Catherine Of Aragon Biography

Biography of the life of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his break with the Roman Catholic Church over the annulment of their marriage.

Catherine of Aragon (b. 1485; d. 1536) was the youngest daughter of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand II of Spain and Isabella I of Castile. In 1489, at the age of three, the Princess Catherine was betrothed by treaty to the two-and-a-half-year-old Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son and heir to King Henry VII of England. Spain needed England's military support against the French; and King Henry, who had won his throne by killing King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, hoped to legitimize his own reign by allying himself with the ancient royal houses of Spain, one of the two great powers of Europe at that time. The other major power was France, a hereditary enemy of both Spain and England, a fact which made an alliance between Spain and England seem desirable to both countries. It was, of course, quite common for the children of noble and royal houses to be used as pawns in the process of establishing political and military alliances, and they were often betrothed quite young, even in infancy.

The fact that Catherine was descended from the English king Edward III also made her a desirable match for the House of Tudor, since Henry VII had no right by descent to the throne he had usurped. Catherine's maternal great-grandmother had been a daughter of John of Gaunt, Edward III's third son, and a sister of Henry Bolingroke, who had assumed the English throne as Henry IV after deposing his corrupt and tyrannical cousin King Richard II.

Catherine was an intelligent girl. She received a good education in the medieval manner, and was also, like her mother, famously pious. This trait would become even more pronounced in later years, when she suffered great hardships after being cast off by her royal husband, King Henry VIII.

A formal betrothal ceremony, conducted by proxy in England in 1497, ratified the earlier marriage treaty, and another proxy wedding ceremony took place in England on 19 May 1501. On 21 May the fifteen-year-old princess finally departed from Spain. She arrived in England on 20 October 1501.

On 12 November 1501, Catherine was married once more to Prince Arthur, but this time she was present for the occasion. Although the couple were put to bed publicly that night, as was the custom then, the marriage was not actually consummated. Just six months after they were wed, Catherine's fifteen-year-old husband died, leaving her a widow at age sixteen.

Soon after Arthur's death, a betrothal was arranged between Catherine and ten-year-old Prince Henry, the new heir to the English throne. There were potential problems to be considered. According to biblical law, Henry and Catherine were within the prohibited degrees of affinity""i.e., marriage between them would constitute incest, since she had been his brother's wife. (Leviticus 20:21 declares that a man who marries his brother's widow will remain childless.) But King Henry bluntly asked Catherine if her marriage to his son had ever been consummated. She said that they had only shared the same bed six times, and that she was still a virgin. Under those circumstances both sets of royal parents were certain that Leviticus did not apply. To be certain, they sought a dispensation from Pope Leo II, which would validate the marriage between Catherine and Henry regardless of whether or not her marriage to Arthur had been consummated.

After much haggling, the treaty of betrothal was signed. The marriage was to take place in 1505, when Henry had reached the age of fourteen. But when Catherine's mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, died in November of 1504, Catherine's value for a marriage alliance immediately diminished, for her father held in his own right only the crown of Aragon, a much smaller and less prestigious kingdom. King Henry began to think he might find a more advantageous marriage for his son.

Always a calculating, penny-pinching, narrow man, Henry never provided Catherine with an income sufficient to run her household, though by both treaty and duty he was obligated to do so. When Prince Henry turned fourteen, King Henry delayed their marriage, still hoping to arrange a better match for his son. But he was not willing to free Catherine from the betrothal or to send her back to Spain, for then he would lose the half of the rich dowry she had brought with her, and the other half that was promised but not yet paid.

In political limbo, the Spanish princess suffered in penury, embarrassed at the shabbiness of her clothes and her furnishings, and at her inability to pay the members of he household for their service. Meanwhile, her own father, King Ferdinand, refused to send her money, insisting that it was Henry's obligation to provide for her. By 1506 Catherine had gone far into debt simply to provide food and other necessities for her household.



Because he intended to repudiate the betrothal between Catherine and Henry, King Henry separated them, for they were growing close as they spent time together at court. Catherine's position in England remained precarious until Henry VII died in April of 1509. In June of that year, the Princess Catherine, at twenty-three, was married to the eighteen-year-old King Henry VIII of England.

Although Henry and Catherine were truly fond of each other and happy together during the early years of their marriage, it was not long before the handsome, virile young king began to assert his prerogative to take mistresses. At first Catherine raged against his infidelity, but eventually she came to understand that there was nothing she could do about it. From that point on, she treated his sexual liaisons as trivial and passing amusements, which is what they were""until he became infatuated with Lady Anne Boleyn, the younger sister of Mary Boleyn, who was one of his former mistresses.

