Catherine of Aragon was King Henry VIII’s first wife and longest-lasting Queen of England. Although Catherine's successor Queen Anne Boleyn suffered an infamously dark fate, Aragon's own life was somehow even more tragic. Let’s just say that when it comes to marrying King Henry VIII, first is definitely worst.
For all that Catherine was doomed to tragedy, her childhood was charmed. Her mother and father were no less than King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, a royal power couple of the time. The pair gave their daughter lessons in cunning, courting, and statecraft…and she’d need all of them to survive her husband King Henry VIII.
From a young age, it was clear that Catherine was going to be a looker.
She had long auburn hair, bright blue eyes, and a cherubic face. People actually called her “the most beautiful creature in the world," and one courtier noted, "There were few women who could compete with the Queen in her prime". Once that “prime” ended though, it was quite a different story.
Catherine’s path to King Henry VIII was almost as dramatic as her actual marriage. For one, she started out betrothed to his brother, not him. That's right, her ambitious parents arranged her engagement to Henry's older sibling Prince Arthur, the heir to England.
But it gets creepier. Catherine was just a toddling three years old at the time.
Even people in Medieval times thought that three was a little young to get hitched, so everyone did the patient thing and…waited until Arthur turned 15, which is obviously the exact age all boys turn into emotionally-responsible men. When the clock struck “teen,” Catherine carted herself off to London to meet her groom. It did not go as she planned.
The teenagers had become pen-pals over the long years of their childhood betrothal, corresponding in Latin to get over their Spanish-English language barrier. Throughout these long letters, they built up hopes about each other and developed desperate, teenage crushes. Except their first impression couldn’t have gone worse.
Catherine’s first meeting with her Prince Charming was kind of a disaster. The young lovers tried to converse in Latin, their own private language of love…and found out that they had different pronunciations. So different, in fact, that they couldn’t even understand each other. Like it or not, though, the wheels had been set in motion.
Prince Arthur and his Spanish princess officially married on November 14, 1501 in a stately, lavish ceremony that fit their ranks as royals. Right before the wedding, Catherine’s new beau even promised his parents he would be a “true and loving husband” to his wife. Little did he know, immense tragedy was around the corner.
Catherine of Aragon and Arthur posted up near Wales to wile away their teenaged honeymoon. Mere months later, their celebrations turned to terror. The fatal "sweating sickness" was ravaging the area at the time, and they both fell desperately ill, likely with the sickness. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Bedridden and delirious, Catherine spent the next days fighting for her life. When she pulled through, it was an absolute miracle—yet the young princess didn’t come out unscathed. Though she survived, she awoke to find that her young husband had not. At 16 years old, Catherine was a widow…and this was dangerous in more ways than one.
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The minute she became Arthur’s widow, Catherine’s position was incredibly precarious. Her father-in-law, King Henry VII, was anxious to keep her dowry dollars, and sending her back to Spain meant giving a full refund.
What he suggested next was utterly disturbing. The 45-year-old monarch wanted to marry her himself. Ew.
Eventually, Catherine’s parents protested so much about a creepy old man marrying their teen daughter that the king relented. Yet this only put the poor girl on a much darker path.
The old king’s replacement suitor was his younger son, the future King Henry VIII. With a marital lead-up like that, how could it get worse for Catherine? **nervous laughter**
In fact, even Catherine’s betrothal to Henry VIII was an absolute nightmare. Their marriage was delayed, partly because Catherine was five years older than the growing Henry, but mostly because her stingy father was super slow in handing over the rest of her dowry. In the meantime, Catherine sat waiting in London—and the conditions were brutal.
The old King Henry VII posted Catherine up in Durham House in London, but this was anything but the royal treatment.
Alone in a foreign country, Catherine was practically penniless in the drafty manor, and had to not only support herself but also her ladies-in-waiting. But then the English royal family had to go and make it horrific.
During this time in limbo, relations between England and Spain deteriorated, and many started betting the marriage wouldn’t go through at all. Then Prince Henry dealt her a crushing blow. In 1505, the literal minute he turned 14 and had a say in the matter, Henry refused to marry the Spanish princess.
Catherine had to think very fast to keep her crown.
Catherine and her father came up with a brilliant solution to stay in royal favor. Daddy Ferdinand suggested that instead of royal bride, Catherine become the “Spanish Ambassador” to England, making her Europe's first female ambassador in the process. It worked, and Catherine got to stay in England and win Henry back.
..even though he 100% wasn't worth it.
