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Women of History: Catherine Trastámara

Out of Henry VIII’s six wives, the ones that are most remembered are his first three.

Catherine of Aragon: His first queen and mother of Queen Mary.

Anne Boleyn: mother of Queen Elizabeth, and a woman who is also known for helping cause a religious revolution in England and her tragic end.

Jane Seymour: the young woman who gave birth to his only son. To be fair, Jane is often forgotten and limited as “mother of Edward” then anything else.

I will admit that I am biased against Henry VIII who I felt was a bit of a bastard towards his wives in more ways than one. I also feel that general history has basically reduced these women to just being one of the six wives, without a sense of individuality. There has to be so much more to them then just their spouse.  In that respect, I have decided to learn more about these six women, starting with the first, Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine aragon

Catherine (Or Katherine, depending on source) was born Catalina of the House Trastamara-Aragon in a palace not far from the modern Spanish capital of Madrid on December 16,1485. She was born into a family that would all affect the world in new ways. Her sisters would all be Queens, and her nephew would one day be known as the Holy Roman Emperor.

Her parents were notable themselves. Her mother was Queen Isabella I of Castile, while her father was King Ferdinand II of Aragon. They were both ascended to their own throne, though early in their relationship neither one was expected to rule. They ruled together, uniting Spain in act if not in name. They became one of the more famous monarchs of time. One of the many things they were noted in history for doing was being successful enough to be able to fund the exploratory missions of Christopher Columbus to the West Indies. He failed, but it didn’t turn out to be a failure for Isabella, Ferdinand and Spain in general. They started a world expansion of Spain that continues to affect those in the American continent today. They were also partially responsible for the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Despite their marriage and joint rule, Spain wouldn’t be formally united until their grandson Charles inherited both countries, thus creating Spain as a single entity.

Isabella had made a big impression on King Henry VII of England. She also posed a threat to his own reign as King with her ties to the English throne. England had recently ended a long civil war brought on by disputes over succession. Henry Tudor had won the throne by conquest, though he claimed a right to the throne. His claim was considered weak, which made the possibility of war igniting again possible.

Isabella had a stronger claim to the throne because she was a descended from two of the grand-daughters of King Edward III. The roots of the English civil war, which has become known as the ‘War of the Roses’ starts with the children of Edward III. Both Isabella and Henry could claim the throne through Edward’s son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. However Isabella’s great grandmother on one side and grandmother on another were daughters of John of Gaunt’s first two wives, and were considered legitimate heirs of their grandfather. Henry on the other hand was the descendant of John’s third wife Catherine. Catherine had been his mistress for many years and their children had been born before their marriage was legalized. Thus, while the marriage legitimized the children they were still considered cut off from the line of succession by many. Henry was also the grandson of Catherine of Valois, making him the half-nephew of King Henry VI. This was also under contention and did not help the worries that Henry had no right to the throne. His marriage to Elizabeth of York, who was a descendant of two of Edward III’s children, strengthened his reign, but given the recent cause of the war left it still weak in its claim.

Impressed by Isabella’s career as a monarch, and also understanding that Isabella was considered to have stronger ties to the English throne, he opened negotiations to betrothe his son, Arthur, to Isabella’s youngest daughter Catalina. Any children from this union would tie the Tudor dynasty closer to the English Throne, thus securing the dynasty and removing the causes for reignition of the war.

Catalina was only 3 when the betrothal was made. She would not meet her fiancee until 11 years later, when he turned 15 and was considered old enough to formally marry. In 1499, a marriage by proxy was done in England as Catalina was considered too young to travel at the time. The formal ceremony marrying Catalina, who took the more english name of Catherine/Catherine, and Arthur took place in 1501 when she was almost sixteen years old and he was fifteen. They barely knew each other and sources differ on how their relationship during their short marriage developed. Some claim they were very happy with one another, and others claim they simply hadn’t had time to know each other at all and remained rather estranged from one another.

Their marriage was to be short lived. In 1502, only months after their marriage, they both contracted an illness, suspected to be the English Sweating Sickness. Catherine recovered, but her husband did not. At first things were not so bad for the Dowager Princess of Wales. She was taken in by her mother-in-law Elizabeth who showed here kindness and motherly affection. However, that was also short lived. In 1503, Elizabeth died shortly after giving birth to her last child (who unfortunately also passed away). Once again, Catherine’s future was up in the air, and now it was completely dependent on her father-in-law, who’s miserly behavior increased in the grief of his beloved wife’s passing.

Henry VII wanted to keep her dowry, her connections to the English throne and her connections to Isabella of Castile. Some sources believe that Henry VII tried to negotiate a marriage for himself but was refused by Isabella. Others say he immediately went to work at trying to make a marriage between the Spanish princess and the new Prince of Wales, Henry. Henry and Catherine got along, but there were some obstacles to their marriage.

