Katherine was used as a pawn from the age of three to assure a political alliance between England and Spain. By the time she was 16, she had already been married and widowed, but this didn’t stop the English and Spanish royal families from conspiring to have her marry her brother-in-law Henry VIII.
Henry VIII is best known for having had six wives and for spearheading the English Reformation, when he successfully pushed for the Church of England to separate from the Roman Catholic Church to suit his own ends. He reigned as King of England from 1509 to 1547, during a turbulent period in royal history.
Known for being a tyrant, if anyone defied him, he was likely to charge them with treason and have them executed. Katherine of Aragon was his first wife, after earlier having been his sister-in-law. England and Spain wished to forge a political alliance against France at the time.
Katherine’s first marriage
Born into the Spanish royal family in December 1485; Katherine was the daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I. At the age of only three, plans were made for her to marry Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne, who was only two at the time. Katherine grew up knowing she would one day be queen of England, but she could not have known the fate that awaited her.
Arthur, the son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, became the Duke of Cornwall when he was born in September 1486. The marriage between Arthur and Katherine was arranged by their families to take place as soon as they were old enough by law.
They wrote to each other as children and appeared to have a genuine affection for each other when they wed on 14th November 1501, both aged 15. Sadly, Arthur died on 2nd April 1502, while still only 15, of a mystery illness, possibly a virus known as “sweating sickness”. Katherine, now 16, was a widow.
Second arranged marriage
Born in June 1491, Henry VIII was six years younger than Katherine. At 17, he became King of England, on the death of his father in 1509. An inexperienced sovereign, it was observed he seemed to have few skills.
The royal advisors were aware of the late Henry VII’s wishes to continue the political alliance between England and Spain, so following Arthur’s death, Henry VII decreed his youngest son would marry the widowed Katherine of Aragon.
Henry VIII, still a teenager himself, at first refused to marry Katherine and it was said that Henry VII considered marrying Katherine himself, but her father objected.
After ascending to the throne in 1509, the young King Henry VIII was finally persuaded to marry Katherine, having been told it was his father’s dying wish. Unfortunately, there appeared to be little or no courtship beforehand.
After Arthur’s death, Katherine had lived a reclusive lifestyle in London with her ladies-in-waiting. In 1507, she was awarded the role of the Spanish ambassador to England.
Once Henry VIII decided he was going to marry Katherine, she appeared to have no choice. She had little money of her own in London and had to support her household. This would suggest she was forced into the marriage, which took place on 11th June 1509.
No male heir
Although initially, Henry described his marriage to Katherine as “good”, the cracks soon began to show after their first child, a daughter, was stillborn in 1510. They had a son, Henry, on 1st January 1511, but he died less than two months later.
Henry wanted a son and heir, but despite the royal couple having two more sons, in September 1513 and November 1514, they both died soon after birth. Their daughter, Mary, was born in February 1516 and grew up to become Queen of England in 1553. Katherine gave birth to another stillborn daughter in November 1518.
Henry and Katherine’s relationship was on the rocks and it was known he had several mistresses. Historians have described Henry as being “immensely considerate” and a good husband during the pregnancies, but “falling out of love” afterwards and simply cutting his wife off.
Impact as Queen of England
The British public loved Katherine and historians described her as “Henry’s greatest queen”, certainly she was perhaps his most tragic queen, discarded for her inability to produce son. Early on in their marriage however, Henry had given her various powers. She was appointed “Regent and Governess of England, Wales and Ireland” when he was absent on matters of state.
She was empowered to request payments from the treasury, issue warrants and equip troops for the “defence of the realm”. While Henry was in France, James IV of Scotland attempted to cross the border into England with his powerful army. The public looked to Katherine to see how she would react.
She organised the English defences and while the Earl of Surrey commanded the army in the north of England, more troops were sent to the Midlands and a third contingent was mobilised around London.
Acting as a patriot for her adopted country and combating the Scots and the French, Katherine was immensely popular with her subjects.
End of the marriage
Despite Katherine’s accomplishments, Henry was unhappy she hadn’t given him a son and at the age of 40, she was unlikely to give him another child. Aged 34, Henry was desperate to remarry and became besotted with a member of Katherine’s entourage, Anne Boleyn, the 25-year-old daughter of the Earl of Wiltshire.
His desire to marry Anne led to the English Reformation and the King’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. He decided the best way forward was to annul the marriage, but the Catholic Church wouldn’t permit this.
As Katherine’s Maid of Honour, Anne resided at the royal court, but she was a devout Christian and wouldn’t let him seduce her as his mistress.
In 1526, after Anne rejected his advances, Henry asked Pope Clement VII, head of the Catholic Church, to annul his marriage to Katherine. The Pope’s refusal enraged Henry, who instructed his advisors and lawyer to break the Catholic church’s power in England. He closed monasteries and convents and made Anne the Marquess of Pembroke.
The Catholic Church wouldn’t bow to his demands, so Henry charged the Roman Catholic Cardinal Thomas Wolsey with treason in 1530. Wolsey died while awaiting his trial, so Henry surrounded himself with trusted supporters and made Thomas Cranmer the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Henry began moving the annulment of his marriage forward himself. Katherine was evicted from the palace and Anne moved in.
It was said that Henry and Anne married in secret on 14th November 1532, although their formal public wedding was held on 25th January 1533. Cranmer decreed the marriage was valid. He and Henry were both excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church as a result.
Subsequently, Henry named himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. On 1st June 1533, Anne was crowned Queen of England and three months later she gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I.
Catherine, banished from the royal palace, went to live at The More Castle in late 1531. An outcast, she was instructed to move house several times and treated appallingly, banned from seeing or even communicating with her daughter Mary. Even so, right up until her death in January 1536, at the age of 50, she referred to herself as Henry’s “only lawful wedded wife”.
Her final residence was Kimbolton Castle, where she left her room only to attend Mass and fasted continuously. Henry offered Katherine better quarters if she would acknowledge Anne as the queen, but she refused.
Katherine fell ill in December 1535 and wrote a final letter to Henry, advising he should “safeguard his soul” rather than “pampering his body”. She asked him to look after her three maids after her death and signed it “Katherine the Queen”. Ironically, Queen Anne Boleyn miscarried a baby boy on the day of Katherine’s funeral on 29th January 1536.
When Anne also failed to provide a son Henry moved on and married a further four times. He died on 28th January 1547, aged 55, after having grown obese and suffering the after-effects of an old jousting wound. Although his first meeting with Katherine of Aragon had been at time when both their destinies would have seen them lead very different lives, fate brought them together and history unfolded in a way that was to change England forever.
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