When we think of King Henry VIII and his wives, Anne Boleyn usually comes to mind first. Although her entrance into the British monarchy was the catalyst for many changes, she could never have become so renowned had it not been for Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon.
We know how this story between the English King and Spanish Queen ends, but how did it start? Why did the King of England annul his marriage to the respected and much loved Queen for a woman who was just one of the queen’s ladies, and known for being shrewd and cunning?
Katherine was born in Aragon, Spain in 1485 to parents King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille. With poor diplomatic relations between England and Spain, alongside royal marriages being an opportunity to make wise political moves, King Henry VII and her parents decided that a marriage between Katherine, and the English king’s eldest son Arthur, Prince of Wales, would be a good idea. So, as children they were betrothed to one another, and in 1501, when Katherine was around sixteen years old, her and Prince Arthur got married. Their ceremony took place in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Catherine was escorted to her marriage by Arthur’s youngest brother, the ten year old Henry.
Due to Arthur’s poor health, their marriage lasted a very short time and in 1502 he died, reportedly of the ‘sweating sickness’, and left the young Spanish princess widowed.
In a bid to maintain the strength of England’s alliance with Spain, and to avoid losing the dowry, King Henry VII offered his youngest son’s hand in marriage to his eldest son’s widow. This was agreed upon, however they needed dispensation from the Pope as the book of Leviticus stated that “If a brother is to marry the wife of a brother they will remain childless.” Katherine, a devout Catholic, swore that their marriage had not been consummated – something which unbeknown to her was going to hold far more significance in her life and British history later on. Upon this, the Pope granted dispensation. Due to Henry’s young age, they were simply betrothed and it was agreed they would marry once he was older.
Henry VII died in 1509; his son, then seventeen years old, married twenty four year old Katherine, and they were crowned King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon in Westminster Abbey.
Contrary to the images of an overweight older man that we are familiar with, Henry VIII was young, vivacious and athletic. This injected a new energy into the Tudor courts and drew women to him. It is believed that for a number of years, Henry and Katherine shared a loving relationship, and shortly after they were married, Katherine gave birth. In 1510 was born their first child, prematurely and stillborn, but this was soon followed by their second child the following year – Prince Henry. Prince Henry’s birth was celebrated with great pomp however, was abruptly halted by his death after just 52 days. Henry and Katherine continued in their bid to have a child, and therein followed a miscarriage, by another short lived son. In 1516, their only surviving child came in the form of Princess Mary (later known as the infamous ‘Bloody Mary’ for her killing of Protestants during her reign). Katherine is recorded to have fallen pregnant at least twice after the birth of their daughter, but Henry VIII started losing interest in his wife and being drawn to one of her ladies Anne Boleyn, and it was becoming quite apparent that he was not going to be able to produce a male heir with the Queen.
Anne Boleyn’s ability to keep the king’s interest beyond a short time unlike all his past mistresses was driven by her family’s ambition to further themselves in title, alongside their desire to befall king’s entrusted Cardinal Wolsey. However Henry VIII fell in love with her, and Anne, known for her shrewd nature, managed to manipulate the situation so that Henry VIII wanted to marry her – the king was driven by love (although some say it was lust) and his increasing want for a son. He knew the only way he would be able to do so was to divorce the Queen.
Being a man who was used to getting what he wanted from an early age, alongside his power as the King of England, he needed to find a suitable reason for divorcing Katherine of Aragon in order to get permission from the Pope. This did not take him long as he declared that he and the Queen were never married in the first place as she was his brother’s ‘true’ wife (implying that they had consummated their marriage) which was proved by the fact that she had been unable to provide him with a son (conveniently ignoring that he did have a daughter, and scriptures stated they would be childless, not son-less).
Initially Katherine of Aragon was unaware of his plans for annulment, however she was aware of his publicly flaunted mistress Anne Boleyn but she assumed, just like all the other women, he would soon lose interest in her. Unavoidably, she soon realised this was not the case and discovered her husband’s plans. It is the way she coped with the series of events that this triggered, that gives reason to why she was loved by the English public, loved by many in court, and held as a dignified, unjustly treated and deeply respected queen in British history.
Upon Katherine’s direct appeal to the Pope, swearing that her marriage to Arthur was not consummated led the Pope to reject Henry VIII’s request for annulment. This angered the King greatly and the battle to get what he wanted continued for some 6 years. In this duration, he flaunted Anne Boleyn, already treating her like a Queen, whilst the actual Queen, Katherine, quietly held her dignified stance of maintaining her status and rightful place. However in 1533 Anne Boleyn became pregnant, and on the assumption that it was a boy, Henry VIII knew he needed to act fast if he were to able to acknowledge his son as the heir to the throne. So he decided to reject the Catholic church and separate the Church of England, known as the ‘reformation’, of which he was head. This meant that he was above the law and only answerable to God, and Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury granted the annulment. Katherine was forced to renounce the title of Queen and was subsequently titled the Princess Dowager of Wales, something she refused to acknowledge through to the end of her life.
Katherine and her daughter were separated and she was forced to leave court and for the next three years she lived in several dank and unhealthy castles and manors with just a few servants. However, she seldom complained of her treatment and as a devout Catholic spent a great deal of time at prayer.
On January 7, 1536, Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle and was buried at Peterborough Abbey as Princess Dowager, not as a Queen of England.