Who was Catherine of Aragon?

Born in Spain in 1485, Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. Catherine married King Henry VIII of England in 1509 and bore him a daughter, Mary I.


Writing in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, historian Lucy Worsley describes Catherine as “by far the best-qualified” of Henry’s wives to be queen. “He trusted her to rule as regent when he was fighting in France. In fact, when Catherine’s army defeated the Scots at the battle of Flodden in 1513, she was in danger of out-shining her husband.”

Catherine of Aragon: quick facts

Born: 16 December 1485 (Alcalá de Henares, Spain)

Also known as: Katherine of Aragon, the Spanish Princess

Died: 7 January 1536 (Kimbolton, Huntingdon, England)

Parents: Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella of Castile

Children: Mary Tudor (One son, named Henry (b1511) survived no more than a few weeks after his birth, and Catherine also suffered a number of failed pregnancies and still births)

Why did Henry VIII marry Catherine of Aragon?

Although Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII, she was no stranger to marriage and had previously been wedded (albeit briefly) to the king’s older brother, Prince Arthur. This was a political match, made by the prince’s father, Henry VII, who had long recognised that Catherine’s parents – Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile – held considerable influence across the continent. Henry VII knew the value of propaganda in such alliances; according to Sean Cunningham, the matrimony was “manipulated for maximum public impact on an international scale”. Arthur and Catherine were wed on 14 November 1501, following a 12-year betrothal.

The marriage did not last long. Arthur, who had long been prone to illness, died just five months after the wedding – possibly as a result of a regional outbreak of sweating sickness.

What’s in a name?

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“Overnight, [Catherine] had been downgraded from next English queen to ‘spare’ Spanish princess, her political and monetary value greatly diminished,” explains historian John Edwards. “The English now began to refer to Catherine by a name that would stick for centuries – ‘Catherine of Aragon’, a minor princess from a peripheral part of the Iberian peninsula.”

Following the death of Henry VII in 1509, plans for a wedding between Henry VIII and Catherine were accelerated. “To the 18-year-old, idealistic [Henry] she was a great prize, this princess from mighty Spain, who brought him a rich dowry and international prestige to the fledgling Tudor dynasty. He adored her: she was, we are told, ‘the most beautiful creature in the world’,” writes historical author Alison Weir.

Catherine and Henry were married for 24 years in total – the duration of which was “loving and happy”. The annulment of their marriage took place in May 1533, by which time the king had already ‘married’ his new queen, Anne Boleyn (who had been, incidentally, Catherine’s lady-in-waiting).

Catherine of Aragon’s children

Throughout her marriage to Henry, Catherine of Aragon gave birth to six children – including two sons – but only one survived infancy: a daughter named Mary Tudor, who would later be crowned queen of England and become known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her prosecution of English Protestants.

Although Catherine bore the king a daughter, she suffered multiple miscarriages and stillbirths throughout their relationship. On New Year’s Day in 1511, for example, Catherine “delivered of a Prince, to the great gladness of the realm”. Celebrations ensued in London; bonfires were lit, songs were sung, and wine flowed freely around the capital. But festivities were halted when the king and queen received news that their son, named for his father, had died. “Henry spent a lavish sum on the funeral of Prince Henry, who was buried in Westminster Abbey,” writes Alison Weir.

Vintage engraving of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey. (Photo by Getty Images)
Vintage engraving of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey. (Photo by Getty Images)

Ultimately, Catherine was unable to provide Henry with the male heir he desperately wanted. This would become a continual sticking point for the Tudor king in all of his marriages – and was also a reason cited in Henry’s desire to end his marriage to the ‘Spanish princess’.

Did you know?

Catherine of Aragon is portrayed on screen by actress Charlotte Hope in historical drama The Spanish Princess

Why did Henry VIII ‘divorce’ Catherine of Aragon?

When Catherine failed to provide Henry with his much-coveted male heir, the king began to consider alternate options. Could he annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry again?

Catherine the virgin?

