Rye House in Hertfordshire, which became the Parr family home in 1517, when Katherine was around five years old. (© James Schutte/Alamy Stock Photo)
Archbishop’s Palace, Alcalá de Henares, Madrid
To truly know Catherine of Aragon, to understand why she fought until her dying day and never once doubted the legitimacy of her marriage to Henry – even when it meant virtual exile and separation from her beloved daughter, Mary – we must follow her into her past and walk by her side from the very beginning. What better place to start than in the palace where this mightiest of queens took her first breath…
Catherine was born in the Archbishop’s Palace of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, on 15 or 16 December 1485, just four months after a Welshman by the name of Henry Tudor seized the English crown. She was the youngest child of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon – ‘the Catholic monarchs’, an appellation formally conferred on them by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 in recognition of their reconquest of Granada from the Moors.
The Infanta, as Spanish princesses are known, was named Catalina (Catherine), possibly after her English great-grandmother, Catherine of Lancaster. The baby was the last of seven children born to Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand, one of which was a miscarriage and one stillborn. Catherine’s seven-year-old brother John, or Juan, was the royal family’s only surviving male heir.
Most of what we know about Catherine’s infancy comes from the meticulous records of Isabella’s treasurer, Gonzalo de Baeza, from whom we learn that Elena de Carmona was one of baby Catherine’s first maids. She watched over the princess as she slept in her crib, on a newly-made mattress stuffed with fresh cotton and fitted with sheets of fine linen from Holland, which was also used to make her nightshirts and bibs. Catherine was bathed in a small brass basin and dressed in beautiful tunics, including ones made of scarlet Florentine cloth. Other expenses recorded by Baeza include Catherine’s exquisite christening gown made of white brocade, lined with green velvet and edged with gold lace.
By the time of Catherine’s birth, the palace, which had begun its life in the 13th century as a fortress built to house temporarily the archbishops of Toledo, was the residence of Cardinal Mendoza. It was a vast complex of buildings, gardens and courtyards, and the crux of political and religious life in the city, where Christians, Moors and Jews lived harmoniously. This was reflected in the palace’s architecture, which combined different styles, from Gothic to Mudéjar (a fusion of Christian and Islamic styles of architecture, decoration, building materials and techniques, prevalent in Spain in the 12th to 15th centuries) and later Renaissance.
Tragically, on the afternoon of 11 August 1939, a fire swept through the palace buildings, destroying virtually the entire complex, with the exception of a small section of the facade, which was later incorporated into a new building, today home to the Bishropric of Alcalá. In a matter of hours, around 800 years of history, including the chamber where Catherine of Aragon’s story began, was lost.
While the home of the Bishopric of Alcalá is not open to the public, it is possible to arrange a guided tour (in Spanish) of two of the medieval towers that formed part of the defensive wall surrounding the palace. As part of this tour, arranged through the Tourism Office in nearby Santos Niños Square, visitors also gain access to an open air exhibition area called ‘Antiquarian’, where archaeological remains of the old palace are on display.
The Alhambra, Spain
Perched high above the city of Granada and set against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada, The Alhambra is a sprawling and breathtaking palace and fortress complex built by the Nasrid kings (the last Arab Muslim dynasty in Spain ) between 1238 and 1492 and added to in later centuries by subsequent rulers, including Charles V.
With the exception of a couple of sojourns in Seville, the last two years of Catherine of Aragon’s life in Spain were spent within the Alhambra’s rust-coloured walls, from where she penned love letters to her betrothed, Prince Arthur. The detailed travel diaries of Hieronymus Münzer, a Austrian who travelled through Spain and Portugal in 1494–5, tell us that the Alhambra was a walled city of palaces, parks and gardens that covered an approximate area of 104,000 square metres – the equivalent of about 14 football pitches!
After spending the Christmas festivities of 1499 in Seville, Catherine’s family returned to Granada, the city they’d conquered eight years earlier. The formal surrender had taken place on 2 January 1492, in a staged ceremony that saw Boabdil, the last Nasrid ruler of Granada, hand over the keys to the opulent city to the triumphant ‘Catholic monarchs’. With the banners of Castile and Leon flying high above the Tower of Comares, a jubilant Isabella and Ferdinand entered the Alhambra for the first time. They had often gazed at it from afar and marveled at its magnificence, and now it was theirs. After a short stay the court resumed its travels, not returning to Granada until the summer of 1499.
