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Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon (December 16, 1485January 7, 1536; Spanish: Catalina de Aragón) was Henry VIII of England's first wife. Henry annulled his marriage to her after she had borne him a girl, Mary I.


Princess of Aragon and Castile

Born in Alcalá de Henares, Catherine was the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile and, as a third-great-granddaughter of Edward III of England, a fourth cousin of both Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York.

Princess of Wales

Catherine first married Prince Arthur, the oldest son of Henry VII of England, in 1501. As Prince of Wales, Arthur was sent to Ludlow Castle on the borders of Wales, to preside over the Council of Wales, and Catherine accompanied him. A few months later, both of them fell prey to an infection which was sweeping the area. Catherine herself nearly died; she recovered to find herself a widow. Catherine testified that, because of the couple's youth, the marriage had not been consummated; Pope Julius II then issued a dispensation, so that Catherine could become betrothed to Arthur's younger brother, the future Henry VIII.

Queen consort of England

The marriage did not take place until after Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509, the marriage on June 11, followed by the coronation on June 24, 1509. Both as Princess of Wales and as Queen, Catherine was extremely popular with the people. She governed the nation as Regent while Henry invaded France in 1513.

Henry VIII supposedly married Catherine of Aragon at his father's dying wish and was happily-enough married to her, although not faithful, for 18 years, until he became seriously worried about getting a male heir to his throne as she approached menopause. Her first child was stillborn in 1510. Prince Henry, Duke of Cornwall was born in 1511 but died after 52 days. Catherine then had a miscarriage, followed by another short-lived son. On February 18, 1516 at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, London, she gave birth to a daughter named Mary (later Queen Mary I of England). There was another miscarriage in 1518. A male heir was essential to Henry. The Tudor dynasty was new, and its legitimacy might still be tested. No queen had ever ruled England successfully in her own right. The disasters of civil war were still fresh in living memory from the Wars of the Roses (1455 - 1487).

Catherine at the time Henry begain his affair with Anne Boleyn
Catherine at the time Henry begain his affair with Anne Boleyn

In 1520, Catherine's nephew Charles V paid a state visit to England, and the Queen urged the policy of gaining his alliance rather than that of France. Immediately after his departure, May 31, 1520, she accompanied the king to France on the celebrated visit to Francis I, remembered (from the splendors of the occasion) as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Within two years, however, war was declared against France and the Emperor once again made welcome in England, where plans were afoot to betroth him to Henry and Catherine's daughter Princess Mary.

Henry was keeping a succession of mistresses. Catherine was not in physical condition to undergo further pregnancies. The marriage was further soured by trouble made by Catherine's father, Ferdinand, over payments of her dowry and by a shift of allegiance on the part of Ferdinand, who signed a treaty with the French, to Henry's fury. Because of the lack of heirs, Henry began to believe that his marriage was cursed and sought confirmation from two verses of the biblical Book of Leviticus, which said that, if a man marries his brother's wife, the couple will be childless. He chose to believe that Catherine had lied when she said her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, therefore making their marriage wrong in the eyes of God. He therefore asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage in 1527.

The Pope stalled on the issue for seven years without making a final judgement, partially because allowing an annulment would be admitting that the Church had been in error for allowing a special dispensation for marriage in the first place, and partially because he was a virtual prisoner of Catherine's nephew Charles V, who had conquered Rome. Henry separated from Catherine in July 1531, and secretly married one of Catherine's former ladies-in-waiting (and sister of his former mistresses Lady Mary Boleyn), Anne Boleyn in January 1533, a bigamous marriage. Henry finally had Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, annul the marriage himself on May 23, 1533. To forestall an appeal to Rome, which Catherine would have almost certainly won, he had Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy, repudiating Papal jurisdiction in England, making the king the head of the English church, and beginning the English Reformation.

Later years

Catherine refused to acknowledge the divorce and took the issue to the law, but she lost and was forced to leave the Royal Court. She was separated from her daughter (who was declared illegitimate) and was sent to live in remote castles and in humble conditions, in the hope that she would surrender to the inevitable; but she never accepted the divorce and signed her last letter, "Catherine the Queen". By this time, she was aware that Henry's marriage to Anne was turning sour, and she had not ceased to hope that he might one day return to her.

Catherine died of a form of cancer, at Kimbolton Castle, in 1536 and was buried in Peterborough Cathedral with the ceremony due to a Princess Dowager of Wales, not a Queen. Henry did not attend the funeral, nor did he allow Princess Mary to do so.