The entire time she was in this purgatory, Catherine’s father-in-law King Henry was constantly trying to test and manipulate her. Well, he gravely underestimated the girl. Catherine was one smart cookie; as she wrote to her father, “I choose what I believe, and say nothing. For I am not as simple as I may seem". Her cunning eventually won her the crown.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Catherine of Aragon remained astoundingly single of purpose about becoming the Queen of England. Devout and stubborn, she felt it was her destiny to rule, and took everything Henry and his father threw at her—which was heck of a lot—with a shrug. As we’ll see, this steeliness only grew throughout her life.
Catherine’s marriage to Henry was actually unimaginably scandalous for the time. Because she had already been married to his brother, they had to get special dispensation from the Pope for the union.
Even then, the royals only got a reluctant go-ahead...and only after Catherine made a extremely controversial confession.
Henry and Catherine's petition to the Pope hinged on a single claim: Catherine’s assurance that she and Arthur had never consummated their union. As they were both scrawny, nervous teenagers too busy trying to survive the sweating sickness to get it on, this may very well be true.
Either way, it would still come back to haunt Catherine.
After seven long years, Henry finally “stooped” to marry Catherine. Still, he picked a good time to do it. When the now 23-year-old Catherine walked down the aisle on June 11, 1509, Henry had been newly crowned king. Accordingly, Queen Catherine had her own lavish coronation just a handful of days later.
The good times did not keep rolling.
The one area where Henry wasn't horrific was in the looks department. In his best years with Catherine, he was a strapping, auburn-haired athlete who loved hunting as much as he loved his Humanist education. Still, King Henry VIII was only a 17-year-old teenager when he married Catherine, and his immaturity started to show.
Just two months after her wedding and crowning, Catherine was overjoyed to find herself pregnant. But her excitement soon turned into a profound sense of loss. Five months later, she went into premature labor and gave birth to a stillborn girl. The young couple were filled with grief, but sadly, that was just the first in a series of cruelties.
Catherine had a child who “disappeared”. After she suffered her first of many miscarriages, her stomach remained puffy, probably from infection. Yet this caused her doctors to believe that she had been carrying twins and one had survived, even as Catherine continued to menstruate. So she had yet another indignity ahead of her.
It’s not a stretch to say that pre-natal care was…experimental in 1510. So, armed with the tragically false hope that she had another baby on the way after her miscarriage, Catherine went into seclusion again for the royal birth two months later. Of course, no child arrived, and the young Queen was crestfallen all over again.
Around this time, Henry wasn’t helping marital matters one bit. He took mistresses even early on in their marriage, and at the absolute worst times. In 1510, right around the time Catherine was suffering the misery of her first stillbirth labor, Henry took up with either Elizabeth or Anne Hastings, two beautiful nobles in his court.
Soon after her "twins" ordeal, Catherine was pregnant again—and this time things were different. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy, christened Henry, on January 1511. At the sight of a living baby, and a boy at that, the young royals breathed a sigh of relief and popped open the bubbly.
And then the other shoe dropped.
In February 1511, Catherine experienced a sudden and vicious shock. Her baby Henry passed after a mere 52 days on this Earth. Contemporary sources indicate the child suffered from a digestive issue, but this knowledge could have hardly soothed Catherine’s grief. Not to mention her husband was getting antsy for a healthy male heir…
Despite the ravages of their personal life, King Henry VIII gave Catherine almost unprecedented political power around this time, making her his Regent in 1513 while he went to France on campaign.
This was no mere rubber stamp, either: Though Henry was fighting on one border, Catherine quickly found herself alone and defending England against a different enemy.
While Henry was away in France, Scotland saw an opening and started invading England, assuming Catherine of Aragon was a weak woman and ruler.
Did Catherine back down? Heck no, she became a warrior queen. She helped raised armies, made banners, and marshalled allies. Then Catherine pulled off her most spectacular feat yet.
In September 1513, Catherine famously rode north in complete armor and regalia and gave an inspirational speech to her men, showing them what a queen she was.
But most people don’t know the best part. At the moment Catherine went full Boudicca on her enemies, she was actually seven months pregnant. And that wasn’t all…
Just to prove she was not a woman who got the vapors, Catherine sent her husband Henry the torn, bloody coat of King James IV of Scotland, who had perished in battle with her men. In a stunning move of statecraft, Catherine also suggested Henry use it as a banner in his own battles on the continent.
But this wasn’t even Catherine’s bloodiest idea.
