Katherine of Aragon: Part Two: The Abandoned Queen

THE TUDORS
Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon on The Tudors (2007)

Previously in our examination of the life of Katherine of Aragon: Katherine received an unusually thorough education for a girl of her time (but didn’t learn about court intrigue or romance), was kept sort-of a prisoner for seven years, and then happy ending!! She married King Henry VIII and, after suffering one miscarriage, delivered a healthy baby boy. Everything was great! (Seriously, I’d recommend reading Part One before launching into this bit. Here’s the link!)

And then.

Prince Henry, the first surviving child of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, was baptized on January 6, 1511. The country erupted in celebration of their handsome new King, his lovely bride, and the new heir to the throne. And it’s only in hindsight that the few weeks Prince Henry lived — just 52 days — were maybe the happiest of Katherine’s life. At the very least, they were the most secure she must have felt in her role as Queen.

Katherine fell pregnant again in 1513, during which time King Henry left to go on a military campaign in France. Before leaving, he appointed Katherine his Regent, bestowing upon her titles “Governor of the Realm and Captain General.” As had been the case during her short tenure as Spanish Ambassador, Katherine took her new position seriously and served to the best of her ability. While her husband dealt with English interests in France, she was left to maintain the country’s safety against the closer threat, that of Scottish forces intent on invading. Initially, her involvement was in the morale-boosting department: using her sewing skills to oversee the creation of standards, banners, and badges to offer to their troops. But when the Scots actually invaded, she proved herself the daughter of her warrior Queen mother, ordering an army to be raised in the midland counties and heading out herself to oversee the battle. Just as her mother had ridden into battle while pregnant with Katherine, the heavily pregnant Katherine rode in full armour to address her troops in a rousing speech. And… success! Her forces in England successfully fought off the Scottish, killing Scotland’s King James IV in process. In a very badass move, Katherine then sent Henry a piece of the late Scottish King’s bloody coat to use as a banner in his French battles. I mean, come on. Warrior. Queen.

annette crosbie katherine of aragon
Annette Crosbie as Katherine in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

But then, during this same time period, she delivered a stillborn son. A fourth pregnancy followed the next year, also ending with stillbirth. When her fifth pregnancy was announced in 1516, many people were nervous and/or cynical that this would turn out any differently; her job as Queen was to make heirs to the throne, and so far, she hadn’t been successful in the task. So the good news was she delivered a healthy baby on February 18th, 1516. The bad news was that it was a girl, a daughter they named Mary and basically set aside waiting for future sons to come along. Still, Katherine had proven herself capable of delivering a child, which would hopefully portend the imminent delivery of a gaggle of princes, too.

There are two main events recorded about her experiences in 1517. The first was her involvement in the May Day riots when, on May 4th, a mob of angry Englishmen rioted in objection to the presence of immigrants, particularly those seen to be taking their jobs. More than 300 men were arrested and brought before the King and Queen for punishment. In front of the assembled crowd, Katherine spoke up for them, appealing to her husband to pardon these men for the sake of their wives and children. Henry agreed, pardoning all but 14 of the rioters. Those freed were said to have danced right there in front of the monarchs. This act of mercy was yet another example of the benevolence and grace that had endeared her to her population — which, considering their now-documented hatred of foreigners, seems all the more significant. And then, the second event was that she suffered another miscarriage of another son. Her final documented pregnancy followed a year later, in 1518, with a daughter who lived only a few hours.

While childbirth and grief clearly consumed much of her time and energy, Katherine was also dedicated to the importance of education — both for herself, as well as for her daughter. She not only kept up her own reading, but oversaw a thorough education for Mary. Most young women, even noblewomen, had not been considered worthy of acquiring an education to this point; but the popular Queen’s actions caused the education of girls to become suddenly fashionable. She commissioned the writer Juan Luis Vives to write a book a book about the importance of education for women, and the published tome The Education of Christian Women, was also dedicated to her. Katherine’s Christian charity also extended to those most in need among her subjects, as she started a program to provide financial relief for the poor and donated considerable amounts of money to English colleges. Her intelligence and charm forced even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell, to note that, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

And then, in 1522, a noblewoman named Anne Boleyn came to court to serve as one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting.

francis cuka henry viii katherine of aragon
Francis Cuka as Katherine in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972)

Anne was about 11 years younger than the Queen, 21 to Katherine’s 32. Henry had taken numerous mistresses already throughout his marriage, including Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn, and initially his affection for the lady-in-waiting seemed no different from any of his other dalliances. However, the timing of his infatuation with Katherine’s fertility troubles — and Henry’s own anxiety over the still-tenuous grip the Tudors had on the English throne — caused the situation to very quickly become its own dangerous thing. Henry had come to believe his marriage to Katherine was cursed, based on his interpretation of a Bible verse stating that if a man marries his brother’s wife, the couple will be childless. As we saw in part one of this story, he had received a special papal dispensation to marry Katherine, based on a nebulously worded document noting that Katherine probably hadn’t consummated her marriage to Henry’s brother Arthur, thus making this first marriage void. And, though Katherine never wavered in her statements that she and Arthur had never been intimate, Henry came to believe that God Himself disapproved of his marriage to Katherine — and God’s thoughts were more important than that of the Vatican.

And so, Henry set out to obtain an annulment. Initially, he suggested that Katherine accept the annulment and quietly retire to a nunnery, a sort of Renaissance relationship version of offering an early retirement package to a redundant employee. In a statement that foretold her continued stubbornness, Katherine wholly rejected this suggestion by explaining basically her thesis in all of these proceedings — that God had chosen to make her Queen, and that was her life’s calling, and who was she to question God’s will? Conveniently for her, Henry was unable to contact the Pope during this time to request an annulment as the Pope was busy having been taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V… who also just to happened to be Katherine’s nephew.

Still, Henry would not waver from his point of view; nor would Katherine. The years went by and in 1531, with no annulment decided upon and with Katherine refusing to step aside, Henry had her banished from court as he began investigating how to obtain a divorce. As she had done when imprisoned as a teenager, Katherine wrote a series of lengthy letters outlining her misery — where the letters from her first confinement had been sent to her father, these were sent to her nephew Charles. Her popularity had not waned among her subjects, and she counted among her supporters Thomas More as well as Pope Paul III, the Protestant leader Martin Luther, and Henry’s sister Mary Tudor, Queen of France. And yet, despite all the strength in her corner — and the fact he had not yet acquired a divorce — Henry defied the Vatican by marrying Anne in 1532. At this point, he had been trying to extricate himself from his first marriage for almost seven years — the same length of time Katherine had been imprisoned before being freed to marry him in the first place. Ultimately, he was able to procure a divorce from Katherine only by leaving the Catholic Church and creating the Anglican faith — which permitted divorce.

ana torrent katherine of aragon the other boleyn girl
Ana Torrent as Katherine in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

The dignity with which Katherine endured this treatment only further endeared her to her subjects, much to the dismay of Henry and Anne (and, later, to those who tried to keep her daughter Mary off the throne). Though Henry downgraded her title from Queen to Dowager Princess of Wales (the title she would have received as Arthur’s widow, one entirely obfuscating her later connection to Henry), Katherine had her staff address her as Queen, and considered herself Henry’s only true wife and the rightful Queen of England. Like her mother, Katherine turned to extreme religious rituals to find strength through her exile. She confined herself to a single room, only leaving to attend Mass, wore a hair shirt, and fasted continuously i.e. starved herself. Part of the motivation behind this behaviour was surely that she had been forbidden by Henry from corresponding with or seeing her daughter, though sympathizers did help secret letters between the two, cementing their bond. Henry offered both women the option of seeing each other again, if only they would both acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Queen; Katherine and Mary both refused, a hint that Mary had perhaps inherited her genetic predisposition to stubborn pridefulness.

Katherine fell ill in 1535, likely due to cancer, and wrote her final wishes out in two separate letters. The first, sent to her nephew Charles, entreated him to look after her daughter Mary. The second, sent to Henry, addressed him as her “most dear lord, king and husband,” forgave him for his behaviour towards her, entreated him to treat their daughter well, requested he continue to pay wages to her household staff, and ended with a statement that her “eyes desire [Henry] above all things.” She died on January 7, 1536, aged 51. Henry saw to it that her burial ceremony was one suited to the Dowager Princess of Wales, not to the Queen of England. He neither attended the service, nor allowed Mary to attend. Though rumours swirled at the time that Katherine had been poisoned, perhaps by Henry and/or Anne, modern medical experts mostly agree that it was likely cancer of the heart.

Katherine’s daughter Mary was crowned Queen in 1553. During Mary’s reign, she declared her mother’s marriage to Henry VIII to be “good and valid,” and also had numerous portraits commissioned of her mother’s likeness. In the late 19th century, a woman named Katherine Clayton solicited donations from others named Catherine or Katherine to upgrade the late Queen’s tomb, resulting in the installation of a marble slab and a gilded grill reading Katharine Queen of England. A few decades later, King George V’s wife, Mary, further upgraded the tomb with the addition of the arms of Englandand Spain and a memorial plaque reading: A queen cherished by the English people for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion.

joanne whalley katherine of aragon wolf hall
Joanne Whalley as Katherine in Wolf Hall (2015)

Every year, Peterborough Cathedral (where her tomb rests) hosts a festival in Katherine’s honour. In her birthplace of Alcalá de Henares in Spain, a statue has been erected showing Katherine as a young woman with a book and a rose. And in Ampthill, the site of the castle to which she was sent during her divorce from Henry, there are numerous places named after Katherine, including a cross named “Queen Catherine’s Cross” in her honour. There is ongoing support for a campaign to have her named a Catholic Saint, largely due to an alleged miracle which occurred in 1640 when a man claimed to have had his own cancer cured after dreaming of her tomb.

Suggested viewing:

I listed some great books to read more about Katherine’s life in my first post about her, so this time I’ll be sharing some film versions of her story. Now, most of the film treatments of her story begin with Anne Boleyn arriving and so focus on her later years. The best known film treatments of Katherine are, I think, those featured in The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors. Katherine appears as a child in the film Mad Love, about her sister Juana. And she appears a bit in the Spanish miniseries Carlos, Rey Emperador, which delves into the story of her nephew Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor.

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