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Queen Catherine of Aragon: Noble Renown (Part 1)

January 7, 2018

There have been a fair number of novels written about Catherine of Aragon (not surprisingly, every wife of Henry VIII has at least a couple) but while some of them are excellent — Norah Lofts’ The King’s Pleasure is my personal favorite— the fictional star turns taken by Catherine are dwarfed by the fictional works about her successor, in which the reader is introduced to Catherine only during the last and lowest third of her life, the period from 1522 to 1536. While these posts are about Catherine’s portrayal in Anne’s novels, and not in the ones centered around her, it is worthwhile to consider for a moment how strongly the two women’s stories resembled each other’s. Both were, of course, married to Henry VIII, both had a daughter with him, and both died rejected and largely unmourned after being thrown off for reasons for which they bore little to no responsibility. But Anne has endured and prospered as a tragic (albeit not always especially noble) heroine, whereas Catherine, although she’s had her fair share of attention (Shakespeare’s Henry VIII being the first major example) has been more often than not reduced to receiving a respectful but brief salute as a generic figure of a wronged wife, despite having an life trajectory that one could argue is equally as dramatic as Anne’s. The answer, I would guess, lies not in what happened during their lives but what happened afterwards, in particular with their daughters. Mary took the throne as Catherine hoped, but she lacked two important gifts that were given to her half-sister: political acumen, and time. Mary died before her forty-fifth birthday, but Elizabeth lived almost to seventy and to make sure England was well set in the political and religious course she had chosen. If Mary had triumphed, it may well have been Catherine who launched hundreds of novels rooted in her tragic end and her posthumous redemption.

Even so, Catherine does better than someone looking from the perspective of the end of the sixteenth century might have thought, both in historical accounts and of course the fictional works which were drawn from them. In fact, she does so well that the chief problem with with tracing how she changes in Anne-centered novels is that she really doesn’t — she begins by being pitied for her treatment and praised for her strength and that’s pretty much how she’s gone on (with one very specific set of exceptions which I’ll be detailing in the next post). Her loyalty to Rome, far from bringing her censure from Protestant-leaning writers and historians, tends to be either ignored completely or shrugged off — after all, what else could one expect from the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, who were so devout they saw to it that all the Jews of Spain either converted or were banished? The fact that Catherine died before the greatest religious upheavals began also for the most part prevents her from being associated with or blamed for them. Not that Catherine’s partisans can’t be be knee-deep in malfeasance; over the centuries numerous servants and allies, both real and fictional, have engaged in skulduggery on her behalf, and of course her daughter Mary also takes her share of blame for religious villainy, but Catherine herself is almost always too noble to engage in any kind of underhanded behavior.

Catherine’s early life is the best-documented of any of Henry’s wives, and is very well presented in the two major biographies of her: Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly and, more recently, Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett. Antonia Fraser’s The Wives Of Henry VIII also contains some well-done, very detailed chapters on Catherine’s life, as do quite a few other compendium biographies of Henry’s wives, though I’m biased and think Fraser’s is the best. Every Tudor aficionado will know the basics: that Catherine was born on December 16, 1485, to the ruling monarchs of Spain, her betrothal to Prince Arthur before she was four years old, which resulted in her being described as “The Princess of Wales” for essentially her entire sentient life before she set sail for England, and her eventual dispatch to England and marriage to Arthur at the age of sixteen. Seven months later, he died, leaving Catherine with no children and, as she insisted, still a virgin.

It’s here that the central question of Catherine’s life lies, one which no historian can answer: was she telling the truth about this or was she lying for the greater good? Historians have had opinions, very strong ones, but the fact is that despite testimony dredged up thirty years later from both sides, there’s no way to be certain. It’s also a question which novels centered around Anne have not had to answer, and for the most part they have not hazarded one — not even the ones with omniscient narrators or which have sections written from Catherine’s point of view. It hardly matters in the end, since even the most hardline of Protestants had to realize that the issue would have been a forgotten one except for the fact of Catherine’s failure to give birth to a son who lived.

