Catherine of Aragon - Marriage to Henry VIII

From Widow to Wife to Mother: Was It Enough?

Catherine of Aragon, by artist Lucas Horenbout
Catherine of Aragon, by artist Lucas Horenbout. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Continued from: Catherine of Aragon: Early Life and First Marriage

The Dowager Princess of Wales

When her young husband, Arthur, Prince of Wales, died suddenly in 1502, Catherine of Aragon was left with the title of Dowager Princess of Wales. The marriage had been meant to solidify the alliance of the ruling families of Spain and England.

The natural next step was to marry Catherine to Arthur's younger brother, Henry, five years younger than Catherine. The political reasons for the marriage remained. Prince Henry had been promised to Eleanor of Austria. But fairly quickly, Henry VII and Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to pursue the marriage of Prince Henry and Catherine.

Arranging Marriage and Fighting Over Dowry

The next years were marked by acrimonious conflict between the two families over Catherine's dowry. Though the marriage had taken place, the last of Catherine's dowry had not been paid, and Henry VII demanded that it be paid. Henry reduced his support for Catherine and her household, to put pressure on her parents to pay the dowry, and Ferdinand and Isaella threatened to have Catherine return to Spain.

In 1502, a draft of a treaty between the Spanish and English families was ready, and the final version was signed in June 1503, promising a betrothal within two months, and then, after Catherine's second dowry payment was made, and after Henry turned fifteen, the marriage would take place. They were formally betrothed on June 25, 1503.

To marry, they would need a papal dispensation -- because Catherine's first marriage to Arthur was defined in church rules as consanguinity. The papers sent to Rome, and the dispensation which was sent from Rome, assumed that Catherine's marriage to Arthur was consummated. The English insisted on adding this clause to cover all possible objections in the dispensation. Catherine's duenna wrote at that time to Ferdinand and Isabella protesting this clause, saying that the marriage had not been consummated. This disagreement about the consummation of Catherine's first marriage was later to become very important.

Changing Alliances?

The papal bull with the dispensation arrived in 1505. Meanwhile, in late 1504, Isabella had died, leaving no living sons. Catherine's sister, Joanna or Juana, and her husband, Archduke Philip, were named Isabella's heirs to Castile. Ferdinand was still ruler of Aragon; Isabella's will had named him to govern Castile. Ferdinand contended for the right to govern, but Henry VII allied himself with Philip, and this led to Ferdinand's acceptance of Philip's rule. But then Philip died. Joanna, known as Juana the Mad, was not thought fit to rule herself, and Ferdinand stepped in for his mentally incompetent daughter.

All this contention in Spain made alliance with Spain no longer quite as valuable to Henry VII and England. He continued to press Ferdinand for payment of Catherine's dowry. Catherine, who had after Arthur died lived mostly apart from the royal court with her mostly Spanish household, still barely spoke English, and was often ill during those years.

In 1505, with the confusion in Spain, Henry VII saw his chance to have Catherine moved to court, and to reduce his financial support of Catherine and her household. Catherine sold some of her property including jewels in order to raise funds for her expenses. Because Catherine's dowry was still not fully paid, Henry VII began planning to end the betrothal and send Catherine home. In 1508, Ferdinand offered to pay the remaining dowry, at last -- but he and Henry VII still disagreed on how much was to be paid. Catherine asked to go back to Spain and become a nun.

Henry VII's Death

The situation changed suddenly when Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, and Prince Henry became King Henry VIII. Henry VIII announced to the Spanish ambassador that he wanted to marry Catherine quickly, claiming that it was his father's deathbed wish. Many doubt that Henry VII said any such thing, given his long resistance to the marriage.

Catherine the Queen

Catherine and Henry were married on June 11, 1509, at Greenwich. Catherine was 24 years old and Henry was 19. They had, in an unusual move, a joint coronation ceremony -- more often, queens were crowned after giving birth to the first heir.

Catherine became somewhat involved in politics that first year. She was responsible in 1509 for the Spanish ambassador being recalled. When Ferdinand failed to follow through on a promised joint military action to conquer Guyenne for England, and instead conquered Navarre for himself, Catherine helped to calm the relationship between her father and husband. But when Ferdinand made similar choices to abandon agreements with Henry in 1513 and 1514, Catherine decided to "forget Spain and everything Spanish."

Pregnancies and Births

In January, 1510, Catherine miscarried a daughter. She and Henry quickly conceived again, and with great rejoicing, their son, Prince Henry, was born on January 1 of the next year. He was made prince of Wales -- and died on February 22.

