Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England

Born: December 16, 1485

Alcala de Hanares, Spain

Died: January 7, 1536

Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire, England (Age 50)

Catherine in History

Catherine of Aragon was the youngest daughter of the great Catholic liberators King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who freed the southern portion of their country from centuries of Muslim rule and personally funded the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the new world. For this reason, it is no surprise that Catherine would develop a strong personality that would show through, particularly in her later life. The future queen was given a solid education and was to be used as a political tool (as, more or less, every woman of noble birth was in those times) as early as 1487, when she a mere two years of age, when it was suggested that she be betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King Henry VII of England. Arthur was actually a year younger than Catherine, and it was obvious that nothing could have occurred until both children were at least in their mid-teens.

Besides this fact, negotiations dragged on for well over a decade due to disputes in dowry and other financial issues, in addition to the problems Henry VII was facing in England with Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, a son of King Edward IV who, along with his brother, was thought to have been dead since 1483. Many countries threw their support behind Warbeck, including Scotland, Ireland Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire. Spain, however, stayed neutral in the situation and even provided proof that Warbeck was an impostor, all to save the prospect of the marriage between Catherine and Arthur. With the Warbeck situation solved by 1499 and the financial aspect of the marriage hammered out, the two were finally wed in November 1501. The marriage, however, would be a short one, and Arthur passed away in April 1502 at the age of fifteen. At just sixteen, Catherine was a widow.

The prospect of Catherine remarrying, this time to Henry VII's younger son and new heir, also named Henry, came up almost immediately after Arthur's death. Once again though, there were more financial and political issues that needed to be worked out, in addition to the issues involving the pope in Rome. No one knew what the reaction would be to Catherine marrying the brother of her deceased husband, and it was not known for sure whether the marriage had been consummated (it was most likely not, due to Arthur's fragile state of health, and Catherine most certainly swore to the day she died that they had not had sex). Meanwhile, Catherine, who remained in England after Arthur's death, was being treated quite shabbily by Henry VII, who was beginning to become increasingly senile and bitter. This did not help the marriage proposal along, and the marriage did not occur until after the old king's death in 1509, when Henry VIII became king. By this point, Pope Julius II had issued a bull stating that it would be completely legal within the church for the two to marry. With Catherine as his wife and queen, Henry VIII, who was more inclined to sports and games than politics, had a woman who most certainly had a large amount of training when it came to running a country, and she was more than happy to help her husband when prompted. She was made regent while the king was away on his French expedition in 1513, during which the English, under the command of the Earl of Surrey, defeated an invading Scottish army at Flodden, with the Scottish King James IV himself being killed.

Unfortunately, Catherine was unable to provide the king with one thing that he wanted more so than anything else: a male heir to carry on the Tudor dynasty. Catherine, although frequently pregnant, experienced a series of miscarriages and stillbirths with the exception of a boy who was born (but lived less than two months) and Princess Mary (born 1516). This did not sit well with Henry, and since Catherine was, by this point, past her childbearing years, the king sought to find another woman to provide him with a male child. The king did have a bastard son, but he knew that any claim to the throne that child possessed would be tainted (the son would die in 1536 at the age of seventeen). By the mid-1520s, Henry VIII had become infatuated by Anne Boleyn, the daughter of a minor nobleman and courtier, whose sister Mary he had just finished an illicit affair with. The king made it his "great matter" to attain an annulment from his marriage to Catherine to pave the way for a marriage to Anne. To achieve this goal, the king assigned the task to his top adviser, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the papal legate in England. Pope Clement VII, however, was a puppet of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Queen Catherine's nephew. Despite all of Henry VIII's pleadings that his marriage was never valid because of Catherine's previous marriage to Arthur, and that he was being punished for marrying his brother's widow by his lack of a male heir, the pope would not budge.

An ambassador, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, was sent to England to act as co-judge with Cardinal Wolsey to make a final decision on the case. Catherine, however, valiantly defended herself, claiming that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated and that she was the rightful Queen of England. Despite Wolsey's desperate attempts against the queen, to save himself, Campeggio ruled that the case must return to Rome after the summer recess, a move that deeply angered Henry VIII. The entire ordeal was blamed on Wolsey, and he fell prey to his enemies, being deprived of office (1529) and arrested for treason (1530), dying on his way to trial. In addition, Catherine had many supporters within England and throughout the continent, including Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to Charles V, and a majority of the English clergy, including Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury. The king, however, kept up the pressure. By 1531, Catherine was dismissed from court (she and the king would never meet again) and was forbidden to see her daughter Mary. With the help of avid reformists such as Thomas Cromwell (top adviser after Wolsey's downfall) and Thomas Cranmer (the new Archbishop of Canterbury), Henry was able to break off from Rome and form his own church of England. With papal intervention now a non-issue, the king and Anne were married in January 1533. Catherine continued to style herself Queen of England and to appeal to the pope and her nephew Charles V for help on the matter, but she was degraded in her state to merely princess dowager.

The last several years of Catherine's life were indeed lonely ones. In 1534, the pope finally ruled on the case in the former queen's favor, but it meant nothing at this point. Forced to live in less than desirable quarters and banned permanently from seeing her only child, Catherine slowly deteriorated. The end for Catherine came in January 1536 as a woman of fifty. After her death, rumors quickly circulated that she had been poisoned. Though this remains a possibility, it is more likely that she died of some sort of congenital heart defect. Catherine was greatly mourned by the people of England and, undoubtedly, by those on the continent as well. Everyone knew the despicable treatment that she had been given and that it was completely undeserved. Despite Catherine's kind and loving nature, it would be hard to say that she would not have been greatly joyed by the fact that her successor as queen, Anne Boleyn, was executed just five months after her own death.

Catherine in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VIII

Queen Catherine is the tragic heroine within Henry VIII. She is portrayed as a bringer of justice when she attempts to save the Duke of Buckingham from his execution and is a mortal enemy of Cardinal Wolsey. When Catherine is brought to trial to defend herself in the annulment proceedings, she does the job admirably and with dignity, even daring to walk away from the court at one point. Nevertheless, she is shunned by the king in the end and dies alone, with only a few servants by her side. While she is on her deathbed, Catherine is informed of the death of her enemy Wolsey. Historically, Wolsey died over five years before Catherine. Additionally, Catherine did not die until three years after the birth of Princess Elizabeth, which ends the play.


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