Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s greatest queen

Catherine of Aragon’s reputation may be defined by the acrimonious breakdown of her marriage. But, during her 24 years as Henry VIII’s wife and queen, she proved herself a resolute war leader, a formidable intellect and the darling of the English people. It’s high time, then, argues John Edwards, that we looked beyond that famous annulment and celebrated Catherine’s achievements

A portrait of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. Henry and Catherine's marriage was a happy one, until their failure to produce a male heir began to cast a long shadow. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

In June 1513, Catherine of Aragon went on to a war footing. Henry VIII, her husband of four years, had led a huge army across the Channel to attack the French king Louis XII. Henry appointed Catherine as “regent and governess of England, Wales and Ireland, during our absence… to issue warrants under her sign manual… for payment of such sums as she may require from our treasury”.

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Henry also gave his wife powers to raise and equip troops for the defence of the realm – powers she quickly needed to deploy. No sooner had Henry left for France than James IV of Scotland, husband of Catherine’s sister-in-law Margaret Tudor, was attempting to take advantage of the English king’s absence by crossing the border into England at the head of a powerful army. As the Scots surged south, all eyes turned to Catherine. How would she react?

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Catherine, who was born near Madrid in 1485, had often travelled with her parents – King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile – during their war against the last Muslim ruler of Spain, known to the Spaniards as Boabdil. Now, two decades later and a queen in her own right, Catherine imitated her pugnacious mother in backing and organising the English defences.

While the Earl of Surrey commanded the army in the north, Catherine ordered another force to be sent into the Midlands as a reserve, and then started mobilising a third contingent north of London, in case things went badly.

Catherine proposed sending James IV’s corpse to her husband Henry as grisly evidence of her triumph

Catherine’s involvement in the defence of England has largely been written out of history, often restricted to a tongue-in-cheek remark she made to Henry’s minister Thomas Wolsey that she was confining herself to “making standards, banners and badges”. But in fact, while her husband was engaged in largely ineffective manoeuvres in north-eastern France, Catherine gave executive orders.

Henry’s Spanish wife was now acting as a patriot for her adopted country, using hostile language against both the French and the Scots. She regarded her husband’s expedition to France as a crusade, since Louis XII had rebelled against Pope Julius II. As for the Scots, she boasted in 1512 that the English “would conquer and annihilate the kingdom of Scotland, according to the fashion in which the Catholic king [her father, Ferdinand] treated the king of Navarre [who had been defeated and conquered, also in 1512]”.

It was no idle boast. Surrey’s northern army inflicted a military, political and social disaster on the Scots at Flodden in Northumberland on 9 September 1513. By the time that famous battle had reached its bloody conclusion, King James IV, a number of his bishops, and much of the Scottish nobility, lay dead on the field.

Catherine clearly revelled in the English victory – so much so that she proposed sending King James’s embalmed and waxed corpse to Henry in France as grisly evidence of her triumph. And she would have done so, but “our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it”. Instead, she had to content herself with telling her husband that: “This battle hath been to your grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be, and more than ye should win all the crown of France.”

Grit, initiative, skill

Looking back from a distance of 500 years, the battle of Flodden can be regarded as a high point in Catherine’s life. Here was a queen who, almost from the day she arrived in England, had been a favourite of the English people. Here was a woman whose keen intellect had impressed some of the sharpest minds in 16th-century Europe. And now to these accomplishments could be added a display of grit, initiative and no little skill in the midst of a national emergency.

But as well as being a moment of triumph, the autumn of 1513 was also a high point for Catherine’s marriage. Though she couldn’t have known it at the time, it marked the start of a long decline – one that, by 1533, had led to acrimony, the annulment of her marriage and a long exile into the margins of history. So where did it all go wrong for Henry’s first, and arguably greatest, queen?

Catherine may have been the daughter of two Spanish monarchs but her future as an English royal was mapped out for her at the tenderest of ages, shaped by a treaty negotiated by her parents and her future father-in-law, King Henry VII. By the time she celebrated her fifth birthday, Catherine was already betrothed to an English prince. But that prince wasn’t Henry; it was his older brother, Arthur, first in line to the English throne. Twelve years later, on 14 November 1501, Catherine and Arthur were married in St Paul’s Cathedral, escorted out of the church by the 10-year-old Henry on a kind of cat-walk that ran the length of the nave.

Soon after, the newlyweds were dispatched to Ludlow Castle, where they were to oversee the government of the Welsh Marches and the principality of Wales itself. That plan would never come to fruition – for, on 2 April 1502, tragedy struck. Arthur, English king in waiting, died of an unspecified infection and was carted to Worcester Cathedral for burial. As was customary for royal widows, Catherine didn’t attend her husband’s funeral, but was taken on a royal litter back to London. There she would live in increasing discomfort and relative poverty for the rest of Henry VII’s reign, as he and her father fought over her fate.

From heir to spare

Catherine’s parents had initially sent her to England as part of a marriage strategy that aimed to consolidate Spanish power and contain France. With Arthur dead, it was not at all clear that Catherine would even remain in England, let alone marry an English king. Overnight, she had been downgraded from next English queen to ‘spare’ Spanish princess, her political and monetary value greatly diminished. 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.

