All told, Katherine of Aragon had a pretty tragic life. She is most renowned for her last years, when she was battling it out with her husband, Henry VIII, on the European stage over the state of their marriage and the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. Or perhaps for her widowhood when she was stranded in England in a strange limbo state, Prince Arthur having died, her virginity uncertain and her betrothal to Prince Henry up in the air. But for a few years in the beginning of her second marriage, I like to think Katherine was happy. Specifically, I like to think about the 52-day period in 1511 when she had successfully delivered her husband a son and the idea that there would be five subsequent queen consorts after her would have seemed absurd.
Henry Tudor, Duke of Cornwall was born on New Years Day 1511 to Katherine at Richmond Palace. At the time of his birth his mother was 25 and his father 19. They had been married for 18 months, about two months longer than Henry VIII had been king. The treasury full from the prosperous reign of Henry VII and the alliance with Spain secured through his parents’ marriage, England and its new heir had a bright future.
This had been Katherine’s second pregnancy, her first resulting in a hazy warning sign of the fertility issues she would continue to have. The year before she had prematurely delivered a stillborn daughter, however following the birth there appears to have been some medical confusion and the mistaken belief that Katherine was carrying twins, likely because the swelling of her abdomen didn’t immediately go down. As it became physically clear that the Queen was not, in fact, still carrying the remaining child, she conceived again, helping to sidestep more significant embarrassment.
Upon birth the young prince was styled the Duke of Cornwall and he was celebrated in all the pomp and glory you would expect of a son of Henry VIII, with free wine distributed to the population, bells tolling and a gun salute from the Tower of London. Henry, a long way away from breaking from Rome, immediately made a pilgrimage to Walsingham. Four days later he was christened with King Louis XII of France, Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy and William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury standing as godparents. His paternal great-aunt, Anne of York, Lady Howard, stood as proxy for the absent Duchess of Savoy, who, at the time, was married to the future Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.
Henry and Katherine, still very young rulers reveling in the pageantry and power of their positions, took the opportunity to host an elaborate tournament at Westminster in which Henry could showcase his tiltyard skills. He rode under the name “Sir Loyal Heart” and wore Katherine’s favors, who was fresh from having been “churched,” or “purified” from giving birth. By some estimates, it was the most expensive tournament ever held in England.
Tragically, within a few weeks the baby was dead, passing away on February 22, 1511 of what is believed to have been a bronchial infection. He was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. Henry and Katherine were devastated, however the event did not immediately impact their marriage. By all reports, Henry was solicitous and supportive of his wife, not having any reason to doubt at that point that they would quickly conceive again.
They wouldn’t, of course. Katherine didn’t become pregnant again for another two years, an event which would result in a stillbirth. A fourth failed attempt would occur in 1515, before she was finally delivered of a healthy child, Princess Mary, in February 1516. It wasn’t the boy that Henry so desperately wanted, but it’s worth taking into account that Katherine, the daughter of Isabella of Castile, a woman who inherited a country in her own right, had little doubt over Mary’s ability to rule England.
I rarely find it a useful exercise to play “what if” with history, but it’s certainly compelling in this case, for if Prince Henry had lived, the reign of Henry VIII and subsequent English history might have looked very different. It’s highly unlikely that Henry would have sought to divorce his son’s mother, and thus would have had little reason to break from Rome. He might have fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, but would she have been as compelling to him if he wasn’t already itching in his “fruitless” marriage and believed she signified healthy heirs? I doubt that a man as hysterical and paranoid over the succession as Henry was would have done anything to undermine his son’s inheritance. That would mean no Edward VI, no Bloody Mary and no Elizabethan era. And a fair amount of men and women, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard among them, would have died with their heads intact.
On the one hand it’s easy to say that England securing the prosperity and renown of Elizabeth’s reign was worth it, but when one considers that it was built on the devastation and carnage of the dissolution of the monasteries and the killing of “heretics,” it’s hard not to think about what might have been if Prince Henry had lived. It’s interesting to consider, too, for how long England would have remained Catholic in the face of the wider Reformation.
At the very least, what makes the tragedy of Katherine’s life all the more bitter is how close she came to escaping it. For 52 days Henry VIII had the son he desired and no one had to die for it.