Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of England

Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of the infamous King Henry VIII. Known for her failure to produce a male heir, she was the mother of Mary, later Mary the Queen of Scots. Catherine would spend most of her life away from her family in Spain, only to be cruelly separated from her daughter when Henry attempted to coerce her into a divorce. Henry’s desperation for an annulment made him renounce the Catholic Church and forge the Church of England. But what of the life and reign of the Spanish Queen of England?

Mapping Out the Future of Three-Year-Old Catherine of Aragon

Catherine was born Catalina de Aragon in 1485 in a palace north of Madrid to the famed monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. In need of a political alliance with England, her father made arranged her marriage to the future King of England, the 18-month-old infant Arthur, when Catherine was just three. The Treaty of Medina del Campo was signed on March 27, 1489, officially sealing the engagement. King Henry VII was to receive a large dowry, and both countries would ally against their mutual enemy, France.

Catherine’s mother, Isabella, was aware that her lack of education affected her ability to conduct foreign affairs and rule a kingdom well. To prevent this limitation, she ensured all her daughters had a well-versed education. The top scholars and teachers educated Catherine. She became fluent in French and Latin, while also speaking her native tongue of Spanish. Even though she was betrothed to marry and move to England, she was taught very little English.

Her education was limited to the Catholic Church’s teaching, and her reading of Biblical texts allowed her fluency in Latin. According to historians, Catherine grew up watching her parents rule together as equals, against the backdrop of the sordid Reconquista in Spain, as Isabella would prepare military strategies and was even responsible for sponsoring the voyages of Christopher Columbus .

Catherine of Aragon was just three when her marriage to Arthur, the future King of England, was decided. (Public domain)

Catherine of Aragon was just three when her marriage to Arthur, the future King of England, was decided. ( Public domain )

The Unsuccessful First Marriage of Catherine of Aragon

In 1501, when Catherine and Arthur were 15 years old, the pair was married at the Old St Paul’s Cathedral and subsequently lived at Ludlow Castle in England. Six months after their marriage, Arthur died unexpectedly at just 15 years of age, leaving Catherine, who was now the Princess of Wales, a widow. This put the arrangement between England and Spain in jeopardy and so arrangements were hastily made to marry her to Arthur’s younger brother Henry VIII, who was five years younger.

During this time, any woman married into high-status society was expected to have a dowry with her upon marriage. The dowry money would be given to the husband and his family to support the young couple. Often dowries were used as a type of bribery to have a woman married off to a rich and powerful family. Catherine was no different, and when she was married to Prince Arthur, her dowry was 200,000 ducat, a silver or gold coin used to trade. 

Rumors abounded that there had been an issue with the payment of Catherine’s dowry, and Ferdinand and Isabela even threatened to return Catherine to Spain and call off her engagement to Prince Henry. It was also rumored that the English had Catherine marry Prince Henry to avoid returning the large dowry to Spain. It’s said that after years of waiting, Catherine was unhappy and asked to return to Spain, where she wished to become a nun.

Betrothed at three, Catherine of Aragon was wed to Arthur when she was 15. (Public domain)

Betrothed at three, Catherine of Aragon was wed to Arthur when she was 15. ( Public domain )

Catherine of Aragon and Her Marriage to Prince Henry 

Issues over the dowry were not the only obstacle faced by Catherine and her fiancé Henry. The couple required a papal dispensation in order to marry, which was a special permit from the Pope to avoid a Canon Law which stated that a man was forbidden from marrying his brother’s widow. Catherine had to testified that her marriage with Arthur was never consummated – making the marriage invalid.

In the end, Catherine and Henry were married on June 11, 1509, over eight years after Prince Arthurs death. This was mainly due to Henry being 12 years old when his older bothered died. He married Catherine when he was 19, and she 24. Their wedding lasted for a week, with a banquet at Westminster Hall and a series of medieval tournaments. “My wife and I be in good and perfect love as any two creatures can be,” wrote Henry in a letter to his new father-in-law, Ferdinand.

Three months before Catherine and Henry’s marriage, King Henry VII, Henry’s father, died. Suddenly Henry became the next King of England and the pair celebrated an unusual joint coronation. Although many accounts throughout history have depicted Catherine as a frumpy pious Spaniard, she was actually an intelligent and charismatic queen. Catherine used her education and experience at her father’s court to help her husband in foreign affairs, and in 1509 Catherine became the first female ambassador in European history serving as England’s ambassador to Spain.

Catherine also became governor of the realm and captain-general after Henry left to campaign in France for four months in 1513. During this time, she was faced with a significant crisis, as James IV of Scotland invaded England during Henry’s absence. Catherine ordered troops to defend England and James retreated back to Scotland. She wrote a letter to Henry, in her new-found English, proud of her accomplishment. “In this, your grace shall see how I can keep my promise, sending you for your banners a King’s coat. I thought to send himself unto you, but our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it.”

Many reports report that the pair had a happy marriage, in the beginning at least. The two would ride and hunt animals together, eat all meals together, and seemed to complete trust each other. Over time however a series of miscarriages fueled Henry’s growing frustration with a lack of a male heir. During this time Henry started to have affairs with other women, even siring an illegitimate son named Henry Fitzroy.

Catherine of Aragon was separated from her daughter, Mary Tudor who is seen here, who went on to become Queen of England. (Public domain)

Catherine of Aragon was separated from her daughter, Mary Tudor who is seen here, who went on to become Queen of England. ( Public domain )

The Pregnancies and Children of Catherine of Aragon

Catherine would become pregnant six times, but only two of her sons and one daughter would make it past birth. Both sons were named Henry Duke of Cornwall, and both died at only a few months old. Her only surviving child with King Henry VIII was Mary, later Mary I of England. “We are both young. If it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God, the sons will follow,” wrote Henry at the beginning of their marriage to the Venetian Ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian.