In film

Catherine was first portrayed on the silver screen in 1911 by Violet Vanburgh in a production of William Shakespeare's play Henry VIII. Nine years later, German actress, Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein, played Catherine in the film Anna Boleyn. Later, actress Rosalie Crutchley played Catherine in The Sword and the Rose an acount of Mary Tudor's romance with the duke of Suffolk in 1515. Crutchley later played Henry's sixth queen Catherine Parr in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

It was not until 1969, in Hal B. Wallis's acclaimed movie Anne of the Thousand Days that Catherine appeared again. This time she was played by Greek actress, Irene Papas. A year later, in a 90 minute television drama produced by the BBC, British actress, Annette Crosbie, played the most historically-accurate version of Catherine in a piece simply entitled Catherine of Aragon as part one in the channel's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series. The drama began on the night Catherine arrived in England and followed through until her early marriage to Henry VIII. The drama then re-commenced almost a decade later, with Henry's moves to get a divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The play, which co-starred Australian actor Keith Michell as Henry VIII, Dame Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn and Patrick Troughton as the duke of Norfolk, then chronicled Catherine's life until her death in January 1536. Two years later esteemed actress, Claire Bloom, played Catherine in another adaptation of Shakespeare's play.

In 1973, in the movie Henry VIII and his Six Wives, Frances Cuka played Catherine and Keith Michell reprised his role as Henry VIII. A scene was incorporated between Ms. Cuka and Charlotte Rampling (playing Anne Boleyn) to show their quiet, glacial enmity.

It was not until 2001 that Catherine again appeared on the screen. This time it was in Dr. David Starkey's documentary series on Henry's queens. She was portrayed by Annabelle Dowler, with Julia Marsen as Anne Boleyn.

In 2003 Catherine appeared twice on British television. In January, Spanish actress Yolanda Vasquez made a brief appearance in the wildly-inaccurate The Other Boleyn Girl, opposite Jared Harris as Henry VIII and Natascha McElhone as Mary Boleyn. In October, the ITV 2-part television drama, Henry VIII starred Ray Winstone in the title role and Assumpta Serna as Queen Catherine. Part 1 chronicled the king's life from the birth of his bastard son, Henry Fitzroy until the execution of Anne Boleyn (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) in 1536. David Suchet co-starred as Cardinal Wolsey.


For centuries, Catherine had been revered by many as a saint-like figure. She became a symbolic representation of the wronged woman and was presented in an extremely favourable light.

This view was first challenged in 1860 by historian G.A. Bergenroth. He had seen the Spanish royal archives, and believed that the universal praise of Catherine of Aragon needed "to be more or less lowered." Bergenroth's research formed the basis of the work of modern British historian, Dr. David Starkey, whose recent book, Six Wives gives a full account of Catherine's talent for intrigue and less-than-perfect cultural awareness. Joanna Denny also takes a firmer line with Catherine than historians of previous generations. Having said that, Catherine still has her ardent admirers; chief amongst them being historian, Alison Weir, author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Henry VIII: King and Court. Weir, however, makes no mention of Bergenroth's findings. Catherine was savagely criticised in Joanna Denny's 2004 biography of Anne Boleyn. Catherine is described by Denny as "arrogant, stubborn, even bloody-minded".

These revisionists were greeted with derision by Catherine's admirers. Starkey insisted that he had meant no disrespect and he argued that Catherine would have been both naďve and foolish to try and survive in the 1500s without employing espionage and political subterfuge. He believed that these tactics, which he highlighted in his book Six Wives are a tribute to Catherine's intelligence. Even so, those who insist upon seeing Catherine as some kind of saint were outraged. The blame for Catherine's maltreatment has always been attributed to her successor, Anne Boleyn. Now a new generation of historians seem to be suggesting that neither Catherine nor Anne can be blamed; they both simply reacted to circumstances and Catherine would have done the same to Anne if she had the opportunity. Another assessment, which was put forward by several authors - including American feminist, Karen Lindsey - is that neither woman should be blamed and that instead the true culprit for Catherine's misery in her final years was her husband, Henry. It was convenient for his contemporaries to blame Catherine's exile upon Anne, but the evidence suggests that the real author of her troubles was Henry. Historians today are trying to construct a more balanced portrait of all six of Henry's queens, including Catherine.

Preceded by:
Anne Neville
Princess of Wales Followed by:
Caroline of Ansbach

External links

  • - A good overview of Catherine's life, accompanied by an excellent portrait gallery
  • - An in-depth look at Catherine's life and times
  • - Tales from the Tudor Rose Bar: a humourous look at the Tudor Royal Family

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