By this time, Catherine’s parents had endured great heartache and suffering. In October 1497 they lost their only son and heir, Prince John, and then in August 1498 their eldest daughter, Isabella, perished within hours of giving birth to her only child, Miguel, on whose tiny shoulders now rested Isabella and Ferdinand’s hopes for a united Iberia.
As heir to the crowns of Castile, Aragon and Portugal, Miguel was raised at the court of his maternal grandparents alongside his teenaged aunts Catherine and Maria. Tragically, on 19 July 1500, Miguel too succumbed to illness, dying in the arms of his grandmother. The chronicler Andrés Bernáldez wrote, “it was the third stab of pain to pierce the queen’s soul”, and it was one that she found difficult to bear. The normally equanimous Queen Isabella fell into a dark abyss. From this moment, as Bernáldez noted, she “lived without joy”.
In October 1500, Catherine’s sister Maria left her family to travel to Portugal to wed little Miguel’s father, Manuel I. Only Catherine now remained with her parents at the Alhambra, and they were in no rush to say goodbye to their youngest daughter. However, in the spring of 1501 they were forced to part with her too. Catherine was leaving Spain to begin her new life in England, as the wife of Prince Arthur Tudor. With her departure, what spark remained in Isabella’s eyes vanished. She would never see her beloved daughter again.
Today, the Alhambra welcomes visitors from all over the world. When planning your visit, be sure to pre-book tickets online well ahead of time, and don’t forget to book a time slot to tour the Nasrid Palaces, as these fill up quickly.
The Alhambra, Spain. (Photo by Paul Almasy/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Hunsdon House, Hertfordshire
In June 1528, a love-struck Henry VIII penned a moving letter to his “entirely beloved” Anne Boleyn, from his chamber at Hunsdon House, where he and his wife of 19 years, Queen Catherine of Aragon, had sought temporary refuge following an outbreak of the ‘sweat’ in London:
The uneasiness my doubts about your health gave me, disturbed and alarmed me exceedingly, and I should not have had any quiet without hearing certain tidings. But now, since you have as yet felt nothing, I hope, and am assured that it will spare you, as I hope it is doing with us. For when we were at Walton [Waltham Abbey], two ushers, two valets de chambres and your brother, master-treasurer, fell ill, but are now quite well; and since we have returned to our house at Hunsdon, we have been perfectly well, and have not, at present, one sick person, God be praised; and I think, if you would retire from Surrey, as we did, you would escape all danger.
There is another thing that may comfort you, which is, that, in truth in this distemper few or no women have been taken ill, and what is more, no person of our court, and few elsewhere, have died of it. For which reason I beg you, my entirely beloved, not to frighten yourself nor be too uneasy at our absence; for wherever I am, I am yours, and yet we must sometimes submit to our misfortunes, for whoever will struggle against fate is generally but so much the farther from gaining his end: wherefore comfort yourself, and take courage and avoid the pestilence as much as you can, for I hope shortly to make you sing, la renvoyé. No more at present, from lack of time, but that I wish you in my arms, that I might a little dispel your unreasonable thoughts.
Written by the hand of him who is and always will be yours,
The king signed off his uncharacteristically handwritten letter, penned in a slanting, anxious hand, with his customary decorative monogram. However, on the left of the signature, in tiny writing, are the letters im and on the right of the signature muable, meaning immuable, or unshakeable. Henry was concerned about Anne’s health but comforted by the fact that she’d not yet shown any signs of having contracted the sweating sickness.
Henry’s relief, though, was short-lived: within days a messenger arrived at Hunsdon in the dead of night with the “most afflicting news”; Anne had fallen ill with the sweating sickness.
The devastating news left Henry in shock. He penned a frantic letter of support to Anne, who was presumably now in quarantine at Hever Castle, stating that he “would gladly bear half your illness to make you well”. The king lamented that his best physician, “in whom I have most confidence”, was absent at the time, “when he might do me the greatest pleasure; for I should hope, by him and his means, to obtain one of my chief joys on earth – that is the care of my mistress”. Instead, Henry sent Anne his second-best doctor, William Butts, and implored her to listen to his advice. He closed by saying that he hoped to see her again soon, “which will be to me a greater comfort than all the precious jewels in the world”.
