Katharine of Aragon's Heartbreak

Despite my obvious love for Anne Boleyn, I admire Katharine of Aragon. She was a woman of strength and courage, willing to suffer for her convictions. Her life was not easy, nor was it particularly happy, but she retained her faith and kindness through it all.

Katharine deeply loved Henry VIII - possibly the only one of his wives who did. Hers was a love that grew from adversity, beginning when Henry "rescued" her from the genteel poverty and isolation thrust upon her by her father and father-in-law's bickering over her dowry and maintenance, and persisted through years of heartache and loss.

Highly educated and pious, Katharine also had a warm, generous heart. She was a champion for female education, spoke five languages, and was the first female ambassador in European history. The English people adored her. She was the perfect Renaissance queen ... in all respects but one.

Henry lied and said his father's deathbed wish was that he would wed the Spanish princess. Why? Perhaps he fancied himself in love with Katharine, then at the peak of her beauty. With her strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and flawless pink complexion, Katharine was a stunner. Her downcast eyes hid a sharp intelligence, but her gentle smile revealed her warm and generous heart. The daughter of the "Catholic Kings" of House Trast├ímara was also the perfect bride to help cement the Tudor's shaky claim on the English throne. (Katharine's ancestral claim was actually stronger than Henry's.)

Sir Thomas More was enraptured by Katharine when he first met her in 1501, and his esteem for her only grew over the years.
Ah, but the lady! Take my word for it, she thrilled the hearts of everyone: she possesses all those qualities that make for beauty in a very charming girl. Everywhere she receives the highest of praises; but even that is inadequate.

As for Henry, it was no wonder Katharine fell in love with him. At the time, he was considered the handsomest prince in Europe, and like many sociopaths, Henry could be extremely charming when he wished. He was musical, athletic, and pious. He was also very playful. Katharine always pretended to be surprised that the highwayman who burst into her chamber demanding to dance with the queen was revealed to be Henry when he took off his mask.

The marriage seemed like a great success. Henry wrote love ballads to his bride, singing that I love true where I did marry. He wore armor decorated with her initials and her colors tied to his sleeve, riding in the lists under the name Sir Loyalheart.

Through twenty years of love, loss, war, and the political machinations of Europe, Katharine was her husband's steadfast partner. When he was absent from the country, Katharine ruled as regent, and she rode out in full armor to address the troops  she was sending to war against Scotland.

But sorrow and grief came as well. Only one of Katharine's many pregnancies resulted in a living child - and that a girl. England erupted in celebration when a prince was born, only to see him die at less than two months old. Miscarriages and stillbirths followed, though we're not sure of the exact number. It could be as high as eight or nine.

Various causes for the death of Katharine's babies have been suggested, from blood disorders to anorexia on the part of Katharine, but the real truth is likely more mundane: a combination of diet, environment, and not allowing the body to rest and heal before attempting conception again. And given the sixteenth century's methods of noble childrearing, it's a miracle any babies survived at all.

For a king, Henry was surprisingly faithful to Katharine. Though there were whispers of his pursuit of others, we only know of two women who were Henry's mistresses for certain: Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn. Henry's son with Bessie may have confirmed in his mind that the reproductive problem was with Katharine, not himself.

Katharine's body began to wear out from this endless succession of pregnancies. She gained weight, and her hair darkened as she aged. Her piety became almost fanatic. She fasted, made pilgrimages and offerings to shrines, and reportedly wore a hair shirt under her sumptuous gowns, begging God for heirs to her kingdom. But there was only loss. Her husband began contemplating putting Katharine aside before he even met Anne Boleyn.

Katharine's last pregnancy was in 1518. Henry wrote to Wolsey about it, saying this "dangerous time" was the reason he chose not to move the court to London. The child was lost despite his precautions. Henry ceased to have marital relations with Katharine in 1524, around the time it was accepted that Katharine would bear no more children.

In late 1526 or early 1527, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn and became serious about the idea of setting Katharine aside. He was certain he would have sons with Anne. All he had to do was convince the pope that his marriage to Katharine was invalid on the basis she had been married to his brother before him.