Catherine wanted her surviving daughter to have the same level of education that she had had. To achieve this, Catherine had a book written for her daughter Mary, and this book would cause wide-scale controversy when published in 1524. The Education of Christian Women , written by Juan Luis Vives was written to help advocate for women’s education. This book detailed childhood experiences through marriage and widowhood. One of the most important ideas throughout the novel was that women were intellectually equal to men, if not more.

The strain of birthing six children started to take its physical toll on Catherine’s body. Her hair turned grey and she lost her figure. To cope with her losses, she turned to her faith, and she would regularly be found praying. By the time Catherine was nearing 40 years old, she knew that her chances of having another child were slim.

The divorce of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII has gone down as one of the worst in history. (Tudor tidbits / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The divorce of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII has gone down as one of the worst in history. (Tudor tidbits / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

One of the Worst Divorces in History 

Henry began to want an affair with Anne Boleyn , a member of his court and a maid of honor for Catherine’s wedding. Even as Henry was pursuing her, Anne remained faithful and would not become his mistress until he was divorced. Anne was educated and understood the importance of domestic and foreign policies. As the Catholic Church forbids divorce, King Henry VIII wrote a letter to the Pope, Clement VII, hoping to achieve permission for an annulment in 1527. In the letter, Henry included a Biblical passage from Leviticus 20:21, which states that “if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”

Henry was hoping to convince the Pope that he was being punished for marrying his brother’s widow. He wished for an annulment, making their marriage invalid, as if it had never occurred. There was a significant issue with Henry seeking the Pope’s help. The Holy Roman Emperor was Catherine’s nephew, and Charles V would never allow the Pope to annul their marriage. Both warned Henry that divorcing would mean excommunication from the Catholic Church. 

Henry was willing to risk his and England’s relationship with the Catholic Church in order to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn . Besides, the people of England favored Catherine over Anne, and this divorce was sure to cause an uproar, leading to further issues for Henry. To avoid this, Henry called meetings with prominent and affluent London society members to gain their trust and ensure Anne’s popularity.

Catherine of Aragon lived the end of her life in exile, away from her family in Spain and her daughter Mary. (Public domain)

Catherine of Aragon lived the end of her life in exile, away from her family in Spain and her daughter Mary. ( Public domain )

The Queen’s Exile from Court

After Catherine refused to allow Henry to divorce her, he seized his own daughter Mary, in the hope that their separation would change Catherine’s mind. It didn’t, and Catherine would never see Mary again. On May 23, 1533, the Act in Restraint of Appeals was passed which officially split the English Church from the Vatican. The result was that King Henry VIII could divorce Catherine formally and marry Anne Boleyn, which he already had in January 1533.

The Church of England, founded in 1534, placed King Henry VIII at the head of the church, with support from the Bishop of Canterbury. This new church shared certain customs with the Catholic Church, but also incorporated ideas presented during the Protestant Reformation. To further distance himself from Catherine and their daughter Mary, Henry had the Act of Secession passed in April 1534. This declared Mary illegitimate, removing her rights as Queen. This was done after Anne Boleyn had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1533. 

It would take Henry six years to officially divorce Catherine, years in which Henry demanded she not use the title of “Queen.” She was allowed to use the title of “princess dowager,” the same title given to her after her first husband’s death. Catherine refused. In 1533 Catherine was banished from court and sent to her residence in Cambridgeshire, where she would live her life in exile, far from her daughter.

In 1534, Mary fell ill and Catherine begged to be reunited with her in order to care for her daughter. Henry refused, afraid she would “carry on a war against him as openly and fiercely as Queen Isabella, her mother, had done in Spain” and of the actions Catherine might take against his reputation if she was given the opportunity. Catherine was hopeful and would write letters to the new Pope Paul III, hoping that Henry’s actions would lead to his excommunication. 

The Lasting Legacy of Catherine of Aragon

Catherine died from what is suspected to have been cancer at age 50 at her home on January 29, 1536. Exiled from court, it was rumored that she had refused to give back royal jewels and jewelry to Anne Boleyn after her coronation. In one last letter to Henry, whom she had not seen in five years, she included one last act of defiance towards her depraved husband:

“For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father to her… Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. Farewell. Catherine, Queen of England.”

Catherine’s daughter Mary would go on to become the Queen of England in 1553, until her half-sister Elizabeth I had her killed in order to steal the throne. Mary resented her father because of his actions towards her mother, and she attempted to reunite England with her Catholic faith. Catherine was much loved by her subjects, and when Anne Boleyn was crowned, many women refused to cheer or take off their caps. Catherine’s legal advisor during her divorce, Eustace Chapuy, believed that England would revolt to defend Catherine.

Part of a lineage of powerful queens, starting with her mother Isabella and ending with her daughter Mary Tudor, the Catholic queen of England, Catherine of Aragon will always be remembered for her fortitude in the face of Henry’s cruelty. After 24 years of marriage, Catherine demonstrated the determination that a woman during this era had to possess to survive. Recent depictions depict a beautiful, strong and eloquent queen, much-loved by the people of England and crushed by a despotic ex-husband.

Top image: Catherine of Aragon was famously the first wife of Henry VIII. Source: staras / Adobe Stock

By Sarah Piraino


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