Henry’s prayers were answered. On 23 June, Brian Tuke, the king’s secretary, reported to Cardinal Wolsey that both Anne and her brother George had fallen ill but that thanks to the ministrations of Dr Butts had made a “perfect recovery”.
The king returned to Hunsdon in 1530, 1531 and 1532, but unlike his earlier visit, on these occasions Anne Boleyn was by his side. Like all grand Tudor houses, in addition to well-appointed lodgings Hunsdon also boasted an orchard, fishponds, gardens and a deer park. Henry and Anne made the most of all the diversions on offer, namely hunting, shooting, hawking and fishing. In September 1532 Henry conferred on Anne the title of Marquess of Pembroke and granted her lands worth £1,000 a year, including the Manor of Hunsdon. Over the next few years Henry and Anne made several visits to Hunsdon, the royal couple clearly drawn to the beauty of this airy, rural retreat.
Today, what remains of Hunsdon House is privately owned and not open to the public.
Wolf Hall, Wiltshire
Standing atop a plateau of land in the heart of rural Wiltshire, surrounded by green fields, cow sheds and a rather run-down looking farmhouse, it should be nigh on impossible to tap into any sense that you are amid the remains of a building that has passed into immortality. Yet strangely, we found quite the opposite was true.
Popularised in recent literature, Wolf Hall was once the provincial country home of the Seymour family. It was most likely here that Jane, the future third wife of Henry VIII, was born in around 1508/9. At the time, Wolf Hall stood as a double courtyard, part-timber framed manor house on the edge of Savernake Forest, of which Jane’s father was warden. The Seymours’ villa splendid (as it was described by the contemporary 16th-century chronicler John Leland) was set in 2.5 acres of orchards and gardens, surrounded by barns and outbuildings. The house itself is known to have had a hall, kitchen, two galleries, a board chamber, a great chamber, the king’s chamber, a chapel, treasury house and armoury. Delightfully, the names of some of the gardens have also survived; the Primrose Garden, the Box Garden, My Young Lady’s Garden and my old Lady’s Garden being among them.
Jane’s mother, Margery Wentworth, was a mature 30 years old when she gave birth to Jane, her first daughter and fifth child. She herself was described by John Skelton as “benign, courteous and meek” – sentiments that would be applied to Jane by her apologists nearly 30 years later. Understanding Jane’s stable upbringing at Wolf Hall by Catholic parents, far away from the reformist ideas inveigling their way into Henry’s court at the time, helps us understand the mindset of the woman who would so lightly step over the bloodied corpse of “the putain” and former mistress, Anne Boleyn, in 1536.
Indeed, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII stayed as guests of Sir John and Lady Seymour for a week during the summer progress of 1535. Infamously, it is said that it was here that Henry first laid eyes on Jane. We are deeply sceptical of this legend, as Jane had long been in service at court by that time.
There is little left of the original manor with perhaps only some remnants of the Seymours’ lost house incorporated into the modern day farmhouse. Yet, if you visit this haunting place, which refuses to pass into obscurity, it is hard to forget that Anne Boleyn strolled through one of its many, now lost, gardens, while her time as Henry’s “most beloved wife” was fast running out.
In writing In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII we liaised extensively with local historian Graham Bathe, who has devoted much of his life to studying the Seymours and Wolf Hall. We would like to give credit to Graham for all his knowledge and assistance.
Schloss Burg an der Wupper (Burg Castle), Solingen, Germany
Burg Castle is one of the key locations associated with Anne of Cleve’s early years, before she travelled to England to become Henry VIII’s fourth wife. It lies 30 miles or so east of Anne’s birthplace of Düsseldorf, then, as now, appearing as a grand medieval hunting lodge, perched upon a rocky plateau and surrounded by the wooded valleys of the Rhine.