There was one catch: an annulment required religious approval. Henry used a passage from the Bible to bolster his claim that his marriage to Catherine was illegitimate: “If a man takes his brother’s wife it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless” (Leviticus).

The queen, however, asserted that she had never had full sex with Arthur and that she was a virgin when she married Henry. On her second wedding day, she “remained as intact and uncorrupted as the day she left her mother’s womb”.

Early 20th century illustration showing Catherine of Aragon pleading her case against divorce from King Henry VIII. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Early 20th century illustration showing Catherine of Aragon pleading her case against divorce from King Henry VIII. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

When Henry asked Pope Clement VII to declare his marriage illegitimate, the pope refused. Deeply unsatisfied with this outcome, Henry and his advisors split the church away from Rome – a process completed in 1534 – resulting in Henry becoming head of the Church of England. Feeling he had no need to defer to the pope, he had already married Anne Boleyn by this point in order to legitimise her pregnancy.

On 23 May 1533 – five months after Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn – the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, annulled the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

“Catherine won and lost her case,” says historian Giles Tremlett. “She won because Rome declared her marriage safe. She lost because Henry had chosen Thomas Cranmer as the new Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, knowing he would immediately grant a divorce.”

Timeline: Catherine of Aragon’s rise and fall

16 December 1485: Catherine is born to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile

14 March 1489: Catherine is betrothed by treaty to Prince Arthur of Wales

14 November 1501: Catherine marries Arthur in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Arthur dies in Ludlow Castle, Shropshire on 2 April 1502

11 June 1509: A little less than two months after Henry VII’s death, Catherine marries King Henry VIII at Greenwich Palace

1 January 1511: Henry and Catherine’s son, Henry, is born, but dies within nine weeks

9 September 1513: James IV of Scotland is defeated, and dies, on Flodden Field, while Catherine is “regent and governess” for Henry

18 February 1516: The future Queen Mary I is born to Catherine and Henry

1527: Henry is first attracted to Anne Boleyn

21 June 1529: Catherine publicly appeals to Pope Clement VII against Henry’s plan to divorce her

June–July 1531: Henry first separates permanently from Catherine and then forbids her to see Mary

1532–1534: Henry VIII’s church breaks away from Rome. The marriage is annulled in 1533

What happened to Catherine of Aragon?

Following the annulment, Catherine took a step back from public life. She was not allowed to see her daughter, Mary, and lived in less comfortable circumstances than she would have been used to as queen, moving between remote country houses.

Anne Boleyn, meanwhile, gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I, which pushed Mary further down the line of succession and resulted in her being downgraded from princess to lady.

Spaniards did not react well to the news that Henry had set Catherine aside to make way for his new bride, depicting the king as “callous and lustful”. In 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the Jesuit Pedro de Rivadeneyra produced a history of the Anglican schism that summarised how Spain considered Henry: “A powerful king who wants to have all that he fancies, and executes whoever he wants… spilling the blood of holy men and profaning and sacking God’s temples… changing the headship of the church and turning himself into its monstrous head, perverting the laws of God and man.”

“Only Catherine’s death from natural causes at Kimbolton in January 1536 finally relieved the tension between England and Spain,” suggests Giles Tremlett.

How did Catherine of Aragon die – and where is she buried?

Catherine of Aragon died on 7 January 1536 in Huntingdon, England – likely of cancer. Eustace Chapuys, Spanish ambassador to the Tudor court, was one of the visitors who saw her in the days before her death. He later wrote that she was “the most virtuous woman I have ever known and the highest hearted, but too quick to trust that others were like herself, and too slow to do a little ill that much good might come of it”. She is buried in Peterborough Cathedral, in a grave marked 'Dowager Princess of Wales', her title following the death of Prince Arthur.


Rachel Dinning is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra

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Rachel Dinning, Premium Content Editor at HistoryExtra
Rachel DinningPremium Content Editor

Rachel Dinning is the Premium Content Editor at HistoryExtra, website of BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed.