The Upbringing of Katherine of Aragon & Her Siblings


At some point I realized that despite having written at least five posts on Anne Boleyn, I’ve written maybe two that were solely dedicated to Katherine of Aragon. Despite her coming up on a regular basis when we cover Tudor history and having posted about all of her successors, I’ve neglected the OG of Henry VIII’s wives and we’re definitely going to rectify that over the next few weeks and months. Today, admittedly, we will still not cover Katherine as queen, but that’s because I’d like to start at the beginning and Katherine had an eventful and significant childhood in Spain as the daughter of the rather famous Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

Katherine’s parents married some 16 years before her birth in a marital coup that fused and reinforced their respective claims to Aragon and Castile, merging them for a brief time in a precursor of what would eventually come to pass. Like her daughter decades later, it was imperative that Isabella secure their dynasty by producing a son, but fertility was a struggle. Though the Queen became pregnant within three months of her 1469 wedding to Ferdinand, she produced a daughter on October 2, 1470, baptized Isabella after her mother. It would be more than four years until she conceived again.

Ferdinand and Isabella

Ferdinand and Isabella’s preoccupation at the start of their marriage and respective reigns was by far more concerned with the happenings of the Iberian Peninsula than it was with Europe as a whole. The machinations of England, then mired in an ongoing civil war, was a distant thought, though Isabella was once proffered as a possible wife for Edward IV in the early 1460s. The issue was never taken seriously in England – Edward’s government favored either a French or Burgundian match, while Edward himself annoyed his councilors by marrying a penniless widow, Elizabeth Woodville. It was an insult that Isabella apparently didn’t forget, for she referenced the slight decades later when negotiating Katherine’s marriage.

For the first five years of her marriage, Isabella was heir to her half-brother, King Henry IV of Castile, who was at best resigned to her eventual succession. When he died in December 1474, Isabella was swiftly crowned queen, but rival claimants to the throne had long been plotting. The most notable of these was that of Henry’s daughter, Juana, whose legitimacy was debatable, but who was backed by none other than King Alfonso V of Portugal. Alfonso landed in Spain in May 1475 and married Juana, events which coincided with Isabella miscarrying the long-hoped for son on whom she had been banking.

War continued through the country until March 1476 when Portugal’s army finally disbanded and Isabella was able to cement her power. Summoning the convoked courts, she had her own claim reinforced, as well as that of her five-year-old daughter. In August, when a rebellion broke out in Segovia and Ferdinand was absent, she rode out at the head of her own army to suppress it, solidifying her reputation as a warrior queen. Even so, it wasn’t until Isabella finally gave birth to a son, Juan, on June 30, 1478 that the Castilian throne could finally be called secure.

Ferdinand and Isabella

The gap between the birth of Isabella in 1470 and the miscarriage of a son in 1475, and then again until Juan’s birth in 1478 is inexplicable, though they could have been caused by any number of factors. As we know from Katherine’s own history – and then later with Mary I – fertility issues abounded with the women of this family. Katherine and Mary are also both believed to have suffered from gynecological issues that could well have been inherited from Isabella. Even if not, Isabella and Ferdinand spent the early years of their marriage frequently separated, under intense amounts of stress and, well, hustling.

Whatever the problem, once Juan was born Isabella’s childbearing issues seem to have passed. A little over a year later, she gave birth to another daughter, Juana, and in June 1482, she gave birth to twin daughters, only one of whom, Maria, survived. Katherine was the youngest of these children. She made her appearance at the Archbishop’s Palace in Alcalá de Henares on December 16, 1485 in the middle of a military campaign against the Moors (aka the Muslim inhabitants of southern Spain). Her name was courtesy of the English in a strange precursor of her eventual fate – Isabella’s grandmother was none other than Katherine of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and Constance of Castile. I haven’t written about that Katherine specifically yet, but her trajectory is captured in a post on her half-sister, Elizabeth of Lancaster. Thus, like her husbands, Katherine was a descendant of Edward III and carried her own Lancastrian blood.

Katherine’s early years – and those of her siblings – were nomadic, if informative. Their parents’ marriage was one built on politics that had grown into one of genuine love, even if tinged with power struggles. Both were ambitious, both believed in ousting the last remnants of any other religion save Catholicism from Spain and both were ruthless. Isabella was of more sincerely fervent stock, while Ferdinand was a consummate politician, but they were nearly unstoppable when aligned and their youngest daughter inherited a compelling mix of their traits.

