The Queen is Dead: Katharine of Aragon's Funeral

Katharine of Aragon died January 7, 1536, and was buried twenty-two days later in St. Peterborough Cathedral. It seems like an incredibly long time between death and burial, but it was common for royals in the era. Funerals for the Tudors were elaborate affairs that involved a great deal of preparation.

After Katharine breathed her last, her death was announced, and church bells tolled. Henry VIII celebrated when he was told the woman who had stubbornly insisted she was his wife was dead. He ordered she be buried with the pomp and ceremony due a princess dowager - the title she had as the wife of his dead brother. It wasn't a sign of respect; it was once again to make the point she was never legally his wife.

Katharine's chamberlain wrote to Cromwell, offering an easy solution for the immediate issues.

 "The Groom of the Chandlery [candles] here can cere [embalm] her," but he added that a plumber (leadworker) needed to be sent for quickly to seal her in a coffin, "for that may not tarry."

Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, wrote to the emperor about his suspicions that Katharine had been poisoned.

The good Queen breathed her last at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Eight hours afterwards, by the King's express commands, the inspection of her body was made, without her confessor or physician or any other officer of her household being present, save the fire-lighter in the house, a servant of his, and a companion of the latter, who proceeded at once to open the body.
Neither of them had practised chirurgy, and yet they had often performed the same operation, especially the principal or head of them, who, after making the examination, went to the bishop of Llandaff, the Queen's confessor, and declared to him in great secrecy, and as if his life depended on it, that he had found the Queen's body and the intestines perfectly sound and healthy, as if nothing had happened, with the single exception of the heart, which was completely black, and of a most hideous aspect; after washing it in three different waters, and finding that it did not change colour, he cut it in two, and found that it was the same inside, so much so that after being washed several times it never changed colour.
The man also said that he found inside the heart something black and round, which adhered strongly to the concavities. And moreover, after this spontaneous declaration on the part of the man,my secretary having asked the Queen's physician whether he thought the Queen had died of poison, the latter answered that in his opinion there was no doubt about it, for the bishop [of Llandaff] had been told so under confession, and besides that, had not the secret been revealed, the symptoms, the course, and the fatal end of her illness were a proof of that.

Today, it's believed the black growth they described was a cancerous tumor, but Chapuys was convinced that the queen was killed by poison in some Welsh beer.

Katharine's internal organs were removed to try to stave off decay and were either buried in separate containers with the deceased, or sometimes sent to other locations. The account of Nicholas Sanders states that Princess Mary Tudor ("Bloody" Mary I)

...was opened by her Physicians and Surgeons, who took out her bowels, which were coffined and buried solemnly in the Chapel [of St. James Palace], her Heart being separately enclosed in a coffin covered with purple velvet, bound with silver. 

In this painting, you can see the cerecloth
bundled body within the coffin
Another queen, Eleanor of Castile, ended up in all sorts of places. Her bowels (intestines and stomach) were interred in Lincoln Cathedral, her heart was placed in Blackfriars Monastery, and the rest of her body was interred in Westminster Abbey.

The empty torso cavity was then stuffed with straw and herbs. I've seen mention of wax sometimes being poured into the cavity, but haven't confirmed it. Perfumed salve containing preserving spices and salts were often rubbed onto the body.

The body was then wrapped in cere cloth - waxed linen - and then coated with wax by the chandler. It was then wrapped in sheets of lead, forming a mummy-like bundle. This container was usually then set inside a coffin, but there's at least one known instance (Kateryn Parr) of the bundle being buried by itself in the earth.

Perfumes and spices were often poured into the coffin; the exhumers of royal graves sometimes reported the body lying in unidentifiable fluids. In 1761, an apothecary sent a bill to the palace for the supplies for the funeral of the queen:

… for fine double cere cloth, with a large quantity of very rich perfumed aromatic Powders for embalming her late Majesty's Royal Body, and a very large quantity of sweets to fill the coffin and urn [for the organs] with: a large quantity of Honey-water, and a very large quantity of Lavender-water and also a very large additional quantity of the same fine sweets. Honey and Lavender-waters to new fill the Coffin in the Royal Vault.
The embalming was now compete and the elaborate funeral ceremonies could begin.

Katharine's body could not be left alone. When Jane Seymour died, the king split for Windsor and it was left to her ladies to take watch until the embalmers took over. Princess Mary Tudor was her chief mourner for Jane, and she joined in this solemn task. She had been denied permission to perform these duties for her own mother; one wonders if she mourned Katharine at Jane's ceremonies.

Katharine's short will had made a few bequests to her servants. She had left her gowns to be used to make church vestments, and the fur trim from them to her daughter. She requested to be buried in the Chapel of the Observant Friars. Chapuys went to visit the king to see about her burial and whether the conditions of her will would be met.

On these points Cromwell replied to one of my servants, that as to the burial, it could not be done where she had desired, for there remained no convent of Observants in England; but as to the rest, everything would be done as regards the Princess and the servants as honourably and magnificently as I could demand. Next day I sent my man to the Court to Cromwell, to ascertain the whole will of the King on the subject. [...] At the end he spoke to him more coolly than he had done the day before, adding the condition that the King wished first to see what the robes and furs were like, and that if the Princess wished to have what had been given her she must first show herself obedient to her father, and that I ought to urge her to be so.

As to the burial, the King said the same as Cromwell, that the bequest of her robes to the Church was superfluous, considering the great abundance of ecclesiastical vestments in England, and that although the Queen's will was not accomplished in this respect, something would be done in the abbey where she should be interred that would be more notable and worthy of her memory; that the abbey intended for her was one of the most honorable in all England. It is 17 miles from where she lived, and is called Pittesbery (Peterborough). As to the servants, it concerned nobody so much as himself to requife their services, as he had appointed them to her service. As to the Princess, it depended only on herself that she should have not merely all that her mother left her, but all that she could ask, provided she would be an obedient daughter.

Henry stated he did not want to do anything more than was "requisite and needful" for the tomb of a princess dowager - the title she had as his brother's widow - and it was probably at his behest that the funeral sermon included the claim that on her deathbed, Katharine had admitted she was never truly Henry's wife.

Katharine's wake was described thus by the French ambassador:

The next day, Friday, 26, was provided, in the chamber of presence, a hearse with twenty-four tapers, garnished with pensils and other decencies. Also, in the same chamber was provided an altar, for mass to be said, richly apparelled with black, garnished with the cross, images, censers, and other ornaments; and daily masses were said by her chaplains. The corpse was reverently conveyed from the place where she died, under a hearse covered with a rich pall of cloth of gold, and a cross set thereupon; lights were burning night and day upon the altar all divine service time. All ladies were in mourning habits, with white kerchiefs over their heads and shoulders, kneeling about the hearse all service time in lamentable wise, at mass forenoon and at dirige after.

Source: Luminarium
An effigy of Katharine was crafted, to lie on top of the coffin. Effigies were statues of the dead person, crafted from wax or wood, made to look as much like the deceased as possible, and were dressed in clothing that had belonged to them. Wax ones were often made from the person's death mask. (After the person died, they would smear plaster over their face and make a cast of it.) Some of these effigies have been preserved; Katharine's was not. Henry VIII's father's and mother's effigies are still in Westminster Abbey. That of his father is startlingly life-like.

Clothing in black was made for all of the participants in the funeral. Banners, palls, and other funerary items had to be crafted, as well. Funerals could be incredibly expensive for this reason. Queen Mary's funeral cost nearly eight thousand pounds - millions of dollars in today's terms.

Katharine's hearse was then drawn to Peterborough Cathedral.
Her funeral procession and service is described in the state papers:

First, 16 priests or clergymen in surplices went on horseback, without saying a word, having a gilded laten cross borne before them; after them several gentlemen, of whom there were only two of the house, et le demeurant estoient tous emprouvez, and after them followed the maître d’hotel and chamberlain, with their rods of office in their hands; and, to keep them in order, went by their sides 9 or 10 heralds, with mourning hoods and wearing their coats of arms; after them followed 50 servants of the aforesaid gentlemen, bearing torches and bâtons allumés, which lasted but a short time, and in the middle of them was drawn a wagon, upon which the body was drawn by six horses all covered with black cloth to the ground.
The said wagon was covered with black velvet, in the midst of which was a great silver cross; and within, as one looked upon the corpse, was stretched a cloth of gold frieze with a cross of crimson velvet, and before and behind the said wagon stood two gentlemen ushers with mourning hoods looking into the wagon, round which the said four banners were carried by four heralds and the standards with the representations by four gentlemen.
This is the funeral of Elizabeth I,
but Katharine's procession and banners
would have been very similar.
The mourners in this image are walking next to
the hearse; the effigy can be seen
lying on top of the coffin.
Then followed seven ladies, as chief mourners, upon hackneys, that of the first being harnessed with black velvet and the others with black cloth. After which ladies followed the wagon of the Queen’s gentlemen; and after them, on hackneys, came nine ladies, wives of knights. Then followed the wagon of the Queen’s chambermaids; then her maids to the number of 36, and in their wake followed certain servants on horseback.