As it turned out, Catherine originally wanted to send Henry much more than a coat-tail—she wanted to cart over King James' entire rotting corpse. The torn coat was just a consolation prize, since she realized that Englishmen were too “weak-bellied” to handle it—that was her exact word. Yet Catherine paid a high price for her valor.
Perhaps fuelled by all the stresses she was under, Catherine went into premature labor again on September 17, 1513, just days after rallying her men. It was another boy, and it was another stillbirth. Then next year, the same unbearable tragedy happened again. This made her fourth failed pregnancy in five years, and the queen was desperate for a win on the homefront.
In 1516, Catherine finally got a break…sort of. That winter, she gave birth to her one child who would survive into adulthood, the future Queen Mary I of England. After half a decade of trying for a healthy child, you’d think King Henry VIII would be happy with a live daughter. Instead, his response was utterly disturbing.
Henry was dejected at the thought that after a string of stillborn sons, he now had a healthy daughter to feed.
In fact, he even consoled Catherine by saying that since this one was a girl, it meant a better chance for a boy the next time. No, Henry didn’t understand basic laws of probability, but he also didn’t understand basic human decency, either.
Around this time, Henry had been seeing yet another mistress, this time the cheeky good-time gal Bessie Blount. Though Catherine seemed to permit most of his dalliances, this one drove her mad.
Not only did Henry carry on the affair for three long years, Blount even gave birth to a healthy boy, Henry’s illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy.
Catherine’s final pregnancy happened 1518, and it was absolutely heartbreaking. By now, the Queen was in a frenzy for a living son, and even made a pilgrimage to a shrine to beg God for a healthy boy.
It was not to be. She gave birth to a fragile daughter who lived only a few hours. Some say that at this point, Catherine’s fate was sealed.
When the 1520s rolled around with no male heir in sight, Henry and Catherine’s relationship was fraying at the edges—and then Catherine made a fatal error. In 1522, the queen got a viper in her nest when she hired the now infamous Anne Boleyn as her lady-in-waiting. Within three years, things had spiralled completely out of control.
Boleyn was a double threat to Catherine's crown. First, the bewitchingly beautiful Anne refused to sleep with Henry without a ring. But there was something even more sinister. Catherine was now past her childbearing years, whereas Anne was 11 years younger than Henry, and he still desperately wanted that heir.
He'd stop at nothing to get it.
Hot under the collar for the withholding Anne, Henry started thinking of every excuse in the book to drop Catherine like a hot potato. And when I say “the book” I mean The Bible: According to Henry, their union was cosmically cursed, all because he had broken God’s law when he married his brother’s widow. This did nothing to help their growing estrangement.
Anne Boleyn didn't underestimate Catherine’s intelligence. Once, Henry got into a tiff with Catherine that ended with her verbally annihilating him. Henry tried to lick his wounds with some soothing from Anne, but even she told the king, “Did I not tell you that whenever you disputed with the Queen she was sure to have the upper hand”? Drag him, Anne.
Catherine was aghast at Henry's attempts to deny their entire marriage. She knew she was the rightful Queen of England—she’d ridden pregnant into Scotland, for God’s sake—and was incensed at the tom-foolery. She also swore, literally to her dying day, that she’d really never consummated that first union with Arthur. But then Henry took it to the next level.
Henry VIII knew it was going to be a political and religious mess to disentangle himself from Catherine, so his first totally degrading angle was to convince his wife to go obediently into a convent, where she could spend the rest of her days rotting in relative comfort as a celibate nun.
Catherine’s response was legendary.
After hearing about her king’s brilliant plan to dump her in a nunnery, Catherine took big exception to the proposal. She reportedly snapped, "God never called me to a nunnery. I am the King's true and legitimate wife". Gonna take that as a hard no.
So, from Henry’s idiocy and Catherine’s stubbornness, “The King’s Great Matter” was born...
This “Great Matter” dragged on for years as Henry tried to get the Church to let him bed Anne Boleyn under the approving eye of God. Today, everyone knows it ended in revolution, with Henry taking over as Head of Church, annulling his own marriage, and starting the English Reformation.
But few know the cruel personal toll it took on Catherine.
Henry was truly a guy to cut and run. In July 1531, he left Catherine on a hunting trip and never came back. Practically overnight, he made the decision to move the court with him, while leaving Queen Catherine and Princess Mary behind.
In a letter, Catherine complained that he didn’t even wake her up to say goodbye. And then Henry twisted the knife in.
Catherine never saw Henry again after that moment, but the King didn’t waste time with a silly thing called “remorse". Instead, he doubled down.
He banished Catherine from his court, and then installed Boleyn in her old rooms. Catherine later said of the trials, “It is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine”. And there was more to come.
For the next four years, Catherine moved from castle to castle on the outskirts of English society, and her habits grew more and more disturbing.
By the time she was at Kimbolton Castle, she imprisoned herself in one room of the house, leaving it only to attend Mass and denying herself almost all sustenance. Oh, there’s one more chilling detail.
During this time of exile, Catherine’s self-hatred seemed to know no bounds. Besides forced starvation and confinement, the once-and-former Queen took to wearing a hair shirt, a coarse and uncomfortable garment that was meant to “mortify” the flesh, AKA torment the wearer, irritate their skin, and promote repentance. Um, repent for what?
Once Henry dropped all pretense of loving or cherishing his wife, the gloves really came off. When he banished Catherine from the castle, he also banished her from seeing or even talking to their only daughter Mary, a cruelty Catherine could hardly bear. In fact, she often risked treason charges and secreted out letters to her beloved girl.
King Henry VIII was a piece of work in person, and he was also a piece of work in his letters. Not content to let Catherine live in any kind of serenity, Henry frequently wrote nagging missives to her, demanding, wheedling, or whining at her to recognize Anne Boleyn as the true Queen of England.
Sometimes he even tried a more immoral tactic....
Henry wasn’t above bribery in these letters either, and offered both Catherine and his daughter Mary better living quarters and lives if they would just acquiesce to his man-child demands. But hey, Catherine of Aragon was spending her days in a freaking hair shirt at this point, what did she care?
She staunchly refused.
Why did so many of Catherine’s pregnancies fail? The possible reason is utterly tragic. In recent years, some have argued that Catherine suffered from anorexia. During her young widowhood, uncertainty and poverty made Catherine frequently ill and depressed. This physical trauma may have led to future fertility problems.
Catherine was as tough a broad as they come, and despite the immense pressure against her, she never stopped referring to herself as the true Queen of England. She also demanded that her servants do the same, addressing her with all the glory of her rightful rank.
Henry, however, came up with more disrespectful names for his ex…
After denying her the crown, Henry sealed the deal by insisting on calling Catherine the “Dowager Princess of Wales”. Sure, that sounds kind of respectful, but it gets a whole lot more insulting once you realize that this title pointedly turns her into merely Prince Arthur’s widow, and makes no reference to her previous title of "Queen".
In less than 10 years time, Catherine had staggered through a lifetime of pain, and her health was never the same after the initial shock of Henry’s annulment proposal. By 1535, she felt herself growing weaker and weaker with a strange malady (more on that later).
Knowing the end was near, she reportedly penned a last letter to her husband—and its contents were heartbreaking.
Catherine’s purported final to letter Henry functions as a last will and testament, an accusation, and an absolution all in one. In it, she forces him to remember his wrongs toward her, but also writes, “For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also”. But it’s the last lines of the letter that hit hardest.
In her closing lines, Catherine directs Henry to take care of their daughter Mary, but ends with a tender show of her own affection for him, even after all these years and all his petty attacks.
As she wrote, “Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things”. In true fashion, she signed the letter “Katharine the Quene”.
Like her husband, Catherine did not age well. By her 30s, her famous youthful beauty had withered. Catherine had understandably gained weight and had visible markers of stress from endless failed pregnancies; a Venetian ambassador courteously described her as “somewhat stout”. Less kindly, King Francis I once outright called her “old and deformed”.
In 1533, for all of her valiant fighting, Catherine’s jig was up. That year on May 23, Henry finally got the Archbishop of Canterbury to say their marriage was null and void.
Five days later, he was officially declared married to Anne Boleyn shortly after they tied the knot in a secret ceremony. Catherine was now a forgotten Queen.
Oddly enough, Catherine and Arthur’s wedding night was the only public royal bedding of the English in the 16th century, with courtiers following them into the chamber before leaving them alone to do the "deed". An eyewitness also says Arthur boasted the next morning about having been "in the midst of Spain," though this might have been teenage bravado. When it comes to their "consummation," we will probably never know the truth.
Years into their estrangement, Catherine was still sewing Henry’s shirts for him, even though he was now basically living with Anne Boleyn. When Anne found out, she was understandably upset.
Henry, however, thought it was NBD because Catherine had always made his shirts. Why let a little thing like emotional adultery stop a good thing like free needlework?
Catherine had an immense and world-shaking amount of fertility issues, but it might be even worse than we imagined.