Katharine was stunned when Henry first suggested to her that they were not legally man and wife. Henry persuaded her he was just looking into the matter for his own conscience's sake, to make sure they were really, truly married. But behind the scenes, he was doing all he could to sever their union.

Katharine claimed the marriage to Prince Arthur had never been consummated. Henry responded by finding "witnesses" who said Arthur bragged about his sexual prowess. The pope dragged his feet on making a decision for seven years. While Henry waited, stewed, fumed, machinated, and planned, he lived in a court of two queens. Katharine still took her rightful place beside him, but every day, Anne Boleyn grew in power and influence.

In 1531, Henry banished Katharine from court and ordered her to stop referring to herself as his wife or queen. Worse, he separated her from her beloved daughter. For such a loving mother, it must have been agony for Katharine not to be able to contact Mary. In the last letter she was permitted to send, Katharine warned Mary that Anne Boleyn might seek to have them martyred and to keep her soul prepared for it.

For her part, Katharine was convinced that it was all Anne Boleyn's fault. She blamed Anne for leading Henry into sin. It may be Katharine's influence that convinced Eustace Chapuys that it was Anne who put Henry into his "perverse tempers" and if it wasn't for her, he wouldn't be behaving this way.

Katharine blamed his advisors for blocking her access to Henry, for clouding his head with the delusions that they weren't legally husband and wife. She blamed everyone but Henry himself. Even as late as 1532, Katharine was still deluding herself that Henry wasn't really serious about ending their marriage.
[Katharine] said that if she could speak to [Henry], all that has happened would be nothing, as he was so good, and that he would treat her better than ever, but she is not allowed to see him.

Perhaps Henry's public speeches on the matter added to her hope.
And as touching the queen, if it be adjudged by the law of God that she is my lawful wife, there was never thing more pleasant nor more acceptable to me in my life both for the discharge and clearing of my conscience and also for the good qualities and conditions the which I know to be in her. For I assure you all, that beside her noble parentage of which she is descended (as you all know) she is a woman of most gentleness, of most humility, and buxomness, yea, and of all good qualities appertaining to nobility, she is without comparison, as I this twenty years almost have had the true experiment, so that if I were to marry again if the marriage might be good, I would choose her above all other women.

But the truth of the matter was that there was no way in hell Henry would accept a ruling that his marriage was valid. Cardinal Campeggio, sent on behest of the pope, wrote of meeting with the king about the matter:

Next day after dinner the King visited me privately, and we remained together alone about four hours, discussing only two things. First, I exhorted him not to attempt this matter, in order to confirm and clear his conscience, to establish the succession of the kingdom, and to avoid scandals; and that if he had any scruple, he could have a new dispensation. [...]
He told me plainly that he wanted nothing else than a declaration whether the marriage is valid or not,—he himself always presupposing its invalidity; and I believe that an angel descending from Heaven would be unable to persuade him otherwise.

Campeggio begged Katharine to enter a convent, a neat solution for all who were involved because it would end the marriage, yet preserve the rights of Princess Mary to the throne. Campeggio was not pleased with her response. Katharine was famed for her mild temperament and obedience, but in this matter, she would not be moved by any earthly force.

The queen stated that she had heard that we were to persuade her to enter some religious house. I did not deny it and constrained myself to persuade her that it rested with her, by doing this, to satisfy God, her own conscience, the glory and fame of her name, and to preserve her honours and temporal goods and the succession of her daughter.
I begged her to consider the scandals and enmities which would ensue if she refused. On the other hand, all these inconveniences could be avoided. She would preserve her dower, the guardianship of her daughter, her rank as princess, and, in short, all that she liked to demand of the king; and she would offend neither God nor her own conscience.

After I had exhorted her at great length to remove all these difficulties, and to content herself with making a profession of chastity, setting before her all the reasons which could be urged on that head, she assured me she would never do so: that she intended to live and die in the estate of matrimony, into which God had called her, and that she would always be of that opinion, and would not change it. She repeated this many times so determinedly and deliberately that I am convinced she will act accordingly.

She says that neither the whole kingdom on the one hand, nor any great punishment on the other, even though she might be torn limb from limb, should compel her to alter this opinion. I assure you from all her conversation and discourse, I have always judged her to be a prudent lady. But, as she can avoid such great perils and difficulties, her obstinacy in not accepting this sound counsel does not much please.

Katharine of Aragon was the rightful Queen of England and she would not budge, would not bend, would not break. She would obey her husband in everything - except what her conscience would not allow. She would not say her marriage was invalid, because that would be a lie. She would not recognize her husband as head of the church instead of the pope, because that would be a sin. Until her last breath, she fought for her rights and those of her daughter, Mary. The price of that fight was permanent separation from the child she loved so much.

Henry's Oath of Succession forced all of England to swear to the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne and Henry's position as Head of the Church. Most swore, but there were steadfast holdouts like Thomas More who went to the scaffold because they would not. Whenever Katharine was moved to new lodgings, there were reports of crowds that turned out to cheer for Queen Katharine. She was still very much beloved by her people, and many of Henry's cruel actions toward Katharine were attributed to Anne Boleyn, whose popularity was always tenuous. To this day, there are those who blame her for what Katharine endured.

Even after Henry married Anne, Katharine still believed there was a chance he would see the light and repent and return to her arms. Reportedly, Katharine prayed every day for her husband to come back to her. She loved him, still. After all of the pain and heartbreak, all of the cruelty he had inflicted on her and her daughter, Katharine still loved Henry to the depths of her being.

Slowly, Henry stripped everything away from her. Katharine ended up virtually alone. She refused to be served by anyone who would not address her as queen and so she ended up with a pitifully small retinue, living in the drafty, neglected Kimbolton Castle, eating food her servants prepared over her fireplace because she was so fearful of being poisoned by Anne Boleyn. The daughter of the "Catholic Kings" was reduced to living in one room, eating over the fireplace like a peasant.

In some respects, Henry was right: it was her choice. If she had agreed to his conditions, she could have lived in comfort, given the honors due a princess dowager, and been permitted to see Mary again. But agreeing to those stipulations would be agreeing to lies - agreeing to sin - in Katharine's eyes. She could not do it. And so she made the only choice her conscience would allow, despite her pain.

In the end, the reformation was as much Katharine's doing as it was Henry's. Her steadfast refusal to agree to an annulment or to enter a convent combined with the pope's refusal to act made Henry feel like he had no choice. He would get what he wanted and damn the consequences. And those consequences would echo for hundreds of years in bloodshed and strife.

Katharine was horrified by what had been unleashed as she saw "heresy" sweep through the kingdom, and the heads of great men bow to the axe. As she lay dying, Eustace Chapuys ensured her the heresy wasn't deeply ingrained in the land.

And as to the heresies here [I said] she knew well that God said there must of necessity be heresies and slanders for the exaltation of the good and confusion of the wicked, and that she must consider that the heresies were not so rooted here that they would not soon be remedied, and that it was to be hoped that those who had been deluded would afterwards be the most firm...

There is a letter that's purportedly from Katharine on her deathbed. Scholars are unsure of its authenticity, but its sentiments ring true.

My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles.
For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.
Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.
That last line is one of the most heartbreaking things ever written.

It had been arranged beforehand that when Katharine took her last communion, she would swear on the host that she had been a virgin when she married Henry. But, in the end, she didn't do it. Why? At the last moments of her life, did it not seem important? Or, had Henry really been telling the truth all along and Katharine did not want to meet her Maker with a lie on her lips?

Around two in the afternoon on January 7, 1536, Katharine of Aragon died. Chapuys reports that Henry ostentatiously celebrated when he heard the news, exclaiming that England was now freed from the danger of war. He and Anne, arrayed in yellow, paraded baby Elizabeth around to the courtiers at the feasts and jousts held afterward. However, Seigneur de Dinteville reported that Anne locked herself away in her oratory and wept after she heard the news. Had she - in the end  - respected her rival, despite everything?

Henry ordered that Katharine be given the funeral and 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.

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

One hundred years later, 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.

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 beloved by the people for her virtues. Today, visitors still leave pomegranates on her tomb, and every year, the cathedral hosts a festival in Katharine of Aragon's honor.

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