Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) – House of Trastámara – The Steadfast Queen

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Catherine of Aragon

Catalina de Aragon (Catherine of Aragon), Queen Consort of England, and Spanish Royal Princess- she was the daughter of the illustrious Spanish monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon. As one of five children (of powerful Spain) who survived the perils of a Renaissance childhood (4 of whom were princesses), one could say that Catherine was born to one day be Queen. It would have been expected of her, and accepted by her, to one day move to a foreign land and marry some duke, prince, or king, in order to cement an alliance for Spain. So the fact that her parents promised her at the age of two years old to Arthur, the Prince of Wales, was not strange at all.

With parents that were titled “Most Catholic Monarchs” by the Pope, it is no wonder that Catherine received and very formal and religious education as befitted a Spanish royal princess. She was well versed in cannon and civil law, theology, and she learned not only Spanish of course, but Latin, Greek, and French. At the time, French was much like English is today. A universal language of diplomacy.

Catherine’s formal betrothal to the Prince of Wales was very significant and symbolic. Henry VII had obtained his crown in battle against Richard III, and Henry VII had very little royal blood. Some considered what little he did have to be illegitimate. For such a powerful King and Queen to agree to a marriage between their daughter and Arthur was an endorsement that Henry VII was the undisputed sovereign of England. England needed this marriage. Spain needed this marriage too. They needed an ally against the French, and who better than the English who have never really been on good terms with France?

When Catherine was just 16 years old she set sail for England to marry her 15 year old prince. The young couple were sent straight away to Wales to set up court, as was the duty of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Sadly the Welsh climate is harsh and both Catherine and Arthur fell dangerously ill. Arthur did not recover and Catherine soon found herself a very young widow and all alone in a strange land. The King of England did not want to lose his Spanish alliance, neither did Spain. Also, the King of England, who was known to be miserly, did not want to return Catherine’s dowry. It was swiftly arranged that Catherine would stay in England and marry the king’s second son, Henry Tudor, who just became the new Prince of Wales. The problem was, normally the Catholic Church forbids the marriage between a brother and his brother’s widow. However, a papal dispensation was granted under the special circumstance that Arthur and Catherine, due to youth and illness, never consummated their marriage. Whether it was true or not is up for debate. It was probably unlikely, but possible. This subject would haunt Catherine later though.

Catherine endured much hardship and uncertainty for many years in England. She even had to resort to using parts of her dowry so she and her servants would not starve. The King of England treated Catherine more like a political hostage, than a future daughter and Queen. Part of the issue was with Catherine’s dowry. Catherine came with only half of the agreed dowry. The other half was supposed to be paid after she and Arthur were married and invested as Prince and Princess of Wales. Arthur died so suddenly, though, that Catherine’s father held the second half of the dowry. He most likely did not want to pay the second half until his daughter was married to the new Prince of Wales. This irritated the English king. He was a shrewd man and no doubt figured that an alliance with Spain was not as valuable anymore, since Catherine’s mother had died. Spain was no longer united and civil war was eminent as Catherine’s father and sister, Juana La Loca, struggled for the crown of Castile. The English King also probably figured Ferdinand would not be able to pay the other part of the dowry anyway since he had to dump much of his resources into his issues at hand.

Catherine would continue to suffer about 7 years, until Henry VII died and his son ascended the throne of England as Henry VIII. Henry married Catherine almost immediately and he even chose to be jointly crowned with his Spanish bride. In these early years Catherine and Henry were smitten with each other and the people were smitten with them both. Catherine became very popular with the English people, and this would come to haunt Henry later on. Catherine, born to her role, was a pious, saintly, and charitable Queen. The people adored her. Unfortunately, Catherine failed at her most important duty as a Queen. This was to be a baby factory. Kingdoms needed a surplus of heirs in order to attempt to ensure a peaceful succession to throne, making the Kingdom more safe and secure. The best way to avoid civil wars and fights for the throne was to have legitimate heirs to inherit them. Oh, and these heirs needed to be male heirs. Women heiresses to thrones were almost as bad as having no heirs at all. Women heiresses most of the time brought in foreign rule or civil wars.

Sadly, Catherine had many pregnancies throughout her marriage to Henry, but only one daughter survived. We know that there were at least 6 recorded pregnancies. There could have even been more that could have ended in early miscarriage. It was a queen’s job pretty much to always be pregnant. Infant mortality was extremely high during this time. Catherine gave birth to a still born daughter, a son who lived but a couple months, another son who died just hours later, a still born son, then she had the Princess Mary (her only child to survive into adulthood), and finally another daughter that died a few days later. When Catherine went into menopause and could not longer have children, Henry VIII began to panic.

Like most kings, Henry had mistresses. The Queen was so above them, that they usually chose to ignore these things. Typically kings and lords took mistresses during times their wives were pregnant. Very rarely have mistresses been able to stay a mistress long enough to matter much. One of Henry’s mistresses was different though. She was the Lady Anne Boleyn. We will tell her story later. We will talk about what happened to Catherine though.

After Catherine could not longer have children the King began to grasp at ways in order to free himself of the Queen so he could remarry and have more children. This sort of thing actually happened often. The Pope could grant annulments in such cases. However, by the time Henry needed an annulment, the Pope happened to become the prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. This was extremely bad timing, and of course the Pope, being the Queen’s nephew’s prisoner, could not do such a thing.

This annulment case, known as “The King’s Great Matter,” was a very huge issue back then. Henry tried to make his case as appealing as possible. He brought up the fact that Catherine was his brother’s widow. He claimed that a dispensation should have never been allowed and he even brought in witnesses to attest that Catherine may not have been a virgin when they married. This was in fact a huge sin and considered incest. There is even a quote in scripture that says that someone who takes their brother’s widow to wife, that they would be childless. He tried to use his lack of male heirs as proof of God’s disapproval. King’s did this and if he were any other King he would have easily had his annulment.

The Pope, trying to avoid a big deal, even sent a legate to try to convince the Queen to take the veil and enter a nunnery, that way the King could remarry. By then the Queen knew that the King meant to replace her with his mistress and her lady in waiting, the commoner Anne Boleyn. This fact alone would have made a proud Queen such as Catherine refuse such a thing. She probably could not fathom that any children of Anne’s (if she had sons) would be placed above her own daughter, who had a long history of royal blood and came from a very ancient and noble house. It was insulting to say the least. Also, this pride would be her ultimate undoing and make her daughter’s life extremely hard. For example, if she would have swallowed her pride and taken the veil, her daughter would not have been removed from the succession and been labeled a bastard, as the king would not have had to seek out an annulment. Many cooler headed Queens of the past had actually retired to nunneries and done what was best for their children in order to not have their marriages annulled and their children declared illegitimate. Catherine just could not let Anne win.

When Catherine remained ever steadfast and un-moving- and the Pope did not grant him an annulment- Henry VIII did the unthinkable and the shocking. He separated from the Roman Church, named himself Head of the Church in England, got his own divorce and married Anne anyway. He set off a chain of events that changed England and much of Europe in what would be known as the Reformation Era. As for poor Princess Mary, Catherine and Henry’s daughter, she was formally renounced, declared a bastard and removed from the succession. Stripped of her title and right to be Princess, Mary was even forced to be a servant to half sister, Elizabeth, when Anne had her.

Henry underestimated how much the English people loved Catherine though. Many of them were outraged and never supported Anne as Queen. Queen Anne was actually despised by the public in general. Henry would even execute several great men and lords who refused to support his separation from the Church, his repudiation of Catherine and Mary, and his marriage to Anne. In an attempt to discourage more support for Catherine and Mary, and possible rebellions in their names, he separated mother and daughter. Catherine was sent to a remote and unkempt castle where she died without ever seeing her daughter again, and Mary was made into a servant.

Though at the time, many people directly blamed Anne Boleyn and witchcraft for Catherine’s death, modern physician and scientists believe she died of a Cancer.

Mary would eventually reign England as Mary I, but her road to the throne would be a hard one.

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