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The Most Surprising Things I Learned about Catherine of Aragon this month

I’ve been podcasting with Tudor Times again, this month about Catherine of Aragon. I have read countless books about Henry’s six wives, and Catherine always takes up a huge proportion of each book simply because of the large role she played in Henry’s life. She was married to him the longest, she fought him tooth and nail over the annulment of their marriage, and she knew Henry longer than most other people in his life. But there’s this storyline that has stuck with her, a narrative about her being the pitiful wronged wife, who was banished from court and left to languish in damp and dreary castles until she died. Even then, Anne Boleyn and Henry had a party to celebrate.

But there was more to Catherine than that. She was a formidable person, a stubborn woman who may have had an easier time of things if she had given in to Henry’s will and accepted that she was no longer the wife he needed or wanted. She never wavered in her belief that she was the true queen of England, and it was this strongly held belief that contributed to the sad end of her life. Here are five wonderful facts I learned about Catherine in our interview this month, the audio of which is at the bottom of this post.

  1. She and Henry were very much in love for years.
    Catherine originally came from Spain to marry Henry’s older brother, the heir to the English throne, Arthur. Sadly, Arthur died only six months into the marriage. Catherine was held in a state of limbo for years. Henry VII didn’t want to send her back to Spain, as he would have had to send her dowry back with her (as well as provide a pension for her as a widowed Princess of Wales). So she was kept in England, not given much money, and forced to wait to see what would happen.When Henry VII died in 1509 and Henry VIII took the throne, he immediately saw himself as a knight in shining armor to Catherine, and married her straight away. They were crowned in a joint ceremony, and for years they were clearly deeply in love. When Catherine miscarried or lost children, Henry was right there comforting her. He jousted for her. He only ever had one documented illegitimate son through his mistress Bessie Blount (unusual, also considering how his love life would be such a huge part of how he is remembered). It was only after close to 20 years of marriage, when Henry realized that Catherine would never give him the male heir he needed (and he conveniently fell in love with another woman) that Henry made moves to put Catherine aside. Even then, at first he made every effort to treat her with respect and ensure she was provided for. It was only when she dug in her heels and refused to go along with his plan that he saw her as a stumbling block to his happiness.In the early part of their marriage, Henry and Catherine were very much in love, and had a very happy relationship.
  2. Catherine was a strong leader, and Henry respected her as a capable Regent.
    When Henry was making war with France in 1513, he left Catherine in charge of England as its Regent. In many ways, she was truly a co-ruler with Henry early on. During her Regency she had a huge victory over the Scots in the Battle of Flodden Field.  Catherine was truly the daughter of the formidable Isabella and Ferdinand, and wore the Warrior Queen mantle well when she needed to.
  3. Catherine liked to party, and was very popular.
    Early on, Catherine and Henry had lots of parties. Jousting festivals. Dancing until all hours of the night. It was truly an Arthurian Camelot in those days, with the handsome king and beautiful Queen, sharing good times with their close friends. She was popular at court, and even after she was put aside by Henry, many of the nobility went against the King and continued to support her, demonstrating how well liked she was, and how much support she had.
  4. She wasn’t a religious fanatic.
    One of the storylines of her life paints her as this hyper-religious woman, a sharp contrast to the modern thinking Anne Boleyn.  But the truth is that Catherine was the only one of Henry’s queens to have an extensive humanist education, benefitting from the Renaissance that was already going strong in Italy, had spread to Spain, and was still working its way northward. In one of her letters home when she was young, she essentially made fun of the fact that people in England truly believed it was a sin to eat meat on fasting days, suggesting that she may have been more lenient with the Gospels than she is generally given credit.
  5. She was a big patron of writers and musicians.
    Catherine was an early supporter of Erasmus, and worked with the father of modern psychology, Juan Luis Vives, to ensure that her daughter, Mary, had a curriculum that taught her modern humanistic thinking as well. She was clearly an intelligent, thoughtful woman, not someone who simply buried her face in the Bible, but supported much of the new thinking that was sweeping through Europe.

So, what do you think? What else should we know about Catherine of Aragon? What surprises about her character would you add in? Let me know in the comments, and listen to the podcast below for even more great information about her!