulments, for a price, from sympathetic popes. Henry failed not because of papal high principles, but because a series of political and military events put Katherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles, in a position to thwart him. While his canon lawyers and courtiers cajoled and bribed, sweating blood to make Henry a free man, the king had already come up with an unlikely replacement for Katherine. We don't know exactly when he fell for Anne Boleyn. Her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Perhaps Henry simply didn't have much imagination. The court's erotic life seems knotted, intertwined, almost incestuous; the same faces, the same limbs and organs in different combinations. The king did not have many affairs, or many that we know about. He recognised only one illegitimate child. He valued discretion, deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life.