The Wives of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Part 1

Catherine of Aragon

It is difficult to separate the stories of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn after about 1524, when Anne gradually ousted Catherine from Henry’s affections and became the object of his obsession. Yet one must remember that, for all the cataclysm which ensued, Henry and Catherine spent over twenty happy years together before the first dark clouds began to gather over their marriage.

When Catherine arrived in England toward the end of 1501, she had already effectively been married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, by proxy three times, the first on 20 January, 1500. Small and of a creamy complexion, with long auburn hair and a round face of great charm, Catherine received a glittering welcome to England, a welcome overflowing with pageantry and celebration.

Catherine brought with her a new feeling of security and importance for the English people and the nation as a whole. Not only was a sturdy international player helping to confer legitimacy on England as a power in its own right, but it was felt that the daughter of such a prolific and hardy mother as Isabella of Spain (who gave birth to Catherine while on the march leading her armies against the Moors) was sure to provide England with hale and healthy male heirs as a bulwark against the ever-present threats of invasion, internal strife, and general governmental weakness.

An unassailable gem was Catherine, of a powerful family, well-educated, attractive, submissive, docile, well-dowered and young. Despite ongoing conflicts over the payment of her dowry, her arrival in England and her marriage to Arthur were generally hailed as cause for celebration by her proud new in-laws, her adoptive country and, happily, her frail, shy new husband.

Arthur’s health had long been a subject of concern to his parents and to the ministers whose job it was to foresee the future security of the nation. Arthur, unlike his robust younger brother Henry, suffered from a weak chest (possibly tuberculosis), a generally unathletic character, a dislike for and lack of talent in most manly pursuits, and a perpetual tendency to ill-health. While young Henry rode, wrestled, danced and hunted tirelessly, his timorous older brother preferred to sit comfortably at the sidelines and look on – even at his own wedding, where legend tells us that 10-year-old Henry and not Arthur danced with the glowing young bride and threw off his jacket to aid his exuberant efforts on the dance floor.

But it was taken as a given that Arthur would perform his conjugal duties, if not with finesse or enthusiasm then at least with results, and that Catherine should be expecting the new heir before their nuptial year was out. This optimism appeared to be borne out when Arthur swaggeringly emerged from the bridal bower loudly calling for wine, and quoted variously as saying that “being a husband was hot work” and that he needed sustenance for “I have been in Spain this night”. Such evidence would be dug out 30 years later to prove the consummation of the marriage when Henry VIII sought to annul his union with the same Catherine of Aragon on the basis of the biblical taboo against incest, but Catherine would swear even on her deathbed that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, and that she had maintained her virginity until her marriage to Henry himself.

The hoped-for heir was not to materialize, regardless of Arthur’s efforts or lack thereof, and poor Arthur himself was doomed to an unhappy fate. Henry VII, believing that the Prince of Wales belonged with his nominal people in the Welsh marshes, and perhaps hoping that the vigorous air of the fens would bring some color to the poor lad’s cheeks, sent the newlyweds to the castle of Ludlow to get to know their Welsh subjects. Pitiful Arthur died there on 2 April, 1502, a mere four and a half months after his triumphant marriage to his exotic Spanish fiancée. The sad little life was snuffed out, and Catherine, a stranger in a strange land and barely more than a child herself, was now a royal widow.

She returned to London to find the English court and the entire nation in mourning, her new mother-in-law prostrate with grief, her enigmatic father-in-law unyielding on the question of her still-unpaid dowry despite her widowhood, and her young brother-in-law bewildered and probably overwhelmed at the sudden change in his prospects. Prince Henry was now heir to the throne after ten years of grooming for a career as an archbishop.

A new treaty of betrothal was hastily drawn up to allow Prince Henry to marry his dead brother’s widow, the way being smoothed theologically by a special dispensation from the Pope, who was happy to oblige such vital allies as Ferdinand, Isabella and Henry VII. This dispensation made it possible for the brother-and-sister-in-law to marry despite the Levitical ban on such a marriage, but as Ferdinand and King Henry continued to wrangle about the still-pending dowry from Arthur’s ill-fated marriage, the engagement dragged on and on.

Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, died; Princess Margaret went north to marry her Scottish king, and Henry VII himself began to consider a second marriage, despite his advancing years and waning health. At long last, after living on the periphery of the court for seven years, penniless even to buy fresh food or to pay her servants, negligible in the international chess game, unwanted and useless in Spain, waiting in the anomalous position of widowhood and the limbo between widow of the previous Prince of Wales and wife of the current heir, Catherine was finally set free by the death of Henry VII in 1509.

The new king, Henry VIII, at the idealistic and impressionable age of eighteen, rescued her from her poverty and ignominy and carried out the betrothal which had been her best hope for the future. On 11 June, 1509, Henry and Catherine were married at Greenwich, followed by a sumptuous coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

What sort of man was young Henry VIII at the time of his marriage to his brother’s widow? Portraits and descriptions of him at the time portray him as unusually tall – around 6’ 3” – with reddish-gold hair, a long, rather straight and narrow nose, dark eyes set well apart, a smallish mouth surrounded by reddish-gold beard and mustache. His physique was impressive – large, broad shoulders, muscular legs, straight back and towering strength of frame, it was said that he could tire several horses in a day’s hunting, and still dance after feast till the wee hours. A champion wrestler and tennis player and a fearless jouster, he enjoyed the camaraderie of the list field as much as the conviviality of the feast hall.

Yet he was not a man of purely physical pursuits. Exceedingly well educated, Henry spoke and wrote several languages, including Latin, Greek, French and Italian. He had studied mathematics, astronomy (one of his abiding interests), literature, history, music, rhetoric, the sciences and, pointedly, theology and religion. He became renowned for his compositions in poetry and music, and played the virginals and the harp admirably. His rebuttal to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Assertion of the Seven Sacraments) was both scholarly and well-written for its time, albeit often descending to coarse name-calling and mud-slinging. It inspired Pope Julius II to confer upon him the title “Defender of the Faith” in 1521 – a delicious bit of irony in view of later events, but a title still carried by the monarch of England to this day.

Henry clearly was sincere in his desire to make his court a true haven for the Renaissance, and surrounded himself with the top scholars of the day, including such illustrious names as Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus, and patronized many artists who are still admired today, among them his court portraitist, Hans Holbein.

In the earliest years of his reign he appears to have taken little interest in the affairs of state, allowing his ministers (among them the increasingly powerful Thomas Wolsey) to administer the government while he spent his time in dancing, hunting, singing, and enjoying the company of his young wife and his merry court. Memoirs of the time describe Henry as laughter-loving, convivial, kindly, respectful, earnest, eager, selfish, addicted to pomp and extravagance, but also pious, a loving husband, and a willing student of his elders – hardly the crude, lustful, gout-ridden image we have become accustomed to in the 20th century. This description of him seems to have changed but little well into his 40s, when he had already been for over twenty years the comparatively faithful husband of his first bride, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon.