Isabella I of Castile, co-ruler of Aragon and queen of most of the Iberian peninsula, passed away on 26 November 1504, causing a major shake-up of European politics — especially in Britain.
Queen Isabella’s death was a terrible blow to her daughter, Katherina of Aragon, the widow of King Henry VII’s eldest son, Prince Arthur and the affianced bride of the future King Henry VIII. Not only did Katherina lose a beloved parent, Isabella was the strongest ally possible in the battle to make sure King Henry VII wed his heir to the bereaved princess. After Isabella’s death, Katherina’s father, Ferdinand II of Aragon, would prove himself to be both mercenary and callous toward his daughter’s fate, more interested than using her as a pawn and political weapon than guarding her welfare. Katherina’s father withheld the rest of her dowry and tried to bully Henry VII, a monarch who would not be bullied and took some of his ire out on Katherina.
Isabella would have made sure her daughter’s dowry was sent, and Henry VII would have thought twice before risking Isabella’s wrath by mistreating her child. He would have been wise to do so. Isabella’s abilities as a commander were no joke. Although her support for the Spanish inquisition and the forced conversion or execution of Jews and Muslims is heinous in historical hindsight, in her own time she was considered one of the best and bravest of Catholic monarchs, lauded because she reunited the Iberian peninsula under Occidental/Christian control. England, a small island nation that had been ripped apart by civil war for years and was just beginning to recover it’s economic footing, would have been beyond foolish to provoke the might of a united Spain.
King Ferdinand was nowhere near as impressive (or frightening) as his deceased wife.
Isabella’s fearsome reputation is one of the reasons Henry VIII would later become so afraid of his first wife. During his attempts to annul their marriage, Henry worried that Katherina was “of such high courage … with her daughter [the future Mary I of England] at her side, she might raise an army and take the field against me with as much spirit as her mother Isabella.” Henry fears were not just paranoid phantoms, either. Katherina’s prowess as a leader and war commander had been tested and proven, since she had ably demonstrated her abilities earlier in their marriage. In 1513, Henry left his pregnant wife to act as regent and defend England from Scotland while he was away fighting the French on the continent. Like her mother before her, the stalwart queen didn’t let the fact she was carrying a baby slow her down or curb her readiness for warfare. During her regency the English army defeated and killed the King James IV of Scotland at the Battle of Flodden. Not one to be squeamish in military victory, Henry’s exultant queen sent her husband a blood-stained piece of the dead King of Scots’s coat-armour as a trophy.
Katherina of Aragon was no shrinking violet; the warrior-queen apple had not fallen far from the warrior-queen tree.
If Katherina had raised an army in defence of Catholicism with the intent of putting Mary on the throne in Henry’s place, there is a damn good chance her endeavours would have been successful. It was only her love for Henry, and her conviction he would come to his senses, that stayed her hand. By the time she would have been willing to take such desperate steps, she was too ill to lead armies on the field as her mother had done.