Catherine’s ambiguous and miserable existence as Arthur’s widow lasted for seven years, until the death of Henry VII and her subsequent marriage to Henry VIII. Her engagement to Henry had been an on-again, off-again sort of affair and although he had been betrothed to her, those could be easily broken. In the end, however, Henry decided to go with her and they were married in the summer of 1509 — “the kyng beyng young, and not vnderstanding the lawe of God” as Edward Hall later put it in his Chronicle (507). Hall was, of course, writing with the benefit of hindsight. In early 1510 she gave birth to a premature, stillborn daughter, and confusion on the part of her doctors led to her being confined a few months later on the suspicion that she was still carrying a living twin. She was not, as it turned out, and the episode has been referred to as “an embarrassment,” but none of that was particularly relevant by the time Catherine gave birth to her first son, Henry, on January 1 1511. At the tournament celebrating the baby’s birth, Catherine was honored as “Noble Renown, Queen of the Realm” — a title which still has a truthful ring to it, five hundred years later. (Henry’s own title of “Coeur Loyal”, however, wouldn’t wear as well.)

The young Prince Henry’s death at the age of two months was a sad but not necessarily ominous event; as Henry VIII himself said, they would surely have more children. And as anyone reading this blog probably knows, they did — but unfortunately, of the four more children born to them, only one lived past infancy and that was their daughter Mary. The babies’ births were interspersed with Henry VIII’s unsuccessful overseas campaigns, in which Catherine managed inadvertently to best him by defeating the Scottish King James IV when he decided to take advantage of Henry VIII’s absence and march into the north of England. James was defeated and killed, and Catherine wrote Henry a famous letter (16 September 1513) in which she sent him the Scottish king’s coat — as an identification guarantee, presumably — although “I thought to send himself unto you, but our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it.”

That Catherine had more than a bit of a hard edge should have been obvious to Henry by this point, which makes his surprise at her later stubbornness somewhat bewildering. That Catherine had earned, and retained, a great deal of popularity with his subjects must have been humiliatingly obvious — and that she was popular, then and later, there can be no question. Edward Hall, for whom Henry VIII could do no wrong, has a rather irritable take on Cardinal Campeggio’s arrival to hear the case, once Henry had set the annulment proceedings in motion, giving as grounds his wife’s previous marriage to Arthur and a rather inventive interpretation of the word “childless” which meant denying the throne and even legitimate status to their surviving daughter:

Of the comyng of this Legate the common people beyng ignorant of the truth and in especial women & other that fauored the quene talked largely, & sayd that the king would for his own pleasure haue another wife & had sent for this legate to be deuorsed fro his quene, with many folishe wordes, insomuche that whosoeuer spake against the mariage was of the comon people abhorred & reproued.” (Hall’s Chronicle, 754)

He felt the need to reprove the naysayers later on as well, stating that “the commen people which knew not the Kynges trew entent, sayd and thought that the absence of the Quene was onely for her sake, which was not trew” (768). That he felt the need to even note people’s displeasure, much less do it multiple times, is a reasonable indicator that feeling must have been running pretty strongly in Catherine’s favor. (The Spanish Chronicle, of course, felt no such pro-Henry constraints in describing the trials of “the sainted Queen.”) Unfortunately for Catherine, her husband’s regard for public sentiment wasn’t high enough to deter him from his endless efforts to get rid of her; what he had probably anticipated would be a relatively smooth annulment became — thanks to Catherine’s refusal to agree that their marriage had been invalid (or, failing that, to enter religious life) — a protracted personal and political nightmare, complete with the underlying threat of war from the Holy Roman Emperor (Catherine was, after all, his aunt). Catherine’s banishment to various out-of-the-way palaces, the gradual reduction of her household, her stubborn refusal to accept the title of “Princess Dowager” or to acknowledge anything that would cast doubt on her daughter’s status — it must all have felt like a grim rerun of her early days of widowhood, except that this time she a daughter to advocate for, and the death which ended it was her own. Whether or not Anne celebrated the end of the threat of war in yellow, she had little cause to feel more secure; Catherine’s death meant that, if Henry chose to rid himself of Anne, he was no longer under any pressure to return to his first wife. Anne outlived Catherine by only four months.

