Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Stereotyped Six Wives: One: 'A Great and Strong-Laboured Woman'

Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII of England
Lifetime: 16 December 1485 - 7 January 1536
Reigned: June 1509 - May 1533 (23 years, 11 months)
Pregnancies: 6 
Stillborn daughter: January 1510
Prince Henry: 1 January 1511 - 23 February 1511 
Stillborn son: September 1513
Stillborn son: November 1514
Mary I of England: 18 February 1516 - 17 November 1558
Stillborn daughter: November 1518

In this new six-part series, I will be reexamining the lives and personalities of Henry VIII's six wives, seeking to portray their lives realistically in a process that discards prevailing stereotypes. Much scholarly work has been done on Henry's reign in recent decades, affording fresh insights into the politics and achievements of the period. Understandably, widespread interest in Henry's marital affairs remains unabated. Yet stereotypes continue to bedevil our knowledge of the wives of this most enigmatic king. 

This first blog post examines the incredible life of Queen Katherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife. Married to Henry at the age of twenty-three, Katherine was both a princess of Spain and a queen of England. Her tenure as Henry's consort included notable achievements. Katherine successfully fulfilled the queenly role of intercessor and was an acknowledged ambassador for her home country. Her considerable achievements as queen are usually overlooked in the divorce crisis that concerned only the final six years of her reign. She was Queen of England for almost 24 years and was a noted patron of the Renaissance in England. An examination of the sources concerning Katherine indicate that she was learned, charismatic, shrewd and formidable. Often depicted as the innocent, virtuous foil to the scheming Anne Boleyn, reality is rather different.

As the youngest daughter of the formidable 'Catholic Kings' Ferdinand and Isabella, who jointly ruled the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, Katherine was expected to make an excellent marriage, but it was probably not anticipated at her birth that she would marry into the English royal family. At the time of Katherine's birth on 16 December 1485 at the Archbishop's Palace at Alcala de Henares, the Tudors had been on the English throne for less than four months. A newly established dynasty with a fairly weak claim to the throne, the Tudors were not regarded with especial confidence or admiration by other rulers in Europe. Ferdinand and Isabella, who had already ruled Spain for several years by this point, were shrewd and confident rulers and could be forgiven for regarding King Henry VII with wariness. Perhaps they wondered how long he would hold the turbulent throne. Given that England had been in a state of dynastic turmoil since the mid fifteenth-century, they could have been forgiven for thinking this.

Katherine was educated by a clerk in holy orders, Alessandro Geraldini. The Dutch humanist Erasmus later recorded that the princess was 'imbued with learning, by the care of her illustrious mother'. She learned languages (though not English, and she only acquired a knowledge of French several years later); canon and civil law; theology; philosophy; history; and arithmetic, but was also brought up with an excellent knowledge of skills deemed appropriately feminine: housewifery; embroidery; lacemaking; and music. At a time when the Renaissance was beginning to develop across Europe, the Spanish monarchs likely placed great emphasis on their daughter acquiring musical talent. As queen, Katherine was to enjoy participating in masques and dances. Perhaps most importantly, Katherine was brought up with an intense devotion and loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. Her parents had determinedly enforced the Roman faith across their dominions, finally expelling Jews and Moors who refused to convert. Not for nothing were Ferdinand and Isabella granted the title Catholic Monarch by the satisfied pope Alexander VI. From an early age, Katherine came to regard any religion that was antithetical to the Roman faith as heresy. Given the determination with which her parents sought to expel heretics from their kingdoms, it is highly likely that Katherine was imbued with a passionate hatred of what she perceived as heresy and an instinctive intolerance for heretics. 

Above: Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the parents of Katherine of Aragon. Their active rule, which involved the determined expulsion of heresy from their kingdoms, likely had a significant influence on Katherine, inspiring her to regard heresy with revulsion while encouraging her to revere and loyally serve the Roman Catholic Church.

The influence of Katherine's parents on their daughter's development should not be underestimated. Their shared, active rule would have signalled to Katherine that a queen could exercise tremendous influence alongside her husband in ruling a kingdom. Katherine was not brought up in England, revering the queenly model in place there: a compliant, devoted and virginal wife and mother. While she was brought up to regard these qualities as essential to successful rulership, she would also have learned that a queen consort could be active, even militant, in working alongside her husband to successfully rule. As a young girl, Katherine of Aragon's model of queenship was one that was active, determined and militant. It was also one that was fiercely intolerant of threat, whether religious or political, and one that was grounded in loyalty to one's lineage and devotion to one's faith. 

