Born Catalina d’Aragona on 16 December 1485, the future Queen of England was the daughter of Ferdinand II (king of Aragon, Sicily, Naples, and Navarre) and Isabella I of Castile. She was a petite Spanish princess with red-blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, a devoted Roman Catholic, and the youngest of seven children, and King Henry VII of England sought her as bride for his eldest son, Prince Arthur Tudor. She could write in both Spanish and Latin and could speak three languages by the time she came to England for her wedding. A talented girl, she loved literature and could embroider clothing, make lace, dance, and her mannerisms and beauty were praised by those at both her parents’ and the English courts. She captivated her future husband Arthur by written word before the two met for the first time when both were teens. When they met in Hampshire in the fall of 1501, they realized they had each learned a different form of Latin and could not speak to each other verbally, but regardless, Prince Arthur swore he would be a “true and loving husband” to his “lovely bride”. On 14 November of that year, they were married and made their home at Ludlow, but their time together was short-lived. Both Catherine and Arthur became gravely ill when an epidemic called the Sweating Sickness swept through England. While Catherine was able to recover, sixteen-year-old Arthur did not. He died that summer, leaving Catherine a teenaged widow in a strange country.
Soon after Arthur’s death, Henry VII’s beloved wife Elizabeth died as well, leaving the king with three options as to what to do with Catherine – marry her himself, to his son and new heir Prince Henry, or send her back to her homeland and forfeit her dowry. Henry VII was known as a fine businessman of sorts with a reputation for thrift, which meant that losing Catherine’s dowry was out of the question, so the princess remained in England, and when the king died in 1509, his son, the newly crowned Henry VIII married Catherine when the couple were seventeen and twenty-three respectively.
Catherine held the title of Queen of England for twenty-four years, but the marriage was littered with turmoil due to her difficulty conceiving children. Even so, she is credited with bringing education to women around this time. She was a patron of the arts and donated money to several prominent colleges, and even acted as regent for her husband when the King went to war with France early in his reign. Catherine proved to be a fine regent, but over time, Henry’s attentions to her lessened until the two did not share any intimacy at all. Out of six pregnancies, only one of the couple’s children survived past three months. Henry took on many mistress, the two most famous being Mary Boleyn (sister to Anne Boleyn) and Elizabeth Blount, who gave birth to his illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, in 1519. The birth was like a slap in the face for Catherine, especially when the child was given the titles of Duke of Richmond and Somerset, something usually reserved for legitimate heirs of the crown.
One thing Henry VIII wanted all his life was a son to secure his family’s hold on the throne. His father had gained the kingship by right of conquest when he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, but his claim to power was miniscule at best – he was descended from Henry V’s widow and was a maternal cousin to his predecessor Henry VI. Elizabeth of York was the true heir to England as daughter to King Edward IV, so when Henry VII married her, their children were considered undoubted heirs to England, but even so, there were still people with claims to power during Henry VIII’s reign that could have been considered more acceptable by some. When Henry VIII married Catherine, he placed his family’s future on her shoulders, perhaps dooming their marriage and her happiness from the very beginning. Their daughter Mary was placed aside and an illegitimate boy was placed above her. When FitzRoy became Lord Lieutenant or Ireland, it was the sharpest blow yet. Catherine prayed desperately for another child, but by the late 1520’s there was no more hope.
In 1527, Henry met the infamous Anne Boleyn, daughter of the Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond and sister to his former mistress. Anne was one of Catherine’s Ladies in Waiting, fresh home from the court in France and a fashion icon of her day. It is not hard to imagine how much grief and embarrassment Catherine had to endure knowing that her husband was in love with another woman, let alone one of her own employees. Anne was not considered to be a beautiful woman like her, but she was attractive nonetheless; she showed of her hair in a French hood (which was considered incredibly racy at the time) was a great dancer, and her great wit and charm won Henry’s heart very quickly. He wrote her love letters begging her to become his mistress, but she refused. Whether or not she intended to break up the king’s marriage is up for debate, but Anne’s reply to Henry’s advances is one that changed the course of history – she would not accept his love unless she were to become his wife.
Only the Pope could grant the King a divorce, so Henry quickly wrote to Pope Clement VII. He convinced himself that his marriage to Catherine was cursed, that the words of the Bible’s Leviticus were true – he had married his brother’s widow, and in doing so, their union had proved to be invalid, as in God’s eyes, Catherine was his sister and not his wife. Despite her familial connections (by this time, her nephew Charles V of Spain had become Holy Roman Emperor as well) Catherine knew that there was very little she could do to save herself. Even the Pope’s refusal to carry out Henry’s request only served to strengthen the King’s resolve. He declared that the Pope would no longer have authority over England and created his own church, making himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and thus granting himself his own divorce. In 1533, after a humiliating trial where Catherine was questioned as to whether or not she and Arthur had become husband and wife in both the physical and spiritual sense (which she swore they had not been), the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that Henry and Catherine’s had been annulled on grounds of having been conducted under false pretenses and Henry wasted no time in marrying Anne Boleyn. Catherine was stripped of her household and titles and was banished from court for the remainder of her life.
Despite everything, Catherine continued to call herself the King’s only true wife. She was separated from her daughter Mary (now declared illegitimate) and forbidden to write or otherwise communicate with her. The only title she was allowed was Dowager Princess of Wales as Arthur’s widow. She spent her final days at Kimbolton Castle, where she led a lonely life with few visitors aside from a few servants and left her quarters only for Mass. After a battle with what is now believed to have been heart disease or cancer, Catherine died on 7 January 1536 at the age of fifty. Henry did not attend her funeral and forbade Mary to attend, which caused a rift so wide between father and daughter that they did not speak for three years. Anne Boleyn was executed four months later on 19 May 1536 for high treason and Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, two weeks later. Catherine was buried in Peterborough Cathedral in Cambridgeshire with a ceremony for a dowager princess, but today, her tomb -pictured below – marks her as what she truly was, a Queen of England.