After eighteen years of marriage, Catherine had lost her figure and her looks. She had also gone through menopause, so there was no longer any hope that she could provide the king with the male heirs he so desperately needed to secure his dynasty. She had been through several pregnancies, but many had ended in miscarriages. Three children that were carried to term were stillborn, and two died in early infancy. Her only surviving child was the Princess Mary, not the son Henry wanted.

Henry began to feel scrupulous about the biblical injunction against a man's marrying his brother's widow. It did not take long for him to decide that the relative fruitlessness of his marriage to Catherine was the fulfillment of Leviticus. Besides, unlike his other infatuations, Anne Boleyn refused to become his mistress. She was holding out for marriage, for she was determined to be Queen of England.

Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine on the grounds that it had never been lawful in the first place, despite the dispensation from Pope Leo. Clement had good reasons not to comply with Henry's request. In the first place, if he denied Leo's authority to grant such a dispensation, he would be undercutting his own papal authority. Of more immediate concern was the fact that he was essentially the prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain), who was Catherine's nephew. Clement could hardly afford to antagonize Charles, but he feared Henry's displeasure, too. For seven years he delayed action on the petition, and during that time Catherine once more found herself in limbo because of the whims of a selfish king. Finally Henry, under the influence of his chief councilor, Thomas Cromwell, and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, took steps to end the impasse.

Between 1532 and 1534 Parliament passed several laws designed to sever the ecclesiastical relationship between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. Among these was the Act of Supremacy, whereby Henry was declared the supreme head of the Church of England. Once Henry began to take the steps necessary to repudiate Catherine and free himself to marry Anne, she finally welcomed him into her bed. In January 1533 Henry learned that Anne was pregnant. Rather than risk the possibility that she would bear a son out of wedlock, Henry married her secretly in January. Five months later, Archbishop Cranmer declared Henry's marriage to Catherine "null and absolutely void," and pronounced his marriage to Anne Boleyn "good and lawful."

But Catherine was stubborn, pious, and courageous. Despite the pressure Henry applied, she refused to acknowledge the annulment or to admit that their marriage had not been lawful. To increase her misery and isolation, he sent her to live with a small household at the thirteenth-century palace at Buckden in Huntingdonshire. The palace was chilly, damp, comfortless, and in poor repair. The environment was disastrous for Catherine's health, but when she petitioned to move to a healthier domicile, Henry and Anne tried to force her to relocate to Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire, which was in an even worse location, and in even worse condition.

Catherine locked herself in her room and refused to be moved. The men of the district heard from members of Catherine's household how brutally the sick queen was being harassed. They gathered silently near her palace, armed with such homely implements as scythes, pitchforks, and clubs. The king's men realized that to take Catherine by force might provoke revolt, for she was dearly loved by the people of England, and Anne was thoroughly hated. They left Catherine where she was, but they stripped her apartments of furniture and dismissed most of her servants.

Catherine's health was very poor at this time. She begged Henry to let her see her beloved daughter Mary, who had been separated from Catherine to increase the pressure on her to accede to the king's demands. Even when Mary herself became so ill that it was feared she would die, Henry had refused to allow Catherine to go to her. Nor would he allow Mary to come to her mother as Catherine's health deteriorated.

Even as she grew sicker, Catherine was threatened by the king's emissaries. Attached to the Act of Succession, which confirmed the succession through the children of Anne Boleyn, was an oath acknowledging the annulment of the king's first marriage and Henry's marriage to Anne, as well as denying papal supremacy. Any who refused to swear the oath would be guilty of treason, and, so Catherine was told, would be subject to execution. Both Catherine and Princess Mary refused to swear the oath that would make Catherine a concubine and Mary a bastard, and that would deny the authority of the pope. Both women were deeply pious, and to deny the pope's supremacy would violate their deepest religious convictions. They were also stubborn and brave, and neither would bend under such pressure, even to save their own lives, for both considered honor more important than life.

Catherine's health continued to deteriorate in her unhealthy surroundings, but Henry, as implacable as ever, never allowed her to be reunited with their daughter. She died, probably of breast cancer, on 7 January 1536. By this time, Henry had tired of Anne Boleyn, who had also managed to give him only one surviving daughter and no sons. Just four months after Catherine's death, King Henry VIII had Anne Boleyn executed on false charges of treasonous adultery and incest, thus freeing himself to marry Jane Seymour, who would die two years later, soon after giving birth to Henry's only surviving son, Prince Edward.

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