Catalina de Aragón, who signed her name Katherina in England but is usually called Catherine of Aragon in English histories, was born on 16 December 1485, the youngest child of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.
There is a persistent myth that Katherina was born in the midst of a combat zone, which didn’t happen, but it is true that Isabella remained on a heavy military campaign while pregnant with Katherina, withdrawing to the Archbishop’s Palace in Alcalá de Henares to prepare for birth only after a major victory. Isabella, a warrior queen and ur-Catholic, would be Katherine’s monarchial and womanly role model. Like her mother, Katherina turned out to be intelligent, stalwart, and adept at leadership. She would also prove to be her mother’s match in her devotion to Catholicism and her determination to fight for what she believed belonged to her.
Katherina became engaged to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the oldest son of King Henry VII of England and the elder brother of the future King Henry VIII, when she was still a toddler. At the time, England was an unsophisticated and unimportant country that had been immersed in a civil war for years, and its king was an upstart with what many believed to be a dubious right to the throne, so it was a major diplomatic victory for King Henry VII to gain a Daughter of Spain for his son’s bride.
Furthermore, Queen Isabella of Castile was a descendant of one of the children born to John of Gaunt by his wife, Constance of Castile, whereas King Henry VII was descended from the children of John of Gaunt and his mistress-then-wife Katherine Swynford, whose children were only legitimized after John of Gaunt was able to marry their mother. Princess Katherina therefore arguably had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than her husband-to-be. She also came with a hefty dowry to go with her bloodlines and important international ties of the House of Trastámara.
Henry VII was desperate to get Katherina to England, but Prince Arthur could not claim his valuable bride until his father had satisfied her parents with a sacrifice of royal blood. Ferdinand and Isabella would not let Katherina come to England until Henry VII had executed his potential rival for the throne, Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, the son of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, and thus the nephew of both King Edward IV and King Richard III. Warwick was, in truth, the most legitimate contender for the English crown, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, he was not considered a good candidate for the throne. Nonetheless, the very existence of Warwick the Spanish royals neverous on behalf of their daughter. Something had to be done about the “doubtful royal blood” still threatening Henry’s crown before Katherina would be put on a ship for England.
Thus, Henry VII had Warwick executed for suspected treason on 28 November 1499 to alleviate Spanish anxiety. As politically pragmatic as the execution was, it was also murder and meant that Katherina and Arthur’s union started under a cloud. Katherina herself would later claim that some of the tragedies that had befallen her were “a judgment of God” because her first marriage was “made in blood”.
Princess Katherina arrived in England shortly before her 16th birthday in 1501. She was a pretty girl, with a pleasing face and long reddish-gold hair that she had inherited from her English ancestors. Pincess Katherina quickly endeared herself to both the court and the populace by trying very hard to be friendly and to embrace the customs of her adopted country. She was charming to Prince Arthur and even managed to deal well with her somewhat stern father-in-law. This couldn’t have been easy for a young girl who was surely suffering from homesickness, adjusting to a different climate, and couldn’t speak much English, but Katherina was obviously possessed of more than usual fortitude.
The age of the newly married Arthur and Katherina would have been of concern to their royal parents. While marriages arranged from the cradle were normal for the very wealthy, the average age of marriage for a woman in the Tudor era was 25 or 26 years old, and men were typically 27 or 28 years old when they wed. Children may have been wed, but the issue of consummating that union was very problematic. Having sex while still in one’s early teens was considered bad for the health of both boys and girls. Ferdinand and Isabella were so worried about the dangers of the wedding night that they wrote to Katherina’s duenna, Dona Elvira, and told her that they would “rather be pleased than dissatisfied” if the couple postponed any attempts to find connubial bliss in the marriage bed.
Katherina seems to have followed Dona Elvira’s instructions. When Arthur died a few short months after his wedding, on 2 April 2 1502, his bride declared that she was still a virgin. She would maintain her assertion was true for the rest of her life.
After the death of her young husband there was some immediate diplomatic scrambling to figure out what to do with the newly widowed Katherina. King Henry VII, who did not want to give up her dowry or her connections, even talked about marrying her himself, but Katherina’s powerful mother let it be known she thought that an “evil thing … the mere mention of which offends our ears.” The royals then began negotiating for Katherina’s marriage to the new heir, the 11 year old Prince Henry. On 23 June 1503 Spain and England signed a treaty agreeing to marriage of Katherina of Aragon and the future Henry VIII.
In spite of the marital treaty, Katherina’s situation became more precarious when her mother died in November of 1504. Isabella had been the monarch of Castile in her own right; her death meant that various factions, and her widower, Ferdinand, became engrossed in a struggle to rule her kingdom in her place. Ferdinand was much too busy trying to take possession of Castile to pay much attention to his daughter’s problems.
Likewise, Henry VII was much too busy trying to secure the entirety of her dowry from Ferdinand to give much thought to his once and future daughter-in-law’s happiness. Worse, while the king still wanted the remainder of her dowry from Spain, Henry VII had become reluctant to let the marriage take place as planned. Katherina was less valuable now that her mother, the real reason to fear Spain, was deceased. Ferdinand, who clearly recognized that Henry VII was as crafty as himself, refused to send more dowry until Katherina was married to the prince.
While her father and Henry VII were squabbling over her dowry, Katherina had to fend for herself. She was forced to pawn her jewels and household goods in order to pay her servants their wages, and to buy food and clothes. Her father named her ambassador to the English court, which was a shrewd move that allowed her to stay there without forfeiting her dowry. He also sent her some money, but it was never enough and she wrote to Ferdinand that her servants were ready to start begging in the streets and she was “all but naked” from lack of clothing. In response, her father mercilessly replied that she should remember her dignity, and even chastised her for having sold some of her gold plates to pay for her expenses. For years, Katherina was left to scrape by, but the death of King Henry VII changed everything for the struggling princess.
When King Henry VII shuffled off his mortal coil in April 1509, his 17 year old son became King Henry VIII of England. By then, Katherina had been in England for almost eight years and had been an impoverished and miserable widow for most of that time. She was twenty-three years old, roughly five and a half years older than her perspective groom, and she was now comparatively poor, with little hope that her father would ever provide more of her dowry. Why would the new king, a gloriously handsome and athletic young man with a now wealthy and stable kingdom who could wed any noblewoman in Europe that he wanted, marry her?
Only a few weeks prior to the death of Henry VII, Katherina had written her father anguished pleas to be allowed to come home and spend her “few remaining days in serving God.” The young widow had given up all hope of another English wedding. Her household was literally packing in preparation to return to Spain because everyone thought the ascendant monarch would seek a different bride, one with more wealth or more powerful connections. There was certainly nothing that could force him to honor the marriage treaty, and only Katherina’s personal charms to entice him to do so.
To everyone’s surprise, Henry VIII rode to Katherina’s rescue, declaring that his father had wanted him to marry the princess and that was exactly what he planned to do. It is hard to imagine the relief and gratitude that she must have felt when she heard the news. Her appreciation and love for her gallant hero would be enduring. Even when Henry had transformed from her preserver into an ogre who imprisoned her and tortured her psychologically, she still loved him. No matter what happened between them, it seems as though she carried an image of that valorous knight errant in her heart forever.