Little was she to know when young Catherina of Aragon (1485) at the age of 3 was betrothed to the English prince Arthur, son of King Henry VII, that her personal life would change the religious course and history of England. As daughter of the Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabelle she was regarded upon as a 'catch' for England's king to establish his power in Europe through the marriage of his son.
So Catherine sailed to England in 1501, barely 16 years old, to be the wife of young Arthur. England celebrated, but the marriage didn't last long â€“ Arthur died six months later of the dreaded sweating sickness that attacked mostly the male population. England was in shock, but the young widow did not go home. On the contrary, new plans were in the making. Her father in law had already written to her parents about a new marriage. Nobody asked for Catherine's opinion.
Her groom to be was Henry's son Henry, six years younger than Catherine and first meant to lead a life for the church. But with his brother dead Henry suddenly became the future king and therefore he was in need of a wife. Father Henry betrothed his son to Catherine, much to the liking of her father Ferdinand who wasn't on speaking terms with France and was happy to please his ally England. In those days royal and noble young people most often were nothing but pawns in the political chess game. Their own preferences didn't count at all.
Not that this went all too smoothly. Because of the family relations on the future groom's side, the pope himself had to give dispensation. Catherina wrote a letter that the marriage with Arthur was never 'consummated' and the pope finally gave his dispensation.
A life full of joy
In 1509 Henry VII died and Henry VIII became king and married Catherine. Out of duty, or out of affection, nobody really knows. But for quite some time Henry and Catherine lived happily ever after. Life was full of joy and Catherine was a close advisor of Henry's, until European politics forced her to choose between her father and her husband. She chose for her husband, but Henry didn't trust her completely anymore and discarded her opinions.
The duty of a queen is to bear her king sons. An heir to the throne. It had been centuries since a woman ruled the country and a repetition of that was not foreseen right then and there. Catherine got pregnant six times but fate was not on her side. Two miscarriages, one stillborn daughter and two sons who died within weeks after their birth. The only child that survived was her daughter Mary (1516). Henry was hoping for a son after Mary's birth, but Catherine was worn out and stressed of her six pregnancies and her age was catching up with her as well. She no longer was attractive to her husband, who was still young and buoyant.
For a king Henry VIII had been quite modest with his affairs; only twice he favored another woman. One of them bore him a son, which to him proved that he was not the one at fault, but his wife. The marriage began to whither and the matter of a male heir â€“ a legitimate one â€“ became more pressing. Luckily for Henry he had fallen in love with Anna Boleyn, a sister of one of his previous mistresses. She was not unmoved by his attentions, but was not willing to be 'just' a mistress herself. Catherine was slowly but surely moved off the scene.
Back to Rome again
Henry had to get rid of his wife. But being a pious man, he had to have permission of Rome to re-marry. That was not an easy task. He tried to convince the present pope that the annulment of his predecessor was not done right and thus his marriage to Catherine wasn't either. But a nephew of Catherine's, Charles V, had a very high position in Rome and he would not let his aunt be humiliated. Not out of love for his aunt, but out of pride and politics.
As soon as Henry's plans to get rid of Catherine and marry Anna became known to the public, he was heavily criticized by both the public and the court's friends. Catherine was very popular and Anna was not much loved at all. And Catherine was not just leaving without a fight. The pope was willing enough to annul the marriage, it happened before with royals, but not at the expense of his high official in Rome, Catherine's nephew.
This dead-end situation lasted for years, and the whole of Europe followed every move between the two rulers with great interest. Henry's daughter Mary was growing impatient, claiming her youth was fading away as nothing was really happening. Catherine used her daughter to press Henry, at which he forbade her to see her mother again.
The new Church of England
Finally the king was tired of the whole circus and stated he did no longer want to have anything to do with Rome no more. He, Henry VIII, proclaimed himself in 1533 the Supreme Head of the new Church of England, thus rejecting the authority of the pope in Rome. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave him the long awaited annulment of his marriage, which made Mary illegitimate and Catherine Princess of Wales.
Catherine of Aragon was no longer welcome at the court and lived the last years of her life in depressing castles, one worse than the other. She was often ill, and died very lonely at the age of 49, a few weeks before she turned 50. The so young betrothed royal infant, obeying her father's will even when it was at her own expense, loving her husband long after he rejected her, brought about an important turn in England's history, without even being aware of it then. A turn in history that until today is still a fact.