In this post, I wanted to focus on Queen Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England. With all the focus on Anne Boleyn, Katherine is typically remembered for her struggles later in life. She is remembered as the old, unattractive, stubborn woman who was being replaced by her young and vivacious lady in waiting. In reality, Katherine of Aragon was an extremely strong woman, a very popular queen and a role model for many of her subjects. She was intelligent and educated. She was also loyal to a fault. She was born of Queen Isabella (who was the queen of Castile in her own right) and King Ferdinand. She was trained for queenship since she was a toddler and prepared entirely for her role as a leader. She was integral to the success at the Battle of Flodden. It is easy to see why she remained popular with England’s subjects even after the King had decided to put her aside.
Queen Isabella was ruler in her own right of the Kingdom of Castile (located in today’s modern Spain). Katherine’s mother was a good example of a powerful Christian ruler during the 15th/16th centuries. With her marriage to King Ferdinand of Aragon, Spain was united for the first time. The co-rulers were focused on boosting the power of Spain and they wanted to become the Catholic powerhouse in Europe. A lot of their reign was dedicated to the campaign of conquering more land and booting the “heretic” Moors (the Muslim population living in Spain) out of the kingdom. In modern eyes, this looks terrible as they viewed those of other religious faiths/backgrounds as inferior and intruders, but this is what they felt their duty was as good Christian subjects. Katherine grew up in this environment of war and strong Catholic values. Queen Isabella also ensured that all her children were well educated. This is out of care, but also likely to help the image of Spain and win advantageous marriages.
Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur of England was arranged when they were both children. Henry VII was feeling insecure on the throne (remember, the Tudor dynasty was actually very new and Henry VII had taken the throne by force from Richard III and the former Plantagenet dynasty just some years earlier). If they could make an alliance with the strong and established Spanish kingdom, then this could boost their legitimacy. To Spain, they would be gaining an ally against France (the other Catholic powerhouse in Europe). Katherine of Aragon was said to be very beautiful. She had red-gold hair, fair skin, and exhibited a grace that was looked for in queens. She was raised always knowing she had a destiny to be Queen of England and she knew one day she would leave Spain (likely to not return).
Katherine and Arthur married as teenagers (Arthur was 15 and Katherine was 16) , but Arthur died within a year. Both Katherine and Arthur caught the same deadly sickness, but Katherine was the only survivor. The young widow was left stranded in a strange land with her destiny unclear. The alliance that was forged with their marriage also seemed almost dead in the water unless something could be done to mend it. Katherine likely expected to be sent back home, where her parents would be able to find a new husband for their young daughter. Yet, in England, Katherine had a bit more freedom. Those in the Spanish court were raised with a strict etiquette code, but rules were a bit more relaxed in England and the clothing more relaxed as well. Katherine, when she was queen, would have power in this society. Did she really want to leave and have to go back to her childhood home?
Negotiations started between Katherine’s family and Henry VII about possibly marrying his second son, Prince Henry (who was now the heir). Henry VIII in his younger years was fit, handsome, athletic, and charming (contrary to his later years, where injuries had left him almost immobile and a possible head injury may have affected his personality). He loved to hunt and excelled in tournaments. He would become extremely popular. There was a big question though, was Katherine’s marriage with Arthur consummated? This could cause issues with the legality of a new marriage with her former brother in law. If she did, then the pope would likely not approve the new marriage. Katherine was haunted by this question her whole life (especially when Henry VIII had tired of her), but she continued to claim that their marriage was never consummated. Even on her death bed, she still held firm. She was likely telling the truth as she was a god fearing woman and would likely not lie just before her death.
Prince Henry and Katherine already had created a bond. Henry looked up to Katherine in a way and, as he grew up, it seems Katherine fell in love herself. Henry turned to her for comfort and advice. When Katherine’s mother died though (during the negotiations), Spain was no longer united which gave Henry VII pause. Katherine was left in a limbo for years. During this time, she was treated extremely harshly by her former father in law. He cut her allowance during these “negotiations” which left her in a very difficult situation. She no longer had money for food, for new clothing, or to pay her ladies who came with her from Spain. She led a difficult life during this time and had to go into debt in order just to feed herself/her household and obtain the basic necessities. Even her father ignored her letters. She was left on an island while the men debated the fate of her life. She could not even go and experience freedom at the English court, instead she was basically a prisoner. Yet, she persevered through this knowing that she still had a destiny. She was born to be a leader. She wrote frankly to her father about her situation. She worked hard to try to get the necessities that she and her household needed. It was not just about her. In 1507, her father actually appointed Katherine as his ambassador to England. She was the first female ambassador in European history! Her father through their correspondence believed in his intelligent daughter to act in his stead. Finally, her position in the English court was raised and she would not get pushed around by Henry VII’s continued attempts at manipulating her. Through this experience, she gained more knowledge of the ways of politics and showed her strength as a leader. It is easy to see why young Prince Henry greatly respected her early in their relationship.
As she continued to wait for a decision on her fate, she continued to be treated harshly. This lead to fighting within her household, money troubles, depression, and bouts of sickness. It was not until Henry VII’s deathbed that he gave permission for Katherine and Henry VIII to finally be free to wed.