One major obstacle, and one that would become important later in their marriage, was her previous marriage to Arthur. They already had to get dispensation due to their cousinship, but they also needed papal approval of their marriage due to her being Arthur’s widow. The second obstacle proved to be Henry’s father himself.

In 1504, Isabella died, which took away half of Henry VII’s desire to have Catherine in the family. Henry’s view of Ferdinand was not as positive as that of Isabella, and he pushed back the wedding. When Henry was old enough, he had his son publicly dismiss the betrothal, claiming he had not been part of the negotiations.

Catherine’s life was in an awkward standstill. Her marriage to Prince Henry was off, but her father wasn’t willing to let her return home yet. Henry VII cut off the allowance she had been getting, leaving her without an income. Eventually her father made her Ambassador from Aragon, giving her some role in the royal court. It still didn’t completely solve her problems. Her income was so small she had trouble paying her attendants, leaving in almost poverty for a royal.

However, in 1508, Henry VII died, leaving the seventeen year old prince to become King Henry VIII. Without his father there to disapprove, Henry restarted the marriage negotiation, and got the papal dispensations. In 1509, the two married in a private ceremony in Greenwich. She was 23 years old, and he was 18. They were crowned together on June 24, which was a rare thing. There had only been one other joint coronation in nearly two hundred years beforehand, and that been the coronation of Richard III and his wife Queen Anne Neville. Most coronations during the time were done separately or not at all depending on the pair being coronated. For example in more modern times, King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth were jointly coronated. However their daughter Elizabeth was coronated alone, leaving her husband Prince Philip as Prince Consort.

At first, the Tudors were happy. Catherine quickly became pregnant and the hope for a heir began. However, Catherine miscarried. She quickly attempted to get pregnant again, this time giving birth to a baby boy, named Henry after his father. Celebrations were had, but it was to be a brief joy – Prince Henry died after only 51 days of life. Catherine would be plagued by difficult pregnancies, often ending in stillbirth or miscarriage. With the exception of their daughter Mary, any children born living would die within a day. It would leave both Catherine and Henry grief-stricken. It would also feed into Henry’s obsession with having a male heir.

While mourning her difficulty in having children, Catherine participated in governing. During the early years of their marriage, Henry set out to France to try and regain some of the territory that had been lost over the years since Henry V. While he was away, Catherine was named Regent, effectively making her the head of Henry’s government.

While she was regent, the Scots led by King James IV attempted to invade England while its King was away. Catherine was not involved in the actual battle, but the victory was attributed to her leadership. In the end she was able to send King James’ cloak to her husband. King James would be the last Monarch within Great Britain to die in battle. His son, and Henry VIII’s nephew, would ascend to the throne. After the death of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth a century later, James VI of Scotland would reign as James I of England, uniting Scotland and England.

Catherine impressed many of the people around her. She had been educated as a child, meant to be a strong Queen as daughter of yet another strong Queen. She promoted education, giving to various colleges. She commissioned arguments to be made for the education of young women. She was devout in her religion, and would remain Catholic to her dying day despite her husband’s change of ideals. She would, at first, be a close advisor of her husband in governing. She had made a strong regent, keeping England safe from foes while her husband was at war. However there was one issue that would cause their happy relationship to sour.

Henry had been brought up with the notion that one of a King’s biggest responsibilities was to make sure there was an heir, and in particular a male heir. No woman had ever sat on the throne of England in her own right before. In fact, the only women who had been legally an heir, Empress Matilda, had caused a civil war with her attempts to actually take the throne. Eventually Matilda had to settle for letting her cousin remain on the throne and her son being Stephen’s heir. So despite loving his daughter Mary, Henry was driven to have a son. Catherine’s ill-fated pregnancies and continued fertility problems caused tension to rise in their marriage. Henry wanted a son, and his last legacy would end up being his need for heirs..

Henry also had a roving eye. He was known to have mistresses, although he only claimed one of the supposed illegitimate children he fathered, a son named Henry Fitzroy. He saw it as proof that he was not at fault for the lack of male heirs. Eventually he became infatuated with a young Lady-in-waiting to the Queen known as Anne Boleyn. She had been the sister of one of his mistresses, Mary, but she refused to be another. The chase intrigued Henry, and the pair commenced a several year long emotional love affair as she refused to be his lover without being his wife. He wrote her poems and songs.

He also began to try and file for annulment of his marriage to Catherine. At first he did it secretly, not wanting his wife to learn about it. However as it became obvious that the Pope would not help him, it became harder to keep the activities a secret.

