Documentary Notes – 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' with David Starkey – Part 1, Katherine of Aragon


Katherine of Aragon c.1502 by Michael Sittow.
Katherine of Aragon c.1502 by Michael Sittow.
  • 1501 16-year-old Spanish princess stands on brink of destiny to become Queen of England
  • Katherine of Aragon entered old St Paul’s Cathedral 14 November 1501 to marry the Prince of Wales
  • Ally England to the most powerful royal house in Europe
  • Future of upstart Tudor dynasty seemed secure
  • Wedding a mixture of fairy tale and international relations – took place on a raised walkway with bride and groom dressed in white
  • Future Henry VIII stole the show – escorted Katherine along the aisle
  • Prince Arthur (Henry VIII’s elder brother) was the groom
  • Katherine was the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile – one of the great military partnerships of Europe
  • Conquered Granada and began conquest of Latin America
  • 1491 Spanish royal family entered the Alhambra in Granada
  • Katherine’s upbringing was founded on Catholicism, Inquisition and military conquest
  • Faith underpinned her life
  • Katherine’s role model was her mother, Isabella – monarch in her own right
  • Ferdinand and Isabella had an unusually equal relationship
  • Given an impressive education to prepare for queenship – betrothal to Prince Arthur aged 5 knowing she would leave for England aged 16
  • December 1501 Katherine was at Ludlow Castle – Arthur’s seat as Prince of Wales
  • Katherine didn’t find her life entirely strange at Ludlow, still a luxurious palace and a familiar pattern of life
  • Only common language between Katherine and Arthur was Latin
  • Katherine was allowed to keep her own Spanish attendants
  • Couples as young as Katherine and Arthur didn’t necessarily live together straightaway – Katherine was 16 and Arthur aged 14
  • The pair got on very well on their wedding night, so it was decided they would live together straightaway in the hope that Katherine would produce an heir quickly
  • Weather was foul and disease broke out at Ludlow
  • End of March 1502 both Arthur and Katherine were gravely ill
  • 2 April 1502 Prince Arthur died, probably from TB aged 15, married less than 5 months
  • The funeral procession struggled through mud and rain, abandoning horses and using oxen instead to make it
  • Katheirne was left vulnerable by sudden death of Arthur, in strange country
  • Two solutions – return to Spain or marry again in England
  • Henry VII and Ferdinand of Aragon bargained – Katherine would marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry
Anonymous portrait of Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York c.1501.
Anonymous portrait of Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York c.1501.
  • Prince Henry aged 11 in 1503 – handsome, tall and well-built
  • Church had to give a dispensation to allow Henry to marry his dead brother’s widow, but exact form depended on consummation of Katherine’s first marriage
  • English assumed Arthur and Katherine had consummated their marriage, and Katherine’s confessor agreed
  • Katherine’s principal lady said Katherine was still a virgin
  • 2 dispensations issued – one assuming marriage was consummated, one leaving the question open
  • Betrothal formalised in June 1503 – marriage intended to go ahead in 1505 when Henry was aged 14
  • Seemed all would be well after a tragic start
  • Happiness marred by news of her mother’s death in 1504
  • 1505 Prince Henry reneged on his betrothal to Katherine, under instructions from his father
  • Katherine was friendless and alone
  • Katherine’s mother, Isabella of Castile, was buried in Granada
  • Almost her last thoughts were for Katherine but her death devalued Katherine as a royal bride
  • Power of Spain depended on union of Isabella and Ferdinand
  • Ferdinand failed to pay Katherine’s dowry – Henry VII lost interest in Katherine
  • She was in no man’s land – not Arthur’s widow or Henry’s wife
  • Katherine wrote to her father that Henry VII wouldn’t give her money and that she was in debt, hoping that he would send her funds
  • Aged 24 Katherine had spent 4 years in relative poverty but stuck to the certainty that it was her destiny to be Queen of England
  • Spoke about returning to Spain and spending her remaining day serving god
  • 22 April 1509 Henry VII died after a long illness
  • Henry VIII was the new king with new ideas about the future – he chose to marry Katherine
  • 11 June 1509 Henry and Katherine married in a private ceremony at Greenwich, Henry aged 18 and Katherine aged 24
  • Katherine had been widowed for 7 years
  • Henry VIII claimed it was his father’s dying wish that he marry Katherine
