Catherine of Aragon - Early Life and First Marriage

From Spain to England

Catherine of Aragon, c. 1496, portrait by Juan de Flandes
Catherine of Aragon, c. 1496, portrait by Juan de Flandes. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Catherine of Aragon, whose parents united Castile and Aragon with their marriage, was promised in marriage to the son of Henry VII of England, in order to promote the alliance between the Spanish and English rulers.

Dates: December 16, 1485 - January 7, 1536
Also Known as: Katharine of Aragon, Catherine of Aragon, Catalina
See: more Catherine of Aragon Facts

Catherine of Aragon Biography

Catherine of Aragon's role in history was, first, as a marriage partner to strengthen the alliance of England and Spain (Castile and Aragon), and later, as the center of Henry VIII's struggle for an annulment that would permit him to remarry and try for a male heir to the English throne for the Tudor dynasty.

She was not simply a pawn in the latter, but her stubbornness in fighting for her marriage -- and her daughter's right to inherit -- were key in how that struggle ended, with Henry VIII separating the Church of England from the Church of Rome's authority.

Catherine of Aragon Family Background

Catherine of Aragon was the fifth child of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. She was born in Alcalá de Henares.

Catherine was likely named for her mother's grandmother, Katherine of Lancaster, the daughter of Constance of Castile who was second wife of John of Gaunt, himself son of England's Edward III. Constance and John's daughter, Catherine of Lancaster, married Henry III of Castile and was the mother of John II of Castile, Isabella's father. Constance of Castile was the daughter of Peter (Pedro) of Castile, known as Peter the Cruel, who was overthrown by his brother Henry (Enrique) II.

John of Gaunt tried to claim the throne of Castile on the basis of his wife Constance's descent from Peter.

Catherine's father Ferdinand was the great-grandson of Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt and his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. Philippa's brother was Henry IV of England.

Thus, Catherine of Aragon had considerable English royal heritage herself.

Her parents were also both part of the House of Trastámara, a dynasty that ruled kingdoms in the Iberian peninsula from 1369 to 1516, descended from King Henry (Enrique) II of Castile who overthrew his brother, Peter, in 1369, part of the War of the Spanish Succession -- the same Peter who was the father of Isabella's grandmother Constance of Castile, and the same Henry John of Gaunt tried to overthrow.

Catherine of Aragon Childhood and Education:

In her early years, Catherine traveled extensively within Spain with her parents as they fought their war to remove the Muslims from Granada.

Because Isabella regretted the lack of her own educational preparation when she became a ruling queen, she educated her daughters well, preparing them for their likely roles as queens. So Catherine had an extensive education, with many European humanists as her teachers. Among the tutors who educated Isabella, and then her daughters, was Beatriz Galindo. Catherine spoke Spanish, Latin, French and English, and was well-read in philosophy and theology.

Alliance with England Through Marriage

Catherine was born in 1485, the same year Henry VII seized the crown of England as the first Tudor monarch.

Arguably, Catherine's own royal descent was more legitimate than Henry's, who was descended from their common ancestor John of Gaunt through the children of Katherine Swynford, his third wife, who were born before their marriage and later legitimized but declared ineligible for the throne.

In 1486, Henry's first son, Arthur was born. Henry VII sought powerful connections for his children through marriage; so did Isabella and Ferdinand. Ferdinand and Isabella first sent diplomats to England to negotiate Catherine's marriage to Arthur in 1487. The next year, Henry VII agreed to the marriage, and a formal agreement including dowry specifications was drwan up. Ferdinand and Isabella were to pay the dowry in two parts, one when Catherine arrived in England (traveling at her parents' expense), and the other after the wedding ceremony.

Even at this point, there were some differences between the two families over the terms of the contract, each wanting the other to pay more than that other family wanted to pay.

Henry's early recognition of the unification of Castile and Aragon in the Treaty of Medina del Campo in 1489 was important to Isabella and Ferdinand; this treaty also aligned the Spanish with England rather than France. In this treaty, the marriage of Arthur and Catherine was further defined. Catherine and Arthur were far too young to actually marry at that time.

Challenge to Tudor Legitimacy

Between 1491 and 1499, Henry VII also had to contend with a challenge to his legitimacy when a man asserted himself to be Richard, duke of York, son of Edward IV (and brother of Henry VII's wife Elizabeth of York). Richard and his older brother had been confined to the Tower of London when their uncle, Richard III, seized the crown from their father, Edward IV, and they were not seen again. It's generally agreed that either Richard III or Henry IV had them killed. If one had been alive, he'd have a greater legitimate claim to the English throne than Henry VII did. Margaret of York (Margaret of Burgundy) -- another of the children of Edward IV -- had opposed Henry VII as a usurper, and she was drawn into supporting this man who claimed to be her nephew, Richard.

Ferdinand and Isabella supported Henry VII -- and their future son-in-law's inheritance -- by helping to expose the pretender's Flemish origins. The pretender, whom the Tudor supporters called Perkin Warbeck, was finally seized and executed by Henry VII in 1499.

More Treaties and Conflict Over the Marriage

Ferdinand and Isabella began secretly exploring marrying Catherine to James IV of Scotland. In 1497, the marriage agreement between the Spanish and English was amended and treaties of marriage were signed in England. Catherine was to be sent to England only when Arthur turned fourteen.

In 1499, the first proxy wedding of Arthur and Catherine was held in Worcestershire. The marriage required a papal dispensation because Arthur was younger than the age of consent. The next year, there was new conflict over the terms -- and especially over payment of the dowry and Catherine's arrival date in England. It was in Henry's interest for her to arrive earlier rather than later, as payment of the first half of the dowry was contingent on her arrival. Another proxy wedding was held in 1500 in Ludlow, England.

Catherine and Arthur Marry

Finally, Catherine embarked for England, and arrived in Plymouth on October 5, 1501. Her arrival took the English by surprise, apparently, as Henry's steward did not receive Catherine until October 7. Catherine and her large accompanying party began their progress towards London. On November 4, Henry VII and Arthur met the Spanish entourage, Henry famously insisting on seeing his future daughter-in-law even if "in her bed." Catherine and household arrived in London on November 12, and Arthur and Catherine were married at St. Paul's on November 14. A week of feasts and other celebrations followed. Catherine was given the titles of Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall and Countess of Chester.

As prince of Wales, Arthur was being sent to Ludlow with his own separate royal household. The Spanish advisors and diplomats argued whether Catherine should accompany him and whether she was old enough for marital relations yet; the ambassador wanted her to delay going to Ludlow, and her priest disagreed. Henry VII's wish that she accompany Arthur prevailed, and they both left for Ludlow on December 21.

There, they both became ill with the "sweating sickness." Arthur died on April 2, 1502; Catherine recovered from her serious bout with the illness to find herself a widow.

Next: Catherine of Aragon: Marriage to Henry VIII

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