The youngest child of the legendary monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) was born to marry for dynastic gain. Endowed with English royal blood on her mother’s side, she was betrothed in infancy to Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Henry VII of England, an alliance that greatly benefited both sides. Yet Arthur died weeks after their marriage in 1501, and Catherine found herself remarried to his younger brother, soon to become Henry VIII. The history of England-and indeed of Europe-was forever altered by their union.
Drawing on his deep knowledge of both Spain and England, Giles Tremlett has produced the first full biography in more than four decades of the tenacious woman whose marriage to Henry VIII lasted twice as long (twenty-four years) as his five other marriages combined. Her refusal to divorce him put her at the center of one of history’s greatest power struggles, one that has resonated down through the centuries- Henry’s break away from the Catholic Church as, bereft of a son, he attempted to annul his marriage to Catherine and wed Anne Boleyn. Catherine’s daughter, Mary, would controversially inherit Henry’s throne; briefly and bloodily, she returned England to the Catholicism of her mother’s native Spain, foreshadowing the Spanish Armada some three decades later.
Of the wives of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon has always intrigued me the most, mainly because she was the only one of Henry’s wives who had a royal lineage better than his own and her downright refusal to disappear quietly when Henry wanted a divorce.
The initial chapters deal with Catherine’s childhood in Spain and the background of her parents who were the famed Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile. Catherine, as the youngest daughter, grew up in luxury but she had a powerful role model in the indomitable Isabel and as Catherine eased into her life as the Queen of England, she proved countless times that she was her mother’s daughter. The research is impeccable and it is all presented in an agreeable way without becoming too dry, and it definitely sparked my interest in reading more about the Catholic monarchs.
Most people tend to retain the image of Catherine as the devoutly religious woman Henry VIII sought to cast aside because she failed to give him a male heir, however there is more to Catherine than that. The book explores how Catherine was raised to be obedient to the men in her life; her father, Ferdinand; her father-in-law, Henry VII; and her husband, Henry VIII. Yet, Catherine wasn’t just a mild-mannered princess who let these men walk all over her, she could be defiant when she wanted to be and she was stubborn to the point of making herself ill.
Tremlett explores how Catherine was frequently ill during periods of particular stress and indicates how it could’ve been self-inflicted as Catherine had an extremely poor diet and may even had an eating disorder that may have interfered with her reproductive cycle. All of this sounds extremely plausible and there is plenty of evidence to back it up, especially in view of what we know about eating disorders today. You can’t help wondering if Catherine had taken better care of herself, would she have produced healthier children?
Once Catherine is married to Henry, there is a glorious time when both were happy and Catherine began to come into her own, even to the extent where she acted as regent while Henry was fighting wars in France. The Scots, backing up their French allies, were threatening England and Catherine responded by amassing an army which defeated the Scots at Flodden much to Henry’s delight.
When Catherine became pregnant with their first child, it seemed that fortune was shining on the couple but no child appeared and there was significant confusion about whether Catherine had ever been pregnant in the first place. Embarrassed when no baby made its appearance, Catherine was happy for the story of a miscarriage to be spread but matters were further complicated by the fact Catherine was indeed pregnant by this time. Tremlett takes this as evidence of Catherine willingness to lie to save face and hints that she may have done the same in regard to her virginity when she married Henry.
As you would expect, most of the later chapters deal with the politics behind Catherine and Henry’s divorce and the ramifications it would have on not only England, but also Europe as a whole. Although Catherine’s parents may have been dead by this point, she still had a powerful ally in her nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. If you are already familiar with the Great Matter as it was called, then you aren’t going to learn anything new here as it pretty much follows the script. Catherine took great pains to deliberately appear unthreatening so people would underestimate her, and Henry was shocked by how his wife stood up to him.
Henry retaliated by refusing to let Catherine see their daughter, but still she did not yield to his wishes much to his great frustration. Henry took matters into his own hands by marrying Anne Boleyn in secret, but Catherine maintained she was Henry’s true wife for the rest of her life and insisted on being addressed as England’s rightful queen.
Catherine was moved to Kimbolton Castle where she spent most of her days fasting and praying, but she and her daughter were forbidden to communicate, although supporters smuggled letters between them. The long, weary battle with Henry had taken a considerable toll on Catherine’s health and she died on 7 January 1536.