But then, on 21 April 1509, everything changed. The English king, Henry VII, breathed his last; his son and heir suddenly needed a wife – and fast. Within days of his accession to the throne, Henry VIII personally started negotiations with Spain again. On 11 June that year at Greenwich Palace, Henry and Catherine were married.

No attempt was made to imitate Catherine’s spectacular marriage to Arthur, but a procession from the City of London to Westminster on the day before the royal couple’s coronation demonstrated a fact that remained true for the rest of Catherine’s life: the public loved her, and they displayed their affection vociferously as she passed before them on her way to Westminster.

Catherine was not just a popular queen, but an accomplished one. As a child, she had been given the best education that money could buy, being tutored in feminine domestic arts, such as sewing, music and dancing, and religious instruction. She also immersed herself in the developing scholarship of the Renaissance, and mastered written and spoken Latin as well as modern languages. As a result, once in England, she was able to hold her own with some of the top humanists of the day, among them the Dutchman Erasmus and Sir Thomas More.

The marriage turns sour

For much of their 24 years together, Henry and Catherine’s marriage seems to have been loving and happy. The Spanish queen humoured her husband in all his chivalric games, and at least pretended to be surprised by the charades in which he and his ‘noble’ friends sometimes engaged, including the occasion in which they invaded her chamber dressed as Robin Hood and his ‘Merry Men’.

Yet there were always shadows over the relationship, and by far the darkest was the one cast by the couple’s failure to produce a male heir. Catherine was pregnant at least six times between 1509 and 1518, but only one child, the future Mary I, survived infancy. To Henry, who craved a son to inherit his crown and defend the nation’s interests in the face of foreign aggression, this was quite simply the wrong result. If Catherine couldn’t provide him with an heir, he would find someone who could.

The English king had successive mistresses, one of whom, Elizabeth Blount, produced a longed-for boy in June 1519, unsubtly named Henry Fitzroy. From that moment on, Catherine and her now three-year-old daughter would find themselves increasingly marginalised.

But not even the birth of a son could satisfy Henry. He sought a legitimate male heir and – mindful of the Bible’s warning that “If a man takes his brother’s wife it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless” (Leviticus) – began to worry that God had cursed him because he had married Prince Arthur’s wife.

By the end of 1527, another factor was fuelling Henry’s dissatisfaction with Catherine: his infatuation with her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn. Maybe Anne could be the wife to provide him with the son he desired. With this tantalising prospect in mind, Henry took the explosive decision to ask his chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to obtain an annulment of his marriage from the pope.

The people of England loved Catherine from the moment she married Arthur in 1501 until her death and beyond

Wolsey tried to settle the case in England, but Catherine, to the surprise of some, put up an obstinate fight. She vociferously denied the accusations that she had had sexual relations with Prince Arthur during their short marriage – an assumption around which much of Henry’s case was built. As a result of her efforts, and those of her nephew Emperor Charles V, in the autumn of 1528 Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio was sent to London to hear the case with Wolsey.

Playing a blinder

On 21 June 1529, in court at Blackfriars, Catherine knelt dramatically before her husband, begging him to stop proceedings. When he refused to do so, she announced that she would appeal from the two cardinals to Pope Clement VII in Rome: “I most humbly require you, in the way of charity and for the love of God – who is the just judge – to spare me the extremity of this new [legatine] court, until I may be advised what way and order my friends in Spain [above all her nephew Charles V] will advise me to take. And if ye will not extend to me so much impartial favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause.”

With the eyes of the world once again upon her, Catherine played a blinder. But it wasn’t enough. As Clement procrastinated, Henry began moves in parliament to separate his kingdom from Roman jurisdiction. In 1532, he appointed a new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who, on 23 May 1533, annulled Henry and Catherine’s marriage. By then, Catherine’s fate as queen was already sealed: Henry had married Anne in secret in November 1532.

Until her death in 1536, Catherine shuttled between remote country houses. Meanwhile Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, pushing Mary further down the royal pecking order and resulting in her being downgraded from princess to lady.

Catherine was also destined for a downgrade – especially in the eyes of historians. While Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth, have for 500 years been hailed as icons of England’s national story, Catherine has largely been written out of history.

But there are many reasons for suggesting that this a fate of which she was thoroughly undeserving. In 1529, Catherine’s mere appearance on the streets of London – making her way to the legatine court in Blackfriars – had elicited loud applause from a crowd of onlookers. That admiration continued until her dying day, and beyond. As soon as Catherine was dead, much of Europe hailed her as a hero of the Catholic faith. Even in England itself, affectionate memories of Henry’s first queen are preserved: in the Midlands where she spent her last years, and particularly in her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral, now restored after destruction by Oliver Cromwell’s troops.

How should we remember Catherine today? There is no need to adopt a staunchly Catholic or Protestant, English or European standpoint to recognise her many qualities. She was a resolute war leader, formidable intellect and a darling of the people. What’s more, after 24 years of marriage to Henry VIII, she died in her own bed. Given the fate that awaited her successors, that in itself was no mean achievement.


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


John Edwards is senior research fellow in Spanish at the University of Oxford. His books include Ferdinand and Isabella (Longman, 2005) and Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen (Yale, 2011)

Watch: The Spanish Princess, a period drama about Catherine of Aragon, starring Charlotte Hope, is available on Amazon Prime/Starzplay

You’ll find a wealth of content on Catherine of Aragon at historyextra.com/catherineofaragon

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This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine