Its History, Actually: Catherine of Aragon
March 30, 2023

by Ian Langworthy Historian and Battlefield Guide

If you have seen or heard of the musical ‘Six’ you will know that the show claims that it was his wives that made Henry VIII famous, not the other way round. In the case of Catherine, they may have a point.

So what was Catherine’s connection to this area? And how did a Queen of England end up here? Catherine was effectively banished from court in 1531 and after a series of short stays in various royal abodes, she arrived in Buckden Towers in July 1533. At the time, known as Buckden Palace, it was the home of the Bishops of Lincoln. By now, Henry had married Anne Boleyn. Henry offered to provide better accommodation to Catherine and to permit her to see her daughter Mary, from whom she was forcibly separated if she would recognise his marriage to Anne. Catherine refused and in May 1534 she was sent to Kimbolton, at the time a medieval castle where she died in January 1536. After her death, Catherine was buried in Peterborough Cathedral where her body remains. More about that later.

So who was she and why is she such an important figure in the history of this country? Catherine was born in 1485, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, the two main provinces of Spain. When she was only three, Catherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur the son of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. They were married in 1501 when Catherine was 16. The betrothal and marriage was to cement a political alliance for the new Tudor dynasty.

Unfortunately, after a few months of marriage, both fell ill and although Catherine recovered, Arthur died. For the next eight years, Catherine was in limbo while Henry VII decided what to do with her (he even toyed with the idea of marrying her himself after his own wife died). Eventually, it was agreed that Catherine would marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who was now the heir to the throne. Catherine was by now 24. Henry, who had ascended to the throne on the death of his father, was six years her junior.

At first, all went reasonably well and in 1511 Catherine gave birth to a son, Henry, but he died within a few weeks. Two other sons followed but both were stillborn. A daughter, Mary, was born in 1516. Henry did have mistresses which was quite common in those days and did have an illegitimate son by one of Catherine’s maids, but Henry needed a legitimate son and heir to secure the Tudor dynasty. By 1525, Henry had been married to Catherine, who was now 40, for 16 years and there was no sign of any more children. He was also now besotted with Anne Boleyn and wished to marry her in the expectation that she would produce a son. Divorce was not permitted by the Catholic church and annulment was only permitted on very limited grounds. Catherine was a devout catholic and a devoted wife and Henry had no reason to end the marriage. He was advised to claim that his marriage to Catherine was unlawful in the eyes of the church because she had been married previously to his brother. There followed a lot of diplomatic activity the result of which was not a foregone conclusion, however as Henry had been given the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope for denouncing the heresies of the protestant reformer, Martin Luther and his followers (the title, abbreviated in Latin, still appears on our coinage). The upshot of it all, however, was that Henry failed in his attempt to have the marriage annulled.

So what was he to do? Henry broke from Rome and declared himself the Head of the Church of England, a position held by our monarchs to this day. He had no grounds to try Catherine for treason, (which was the fate of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard) she was a loyal, unimpeachable wife. Her only failing was not giving Henry a son. Henry annulled the marriage claiming that biblical teaching showed that the marriage was against God’s law. Catherine was banished from court and was under virtual house arrest until her death in 1536.

Just before her death, Catherine wrote to Henry, forgiving him for his treatment of her and professing her love for him. However, even in death, Henry was vindictive, refusing Catherine’s wish as to where she would be buried and refusing to permit a pilgrimage and the saying of masses in her name. Catherine’s daughter, the future Queen Mary I, was refused permission to go to the funeral and as a final insult, Catherine was buried not as a Queen, but as the Dowager Princess of Wales.

Catherine’s importance in our history is that as a result of Henry’s failure to provide a male heir, her steadfastness in her faith and devotion to him Henry broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England and England as a Protestant country.

Keep a lookout for the next article in our series of ‘It’s History, Actually’ in the coming months.