Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Catherine_of_Aragon_as_Mary_Magdalene.jpg

Most Tudor women that are well-known have been defined in relation to the infamous Henry VIII. Inspired by the hit musical SIX, I want this blog to help rewrite history as her-story, and show there are so much more to these Tudor women than Henry VIII and his decisions about their life (and death). This is their story. 

I’m kicking off my new blog by talking about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Catherine was a Spanish Princess who married not one but TWO princes of England, but somehow still managed to get shunted from the throne after 23 years of faithful marriage, with her reputation and virtue questioned and access to her daughter restricted. When people think of Catherine of Aragon, they tend to only remember the way her marriage ended as Henry moved on with a younger, sexier model. She is reduced to the few years in which her marriage went downhill and all her successes and happy years of marriage forgotten. I think I speak for every woman who has ever been dumped or divorced when I say that is NOT okay. This blog will show you that there is more to Catherine than being ‘the first wife’ that Henry VIII got rid of. 

Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the powerful joint Spanish monarchs. She married Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1501, but he died a mere 6 months later, leaving Catherine a widow aged only 16. What happened next would determine the course of Catherine’s life: instead of going back to Spain, she was left in limbo, stuck in England for 7 long years while her fate was debated by men. Catherine didn’t sit meekly back though — she demanded that her father sack his ambassador to England who had counselled him to abandon any more English marriage agreements. Catherine eventually got her way and when Henry VII died, his son the new king, Henry VIII, married Catherine.

Catherine and Henry were very happy together in their early years and she was his most trusted advisor. Sadly, over the course of their marriage Catherine only had one child, a daughter, who lived and Henry became more and more desperate for a son and heir. The next bit of Catherine’s story is well-known: Henry became entranced by Catherine’s lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn and began trying to find a way to divorce Catherine, despite the fact it was banned in the Catholic Church. The details of the long drawn out divorce are messy and unpleasant, with Catherine staunchly refusing the divorce (you go, girl!). Eventually, with a change of religion for the country, Henry managed to secure a divorce. Catherine spent the rest of her days in a nunnery with no access to her daughter Mary.  

The point of this blog however was not to rehash all the cruelties that Catherine was forced to endure. Instead I want to help rewrite her story and show that there is so much more to her than Henry VIII’s divorce. What you read next will hopefully convince you that Catherine was a badass queen and deserving of so much more than the way Henry treated her:

  • In 1507, Catherine’s father Ferdinand appointed her as the Aragonese ambassador to England. This made Catherine the first female ambassador in European history, which is pretty cool! 
    • Catherine was a good ambassador too: she managed to negotiate the sometimes tense relations between her family and her husband with finesse. 
    • One example is the signing of the Treaty of Westminster, which Catherine influenced. This formed an alliance between her father Ferdinand and England, against France.
  • Henry made Catherine regent of England while he was campaigning in France and she presided over the defeat of James IV of Scotland
    • While Henry was gone, James IV of Scotland decided to declare war on England, sensing they might be weak, and invaded the north of England. Catherine proved herself to be no weak miss and rode north in full armour to address and bolster her troops, despite the fact she was heavily pregnant at the time!
    • After the English victory at the Battle of Flodden, Catherine sent Henry a piece of the bloodied coat of James IV, who had died in battle, as a token. She had wanted to send his body to Henry but apparently the English were too ‘weak-bellied’ – Catherine’s words!
  • Catherine and her sisters were some of the most well-educated princesses of Europe. 
    • She mastered multiple languages, including Spanish, Latin, French and Greek. In addition, she was schooled in arithmetic, law, classical literature, genealogy, history, philosophy, and theology.
  • Catherine was very intelligent and this was not overlooked 
    • Anne Boleyn for one did not underestimate Catherine’s intelligence. When Henry got into an argument with Catherine that ended with her using her classical education to best him, Henry tried to get Anne’s pity but she sassed him saying, ‘Did I not tell you that whenever you disputed with the Queen she was sure to have the upper hand?’ Even Anne would admit that Catherine was much smarter than Henry. 
  • Catherine was nominated for the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ for her public denial of Martin Luther’s arguments against Catholicism.
    • Although spoiler: Henry ended up getting this title 
  • Catherine strongly supported female education 
    • Catherine commissioned a book by Alfonso de Villa Sancta, in defence of her daughter Mary’s education. 
    • The controversial book The Education of Christian Women by Juan Luis Vives, also advocated women’s right to an education. It was commissioned and dedicated to Catherine in 1524 and she used it for Mary’s education.  
  • Catherine insisted on being called Queen until her death despite pressure from Henry VIII and the court.
    • Upon her annulment, she was officially given the title ‘Princess Dowager of Wales’, which referred to her ‘real’ status as widow of Arthur. Yet until the day she died, Catherine refused this title and insisted her servants refer to her as the Queen.
    • She also insisted that her marriage to Henry was valid and that she was a virgin when they married.
  • Catherine acted in politics, both to support England and Spain
    • For example, through the Archbishop of York, she brought pressure on Pope Julius II to threaten James IV with excommunication if he invaded England to aid the French.
  • Catherine was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis as well as being Queen. At the same time. 
    • Catherine’s faith was even more important to her than her royal power. 
  • Catherine openly defied the King and Ecclesiastical Court on several occasions — can I say badass again? 
  • Catherine raised armies to suppress rebellions 
  • Catherine helped to fund universities 
  • Catherine was kind (one of the most important qualities both for a person and a monarch in my humble opinion)
    • She created welfare programs to benefit the poor
    • She pleaded for the lives of rebels to spare families the trauma 
    • She loved & honoured Henry even after he divorced her — years into their estrangement, Catherine was still sewing Henry’s shirts for him, even though he was basically living with Anne Boleyn
  • She survived the emotional trauma of having 5 children die before her 

Catherine was a strong and capable leader. She accomplished a lot in her 23 years of queenship, far more than Henry’s other wives. Importantly, Catherine knew what was right and she stuck to it. She endured some pretty difficult circumstances, but nonetheless did not betray her character. I hope I’ve shown that Catherine also had a life outside of Henry VIII and had her own successes. I will end with a quote from Thomas Cromwell. Although it is frustratingly sexist, it gives a strong sense of what an incredible person and queen Catherine was: “Nature wronged her in not making her a man. But for her sex, she would have surpassed all the heroes of history.”  

-Tia Shah
Contributing Writer
Girl Museum Inc.

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