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Historical Motherhood Series: Catherine of Aragon

by Kristen on April 10, 2013

This post is by Kristen Levithan, Happiest Home contributor and blogger at Motherese. You can read previous historical motherhood posts by clicking here.

In addition to being a history buff, I am also a big fan of historical fiction. The period that fascinates me the most is Tudor England, and especially the reigns of King Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I. Like many of us, I devoured Philippa Gregory’s juicy The Other Boleyn Girl. More recently, I was captivated by Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s masterful, Booker Prize-winning fictional biographies of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor.

In all of my reading about this era – fiction and non – my thoughts always turn to Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife and the woman who became a pawn in his insatiable quest to provide England with a male heir by any means necessary. Catherine was Spanish royalty; a dutiful, loving wife; and the mother of his first legitimate child. Nevertheless, once she proved unable to bear him a son, her crown did not rest easily on her head.

Catherine was born near Madrid, Spain in 1485, the youngest surviving child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile – the very same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed Christopher Columbus’s journeys to the New World. At the ripe old age of three, Catherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne. The match was quite a coup for the English: not all of Europe accepted the Tudor dynasty since it had passed through illegitimate heirs, but Catherine’s lineage was among the most prestigious in Europe. An alliance between the families strengthened the Tudors’ tenuous claims on the English throne and gave both England and Spain a bulwark against the powerful French.

Catherine and Arthur began corresponding in Latin at age 13, not meeting in person until ten days before their wedding. On November 14, 1501, the two 15-year-olds wed. Their “honeymoon” was short-lived, however: after their wedding, Arthur was immediately dispatched on royal business. Not long after, both of them became very ill. Arthur did not survive and Catherine found herself a widow at age 16. After Arthur’s death, Catherine became a stranger in a strange land. Arthur’s father, King Henry VII, did not want to repay Catherine’s dowry to her father so the two kings arranged for Catherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, a decision that kept Catherine in England and away from her family for the rest of her life.

Catherine’s marriage to Henry was long postponed because Henry was only 11 at the time of their betrothal. King Henry VII also had to secure a dispensation from the Pope to allow Catherine to marry her dead husband’s brother, one which they received because Catherine swore that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. While awaiting her second wedding, Catherine supported a small household of ladies-in-waiting and at one point even served as the Spanish ambassador to England, making her the first female ambassador in European history.

Dispensation in hand, Catherine and Henry VIII married not long after he ascended to the throne of England in 1509 after his father’s death. The new king and queen were coronated together in a lavish ceremony, but Catherine’s happy days did not last long. Catherine conceived soon after her coronation, but gave birth prematurely to a stillborn daughter. Over the next several years, Catherine gave birth to five more children – three sons and two daughters – only one of whom, Princess Mary, lived longer than 52 days.

While dealing with the shattering loss of her children, Catherine nevertheless served England as a skillful stateswoman. While Henry was in France on a military campaign, she served as Regent of England during a war with Scotland, even riding out in full armor while pregnant to address the troops. Catherine also became both more devout and more interested in scholarship as she aged. She initiated various relief programs for the poor and sought learning not only for herself, but for her daughter and the other women in the court. About her, Henry’s minister Thomas Cromwell commented, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Henry, meanwhile, was becoming ever more fixated on having the male heir he believed he needed to secure the Tudor dynasty. While married to Catherine, he carried on affairs with several women. (At least one of these resulted in a child, Henry’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, who was born in 1519.) While still very much married to Catherine, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. His desire for Anne mixed with his desire for a male heir and he soon became obsessed with the idea of having his marriage to Catherine annulled. He claimed that their marriage and her pregnancies were cursed because, according to his questionable interpretation of the Bible, any man who marries his brother’s wife will remain childless. Henry pled his case to the Pope, requesting that his marriage be annulled so that he could marry Anne. To make a very long story very short, the Pope refused and Henry ended up with two divorces: one from Catherine and the other from the Roman Catholic Church.

Even before their divorce, Catherine was banished from court. Afterward, she was confined to Kimbolton Castle where she remained in a single room except to attend Mass. She received occasional official visitors, but was banned by Henry from seeing their daughter Mary. The king offered Catherine and Mary the chance to see each other if they would acknowledge Anne, his new wife, as Queen of England. Swearing to the end of her life that she was the one rightful queen, Catherine refused. She died in 1536 after a long illness, not having seen her only daughter in years.

After Anne was also unable to bear him a son, Henry had her executed and remarried her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Jane gave birth to Henry VIII’s only legitimate male heir, his son Edward who, though technically king from 1547-1553, died before reaching the age of majority. The succession passed to Catherine’s daughter, Mary, who became the first Tudor queen. For as much as he desired a son, it was Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who was perhaps the most successful Tudor monarch: she ruled England for 44 years, bringing stability and a sense of national identity to her kingdom. Henry’s accomplishments, meanwhile, will always be overshadowed by his ill treatment of his six wives – Catherine of Aragon not least of all – and his obsession with securing his legacy through a male heir.

Long live the Queen.

Images: Portrait of Queen Catherine by Lucas Hornebolte via Wikimedia Commons.

Additional references: Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII (1992); Eugene H. Lehman, Lives of England’s Reigning and Consort Queens (2011); Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991).

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Abbie April 10, 2013 at 10:06 am

I have always admired Catherine’s strength. Great post!


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 10:59 am

Thanks, Abbie!