Catherine’s first major appearance in drama came in Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, or, All Is True (1613) in which she is the undoubted heroine. Her religious affiliations sketchily hinted at but not emphasized, her devotion to Henry giving her no reward on earth but clearly leading her towards a much happier afterlife. Anne is a pale figure next to Catherine, bland and forgettable. Catherine’s greatest scene takes place at the court at Blackfriars, in which she reminds Henry of what they’ve gone through in their time together, and how she never failed him:

…Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife, in this obedience,
Upward of twenty years, and have been blest
With many children by you: if, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honour aught,
My bond to wedlock, or my love and duty,
Against your sacred person, in God’s name,
Turn me away; and let the foul’st contempt
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp’st kind of justice.

After she accuses Wolsey of dishonesty and stalks out, Henry takes it remarkably well:

That man i’the world who shall report he has
A better wife, let him in nought be trusted,
For speaking false in that: thou art, alone,
If thy rare qualities, sweet gentleness,
Thy meekness saint-like, wife-like government,
Obeying in commanding, and thy parts
Sovereign and pious else, could speak thee out,
The queen of earthly queens: she’s noble born;
And, like her true nobility, she has
Carried herself towards me.

While the real Henry did indeed protest that he had no grudge against Catherine and was driven from her only by the invalidity of their marriage, it seems unlikely that he was quite that gracious about it.

The two hundred years following Shakespeare’s play saw a continuing burnishment of Catherine’s reputation; Catholic and Protestant sources all agreed that, regardless of her religious opinions, her conduct had been above reproach. Gilbert Burnet, not exactly a Catholic partisan, wrote in his 1679 History Of The Reformation Of The Church Of England that she was “a devout and pious Princess, and led a severe and mortified life. In her Greatness, she wrought much with her own hands, and kept her Women, well employed about her; as appeared, when the Two Legates came once to speak with her. She came out to them with a Skein of silk about her Neck, and told them, she had been within, at work with her Women. She was most passionately devoted to the Interests of the Court of Rome, they being so interwoven with her own. And in a word, she is represented as a most wonderful good Woman. Only I find on many occasions, that the King complained much of her uneasiness and peevishness. But whether the fault was in her humor, or in the provocations she met with, the Reader may conjecture.” (192)

Burnet did not believe Catherine’s story that she had never consummated her first marriage, but nonetheless was comfortable in describing her as “a vertuous and grave Princess, much esteemed and beloved both of the King and the whole Nation.” (36) At almost the same time as his history’s appearance, Catherine was making brief appearances two works about Anne Boleyn: Vertue Betray’d (1682) and the book it was based on, The Novels Of Elizabeth, Queen Of England (1680). We only actually see her in the latter, in which she’s sympathetically portrayed becoming angry at Wolsey for plotting against her; in the former (written by a man who’s very clearly a strong Protestant partisan) she’s referenced by an anguished Anna Bullen, who’s been forced into marriage with Henry and is hating every second of it.

Ah, Katherine! Do not envy me my throne
For thou art happier in having none.

“Wrong’d Katherine” usually gets a reference from Anne in eighteenth-century works; one exception being Henry and Sarah Fielding’s Anna Boleyn Relates The History Of Her Life (1743) in which a satirically-drawn Anne cynically uses her pretend partisanship for Catherine to make Henry even more desperate to have her.

Whenever the king mentioned [the divorce] to me, I used such arguments against it, as I htought most likely to make him all the more eager for it; begging, that unless his conscience was really touched, he would not on my account give any grief to his virtuous queen; for, in being her handmaid, I thought myself highly honoured, and that I would not only forego a crown, but even given up the pleasure of ever seeing him more, rather than wrong my royal mistress. This way of talking, joined to his eager desire to possess my person, convinced the king so strongly of my exalted merit that he thought it a meritorious act to displace the woman (whom he could not have a good opinion of, because he was tired of her), and to put me in her place.

