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Catherine of Aragon- The First Wife of King Henry V111th

Updated on April 28, 2013

Marriage to Prince Arthur

The baby prince, due to become King Henry was born on 28th June 1491 , the second son of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII. His early life was overshadowed by that of his brother Arthur who was destined to become the King on his father’s death.

In August 1497 the Spanish Infanta Catherine of Aragon was affianced ( a binding engagement) to Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. In October 1501 after protracted negotiations between the state mechanisms of Spain and England the Princess landed at Plymouth in Devon. A few weeks later on 14th November Catherine and Arthur were married in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is doubtful that this marriage was ever consummated as Prince Arthur was physically immature and Catherine always maintained that they “had not known each other as husband and wife.” In 1502 Prince Arthur became ill- he had always been a fragile child and was possibly suffering from tuberculosis. Catherine also became ill, but whilst she survived her young husband died on 2nd April 1502.

A painting by Michel Sittow a duchman who painted Catherine at the time she first came to London
A painting by Michel Sittow a duchman who painted Catherine at the time she first came to London | Source

Marriage to Prince Henry

Fast forward seven years during which a young Prince Henry sees his father treat Catherine as an unwanted hindrance. Suddenly, on 21st April 1509 King Henry Vii died and the Prince of Wales, who was nearly 18 years old, became King. Less than six weeks after the death of his father Prince Henry married Catherine in a small ceremony at Greenwich Palace, with the bride in white as a virgin. At the time of his marriage Henry bragged throughout the court that his wife was indeed a virgin bride. There has been much speculation over why Henry married so quickly, it may have been political- to gain a good relationship with Spain, it may have been financial negating the need to repay Catherine’s dowry to the Spanish crown once and for all, or simply because Henry had fallen in love. As you will see if you read on, Henry was able to fall in love deeply and quickly and Catherine, although small was a sweet natured, loveable girl who had been poorly treated by her father in law after her husband’s death.

The Childbearing years

One of the main aims of a King was to secure the succession and shortly after her marriage Queen Catherine found herself pregnant, only to give birth to a still born daughter in January 1510. Little time was given to the Queen to mourn the loss of her daughter as she quickly became pregnant with the birth of her son Prince Henry in January 1511. The Prince, feted and adored by his father, lived just 52 days- the cause of his death was unknown but in a period of high infant mortality such loss was not uncommon even in wealthy families. In 1513 Queen Catherine had a miscarriage and in early 1515 another Prince was born, but he lived only a few hours. On the 18th February 1516 some 6 years and at least 5 pregnancies later a baby girl was born, later to become Queen Mary, a healthy and robust baby at last. Henry rejoiced at this news as it proved that his wife could produce a healthy child, and he was confident that they would have more children who would be sons and heirs. The years of child bearing had not been kind to Catherine and whilst King Henry retained a young and virile figure, Catherine who was some years older than him, had become a dowdy fat woman aged over 30 years and to use a modern phrase “showing her years”. In 1518 the Queen was again pregnant but when the child was born at the end of the year it was a still born Baby Girl. There was a further phantom pregnancy but Princess Mary was destined to be the only child of King Henry and Queen Catherine.

Catherine was a good wife; she ensured that the palace ran smoothly from making her husband’s shirts to managing the country whilst her husband was fighting in France. A devoted wife, who quickly learnt that her role was to support her husband rather than contradict him. King Henry had relationships with other women, often when his wife was pregnant. Some of these women notably Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn both bore him children including strong and healthy boys.

A woodcut from the 16th century depicting the heraldic arms of Henry and Catherine
A woodcut from the 16th century depicting the heraldic arms of Henry and Catherine | Source
A painting of Anne Boleyn probably painted around 1534
A painting of Anne Boleyn probably painted around 1534 | Source

A true wife

Anne Boleyn joined Queen Catherine’s household during early 1522. After her death there were a number of journal entries depicting her as ugly with many faults, however it is currently thought that Anne was fairly handsome, a brunette with olive skin, but not pretty in the conventional Tudor sense of blonde hair and blue eyes and fair skin. A little scandal was attached to Anne in that she had an early romance with Henry Percy, the 5th Earl of Northumberland which was quashed by the efforts of Cardinal Wolsey owing to Anne’s relatively low family connections. It was rumoured that Lord Percy and Anne undertook a marriage pre contract- this, as in Catherine’s and Arthur’s marriage had the full validity of a marriage.

Just before Easter 1526, King Henry aged 35, still handsome and still sporting his youthful athletic build, started to fall in love with Anne Boleyn. Letters from the King to Anne have survived showing the strength of his passion and desire for her. Anne desired marriage to the King she was not to become his mistress, the role her sister Mary had occupied. Privately the King weighed his options and the idea of a lovely young wife, whose sister had already borne him strong children, seemed appealing.

In May 1527 Henry decided on the annulment of his marriage to Catherine – the issue became known as the Kings “Great Matter”. Anne refused to have a full relationship with the King for much of their courtship – this fit and agile still young man, with the dumpy, ugly fat foreign wife, saw in Anne a future- a male heir to replace his loved but dumpy Princess Mary. It may be that King Henry convinced himself that his marriage to Catherine was not valid and as one of the best politicians of the ears he used his skills to his advantage. The pope granted a dispensation to King Henry stating that he could marry Anne Boleyn when he became “free from his first marriage”. The following year Cardinal Wolsey journeyed to Rome and persuaded the pope to grant a secret decretal commission appointing Cardinal Campeggio as his joint inquisitor. The commission was to investigate the validity of the King’s marriage. After some delays in travel due to Cardinal Campeggio’s poor health and bad weather, they finally arrived in England where Cardinal Campeggio was allowed access to Queen Catherine. Given the opportunity Queen Catherine made her confession to the Cardinal and swore that she had been a virgin when she married King Henry. The Cardinal broached with the Queen her future and discussed the King’s wish that she retire and live in a convent. To such a pious woman as Catherine this would have led to little in the way of change in her lifestyle yet Catherine would not go quietly, she insisted that she was the King’s true wife.

A 16th century portrait of the King, Princess Mary and the court fool
A 16th century portrait of the King, Princess Mary and the court fool | Source

Annulment of the marriage

The tribunal met for the first time in May 1529, some two years after the King had decided that he needed an annulment. The Inquisition lasted for about two months but surprisingly few records survive. Both the King and Queen attended the Tribunal and Queen Catherine again swore that her marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated and questioned the power of the tribunal to hear the matter. Catherine paid homage to her husband in his role as husband and King and left the court quietly with some dignity. The Queen was summoned to attend at future hearings but refused to attend, being declared contumacious by the English Tribunal. Cardinal Campeggio a skilled churchman decided that he and Wolsey could not make a decision on the evidence placed in front of them and made an appeal to the Cardinals in Rome for their advice- the cardinals were at the start of a long summer holiday. At this junction the pope agreed with the Queen’s request that the matter be transferred to Rome, after all she appeared to have a good case, and Henry lost what he thought had been a good chance of getting his divorce. Cardinal Wolsey paid for his failure to secure the annulment by falling from power, losing his court and governance roles and then finally his wealth and position, leaving a broken and ill man. The cardinal was arrested for treason in November 1530, nearly a year after his fall from grace, but died before he could stand trial.

The King and Queen continued to live together uneasily, even attending state banquets together with Anne Boleyn often in attendance. In December 1530 the Pope ordered that King Henry should dismiss Anne Boleyn from his court and in January 1531 forbade the King to marry whilst the question of his marriage to Queen Catherine was a subject of the court. Henry spent the early part of 1531 trying to come to a compromise with his stubborn wife and in July 1531 he went out hunting and on his return refused to see the Queen again. The queen was removed to her own establishment in Hertfordshire. She was moved several times after this and although surrounded by her own ladies and servants, had no choice in where or when she moved.

Facing what he deemed to be unreasonable demands from Rome, Henry summoned Parliament to legitimise his actions. He persuaded Parliament to pass an amount of legislation which in effect removed England from the power of the Roman Church.

The Act of Annates (1532) reduced the amount of money paid to Rome to a trickle. In the following year the Act of Appeals (1533) gave Henry imperial status, the source of justice and religion was the King, the pope had no powers to judge religious cases in England.


Henry was forced to take action as towards the end of 1532 Anne Boleyn became pregnant. Prior to the passing of the Act of Appeals Henry and Anne were married on 25th January 1533, despite the fact that he had not been divorced from Queen Catherine. Henry convinced himself that this was not an issue as he had not been married to Queen Catherine in the first place and was therefore a single man. A second inquisition was set at Dunstable which neither the King nor Catherine attended, the King too busy with plans for the coronation of Anne and the Catherine again contemptuous in not recognising the court.. On 23rd May 1533 Archbishop Cranmer announced that the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid and that he had been free to marry Anne Boleyn. In 1533 the King bestowed the title of Princess Dowager on Queen Catherine, a title which she refused as she maintained her belief, later to be confirmed by the pope, that she was the legitimate wife of the King.