  • Henry married Katherine because he wanted to – wanted her father as an ally against the French, wanted to show he was fully adult
  • Katherine saw it as her duty and destiny to be Queen of England – also a pleasure
  • Coronation took place on Midsummer’s Day at Westminster Abbey
  • Katherine crowned alongside Henry
  • Thomas More wrote that she would be the mother of kings as great as her ancestors
  • Katherine was pregnant within 4 months of the wedding and every reason for optimism as her mother produced 5 surviving children and her sister Maria produced 9
  • At the end of January 1510 Katherine miscarried but her stomach remained swollen
  • Her physicians said she had been carrying twins and the remaining child was still alive
  • May have been desperate optimism
  • Early March 1510 Katherine withdrew from court for her lying in
  • Attended only by ladies, and wouldn’t emerge until her pregnancy was over
  • After a month’s confinement Katherine’s swollen stomach disappeared – probably caused by an infection
  • Henry angry and Katherine humiliated
  • Katherine wrote to her father in May 1510 saying she had recently miscarried and not telling him about the humiliation
  • Katherine soon conceived again and would carry to term, producing a son
  • New Year’s Day 1511 Katherine gave birth to a son
  • The king ordered beacons lit and free wine distributed to the citizens
  • The child was christened on 5 January 1510 as Prince Henry at Richmond
  • The prince remained at Richmond with his own household including a lady mistress, 4 rockers and a wet nurse
  • Separation from his parents was normal
  • Katherine expected to play little role in his upbringing or education
  • 22 February 1510 Prince Henry suddenly died, and Katherine grieved for him
  • Henry VIII concealed his disappointment out of kindness
Henry VIII c.1537.
Henry VIII c.1537.
  • For Katherine the queen it was a disaster, as a mother a disappointment
  • June 1513 Henry VIII left Dover for Calais to invade France – Katherine accompanied him to Dover and Henry appointed her regent
  • Council would report to Katherine, temporarily ruler, not consort
  • She played the role to perfection, brought up to do so by her mother
  • Henry VIII captured 2 French cities and won the Battle of the Spurs, because the French left so quickly
  • Katherine wrote constantly and worried about the danger he was in
  • First victory in continental Europe for almost 80 years
  • Taking advantage of Henry’s absence James IV invaded England
  • Katherine sent an army north and they clashed at Flodden, killing the king and the flower of the Scottish nobility
  • Katherine sent a trophy of the victory to Henry in France – James’s blood-stained coat
  • Katherine’s letter shows a kind of competition between victories in France and England against Scotland, similar to that of Katherine’s parents
  • Katherine ends the letter saying she is going on pilgrimage to Walsingham – possible code that Katherine was pregnant
  • October 1513 Henry returned to England
  • 1514 Henry planned another invasion of France in alliance with Katherine’s father, Ferdinand, but he double-crossed Henry
  • Henry signed a peace treaty with the French and married his sister, Mary, to the French king
  • Mastermind behind this plan was Henry’s new minister, Thomas Wolsey
  • Wolsey was son of an Ipswich butcher and rising star at court
  • Wolsey’s rise eliminated Katherine as a possible influence over the king
  • December 1514 Katherine suffered a boy who died within a few hours of birth
  • By summer 1515 Katherine was again pregnant – she found conceiving easy but carrying to term was difficult
  • Entered confinement at the beginning of 1516, as her father died
  • Her father’s death was kept from Katherine to avoid another miscarriage
  • At 4am on 18 February 1516 Katherine delivered a healthy daughter called Mary
  • Henry was outwardly confident – a daughter this time but boys would follow as both of them were still young
  • Katherine was aged 30, not young by contemporary standards
  • 1517 miscarriage, 1518 pregnancy which went to term, but the girl died after just a few days
  • Katherine wouldn’t conceive again – only a single living child and that a daughter
  • Katherine’s hopes rested in her daughter – she was raising Mary to rule and gave her an impressive education, as she had
  • 1525 Princess Mary was sent to Ludlow as Princess of Wales to hold court
  • Katherine was delighted at the acknowledgment of Mary’s status but no woman had ruled in England before and Henry was full of doubts
  • Henry read his Bible and came across a passage in Leviticus about a man taking his brother’s wife and them being childless (without a son)
  • Perhaps the Pope was wrong to grant a dispensation for the marriage
  • Was Henry free to marry again and produce a son?
  • Henry confided in Wolsey that he doubted the validity of his marriage and required an annulment
  • Wolsey urged caution
  • Henry was convinced only a new wife would bring an heir
  • Henry was already in love with someone else by 1527
  • Anne Boleyn had joined Katherine’s household in 1523 and Henry had already had an affair with her sister, Mary
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
  • Henry ordered Wolsey to convene an ecclesiastical court in May 1527
  • It met in secrecy to discuss the legality of Henry’s marriage and whether it could be annulled
  • The difficult issue was the question of the consummation of Katherine’s first marriage to Prince Arthur
  • After 10 days Wolsey told the king they couldn’t reach a verdict, only the Pope could
  • The Spanish ambassador wrote to Katherine revealing that her marriage was investigated
  • Katherine believed it was Wolsey’s doing and not Henry’s
  • 22 June 1527 Henry told Katherine that they would separate while their marriage was investigated and asked her to withdraw from court
  • Katherine refused to leave or keep the matter secret
  • She wrote to the Emperor Charles V asking for his support against Henry – he was her nephew and the most powerful ruler in Europe
  • Charles had been betrothed to Princess Mary
  • The appeal to Charles was a key moment and Katherine acted boldly
  • There were murmurings of discontent against Henry, as Katherine was popular
  • Only Henry’s strong personality prevented disorder
  • Henry asked the pope to send a representative to England to resolve the issue
  • When it became known that Henry planned to marry his mistress the murmurings became louder as the people loved Katherine and hated Anne
  • Cardinal Campeggio arrived in September 1528 to a diplomatic nightmare
  • Wolsey and Henry pressured Campeggio to try the case quickly in England
  • Charles V pressured for the matter to be aborted to Rome
  • The weakest point was thought to be Katherine – Campeggio offered Katherine a deal to enter a nunnery and allow the king to remarry
  • Katherine was immovable – her calling was for matrimony
  • She declared that she would remain married to Henry
  • Katherine swore on the salvation of her soul that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated and was a virgin when she married Henry
  • She gave Campeggio permission to repeat what she told him
  • June 1529 Katherine was commanded to appear before the court at Blackfriars
  • Wolsey and Campeggio would preside over Katherine’s fate
  • On the 3rd day of the trial Henry and Katherine entered the court
  • Henry explained his case then Katherine knelt at Henry’s feet and pled for her marriage, saying she was his true wife and queen
  • Katherine said she had many children, but god had taken them which wasn’t her fault
  • She also repeated her assertion that she had been a virgin
  • Katherine presented herself as victim to protect her own position and that of her daughter
  • Katherine was prepared to use almost any means, perhaps lying about the consummation, as it does seem likely that she and Arthur did sleep together
  • Noble lie in a holy war?
  • Court descended into chaos as Wolsey was desperate to get the result Henry wanted
Cardinal Wolsey adapted from the c.1520 from the National Portrait Gallery.
Cardinal Wolsey adapted from the c.1520 from the National Portrait Gallery.
  • Campeggio was spinning things out until the start of the summer recess
  • Henry sent Norfolk and Suffolk to demand an immediate verdict
  • 31 July 1529 court was suspended for 2 months
  • Norfolk thumped the table and said no cardinal had done any good in England
  • Case was recalled to Rome
  • Henry was determined not to lose the war, and he didn’t have years to wait, which is how long it could take
  • He would seek other means to marry Anne and would change England forever
  • Katherine would be deprived of everything that had given her life meaning

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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