Camelot & the Virginity of Katherine of Aragon

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Between Henry VII ascending the throne in 1485 and his death in 1509, England evolved from a country that had been in or on the verge of civil war for decades to a country that was beginning to re-emerge as an actual power broker in Europe. It’s an interesting concept to consider in the wake of all the Brexit news as members of today’s Royal Family undertake diplomatic tours of European countries to underline Britain’s continued friendship.

By establishing the House of Tudor, Henry essentially put an end to the viability of continued Plantagenet infighting. As the last Lancastrian claimant (sort of, his lineage wasn’t much to boast of) he strategically married Elizabeth of York, fusing the two warring houses in one union. Thus, their children were meant to appease both sides, and their position was bolstered by a father who ruthlessly kept the peace, filled the coffers and eliminated dynastic threats.

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The birth of Henry and Elizabeth’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, didn’t look like other royal births. He wasn’t born at the Palace of Westminster in London. He wasn’t named Henry or Edward, after his father or grandfather. He was, from start to finish, propaganda. Born eight months after his parents’ wedding, Arthur came into the world in Winchester Cathedral (then Saint Swithun’s Priory) as royal historians had decided Winchester was the modern-day location of the fabled Camelot. And Henry, who was attempting to neatly step over the illegitimacy that plagued his ancestry, had enlisted genealogists who traced his descent from King Arthur himself. He named his heir Arthur to not only shy away from giving him a traditionally Lancastrian or Yorkist name, but to make an allusion to an all-encompassing English heritage, and the idea that under the Tudors England could once more experience Camelot.

Arthur’s mother, Elizabeth, marked the third in a line of English queens. While her marriage to Henry was both political and incredibly useful, it also removed the possibility of allying with a foreign power, which only made England more isolated in the European power market. Before her had been Anne Neville, married to Richard III long before (presumably) either had had a sense they would ever sit on the throne. And before that, it was Elizabeth Woodville, the Lancastrian widow who had scandalized Christendom when she secretly wed Edward IV in 1464.

But a lesser-known fun fact about that marriage is that one of the names bandied about as potential wife for the bachelor king was none other than Isabella of Castile, who was 13 when news broke that Edward had married another. It was a slight that she didn’t forget either, referencing with a sneer years later the decision to turn down a princess with her impeccable royal lineage for the daughter of a mere baron.

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Ferdinand and Isabella

Five years later Isabella would ally herself with Ferdinand of Aragon and over the course of the 1470s and 1480s, the couple would have five children who lived until at least adolescence. The youngest of those would be Katherine, born on December 16, 1485, a mere four moths after Henry VII ascended the English throne. While the Tudors set about quashing rebellions and producing Prince Arthur, Katherine was raised in the nomadic court of her parents alongside her older sisters and the beloved only son and heir of the family, Infante Juan.

When the question was raised in 1488 about an alliance between England and Spain through the marriage of Arthur and Katherine, Henry approached it cautiously. After all, England had a lot to gain through such a match, but Spain less so. The arrival of a Spanish Infanta to London would go a long way in validating the Tudors, and make it all the more difficult for their political rivals at home to gain traction in toppling their regime. Ferdinand and Isabella are still well-known figures today via their role in the Spanish Inquisition, funding Christopher Columbus and uniting Castile and Aragon, so one can begin to grasp their reputations during their lifetime. The fact of the matter was, after decades of civil war and regicide, England, frankly, looked like a heathen island where parents would have to be insane to send their daughters.

You can imagine, then, Henry’s shock when Ferdinand and Isabella returned the volley. By the Treaty of Medina de Campo in 1489, the anniversary for which just passed on March 27th, it was agreed that Arthur and Katherine would marry as soon as they reached canonical age. Henry was eager for Katherine to be sent over as soon as possible, but as Isabella grew older, and lost two of her other children, she grew increasingly protective of her youngest daughter. Delay after delay was put forth and it wasn’t until November 1501, when Katherine was nearly 16 years old, that she arrived in England and was quickly married to Arthur in all the pomp and ceremony of a long-awaited royal wedding.

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Arthur, c. 1501

The 1501 wedding has become a bit infamous for a few reasons. For one, it had the famously thrifty Henry actually throwing some gold around and showing off for his foreign guests. Secondly, it also marked one of the earliest examples of Katherine interacting with her future husband, Prince Henry, who was 10 at the time of his brother’s wedding and entertained the reception audience by dancing with his sister, Margaret, and throwing off his doublet. And finally, we have no idea what happened that night – a fact that was politically significant less than five months later when Arthur died, and again a quarter of a century in the future when Henry VIII was trying to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn.

