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Catharine of Aragon: Henry VIII's First Wife

Updated on June 16, 2014

Catharine of Aragon: Henry VIII's First Wife


Catherine of Aragon: The First Wife of Henry VIII

Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII but Henry wasn't her first husband! At 16-years-old, Catherine married Henry's older brother, Arthur Tudor. The marriage lasted just six months before Arthur died, possibly of the sweating sickness. While she continually swore that the marriage was never consummated, this was a major problem for Henry VIII around 1525, when he started to wonder whether his marriage was valid or not.

Anne Boleyn took Catherine of Aragon's place as Queen Consort of England
Anne Boleyn took Catherine of Aragon's place as Queen Consort of England

Henry VIII Breaks from Rome to Divorce Catherine of Aragon

By 1525 Catherine could no longer have children and she had failed to provide Henry VIII the heir that he desperately needed. While Catherine did have children, only one survived childhood and was a girl: Mary Tudor. Henry started to believe that the lack of an heir was because God viewed the marriage as invalid. God was punishing Henry for marrying his brother's wife.

Henry VIII had met and fallen for one of Catherine's ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, by 1526. Anne refused to become his mistress and he needed a way to make her Queen. He needed to divorce Catherine and there was only one way of doing that. He needed to hope the Pope would rule in his favour. However, Catherine refused to admit that her marriage to Henry was invalid. She refused to admit that her marriage to Arthur Tudor was consummated.

Whether it was or not is unknown. It would seem strange that Catherine would fight so much if she knew she was in the wrong. Henry wanted a quick and easy divorce and promised her money and the title Dowager Princess of Wales, as long as she agreed to the divorce and went to live in a nunnery. When Catherine didn't accept the terms--she still saw herself as Queen of England--Henry was infuriated and made her pay for that.

With some help from Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII got his divorce but it was at a price. England broke away from Rome and Henry VIII became the Head of the Church of England. It was a difficult time for the country and a difficult time for Henry. He didn't really believe in the Protestant religion and was a devout Catholic before this. To break from Rome was a major decision and would later have consequences.

To ensure his marriage to Catherine was null and void, Henry VIII had his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, arrange for the annulment. During May 1533, the marriage to Catherine was annulled and Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn was declared valid. Henry went one step further by creating an Act of Parliament that all would need to sign to agree that Henry was now the supreme head of the church and Anne was the Queen Consort of England.

A Fan Video of Catherine of Aragon on The Tudors

Henry VIII forced Catherine to live in poverty in her last three years
Henry VIII forced Catherine to live in poverty in her last three years

Catharine of Aragon's Final Years

Poor Catherine of Aragon was left in poverty for the last three years of her life. By refusing to accept the divorce in the first place, Henry VIII prevented her from seeing her daughter ever again. She was stripped of the title Queen Consort of England and given the title Dowager Princess of Wales. That was the title she would have had when Arthur Tudor died.

Catherine continued to defy her now ex-husband. She wouldn't swear to the Oath of Succession, which took her own daughter out of the line for the throne and placed any children Anne Boleyn had in line instead. Catherine viewed herself as the Queen and her daughter the rightful heir. She also refused to accept that Henry VIII was the head of the church. The only person who could be was the Pope.

The Dowager Princess was regularly ill during the last three years of her life. She lived in Kimbleton Castle and had very few ladies to attend to her. She hardly saw any of the friends she had made in court, except a few who were still loyal to her. To afford her servants and feed herself, she had to regularly write to her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, so he would send her money. In these letters, she regularly mentioned that she was afraid for her life. She was sure Anne Boleyn would try to kill her.

Anne never did try to kill Catherine. Instead, Catherine of Aragon died in January 1536. She was buried in St. Peterborough Cathedral in a small ceremony; definitely not the ceremony for a Queen of England. Her daughter, Mary, was not allowed to go to the funeral. Mary had also refused to sign the Oath of Succession and was being punished for her Catholic beliefs by her father and step-mother.

Had Catherine agreed with Henry and allowed him the peaceful divorce, it is possible that Catherine would have had plenty for the rest of her years. She wouldn't have had to worry about finances and possibly wouldn't have had the ill-health she did. However, she would have had to acknowledge that she was not Queen of England but Anne Boleyn was and it is possible that she couldn't do that, knowing her marriage to Arthur was never consummated.

There is proof that Henry VIII would have provided for Catherine had she accepted the divorce. A few years later, in 1540, Anne of Cleves was asked for an annulment of her to Henry VIII. She quickly agreed and was given an annual salary of £4,000. She became one of the wealthiest women in England and was regularly at court; and enjoyed a close relationship with Mary Tudor! Catherine could have had all that but she chose her faith and what she believed in.


The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, Vintage Books, 2007


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