As anybody who knows me well will tell you, I have a mild obsession with the Tudor wives. If I were ever on a quiz show, my special topic would be ‘the six wives of Henry VIII’. I adore anything about the Tudor reign but I am particularly interested in Henry’s wives.
When I was younger, and I first became interested in the wives of Henry VIII, I always liked Katherine Howard the best. I believe this may be because she is the youngest and I was drawn to her because she was close to my age. As I get older, I find that I have a great respect and love for Katharine of Aragon.
Katharine was Henry’s first wife. She was a princess by birth, as daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Spain. She was sent to England when she was just fifteen, to marry Prince Arthur, who was Henry’s older brother. She and Arthur were married for only a short time when they both fell ill, and Arthur died. Katharine was a widow at sixteen.
After Arthur’s death, she lived in a state of limbo for some time. The King of England was cruel to her, and refused to send her back to Spain due to a dispute about her dowry. Instead, she was forced to stay in England, and live in poverty. When the king died, his son, Henry, decided to marry Katharine. He was five years younger than her, but loved her dearly. The pair was happily married for twenty four years.
Henry began to grow suspicious of his wife after some time. Although she fell pregnant many times, she was prone to complications during her pregnancies. She had no fewer that 4 stillborn children. Katharine and Henry also had a son, Henry, who was the pride and joy of the kingdom. Sadly, the child died after only five weeks of life. Katharine’s only living child was a daughter, Mary, who would later become Queen of England. Henry was curious as to why his wife was unable to give him a living son, and set out to investigate.
Henry’s attention was drawn to a particular passage in the Bible, which stated that if a man marries his brother’s wife, they shall be childless. He took this passage as a reason why he and his wife had not been able to produce a living heir. It should also be noted that, at this time, Henry had recently met and fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, and wished to marry her.
Henry began proceedings to have his marriage annulled. He sought evidence that Katharine was not a virgin when she married him, because if it were so, then the marriage could be declared invalid. The reasoning behind this were simple, at the time of Henry and Katharine’s marriage, Katharine had been required to provide testimony as to whether she and Arthur had consummated their marriage, so that a dispensation could be granted for her new marriage. The only reason that Katharine’s virginity was important was because it would inform the type of dispensation that would be granted. Katharine maintained that she was a virgin at the time that she married Henry, and that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated. I believe that this is likely, as she and Arthur were very young, did not live in the same household and were often accompanied by minders due to their youth. In addition to this, Arthur was a very sick boy, and so I don’t believe that the couple would have slept together.
A papal court heard the matter, and at this court, Katharine made an embittered plea to Henry, on bended knee. Her speech was stirring and most daring, and after she had made it, she left the court and refused to give any additional evidence. Ultimately, the court found that her marriage to Henry was valid, which led to Henry’s denouncing of the Catholic church and formation of the Church of England.
Until her death, Katharine maintained that she was the rightful Queen of England and Henry’s true wife. She died of cancer in 1536. At the time of her death, she was living in relative poverty and had not seen her daughter in more than six years.
The reasons that I find Katharine so inspiring are many and varied. Firstly, she was strong and steadfast, but never conducted herself without dignity and grace. Despite the difficult times she faced, she never erupted into anger or tears in public, and maintained a façade of cool composure. This is not to say that she was without emotion. It has been reported that Katharine was a woman of fiery passion, and was both fiercely romantic and uncommonly strong. She was very religious, and her faith seemed to guide her in all that she did. She was a kind and compassionate woman who always looked to do the right thing, and was rarely self-serving. At the time of Henry’s “Great Matter”, she would write letters to her husband begging him to reconsider, for the sake of his own soul. She was a loving and devoted mother, and adored her daughter above everything else. When she was young, Henry ordered that Mary be sent to her own household at Ludlow, and would only allow Katharine to see her occasionally. He regularly withheld contact between mother and daughter as a punishment. When Mary grew older, Henry refused contact with her mother altogether, as he was paranoid that the pair would plot to kill him.
Katharine was a fierce advocate for the education of women. She patronized a book by Juan Luis Vives entitled “The Education of Christian Women”. Katharine herself was highly educated and was able to read and write excellently, a talent that was rare of women of the day. Katharine was devoted to her subjects, and committed much of her time and wealth to charity, even during the times when she was living in poverty after her divorce.
Katharine of Aragon is a great figure in history who is often overlooked. She was a great and powerful woman, and I draw a great deal of inspiration from her story, and try to live by her example.