Guest article by Samantha K Cohen
Catherine of Aragon was born on December 16th 1485, the year Henry VII established the Tudor dynasty. Elizabeth I died March 24th 1603, the year James VI of Scotland became James I of England.
As a child of three, Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile was betrothed to Henry VII’s heir, three year old Prince Arthur. In 1501, Catherine and Arthur both fifteen, were married. In 1502 Arthur died. The marriage lasted less than six months.
Henry VII wouldn’t let his young daughter-in-law return to Spain. Doing so would mean he’d have to return her dowry plus one-third of the revenue of Wales, Cornwall, and Chester. So Catherine stayed in England. On April 21st 1509, Henry VII died and his second son became Henry VIII. Nearly eighteen, Henry married Catherine, his brother’s widow.
With Catherine twenty-three and pretty, and Henry eighteen and lusty there was no reason to believe the marriage wouldn’t prove fruitful, and it did. Sadly though, of her six pregnancies only one child survived, a daughter, Mary.
Henry was desperate for a male heir and his mistress, Elizabeth Blount, having born him a son, proved the lack of an heir wasn’t his fault. Catherine, showing the signs of the stress she was under to bear Henry a son, worn out and old before her time, couldn’t hold him. Henry’s eye had already fallen on one of her ladies-in-waiting, the beguiling Anne Boleyn.
Anne’s sister Mary had been one of Henry’s mistresses. But if Henry thought Anne would warm his bed as easily as Mary did he was mistaken. La belle Anne had her sights set on marriage and no amount of persuasion would sway her. For Anne, it was marriage or nothing.
Putting aside an unwanted wife in the age of Henry VIII was easy enough, nunneries housed quite a few of them. But no amount of cajoling or threatening could make Catherine join their ranks. Determined, Henry searched for another way out of the marriage and found one. In the book of Leviticus, the Bible says, “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. Thy shall be childless.” Childless to Henry meant heirless. For the good of the succession to say nothing of his yearning of Anne, his marriage to Catherine had to be declared illegal.
The matter of whether or not Arthur and Catherine’s marriage had been consummated now became the pivot upon which the ‘King’s Great Matter’ balanced. If the marriage had been consummated then Henry could say his marriage to Catherine was against God’s will and therefore invalid. But Catherine declared upon her soul that she had never been known carnally by Prince Arthur. Yet the morning after their wedding Arthur declared he had ‘spent the night in Spain’.
In 1533 the ‘King’s Great Matter’ was resolved; Henry declared himself Supreme Head of a new Church of England. His archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, issued the decree of nullity. No longer queen of England, Catherine was exiled from court. At last Henry was free to marry Anne Boleyn, which he did, and on the 7th of September, 1533 she presented him not with a prince and heir but with a princess, the future Elizabeth I.
The question of Catherine’s virginity was a grave matter. In Henry’s case it was his immortal soul that could be in danger. Had Arthur ‘known’ Catherine? Was she a virgin when she married Henry? Whether a princess was or was not a virgin was not a private matter. It was a question of succession and therefore very much a public matter. The public could have to doubts about whose son the future queen bore.
The first assault on Elizabeth’s honour came during the Seymour Affair. She was fourteen when her governess, Kat Ashley, revelled circumstance that were damaging to her. Even more damaging to her was a rumor that she was pregnant with the Lord Admiral’s child. But she wrote the Protector denouncing ‘the shameful slander’ and saying ‘…that I may come to the court…that I may show myself there as I am.’ Elizabeth came out of the Seymour Affair with her head high yet it’s reasonable to believe that it left an indelible mark on her psyche.
Once queen, Elizabeth’s virginity became a matter of national importance; Parliament was obliged to remind her of her duty. Like Catherine, her soul purpose, besides ruling England, was to produce an heir. And like Catherine who had failed in her duty, she was failing in hers.
Catherine was highly educated with a sharp mind and ready intellect. It was said that Anne Boleyn advised Henry not to argue with Catherine as she would surely get the better of him.
As a princess, Elizabeth was given an education worthy of her rank and she used it well. The letter she wrote to the Protector during the Seymour Affair illustrated that. When the Protector read the letter he knew he would need all his skill to overreach her. The letter was pure genius.
That Catherine was brave was never in doubt. When Henry was campaigning in France and England was invaded by James IV of Scotland, Catherine was eager to march with her troops against him. It could have been her that said ‘I know I have the body of a weak feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too…’ but is wasn’t. It was Elizabeth, as brave in the face of war as Catherine was, that spoke those words to her troops before the expected landing of Parma’s army.
Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s wife, her nemesis was Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth I was Henry VIII’s daughter her mother was Anne Boleyn. Henry exiled Catherine and beheaded Anne. As for Elizabeth she was two years old and eight months old when Anne met her fate.
Catherine was a princess at the first blush of the Tudor reign; Elizabeth was a tired woman when the sun set on that golden era. Their paths never crossed, and yet their lives were so connect, so similar, from their golden-red hair to their stubbornness to their superior intelligence to their bravery when all the odds were against them, but above all to their unquestionable belief that they were Queen of England, and god help the man that dared to say otherwise.
The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth by Frederick Chamberlin
Queen Elizabeth by Mandell Creighton, D.D. Oxon. And Cam.
The Young Elizabeth The First 25 Years by Alison Plowden
Hanson, Marilee. “Katharine/Katherine/CatherineofAragon”<ahref=https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/catherine-of-aragon/>https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/catherine-of-aragon/</a>, February 4,2015
Katharine of Aragon: Appearance & Character https://tudortimes.co.uk/people/katharine-of-aragon-appearance-character/character