Katherine grew to be both beautiful and charming. She was reputedly tiny in height, probably less than five foot tall, and her hair was long and auburn in colour. Sir Thomas More, who was to become Katherine's close friend and admirer, wrote in her praise: 'There is nothing wanting in her that the most beautiful girl should have. Everyone is singing her praises'. She was also learned and intelligent, with an interest in the burgeoning Renaissance movement and a devotion to the Roman Catholic Church: in short, she appeared the perfect queen consort for a young king. Aware of this, and determined to extend Spanish power outwards into Europe to diminish the hostile influence of France, Ferdinand and Isabella decided to marry their youngest daughter into England. She was betrothed to the English king's eldest son Prince Arthur. Given that interest in the match had first been mooted in the spring of 1488, when Katherine was only two years of age and her betrothed not yet two, it is unsurprising that Katherine came to regard herself as divinely appointed by God to be England's queen. It was her destiny. With a fierce devotion to the Catholic faith, combined with a deep-seated loyalty to her lineage, it must be borne in mind that Katherine regarded herself from infanthood as the Queen of England. Only in death could God could take that title from her. 

Even at an early age, then, Katherine was never the submissive, silent and passive consort presented in Victorian historiography and even in some modern works of history. She was an energetic, determined and resourceful woman who was appointed by God to rule England. While she would have learned from her mother that a queen's primary task was to provide male heirs with which to secure the dynasty's continuation, her mother's example also educated her daughter to believe that a queen's role in the politics of the kingdom was as important as that of her husband. Her role was active, not passive. Indeed, it is questionable whether Katherine actively cultivated a submissive ideal of womanhood that was later associated with her successor, Jane Seymour, so it is perhaps surprising that she is often identified with this role. As will be seen, she perhaps reacted more negatively and forcefully to Henry VIII's infidelities than is often assumed, and she certainly was not averse to losing her temper publicly. 

Brothers: Arthur, Prince of Wales (left) and Henry, Prince of Wales (right); later Henry VIII. Both men married Katherine of Aragon.

In November 1501, at the age of fifteen, Katherine of Aragon wed Arthur Tudor, prince of Wales, at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Katherine was acquainted with her new family around this time. She reportedly enjoyed warm relations with her mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth of York, the shrewd and kindly wife of Henry VII, and she undoubtedly regarded her bridegroom's grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, with respect. Like Katherine's mother Isabella of Castile, Lady Margaret was a determined and active woman who ruled her estates vigorously and exercised considerable influence at court. Contemporary ambassadors whispered rumours that she even held her daughter-in-law, the Queen of England, in subjection. Katherine would have learnt from this state of affairs that a royal woman's power and influence at the English court was potentially considerable. She may also have considered Elizabeth's situation and determined that no woman would ever oust her from a position of influence, whether that woman was family or not.

After their marriage, the prince and princess of Wales (as Katherine was now known) were sent to reside at Ludlow Castle, Arthur's ceremonial centre of power in the Welsh Marches. Traditionally, it has been argued that Katherine's marriage to Arthur was not consummated and, when the prince tragically died in the spring of 1502, the princess was left a virgin widow. However, David Starkey recently suggested that the marriage was indeed consummated. Certainly no-one at the time doubted that it had. When her marriage was threatened in 1527 by Henry VIII's determination to remarry, Katherine had every reason to lie. Not only was her position as queen endangered, but her daughter's future could be jeopardised were the princess to become a bastard. Moreover, Arthur was not the unhealthy, sickly teenager of popular legend, but a vigorous youth. Katherine's mother would have educated her about the necessity of consummating a union, to prevent doubts arising as to its legitimacy. The Catholic Church taught that a marriage could be annulled on the grounds of non-consummation, as the failed union of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves was to prove. Given both her pride and loyalty to her lineage, and her intense devotion to her Roman Catholic faith, it seems unlikely that Katherine failed to consummate her marriage to Arthur.

Ludlow Castle from Whitcliffe, 2011.jpg
Above: Ludlow Castle in Wales, where Katherine probably consummated her marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales.

Whether Katherine truly loved her first husband is uncertain, but her determination to become Queen of England did not die with her husband in April 1502. During her seven years of widowhood, Katherine continued to exert a forceful and vigorous presence in European politics. She regularly wrote to her parents, especially her father following the death of her mother in late 1504. Katherine informed Ferdinand that she had 'no other hope or comfort in this world' unless he wrote to her regularly. The evidence of her letters indicates that she sought to influence her father's policy, as seen in her insistent determination to have the Spanish ambassador de Puebla expelled for the 'pain and annoyance' which he had caused her, perhaps principally on account of his failure to promote her wellbeing and interests at court. She also pressured Henry VII, her father-in-law, to remember 'his daughter' and to remember that 'it will reflect dishonour upon his character if he should entirely abandon' her. Katherine's entreaties were genuine, but were also calculating. She sought to remind the English king of her position as princess of Spain and, thus, her central importance in European affairs as a prospective consort to a foreign ruler. She surely rejoiced upon learning that she was betrothed to her former husband's younger brother Henry Tudor, but whether she knew of his decision to revoke his promises to her is unknown. Certainly it would not have altered her firm belief that she would one day rule England as its queen. 

Her health, however, soon became a matter of concern. Historian Giles Tremlett has speculated that the princess may have suffered from an eating disorder, although it is unwise to refer it as such in the modern sense of the term. Certainly Katherine's zeal for fasting and abstinence was famed across Europe. The Pope himself became so concerned that he issued a missive instructing that if Katherine's 'devotions and fasting' were 'thought to stand in the way of her physical health and the procreation of children', then they could be 'revoked and annulled by men'. Katherine's desire to fast is highly indicative of the importance she placed on loyally and devotedly serving the Roman Catholic faith. In her eyes, alongside her destiny as Queen of England, it was the fundamental reason for her existence. 

Even as her fortunes experienced strain, during these years Katherine's belief in her God-given destiny as Queen of England remained rock-solid. If anything, the experience of adversity hardened her and accustomed her to fighting for what she regarded as her birthright. Moreover, the experience of success positioned her to regard her cause as just, certain of triumph. That success came in the summer of 1509 when, following Henry VII's death, the teenaged Henry VIII of England chose to wed Katherine. He was reputed to regard her with 'singular love', but it is also equally likely that he wished to preserve the Spanish alliance in the face of French hostility. The Tudor claim to the throne remained fragile, as the lingering fear of the White Rose proved.

Above: Katherine of Aragon's only surviving child, Mary, born in 1516.

It is unfortunate that Katherine of Aragon tends to be regarded in popular culture as dowdy and dull, given that she was beautiful, elegant and sophisticated in her early years as England's queen. She dressed exquisitely and was reputed to be 'a ceremonious woman in her attire'. Alongside her handsome, auburn-haired husband, Katherine represented a triumphant figure presiding over the cultured English court. God certainly seemed to smile on their union, as were the people at large who rejoiced 'in the possession of such a King'. Katherine immediately became pregnant and was delivered of a stillborn daughter in January 1510. Yet Henry was not overly concerned, writing to his father-in-law Ferdinand of the 'joy and felicity' which he had experienced in marrying the charming Katherine. 'In high health, with the greatest gaiety and contentment that ever there was', it is hardly likely that the queen was overly concerned too. She had triumphed after years of hardship and adversity, and was supremely confident that God favoured her and would reward her devotion to the faith with the birth of sons. 

Despite the success of their marriage, Katherine's father had reputedly been unfaithful to his wife, and Katherine would likely have learned from an early age that kings were accustomed to taking lovers. However, that does not mean that she regarded extramarital liaisons with approval or even acceptance. Given her devout adherence to Roman Catholicism, it is rather more likely that she regarded adulterous affairs with horror and revulsion. So when Henry took Lady Anne Hastings as his lover within a year of marrying Katherine, it is not entirely surprising that the queen was said to be highly 'vexed' with her husband. She confronted him about his seduction of her lady-in-waiting and was to later show a marked disapproval of his decision to award his bastard son Henry Fitzroy with two dukedoms. While Katherine did not cause tantrums, she certainly did not necessarily acquiesce to Henry's extramarital affairs submissively or ignorantly. It is far too simplistic to interpret her behaviour in this light, as the majority of historians have done. An energetic, shrewd and determined consort, and mindful of her admirable lineage, she perhaps rationalised that such affairs were beneath her. Her primary duty was to bear sons, and if she did so, then no lady-in-waiting, no matter how beautiful or sophisticated, could threaten her. 

Above: Mary Boleyn, mistress of Henry VIII. While we have no direct evidence for Queen Katherine's opinion of the woman who supplanted Bessie Blount in her husband's affections, it seems too simplistic to view Katherine as submissively ignoring Henry's adulterous affairs. 