Debate rages about how many pregnancies and miscarriages Catherine had, but the highest estimations say she could have had up to nine pregnancies, with only one leading to the viable brith of Queen Mary I.
In case you need any more proof that Henry was totally in the wrong, even his own sister Margaret was on Catherine’s side, and mostly wished her brother would shut up and stop embarrassing himself. Obviously, he did not.
Though Catherine of Aragon wasn’t exactly Henry’s favorite at home, the English people absolutely loved her from the moment they set eyes on her. Even her own enemy, Henry VIII’s courtier Thomas Cromwell, had to once admit, "If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History". I heartily endorse this fact.
By the early age of 40, Catherine had already gone through menopause. Perhaps if she'd been given a little more time, she could have saved her marriage and her crown.
Married to Henry for 23 years, 11 months, and 19 days, Catherine is ultimately the longest-serving of Henry VIII’s six queens.
In 1519, Henry caused an international scandal thanks to his love for Catherine and a beard-growing pact gone wrong.
At the time, Henry and the King of France had an alliance and agreed not to shave until they finally met in person. However, Catherine did not dig her husband’s “au naturel” look and told him to shave it off. Henry obeyed…to his great regret.
This act became a scandal to the French, since it appeared that Henry symbolically snubbed them for Spanish interests.
Fortunately, the ShaveGate drama cooled, and the King of France’s mom publicly assured the two monarchs’ “love is not in their beards, but in their hearts”. If only the other international hoopla between Henry and Catherine had ended so sweetly.
Throughout the "Great Matter," Catherine’s popularity with women was sky-high. Reportedly, an angry mob of “seven to eight thousand women” even tried to seize Anne Boleyn in Catherine’s name. Though probably exaggerated or untrue, the tale’s popularity testifies to Catherine’s appeal as the “spurned woman” against Anne’s “other woman”. They were the Jen and Angelina of their time!
Catherine of Aragon's ghost supposedly haunts Castle Lodge, Ludlow, where the young bride stayed in her first, brief marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales. Visitors report seeing an apparition of a teenaged girl in Tudor-era clothing. She floats through both the halls and the nursery that she never got to fill, perhaps longing for more hopeful times.
Catherine was among the most well-educated princesses of Europe. Taught by the famed cleric Alessandro Gerladini, the Spanish Princess mastered multiple languages, from Spanish and Latin to French and Greek. In addition, Catherine was schooled in arithmetic, law, classical literature, genealogy, history, philosophy, and theology.
When Catherine arrived in London for her first marriage, she did it in legendary—and revolutionary—style. Among her retinue were a group of African attendants, including the famous trumpeter John Blanke.
Though grossly considered “luxury servants,” they were nonetheless the first recorded Africans to ever enter London.
On January 7, 1536, Catherine passed at Kimbolton Castle after a bizarre illness. King Henry’s reaction was legendarily cruel. He and Anne Boleyn dressed up in celebratory yellow, though some claim this was a nod to the Spanish color of mourning and was actually a deferential act.
Either way, Catherine wrought one final vengeance on the pair from beyond the grave…
Fate’s a funny, twisted thing, and Catherine’s rival Anne Boleyn soon found that out. On the day of Catherine’s funeral—which was not fit for a Queen of England but for a mere Dowager—Anne miscarried. In a tragic irony to end all tragic ironies, that stillbirth also ended up being a baby boy.
Watch out for karma, it’ll get you.
The end of Catherine’s life may seem tragic, and it is. But it was also a glorious moment of girl power. Even though King Henry banned any of Catherine’s supporters from seeing her while she was on the brink of death, her best friend Maria de Salinas refused to let her go alone into the dark night—even if it meant risking execution.
Salinas spent her New Year’s in 1536 traveling nearly 60 miles on horseback to make it to her friend’s barred door. Then she came up with an ingenious plan.
Catherine’s demise was utterly mysterious in its time. While preparing her body for burial, her embalmer noticed the corpse was in perfect health—save for her heart, which had turned black. The ghastly and seemingly fatal condition, coupled with Catherine’s premonitions of her own demise, led people to some dark rumors about her end…
After witnessing her strange condition, those loyal to Catherine and disloyal to King Henry VIII and Queen Anne started whispering that the Royal Couple 2.
0 had poisoned Catherine in a chilling act of self-service, leading the “Dowager” to die poetically of a broken heart. Modern historians, however, believe a much different story.
Most experts today believe that rather than foul play, Catherine passed of cancer of the heart; sometimes it can turn the heart black.
Nonetheless, it's still tragically poetic given the circumstances of Catherine's life and her queenship.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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