Both 15, Arthur and Katherine were legally old enough to consummate their marriage, albeit a bit on the young side, particularly Arthur. Yet, once she was widowed, Katherine surprised everyone by maintaining she was still a virgin. At that time, the question of whether she would remain in England or return to Spain was up in the air, as was the possibility of being betrothed to Henry, the new heir. The legality of marrying Arthur’s younger brother was made much smoother if Katherine’s first marriage hadn’t been consummated. And it is for this reason that for several months, the highest levels of diplomacy in London, Madrid and the Vatican were spent parsing the question of whether Princess Katherine was, in fact, still a virgin.

One the night in question, Arthur and Katherine participated in a public bedding ceremony under the assumption that the two would consummate the marriage. A few weeks later it was decided that Arthur would return to his primary residence of Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border and it became a question as to whether Katherine would accompany him. She was given a choice: Go with her husband or remain in London with her in-laws. Katherine ducked the question, instead saying she would obediently follow Henry’s direction on the matter – an answer he didn’t find particularly helpful. In the end, Katherine was sent with Arthur and, ostensibly, they were living as man and wife.

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A Flemish tapestry depicting Arthur and Katherine’s court

When Arthur died on April 2, 1502, Katherine was also ill, supporting the theory that both had caught the sweating sickness, and perhaps providing evidence that there was at least enough intimacy between the two for one to have caught an illness from the other. Once she had recovered, Katherine was ferried back to London to live under the wing of her mother-in-law and the court, believing that the couple had had a sexual relationship, waited to see if Katherine was possibly pregnant with Arthur’s child, thus changing the reality of the succession. She wasn’t, though the entire situation is enough to creep you out 500 years later, no matter its necessity – royal relationships are first and foremost the politicization of the private.

But even so, suddenly Katherine and her household were to claim such an event would have been impossible anyway – she was still a virgin.

Let’s begin with the evidence. First, there is the matter that the couple was put to bed together and thus they were expected to consummate the union. We can safely set aside the notion that the marriage was kept chaste at the direction of either set of parents over worry of Arthur’s health or their youth. The next morning, members of Arthur’s wedding party met the prince, fully expecting that the night had been a “success,” if you will – and on this front, the Prince didn’t let his companions down. “Willoughby,” he said to one, “Bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.”

Later on, he apparently said quite openly, “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.”

When the matter of whether Katherine should go to Ludlow with Arthur was raised, it was premised on whether it was a good idea for the couple to continue a sexual relationship, not whether it should begin. Given their relative youth, there was a line of thought that it would be better to keep them apart for several months to a year by having Katherine live in Elizabeth’s household until Arthur returned or she was sent to join him. Arthur expressed a desire for Katherine to accompany him and Katherine refused to make her preference known.

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Katherine depicted as Mary Magdelene

William Thomas, Arthur’s Groom of the Privy Chamber, later testified that while the couple was living together, on many occasions he escorted the Prince to Katherine’s bedchamber and collected him there the next morning.

After it became clear that Katherine wasn’t pregnant and the question of where she should go was raised, Ferdinand and Isabella reached out to their daughter’s household directly and asked whether she was still a virgin. Dona Elvira, essentially the head of that household, confirmed that she was. Katherine later attested that Elvira told the truth. Their collective word has been taken at face value – it was, to a certain extent, accepted in 1502 and there were many who believed Katherine over Henry VIII during their divorce trial in the late 1520s. Even now, Katherine’s reputation for “goodness” has made many hesitant to accuse her of lying – and what evidence does anyone really have to prove anything?

But the truth is, Katherine had plenty of motivation to lie and she wasn’t so much “good” as she was “strong” and “correct.” And what was correct here is subjective. Was it better to set aside personal preference and conscience and make things as politically easy for her superiors as possible? Was it better to ensure that she remained in England, the place she had grown up thinking she would be queen of and where she knew her parents wanted her? Katherine returning to Spain wasn’t just a 16-year-old girl going home, it also a failure, a return to childhood and to the open question of who she would marry and when. Prince Henry was a real, tangible option who was close by – the possibility of marrying him and keeping her destiny of queenship is a very compelling reason to lie.

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A 19th century depiction of the divorce trial between Henry and Katherine

And we already know that destiny was one Katherine took seriously. She fought ferociously in the 1520s when it became clear that Henry wanted to divorce her. Despite her piety and the fact she was past childbearing years with only one daughter to show for it, she refused to enter a convent and let the marriage be annulled. She refused to say she had lied in 1502 and had, in fact, slept with Henry’s brother. Even when England broke with Rome and declared her marriage null and void she refused to accept the title “Dowager Princess of Wales” as Arthur’s widow and instead signed her name until the end, “Katherine the Queen.”

She may very well have been telling the truth, but if she did it isn’t from a place of modest piety. Katherine was proud of her blood, her marriage and well-understood the significance of her every word and move. Was she capable of lying? Absolutely. Did she? Unclear.

Unhelpfully and somewhat bizarrely, the papal dispensation that allowed for the betrothal and marriage of Katherine and Henry only makes things murkier. Ferdinand stated in 1503, when negotiations were underway, that it was well-known in England that Katherine was a virgin, but that it would be better, so as to satisfy English pride, to provide a dispensation that acted as though the marriage had been consummated. Was this for the English’s sake? Or was this cover if Katherine and her household were lying?

The document was finally released from Rome late in 1504, some two and a half years after Arthur’s death, during which time Katherine was still living in England on an increasingly small amount of money as Ferdinand and Henry battled over her second marriage and the dowry from her first. But when Isabella finally saw the papal brief she was outraged by the fact it stated Arthur and Katherine had consummated the marriage. An edit was hastily put into the final document, which also included a dating error (and could have invalidated its content in and of itself), which allowed for the possibility of Katherine’s virginity.

The exact wording was that Katherine had “contracted a marriage with Arthur, Prince of Wales and that this marriage had, perhaps, been consummated.”

However, to quote historian David Starkey from his book on Henry VIII’s six wives:

“The word translated as ‘perhaps’ is forsan. Its root is fors (‘chance’ or ‘luck’) and its usual meaning is indeed ‘perhaps’ or ‘perchance.’ In this usage, forsan expresses a strong doubt about the marriage  having been consummated. But forsan is sometimes used to state a fact, just as in English we say ‘something chanced or fortuned,’ when we mean ‘something happened.’ In which case the meaning becomes the opposite: ‘This marriage happens to have been consummated.'”

Make sense? No? Well, it didn’t clear things up in the 16th century either, so you’re in good company.

In the midst of the divorce trial of the 1520s and early 1530s, testimony came out from Arthur’s wedding party companions in which they repeated what the Prince had shared with them about sleeping with his wife. But Katherine’s side brought out their own witnesses who stated that the couple only spent seven nights in the same bed during their marriage, during which none of them was Arthur able to, let’s say, “perform.”

A Spanish attendant came forward and said, “[Arthur’s] limbs were so weak that he had never seen a man whose legs and other bits of his body were so small.”

The problem with this evidence, as with that of Arthur’s attendants, is that it’s essentially useless. Two plus decades later both sides had a strong reason to lie, the Spanish to protect their princess and the English to support the clearly stated desires of their king. The true victim in all of this is perhaps Arthur, whose health and stamina were so trashed by his younger brother and widow that even now the historical canon has all but left him a weakling who spent his life at death’s door. In fact, he had no history of ill health. He was tall, handsome and, like his father, slim, whereas his younger brother took on the bulkier, more muscular proportions of his Plantagenet ancestors through their mother.

During his life there was no question that his marriage had been consummated – certainly there is no evidence of true fear from either his parents or his household that his health would have been put at risk by beginning all aspects of marital life. The only hurdle to this is Katherine’s own word after his death, a party line that has to be considered in the context of the uncertainty she was facing, not to mention a certain amount of grief over losing her husband, if only because of the fate that possibly died with him.

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Henry VIII, c. 1509, the year he ascended the throne

Some 20 to 30 years later it can hardly be expected that she would deviate from this. Not only would it have been calling herself a liar on an epic scale in front of Europe, but it would have voided her marriage and disinherited her daughter. These last two were of equal importance, for Katherine took seriously her role as Henry’s wife, perhaps to the exclusion of her loyalty to her daughter, Mary, whom she loved dearly. She firmly believed that her destiny was to be England’s queen and that came from Henry being her husband – it was the life outlined for her by her mother, who, significantly, died in 1504 in the middle of all of these negotiations. Securing her own position as her mother had wanted became not just practical, but personal.

So, did she lie? It’s impossible to say definitively, but I think the evidence weighs in favor of her having done so.

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