Aside from the royal couple's failure to have a healthy son, Katherine's queenship was largely triumphant. She enjoyed notable achievements that have often been overlooked in the focus on the 'great matter'. Not only was she a loyal ambassador of her homeland, but she was her husband's chief advisor and confidant during his early years as king. In the summer of 1513, while campaigning in France, Henry accorded his wife the supreme honour of granting her the position of regent in England. Katherine, who was well aware that the queen's role could be active and forceful rather than silent and submissive, took on this position with enthusiasm. When the Scots invaded in the autumn, she energetically mustered her troops and rallied her forces. Katherine herself declared to her husband that she was 'horribly busy with making standards, banners and badges' for the cause. The queen travelled to Buckingham and urged the English forces to victory. They were inspired by Katherine's enthusiasm and courage and resoundingly defeated the Scots at Flodden on 9 September 1513. Triumphant, Katherine wrote to her husband: 'To my thinking, this battle hath been more than should you win all the crown of France'. She also hoped that Henry would shortly return to England because of the 'joy' it would bring both her and his subjects. Katherine's confidence has often been interpreted negatively by historians, who view her as crowing and inconsiderate of Henry's feelings, in seeming to accord her victory more importance than his own triumphs in France. However, Katherine would not have regarded it that way. Her mother had been as active, as militant and as successful as her father, and Katherine would have seen no reason why she could not achieve the same greatness that Isabella had. Moreover, the English queen was pregnant during these events and although the stillbirth of her son barely a week later would have caused her sorrow, she perhaps tempered this loss with the knowledge that God had continued to smile on her by granting her an unforgettable victory on the battlefield.

Because she regarded her queenship as active and a position to be approached with consideration and respect, Katherine took on the duties of her role with enthusiasm and diligence. She was a noted intercessor and earned considerable popularity in England for her success in this sphere. Following the aftermath of the May Day riots in 1517, when the London apprentices had violently turned on the foreigners of the city, the queen begged her husband with tears in her eyes to 'spare the apprentices' from execution. Willingly, Henry acceded to her request. This incident provides further evidence of Henry's love for his wife. He later admitted during the annulment proceedings that 'if I were to marry again, I would chose her above all women' for her 'gentleness, humility and buxomness'. Katherine's influence at court extended to matters of religion; she was also known to be charitable and provided alms for the poor. Presenting herself carefully as submissive, virtuous and pious, her husband and close friends were aware that she was vigorous, determined and resourceful, particularly when it came to a crisis.

By the spring of 1527, Katherine experienced her first real crisis as queen. Eighteen years on the throne had enabled her to grow into a confident, shrewd and experienced queen who was more than comfortable in affairs of state and promoting the interests of her homeland. She had watched as Henry's lovers had come and gone. Although she did not regard his affairs with approval, and had reacted furiously when his bastard by Bessie Blount had been granted unprecedented honours in 1525, Katherine shrewdly remained calm. She had witnessed her father's infidelities and continued to believe that, since God had ordained for her to become queen, she would remain Henry's wife until the day she died. In 1516, she had given birth to her only surviving daughter Mary. Katherine exercised undoubted influence in her daughter's education, for she was determined to ensure that her daughter was an active and successful queen just as her mother and grandmother had been. The Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives had been appointed as her tutor, and Mary was brought up to be a virtuous Christian maiden. Katherine's devotion to the Catholic faith grounded her approach to her daughter's upbringing, and Mary's intense piety was undoubtedly instilled in her from birth by her formidable mother.

Above: Peterborough Cathedral, where Katherine was buried in 1536.

Katherine's queenship had been active, resourceful, even militant. She had always been at the centre of politics and had never shied from exerting influence in matters of state. During the annulment crisis, Katherine refused to accept that she was no longer Queen. As she perceived it, she had been educated from the age of two to regard herself as England's queen. No earthly being, even her husband, could take it from her. Only God could by calling her to Heaven. It was her destiny to be Queen, just as it was her daughter Mary's destiny someday to be Queen in her mother's place. By daring to put her aside, Henry was endangering not only his immortal soul but the wellbeing of England. Several modern historians have interpreted Katherine as disloyal to English interests, but she was in fact highly concerned with England's future and interpreted Henry's selfish desires as grossly antithetical to the future harmony of England. 

She had been groomed from birth to regard heresy as mortally dangerous. It was an infection, a blight on the kingdom and a warning from God. The annulment was heretical, for it was closely associated with the reformed religion. Katherine and her supporters, including the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys, were united in their belief that the reformed faith was Lutheran heresy and offensive to God. Katherine's parents had militantly stamped out heresy in their dominions and their daughter was determined to do the same in her adopted home. In no sense could she have stepped aside for her husband. Not only was he, in her eyes, endangering her position as queen and threatening their daughter's future, but he was tacitly granting acceptance to newfound heresy and thus calling into question the very foundations of society, as proven by the favour he bestowed on the Boleyns, whom Katherine knew were inferior to her in birth. By preferring them to Katherine, whose lineage was prestigious and renowned across Europe, Henry's behaviour ran dangerously close to questioning God's will. 

