Written by Marnie Camping-Harris
Born in 1485 as the youngest surviving child of Spain’s renowned joint rulers, Catherine of Aragon was highly desired on the marriage market of Europe. Her family was viewed as the most prestigious in Europe at the time, largely due to their successive rule as Catholic monarchs. A marriage between Catherine and Arthur, Prince of Wales had been in discussion since they were both infants, as it would immensely strengthen the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty in both England and Europe. Catherine’s parents were just as keen to arrange a marriage for her; despite being the daughter of the most powerful house in Christendom, Catherine was not set to inherit titles or land. On the other hand, Arthur, as the eldest child and son of King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, was set to inherit the English throne.
However, Catherine of Aragon held a stronger claim to the English throne through her great-great-grandmother, Catherine of Lancaster (her namesake), who was a legitimate daughter of John of Gaunt and therefore a granddaughter of Edward III of England. Henry VII’s claim came through John of Gaunt’s third marriage to Katherine Swynford, whose children were born out of wedlock. Despite being legitimised after their eventual marriage, John and Catherine’s children were barred from inheriting the English throne. It is for this reason that many did not accept the Tudor monarchy in England, as well as Europe. Arthur’s claim to the throne would continue to be challenged; however, his marriage to Catherine would solve both of their parents’ worries – the Tudor monarchy and any heirs provided would be strengthened by having two legitimate parents, and Catherine would inherit the throne of England as its Queen and help it become a more powerful player in European Christendom.
Catherine and Arthur were married on the 14th of November 1501 at St Paul’s Cathedral and they soon moved to Arthur’s residence at Ludlow Castle, as the new Prince and Princess of Wales. Yet, these positive prospects were not to last. The young couple soon became ill and, after not even five months of marriage, Arthur succumbed to the disease. This news sent shockwaves throughout the country, as the seemingly healthy heir apparent was now dead, and Henry VII only had one surviving male heir: the ten-year-old Henry, Duke of York. In a desperate attempt for another heir, Elizabeth of York and Henry VII became pregnant not too soon after but another horrific blow was to hit the Tudor monarchy, as this time neither mother nor child made it out alive.
Throughout all this turmoil, Catherine remained in England, as it was decided that her marriage obligations now fell onto Prince Henry, who was six years her junior. It was first suggested that the now widowed King Henry VII should marry the seventeen-year-old Spanish princess, but this idea was rebuked as any heirs from that marriage would be further down the line of succession compared to Prince Henry and his sisters, acknowledging the suggestion as frivolous. In order for Catherine to legally marry the new heir apparent, the Pope had to grant them a dispensation; this could take weeks, months, or even years. This dispensation was, however, very controversial, as canon law forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow. Catherine fervently denied that her marriage to Arthur was consummated, meaning that their marriage was null and void. Nevertheless, this declaration would have immense consequences in the years to come.
During those seven years between her marriages to Prince Arthur and the eventual Henry VIII, Catherine was not living a fairy tale life of luxury that is too often fantasised over throughout history. Despite being a princess in her own right, as well as the widow of the heir apparent, Catherine was virtually a prisoner in England while Henry VII decided what to do with her. As mentioned above, the most logical path for Catherine now was for her to marry the new heir, the eventual Henry VIII. However, numerous factors at the time sought to dissuade King Henry VII from allowing his son to marry her. Therefore, Catherine was placed at Durham House, which was situated on the Strand in London, and was surprisingly not confined to the court’s palace so that her keeper could watch over her as previously thought.
In sixteenth-century England, the Strand was not the glamorous location that it appears to be today. Durham House belonged to the Bishop of Durham, who it was conveniently named after, and was bequeathed into the care of Catherine of Aragon after the death of her first husband, Arthur Prince of Wales. In order to keep Catherine separate from the new heir apparent, Henry VII had her stay at Durham House, while he waited for her full dowry to be paid so that she could marry Prince Henry. It is for this reason that Catherine’s time on the Strand is plagued by poverty and a lack of funds. However, other factors suggest that the reason for Catherine’s occupation of Durham House was for Henry to keep her out of sight while he considered other options for his son.
After the death of her mother in 1504, the likelihood of Catherine marrying Henry was deteriorating. As her sister, Joanna, was now the ruler of Castile, which was a much larger kingdom than Aragon where her father ruled, her value as a potential marriage candidate for the now heir to the English throne decreased. This was largely due to her father’s wealth and influence lapsing, as he was no longer in charge of Castile, as well as Aragon. Ferdinand, Catherine’s father, was very reluctant to pay the other half of her 200,000 ducats dowry. Both of these subsequent issues made Henry VII somewhat veer away from marrying his new heir to Catherine, therefore the placing of her at Durham House kept her at arm’s length but still under his guardianship.
In order to make ends meet, however, Catherine was appointed the Spanish ambassador to England in 1507, as she was forced to support her ladies-in-waiting herself as well as pay for her own means and measures. This was the first time in European history that a female had been appointed to such a position. In letters to her father, Catherine’s head-strong nature is echoed throughout, stating that she is not as simple as she may seem. She stood up for her gender as well, proving to King Henry and his councillors that she would not be easily manipulated – a quality that carried through to her subsequent marriage.
Finally, not even two months after his accession to the throne in 1509, Catherine and the newly King Henry VIII married in a private ceremony at Greenwich Palace. All those years suffered in poverty and exile from her home country had paid off, as Catherine was crowned Queen of England on the 24th of June, alongside her husband, demonstrating the trust and care Henry held for his new wife. Catherine was loved by the people of England, having served them as an ambassador and now as their queen. At first, her influential nature was appreciated by Henry, as she was appointed regent in 1513 when he went on a military campaign to France. However, not all stories have their happy endings, with this one’s being more famous than the tale just told.
Maria Elizabeth Budden, True Stories from English History (1841).
Robin Eagles, The Rough Guide History of England (Rough Guides, 2002).
Eugene H Lehman, Lives of England’s Reigning and Consort Queens (Author House Publishing, 2011).
Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Grove Press, 1991).
Neville Williams, Henry VIII and His Court (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971).