Catherine does not appear in Milman’s Anne Boleyn (1826) but Anne does, towards the end, describe herself mournfully as one who “dared to love, to wed / another’s lord” (presumably she’s not entirely convinced that the marriage was invalid). Catherine does turn up in H.M. Grover’s Anne Boleyn (also 1826), as the kindly queen to whom Margaret Lee is devoted. Her major scene depicts her telling a tale in which “some years, long past / the king of Arragon, to redeem a pledge / Unwisely given to a Moorish prince” betroths a princess to said prince, thereby bringing about a tragedy. This is an interesting moment in an otherwise fairly incompetent play — it’s the earliest work I’ve read in which a fictional Catherine talks much at all about the country she was born in, even if it’s the form of a fairy tale. (It also indirectly serves as a reminder that Catherine brought several “Moorish” slaves with her when she arrived in England.) Catherine’s religious feelings are demonstrated when Margaret describes Wolsey as “a minister of the church’s hierarchy.”

Nay, Margaret, accuse not our dear church
Though in the pale the wolf hath gained entrance,
And of the flock some straggling few may perish;
Yet in my soul I do adore her beauty,
And all the host, our Mother and Saints;
And gladly would I pledge my faith, for the love
Which I do bear to her, with my best blood.

Catherine’s religious opinions are rather less explicit in the (Protestant) Katharine Thomson’s Anne Boleyn: An Historical Romance (1842) but her personality is clear enough: she is “a sovereign eminently good, gracious to her servants” and Wyatt’s reaction to the news that she’s to be unseated by Anne is outrage at the “cursed priestcraft” that has brought this about. (If the reader didn’t know any better, she might be left at this point with the impression that this was all entirely sanctioned by the Pope, though that’s clarified later on.) Catherine’s daughter Mary, however, doesn’t come in for quite as much praise; she’s portrayed as a dour, grim personality who bears her trials with insufficient fortitude and is clearly destined for nothing good. Norris And Anne Boleyn (1844) draws the line between Catherine and her partisans even more starkly — Catherine herself is “poor, unfortunate Catherine — who from my soul I pity” but Mary, her servants, and Catherine’s priest are all cackling hellspawn who consider the day wasted when they haven’t pushed at least one Protestant to the brink.

That Catherine’s reputation not only survived but was praised even in the centuries immediately after her death — when to be a Catholic in Great Britain was, to put it mildly, a difficult enterprise — really is remarkable. While some of it must have been due to her personal qualities and popularity, that couldn’t have been all of it; plenty of powerful people, popular in their time, have had their reputations sink as the causes they stood for fell out of favor. That this did not happen to Catherine is, I would argue, a result of the fact that most observers, then and later, did not believe that religious differences were at the root of what happened to her. Religion became a weapon to be used in the war between her and Henry, but very few people would have seriously argued that Henry would have wanted an annulment if even one of their sons had survived. People looked at Catherine and saw, not a strict adherent to the old religion (although she was that) but mother who had lost five children, and who was abandoned by her husband for a younger woman on account of those losses. Worst of all, her husband was attempting to deny that their surviving daughter was entitled to any inheritance other than what an illegitimate child might receive.

It wasn’t the first time a king had attempted to annul a marriage with an unproductive consort, but it was particularly egregious example of one — especially to those who did not share Henry’s opinion that a woman would not be capable of ruling England. Lastly, although Catherine fought Henry until the end of her life, she did not do everything against him that she might have. As Agnes Strickland put it in the books in which she introduced Catherine, Anne, and a host of others to generations of newer novelists, “Had Queen Katharine not been such a good woman she might have given the king a great deal of trouble by heading a party against him” (Lives Of The Queens of England [abridged] Vol. 2, 374). Had Catherine chosen to emulate Isabella of France by openly rebelling against her husband with foreign assistance, it’s unlikely she would have received much if any sympathy afterward. As it was, she represented the ultimate sympathetic figure; a woman scorned under religious pretexts who refused to give in to the terms dictated for her by the men around her, who stood up for her daughter despite their being forcibly separated, but who also refused to let the country burn for her cause. Most sympathetically of all, she died early enough that we can never know what her opinion would have been of the religious struggles which took place in England and abroad over the following decades. Would Mary I have burned heretics with the approval of her mother? But of course, if Catherine had survived, Mary would have been a different person, as would all the rest of them.