Modern Day Kimbolton Castle
Modern Day Kimbolton Castle | Source

Retirement and Death of Queen Catherine

After the passing of the Act of succession Catherine’s staff were told to swear allegiance to the King as head of the church in England, or leave. Some of them, rather than go back on their principles left her household and returned to Spain. Catherine refused to swear the oath. Some readers may feel that in the light of the King’s subsequent behaviour that she was lucky to escape with her life after angering the King so much. However it was clear in 1534 that Catherine was ill, perhaps suffering from dropsy. In September of that year, Lady Mary became ill and the King sent his own physician to her and also her mother, enabling Catherine to see her daughter once again.

Catherine was moved to Kimbolton Castle near Huntingdon, however the castle was in decay, hardly fitting accommodation for a former Queen of England. Catherine kept her faithful servants with her and had visits from monks to hear their confessions. Henry cut Catherine’s allowance so that they lived in extreme poverty- her trappings of wealth had gone and all her jewels had been sent to Queen Anne. By the end of 1535 the Catherine had become very ill and on New Year’s Eve her doctor determined that her life was in great danger. The King would not allow a visit to made by Catherine’s daughter and she died on 7th January 1536 without seeing her child for one last time, being buried at Peterborough Cathedral.


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      TrishM- thanks for your visit- I guess that she was safe as she was already a member of an infuential European family and I guess that he may have still liked her as a person-

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      It's a very sad and complicated tale, isn't it. One cannot help but feel sorry for Henry's queens. At least Catherine kept her head ~ while the woman he left her for lost hers.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Bogtrotter- a woman of a strong faith- I wish I could have such a faith as she

    • profile image

      bogtrotter 5 years ago

      Wonderful! I recently read "England's Spanish Queen" & found it very revealing. The humiliations she endured would have destroyed a person of less faith. At life's end her faith was all she had. Glad to see that her final resting place is so revered. When I visit the UK it will be a definite pilgrimage for me. Well done!

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      melbel- thanks so much for your kind comment- I started reading about the Tudors as a teenager and have recently started to re read everything!

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      Really interesting hub! When I was a teenager I read "Mary Bloody Mary" which kind of gives a 'novel' approach to Mary's life growing up. It did talk about Catherine of Aragon in great depth and I became REALLY interested in this time in history. Great hub! I learned a lot!

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      Simone- Thankyou for your visit and your kind comment!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Fabulous Hub! I've always been fascinated by the somewhat sad history of this impressive woman. Thanks for sharing it so well here!

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      kittythedreamer- thankyou for your kind comment. Anne Boleyn will be published soon!!

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

      Thank you, Just History. I'm actually very intrigued in the lives of Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette as of this hub really will turn out useful for me! Voted up and useful. Great job!

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      Anne Harrison- Thank you for your kind comment. I am not sure if Tudor Royals had a personal life- all their life was politics and status- enjoyment was a lucky by product!

      Thanks for your visit and your kind comment

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      Judi Bee- I thought you might be a qucik visitor! More to come in this series as I quite like the Tudors. (However I quite like anything I need to learn or think about!)

      Thank you for your comment, much appreciated.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 6 years ago from Australia

      No matter how much of this history you read, it is always sad, when politics and personal lives comes into conflict. Well written and voted up.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

      Hi Just History - Tudor history is my favourite, so I am, of course, voting this up.

      Looking forward to Anne Boleyn!

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      PeggyW- thank you so much for your visit- Anne Boleyn is in the next hub and yes she certainly did not fare well either!!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What a sad ending for Catherine of Aragon! Enjoyed reading this. Of course from what I remember, Anne Boleyn did not fare well in the end either. Voted up and interesting.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      Cresentmoon 2007-thanks ever so much for your kind comment- i enjoy the research and try to present it in a way that people get enough but not too much information.

    • Cresentmoon2007 profile image

      Cresentmoon2007 6 years ago from Caledonia, MI

      Voted up on this one. Packed with great information and well written. Very interesting.