Contemporary records tell us that Anne was famously brought up “very straightly” by the Lady Duchess, Anne’s mother, and “never far from her elbow”. Here, Anne and her siblings, Sybille and Amelia, were schooled in the values deemed suitable for an aristocratic lady of the ducal court, with modesty, subtlety, devotion to faith and purity being first among them.
It is easy to visualise the young girl alongside her sisters, practising their needlework in the castle’s Kemenate, the room that acted as the family privy chamber. It was a place where Anne would have spent a good deal of her time during daylight hours. The nearby grand hall, in which great public ceremonies were held, (including the feast to celebrate the imminent nuptials of Anne’s elder sister Sybille in 1526), makes it easy to see through the veil of time and recreate Anne’s aristocratic past.
Although almost in ruins, painstaking reconstruction around the turn of the 20th century recreated the castle to reflect its appearance at the zenith of the renaissance, a time when it served as one of the principal lodgings for the ducal family, alongside Düsseldorf, Kleve and Düren. Murals painted following the rebuilding of the castle tell the story of the Dukes of Cleve and the key events of the castle’s history, including the betrothal of Anne’s parents when they were just young children aged five and six. It seems that their marriage was sustained by love; letters exchanged between the couple bear testament to their mutual devotion. It is interesting to think about how this may have influenced Anne’s ideas on matrimony – and how dreadfully disappointed she must have been by the reality of the husband who awaited her in England.
Today the castle is a popular visitor destination and fully intact, albeit reconstructed.
Burg Castle. (© Premium Stock Photography GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo)
In April 1541, it was confirmed that the king and his young wife Catherine Howard would make a royal progress to the north of England in the hope of meeting Henry’s nephew, James V of Scotland. The aim was to reassert the king’s authority in the parts of his realm that had recently been torn by rebellion, hence the 1,000-strong armed contingent that accompanied the progress. It was to be one of the longest and most magnificent progresses of Henry VIII’s reign, with the king intent on impressing his subjects who’d never seen him in person.
Around 500 members of Henry and Catherine’s households accompanied the royal couple on their journey north including Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, the queen’s chief lady-in-waiting and Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, whom it appears Catherine had begun seeing privately before the progress commenced.
On Tuesday 9 August 1541, after more than a month of travelling, Henry and Catherine arrived in Lincoln. Church bells pealed and crowds gathered to watch the royal procession make its way through the decorated town. Catherine and Henry alighted at the west end of Lincoln Cathedral, where there was “a carpet and stools and cushions of cloth of gold, with crucifixes laid thereon for the King and Queen”. There, the royal couple dismounted and knelt down.
The Bishop of Lincoln, John Longland, handed them each a crucifix, which they reverently kissed, before proceeding into the church “under the canopy to the Sacrament”, where they prayed while the choir sang “melodiously” Te Deum. The formal proceedings over, “his grace went straight to his lodging, and in like case all the train for that night”.
His Grace’s lodging was almost certainly the grandiose palace of the Bishops of Lincoln, which boasted spectacular views over the city and surrounding countryside from its commanding hillside position, adjacent to the cathedral. It was built in the mid-12th century by Bishop Robert de Chesney, as a residence for himself and his large household of officials and servants, and later enlarged and altered by subsequent bishops.
As the administrative centre for one of the largest diocese in medieval England, the palace was impressive, and reflected the enormous power and wealth of the bishops. It was therefore perfectly suited to host a royal visit.
Henry and Catherine remained for three nights as guests of Bishop Longland, who honoured and entertained his royal visitors by holding great feasts in the west hall, the palace’s public and ceremonial heart.
It’s likely that the king stayed in the bishop’s great chamber. Where the queen and her ladies slept is unknown. However, we can safely assume that she did not share the king’s bedchamber, as one of Catherine’s indiscretions with Thomas Culpeper is said to have taken place at Lincoln.
Under interrogation, Culpeper stated that at Lincoln he and Catherine engaged in nothing more than talk. He claimed to have spent the long nights talking to Catherine, and confessed that he’d professed he loved her “above all creatures”, but – more dangerously – he also admitted that he’d “intended to do ill with her”. Talk and intent were just as damning as action. Under the Treasons Act of 1534, traitors were those who “do maliciously wish, will, or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine” the king’s death or harm. Catherine and Culpeper had sealed their fates.
