Most people’s first introduction to Katherine of Aragon is as a supporting character/antagonist in the story of Anne Boleyn. That saga kicks off with Anne arriving on the scene, immediately winning the King’s love, too bad about his wasted-up hysterical menopausal wife, Katherine, and will Katherine ever let him get an annulment so he can hook up with Sexy Anne?? Katherine is perpetually middle-aged in popular culture, somehow vilified for daring to want to save her decades-long marriage, while also pitiable for not having had a living male heir/”disappointing” her husband.
But guess what?? Like every adult woman, Katherine was once a girl, and her experiences prior to her marriage to Henry are just as worthy of interest as what happened to her later on. (And her later years are ALSO worth re-examining, and we’ll get to that in part two).
Katherine’s life can be almost perfectly bisected into two separate stories. The first, of a young Princess who became a Queen, ends with a triumphant and romantic climax, tinged with a little tragedy. The second, of an aging Queen cast aside for another woman, is almost entirely itself a slow motion, agonizing, humiliating tragedy. The latter is quite well known, having been shown again and again in The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, and other books, tv shows, and movies.
So I’d really like to take a look at the first part of Katherine’s story, which really shows that whether a story is a triumph or a tragedy depends on your start and end point.
Katherine was the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. At the time both Aragon and Castile were regions of what we now know as Spain, and the joining of these two in marriage created an immensely powerful joining of two royal families and two large areas of land. A legit warrior-queen, Isabella spent most of her pregnancy with Katherine on a military campaign. She only slowed down when she was taken captive, giving birth to Katherine on December 16, 1485. Katherine, the youngest of five siblings, was named after Isabella’s English grandmother and, like her mother, had a pale complexion, red hair, and blue eyes. As a girl, Katherine was described as “the most beautiful creature in the world,” and that there was “nothing lacking in her that the most beautiful girl should have.” Others reflected later that “there were few women who could compete with the Queen [Katherine] in her prime.” She was not only lovely but also, due to the invariably labyrinthine and incestuous family trees of royal families of this time, was also the third cousin once removed of the English King Henry VII making her family’s claim to the throne, arguably, stronger than that of the Tudors.
Given who her mother was, Katherine and her siblings were brought up highly religious, highly educated, and highly adventurous. Isabella brought her children with her even while on military campaigns, at one point the group all having to flee when someone set their tent on fire in the night. She personally oversaw her children’s education, providing her four daughters with the same level of education as their older brother — unusual for the time. The great Dutch scholar Erasmus wrote that he found Katherine to be “astonishingly well read… far beyond what would be surprising in a woman.” Their parents’ goal was to send the girls out to marry foreign Princes and Kings with the hopes they would be able to exert influence over their husbands to promote Spanish interests. However, their education did not include training in courtly manners, sex, or romance — leaving them ill-equipped to understand the games of love playing out in most European courts at this time.
When Katherine was three, she was promised in marriage to the two-year-old Prince Arthur, heir to the throne of England. Ferdinand agreed to pay a dowry of 200,000 crowns, in two installments, to England and in return, England promised to provide Katherine with one third of her husband’s lands in case he predeceased her. The marriage would help cement the current English monarchy, as the rule of King Henry VII was still unsteady due to continuing aftereffects of the War of the Roses. Basically, Henry took the throne based on a number of illegitimate people in his lineage; the English people wanted someone on the throne with a more direct claim. Due to Katherine’s English ancestry, that was kind of her. A child born to Katherine and Arthur would be unquestioningly the heir to the English throne, as ever making childbearing the single most important job of an aristocratic bride-to-be. When Arthur was 13 and Katherine was 14, they were married by proxy — each remaining in their own country, making their commitment via stand-ins, both male.
Both of Katherine’s parents had their own reasons for wanting to delay her departure to England. Ferdinand saw it as a political tactic against Henry VII, who he mistrusted. Isabella, having already suffered the loss of her other children through early death or departure to foreign shores, was resistant for her youngest child to leave the nest. In her grief, the former warrior Queen had doubled down on her Catholic faith, dressing in the coarse habit of a Franciscan nun and spending more and more time in her devotions (put a pin in this vis-a-vis Katherine’s later years, and those of her daughter, Mary). Isabella’s health seemed so fragile that Katherine was kept at home as long as was needed for the Queen to be restored to health.
Katherine began her journey to England in 1501, when she was sixteen years old. She was accompanied by a group of ladies in waiting, chosen not for their great beauty but for their family’s prestige and their loyalty to the crown. The English court was highly image-oriented, and her choice of unattractive handmaidens — despite advice from the English Queen to select aesthetically appealing ladies — was an early example of her lack of savvy at courtly behaviour. The journey was lengthy and treacherous, involving storms at sea which she would later view as omens of dark times ahead. However, her arrival in Plymouth was entirely pleasant, and the townsfolk were respectful and eager to meet the Spanish princess. One emissary wrote back to Isabella that Katherine “could not have been received with greater rejoicings if she had been the Saviour of the World.” This welcome was even more genuine because it was unplanned; Katherine’s ship had been expected to dock elsewhere, where more formal celebrations had been planned. The people of Plymouth took it upon themselves to offer her this warm welcome. From this point on, Katherine retained the admiration and love of the English population, which would have lasting effects for both her and her daughter, Mary. (As Jane Grey learned, to her detriment)
King Henry VII, who had been using very 21st century style public relations strategies to help sustain his family’s power, upended tradition by travelling with Arthur to meet Katherine on the road. Upon hearing of their plans, Katherine, on strict instructions from her parents not to interact with any members of the English royal family until the day of her wedding, sent a message that she could not possibly meet with them. Henry still arrived at the home she was staying in, and though Katherine tried to avoid him by claiming to be still sleeping, he would not take no for an answer. Ultimately, Katherine allowed the King into her quarters, where they spoke briefly in their native tongues. The introduction thus made, Arthur then arrived for a first meeting with his wife. The teenagers repeated their vows in person, in the company of translators, as they still had no common language. Arthur later wrote to Katherine’s parents that he was happy to “behold the face of his lovely bride” and he intended to be “a true and loving husband.”
The couple parted ways after this first meeting, reuniting only for their days-long wedding festivities, commencing on November 12, 1501. It was during one of these events that Katherine first met her husband’s brother, ten-year-old Prince Henry. The two princes were different both physically and temperamentally, due in part to their very different upbringing. As heir to the throne, Arthur had been raised cognizent of his destiny, and as such, grew into a serious, intellectual young man. Prince Henry, as his 21st century namesake after him, was allowed a greater amount of freedom and developed into a more fun-loving, charismatic sort of guy. Not that Katherine could have known what fate had in store between her and her brother-in-law; and anyway, she was busy with an extraordinarily busy series of events arranged by her father-in-law to glorify the young couple and cement the affections of their subjects to the Tudor dynasty.
Likewise, no one could have imagined the importance to history as to whether or not she and Arthur ever consummated their marriage. Records from the time show that the room and bed were prepared as was demanded by the very detailed instructions in something called The Royal Book, and both teens were left alone together for nature to take its course. Witnesses later would say that Arthur had boasted the next day about having spent the night “in the midst of Spain,” and we’ll never know if he said that or, if he did, if he was exaggerating or telling the truth. Regardless of their sexual intimacy, Katherine was now a member of the Tudor family and as such, Henry VII began stripping her of the comforts and customs of Spain in order to re-make her as an English princess.
Katherine had brought sixty Spanish servants with her, including a large number of men. It was not the English custom for women to have male servants at all; if they all remained at court, she would have a larger staff than the Queen herself. It had been the custom back in Spain, where Isabella had impressed upon her daughters the importance of proper etiquette, to provide male servants with titles to reflect their prestigious positions. There were no analogous titles at English court, and Katherine’s gentlemen bristled at having their positions re-titled to sound less important. Katherine fought to retain all of it — the titles, the servants — to no avail. To her, these were part and parcel of her role as a royal, but what she thought was not as important as Henry VII’s obsession with how things looked.
One month following the wedding, Arthur and Katherine were sent off together — with a yet even smaller staff — to co-habitate at the royal property in Wales. They were there for only a short time when, in March 1502, Arthur was struck down by a gruesome illness known as the sweating sickness. Within a week, he was dead. Katherine was left, a Princess in a foreign land, the 16-year-old widow of a five month marriage. She had not yet conceived a child, leaving the role of heir to the throne to pass on to Arthur’s brother, Prince Henry. It was not known what role Katherine would have to play in this new world order. In many ways, her situation was similar to that faced decades later by Mary, Queen of Scots: a royal in a foreign court, widowed at an extremely young age without becoming pregnant, her fate entirely in the hands of older adults seeing her as no more than a pawn. Although Katherine had a powerful family dynasty supporting her from Spain, she was just as powerless as Mary Stuart in matters of sorting out her own fate.
Initially, Katherine was set up with a full complement of staff, continuing to live as she had when she was Arthur’s wife. The matter of her dowry, half of which had not yet been paid by Spain, was of paramount importance to the English King. The marriage contract had indicated that 100,000 crowns would be paid at the time of the wedding and another 100,000 one year later; there was no contingency plan for the Prince to die in the intervening months. Henry VII interpreted this to mean that, since he would not receive the rest of Katherine’s dowry, he need not honour his promise to guarantee Katherine a dower comprised of 1/3 of Arthur’s lands in Wales. As Katherine’s parents fought to have her sent back to them, Henry VII continued to provide the Princess with an allowance to pay for the costs of running her household.