In 1513, Catherine was again pregnant. Henry went to France with his army from June to October, and made Catherine Queen Regent during his absence. On August 22, the forces of James IV of Scotland invaded England; the English defeated the Scots at Flodden, killing James and many others. Catherine had the bloody coat of the Scottish king sent to her husband in France. That Catherine spoke to the English troops to rally them to battle is likely apocryphal.

That September or October, Catherine either miscarried or a child was born who died very soon after birth. Sometime between November 1514 and February 1515 (sources differ on the dates), Catherine had another stillborn son. There was a rumor in 1514 that Henry was going to repudiate Catherine, as they still had no living children, but they remained together with no actual moves to separate legally at that time.

Changing Alliances -- and Finally, an Heir

In 1515, Henry again allied England with Spain and Ferdinand. The next February, on the 18th, Catherine gave birth to a healthy daughter who they named Mary, who would later rule England as Mary I. Catherine's father, Ferdinand, had died on January 23, but that news was kept from Catherine to protect her pregnancy. With Ferdinand's death, his grandson, Charles, son of Joanna (Juana) and thus nephew of Catherine, became the ruler of both Castile and Aragon.

In 1518, Catherine, 32 years old, was again pregnant. But on the night of November 9-10, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She was not to become pregnant again.

This left Henry VIII with a daughter as his only direct heir. Henry himself had become king only when his brother, Arthur, died, and so he knew how risky it was to have only a single heir. He also knew that the last time a daughter was the heir to the throne of England, Matilda daughter of Henry I, a civil war ensued when much of the nobility did not support a woman's rule. Because his own father had come to power only after the long unstable time of family contention over the crown with the War of the Roses, Henry had good reason to be worried about the future of the Tudor dynasty.

Some historians have suggested that the failure of so many of Catherine's pregnancies was because Henry was infected with syphilis. Today, that's usually thought to be unlikely. In 1519, Henry's mistress, Elizabeth or Bessie Blount, gave birth to a son. Henry acknowledged the boy as his own, to be called Lord Henry FitzRoy (son of the king). For Catherine, this meant that Henry knew that he could produce a healthy male heir -- with another woman.

In 1518, Henry arranged to have their daughter, Mary, betrothed to the French Dauphin, which was not to the liking of Catherine, who wanted Mary to marry her nephew and Mary's first cousin, Charles. In 1519, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor, making him considerably more powerful than he was as just the ruler of Castile and Aragon. Catherine promoted Henry's alliance with Charles when she saw that Henry seemed to be leaning towards the French. The Princess Mary, at age 5, was betrothed to Charles in 1521. But then Charles married someone else, ending that possibility for marriage.

Catherine's Married Life

By most accounts, Henry and Catherine's marriage was generally a happy or at least peaceful one, through most of their years together, aside from the tragedies of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death. There were many indications of their devotion to each other. Catherine kept a separate household, with some 140 people in it -- but separate households was the norm for royal couples. Despite that, Catherine was noted for personally ironing her husband's shirts.

Catherine tended to prefer to associate with scholars over participating in the social life of the court. She was known as a generous supporter of learning and also generous to the poor. Among the institutions she supported were Queens College and St. John's College. Erasmus, who visited England in 1514, praised Catherine highly. Catherine commissioned Juan Luis Vives to come to England to complete one book and then write another which made recommendations for the education of women. Vives became a tutor for the Princess Mary. As her mother had overseen her education, Catherine saw to it that her daughter, Mary, was educated well.

Among her religious projects, she supported the Observant Franciscans.

That Henry valued Catherine and the marriage in their early years is attested to by the many love knots made up of their initials which decorate several of their homes and were even used to decorate his armor.

The Beginning of the End

Henry later said that he'd stopped having marital relations with Catherine about 1524. On June 18, 1525, Henry made his son by Bessie Blount, Henry FitzRoy, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset and declared him second in line for succession after Mary. There were some rumors later that he'd be named King of Ireland. But having an heir born out of wedlock was also risky for the future of the Tudors.

In 1525, the French and English signed a peace treaty, and by 1528, Henry and England were at war with Catherine's nephew, Charles.

Next: The King's Great Matter

About Catherine of Aragon: Catherine of Aragon Facts | Early Life and First Marriage | Marriage to Henry VIII | The King's Great Matter | Catherine of Aragon Books | Mary I | Anne Boleyn | Women in the Tudor Dynasty

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Catherine of Aragon - Marriage to Henry VIII." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Catherine of Aragon - Marriage to Henry VIII. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Catherine of Aragon - Marriage to Henry VIII." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).