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Infanta Catherine of Aragon (December 16, 1485 – January 7, 1536) was Queen of England as the first wife of King Henry VIII from their marriage on June 11, 1509 until their annulment on May 23, 1533. She was previously Princess of Wales as the wife of Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales.

The daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Fernando II of Aragon. Infanta Catherine was three years old when she was betrothed to Prince Arthur, heir apparent to the English throne.

Infanta Catherine of Aragon

They married in 1501, but Arthur died five months later. Catherine spent years in limbo, and during this time, she held the position of ambassador of the Aragonese crown to England in 1507, the first known female ambassador in European history.

She married Arthur’s younger brother, the recently ascended Henry VIII, in 1509. For six months in 1513, she served as regent of England while Henry VIII was in France. During that time the English crushed and defeated a Scottish invasion at the Battle of Flodden, an event in which Catherine played an important part with an emotional speech about English courage and patriotism.

By 1525, Henry VIII was infatuated with Anne Boleyn and dissatisfied that his marriage to Catherine had produced no surviving sons, leaving their daughter Mary as heir presumptive at a time when there was no established precedent for a woman on the throne.

He sought to have their marriage annulled, setting in motion a chain of events that led to England’s schism with the Catholic Church. When Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage, Henry defied him by assuming supremacy over religious matters.

Portrait of a noblewoman, possibly Mary Tudor c. 1514 or Catherine of Aragon c. 1502, by Michael Sittow. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

On May 23, 1533 Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, sitting in judgement at a special court convened at Dunstable Priory to rule on the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, declared the marriage unlawful, even though Catherine had testified that she and Arthur had never had physical relations. Five days later, on May 28, 1533, Cranmer ruled that Henry VIII and Anne’s marriage was valid.

Until the end of her life, Catherine would refer to herself as Henry’s only lawful wedded wife and England’s only rightful Queen, and her servants continued to address her as such. Henry refused her the right to any title but “Dowager Princess of Wales” in recognition of her position as his brother’s widow.

Catherine went to live at The More Castle, Hertfordshire, late in 1531. After that, she was successively moved to the Royal Palace of Hatfield, Hertfordshire (May to September, 1532), Elsyng Palace, Enfield (September 1532 to February 1533), Ampthill Castle, Bedfordshire (February to July, 1533) and Buckden Towers, Cambridgeshire (July 1533 to May 1534).

She was then finally transferred to Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire where she confined herself to one room, which she left only to attend Mass, dressed only in the hair shirt of the Order of St. Francis, and fasted continuously.

King Henry VIII of England and Ireland

While she was permitted to receive occasional visitors, she was forbidden to see her daughter Mary. They were also forbidden to communicate in writing, but sympathisers discreetly conveyed letters between the two.

Henry offered both mother and daughter better quarters and permission to see each other if they would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the new Queen; both refused.

In late December 1535, sensing her death was near, Catherine made her will, and wrote to her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, asking him to protect her daughter.

Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle on January 7, 1536. The following day, news of her death reached the king. At the time there were rumours that she was poisoned, possibly by Gregory di Casale.

Queen Catherine of England

According to the chronicler Edward Hall, Anne Boleyn wore yellow for the mourning, which has been interpreted in various ways; Polydore Vergil interpreted this to mean that Anne did not mourn. Chapuys reported that it was King Henry who decked himself in yellow, celebrating the news and making a great show of his and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, to his courtiers.

This was seen as distasteful and vulgar by many. Another theory is that the dressing in yellow was out of respect for Catherine as yellow was said to be the Spanish colour of mourning. Certainly, later in the day it is reported that Henry and Anne both individually and privately wept for her death. On the day of Catherine’s funeral, Anne Boleyn miscarried a male child.

Queen Mary I of England and Ireland

Rumours then circulated that Catherine had been poisoned by Anne or Henry, or both. The rumours were born after the apparent discovery during her embalming that there was a black growth on her heart that might have been caused by poisoning. Modern medical experts are in agreement that her heart’s discolouration was not due to poisoning, but to cancer, something which was not understood at the time.

Her daughter Mary would become the first undisputed English queen regnant in 1553.