There was a five year age gap between the two. Katherine was 23 years old (old for an unmarried woman in 16th century standards) and Henry was 18. The new King and Queen seemed to be bringing the onset of a golden age. A new Camelot was awakened for the populace. Both of their rulers were very young and beautiful, they seemed very much in love, and the court was always active in showing off their wealth with dazzling pageants, parties, etc. Queen Katherine took a great interest in education and was an avid reader of the Scriptures and philosophy. She would help to financially support universities. She worked hard to learn English (which had been difficult for her at first) and was very pious. She went to mass daily which was a source of strength for her. She was the model Queen of the era.
Early on, Katherine of Aragon was very involved in matters of state and would often give advice to the King. Henry VIII would insist that Katherine be involved and he needed her opinion on matters first before decision was made. Naturally, Katherine used this power to bolster the Spanish interests (basically an anti-France policy). Henry VIII wanted her approval on his actions which shows his admiration of her. In 1513, Henry VIII took his army on campaign to France and leaves Queen Katherine as regent in his stead. There have been some examples of Queens taking the regency while their husbands were away, but not many. This really showed the trust that Henry VIII had in his wife.
Within a month of Katherine’s regency, James IV of Scotland declared war and invaded England. The Scots saw their chance with an absent King and army. This was her chance to really show her leadership. Katherine took a very active role in the preparations to defend her adopted nation. It seems from some of the letters that Katherine enjoyed and relished the challenge she was faced with. The Queen, with her councilors, mobilized troops to form a defense force, she contacted local governments to determine how many men and horses would be provided, and provided strict deadlines. Their country was being invaded and there was no time to waste. She took control of the financial aspect. She (likely with the help of councilors) calculated and provided the proper funding for supplies, artillery, etc. This may not seem so shocking to the modern eye, but at the time this was very unusual for a woman to be so involved in the male dominated arena. Yet, Katherine had the example of her mother who took great part in the wars in Spain. Did she think of her mother at this time and use her example for her own leadership?
Queen Katherine did not just do the bare minimum in this case either. She even left the safety of London and rode north behind her troops. She brought with her over 1500 sets of armor. She kept the spirits of her men high and gave a rousing speech to the reserve army. She likely reminded them that they were to defend their nation and that the English strength and courage was superior to all. Though the reserve army never did have to actually fight. The main force quickly defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden. King James IV himself was killed in action. This was a great victory for England and for Queen Katherine who was the acting regent. She sent a piece of the James IV’s bloody surcoat to her husband in France (she actually wanted to send James IV’s head, but that was not possible). She wrote proudly to King Henry regarding the English victory. Katherine was born into a world where she grew up seeing women heavily involved in battles, so this was finally her chance to take up where her mother left off. Despite being a “model” type Queen of the era, Katherine was not meek or a coward. She was strong and would not accept defeat. Even later in life, when she faces one of the most difficult battles of her life, she would not go down without a fight. Katherine was already popular with the people before this, but her success as regent likely cemented it even more.
Katherine of Aragon biggest failure ( in the eyes of the contemporary court ) was her “inability” to give birth to a son. In 1511, Katherine did give birth to a son, Prince Henry, who died just days later. She would go on to have (estimated) about 6+ pregnancies in a very short amount of time. Only one living child resulted, the Princess Mary. This took a huge toll on Katherine physically and mentally. She proved to be a very devoted mother to Princess Mary and one can only imagine how painful it must have been to lose more potential children.
Even worse, it also caused the King’s displeasure. This caused Katherine great stress that induced sickness. She turned to religion more and more during this time, even fasting to the extreme (which likely did not help with her pregnancies either). To our modern eyes sometimes it is difficult to understand Henry’s obsession with having a son. Yet, as stated earlier, it is easy to forget that the Tudor dynasty was still very new. His own father had just conquered and taken the throne from the previous dynasty (who still had supporters out there). A son was crucial to secure this dynasty his father began. Henry began to turn to his advisor Cardinal Wolsey more and more. Katherine’s father also betrayed England and Henry began to look more towards a French alliance. All of these matters combined marked the end of Katherines up close involvement in government. Despite these setbacks, Katherine still maintained the decorum of the Queen, she was always loyal and kept her head held high.
By the time Anne Boleyn came around, the Queen had aged rapidly. The stress of her daily life and the multiple pregnancies took a toll on her looks. She stood in great contrast to the young King just hitting the prime of his life. Yet, Katherine continuously held the popular favor with the people. Anne Boleyn was never really liked by the people of England. This is evident in her own coronation where the onlookers looked on in complete and eerie silence or when she was attacked by a mob of angry women. Queen Katherine looked and behaved how the ideal medieval monarch should be. She was respected and she was a role model. Despite being bullied and threatened to abdicate her position, go into a nunnery, or “tell the truth” of her wedding night, she always maintained that she was Henry’s true wife and the true Queen of England. She was born for this and no one was going to take this away from her. To her, Anne Boleyn was nothing. Even when Henry “annulled” his marriage and broke from the Catholic Church of Rome she would not accept it. As a result, she was treated terribly and was banished to homes with minimal staff. She was barred (even at her deathbed) from seeing her only daughter, Mary. That had to have been so upsetting and so depressing that likely any person would have just stepped down. Yet, even on her deathbed (she likely died of cancer) she still declared she was Henry’s true wife and the true queen. She did always believe that Henry would come back to her. Despite the abuse she faced from him and the poverty she was subjected to yet again, she always showed the utmost respect to the King.
Through the Tudor obsession in the media, Katherine is always looked at as the dowdy old woman who was set aside. Yet, she was actually much different than that. She had an inner strength, determination, and leadership skills that made her stand out as Queen.
Weir, Alison. Six Wives of Henry VIII