Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of England

Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of England

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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 Queen Mary I of England. 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 so move to England, she was taught very little English.

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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.

The Unsuccessful First Marriage of Catherine of Aragon

In 1501, when Catherine and Arthur were 15 years old, they were 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 agreement 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.

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 Arthur’s 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 was 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 hold 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 completely 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.

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 gray 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 )

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.

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 to be 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.” He was also worried about the actions Catherine might take to sully 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.”

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Catherine’s daughter Mary would go on to become the Queen of England in 1553, a role she held for just 5 years until her untimely death in 1558, or what is believed to have been ovarian cancer. 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.

When Catherine of Aragon Led England’s Armies to Victory Over Scotland

She was, in the words of historian John Edwards, Henry VIII’s “greatest queen.” But though Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to the Tudor king lasted 24 years—collectively, his five other marriages spanned just 14 years—she has long been overshadowed by her successors.

The daughter of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine came to England as the bride of Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. But Arthur died shortly after the pair’s wedding, leaving his 16-year-old widow in a precarious position. Though Spain and England initially sought to maintain their alliance by marrying Catherine to another member of the Tudor family (both Henry and his father, Henry VII, were suggested as potential suitors), negotiations soured as diplomatic relations shifted. Ultimately, Catherine spent seven years mired in uncertainty over her future.

The princess’ fortunes shifted when Henry VII died in 1509, leaving the throne to his sole surviving son, who promptly married his alluring young sister-in-law. The couple’s loving relationship, however, eventually deteriorated due to a lack of a male heir and the king’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn.

Catherine is often portrayed as a dowdy, overly pious, stubborn old woman who refused to yield her position for the good of the kingdom. The truth, however, is more nuanced—a fact increasingly reflected in cultural depictions of the queen, including Starz’s “The Spanish Princess” and West End hit Six: The Musical, which features a fictionalized version of Catherine chiding her husband for forgetting that “I’ve never lost control / No matter how many times I knew you lied.”

Far from being the troublesome, unappealing wife of popular imagination, Catherine was actually a charismatic, intelligent and much-loved queen. Three years into the royal couple’s marriage, Henry was still so besotted with his consort that he invited a Spanish visitor to look at her “just to see how bella and beautiful she was.”

In 1513, the queen, then 27 years old, was entrusted with command of the kingdom while her 22-year-old husband waged war against France’s Francis I. Henry left behind a small group of advisors, but as newly discovered documents demonstrate, Catherine didn’t simply defer to these elderly men’s counsel. Instead, she assumed an active role in the governing—and protection—of England.

“When she is left as regent, she is in her element,” says Julia Fox, author of Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. “… She has the power to summon troops, to appoint sheriffs, to sign warrants and to get money from the treasurer of the chamber.”

As Henry and his troops besieged the French town of Thérouanne, Catherine and her council readied for a clash closer to home. Just over a month into the queen’s regency, France’s ally, Scotland’s James IV, had declared war on England, bringing a period of peace between the neighboring nations to an end.

The fact that James was married to Henry’s older sister, Margaret, did little to dissuade either him or Catherine from entering the fray. According to 17th-century chronicler William Drummond, the pregnant Scottish queen pleaded with her husband to desist, noting that he was poised to fight “a mighty people, now turned insolent by their riches at home and power abroad.” But James, buoyed by the possibility of conquest (and of dealing a blow to his egotistical brother-in-law), refused.

Catherine, for her part, appeared to “relish the opportunity” to exercise her full authority, says Giles Tremlett, author of Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen. In an August 13 letter, the queen wrote, “My heart is very good to it.” Wryly referencing women’s traditional role in warfare, she added, “I am horribly busy with making standards, banners and badges.”

Michael Sittow portrait of Catherine, c. 1502 (left), and portrait of Henry VIII around the time of his first wedding (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Though Catherine did, in fact, order the royal wardrobe to furnish two banners bearing the arms of England and Spain, as well as “standards of the lion crowned imperial,” such tasks made up just a small portion of her preparations. Working with councilors, she mobilized forces across England, communicating with local authorities to determine how many men and horses their parishes could provide. When the mayor and sheriffs of Gloucester failed to respond in a timely fashion, she gave them a deadline of 15 days and emphasized that “writing and news from the Borders show that the King of Scots means war.”

In addition to recruiting soldiers, the queen dispatched money (㾶,000, to be exact), artillery, gunners, a fleet of eight ships and supplies ranging from grain to pipes of beer and armor. She had Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey—a combat-hardened, 70-year-old veteran of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth—and his army of around 26,000 mount a first line of defense near the border with Scotland and asked Sir Thomas Lovell to lead a secondary force in England’s Midlands.

What Catherine did next was unprecedented, particularly for a kingdom where warfare was considered an exclusively male domain. As records recently found at the United Kingdom’s National Archives testify, this daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella—two famously bellicose rulers who’d spent Catherine’s childhood driving the Muslim Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula—left the safety of London and headed north toward the English-Scottish border with 1,500 sets of armor, as well as a golden “headpiece with crown” that Tremlett likens to “an armored sun hat,” in tow.

“The new details involve the queen more deeply as a director of events rather than a passive figurehead managed by those of Henry’s counselors left in England,” Sean Cunningham, the archivist who discovered the papers, told the Times’ Mark Bridges in May. “… [They] let us know that Catherine was heading for Warwick [Castle] and the Tower [of London] had pretty much been emptied of armor.”

Catherine and her troops were ready to face the Scots if James IV managed to defeat both Surrey’s and Lovell’s forces. One contemporary, Peter Martyr, reported that the queen, “in imitation of her mother Isabella,” regaled her reserve army with a speech compelling them to “defend their territory” and “remember that English courage excelled that of all other nations.”

This incident is widely referenced—including in an upcoming episode of “The Spanish Princess,” which will feature a highly exaggerated version of Catherine, clad in armor fashioned to accommodate her visible pregnancy, riding directly into battle—but many historians now consider Martyr’s account apocryphal. (Ambassadors’ correspondence indicates that the queen delivered a premature son who died shortly after birth in October 1513, but the pregnancy’s veracity remains a point of contention in Sister Queens, Fox argues, “[I]it seems unlikely that she would have risked a much-wanted child by accompanying the army from London.”)

Tremlett deems the speech “almost certainly invented” but points out that this “doesn’t mean it [didn’t] reflect the spirit of the moment.” Fox, meanwhile, says Catherine probably made “a speech, … but whether it was quite as rousing or as wonderful, I don’t know.”

Memorial to the dead at the site of the Battle of Flodden (The Land via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0)

As it turned out, neither Lovell nor the queen ended up seeing action. On September 9, Surrey’s troops and James’ army of more than 30,000 engaged in battle. The English wielded the bill, a simple hooked weapon derived from an agricultural tool, while the Scots opted for the longer, steel-tipped pike. An afternoon of “great slaughter, sweating and travail” ensued, and by its end, some 10,000 Scots—including 12 earls, 14 lords, an archbishop, a bishop, 2 abbots and James himself—lay dead. Comparatively, the smaller English army only lost around 1,500 men.

The Scottish king’s brutal fate was, in a way, evocative of the broader blow inflicted on his country in the wake of the defeat: As historian Leanda de Lisle explains, “James’ left hand was almost severed, his throat gashed, and an arrow was shot through his lower jaw.” (Additional ignominies, including one at Catherine’s own hand, awaited the king’s corpse.) With the Stuart monarch’s passing, his infant son, James V, became the leader of a grieving, much-reduced nation.

According to Fox, the Battle of Flodden (which draws its name from nearby Flodden Edge) left Scotland “in a powerless situation.” She adds, “Not only have you just defeated them in a spectacular way, but [the kingdom is] in disarray. Scotland is practically at [England’s] mercy.”

Prior to Cunningham’s find, historians had only known that Catherine was in Buckingham, around 60 miles north of London, when she received word of Surrey’s victory. But the new evidence suggests that the queen intended to travel further north, if not directly into battle like Joan of Arc, then at least into the vicinity of combat.

“Many a queen would have quite simply hotfooted it to the Tower of London, pulled up the drawbridge and sat there fairly safely,” says Fox. “… But she doesn't do that. She’s no milk sop. She’s not taking refuge. She really is out on the road.”

Three days after the battle, Catherine penned a letter to her husband, who had successfully captured Thérouanne and was now besieging Tournai. She began by emphasizing Flodden’s significance, writing, “[T]o my thinking this battle hath been to your grace, and all your realm, the greatest honour that could be, and more than should you win all the crown of France.” As one might expect of such a deeply religious individual, the queen proceeded to thank God for the victory—and subtly remind Henry to do the same.

Catherine’s missive then took a rather unexpected turn. She’d sent her husband a piece of the Scottish king’s bloodied surcoat (“for your banners”) but lamented that she’d originally hoped to send a much more macabre trophy: the embalmed body of James himself. Unfortunately, the queen reported, she soon realized that “our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it.”

This “gleeful and somewhat bloodthirsty” sentiment may seem out of character for a woman renowned for her piety, but as Tremlett points out, “Plenty of pious people were also violent, [and] plenty of people were violently pious.” Few exemplify this seemingly contradictory mindset as well as Catherine’s own parents, who waged a relentless, violent campaign against all non-Christians in their kingdom.

Catherine and Henry later in life (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquest of Spain culminated in the January 2, 1492, fall of Granada, which marked the end of 780 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Then an impressionable 6-year-old, Catherine witnessed the Moors’ surrender, as well as her mother’s leading role in the military crusade.

“This [stays] with her,” says Fox. “This idea of a woman involved in battles is there. And when she actually comes to the divorce question, she sees it as a battle. She sees fighting for her own marriage as just as important as fighting for the Catholic faith.”

Though Catherine was careful to praise her husband’s success in France, she and other contemporary observers knew that Henry’s triumphs paled in comparison to Flodden.

As Antonia Fraser writes in The Wives of Henry VIII, “[T]he Scottish threat was removed for a generation by the slaughter of its leaders. … Compared to this, the Battle of the Spurs won over the French, although part of an expensive campaign, was a purely temporary check, forgotten the next year when the King turned his foreign policy on its head.”

Catherine wasn’t the first English queen to assume the reins of power in the absence of a male monarch. Sixty years prior, another foreign-born princess, Margaret of Anjou, took charge of the kingdom amid the Wars of the Roses, fighting for her son’s inheritance and making major decisions on behalf of her disastrously incompetent husband, Henry VI. More recently, Henry VIII’s grandmother Margaret Beaufort—an “uncrowned queen,” in the words of historian Nicola Tallis—had acted as regent in the brief period before the young king came of age. (Years after Catherine’s death, her beloved daughter, Mary I, followed in her mother’s footsteps by rallying troops to her cause and seizing the throne from those who had sought to thwart her.)

Combined with the example set by Isabella and other relatives, says Tremlett, “Catherine had some very strong role models for women who could rule, for women who could fight.”

Whereas Margaret of Anjou’s seizure of power made her deeply unpopular, Catherine’s regency cemented her already sterling reputation. In the mid-1520s, when Henry first raised the question of divorcing his wife, he found that public opinion was firmly on the queen’s side. She viewed the survival of her marriage as inextricable from the survival of the Catholic Church, according to Fox, and refused to back down despite immense pressure.

Catherine’s legacy, adds the historian, “is that of a wronged woman … who did not accept defeat, who fought for what she believed to be right until the breath left her body.”

Henry, for his part, never forgot the tenacity his wife had demonstrated in the days leading up to Flodden. As he later reflected with no small amount of trepidation, she was perfectly capable of carrying “on a war … as fiercely as Queen Isabella, her mother, had done in Spain.

The Other Catalina

A previously unnamed slave in Catherine of Aragon’s bedchamber may have known the answer to one of history’s greatest questions.

In the summer of 1501 an adolescent called Catalina left Moorish Granada to begin a new life in England. On disembarking at Plymouth, la infanta Catalina, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had her name anglicised to Catherine and prepared to marry Prince Arthur, heir of Henry VII. With Catherine of Aragon on that journey was another Catalina, one whose real identity has been obscured by enslavement and historical conflation. Yet she may have known the truth about an enigma that still beguiles us five centuries later.

In the records, Catalina is identified as a slave and royal bedmaker. She is not accorded a surname and Catalina was probably not her real name. She was born in Motril, Granada, which until 1492 was an autonomous Muslim kingdom. As such, she almost certainly grew up a Muslim moor. But before 1501 she was enslaved, probably converted and placed in the service of Catherine of Aragon.

In the wake of the Reconquista of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella, Muslim moors were considered the spoils of war. Corsairs seized and enslaved Moorish travellers, while others were enslaved as punishment for such crimes as pleading for alms without a permit, or gathering in groups of more than four. In some cases, enslavement was a reprisal for resisting the ‘Catholic monarchs’. When the city of Malaga finally fell in the siege of 1487, Ferdinand and Isabella condemned the entire population to slavery or death. By then, there were several slaves in royal service, including those seized from recently claimed territories in the Canary Islands and the New World. The Spanish rulers proclaimed the widening horizons of their empire by enslaving and displaying their power over its people.

Most slaves in royal service converted to Christianity, changing their names in the process. This is almost certainly how Catalina gained her name. Since she shared it with Catherine of Aragon, she might have followed the custom of adopting her mistress’ name.

What is certain is that Catalina was among the 60 servants who travelled with Catherine to her new home in 1501. When Catherine entered London that November she made a public display of her foreignness, riding ‘a mule richly trapped after the manner of Spain’, her auburn hair capped by a large braided hat. Her Spanish ladies wore ‘busteous and marvellous’ hooped gowns. Garbed in Granadan dress and sandals, Catalina was almost certainly one of those described – with more rhetorical flourish than cultural sensitivity – by Thomas More as ‘barefoot pygmy Ethiopians’.

On Catherine’s marriage, her Spanish household travelled with Prince Arthur to his court at Ludlow. There, it was Catalina’s duty to make Catherine’s bed and attend ‘to other secret services’ of an intimate nature. Carrying the linen sheets to and from the royal bedchamber, Catalina was in a unique position to know whether Catherine and Arthur’s marriage was ever consummated. That question became of vital importance in the decades ahead.

There was little time for Catalina to adjust to her new life. In April 1502 Arthur died and the widowed Catherine moved to London, transporting her household into a miserable seven years of increasing penury and discomfort. Catalina continued to serve Catherine, although other Spanish attendants left to serve the English royal court. The African trumpeter John Blanke, who probably also arrived in England as part of Catherine’s retinue, entered the service of Henry VII by 1507.

In 1509 the accession of Henry VIII changed Catalina’s circumstances once again. Catherine married the teenage king and Catalina was once more in attendance at the royal bed. Intriguingly, one Spanish account reports that Catalina ‘was present the first time the Queen and Henry were united as one’, suggesting she was a witness to their first sexual encounter.

By 1527, Catherine was menopausal and only one living daughter was born to the couple. Henry sought an annulment on the grounds that Catherine’s marriage to Arthur invalidated their union. Catherine insisted her first marriage had never been consummated. Catalina’s first-hand knowledge of the princess’s bedsheets became a matter of national importance.

By this point Catalina had left Catherine’s service and England, marrying a Moorish crossbow-maker called Oviedo in Ezcaray, northern Spain. To travel freely and marry, Catalina must have been liberated from slavery. It is not clear whether Catherine manumitted Catalina formally (in Spain this usually involved the payment of a redemption fee) or if Catalina’s service in England, which lacked a code for modern slavery, freed her. Catalina returned to Granada. She and Oviedo had two daughters before he died in Malaga, by 1531. As a widowed mother, Catalina moved back to her hometown of Motril. There, she was sought by Spanish agents seeking to confirm Catherine’s story, but if Catalina provided testimony about Catherine’s virginity, it has not been recovered. After 1531, Catalina disappeared from the records.

Centuries after her death, the enslaved Catalina was conflated with another member of Catherine of Aragon’s household, the high-ranking Doña Catalina de Cardones/Cardenas. This confusion seems to have arisen from the 1874 work of Mariano Roca de Togores, Marques de Molins, who indexes ‘Cardones’ as a slave girl in Catherine’s chamber. Contemporary Spanish references to Catalina the slave never accorded her a surname and transcriptions of the Spanish state papers kept in the National Archives refer to ‘Catalina de Cardenas’. The Cardenas were a high-ranking Spanish family with royal connections: any daughter of theirs is unlikely to have married a humble Moorish crossbow-maker. Cardenas’ high birth is reflected in the list of Catherine of Aragon’s attendants compiled in 1501: she is listed third in precedence and given the honourable appellation of ‘Doña’. Towards the bottom of the list, unnamed, are ‘two slaves’. One of them must be Catalina.

Thus the Granadan Catalina has continued to be misidentified. We should now surely recognise her by the hometown to which she chose to return not as Catalina ‘once the queen’s slave’ or ‘Catalina de Cardenas’, but as Catalina of Motril.

Lauren Johnson is the author of So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII (Head of Zeus, 2016) and a forthcoming biography of Henry VI.

Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s greatest queen

Catherine of Aragon’s reputation may be defined by the acrimonious breakdown of her marriage. But, during her 24 years as Henry VIII’s wife and queen, she proved herself a resolute war leader, a formidable intellect and the darling of the English people. It’s high time, then, argues John Edwards, that we looked beyond that famous annulment and celebrated Catherine’s achievements

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Published: October 19, 2020 at 10:55 am

In June 1513, Catherine of Aragon went on to a war footing. Henry VIII, her husband of four years, had led a huge army across the Channel to attack the French king Louis XII. Henry appointed Catherine as “regent and governess of England, Wales and Ireland, during our absence… to issue warrants under her sign manual… for payment of such sums as she may require from our treasury”.

Henry also gave his wife powers to raise and equip troops for the defence of the realm – powers she quickly needed to deploy. No sooner had Henry left for France than James IV of Scotland, husband of Catherine’s sister-in-law Margaret Tudor, was attempting to take advantage of the English king’s absence by crossing the border into England at the head of a powerful army. As the Scots surged south, all eyes turned to Catherine. How would she react?

Catherine, who was born near Madrid in 1485, had often travelled with her parents – King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile – during their war against the last Muslim ruler of Spain, known to the Spaniards as Boabdil. Now, two decades later and a queen in her own right, Catherine imitated her pugnacious mother in backing and organising the English defences.

While the Earl of Surrey commanded the army in the north, Catherine ordered another force to be sent into the Midlands as a reserve, and then started mobilising a third contingent north of London, in case things went badly.

Watching The Spanish Princess? Find out more about the real history that inspired the drama:

Catherine’s involvement in the defence of England has largely been written out of history, often restricted to a tongue-in-cheek remark she made to Henry’s minister Thomas Wolsey that she was confining herself to “making standards, banners and badges”. But in fact, while her husband was engaged in largely ineffective manoeuvres in north-eastern France, Catherine gave executive orders.

Henry’s Spanish wife was now acting as a patriot for her adopted country, using hostile language against both the French and the Scots. She regarded her husband’s expedition to France as a crusade, since Louis XII had rebelled against Pope Julius II. As for the Scots, she boasted in 1512 that the English “would conquer and annihilate the kingdom of Scotland, according to the fashion in which the Catholic king [her father, Ferdinand] treated the king of Navarre [who had been defeated and conquered, also in 1512]”.

It was no idle boast. Surrey’s northern army inflicted a military, political and social disaster on the Scots at Flodden in Northumberland on 9 September 1513. By the time that famous battle had reached its bloody conclusion, King James IV, a number of his bishops, and much of the Scottish nobility, lay dead on the field.

Catherine clearly revelled in the English victory – so much so that she proposed sending King James’s embalmed and waxed corpse to Henry in France as grisly evidence of her triumph. And she would have done so, but “our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it”. Instead, she had to content herself with telling her husband that: “This battle hath been to your grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be, and more than ye should win all the crown of France.”

Grit, initiative, skill

Looking back from a distance of 500 years, the battle of Flodden can be regarded as a high point in Catherine’s life. Here was a queen who, almost from the day she arrived in England, had been a favourite of the English people. Here was a woman whose keen intellect had impressed some of the sharpest minds in 16th-century Europe. And now to these accomplishments could be added a display of grit, initiative and no little skill in the midst of a national emergency.

But as well as being a moment of triumph, the autumn of 1513 was also a high point for Catherine’s marriage. Though she couldn’t have known it at the time, it marked the start of a long decline – one that, by 1533, had led to acrimony, the annulment of her marriage and a long exile into the margins of history. So where did it all go wrong for Henry’s first, and arguably greatest, queen?

Catherine may have been the daughter of two Spanish monarchs but her future as an English royal was mapped out for her at the tenderest of ages, shaped by a treaty negotiated by her parents and her future father-in-law, King Henry VII. By the time she celebrated her fifth birthday, Catherine was already betrothed to an English prince. But that prince wasn’t Henry it was his older brother, Prince Arthur Tudor, first in line to the English throne. Twelve years later, on 14 November 1501, Catherine and Arthur were married in St Paul’s Cathedral, escorted out of the church by the 10-year-old Henry on a kind of cat-walk that ran the length of the nave.

Soon after, the newlyweds were dispatched to Ludlow Castle, where they were to oversee the government of the Welsh Marches and the principality of Wales itself. That plan would never come to fruition – for, on 2 April 1502, tragedy struck. Arthur, English king in waiting, died of an unspecified infection and was carted to Worcester Cathedral for burial. As was customary for royal widows, Catherine didn’t attend her husband’s funeral, but was taken on a royal litter back to London. There she would live in increasing discomfort and relative poverty for the rest of Henry VII’s reign, as he and her father fought over her fate.

