Rarely has an English queen consort’s virginity been of quite such public importance. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was famously pious and virtuous. But was she a virgin when, shortly after he came to the throne in 1509, they married? The answer to the question matters because, almost two decades later and as he sought a way to divorce her, it mattered to Henry.
A 15-year-old Catherine had originally travelled to England from her native Spain in order to wed Henry’s older brother, Arthur. They married in splendid pomp at St Paul’s in November 1501. Just 20 weeks later Arthur, also aged 15, died. Catherine’s parents Ferdinand and Isabel did not want to lose the English match so they arranged a second marriage to Henry VII’s other son, the future Henry VIII. The pope’s permission was sought, and obtained, to allow Henry to marry his brother’s wife when he came of marriageable age. The couple had to wait for his father to die, however, before they could wed.
It was only after 18 years with his Spanish wife that Henry began fretting about whether Pope Julius II had overstepped his powers in authorising their marriage. His conscience, he said, was troubled. Had they been living in sin all that time? And was God punishing them for it by not providing a male heir to the crown?
When Henry asked Cardinal Wolsey to come up with an answer to the first of these questions in 1527, he was convinced the answer would be ‘yes’. That would free him to marry Anne Boleyn. He could both obtain the woman who fired his passion and, from her young womb, a male heir. He could also dispose of Catherine in a manner that was sanctioned by the church.
But Catherine soon threw Henry’s argument into disarray. She and Arthur, she claimed, had never had full sex. They had slept together only seven times and the results had been disappointing. Catherine had “remained as intact and uncorrupted as the day she left her mother’s womb”. The sexual impediments to their marriage that could only be overcome by a papal dispensation had never existed. Henry’s argument, Catherine was saying, was irrelevant. They had been properly married – and still were.
It was the first of many successful delaying tactics used by Catherine, often with the help of her nephew, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – whose dominions included Spain’s growing empire and the Netherlands.
It took a further two years before a remarkable ‘divorce’ trial finally started at Blackfriars monastery in London. Pope Clement VII sent Lorenzo Campeggio, a gout-ridden Italian cardinal, to join Wolsey as a judge. Arthur’s old retainers were asked to cast their minds back nearly three decades. Had the young couple had sex? Witnesses were convinced they had. One said Arthur had staggered out of their wedding bed the following morning demanding ale to quench his thirst. “I have this Night been in the midst of Spain, which is a hot region, and that journey maketh me so dry,” he reportedly said. “And if thou hadst been under that hot climate, thou wouldst have been drier than I.” But these were English witnesses in an English court being watched by their king. What did Spaniards have to say?
The testimonies of Catherine’s own retainers have largely been ignored. But some of their evidence is readily available, as I discovered while researching my new biography, Catherine of Aragon. It sits in the transcript of a hearing at Zaragoza cathedral overseen by the abbot of Veruela, Miguel Jiménez de Embum. The manuscript, conserved in Madrid’s Real Academia de la Historia, tells a very different story.
In the Spaniards’ version of events Arthur becomes a sickly young man incapable of fulfilling his marital, sexual and dynastic obligations in the wedding-night bed. “Prince Arthur got up very early, which surprised everyone a lot,” said a former boy in Catherine’s service, Juan de Gamarra. “Francisca de Cáceres, who was in charge of dressing and undressing the queen and whom she liked and confided in a lot, was looking sad and telling the other ladies that nothing had passed between Prince Arthur and his wife, which surprised everyone and made them laugh at him.” Catherine had been desolate. “I fear he will never be able to have [sexual] relations with me,” she said.
The divorce was a Europe-wide problem that threatened to spark war between Henry and Charles. The latter leaned heavily on the pope. He simply could not believe Henry would do “a thing so monstrous of itself and wholly without precedent in ancient or modern history.”
Orders were sent out to track down those who had travelled to England with Catherine for her first wedding. Even her Moorish slave girl Catalina, who had returned to Spain to marry a bow-maker, was to be found.
A questionnaire was drawn up. It ranged from the biologically precise to the absurd. Was there blood on the marital sheets? Did Henry ever brag that it was he, not his brother, who took Catherine’s virginity? Did Arthur look impotent? Had a group of doctors declared, after Catherine fell ill, that “the cause of her sickness was that she was still a virgin”? And did they also say this could be cured if she married “a man who had skills with women”? Answers were to be sent on to Rome where, in another victory for Catherine, the case had been moved before the Blackfriars court could reach a verdict.
Her nephew’s ambassadors in Rome became devoted agents for a woman who some saw as a living saint. One of them, Dr Ortiz, even wrote to Charles’s wife, Isabella, urging her to collect Catherine’s letters as the future relics of a holy martyr.
Catherine won and lost her case. 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.
Catherine refused to accept Cranmer’s decision. She was queen and Anne Boleyn, who had now married Henry, remained “the scandal of Christendom”. Only Catherine’s death from natural causes at Kimbolton in January 1536 finally relieved the tension between England and Spain.
Spaniards soon joined England’s own Roman Catholics in depicting her as a victim of a callous, lust-driven Henry. In 1588, the year Spain sent its ‘invincible’ armada into English waters, the Jesuit Pedro de Rivadeneyra produced a history of the Anglican schism that set the tone for future Spanish images of Henry VIII. “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.” Yet Catherine was “no less saintly, no less great and no less virtuous” than her formidable mother Isabel, Queen of Castile.
In her final days Catherine retreated to her chamber and refused to see anyone who would not address her as queen. Charles’s ambassador Eustace Chapuys was one of her last visitors. 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”.
Catherine had rebuffed Chapuys’ attempts to get her backing for an English rebellion on her behalf. She did not want war. “I would rather die than be the cause of it,” she said. Her twin aims had been to draw Spain and England together and provide an heir to the throne. At her death, it looked as though she had failed at both. Even Catherine could not have imagined that her daughter, Mary, would go on to become England’s queen – or that Mary would give England another Spanish royal consort, Charles’s son Philip.
Giles Tremlett is the author of Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen (Faber and Faber, 2010).
This article was first published in the Christmas 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine