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Catherine of Aragon

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, June 5, 2019


Illustration of Catherine of Aragon by Jim GodfreyCatherine of Aragon was Queen of England from 1509 until 1533, and Henry VIII’s first wife. Henry’s desire to annul his marriage with her led to the break with Rome which ultimately resulted in the Church of England as we know it.


Catherine comes to England

Catherine was born at the Archbishop's Palace in Alcalá de Henares near Madrid on 16 December 1485. She was the youngest surviving child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, whose marriage united Spain. They are best known for supporting and financing the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus which led to the discovery of the New World.

At three years old Catherine was betrothed to Henry VII's oldest son Arthur, who was two. In 1501, at the age of sixteen, Catherine arrived in England after a treacherous three-month sea voyage. She brought with her a group of African attendants, the first Africans recorded to have arrived in London at the time which caused a great impression about the power of her family. She was married to Prince Arthur, who by now was 15, in old St Paul's Cathedral in London. They moved to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border, though Catherine’s marriage to Arthur was to be short lived.

They both became ill, possibly with the sweating sickness, which was sweeping the area. Arthur died on 2 April 1502; Catherine recovered to find herself a widow. They had been married for only five months. Catherine stayed on in England and was betrothed to Arthur's younger brother, Henry, a marriage which depended on the Pope granting a dispensation as canon law forbade a man to marry his brother's widow (Leviticus 20:21). It was necessary for Catherine to testify that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated.


The rise of Henry VIII

In April 1509 Henry assumed the throne, and on 11 June that year he married Catherine in a private ceremony in the church of the Observant Friars outside Greenwich Palace. She was 23 years of age; Henry was just days short of his 18th birthday. On 24 June 1509 Catherine was crowned Queen of England at Westminster Abbey. It appears that for the first few years they lived happily together. Catherine was both dignified and devout and proved to be a competent regent when Henry was campaigning in France from 1512 to 1514.

In January 1510 Catherine gave birth to her first child, a daughter who was stillborn, marking the start of Catherine’s misfortune. A year later there were great celebrations over the birth of Prince Henry, though he also died soon after. In all she bore Henry six children, including three sons, but all her children died except for one, their daughter, Mary (later Mary I), born in 1516.

By 1525 Henry had become infatuated with Ann Boleyn, one of Catherine’s Ladies-in-Waiting, and in 1527 he asked the Pope for an annulment of his marriage so he could marry his new mistress, claiming that his marriage was cursed. However, Catherine refused to give in to Henry, repeating that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, and attracting much popular sympathy. For seven years the Pope refused to annul their marriage, afraid of angering Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain.

With Anne Boleyn now pregnant (with the future Elizabeth I) Henry wed her in secret in 1533. He then passed the Act of Supremacy in November 1534, declaring himself head of the English church, and appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, who annulled his marriage. Stripped of the title “Queen” and forbidden from seeing her daughter, Catherine lived out the rest of her life at Kimbolton Castle, dying there on 7 January 1536. She was buried at Peterborough Abbey. On the day of her funeral Anne miscarried a baby boy.


At Christ Church, St Frideswide’s Shrine was visited by Catherine in 1518. She was with the Royal Court, en route between Abingdon and Woodstock, and, on 16 April and pregnant for the last time, took the opportunity to visit Oxford (she lodged with the Warden of Merton College). There she prayed at the shrine for a healthy male heir. Her prayers went unanswered however, for on 10 November that year she gave birth to a stillborn baby daughter.