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Katherine of Aragon

Updated on December 13, 2015
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Laura has had a lifetime interest in history - especially the people and the fashions! She specialises in monarchical history.

A miniature of Katherine holding a monkey.
A miniature of Katherine holding a monkey.
Prince Arthur, Katherine's first husband
Prince Arthur, Katherine's first husband
The coronation of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon
The coronation of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon
King Henry VIII, Katherine's second husband. This portrait was painted in the 1520s.
King Henry VIII, Katherine's second husband. This portrait was painted in the 1520s.
A miniature of Katherine of Aragon in her later years.
A miniature of Katherine of Aragon in her later years.
The most recognisable portrait of Katherine of Aragon. It was painted in her later years by an unknown artist.
The most recognisable portrait of Katherine of Aragon. It was painted in her later years by an unknown artist.
A portrait previously believed to be Henry VIII's sixth wife but has now been confirmed as Katherine of Aragon
A portrait previously believed to be Henry VIII's sixth wife but has now been confirmed as Katherine of Aragon

The First Wife

Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand of Aragon were considered to be two of the greatest monarchs of their time. They were called the Catholic Kings in honour of their battles against the Moors in Spain. On the 16th of December 1485, Queen Isabella gave birth to her last child - Princess Katherine. The baby was named after her mother's English grandmother, who was the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. She even took after the English side of the family with red-gold hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

Princess Katherine was, as the youngest, the favourite in the family - except of course for her only brother, Prince Juan, who was the heir to his parents' kingdoms. The Queen kept her daughters with her on campaign against the Moors, so Princess Katherine spent her earliest years in camps near battles, until the Catholic Kings took Granada.

In 1489, the Catholic Kings and England made a treaty known as the Treaty of Medina del Campo. Isabella and Ferdinand promised Princess Katherine's hand in marriage to the King of England's eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales.

Antonio Geraldini was the tutor to the Princess, and after his death his brother Alessandro took his place. The young Princess was educated using the works of the early Church fathers, such as Augustine and Gregory. The scholar Erasmus would later say she was 'astonishingly well read'. She also learned to dance, and speak Latin - but she did not know how to speak English, which was a considerable handicap in view of the fact that she was supposed to eventually go to England and marry the future King. Thankfully, she was intelligent and once she had arrived in England, she would pick up the language.

On the 21st of May 1501, Princess Katherine was finally on her way to England, and travelled across Spain to reach the port of Coruna, and set sail for England from there on the 17th of August. However, within a few weeks she was driven back by storms, landing at Laredo, near Bilbao. She set sail again on the 27th of September, and this time arrived at Plymouth in England on the 2nd of October. The weather had forced her to land at Plymouth when she had actually been expected at Southampton, so there was no formal greeting awaiting her.

Princess Katherine remained in Plymouth for over a week before beginning her travels en route to London, stopping off at various places on the way, one being Dogmersfield in Hampshire. The King had become impatient after months of waiting for her to arrive, and wanting to see what she looked like (much like today, looks counted for everything, but in this case it was thought a good-looking woman would be fertile), decided to go to Dogmersfield and meet the Princess.

When he arrived, the Princess' Lady of the Bedchamber, Dona Elvira Manuel, told him that under no circumstances would he see her - following the customs of their country, Princess Katherine would be veiled until her wedding day. The King was having none of it and told Dona Elvira that as Princess Katherine was in England and styled as Princess of Wales, she was an English subject. The King won the argument and the Princess' veil was removed - he was pleased; in fact, he 'much admired her beauty'. After this, Princess Katherine met her husband-to-be Prince Arthur, and they all ate dinner together before going their separate ways.

On the 11th of November, Princess Katherine made her formal entry into London, and met her future brother-in-law, Prince Henry the Duke of York. This was the first time she met the person who would one day become her second husband, but there was no omens of that at the time and she certainly would not have been attracted to him - she was nearly sixteen years old, and Prince Henry was only ten. Two days later, she met Queen Elizabeth of York, who liked the Princess.

The following day, on the 14th, Princess Katherine wore a white and gold dress, and a white veil or mantilla that came to her waist, which had a jewelled border an inch and a half wide. The young Prince Henry walked her down the aisle of St Paul's Cathedral, and she married Prince Arthur.

After the celebrations, the young couple were put to bed before the Court, and the marriage bed was blessed before they were left alone. Later, when Henry was trying to divorce Katherine, courtiers would conveniently 'remember' that Prince Arthur had boasted that he had been 'in the midst of Spain', but Katherine would deny that the marriage had ever been consummated. Who is to be believed? Is it possible that Prince Arthur was unable to consummate it, but boasted that he had in order to save face, or was he able to, but Katherine lied in later years to save her second marriage? We will never know.

The Prince and Princess of Wales travelled to Ludlow after leaving Court on the 21st of December. Mere months later, it all went wrong. On the 27th of March 1502, Prince Arthur fell ill - the cause was mysterious. It could have been the 'sweating sickness' that many people in 16th century England fell prey to, or any other number of illnesses. Whatever it was, the end was swift - Prince Arthur died on April 2nd. Katherine, now the Princess Dowager, had also fallen ill; it may have been a result or stress, or perhaps Prince Arthur's illness had been contagious. Katherine recovered sufficiently to travel to London in a mourning litter sent to her by the Queen. She travelled slowly because of the uncertain state of her health, and because the English thought she might be pregnant. Once it had been realised that the Princess Dowager was not pregnant, the King's second son, Prince Henry, was named heir to the throne.

In London, Princess Katherine lived at Durham House on the Strand. Henry VII paid her a monthly allowance, which amounted to £1,000 a year, which was a substantial sum. He also gave her occasional gifts; in April 1503 she received an extra £100, and in September that year she received £200. King Henry VII has been accused of being miserly with Katherine, which from the evidence above, shows the accusation to be false. In fact, Princess Katherine was 'liberal' with her money, as King Ferdinand's ambassador to England, Dr de Puebla, said. This side of her personality was distressing as the Princess ran herself into debt until she was forced to start selling her plate for money.

In February 1503, Queen Elizabeth of York died, leaving the King a widower - and an eligible bachelor. A rumour reached the Catholic Kings that Henry now considered marrying his former daughter-in-law, Princess Katherine. They were horrified at the idea, but the main reason they did not like it was that King Henry, now in his mid-forties, already had a son who would take precedence over any child that he would have by Katherine, and the idea was soundly rejected. Prince Henry was betrothed to Princess Katherine in June.

The following year Queen Isabella died and her daughter Juana became Queen of Castile. King Ferdinand, at fifty-three, married an eighteen year old woman named Germaine de Foix. Prince Henry renounced his marriage to Katherine in 1505, just before his birthday. In 1506, Queen Juana and her husband Philip met with King Henry and Princess Katherine. It was the last time that the Princess Dowager would ever see her sister.

By 1509, Princess Katherine was at her wits' end, writing to her father on the 9th of March, and begged him to let her go home to Spain. Just over a month later, on April 21st, King Henry VII was dead.

The new King Henry VIII was almost like a chivalric knight from the tales of King Arthur that Queen Isabella had kept in her library. As noble knights of fairytales do, King Henry rescued the damsel in distress, Princess Katherine, and married her on the 11th of June. Katherine was now Queen of England.

The 24th of June 1509 was the day of their coronation. Queen Katherine was carried in a white litter, and wore a white dress. Her red-gold hair hung long and loose down her back and she wore a coronet set with pearls. It was a moment of triumph for her, and she thought she had passed the worst time of her life.

The Queen was pregnant by November that year. The King, Court and country were thrilled. In January, Katherine suffered a miscarriage, but her belly continued to swell, and her physician pronounced that she had been pregnant with twins and was still carrying one. The Queen believed this, and went into confinement in March to await the birth of her child - yet Katherine was not pregnant. When this was realised, she was left humiliated and was humiliated even more when it emerged that the KIng had been involved in an affair with one of the Duke of Buckingham's sisters.

Katherine retreated a little into her shell, and people became concerned for her because she would not leave her chambers. She became pregnant again later that year, and on the 1st of January, gave birth to a little baby boy.

Fountains ran with wine and there were almost endless celebrations. The heir to the throne had been born - Prince Henry. His godparents were King Louis XII of France and Archduchess Margaret, Regent of the Netherlands. The King went on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham to give thanks. On the 12th and 13th of February there was a jousting tournament, and King Henry competed under the name of 'Coeur Loyal' or 'Sir Loyal Heart'. On the 22nd the baby Prince was dead.

In November that year, KIng Henry joined the 'Holy League' of King Ferdinand, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and Pope Julius II against Louis XII of France, whom after falling out with the Pope had threatened to depose him. In 1512, the English landed at Fuenterrabia, where they awaited Spanish assistance, but Ferdinand sent none and eventually they had to return.

England's neighbouring kingdom, Scotland, was put in a difficult position because England was fighting against France. The Scots traditionally supported France as part of the 'Auld Alliance', yet the current King of the Scots, James IV, was married to Henry's sister Margaret. Would they stay loyal to the Auld Alliance, or would they favour the English connection? They decided on the former.

On the 29th of June 1513, King Henry set sail from Dover to wage war against the French. He left the Queen behind, and made her the Regent in his absence. Throughout Henry's reign, only one other wife would have the honour of being named Regent in his absence.

Whilst the King was away, the Queen busied herself with day-to-day business, and making preparations for a war against Scotland that now seemed inevitable. Katherine marched out from Richmond with standards, banners, a herald, trumpets, carriages and artillery. The royal goldsmith had been paid for 'garnishing a headpiece with crown gold', so there is a possibility that the Queen wore armour. If this was the case, Katherine would have looked every inch the warrior queen as her mother had before her.

She was at Buckingham by the 10th with an army, but in the end it wasn't needed. King James IV and his army had met with the English at what became known as the Battle of Flodden the day before. James was killed along with an archbishop, bishop, two abbots, twelve earls, fourteen lords and around 10,000 ordinary soldiers, whilst only around 1,500 Englishmen were killed. Katherine wrote to Henry to tell him, and sent a piece of King James' surcoat to him as a mark of victory. On the 23rd Queen Katherine was at Our Lady of Walsingham and gave thanks for the fact that she was pregnant again. She didn't go into confinement this time, so in all likelihood the pregnancy ended in miscarriage early on.

The King returned from France in October 1513, and they were reunited. In 1514 it was decided that the King's younger sister Mary should marry Louis XII of France, who was fifty-two. In fact this marriage resulted in a rumour in France and Rome that 'the King of England meant to repudiate his present wife, the daughter of the King of Spain and his brother's widow, because he is unable to have children by her'. It wasn't true, but it was interesting that this idea would become true some day. Katherine was again pregnant, and went into confinement in November that year, but suffered another miscarriage.

She was pregnant again in 1515, and went into confinement later that year. In January 1516, King Ferdinand died but Queen Katherine wasn't told in case the shock caused a miscarriage. Katherine gave birth again. It was a daughter named Mary, and she lived. The King said that 'If it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow'. It was two years before the Queen became pregnant again, giving birth to another daughter who died shortly after. It was Katherine's last pregnancy.

Queen Katherine, who had in youth been called beautiful by Henry VII was now in her thirties, and an ambassador said that she was 'rather ugly than otherwise'. The strains of her pregnancies and miscarriages had taken its toll, both physically and emotionally. She had become fat, and like her mother before her, took consolation in an increasing piety, withdrawing a great deal from life at Court.

In 1517, there were attacks on foreigners in London. This was known as the 'Evil Mayday' riots. Four hundred rioters were put in prison, and Katherine interceded for them, begging the King to pardon them. The King had not yet developed into the tyrant he would be in later years, and mercifully pardoned the prisoners.

The Queen was mainly responsible for the welfare of Princess Mary. She appointed a close friend, Margaret Pole the Countess of Salisbury, as the Lady Mistress of the little Princess. The Queen was also considered to be a model for all Christian women, and served as the inspiration for Juan Luis Vives' treatise, 'The Institution of a Christian Woman'.

Katherine met her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, in May 1520. He was the son of her sister Juana. After Charles left on the 30th of May, the King, Queen and Court continued to Dover and set sail for Calais.

