The Spanish Princess: Who Was Catherine of Aragon?
When you think of a Spanish princess, what do you imagine? Catherine of Aragon may not be the first one to pop into your mind.
Catherine’s life is depicted in books, novels, films, and in the recent TV mini-series, The Spanish Princess. But how accurate are these depictions of her life?
In this blog post, we’ll take a trip back in time to revisit Catherine’s fascinating story and how her presence shaped world history. Join me for a quick trip to 16th century Europe for a deep dive into the Spanish princess’ short life and long legacy.
Early Life of the Spanish Princess
The Spanish princess was born Catalina de Aragón on December 16, 1485 in the Archiepiscopal Palace of Alcalá de Henares close to Madrid, Spain. She was the youngest daughter of Queen Isabel I de Castilla and King Fernando II de Aragón.
Following her birth, Catherine was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and son of King Henry VII of the Tudor dynasty.
During her childhood, Catherine became an ideal wife for the future King of England. She was raised to be intelligent and educated in literature, history, law, arithmetic, philosophy, and religion. She developed a devout Catholic faith that would be key in her future.
Catherine was a native Spanish speaker and was fluent in Latin, French, and Greek. She knew how to cook, dance, draw, and play music. Historians consider Catherine to be exceptionally cultured for her time. She had intellectual qualities that few queens could rival. Her beauty was also hard to top. Catherine’s long red hair, bright eyes, her figure, and class gained her a respectable reputation in foreign kingdoms.
A Quick Marriage and Tragedy
In 1501, the Spanish princess arrived in England where she was greeted with a lavish ceremony, theatrical entertainment, and luxuries. Although her name was Catalina, the English translated it to Catherine.
Princess Catherine married Arthur at the young age of 15, their union was crucial to an alliance between England and Spain and was meant to isolate the kingdom of France. Her entrance to the House of Tudor, earned her the title of Catherine, Princess of Wales.
Following the wedding, the couple moved to Ludlow Castle, where Arthur prepared to serve as future King of England. Both she and Arthur were inexperienced and young, which led to the belief that their marriage wasn’t consummated.
This continues to spark debate to this day and many historians claim witnesses did see them sleeping in separate chambers, while others say that following their wedding night, Arthur bragged about “visiting Spain.”
In 1502, Arthur fell ill with tuberculosis and passed away suddenly. The marriage had lasted only a few months and left the Spanish princess a young widow.
Becoming the Queen of England
After Prince Arthur’s passing, his younger brother Henry VIII became next in line to the throne. King Henry VII refused to let his daughter-in-law return to Spain, as it meant that their kingdom would have to return her dowry, plus one-third of the revenue of Wales.
Catherine’s fate was negotiated once again by both kingdoms. In 1509, after King Henry’s death, his son, Henry VIII rose to the throne and decided to marry his brother’s widow.
The Spanish princess, 23 years old at the time, was considered a prize bride, as she once again brought prestige to the Tudor dynasty. She was incredibly beautiful and educated.
For their marriage to take place, 18-year-old King Henry, received a special dispensation from the Pope. Even with the marriage frowned upon at the beginning, the belief that the princess’s first marriage was never consummated allowed King Henry VIII to pull it off.
Sadly, even with Catherine becoming the Queen of England, this new union wasn’t destined to be a joyful marriage.
A Collapsing Marriage and Controversial Affair
Between 1509 and 1518, Catherine became pregnant at least six times. Their relationship carried a history of numerous miscarriages and stillbirths. Their only child to survive was a girl named Mary I.
The Spanish princess felt frustrated and had immense pressure to give the house of Tudor a male heir to the throne. Finally in 1511, Catherine gave birth to a baby boy. Sadly, he passed away in infancy.
Catherine supported her husband in all his endeavors. She performed her royal duties and ruled as regent when Henry was away. She even rode with him to battle if necessary. Her poise and intellect gained her love, admiration, and praise from the English people and others.
Throughout their marriage, King Henry had multiple mistresses and an illegitimate son, which confirmed to the Tudors that he wasn’t the one with a problem. Catherine fell under intense stress, they distanced from each other and her husband turned his eye to Anne Boleyn, one of the Spanish princess’ ladies-in-waiting.
Ambitious young Anne Boleyn constantly rejected King Henry’s advances, something he wasn’t used to that made him desire her more. She wanted marriage or nothing. Desperate to get his new bride, Henry sought the annulment of his marriage to Catherine, claiming that her first marriage to Prince Arthur had been consummated, making his marriage to her unholy.
The Spanish Princess trusted both of them and felt betrayed. She denied the King’s accusations until her final days and the Catholic church refused the King’s request. Henry, however, didn’t care and disobeyed the Pope with his persistence. In 1531, he began to live openly with Anne Boleyn, disregarding his 20+ years of marriage to Catherine.
Finally, in 1533, “the King’s great matter” ended, England broke ties with the Catholic church, which gave room to the Anglican religion to take over. The union between Catherine and King Henry was officially ended.
Banishment from the English Court
At the time her marriage fell apart, Catherine couldn’t conceive any more children. The king banished her from the court and exiled her.
King Henry VIII married an already pregnant Anne Boleyn, but this marriage didn’t have a happy ending either. A few years later, Anne Boleyn was beheaded due to the royals accusing her of witchcraft and incest. Like Catherine, Anne couldn’t’ give the king a son either. She instead gave him a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth I.
After their divorce was finalized, King Henry confined the Spanish princess to Kimbolton Castle. Like many other women in her time, she became a victim of public scrutiny, having her honor questioned and worrying for the well-being of her daughter.
Catherine’s Last Years
Despite the turmoil, Catherine proved to be resilient and defiant of the king’s choices. She was loved by the English, and she still had some allies within the royals. Her Catholic faith comforted her during these challenging times.
Unfortunately, she was cut off from contact with her daughter Mary. The king refused to let Catherine keep any titles or belongings and confined her to a single room in the castle. Catherine communicated in secret with her daughter through letters.
In 1535, she wrote her will and reached out to her Spanish relatives to ask them to protect her daughter if anything happened to her. It’s believed she received a visit from one of her close friends, who stayed and cared for her until her passing.
The Spanish princess died in 1536 from a suspected heart cancer, just four months after the beheading of the king’s new wife. Kind of ironic isn’t it? It’s believed that Anne Boylein lost a baby boy on the day Catherine was buried. This led to a rumor that Anne and King Henry had poisoned the Spanish princess, which only gained them more disapproval in England.
Neither King Henry nor her daughter Mary attended the funeral. The rites of Catherine’s wake were worthy of a widow princess but not for a queen. She was buried in Peterborough Cathedral as “Catherine, Queen of England.” A statue in her honour is in her hometown of Alcalá de Henares.
Her Legacy is Undeniable
Until her death, Catherine continued to refer to herself as King Henry’s legitimate wife and the one true Queen of England. Even if the House of Tudor did whatever they could to erase her from the dynasty, her role in the monarchy and the events that led to a breakup with the Catholic church will remain a part of her legacy forever and are key to an important period in English history.
What do you think about the interesting history of the Spanish princess? Had you heard of her before? Have you seen her in any films or TV shows? I would love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below and tell me what shocks you the most about this strong and iconic female character.
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