Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII and Queen of England for 24 years, was the most popular of Henry’s queens. A Spanish princess by birth, she won the hearts and minds of the English people, with even one of her enemies, Thomas Cromwell, stating “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”
1. Catherine’s parents were two of the most powerful figures in Europe
Born in 1485 to Kind Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, Catherine known as the Infanta of Spain as their youngest surviving child. Descended from English royalty through John of Gaunt’s line, Catherine was highly educated and accomplished in more domestic skills too.
Her proud lineage meant she was an attractive marriage prospect across Europe, and eventually she was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales: a strategic match which would validate the rule of the Tudors in England and provide strong links between Spain and England.
2. Henry wasn’t Catherine’s first husband
In May 1499, Catherine married Arthur, Prince of Wales, by proxy. Catherine arrived in England in 1501, and the two were formally married at St Paul’s Cathedral. Catherine had a dowry of 200,000 ducats: half was paid on the event of the marriage.
The young couple were dispatched to Ludlow Castle (appropriate given Arthur’s role as Prince of Wales), but just a few months later, in April 1502, Arthur died of the ‘sweating sickness’, leaving Catherine a widow.
To keep the alliance and avoid having to return Catherine’s large dowry, Henry VII, Arthur’s father, desperately looked for ways to keep Catherine in England – he is even rumoured to have considered marrying the teenager himself.
3. Her marriage to Henry was as close to a love match as a diplomatic marriage could be
Catherine was 6 years older than Henry, her former brother-in-law, when he became king in 1509. Henry made an active decision to marry Catherine: whilst there were strategic and political advantages, he was at liberty to marry any one of Europe’s princesses.
The two were well-matched. Both were attractive, well-educated, cultured and accomplished sportspeople, and they were devoted to each other for the first years of their marriage. The two were married in early June 1509 outside Greenwich Palace, and crowned at Westminster Abbey about 10 days later.
4. She served as England’s regent for 6 months
In 1513, Henry went to France, leaving Catherine as his regent in England during his absence: the actual phrasing went
“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”.
This was a sign of immense trust from a husband to wife, or king to queen by contemporary standards. Shortly after Henry departed, James IV of Scotland decided to take this opportune moment to invade, capturing several border castles in quick succession.
Catherine immediately sent an army north to stop the Scots, and addressed the troops herself in full armour despite being heavily pregnant. They met at the Battle of Flodden Field, which proved to be a decisive English victory: James IV was killed, as were a large number of Scottish nobles.
Catherine sent James’ bloody shirt to Henry in France with news of her victory: Henry later used this as as a banner at the siege of Tournai.
5. She suffered a series of tragic miscarriages and stillbirths
Catherine was pregnant 6 times during her marriage to Henry: only one of these children – a daughter, Mary – survived into adulthood. Of the remaining pregnancies, at least 3 resulted in male children who died shortly after birth.
In 1510, Catherine gave Henry a short-lived heir: Henry, Duke of Cornwall. Christened at Richmond Palace, the baby died at only a few months old. The inability to give Henry a living male heir proved to be Catherine’s undoing. Henry’s desperation for a son knew almost no bounds.
6. She was an early advocate for a woman’s right to education
Catherine was given a comprehensive education, speaking Spanish, English, Latin, French and Greek by the time she married Prince Arthur. She was determined to afford the same privilege to her own daughter, Mary, and took responsibility for much of her education, as well as taking instruction from the Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives.
In 1523, Catherine commissioned Vives to produce a book entitled ‘The Education of a Christian Woman’, in which he advocated for education for all women, irrespective of social class or ability and offered practical advice.
7. Catherine was a devout Catholic
Catholicism played a central role in Catherine’s life: she was pious and devout, and during her time as queen she created extensive programmes of poor relief.
Her strict adherence to Catholicism played into her refusal to accept Henry’s desire for divorce: she dismissed any claims that their marriage was unlawful. Henry suggested she retire gracefully to a nunnery: Catherine responded “God never called me to a nunnery. I am the King’s true and legitimate wife.”
Henry’s decision to break with Rome was something Catherine could never accept: she remained a devout Catholic until the end, loyal to the Pope and Rome despite it costing her marriage.
8. The validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage was called into question very publicly
In 1525, Henry became infatuated with one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn: one of Anne’s attractions was her youth. Henry badly wanted a son, and it was clear Catherine would have no more children. Henry asked Rome for an annulment, claiming it was against Biblical law to marry his brother’s widow.
Catherine was forced to testify very publicly about the consummation (or not) of her marriage to Henry’s brother Arthur – she maintained they never slept together, meaning she was a virgin when she married Henry.
Eventually, Thomas Wolsey convened an ecclesiastical court in England in 1529 to determine the matter once and for all: however, the pope withdrew his legate (representative) in order to stall the decision-making process, and forbade Henry to remarry in the meantime.
9. Catherine’s marriage was dissolved and she was exiled
Following years of backwards and forwards between England and Rome, Henry reached the end of his tether. The break with Rome meant Henry was head of his own church in England, so in 1533, a special court convened to declare Henry and Catherine’s marriage illegal.
Catherine refused to accept this ruling, and declared she would be continued to be addressed as Henry’s wife and England’s rightful queen (although her official title became the Dowager Princess of Wales). To punish Catherine, Henry refused to allow her access to their daughter, Mary unless both mother and daughter acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Queen of England.
10. She remained loyal and faithful to her husband until the end
Catherine spent her last years as a virtual prisoner at Kimbolton Castle. Her health worsened, and the damp castle did little to help matters. In her last letter to Henry, she wrote “Mine eyes desire you above all things” and she continued to maintain the legitimacy of her marriage.
Her death was probably caused by a form of cancer: an autopsy showed a black growth on her heart. At the time, it was hypothesised that this was a form of poisoning. On hearing the news of her death, Henry and Anne were said to have dressed in yellow (the Spanish colour of mourning), and made the news known throughout the court.