The Death of Katherine of Aragon

On this day, January 7, in 1536, Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, died at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. Her body was buried in the nearby Peterborough Castle with all the honors accorded to a Dowager Princess of Wales, as the widow of long-dead Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, and, markedly, not as a queen consort.

Katherine’s signature: “Katherine the Queen”

In the last days of December 1535, Katherine wrote her will and one last letter to Henry VIII that read:

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.

News of her death reached Henry VIII and the royal court the next day. According to certain chroniclers, Henry and his second wife donned yellow, which was viewed by some as a disrespectful sign of celebration, and by others as a respectful nod to yellow as a traditional color of mourning. Regardless, on the day of Katherine’s funeral, Anne suffered a miscarriage and four months later she would be arrested, charged with treason, divorced and beheaded on Tower Hill.

Kimbolton Castle, where Katherine of Aragon died on January 7, 1536

While we’ll never know what Katherine would have made of the fate of her nemesis, the woman that replaced her as Henry’s wife and England’s queen, the irony that, in short order, Anne went through a miscarriage, a divorce and the removal of her only child, Elizabeth Tudor, from the line of succession can’t be lost on the rest of us. After all, Katherine’s own inability to successfully deliver a living son directly led to her own public and humiliating divorce case, and her subsequent banishment and separation from her own daughter, Mary Tudor.

Katherine first came to England as a bride for Henry’s older brother, Arthur, in November 1501, at the age of 15. Their marriage would only last a few months before Arthur fell ill and died at Ludlow Castle, near the border of England and Wales. Katherine was brought back to London, to live at the court of her father-in-law, Henry VII, while they waited to confirm that she wasn’t pregnant with Arthur’s child and determine her fate, and that of the alliance that her marriage had represented.

Katherine of Aragon c. 1502

Indeed, the Tudors were lucky to have landed a marriage alliance with the Spanish royal house. It had been less than 20 years since the “Wars of the Roses” had ended and three of the four monarchs prior to Henry VII had been deposed, two of whom were assassinated. English politics were seen as barbaric and unstable, and Katherine’s parents, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, had been hesitant to send over their youngest daughter.

Henry VII, in an attempt to preserve the alliance and the support it gave to his family and standing on the continent, betrothed Katherine to his second son and new heir, Henry. The actual wedding, however, wouldn’t occur until June 1509 after Henry VII had died and his son ascended the throne as Henry VIII due to haggling over Katherine’s dowry.

The marriage of the new king and queen started off promising – the young couple appeared devoted to each other and they were popular with their court and the public. However, it soon became clear that childbearing wasn’t going to come easily to Katherine. Despite six pregnancies in nine years, only one child survived, a daughter, christened Mary, in February 1516.

By the early 1520s Henry had grown disillusioned. The birth of an illegitimate son by one of his mistresses in 1519 had shown him he was capable of fathering a healthy boy, and Henry began looking for legal and religious grounds for divorcing his wife. By the mid-1520s Henry had fallen in love with the daughter of one of his courtiers and the niece of the powerful Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn. In 1527 Henry informed Katherine that he was having the legitimacy of their marriage questioned on the religious grounds that she had once been married to his brother.

Katherine of Aragon later in life

Katherine, supported by her nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, fought back and a lengthy divorce case was considered, at various times, in both England and Rome. Her refusal to give in, accept a divorce and retire to a convent led directly to the separation of England from the Rome and the formation of the Church of England. In 1533, Henry was finally granted his divorce and married Anne, who was duly crowned queen and gave birth to a daughter.

Legally, Katherine was demoted from queen to the title she was due as Arthur’s widow, Dowager Princess of Wales. She was physically separated from Henry in 1531, removed to increasingly remote locations in the English countryside and denied permission to see her daughter. Even so, Katherine insisted she was Henry’s lawful wife and the rightful queen of England until the day she died.

After her death rumors spread that either Henry of Anne had had her poisoned after the discovery of a “black growth” on her heart. Today most experts believe she died from cancer.

Some 20 years later, when her daughter had ascended the English throne as Mary I, their marriage was once more declared legal and her tomb, which can be seen today, bears the title, “Queen of England.”

The tomb of Katherine of Aragon at Peterborough Castle in Cambridgeshire

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3 thoughts on “The Death of Katherine of Aragon

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