Katherine's behaviour during her years of widowhood (1502-9) had been resourceful, energetic and determined. She had not remained silent, but had issued urgent letters to her father, ambassador, friends and her aloof father-in-law Henry VII, demanding for her wellbeing to be respected and her fortunes to be restored. As then, her role during the annulment crisis was formidable. She magnificently rose to the challenge presented her and upbraided Henry at the Blackfriars court in the summer of 1529 for daring to put her aside, asking him how she had offended him and daring him to assert that he had not found her a virgin at their marriage. All the evidence demonstrates, from her position as Princess of Wales to a threatened Queen of England, that Katherine of Aragon responded magnificently to a threat. Her offensive was calculating and determined. Not only was she fighting for her daughter's future, but for her country's wellbeing. 

Above: Margaret of Anjou, queen of England.

Margaret of Anjou, the courageous wife of Henry VI, had been described as 'a great and strong-laboured woman, for she spareth no pain to sue her things to an intent and conclusion to her power'. The same might in fairness be said of Katherine of Aragon. The first wife of Henry VIII was perhaps the toughest and was certainly the one who felt most confident in taking on her husband and reminding him of his responsibilities as king. She had not reacted submissively to his extramarital affairs, but had dared to reproach him for his affairs with Anne Hastings and Anne Boleyn, and when he promoted his bastard son's interests to the detriment of his legitimate daughter's position, she protested so vigorously that she was punished with the removal of several of her ladies-in-waiting. 

In popular culture, Katherine continues to be perceived as the virtuous and silently suffering foil to the scheming, manipulative Anne Boleyn. This interpretation is both skewed and inaccurate, and marks a betrayal of Katherine's memory, failing to understand the real woman for who she truly was. Katherine was a determined, passionate adherent of the Roman Catholic faith and viewed other religious persuasions as dangerous heresy that required elimination at all cost. She was a courageous defender of the country's interests and was prepared to lead her troops, valiantly urging them on to destroy England's enemies. An energetic, stubborn and formidable queen, she was capable of deceit. She had probably lied about the consummation of her first marriage, perhaps lied about her pregnancy in 1510 to her father, and was capable of bloodthirstiness - as her desire to send her husband the brutally mangled body of James IV proves. Yet she was also interested in the Renaissance, was unswervingly loyal to her friends and relations, and was deeply concerned to promote the welfare of her people. It is misleading to regard Katherine as a perfect saint, a wronged wife and a silently suffering mother. She, like Margaret of Anjou, was 'a great and strong-laboured woman' who never once shied away from promoting her interests at all costs, while valiantly fighting to destroy all threats to her position, whether religious, political or dynastic.


  1. I've read a lot about this remarkable woman. I believe you're absolutely right. She didn't go down without a fight!

  2. Great post, but according to Scarisbrick's biography of Henry VIII, the case for the validity of the marriage to Henry was much stronger if Katherine had consummated her marriage with Arthur -- because consummation meant that the impediment of "public honesty" (created by the public marriage ceremony) was necessarily implicated by the dispensation (which only addressed the impediment of affinity). He said that if the marriage had not been consummated, there would still be the impediment of public honesty, with no dispensation. Also, David Starkey suggested that Arthur might have died of testicular cancer; if so, I would think this might interfere with his ability to fully consummate a marriage. While I am sure that Katherine and Arthur tried to do so, I am not as convinced as you are that she was lying.


    1. Thanks for your comment Esther. I do not one hundred per cent believe that Katherine was lying, it is entirely possible that her first marriage was not consummated and she was later telling the truth. However, circumstantial evidence leaves no reason to doubt that it was consummated.

  3. I loved this article! I like that you cast aside more traditional views of Katherine and dug deeper into her character. However, one thing did catch my eye, a typo I am sure... you wrote "She had not remained silent, but had issued urgent letters to her father, ambassador, friends and her aloof father-in-law Henry VII, demanding for her wellbeing to be respected and her fortunes to be restored." She could not write to her father-in-law, Henry VII, because he was dead before she even married Henry VIII..

    1. Thanks for your comment. Henry VII was Katherine's father-in-law because she had married his son Arthur in 1501. Upon her husband's death, Katherine was strictly speaking no longer Henry's daughter-in-law, but I referred to her as such in this article for clarity.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. A very interesting and different look at Katherine the woman, not just as the first wife of Henry VIII. Thanks