Rye House, Hertfordshire
Rye House in Hertfordshire became the Parr family home in 1517, when Katherine was around five years old. Within months of the move from London, Katherine’s father was dead, struck down by the dreaded sweating sickness. While Katherine must have barely remembered Lord Parr, her mother Lady Maud was a constant and much-loved presence in her life, particularly during Katherine’s years at Rye.
It was at Rye that Henry VIII’s future, and final, wife received an avant-garde education alongside her siblings, Anne and William, and a number of her Vaux and Parr cousins. Katherine’s schooling was second-to-none for a woman of the age; her sister, Anne, would later recall how the humanist curriculum was based on that prescribed by Sir Thomas More and included languages such as Latin, French and Italian, mathematics and even basic medical lore.
The manor itself was a moated house, noted today as a particularly fine example of early brickwork in England. Only the gatehouse remains. However, thanks to a late 17th-century plot to assassinate the then king Charles II, known as ‘the Rye House plot’, a fulsome description, plan and elevation of the house Katherine would have known survive.
Surrounded by a 20-foot-wide moat, the internal, rectangular enclosure measured some 230 feet by 160 feet. This enclosure was surrounded by a high wall, set back some 16 feet from the moat on three sides. Only the gatehouse range abutted the water’s edge.
Inside the walls, the house itself was modest in size, occupying only the south-east corner, with around four-fifths laid to garden. Today, the imprint of the chambers making up the house are laid out in the grass; a small courtyard measuring 40-feet by 25-feet, surrounded by buildings on three sides comprising a gatehouse, offices, kitchen, great hall, great parlour and little parlour.
This compact and bijoux family home must have indeed provided a tight-knit environment in which a well-balanced, intellectual and enquiring woman of the renaissance would finally emerge. Katherine left Rye in 1529, when she travelled north to marry her first husband, Sir Edward Borough of Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire. However, we can reflect on the fact that, small as it may have been, Katherine’s rise to the pinnacle of Tudor society is due in no small part to the accomplishments acquired and the character forged at Rye House.
Today members of the public can visit the remains of Rye House.
Charterhouse Square, London
Once lying just outside the ancient city walls of London, Charterhouse Square was a desirable spot for the Tudor elite including, at various times, the French and Spanish ambassadors; William Parr, brother of Katherine; the then-Lady Latimer and the antiquarian and topographer John Leland. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell, Katherine’s second husband, Sir John Latimer, explains why it was so highly treasured by the family: the Yard (as it was then known) stood “in good air, out of press of the city”. Indeed, it was the Latimers’ favoured London residence.
Charterhouse Square, London. (© Simon Montgomery/Alamy Stock Photo)
Here, we can track down Katherine Parr at one of the most interesting junctures of her life. Sir John and Lady Latimer lived in Charterhouse Yard during the fall of Catherine Howard; the scandalous break-up of Katherine’s brother’s marriage to the adulterous Anne Bourchier, and the death of Lord Latimer himself.
At the time, the Latimer’s home occupied the far northeastern corner of the yard. The Agas map of 1560 clearly shows it was the largest residence, adjoining the priory of the Charterhouse to the north and with large gardens backing onto Aldersgate Street to the east. Interestingly, immediately to the north of the house, as part of the priory, was the residence of the Bassano brothers, musicians from Venice who would all ultimately be appointed by Katherine into her royal household.
The house probably remained reasonably intact until the end of the 17th century, when it was acquired by Peter Ward of St Botolph, who demolished a number of houses on the site, erecting six new residences in their place. In the 1930s, a brick-vaulted basement was discovered under No10. A large 18-ft fireplace was also uncovered. It is recorded that this was similar to those in Hampton Court’s kitchens. This fireplace survived the Blitz but was subsequently demolished in 1942.
Today, the imprint of the Square is little changed from its medieval origins; an irregular pentagon with its central green looked onto in the north by the remains of The Charterhouse itself, with imposing buildings lining its remaining edges. Although the medieval/Tudor houses are mostly gone, it retains a sense of being a veritable time capsule, little visited by tourists.
Natalie Grueninger and Sarah Morris are the co-authors of In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII (Amberley Publishing, 2016).