Catherine of Aragon (December 16, 1485 – January 7, 1536) was Queen of England and Ireland 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.
Infanta Catherine was born at the Archbishop’s Palace of Alcalá de Henares near Madrid, on the early hours of December 16, 1485. She was the youngest surviving child of King Fernando II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. Catherine was quite short in stature with long red hair, wide blue eyes, a round face, and a fair complexion.
She was descended, on her maternal side, from the House of Lancaster, an English royal house; her great-grandmother Catherine of Lancaster, after whom she was named, and her great-great-grandmother Philippa of Lancaster were both daughters of John of Gaunt and granddaughters of Edward III of England. Consequently, she was a third cousin of her father-in-law, Henry VII of England, and fourth cousin of her mother-in-law Elizabeth of York.
At an early age, Catherine was considered a suitable wife for Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir apparent to the English throne, due to the English ancestry she inherited from her mother. By means of her mother, Catherine had a stronger legitimate claim to the English throne than King Henry VII himself through the first two wives of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster: Blanche of Lancaster and Constance of Castile.
In contrast, Henry VII was the descendant of Gaunt’s third marriage to Katherine Swynford, whose children were born out of wedlock and only legitimised after the death of Constance and the marriage of John to Katherine. The children of John and Katherine, while legitimised, were barred from inheriting the English throne, a stricture that was ignored in later generations.
Because of Henry’s descent through illegitimate children barred from succession to the English throne, the Tudor monarchy was not accepted by all European kingdoms. At the time, the House of Trastámara was the most prestigious in Europe, due to the rule of the Catholic Monarchs, so the alliance of Catherine and Arthur validated the House of Tudor in the eyes of European royalty and strengthened the Tudor claim to the English throne via Catherine of Aragon’s ancestry. It would have given a male heir an indisputable claim to the throne.
Catherine and Arthur and corresponded in Latin until Arthur turned fifteen, when it was decided that they were old enough to be married.
First they weremmarried by proxy on May 19, 1499 and in person o November 14, 1501, they were married at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. A dowry of 200,000 ducats had been agreed, and half was paid shortly after the marriage.
Once married, Arthur was sent to Ludlow Castle on the borders of Wales to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches, as was his duty as Prince of Wales, and his bride accompanied him. The couple stayed at Castle Lodge, Ludlow. A few months later, they both became ill, possibly with the sweating sickness, which was sweeping the area. Arthur died on April 2, 1502; 16-year-old Catherine recovered to find herself a widow.
At this point, Henry VII faced the challenge of avoiding the obligation to return her 200,000-ducat dowry, half of which he had not yet received, to her father, as required by her marriage contract should she return home. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth in February 1503, King Henry VII initially considered marrying Catherine himself, but the opposition of her father and potential questions over the legitimacy of the couple’s issue ended the idea. To settle the matter, it was agreed that Catherine would marry Henry VII’s second son, Henry, Duke of York, who was five years younger than she was.
Catherine held the position of ambassador of the Aragonese crown to England in 1507, the first known female ambassador in European history.
Marriage to Arthur’s brother depended on the Pope granting a dispensation because canon law forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow (Lev. 18:16). Catherine testified that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated as, also according to canon law, a marriage was dissoluble unless consummated.
Catherine’s second wedding took place on June 11, 1509, seven years after Prince Arthur’s death. She married Henry VIII, who had only just acceded to the throne, in a private ceremony in the church of the Observant Friars outside Greenwich Palace. She was 23 years of age.
For six months in 1513, Catherine served as regent of England while Henry VIII was in France. During that time the English crushed and defeated the Scottish at the Battle of Flodden, an event in which Catherine played an important part with an emotional speech about English courage.
By 1525, Henry VIII was infatuated with Anne Boleyn and dissatisfied that his marriage to Catherine had produced no surviving sons, leaving their daughter, the future Mary I of England, as heir presumptive at a time when there was no established precedent for a woman on the throne.
Henry VIII 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.
In 1533 their marriage was consequently declared invalid and Henry married Anne on the judgement of clergy in England, without reference to the pope. Catherine refused to accept Henry as supreme head of the Church in England and considered herself the king’s rightful wife and queen, attracting much popular sympathy. Despite this, Henry acknowledged her only as dowager princess of Wales.
After being banished from court by Henry, Catherine lived out the remainder of her life at Kimbolton Castle, dying there on January 7, 1536 of cancer. The English people held Catherine in high esteem, and her death set off tremendous mourning.
Catherine commissioned The Education of a Christian Woman by Juan Luis Vives, and Vives dedicated the book, controversial at the time, to the Queen in 1523. Such was Catherine’s impression on people that even her enemy Thomas Cromwell said of her, “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” She successfully appealed for the lives of the rebels involved in the Evil May Day, for the sake of their families. Catherine also won widespread admiration by starting an extensive programme for the relief of the poor. She was a patron of Renaissance humanism, and a friend of the great scholars Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More.