Calais belonged to England, and Ardres belonged to France, so it was between these two places that the King and Queen met King Francois I of France and Queen Claude. The meetings and events that happened between these two monarchs came to be remembered as 'The Field of Cloth of Gold'. Katherine dressed in all her finery and jewels and behaved impeccably.

Eventually, Princess Mary became engaged to Charles V. In 1525, Charles defeated Francois at the battle of Pavia. Charles had proven himself as a ruler, and he no longer needed the help of England - the marriage with Princess Mary was off. That same year, the King's illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy became the Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Earl of Nottingham, a Knight of the Garter. Lord Admiral and Warden-General of the Marches against Scotland. There was a rumour that the King was going to make the six-year-old boy his heir, and Katherine was publicly indignant at the thought. However, within two years Katherine would be fighting for the rights of her daughter, her title as Queen, and her husband.

The year 1527 was the beginning of the King's 'Great Matter'. Henry had fallen in love with one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting and had proposed marriage to her. The lady in question was named Anne Boleyn. Henry decided to divorce Katherine citing Leviticus - 'If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.' This of course stood only if Katherine and Arthur had consummated their marriage. Katherine denied that they had and counter-argued with Deuteronomy, which stated that a man had to marry his brother's childless widow. Pope Julius II had also issued a dispensation so that Katherine and Henry could marry, so who was right? Over six years of battling the issue ensued, and it would change the face of religion in England.

Katherine refused to keep the matter private and brought it to the world stage; she had her servant Francisco Felipez take a letter to Charles V informing him of what was happening. The Emperor was shocked. He wrote to Pope Clement to inform him, and to Henry to ask him to reconsider.

At the Blackfriars Court in 1529, Queen Katherine begged the King to 'consider her honour, her daughter's and his'. She requested that their case be decided in Rome. As ever, the chivalric knight in Henry prevailed, assisted by the fact that the audience were sympathetic to the Queen, so Henry agreed. The Queen then walked out of the court and never came back.

In 1531, King Henry parted from Queen Katherine, and they never saw each other again. The Queen would also never see her daughter again. On the 9th of April 1533 a delegation of councillors headed by Norfolk told Katherine that Henry had married Anne. She was also no longer Queen, and should be addressed as Princess Dowager, the title she had as Prince Arthur's widow.

On the 23rd of March 1534, Rome finally pronounced the state of Katherine and Henry's marriage in her favour, but it was too late. Henry had broken with the Pope and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. His new wife had given birth the previous year, to a girl. Mary's half-sister was named Elizabeth.

Katherine was residing at Buckden when another delegation turned up to get her to accept that Anne was Queen and Elizabeth was heiress to the throne. Queen Katherine would not accept it. In May 1534, Katherine moved to Kimbolton, where she lived the life of a nun, following the rigid rules of the Catholic Church. She performed her devotions for several hours a day on bare stones, leaving them wet with her tears.

In the winter of 1535, she became ill, but seemed to recover. In late December, she fell ill again. This time there was real concern for her, and Eustace Chapuys, Charles V's ambassador and Katherine's friend, was sent for. He arrived on the 2nd of January. The Queen seemed to improve, so he left on the evening of the 4th, travelling slowly in case he had to go back. In the early hours of the 7th of January 1536, Katherine woke and waited until dawn to hear Mass. She received Extreme Unction at ten in the morning. Just before two o'clock that afternoon, Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, died at the age of fifty.

Her body was taken to Peterborough Cathedral for the funeral, and she was buried in the Cathedral, where she remains to this day. On the day of her funeral, Anne Boleyn miscarried her last child, and was executed months later.

In death, Queen Katherine was granted what she had been denied in her last years - the title of Queen. Above her grave there is a grille with gold lettering that reads 'Katharine Queen of England'.

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    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 4 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Interesting history. Voted up and shared!

    • clairemy profile image

      Claire 4 years ago

      Very Interesting, I enjoyed reading this one.

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 4 years ago from United States

      I love the history of Katherine. She was a true lady within a difficult situation in a tragic-filled court.

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