The hearse rested in the cathedral for three days, surrounded by one thousand burning candles, before a final mass was said and the coffin interred in her tomb below the floor. Katharine of Aragon was laid to rest, and her soul was hopefully at peace.

There's an old story that Katharine's faithful friend, Maria de Salinas, was buried in the same tomb as Katharine, and the tomb was opened in 1777 to see if it was true. Only one body lay within. The Victorians - ever constant with their ghoulish curiosity, opened Katharine's tomb again, and found only one occupant.

Try though he might, Henry could never erase Katharine from the hearts and minds of the English people. Even after her death, she was still revered.

One hundred years after she died, Katharine had a miracle attributed to her. In 1640, a man with a tumor growing on his forehead claimed to have dreamt of water dripping on her tomb. When he visited the church and saw water on the slab, he dipped his finger into it and was cured of the growth.

Descriptions of the tomb Henry built for Katharine are somewhat vague, and it seems it was dismantled, piecemeal, over the years. Her hearse seems to have have been left in place as it's described as being destroyed in 1643 during the English civil war because it had an altar in it. During that period, the gilding on the tomb was stolen, and the black marble ended up being used for a floor of one of the dean's summer houses. According to The Cathedral Church of Peterborough A Description Of Its Fabric And A Brief History Of The Episcopal See by W.D. Sweeting,

Queen Katherine of Arragon was buried in the north choir aisle, just outside the most eastern arch, in 1535 [actually 1536]. A hearse was placed near, probably between the two piers. Four years later this is described as "the inclosed place where the Lady Katherine lieth," and there seems to have been a small altar within it. Some banners that adorned it remained in the cathedral till 1586. About the same time some persons were imprisoned for defacing the "monument," and required to "reform the same." The only monument, strictly so called, of which there is any record, was a low table monument, raised on two shallow steps, with simple quatrefoils, carved in squares set diamond-wise. Engravings of this shew it to have been an insignificant and mean erection. A few slabs of it were lately found buried beneath the floor, and they are now placed against the wall of the aisle. One of the prebendaries repaired this monument at his own cost, about 1725, and supplied a tiny brass plate with name and date, part of which remains in the floor. This monument was removed in 1792.

Source: Wikipedia commons
Afterward, Katharine's grave remained mostly unadorned until Katharine Clayton, the wife of one of the cathedral canons, had the idea of making an appeal to English women named Catherine to help her restore Katharine's resting place to something befitting a queen.

An engraved marble slab was installed and a grille with the gilded words KATHARINE QUEEN OF ENGLAND was mounted above. 

Mary of Teck (consort of George V) ordered that the banners of a queen - the arms of England and Spain - be hung above, giving back Katharine's due honors after 400 years.

The memorial plaque installed calls her:

A queen cherished by the English people for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion.

Today, visitors still leave pomegranates on her tomb, and every year, the cathedral hosts a festival in Katharine of Aragon's honor. There is also a current movement to have Katharine named as a saint in the Catholic Church.


  1. Beautiful England with her countryside and magnificent cathedrals..Henry VIII sure made a mess of things

  2. Even outside the commemorative festival period, you will find bouquets of flowers left from time to time at the site marked by the plaque, often with cards indicating that the mourners are of Spanish nationality.

  3. Katharine of Aragon, my favorite of Henry VIII's wives and the first one he mistreated. Well-educated, the daughter of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, her marriage to Henry lasted 24 years. All five of the subsequent marriages lasted only a total of 10 years. God bless Queen Elizabeth II's grandmother Queen Mary for restoring Queen Katharine's rightful title. Henry VIII was a monster.It would serve him right if he had to spend eternity in heaven with the 6 women he abused. Of course, then, heaven wouldn't be very heavenly or peaceful. :-)