From heir to spare

Catherine’s parents had initially sent her to England as part of a marriage strategy that aimed to consolidate Spanish power and contain France. With Arthur dead, it was not at all clear that Catherine would even remain in England, let alone marry an English king. Overnight, she had been downgraded from next English queen to ‘spare’ Spanish princess, her political and monetary value greatly diminished. The English now began to refer to Catherine by a name that would stick for centuries – ‘Catherine of Aragon’, a minor princess from a peripheral part of the Iberian peninsula.

But then, on 21 April 1509, everything changed. The English king, Henry VII, breathed his last his son and heir suddenly needed a wife – and fast. Within days of his accession to the throne, Henry VIII personally started negotiations with Spain again. On 11 June that year at Greenwich Palace, Henry and Catherine were married.

No attempt was made to imitate Catherine’s spectacular marriage to Arthur, but a procession from the City of London to Westminster on the day before the royal couple’s coronation demonstrated a fact that remained true for the rest of Catherine’s life: the public loved her, and they displayed their affection vociferously as she passed before them on her way to Westminster.

Catherine was not just a popular queen, but an accomplished one. As a child, she had been given the best education that money could buy, being tutored in feminine domestic arts, such as sewing, music and dancing, and religious instruction. She also immersed herself in the developing scholarship of the Renaissance, and mastered written and spoken Latin as well as modern languages. As a result, once in England, she was able to hold her own with some of the top humanists of the day, among them the Dutchman Erasmus and Sir Thomas More.

The marriage turns sour

For much of their 24 years together, Henry and Catherine’s marriage seems to have been loving and happy. The Spanish queen humoured her husband in all his chivalric games, and at least pretended to be surprised by the charades in which he and his ‘noble’ friends sometimes engaged, including the occasion in which they invaded her chamber dressed as Robin Hood and his ‘Merry Men’.

Yet there were always shadows over the relationship, and by far the darkest was the one cast by the couple’s failure to produce a male heir. Catherine was pregnant at least six times between 1509 and 1518, but only one child, the future Mary I, survived infancy. To Henry, who craved a son to inherit his crown and defend the nation’s interests in the face of foreign aggression, this was quite simply the wrong result. If Catherine couldn’t provide him with an heir, he would find someone who could.

The English king had successive mistresses, one of whom, Elizabeth Blount, produced a longed-for boy in June 1519, unsubtly named Henry Fitzroy. From that moment on, Catherine and her now three-year-old daughter would find themselves increasingly marginalised.

But not even the birth of a son could satisfy Henry. He sought a legitimate male heir and – mindful of the Bible’s warning that “If a man takes his brother’s wife it is impurity he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless” (Leviticus) – began to worry that God had cursed him because he had married Prince Arthur’s wife.

By the end of 1527, another factor was fuelling Henry’s dissatisfaction with Catherine: his infatuation with her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn. Maybe Anne could be the wife to provide him with the son he desired. With this tantalising prospect in mind, Henry took the explosive decision to ask his chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to obtain an annulment of his marriage from the pope.

The people of England loved Catherine from the moment she married Arthur in 1501 until her death and beyond

Wolsey tried to settle the case in England, but Catherine, to the surprise of some, put up an obstinate fight. She vociferously denied the accusations that she had had sexual relations with Prince Arthur during their short marriage – an assumption around which much of Henry’s case was built. As a result of her efforts, and those of her nephew Emperor Charles V, in the autumn of 1528 Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio was sent to London to hear the case with Wolsey.

Playing a blinder

On 21 June 1529, in court at Blackfriars, Catherine knelt dramatically before her husband, begging him to stop proceedings. When he refused to do so, she announced that she would appeal from the two cardinals to Pope Clement VII in Rome: “I most humbly require you, in the way of charity and for the love of God – who is the just judge – to spare me the extremity of this new [legatine] court, until I may be advised what way and order my friends in Spain [above all her nephew Charles V] will advise me to take. And if ye will not extend to me so much impartial favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause.”

With the eyes of the world once again upon her, Catherine played a blinder. But it wasn’t enough. As Clement procrastinated, Henry began moves in parliament to separate his kingdom from Roman jurisdiction. In 1532, he appointed a new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who, on 23 May 1533, annulled Henry and Catherine’s marriage. By then, Catherine’s fate as queen was already sealed: Henry had married Anne in secret in November 1532.

Until her death in 1536, Catherine shuttled between remote country houses. Meanwhile Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, pushing Mary further down the royal pecking order and resulting in her being downgraded from princess to lady.

Catherine was also destined for a downgrade – especially in the eyes of historians. While Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth, have for 500 years been hailed as icons of England’s national story, Catherine has largely been written out of history.

But there are many reasons for suggesting that this a fate of which she was thoroughly undeserving. In 1529, Catherine’s mere appearance on the streets of London – making her way to the legatine court in Blackfriars – had elicited loud applause from a crowd of onlookers. That admiration continued until her dying day, and beyond. As soon as Catherine was dead, much of Europe hailed her as a hero of the Catholic faith. Even in England itself, affectionate memories of Henry’s first queen are preserved: in the Midlands where she spent her last years, and particularly in her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral, now restored after destruction by Oliver Cromwell’s troops.

How should we remember Catherine today? There is no need to adopt a staunchly Catholic or Protestant, English or European standpoint to recognise her many qualities. She was a resolute war leader, formidable intellect and a darling of the people. What’s more, after 24 years of marriage to Henry VIII, she died in her own bed. Given the fate that awaited her successors, that in itself was no mean achievement.

Timeline: Catherine of Aragon’s rise and fall

16 December 1485: Catherine is born to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile

14 March 1489: Catherine is betrothed by treaty to Prince Arthur of Wales

14 November 1501: Catherine marries Arthur in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Arthur dies in Ludlow Castle, Shropshire on 2 April 1502

11 June 1509: A little less than two months after Henry VII’s death, Catherine marries King Henry VIII at Greenwich Palace

1 January 1511: Henry and Catherine’s son, Henry, is born, but dies within nine weeks

9 September 1513: James IV of Scotland is defeated, and dies, on Flodden Field, while Catherine is “regent and governess” for Henry

18 February 1516: The future Queen Mary I is born to Catherine and Henry

1527: Henry is first attracted to Anne Boleyn

21 June 1529: Catherine publicly appeals to Pope Clement VII against Henry’s plan to divorce her

June–July 1531: Henry first separates permanently from Catherine and then forbids her to see Mary

1532–1534: Henry VIII’s church breaks away from Rome. The marriage is annulled in 1533

John Edwards is senior research fellow in Spanish at the University of Oxford. His books include Ferdinand and Isabella (Longman, 2005) and Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen (Yale, 2011)

The stillbirths and miscarriages that left Catherine of Aragon heartbroken

The first of Henry VIII's six wives, Catherine of Aragon was married to the King for 23 years. As the first of his wives, she was under great pressure to produce a male heir to the throne, one who could carry on Henry's lineage.

But Catherine suffered several tragedies in her quest to give her husband a son and while some of her pregnancies were kept secret, the public was well aware of the losses too.

Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. (AP)

With Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sharing the news of her recent miscarriage , it's hard not to consider what other royal woman have also been through. Catherine lost her children in a different era, at a time when miscarriage and stillbirth was not fully understood and women were blamed for the death of their babies.