Next time, I’ll explore Catherine’s appearances in post-Strickland works. You won’t be surprised to hear that they’re almost uniformly positive, but not entirely — there’s one particular subset of Anne-centered novels which simply don’t know what to do with Catherine, and unfortunately it shows. For now, though, let’s leave her in the peace which Henry was so determined to deny her.

From → Brief Lives

6 Comments
  1. Re: Catherine’s religion – the only 19th century writer who let that influence him whom I have read is Heinrich Heine. Who in “Shakespeares Mädchen und Frauen” (Shakespeare’s girls and women) wrote that he can’t buy the sympathetic depiction of Catherine in “Henry VIII.” because she’s “Isabella’s daughter, Mary’s mother” and surely shared some of their traits. Mind you: Heine being a 19th century German-Jewish agnostic living in Parisian exile who’d done some research on Muslim Spain and the Reconquista for two of his works is probably not typical either as a writer or as a reader.

    Now it’s been some years since I’ve read “The Winter King”, the Henry VII biography, but I dimly recall it mentioned one (only one) unsympathetic action of Katharine’s directly related to her religion during her Princess Dowager time in England – unless I’m misremembering, she denounced one of her Spanish ladies in waiting to her father Ferdinand for either possible heresy or converso-ness or something like that.

    And speaking of “The Winter King”, ever since reading that biography I’ve been wondering what would have happened if Henry had somehow managed to fulfill his goal, after Elizabeth of York’s death, to marry Catherine’s sister Juana. I can’t see any way in which he then would still have married his son to Catherine; there would have been zero advantage. Yes, he wanted to keep her money in real history, but Juana was so much the greater heiress, what with the Kingdom of Castile, that my guess is that he’d have sent her back to Spain and married young Henry off to some French princess, if at all during the time he still lived. And if he and Juana had male children before he died, well…

    Back to Catherine: the first novel I’ve read in which she did have sex with Arthur was Philippa Gregory’s, but I suspect this was mostly because PG wanted to give Catherine one beloved who wasn’t Henry VIII., and Arthur is a blank slate – you can write him sympathetic or evil as much as you like. At any rate, between Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr, it seems Henry VIII. really couldn’t tell whether or not a woman was a virgin when he first had sex with them.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’ve never read Heine’s book — thanks for mentioning! I’ll have to exhume my college German vocabulary and look it up, and I have to say, I can’t reject his reasoning flat-out. The women in her family couldn’t be faulted for their intelligence and determination but the way it was applied, well …

      I too would love to know what would have happened had Henry and Juana married — it might have been better for her not be entirely in the power of her son (and Charles V and Henry VIII as stepbrothers makes that tangled relationship even more fun!) If I recall correctly, by the time Henry VII died, Catherine was declaring herself ready to return to Spain and take the veil, but it sounds like that was a product of her despair at having waited so long and expecting nothing at the end of it, not some sudden discovery of a vocation. I’m not sure about the lady in waiting, I’ll have to look that up this evening when I have more time; I know there was a tussle between one of her confessors and Elvira, one of her ladies-in-waiting, which ended with Elvira losing, but there may have been something else as well. It all smells strongly of unhappy people who don’t have enough to do with the time on their hands.

      Arthur as blank slate is definitely a thing, and I can’t really fault Gregory’s approach there; it’s no less valid than Arthur As Closet Sadist, which I’ve also seen, and in Frail Anne Boleyn it’s hinted that he’s gay and won’t touch Catherine until he absolutely has to.

  2. Esther permalink

    There are many reasons why Catherine’s popularity would last, despite the religious changes. Her part in securing pardons for hundreds of London apprentices after the Evil May Day riots did not depend on her religion (apparently, her part gathered a lot more appreciation than the parts played by the English born participants — Wolsey and Henry’s sisters). Also, Martin Luther and William Tyndale both thought that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid, whether or not the marriage to Arthur had been consummated. Finally, according to JJ Scarrisbrick, if Catherine’s marriage to Arthur was not consummated, there were grounds for annulment that would not exist if the marriage had been consummated — so I am not sure she had a motive to lie.

    I think that Catherine’s greatest blessing was that she died before she had to face the truth — that her ill treatment was due to Henry and could not be blamed on anyone else. When Mary had to face that truth — followed by the trouble she had during the reign of her beloved half brother — , it changed an unusually kind person (for example, she was practically a foster mother to the young Elizabeth, despite the quarrels with the mother) into “Bloody Mary”

    • sonetka permalink

      I’m not trying to dismiss what she did in life, far from it, but Thomas More did his bit to try and quell the May Day riots and his reputation has still taken quite a nosedive in recent years, especially in fiction. I agree that Scarisbrick’s book is wonderful and does a better job laying out the complexities of the divorce/annulment than anyone I’ve seen — but as he says himself, the really astonishing thing about Henry’s case is that he set about doing it the hard way. In novels pretty much everyone will simplify it just so the story doesn’t get lost in a tangle of legalistics, so the question of whether Catherine slept with Arthur or not becomes even more important than it already was. As for Catherine having a motivation to lie, despite the different cases that could be made — honestly, I don’t know. Personally I’d be inclined to come down on the side that she didn’t, but there’s also the outside possibility if she had said (or been persuaded to say) one thing at one time, she may have felt the need to be consistent.

      It was certainly a blessing for Catherine never to have to face that, though it might well have been better for Mary if she had still had her mother when it became clear that the death of “the concubine” was never going to solve her problems.

      (Editing to add: you could write a entire, extremely funny book on the differences between Luther and Tyndale’s real-life positions and how they turn up in novels :). One of my favorite WTF moments is in In The Shadow Of Lions, when a vicious Catherine is arranging for Tyndale to be assassinated on the understanding that once he’s dead, Henry will come back to her. He was on Catherine’s side! Catherine’s! Of course, this was the same book that had Tyndale translating from the Latin, so the research wasn’t exactly top-notch.)

  3. Catherine has always been beloved of the English people, in part because the English have always championed the cause of the under-dog. Catherine’s replacement by a younger, more fertile model is a process which still goes on today and just as painful too as it splits up families and causes divisions amongst family members and friends. I think that is why people identify with her and why her religion is irrelevant, certainly in this country. Every year, Peterborough Cathedral (where she is laid to rest) hold a service for her where all little girls called Catherine, are invited to attend. It’s a delightful gesture to the love she still invokes.

    I, too have great fun in imagining the young Henry’s horror, as the loopy and beautiful Juana replaces his mother as the Queen of England. Especially if she brings Philip’s remains with her!
    One a more serious note, if Juana had been fit to rule Castile and had made a good job of it, Catherine could then point out to Henry that there was no reason why Mary could not become Queen of England.

    Another good novel on Catherine of Aragon, is Catherine of Aragon, by Julia Hamilton. It’s out of print but is still a good read.

  4. I recommend ‘Catherine the Quene’ by Mary M. Luke, it details her life from the glistening Courts of Granada to the sad halls of the More. It also discusses how even the most staunch of Protestants revere Katherine, like for example how Oliver Cromwell gave strict orders for Peterborough Cathedral not to be disturbed because it would be ‘unseemly to harm the resting place of noble Queen Katherine’. The author also visits the places in which her life unfolded and goes into detail of Wolsey, Thomas More, The Duke of Buckingham and the Spanish Ambassadors from her entry to England to her tragic end, along with the policies of the Monarch each represented.

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