Catherine refused to agree to a divorce. She had been raised with two beliefs. One was that divorce was not to be had since she was Catholic. Her mother had been very pious in the religion (in fact Isabella and her husband earned the nickname of “The Catholics.”) and her daughter (and granddaughter) followed suit. The other belief was that she was meant to be Queen, and a Queen she would remain. She held onto these two beliefs to her deathbed. She also loved her husband, despite his infidelity and his mistreatment of her. He flaunted his affairs, celebrated the birth of his son with another woman while she mourned the loss of her own. He would later separate her from her only daughter in order to try and get her to accept Anne as a new Queen. He would banish her to palaces far from court. Even in death he would ignore her requests. Despite their earlier happiness, the last years of their marriage were unhappy, and Henry’s treatment of his wife deteriorated.

The divorce was refused by the Pope, as well. When seeking an annulment, Henry’s first argument had been that they should not have been married in the first place. The papal dispensation that allowed them to marry despite her previous marriage to his brother had been invalid, as biblical readings had “proven” to Henry that it should never have been given. Therefore the marriage was invalid.

Catherine was firm in that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage, thus the marriage had never been finalized and she had been free to marry Henry. This issue divided the country. The Catholics tended to side with her. However, a growing part of the country had been brought to the ideas of Martin Luther, and even Henry who had once been meant for the church started to grow interested in Protestant ideas despite an earlier disgust with them. Especially as it gave more leeway for his divorce.

Henry called for a trial for the divorce, trying to convince the church to give him his divorce. Their lack of giving him the right answer pushed him more towards the Protestant beliefs he was intrigued by.

Catherine made a rather famous speech to defend herself in the trials but in the end Henry had his way. He separated from the Pope and created the Church of England. The Archbishop reluctantly declared the marriage invalid, and thus annulled. Catherine by Henry’s decree was no longer the Queen, but rather the Dowager Princess of Wales. Her daughter Mary was reduced to being a illegitimate child and lost her rights as heir. Still, she refused to stop referring to herself as the Queen, nor accept Anne Boleyn as the rightful Queen of England. Henry cut her finances, and kept her away from her child but she continued to refuse to her dying day. Some sympathetic friends and servants helped Catherine and Mary keep in contact despite the King’s mandate that they not be allowed even letters. Neither of them would ever accept Anne as Queen.

The divorce had taken 6 long years for Henry. It had been yet another years-long turmoil for Catherine who continued to have to fight for her place in the English Court. Ironically, despite Henry’s mandate that she be refered to as Dowager PRincess, Catherine would remain Queen in the minds of the people,

Still, while on her deathbed 1536, only three years after the dissolution of her marriage in public, Catherine wrote one last love letter to her husband, giving him her his forgiveness. He did not attend her funeral, and refused her daughter to be able to. She was buried as a Dowager Princess and not as Queen. It would be several centuries till her gravesite would once again label her as Queen of England. Catherine of Aragon died on January 7, 1536 at the age of 50.

Her legacy can be found in her strength of conviction, her ability to hold her head high during the bad times, and her devotion to making sure her daughter was well taken care of. She loved her husband, and was devout to her god. She believed in the education of women, and impressed enough of her contemporaries in her regency.

Catherine of Aragon is more than just the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand and the wife of Henry VII. She had been the victim of changing political winds and persevered, had dealt with the blows that came from losing her children and later her husband while still holding her head up high. Despite the poor conditions she lived in during the last years of her life, she never let go of her strong beliefs both in her place in the world and in the church she had grown up believing in.

Perhaps ironically, Anne Boleyn who had been the one to assist in Catherine’s downfall from Queen would follow her to the grave only a few months later. Catherine would remain the longest reigning Tudor Queen Consort after being Henry’s wife for nearly a quarter of a century. Henry would die 11 years later in 1547 after marrying four more times and only have one son who died young. Her daughter would be one of England’s most infamous Queens, earning the nickname of Bloody Mary for her ruthless behavior when it came to returning the country back to catholicism from the Protestantism she saw as being one of the larger reasons for the horrible things that had happened to her mother in her last days.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Catherine of Aragon

English History.Net: Catherine of Aragon

Tudor History.Org: Catherine of Aragon

Kings College: Catherine of Aragon

The Anne Boleyn Files: Victory for Catherine

Author Note:  Some of this information is what I gathered over the years from watching many documentaries and reading about the Tudors.  There is a wealth of information out there, and as always this is meant only to be a start.  Feel free to do your own research into Catherine or any other woman in this series.  I plan to continue to learn about Catherine, particularly what else happened during her regency.  The online information I have found seems to focus more on her divorce, which I think is a disservice to her and focuses more on her husband anyway.

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Next: Isabella of Castile


A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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