The first pregnancy

Catherine was just 23 when she married King Henry VIII in June of 1509, and was said to be a beautiful bride with long red-golden hair. According to historical author Alison Weir, the couple consummated their relationship the night of the wedding and announced Catherine's pregnancy just a few months later on 1 November.

Catherine of Aragon as portrayed by by English actress Charlotte Hope in the series 'The Spanish Princess'. (Starz)

All of Britain celebrated the news as it was seen as the first opportunity for Catherine to produce an heir to the throne, one who would secure the future of the Tudor line and reduce the risk of civil war.

But this first pregnancy ended in disaster Catherine went into labour when she was six or seven months pregnant and her baby girl was stillborn.

It wasn't uncommon for premature babies to die in those days, but this was seen as a great tragedy for Catherine. Not only did she suffer a terrible sense of failure, she had also failed to produce an heir. And there was more tragedy to come.

Tragic Prince Henry

Catherine fell pregnant again quite quickly and, on January 1, 1511, a baby boy was born and christened Henry. There were celebrations across England following the joyful news an heir had been produced and the Tudor name would be continued.

Catherine of Aragon. 1485-1536. First Queen of Henry VIII of England. (Getty)

"But after this great joy came sorrowful chance," Alison Weir writes. Suddenly the festivities were curtailed the King and Queen had received the terrible news that their little son had died.

Henry, "like a wise prince," comforted his heartbroken wife through the loss but hsowed no outward signs of mourning himself. Behind closed doors, Catherine was crushed.

Prince Henry was buried in Westminster Abbey following a funeral that was said to have cost a fortune.

Stillborns, then a girl

Catherine was pregnant again in June 1513, when Henry went to war with France. But in October, while the King was still away, she delivered a premature baby boy who only lived a short time after his birth.

Catherine of Aragon as portrayed in 'The Spanish Princess'. (Starz)

In July 1514, Catherine was pregnant for the fourth time. But again, in December the Venetian ambassador in England reported that Catherine had borne "a still-born male child of eight months, to the very great grief of the whole court".

According to Alison Weir, official reports claim Catherine had "brought forth an abortion due to worry about the excessive discord between the two kings, her husband and father because of her excessive grief, she is said to have ejected an immature foetus".

It was a shocking claim, especially as there was so much pressure on Catherine to produce a male heir. Failing to do so would put her status as Queen and Henry's wife into question.

Portrait of Princess Mary, future Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558). (The LIFE Picture Collection via)

But by this time, Henry's love for her had all but died. The stress of enduring multiple miscarriages and the deaths of her babies had taken its toll on Catherine's appearance and she was cruelly described as "rather ugly". But she eventually fell pregnant again, and funally gave birth to a child who would survive - but it wasn't a boy.

Catherine had borne a daughter who would one day become Queen Mary I, the first woman to wear the crown of England.

A King and Queen divided

The King was said to be thrilled with his daughter, but ever hopeful that the next child would be a son. Catherine's last baby was conceived in February 1518, when she was 32. The King's secretary wrote: "I pray God heartily that it may be a prince, to the surety and universal comfort of the realm."

Henry VIII's divorce, Cardinal Wolsey with Catherine of Aragon, 1533. (De Agostini via Getty Images)

According to Alison Weir, there might have been other babies who were born prematurely and died, but were kept a secret. This is because some of Catherine's pregnancies had been kept hidden from the public, and possibly from official records.

In November, 1518, Catherine gave birth to a final baby girl, but she didn't live long and died before she could be christened. By this time, Henry was desperate for a son but it looked highly unlikely that another child could be carried to full term.

Catherine was eventually cast aside by Henry so he was free to marry her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn.

Circa 1533, Anne Boleyn (1507 - 1536), Queen of England from 1533 -1536, wife of Henry VIII. (Getty)

Anne also had her share of sorrow when it came to babies. While her first child was Elizabeth I, her second child (believed to be a son) was stillborn and two subsequent pregnancies ended in miscarriage.

Henry eventually had a son by Jane Seymour, as well as one acknowledged illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, by Elizabeth Blount. It's also believed Henry had three illegitimate daughters who lived to adulthood.

Though Catherine endured too many heartbreaks to count when it came to her children, the one daughter who lived became one of the greatest women of her time, and the first Queen of England: Mary I.

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What happened to Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s children?

Their union was not to continue happily, if it had ever begun so. Catherine was pregnant at least six times between 1509 and 1518, and while she bore him a daughter, the future Mary I (b1516), their relationship was plagued by multiple miscarriages and stillbirths. Alison Weir writes how these tragedies left Katherine suffering a strong sense of failure because “she had desired to gladden the King and the people with a prince”.

When she gave birth to a boy, christened Henry, on New Year’s Day 1511, bonfires were lit in London and the news was met with “very great pomp and rejoicing”. Yet the child died just seven weeks later. Henry, writes Weir “like a wise prince, took this dolorous chance wondrous wisely and, the more to comfort the Queen, he made no great mourning outwardly. But the Queen, like a natural woman, made much lamentation”. Prince Henry was buried in a lavish funeral in Westminster Abbey.

Was the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon a happy one?

Despite these personal tragedies, Catherine was an able and supportive consort to Henry and popular with her subjects, and it’s known that the couple rode and hunted together. The Spanish queen humoured her husband in all his chivalric games, writes John Edwards, and “at least pretended to be surprised by the charades in which he and his ‘noble’ friends sometimes engaged, including the occasion in which they invaded her chamber dressed as Robin Hood and his ‘Merry Men’”.

Did Catherine of Aragon fight at Flodden?

Catherine of Aragon also ruled as regent when Henry was fighting in France, and her army defeated the forces of King James IV of Scotland, husband of Catherine’s sister-in-law Margaret Tudor, at the battle of Flodden in 1513. James had attempted to take advantage of the English king’s absence by crossing the border into England at the head of a powerful army.

Catherine’s involvement in the victory has largely been written out of history, says Edwards, often restricted to a tongue-in-cheek remark she made to Henry’s minister Thomas Wolsey that she was confining herself to “making standards, banners and badges”. But in fact, while her husband was engaged in largely ineffective manoeuvres in north-eastern France, Catherine gave executive orders.

Catherine clearly revelled in the English win – so much so that she proposed sending King James’s embalmed and waxed corpse to Henry in France as grisly evidence of her triumph. Yet instead she told her husband that: “This battle hath been to your grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be, and more than ye should win all the crown of France.”

Edwards writes that the victory at Flodden can be regarded as a high point in Catherine’s life. “Here was a queen who, almost from the day she arrived in England, had been a favourite of the English people. Here was a woman whose keen intellect had impressed some of the sharpest minds in 16th-century Europe. And now to these accomplishments could be added a display of grit, initiative and no little skill in the midst of a national emergency.”

Though Catherine did play a significant role in many diplomatic alliances of the Tudor age, she did not make the journey to France with Henry’s younger sister, Princess Mary Tudor, for her marriage to King Louis XII, as depicted in the drama. However, as alluded to in the show, in Mary’s retinue was Mary Boleyn, daughter of courtier Thomas and sister to Anne – both Boleyn daughters would later catch the eye of the king.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold: Did Henry VIII and Francis I wrestle?

The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a magnificent gathering – 18 days of revelry near Calais in June 1520, in which Henry VIII of England met with Francis I of France. It was a direct result of the Treaty of London, organised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a pact of non-aggression between the major powers of Europe, including England, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Among the terms was the commitment that Henry and Francis would meet to affirm their friendship.

The revels marked a major milestone in the alliance between the two rulers, though the atmosphere was tense right up until the actual meeting. “The gold coats worn by the English party were briefly mistaken for armour”, reveals BBC History Revealed, “and all was paused until the French were reassured that Francis was in no danger. Then the kings doffed their caps and embraced each other as if old friends.”

Henry really did challenge the French king to a wrestling match, though seemingly not due to an insult, as in the drama. “Wrestling was the preferred entertainment when the weather turned sour. Completely unexpectedly, and after a few drinks, Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match, but was easily defeated. He did, however, best the French king at archery.”

What happened during the Evil May Day riots?

In Part II, while Henry and Catherine attend the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Lina and Oviedo are caught in the midst of rising prejudice and tension towards foreigners in England, in the form of the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. This was a real event that rocked London in the 16th century. Sources disagree about what precisely sparked the riot, says Dr Joanne Paul, writing for HistoryExtra. “Witness and investigator Thomas More suggested that it was two lowly young apprentices who were looking to make trouble. The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall put the blame on the foreigners themselves they had boasted of their favour with the king and “disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen”, from whom they had taken jobs.”

In reality, Catherine and Henry were not returning from France at this time and did not get caught up in the riots the royal family was 10 miles from the heart of London, at their palace in Richmond. But it is true that Catherine intervened to gain a pardon for 400 or so of the agitators. Though the head of one rioter, John Lincoln, was displayed as a reminder and a warning against further uprising.

Elsewhere in the series, as the actions against dissenters intensify, Lady Margaret ‘Maggie’ Pole discovers another side to her court ally, Thomas More. It is true that history has left us two versions of Thomas More, as Dr Joanne Paul writes, “the flawless Catholic saint, and the cruel ogre, hellbent on burning Protestants”.

“These two ‘Mores’ were the product of the divide between Protestants and Catholics,” explains Paul, “and emerged out of the decades that followed More’s death in 1535. As More’s extended family produced hagiographic biographies to convince the pope to make him a saint, Elizabethan chroniclers like Edward Hall and John Foxe painted More as a fool and fanatic. To borrow the words of 19th-century socialist Karl Kautsky: ‘To most of the biographies of More, a certain fragrance of incense clings.’ It can be difficult to see through the fog.”

How did Catherine and Henry VIII’s marriage end?

As their struggles to conceive a healthy male heir continued, Henry VIII turned to many mistresses, including Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount (during Catherine’s first pregnancy he was also embroiled with Anne Hastings, sister of the Duke of Buckingham and a newly married member of Catherine’s household. Henry’s close friend William Compton appears to have acted as a go-between, although Anne later went on to have an affair with Compton himself. Henry sent her away from court in retaliation). Henry’s affairs produced a number of illegitimate offspring (though a son Henry Fitzroy, born to mistress Blount, was the only child to be acknowledged). Catherine was increasingly marginalised and eventually cast aside by 1527, in favour of her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn.

As Henry sought an annulment to his marriage, Catherine was subjected to a protracted process of humiliation and heartbreak while she fought to prove her fidelity to Henry and insist that she was the rightful queen. Edwards explains how Catherine “vociferously denied the accusations that she had had sexual relations with Prince Arthur during their short marriage – an assumption around which much of Henry’s case was built”. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment that he so desired, Henry’s infatuation with Anne sparked a break with papal obedience, a key catalyst for the English Reformation.

Henry officially married Anne Boleyn in January 1533, although they had probably already married secretly at Dover in November 1532. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t annulled by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, until May 1533.

How did Catherine of Aragon die?

Henry and Catherine were married for nearly 24 years, and she is today often known only in the children’s rhyme about Henry’s wives as ‘divorced’. Yet Catherine of Aragon also ‘survived’ for three years after the annulment of her marriage. However, she was banished from the king’s court and cruelly denied contact with her young daughter, Mary, even during her final illness (Henry did grant a visit from Catherine’s friend Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to the Tudor court).

She died at the age of 50, of suspected heart cancer, on 7 January 1536 at Kimbolton Castle – just four months before Henry’s second wife met her horrifying and bloody end.

Catherine, in a grave marked ‘Dowager Princess of Wales’, was buried at Peterborough Abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral.

The Spanish PrincessParts 1 & 2 are available to watch on STARZ now, with a new episode released each Sunday from 11 October. Find out more here.

Elinor Evans is the deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.

Banishment from the English Court

At the time her marriage fell apart, Catherine couldn’t conceive any more children. The king banished her from the court and exiled her.

King Henry VIII married an already pregnant Anne Boleyn, but this marriage didn’t have a happy ending either. A few years later, Anne Boleyn was beheaded due to the royals accusing her of witchcraft and incest. Like Catherine, Anne couldn’t’ give the king a son either. She instead gave him a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth I.

After their divorce was finalized, King Henry confined the Spanish princess to Kimbolton Castle. Like many other women in her time, she became a victim of public scrutiny, having her honor questioned and worrying for the well-being of her daughter.

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.

Catherine of Aragon – penniless princess to queen consort.

As Catherine of Aragon settled into Durham House after Arthur’s death in April 1502 her parents were already sending an envoy to England with plans for her future. Hernan Estrada was to demand Catherine and her dowry back immediately and at the same time to suggest ten-year-old Henry as a possible husband.

Following Elizabeth of York’s death in childbirth, Henry VII suggested himself as a husband. Isabella was not amused. She sent a letter instructing her daughter to pack her bags and be ready to board the first available Spanish ship that dropped anchor. Intentionally or not this had the effect of concentrating Henry and Ferdinand’s minds. On 23 June 1503, Catherine was betrothed to Prince Henry and a dispensation was sent for. Julius II duly obliged and even managed to skirt around the thorny issue of whether Catherine was still a maiden or not by wording the dispensation to suggest that the marriage had ‘perhaps’ been consummated in Tremlett’s words.

By 1504 Catherine was often ill. It has been suggested that she may have been anorexic. This may have been one of the reasons she had difficulty producing children. Henry VII was so concerned about Catherine that he wrote to the pope. Julius II duly obliged by writing to Catherine commanding that she ate more. To find out more about Tremlett’s research into Catherine’s eating disorder and her time as a penniless princess double click on the image of Catherine to open a new window.

Meanwhile Henry VII and Ferdinand argued about money and Catherine was left, short of funds, in Durham House and from there she found herself moved to Richmond. She still didn’t speak English and she was still surrounded by her Spanish ladies in waiting. Then in 1507 the engagement to the young Prince Henry, pictured right, was off because Ferdinand hadn’t sent the dowry money.

It was at that point that Catherine made history for the first time. In 1507 she became the Spanish ambassador. In the meantime Catherine’s sister Juana had been bereaved by the death of her husband. Henry, having met Juana, when Philip and she were stranded in England due to bad weather decided he would like to marry Juana. It helped that she was queen of Castille and it probably also helped that Ferdinand did not want the match. Aside from the first six or so months of her time in England, Catherine’s experience had not been a good one. She is even said to have contemplated joining religious orders. Then on 21 April 1509 Henry VII died and the stalemate shattered.

The penniless princess who’d learned how to send secret letters, argue her cause and dissimulate to her own father as well as her father-in-law married seventeen-year-old Henry on 11 June 1509. There was a six year age gap between husband and wife but at tho stage it wasn’t particularly noticeable. Catherine, it turned out, knew how to nurse a grudge. She sent Spanish diplomats and servants home with a flea in their ears and got on with being queen of England in a court where pageantry, feasting and jousting were now de rigeur. Henry even turned up in Catherine’s private rooms disguised as Robin Hood. Catherine, unlike some of Henry’s later wives, had the good sense to feign surprise and delight.

By November Catherine was pregnant and Henry was caught canoodling with Anne, Lady Hastings the sister of the Duke of Buckingham. They were exposed by Anne’s sister Elizabeth who was a favourite of Catherine’s. Anne was carted off to a nunnery Elizabeth was banned from court and Henry found himself in his wife’s bad books. Caroz, the Spanish ambassador, described her as ‘vexed.’ In January 1510 Catherine miscarried. The fairytale was over and the business of providing an heir began the sorry tale that would culminate in Henry divorcing his Spanish princess.

Tremlett, Giles. (2010) Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen. London: Faber and Faber

Royal History ╽Catherine Of Aragon: Heart-Wrenching Letters Of The One True Queen!

When Catherine Of Aragon wrote a heartfelt plea to her father, she held the title of Princess of Wales through her marriage to Prince Arthur of England. The couple had not been married long before the prince’s untimely death in 1502 at Ludlow Castle. Catherine pleads with her father, King Ferdinand II and details all her woes since arriving from Spain.

The young princess wrote “As I have often written to you, that since I came into England, I have not had a single maravedi, except a certain sum which was given me for food, and this sum did not suffice without my having many debts in London and that which troubles me more is to see my servants and maidens so at a loss, and that they have not the wherewith to get clothes.”

The distress is quite clear during this turbulent time of widowhood for Catherine but I greatly admire her tenacity. She was always quite a woman who would rise above what life threw at her especially during her marriage troubles with King Henry VIII. The concern she shows for her servants obtaining enough money to maintain their basic needs such as clothing, food, and shelter shows the kind spirit and heart this woman truly had.

In today’s post I have shared several letters written either by Catherine Of Aragon or sent to her by other such as her late husband Prince Arthur of Wales himself. Leave your comments below to let me know what you think about it. Do you feel sorry for all she had to endure? I am of two minds about this. Yes, I do feel a little sad for her but also carry an immense pride in her character. Catherine was the definition of strength, pride, stubbornness, goodness, and so much more! A women not to be messed with or meekly disappear when things became tough. She stood up for herself, others, and for her beliefs.

[Katherine of Aragon]

Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Spain’s monarch King Ferdinand II and his wife Queen Isabella of Castile. The marriage of her parents had united Spain in the middle of the 15th century in 1469. She was their youngest child. In a biography from the EWB, they report that her parents quite loved their youngest princess:

“Catherine of Aragon was the last child born to the two reigning monarchs, or rulers, of Spain, King Ferdinand of Aragon (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella of Castile (1451–1504). Catherine was described as a small and plump princess with pink cheeks, light skin, and reddish-gold hair. Her childhood was filled with battles and celebrations, as her parents worked to expand the realm of their influence.

Catherine’s education was of great importance to Queen Isabella, who made sure that her daughter studied a wide variety of subjects. Catherine was a dedicated student who was capable of speaking French, Latin, Spanish, and later English. She trained in law, genealogy (the study of family histories), the bible, and history. Catherine also worked to develop her skills in dancing, drawing, and music, and she learned how to embroider, spin, and weave. She had a strong religious upbringing and developed a faith that would play a major role later in her life.

Knowing that marrying their daughters to the royalty of powerful nations could strengthen their foothold in Europe, the king and queen chose these alliances carefully. In May 1499 the first of several wedding ceremonies was held when Catherine was married to Prince Arthur of England, son of Henry VII (1457–1509).”

In all accounts written about Catherine of Aragon, it is clear that she was an intelligent, strong, and worthy woman deserving of her title. She was a queen that led by example.

[Prince Arthur of England & Catherine Of Aragon]

It was in 1501 that the Spanish princess arrived to England and married the Prince Of Wales. The Journey had been quite a difficult one according to an article in the Anne Boleyn Files written by Claire Ridgeway. She describes Catherine’s travels and the delays because of the negation that had occurred between King Henry VII and King Ferdinand II.

“Catherine had originally set sail from Coruna on the 17th August, but strong storms in the Bay of Biscay had forced her fleet to land at Laredo, near Bilbao. After hearing of her first failed attempt to reach England, Catherine’s future father-in-law sent one of his best captains, Stephen Butt, to steer her ship through the treacherous Bay of Biscay.

Negotiations for a marriage agreement between England and Spain had begun in 1488 when King Ferdinand of Aragon, Catherine’s father, sent his ambassadors to England. According to David Starkey, Ferdinand saw an opportunity: he had a daughter, Henry VII had a son, and a marriage agreement could united England and Spain against their common enemy, France. In 1489, Henry VII sent his ambassadors to Spain to settle the agreement and in March 1489, in the Treaty of Medina del Campo, the two king agreed to a marriage treaty and alliance. Ferdinand and his wife, Isabella of Castile, agreed to pay Henry VII a marriage portion or dowry of 200,000 (about £40,000), split into 2 installments, and Henry agreed to settled a third of the Prince of Wales’ lands on Catherine so that she would have income if Arthur died.”

Before the two had met there had been letters written back and forth. The letter below was written in 1499 CE to Catherine from Arthur himself. This was before they had ever met each other in person.

Below is a letter written by Arthur, the Prince of Wales, to Catherine before her arrival and their official meeting in November of 1501. He seems quite taken by her letters to him and looking forward to meeting his new wife. It is a kind and articulate letter which I think shows readers that Arthur was an intelligent, gentle, and level-headed prince of the times.

Most illustrious and most excellent lady, my dearest spouse, I wish you very much health, with my hearty recommendation.

I have read the most sweet letters of your highness lately given to me, from which I have easily perceived your most entire love to me. Truly those your letters, traced by your own hand, have so delighted me, and have rendered me so cheerful and jocund, that I fancied I beheld your highness and conversed with and embraced my dearest wife. I cannot tell you what an earnest desire I feel to see your highness, and how vexatious to me is this procrastination about your coming. I owe eternal thanks to your excellence that you so lovingly correspond to this my so ardent love. Let it continue, I entreat, as it has begun and, like as I cherish your sweet remembrance night and day, so do you preserve my name ever fresh in your breast. And let your coming to me be hastened, that instead of being absent we may be present with each other, and the love conceived between us and the wished-for joys may reap their proper fruit.

Moreover I have done as your illustrious highness enjoined me, that is to say, in commending you to the most serene lord and lady the king and queen my parents, and in declaring your filial regard towards them, which to them was most pleasing to hear, especially from my lips. I also beseech your highness that it may please you to exercise a similar good office for me, and to commend me with hearty good will to my most serene lord and lady your parents for I greatly value, venerate, and esteem them, even as though they were my own, and wish them all happiness and prosperity.

May your highness be ever fortunate and happy, and be kept safe and joyful, and let me know it often and speedily by your letters, which will be to me most joyous. From our castle of Ludlow. 5th of October, 1499.

Your highness’ most loving spouse,

Arthur, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, etc.

The future had looked promising when Catherine arrived to her new country to marry its prince however, that would not last long at all. Prince Arthur would die just months after the marriage in the spring of 1502. The official cause of death is unknown, but it is believed that the plague killed him. The bubonic plague or “sweating sickness” had been hitting Europe hard with its comeback in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Reports from the Tudor Society explain that the illness was a common occurrence during this time due to infections from the rat population. The diseases transferred to humans rather easily and this could explain the prince’s death. It was in 1501 that the Spanish princess arrived to England and married the Prince Of Wales. The Journey had been quite a difficult one according to an article in the Anne Boleyn Files written by Claire Ridgway. She describes Catherine’s travels and the delays because of the negation that had occurred between King Henry VII and King Ferdinand II.

“Unfortunately, plague and illness had been lingering around Ludlow however the young Prince paid no heed to this and continued with his duties. Then in late March, he and Catherine were struck down by an illness. Both were ordered to their beds and confined in their rooms while attended to by doctors. Servants prayed frantically for the young Prince and Princess of Wales, however, it would be to no avail. While Katherine was still sick in her rooms her husband and heir to the English throne died.

While the exact cause of Arthur’s death remains unknown several theories have been put forward. It has been suggested that Arthur may have suffered from some form of cancer or possibly consumption. Another theory that has commonly been suggested, which ties in with Katherine of Aragon’s illness at the same time, is the dreaded sweating sickness.

The sweating sickness had first struck England in the fifteenth century and appeared on and off with one of the worse epidemics being in 1528. It was believed to have been carried from Europe by rats and transferred to humans by small biting insects. The symptoms were something like influenza or pneumonia, with the patient having pains and aches all over the body, headaches, a great thirst and horrible sweating. They would experience great exhaustion and a desire to sleep, rapid pulse rate, and dizziness. Many who caught the sweating sickness were dead within twenty-four hours.”

[Prince Arthur Of Wales]

All hopes were put on Catherine being pregnant with an heir upon the death of Prince Arthur. This was quite blow to the already turmoil and conflict ridden country. King Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York were devastated at the loss of their eldest child.

No time was wasted to bring Catherine back to London from Ludlow Castle. According to Susan Abernethy, who writes on her history blog that:

“A carriage draped all in black was sent to Ludlow to transport Catherine back to London. Under orders, it made pitifully slow progress because both Henry and Elizabeth believed Catherine to be pregnant with the precious Tudor heir.”

Carrying the late prince’s child was not to be Catherine’s fate because the two having only lived together for a short time never consummated the marriage. Prince Arthur was weak and ill most of their time together. When she was later engaged to Arthur’s brother Prince Henry, she was given a papal dispensation from the Holy Roman Church to marry again.

Prior to her engagement to Prince Henry things were not good because King Henry VII who was mourning his son and then later his wife was extremely neglectful in his care to Catherine, who has been named the Dowager Princess of Wales. The young girl had no support from her father-in-law or her family back Spain. Catherine was stuck. It was at this breaking point that she penned a long letter to her father King Ferdinand.

Most high and most puissant lord,

Hitherto I have not wished to let your highness know the affairs here, that I might not give you annoyance, and also thinking that they would improve but it appears that the contrary is the case, and that each day my troubles increase and all this on account of the doctor de Puebla, to whom it has not sufficed that from the beginning he transacted a thousand falsities against the service of your highness, but now he has given me new trouble and because I believe your highness will think I complain without reason, I desire to tell you all that has passed.

Your highness shall know, as I have often written to you, that since I came into England, I have not had a single maravedi, except a certain sum which was given me for food, and this such a sum that it did not suffice without my having many debts in London and that which troubles me more is to see my servants and maidens so at a loss, and that they have not the wherewith to get clothes and this I believe is all done by hand of the doctor, who, notwithstanding your highness has written, sending him word that he should have money from the king of England, my lord that their costs should be given them, yet, in order not to trouble him, will rather entrench upon and neglect the service of your highness. Now, my lord, a few days ago, donna Elvira de Manuel asked my leave to go to Flanders to be cured of a complaint which has come into her eyes, so that she lost the sight of one of them and there is a physician in Flanders who cured the infanta donna Isabel of the same disease which which she is affected. She labored to bring him here so as not to leave me, but could never succeed with him and I, since if she were blind she could not serve me, durst not hinder her journey. I begged the king of England, my lord, that until our donna Elvira should return his highness would command that I should have, as a companion, an old English lady, or that he would take me to his court and I imparted all this to the doctor, thinking to make of the rogue a true man but it did not suffice me – because he not only drew me to court, in which I have some pleasure, because I had supplicated the king for an asylum, but he negotiated that the king should dismiss all my household, and take away my chamber-equipage, and send to place it in a house of his own, so that I should not in any way be mistress of it.

And all this does not weigh upon me, except that it concerns the service of your highness, doing the contrary of that which ought to be done. I entreat your highness that you will consider that I am your daughter, and that consent not that on account of the doctor I should have such trouble, but that you will command some ambassador to come here, who may be a true servant of your highness, and for no interest will cease to do that which pertains to your service. And if in this your highness trusts me not, do you command some person to come here, who may inform you of the truth, and then you will have one who will better serve you. As for me, I have had so much pain and annoyance that I have lost my health in a great measure so that for two months I have had severe tertian fevers, and this will be the cause that I shall soon die. I supplicate your highness to pardon me that I presume to entreat you to do me so great favor as to command that this doctor may not remain because he certainly does not fulfill the service of your highness, which he postpones to the service of the worst interest which can be. Our Lord guard the life and most royal estate of your highness, and ever increase it as I desire. From Richmond, the second of December.

My lord, I had forgotten to remind your highness how you know that it was agreed that you were to give, as a certain part of my dowry, the plate and jewels that I brought and yet I am certain that the king of England, my lord, will not receive anything of plate nor of jewels which I have used because he told me himself that he was indignant that they should say in his kingdom that he took away from me my ornaments. And as little may your highness expect that he will take them in account and will return them to me because I am certain he will not do so, nor is any such thing customary here. In like wise the jewels which I brought from thence [Spain] valued at a great sum. The king would not take them in the half of the value, because here all these things are esteemed much cheaper, and the king has so many jewels that he rather desires money than them. I write thus to your highness because I know that there will be great embarrassment if he will not receive them, except at less price. It appears to me that it would be better if your highness should take them for yourself, and should give to the king of England, my lord, his money. Your highness will see what would serve you best, and with this I shall be most content.

The humble servant of your highness, who kisses your hands.

[The Trial of Catherine – after painting by Laslett J. Pott. Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, testifying at the Legatine Court, at which she defended the legitimacy of her marriage and her position as Queen of England. August 1529]


Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland in the first half of the 16th century, is one of history’s most famous monarchs for many reasons. He ruled ruthlessly, was quick to cry “treason!” and execute, and equally quick to fall in and out of love. Henry changed the religious fabric of England forever and left his mark on the wider world – but what of the six women he took as his queens?

From the regal and capable Catherine of Aragon to the patient and generous Katherine Parr, Henry’s wives represented a range of personalities, goals, beliefs, and influences on the king. Each of Henry’s six wives represented a facet of the king himself, whether he liked to admit it or not unfortunately, a Queen of England at the side of Henry VIII could never be sure of her husband’s love – or her safety. These are the stories of three Catherines, two Annes and one Jane.

Watch the video: Catherine of Aragon - Daughter of Spain, Queen of England


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