Eventually, it was agreed upon by both sides that Katherine would be betrothed to Prince Henry, Arthur’s younger brother. This would require a dispensation from the Pope, as the religious laws of the time forbid a man from marrying his brother’s wife. So long as Katherine had not consummated her marriage to Arthur, it could be annulled — meaning that Prince Henry would not be marrying his brother’s wife, but effectively, a woman who had not been previously married to anyone. This was the first time that the nature of her sexual relations with Arthur would become of paramount importance, and the beginning of a paper trail of people asserting that the pair had never been intimate. On June 25, 1503, Katherine and Henry were officially betrothed; three days later, the Prince turned twelve. Katherine was eighteen.
Henry VII and Ferdinand continued to maneuver against one another, with the result that their conflicting reports to the Vatican wound up stalling the Pope’s dispensation for Katherine and Prince Henry’s marriage. The document that wound up being created was worded with a vagueness that would be, decades later, used maliciously against Katherine. The wording stated that the marriage between Katherine and Arthur “had, perhaps, been consummated.” Two days after receiving this document, Katherine’s mother Isabella passed away. The loss of her mother was a crippling blow for Katherine emotionally, but also politically; without Isabella around, the union between Aragon and Castile would dissolve, leaving Katherine a Princess of one country instead of two — and Aragon was far less influential than Castile. On top of that, her sister Juana had begun to be known as Juana La Loca or Juana The Mad, for her seemingly irrational and unpredictable behaviour. Katherine’s proximity to such a toxic figure only further negated her value as a prospective bride. And so Henry VII paused arrangements to marry her to his son, Prince Henry.
The years passed. In 1505, on the eve of his fourteenth birthday, Prince Henry formally renounced his betrothal to Katherine. Henry VII, still hoping to get the remainder of Katherine’s dowry, began applying pressure to Ferdinand to deliver. His strategy for this was basically blackmail — to mistreat Katherine so terribly that her father would have no choice but to pay up. He fired Katherine’s remaining Spanish household staff, and separated her from her stores of clothes and jewellery. Her mistreatment continued, recorded for history through the many letters Katherine wrote to her father, entreating him to pay his debt to Henry VII. Part of her mistreatment was to be supplied only with priests who spoke in English; as a devoted Roman Catholic she required a confessor, but she did not know enough English to confess in that language. Bereft, she could not even find solace in the faith from which she had always been able to draw strength.
Her world shifted again in 1509 when King Henry VII himself fell dead. Katherine wrote to her father of her hope that the son would be better than the father. She knew that Prince Henry had been highly educated, like her and, perhaps more importantly, that he had resented much of his own father’s behaviour, including the treatment of Katherine. And her hopes came to fruition as the new King Henry VIII chose to marry her. On June 11, 1509, the new couple were married in a far less conspicuous affair than her first wedding had been. Henry was 18 at the time, Katherine 23. She had always been small, less than five feet tall, while he was 6’2″. Tall, young, handsome, and wildly intelligent, he was the culmination of his father’s goals to gain public support through canny PR moves.
And just as Katherine had earned the country’s adoration as Arthur’s wife, she was now loved all the more as the partner of this new King. Two months later, her first pregnancy was announced to great excitement. Remember, a child born of Katherine and a Tudor Prince or King would help cement this dynasty forever. She miscarried six months later, but fell pregnant again four months after that. This child, a son, was born healthy in January 1511. Named Henry like his father and grandfather, his birth was cause for massive celebration throughout the country. Everything in Katherine’s story, improbable as it may seem, had sorted itself out perfectly. She was married to a handsome young King who seemingly lovedd and respected her, she had given birth to a badly-needed crown Prince, and she was adored by her people. If you end her story here, it couldn’t be happier. But this is the place that many interpretations of her story begin.
The new Starz series The Spanish Princess is based on Philippa Gregory’s novels The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse. It was in reading Karen Lindsey’s Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII that I first became aware of the fascinating events of the first part of Katherine of Aragon’s life, and started thinking about how differently it may all have ended for her. I also recommend Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and David Starkey’s similarly titled Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, which both have in-depth examinations of Katherine’s life both before and after her second marriage. I haven’t read Giles Trembett’s recent biography Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII, but it sounds really interesting. And if you are curious to learn more about Katherine and her sister Juana, Julia Fox’s Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile sounds really good as well.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter