Meet the Wives Handbook: Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon was a born fighter. She began life on a war campaign against Spain's Moors. She died battling for her rights as queen and those of her daughter, Mary. As Shakespeare would write, she was "the Queen of earthly Queens."

Background: Overview

From the age of 11, Henry VIII's bridal prospects had focused on one woman: Catherine of Aragon. In 1501 this Spanish princess had come to England to marry Henry's elder brother, Arthur. When Arthur died a year later, Catherine was betrothed to the handsome new heir to the throne, Henry, six years her junior. Theirs would be a marriage whose repercussions would send shockwaves throughout Europe and forever change the course of English history.

Background: Looks & Personality

Catherine was said to have been a charming young girl, with red-gold hair she could sit on and prized pink-and-white coloring. Though fairly short and plump, her bearing was described as regal. Her voice, low and resounding, commanded respect. When this daughter of Spain arrived in England at the age of 16, writer Sir Thomas More observed that "there is nothing wanting in her that the most beautiful girl should have." She was every inch the daughter of Isabella of Castile, Spain's legendary warrior queen. An ironclad sense of duty and religious rectitude were Catherine's hallmark. Stubbornness was her shield. Stonewalled for years by Henry VII on her marriage to Prince Henry, she refused to yield to his demands and lived in near penury. Tough, resilient and resourceful, she would display the same self-reliance in her ultimate battle with Henry VIII. Education

Background: Education

From the age of three, Catherine of Aragon had known that her fate was to one day become queen of England. She was educated accordingly. At a time when many princesses were lucky if they could read and write at all, Catherine was schooled in Latin and French, religious texts, Roman history, philosophy, civil and church law plus traditional bridal skills - embroidery, music, dance, drawing and, even, cooking. In later years, the Dutch humanist thinker Erasmus would rate her education superior to that of her husband, Henry VIII. Catherine's mother, Isabella of Castile, a ruler in her own right, had taught herself Latin and was a strong believer in the value of a humanist education for her daughters. Henry VII wrote that he would give half his kingdom if Catherine displayed the talents of her mother. She would prove up to the task.

Background: Religion

Religion was at the core of this princess's upbringing. Her parents, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, were hailed by the pope as the "Catholic Kings." Catherine's mother gave birth to her while leading Spain's armies against the Muslim Moors. Catherine was seven when her parents defeated the Moors at their last Spanish outpost, Granada. She grew up during the Spanish Inquisition, the infamous campaign designed to rid Spain of its Muslim and Jewish populations. Catherine was taught not only that God sanctified a monarch's reign, but that he willed any marriage between king and queen. Though Catherine's own father, Ferdinand of Aragon, was a noted philanderer, it is unlikely that she ever questioned the sanctity of marriage. Throughout her life, her rock-solid Catholic piety would remain unchanged.

Background: Family Ties

When mention was made of Catherine's parents, Henry VII's reaction was simple: he bowed. Little wonder. Catherine was the youngest daughter of one of Europe's most famous royal power couples: Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose marriage had united Spain under one rule. Other dynasties would prove quick to capitalize on this position. Catherine's three sisters and brother would link her with Portugal, Austria, Burgundy , the Low Countries and various German principalities. One of her nephews would be the redoubtable Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. But Catherine also had ties to England itself. The Spanish princess's namesake and maternal great-grandmother had been Princess Katherine of Lancaster, a granddaughter of England's Edward III.

Background: Trouble Alert

Catherine's marriage in 1501 to Henry VIII's elder brother, Arthur, would haunt her for decades. To wed Henry, the question of whether or not she had consummated her union with this sickly prince was paramount. Catherine insisted she had not. Under church law, Catherine's prior marriage had made her Henry's sister. But that relationship was contingent on whether or not Arthur and Catherine had had sex. To hedge his bets, Catherine's father, Ferdinand of Aragon, received a dispensation, or special permission, from the pope that acknowledged that "perhaps" Catherine had consummated her union with Arthur. At the time, it seemed enough. But some 30 years later, this quandary from the past would supply a handy tool to a king eager for divorce.

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