Melissa April 10, 2013 at 10:41 am

Such a tragic figure. I can’t fathom the enormity of her loss, and the pain of being blamed and betrayed for it.


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:04 am

What’s so odd to me is that the documents suggest that Henry was deeply in love with Catherine for years. Somehow that makes his rejection of her even more upsetting to me.


Renata April 10, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Great post. This Historical Motherhood Series is so interesting!


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:05 am

Thank you, Renata! Glad you’re enjoying it!


Christie April 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I so wish I could get into historical fiction. I am going to try again. You’ve inspired me.


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:06 am

Try Wolf Hall. It’s unlike any other historical fiction I’ve read – and really, really good.


Justine April 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Wow. What a tragic story. Yet, one that ends rather well. Go Catherine and Mary, for showing these men a thing or two on how to lead a country.

And go you for bringing light to this awe-inspiring figure in history. I’m loving this series.


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:09 am

Well, sadly, it didn’t end too well for Catherine or Mary. Mary did become queen, but not a very successful or popular one. She was unable to have children and died in her 40s, likely of cancer. But Elizabeth was a (mostly) terrific leader.

Thanks for following along with the series, Justine!


Devon April 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I look forward to this series so much, Kristen, and I think this has been my favorite. (Do I say that every time, though?) :)

I’ve always been fascinated by Catherine and her tragic story (and by Anne as well, to be honest). Can you recommend a good Catherine biography?


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:15 am

Thanks, Devon!

There’s a new-ish biography of Catherine by Giles Tremlett that’s supposed to be quite good, although I haven’t read it myself. Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a great overview of all six of Henry’s marriages. It’s long and chock full of information, but very readable. (I think Weir is also a novelist and that comes through in her historical writing.)


lisa April 10, 2013 at 5:40 pm

A fascinating, but tragic story. You certainly researched Catherine and really made her come to life for us. My heart went out to her in her final days. How hard to have to choose between position and family. But I understand why she did it. If she hadn’t, her daughter might not have ascended as queen and the country’s history might have been drastically different.


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:16 am

She was an incredibly stoic woman. She wouldn’t submit to Henry’s ridiculous demands even though it certainly would have made her life easier. I admire her strength.


ayala April 10, 2013 at 7:47 pm

A fascinating, but tragic story. Great write, Kristen.


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:16 am

Thank you, Ayala!


thekitchwitch April 11, 2013 at 10:34 am

I love this series that you’re doing, Kristen! It’s fascinating!

Do you subscribe to the NPR podcast “What You Missed in History Class?” I’m addicted to that dang thing–they have the juiciest stories!


Kristen April 11, 2013 at 11:17 am

Oh my goodness! I don’t know that podcast, but it sounds like it’s right up my alley. Thanks for the tip!


Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri April 11, 2013 at 1:55 pm

This series is great, Kristen! I love learning about these women. How do you decide which women to present?

By the way, I also devoured The Other Boleyn Girl and was surprised how she presented the historical details with such ease.


Kristen April 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

Thanks for the question, Rudri! I wish I could say there was a method to my proverbial madness, but usually I just come up with an idea from something I’m reading or something that surfaces in the news. The great thing is that there are so many fascinating women to explore that I doubt I’ll ever run out of ideas. :)


Meagan Francis April 12, 2013 at 2:54 am

Kristen, I’ve always been fascinated by Tudor royalty and you really brought this story to life. Thank you!


Kristen April 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

Thanks for the opportunity to share this series with your readers, Meagan!


rebecca @ altared spaces April 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm

“even riding out in full armor while pregnant to address the troops.” Armor is heavy stuff! But I bet not as heavy as the other burdens she was bearing!


Kristen April 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I agree: that armor might have prepared her just a bit for all of the heavy loads she was about to carry.


Lady Jennie April 15, 2013 at 4:48 pm

WOW. I only knew bits and pieces of this story. This was fascinating.


Kristen April 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Thanks, Jennie!


Nina April 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Wow perfect timing Kristin! I’ve been watching showtime’s the tudors and found this era fascinating. I felt so bad for Catherine. I just finished watching the first two seasons.


Kristen April 17, 2013 at 9:45 am

So glad my post helped round out your experience, Nina. Thanks for reading!


Privilege of Parenting April 19, 2013 at 1:32 am

Hi Kristen,

Love this—power to the mothers (if I do say so myself, as a father)!

Also made me think of my friend Nancy Bazelon-Goldstone’s book, “Four Queens”:

some 13th century proto-feminism… “Four Queens is a rich pageant of glamour, intrigue, and feminine power at a time when women were thought to have played limited roles. In thirteenth-century Europe, four sisters from a single family—Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice of Provençe—rose from obscurity to become the queens of, respectively, France, England, Germany, and Sicily. All four were beautiful, cultured, and ambitious, and their stories offer a window into the era of chivalry, crusades, poetry, knights, and monarchs that will appeal to fans of Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser.”


Kristen April 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Thanks for that recommendation, Bruce. That book seems right up my alley!


carol April 23, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Since there are relatively few English queens, I’m wondering if you might move on to Catherine the Great. Definitely a contender as a fascinating and very powerful monarch. What a great idea for a series!!


Kristen April 24, 2013 at 10:19 am

Great idea – and potentially juicy! I believe Catherine the Great had several illegitimate children – making her more like Henry than like Catherine of Aragon. ;)


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