Catherine (also Katherine) of Aragon was a Spanish princess, the first wife of Henry VIII and mother of Mary I. Henry's desire to annul his marriage to Catherine was a key factor in the beginning of the English reformation.
Image: Catherine of Aragon (Getty Images)
Catherine was born near Madrid in December 1485. She was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, whose marriage had united Spain. At three years of age Catherine was betrothed to King Henry VII's oldest son Arthur, only a year younger than her. Catherine was tutored in religion and classics by Alessandro Geraldini, a clerk in Holy Orders, and remained a devout Catholic throughout her life.
Marriage to Prince Arthur
In 1501, at the age of 16, Catherine arrived in England after a treacherous three-month sea voyage. She was married to Prince Arthur – now 15 – in old St Paul's Cathedral. They moved to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border. Unfortunately their marriage was to be short lived as Arthur contracted what may have been "sweating sickness" and died shortly afterwards.
Catherine stayed on in England and was betrothed to Arthur's younger brother, Henry. However, they weren't married straight away due to wrangling between King Ferdinand and King Henry VII over Catherine's dowry. In April 1509 Henry assumed the throne on the death of his father, married Catherine in a private ceremony in June after receiving a dispensation from the Pope, and Catherine’s short marriage to Arthur was annulled.
Weeks after their wedding Catherine was crowned Queen of England alongside Henry in an extravagant joint coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. For the first few years accounts suggest they lived happily together, and Catherine proved a competent regent when Henry was campaigning in France from 1512 to 1514.
In January 1510 Catherine gave birth to a daughter, but she was stillborn, marking the start of Catherine’s misfortune. While there was great celebration over the birth of Catherine's second child, Prince Henry, in 1511, this male heir died soon after. In all she bore Henry six children, including three sons, but all of them died except for one – their daughter, Mary (later Mary I), born in 1516.
A male heir
Unable to produce a male heir, Catherine’s marriage to Henry began to sour and Henry began pursuing her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. In 1527 Henry, still desperate for a son, asked the Pope for an annulment of his marriage so he could marry his new mistress. He claimed that the marriage was cursed as it went against the biblical teaching that a man should never marry his brother's widow.
However, Catherine refused to give in to Henry, saying her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. She attracted much popular sympathy as she fought for her own rights and those of her daughter Mary. For seven years the Pope refused to annul their marriage, as he was afraid of angering Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
With Anne Boleyn already pregnant with his child the couple wed in secret in 1533. He then passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring that he was the head of the English church, and appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, who annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine.
Catherine was forced to leave the court and live in far reduced circumstances in damp castles and manors. She was also denied access to her daughter Mary. She continued to reject the annulment and her new title of Princess Dowager. Catherine died on 7 January 1536 at Kimbolton House in Cambridgeshire. She was given a small funeral and buried in Peterborough Abbey.
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