Catherine of Aragon was the first of six wives of King Henry VIII of England. She was Queen of England from 1509 till the time of her controversial divorce with Henry in 1533, which famously led to the English Reformation. Born in the ruling family in Spain, Catherine is also known for her beauty, for briefly serving as regent of England and for being extremely popular among her subjects. Here are 10 interesting facts about the life and death, as well as family, marriages and the famous divorce, of Catherine of Aragon.

 

#1 Her parents sponsored the first voyage Christopher Columbus

Catherine was born on 16th December 1485 at the Archbishop’s Palace in Alcalá de Henares in Madrid, Spain. She was the last of seven children born to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella became the basis for the political unification of Spain under their grandson Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Isabella I and Ferdinand II are also known for supporting and financing the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus which led to the discovery of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power.

Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile
Catherine’s parents – Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile

 

#2 She became a widow at age sixteen after the death of Arthur in 1502

At the age of three, Catherine was betrothed to Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII of England. Arthur, who was a year younger to Catherine, was installed as Prince of Wales at the age of five and was heir apparent to the English throne. Catherine arrived in England on 2nd October 1501, soon after Arthur attained the age of 15 and was deemed old enough to be married. Catherine of Aragon married Arthur, Prince of Wales at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on November 14, 1501. However, a few months after their marriage, the couple fell ill possibly from sweating sickness, a mysterious and highly contagious disease. Though Catherine recovered, Arthur died on 2nd April 1502.

Portrait of Arthur, Prince of Wales
Portrait of Arthur, Prince of Wales

 

#3 Catherine was frequently ill due to dire circumstances after Arthur’s death

A dowry of 200,000 crowns had been agreed for the marriage of Catherine and Arthur; half of which had been paid. King Henry VII wanted to avoid paying it back, which he was supposed to do if Catherine returned home. Thus, shortly after the death of Arthur, Catherine was betrothed to Prince Henry, Duke of York and second son of Henry VII. Catherine’s father King Ferdinand delayed paying the full dowry thus jeopardizing the marriage. The death of her mother, Queen Isabella, in 1504 led to loss in Catherine’s position and made things even more difficult for her. She became a virtual prisoner at Durham House in London, frequently fell ill and most probably suffered from depression.

 

#4 She was the first female ambassador in European history

In 1507, Catherine held the position of ambassador for the Spanish Court in England. She was thus the first female ambassador in European history. Henry VII died on 21st April 1509 and his son, to whom Catherine was betrothed, succeeded the throne as King Henry VIII. Soon after assuming the throne, Henry VIII of England married Catherine of Aragon in a private ceremony in the church of the Observant Friars in Greenwich on June 11, 1509. Catherine was 23 years of age while Henry was about to turn eighteen. Catherine was the first of six wives of Henry VIII.

King Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

 

#5 She played a part in forming a pact between Spain and England against France

The early years of Catherine’s marriage to Henry are considered to be good. During this period Catherine acted as his most influential advisor. She influenced the signing of the Treaty of Westminster, which formed an alliance between her husband, Henry VIII of England, and her father, Ferdinand II of Aragon, against France. Assured of the support of Ferdinand and Holy Roman Emperor Maxmilian I, Henry VIII launched a military campaign against France leading to the Battle of the Spurs.

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon
Portrait of Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte

 

#6 Catherine of Aragon served as regent of England in 1513

When Henry VIII set off on his campaign against France, he made Catherine of Aragon the regent of England. Two months after Henry’s departure, the Scots invaded England. Catherine competently performed her duty as regent during the invasion which ended with England’s victory in the Battle of Flodden. She sent her husband a letter along with a piece of the bloodied coat of King James IV of Scotland, who had died in the battle, for Henry to use as a banner at the siege of Tournai.

Battle of Flodden (1513)
Depiction of the Battle of Flodden (1513)

 

#7 Her failed pregnancies might be a result of anorexia

Between 1510 and 1518 Catherine gave birth to six children, including two sons. However all her children except a daughter named Mary were either stillborn or died in early infancy. An investigation has suggested that her failed pregnancies could be a result of anorexia which she might have suffered due to her miserable years after the death of Arthur; however nothing can be established with certainty. Henry VIII was known to have affairs and he developed an extreme liking for Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine. This, combined with Catherine’s inability to provide him a male heir, led to Henry seeking an annulment of their marriage.

Anne Boleyn
A Portrait of Anne Boleyn

 

#8 The issue of annulment of her marriage led to the English Reformation

Henry VIII sought annulment of his marriage on the ground that it was cursed as he had married his brother’s wife. Catherine instead stood firm on her earlier stance that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated and so, according to canon law, was not valid. Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage as he was afraid of angering Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1533, Henry had Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, annul his marriage to Catherine. The following year he passed the Act of Supremacy declaring the King as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. These events are considered a landmark in England’s history, as they led to English Reformation, by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. It would contribute significantly to European Protestant Reformation.

Painting of Catherine pleading her case against divorce from Henry
Catherine pleading her case against divorce from Henry – Painting by Henry Nelson O’Neil

 

#9 Her daughter Mary I was England’s first proper queen regnant

Statue of Catherine of Aragon
Statue of Catherine at Alcala de Henares, Spain

Even before annulment of her marriage, in 1531, Catherine was banished from court and sent to live at The More castle. In 1535, she was transferred to Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. She was also forbidden to see her daughter Mary. Both Catherine and her daughter were offered better quarters and permission to see each other if they would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the new queen, but they refused. Catherine confined herself to one room and fasted often. She died at the castle on 7th January 1536. She was 50 years old. Catherine was given a small funeral and buried in Peterborough Abbey. Her daughter would reign over England for more than five years from 1553 to 1558 as Queen Mary I of England.

#10 Catherine was hugely popular among the masses

Catherine of Aragon has been described as very beautiful with fair complexion, blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. She was slim and of average height. In regard to her appearance, Thomas More and Lord Herbert wrote that “there were few women who could compete with the Queen [Catherine] in her prime.” Catherine was deeply religious. She attended masses regularly, fasted on Fridays and Saturdays and made frequent pilgrimages to religious shrines. Catherine was hugely popular among the people of England. She started an extensive programme for the relief of the poor. Every year at Peterborough Cathedral in England, there is a service in her memory.

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