Ferdinand and Isabella with their daughter, Juana

What their children’s upbringing lacked in traditional European courtliness, nevertheless made them strong. They often traveled in a satellite nursery to their parents’ military campaigns and “home” was wherever they were together. In 1492 that happened to be the final surrender of the Moors in Granada and the launch of Christopher Columbus’s most famous exploratory trip, as such seven-year-old Katherine witnessed both events. But even earlier, in 1489, there is an anecdote of Isabella holding up her young daughter to witness a bloody bull-fight, and again in 1491, of the young princesses fleeing their mother’s tent when it caught fire.

Isabella raised her daughters as carefully as she did her son, but she raised them to be monarchs not consorts, even if unwittingly. They were given a mix of a classical education and that of the humanist spin that was making its way through Europe, but though the girls were taught to be pious and loyal to their husbands, they were not taught to be the decorative ornaments that their English and French counterparts were. In that, they were well-equipped to hold down the fort for their future husbands, a reality to which Katherine would later take with remarkable ease.

In 1490, the eldest princess, Isabella, married Prince Alfonso of Portugal, grandson of the king who had once threatened her mother’s throne. The proxy wedding took place in Seville that May and Isabella traveled to Évora that November to celebrate the marriage with the Portuguese court. The bride, 20, fell deeply in love with her new husband – as her mother’s daughters were prone to doing – and was devastated when he was killed in a hunting accident the following summer. But if it was a personal blow to the princess, it was a political one to her parents who were eager to forge good relations with Portugal.

Isabella of Aragon

To comfort herself, she found religion, and when she returned to her parents she did so with the vehement desire to never remarry and devote herself to her faith. Ferdinand and Isabella were sympathetic and let their daughter mourn without intervention, even when those methods included severe fasting, for years. However, when Prince Alfonso’s father, King Juan II, died in October 1495 and was succeeded by his younger brother, King Manuel I, her time was up. Though Isabella’s parents tried to offer the hand of her younger sister, Maria, Manuel remembered her beauty from her brief stint in Portugal before and insisted. The issue remained up in the air until Isabella decided to leverage the marriage as an opportunity on behalf of the Catholic Church – she agreed to marry Manuel, but only after he expelled the Jewish population living in Portugal. The marriage eventually went forward in September 1497.

In the meantime, Ferdinand and Isabella were arranging matches for the rest of their children. Katherine, the youngest of the bunch, was one of the first to be betrothed. In 1488, King Henry VII of England approached the Spanish monarchs about a match between his eldest son, Prince Arthur, and one of their daughters. With Arthur having been born in 1486, Katherine was the most appropriate choice, but that Spain was even willing to entertain the union mystified the English. Henry had effectively “conquered” England in 1485 by deposing Richard III, the last Yorkist king, and then merging the two rival houses of the Wars of the Roses by marrying Elizabeth of York. Even so, there were still Yorkist men of royal blood scattered around, not to mention pretenders who claimed to be either one of the Princes in the Tower or the Queen’s cousin, the Earl of Warwick. As late as 1487 Henry found himself putting down a Yorkist rebellion, so from continental eyes it was easy to see why no one yet viewed England as a stable monarchy.

And yet, Ferdinand was intrigued by the match, for England and Spain had a natural enemy: France. Spain sent emissaries to England in 1488 to negotiate with Henry and see Arthur, while the following year the English sent emissaries and it was Katherine who was held up before a small crowd to be shown off as a healthy child and viable royal bride. The betrothal was solidified in the Treaty of Medina del Campo in March 1489, and against all odds the match survived the ins and outs of the 1490s. That it did is nothing short of miraculous, particularly when one considers the number of domestic threats the Tudors faced, but their saving grace was that Ferdinand was by far more focused on his wars against the French in Italy. For that, English support suited him.

Henry VII, Elizabeth of York and their children

The only concession to Tudor instability was that Katherine spent her childhood in Spain, not England as her in-laws desired. Thus, instead of growing up alongside her two future husbands and their sisters, Katherine remained under the tutelage of her own famous parents. It was Isabella’s influence which instilled in her her fierce and undying Catholicism, but it was with Juana in which the lengths to which this maternal coaching could go were seen. Juana, unlike her siblings, showed little interest in religion, even at times questioning doctrine. Throughout her youth, she was punished by a practice that involved being suspended by ropes while weights were tied to her feet. With the Spanish Inquisition in full swing – with which Juana didn’t hesitate to express her disagreement – it was inconceivable to Isabella that one of her own daughters would express such rebellion.

In the mid-1490s a double marriage was arranged between Juana and Philip, Archduke of Austria, and Juan with Philip’s sister, Margaret of Austria. Philip and Margaret were the children of Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor and his long-deceased wife, Mary of Burgundy. The couple had married in 1477 after the unexpected death of Mary’s father, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, then married to none other than Edward IV of England’s sister, Margaret of York. That marriage had been childless, and thus Charles’s only heir was his daughter. Margaret, a diligent stepmother if ever there was one, successfully helped protect Mary’s claim and arranged a marriage with Maximilian, who she trusted to ensure Burgundy’s protection from France. The marriage resulted in two children – Philip and Margaret – before Mary’s untimely death in 1482.

Philip and Margaret of Austria

The double marriage was a glorious one for all parties – Juana was on track to become the Holy Roman Empress, while Juana would make the Emperor’s daughter Queen of Spain. Juana left Spain in August 1496 at the age of 16, never to see her parents again, and married Philip in Liers that October. The fleet which carried her returned to Spain with her new sister-in-law, Margaret, and she and Juan were duly married in April 1497. Ferdinand and Isabella, thrilled with their success, then escorted their eldest daughter towards Portugal for her to complete her marriage to King Manuel, the unmarried Maria and Katherine in their retinue.

Within six months Juan fell gravely ill and passed away that October, with Ferdinand riding at breakneck speed to make it to his son’s deathbed in time. With Margaret pregnant, the Spanish court waited with bated breath to see if she would produce the son and heir to secure the succession, but in April 1498 she instead delivered a stillborn daughter. Suddenly, Isabella, now Queen of Portugal, was her parents’ heir.

Juana of Aragon

Fortunately, Isabella was also pregnant. Four months later, she gave birth to a healthy son, but then tragically died within the hour. While a grandson may not have personally made up for the loss of two children in quick succession, the presence of Prince Miguel was incredibly necessary for Ferdinand and Isabella in order to continue their dynasty. Against this context, it makes sense that when Henry approached Spain once again about bringing Katherine to England, her parents were gun shy. And perhaps that is what makes the subsequent execution of the Earl of Warwick in 1499 all the more tragic – politically complicated, yes, but the pretense that it made the King and Queen of Spain more comfortable was a tangled half-truth weighted by their own grief.

Maria of Aragon

Miguel died shortly before his second birthday in the summer of 1500. In a near panic, Maria, the last unattached daughter, was sent forth to Portugal to marry her sister’s widower in an ironic parallel to the situation Katherine would find herself in England in just a few years. The marriage was a dynastic success – in 17 years, Maria gave birth to 10 children, including two future kings.

But it was not Maria, but Juana, who became their parents’ heir. Living in the Low Countries with her husband, she was far removed from the drama between the courts of Spain and Portugal. In November 1498, she gave birth to a daughter, Eleanor, and then, in February 1500, she finally produced a son, baptized Charles for his great-grandfather. At the time of his birth, Miguel still lived, but by the time he was six months old he stood to inherit not only the Holy Roman Empire via his father, but all of Spain via his mother. In short, he was the most important person in Europe before he could hold up his own head.

But before any of that could take place, Katherine was called forth. She and Isabella took reluctant leave of one another in May 1501, but it wouldn’t be until November that she had successfully arrived in London and married Arthur Tudor. By now, it’s safe to say that Isabella had fallen into a sustained and deep depression brought on by the loss of her children. Juan’s death in 1498, likely only magnified by the near-decade she had spent trying desperately to conceive him, knocked the wind out of her, while the death of a daughter and a grandson, as well as the physical loss of her remaining three more daughters, incapacitated her. She grew increasingly religious (if that was even possible) and her health began to fail. It is a cherry on top of a tragedy sundae that her death at the end of 1504 meant that she never actually saw Katherine become queen of England – indeed, her last correspondence with her youngest and most beloved daughter was over concern with her waiting in limbo after Arthur’s untimely death in 1502.

Juana of Aragon

Isabella’s death triggered the next crisis of the succession, for Spain was still technically split into Castile and Aragon and the two ceased to be merged once the marriage that unified them was over. Ferdinand retained Aragon, but it was Juana who became Queen of Castile. But here’s where it becomes tricky, for the issue of Juana’s mental health began to rear its head amidst the backdrop of her father’s ambition.

In Juana’s youth she was reported to be notably intelligent – indeed, in intellectual capacity alone she may well have surpassed her siblings. However, as noted, she turned a critical eye towards her parents’ brand of Catholicism and, after her marriage, acknowledged sympathy for the heretical teachings of Martin Luther. A generation later and she would have simply been branded a Reformer, but from her position as a Spanish princess, it was nothing short of scandalous. Layer in that it suited Ferdinand well for his daughter to be deemed incapacitated and you have what begins to read like a more sinister situation.

So long as Juana remained married, however, Ferdinand’s main concern was her husband. Since the birth of Charles in 1500, she had produced two more children – Isabella and Ferdinand – and after the birth of a fifth, Maria, in September 1505, the couple left for Castile to claim Juana’s birthright. On their way there, they briefly ended up stranded in England in the spring of 1506 where they were magnificently hosted by King Henry. Juana and Katherine were briefly reunited, though each was by far more preoccupied with their own problems – Juana was set on wresting power from their father and Katherine was increasingly strapped for cash and no closer to marrying Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, then she had been when her remarriage was first raised in 1502.

Philip and Juana in Castile

Once the couple arrived in Castile the remaining events of the year read like a play-by-play of a hyperbolic fable for women in power. Behind Juana’s back, Ferdinand and Philip came to a private agreement to declare her mad and instead share power between them. Ferdinand then reneged on the alliance at the last minute, pledging his support for his unwitting daughter. What Ferdinand’s motives were at any given time are opaque at best save that he wanted the full control of Castile he had enjoyed during his wife’s life, but at various times it sounds as though he thought he was best-suited by simply poking holes in his daughter’s marriage. His ability to do that wasn’t helped by the fact that while Juana had fallen in love with her husband, he had certainly not fallen in love with her.

Beautiful and intelligent, it’s difficult to gauge exactly what was “wrong” with Juana’s mental health, but something does appear to have been amiss. Quite possibly she simply suffered from depression, a situation only exacerbated by the hormonal fluctuations of regular pregnancies for a decade and then eventually made worse by isolation and involuntary confinement. In the short-term, Ferdinand retired to Aragon and Philip and Juana were named joint rulers of Castile in July 1506. Two months later, Philip was dead from Typhoid Fever.

Pregnant again, Juana plunged into a deep, nearly hysterical mourning that would make Queen Victoria’s widowhood in the 19th century pale in comparison. In over her head, physically waylaid by pregnancy and then childbirth (she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, that January) and undermined by the common belief that a woman shouldn’t be ruling on her own anyway, Juana lost control of her government as plague and dysfunction ravaged the countryside. Her eldest son remained in Flanders under the care of her sister-in-law, the widowed Margaret of Austria, and when Ferdinand returned in the summer of 1507 he stole back control.

Ferdinand of Aragon

Despite issuing a statement that she was against such a move, and any that would limit her authority as queen regnant, from then on out she was queen only in name. Ferdinand kept her under lock and key and she was eventually confined to a convent. Rumors abounded that her behavior became increasingly more erratic, including the claim that she refused to be physically parted from her husband’s corpse, but it’s unclear to what extent these were exaggerated as political propaganda.

The situation remained largely unchanged until Ferdinand’s death in January 1516, but by then isolation and age had done nothing to improve Juana’s spirits or reputation. When her son, Charles, arrived in Castile in 1517 to take control, she signed over authority at his prompting and then found herself in continued involuntary confinement at his hands. As her mental and physical condition continued to deteriorate over the years, Charles oversaw her care and, perhaps to both of their credit, when an opportunity came for Juana to undermine her son’s authority for her own benefit, she refused.

She would outlive all of her siblings by decades, finally expiring at the age of 75 in 1555.

Back in Portugal, Maria died six months after giving birth to her last child, passing away in Lisbon in 1517 at the age of 34. Her widower, Manuel, married for a third time, this time choosing her niece, Juana and Philip’s daughter, Eleanor. Together, they produced two children, a short-lived son and a daughter, Maria, before Manuel’s death in 1521. After his death, Eleanor remained in Portugal for a time before returning to the court of her brother, Charles. She was eventually forced to marry King Francis I of France in 1530, thus living as Queen of France until his death in 1547.

Charles V & Isabella of Portugal

Charles, meanwhile, married his first cousin, Isabella of Portugal, a daughter of Maria and Manuel’s, in 1526 after a brief betrothal with his other first cousin, Mary Tudor. Ironically, that same Mary would go on to marry Charles and Isabella’s eldest son, the future Philip II of Spain, in 1554.

Eleanor of Austria

Katherine of Aragon is by far the most famous of Ferdinand and Isabella’s children, and within her story she is often given credit for her famous parents and her powerful nephew (Charles would go on to become the Holy Roman Emperor after the death of his grandfather, Maximilian). But too often she is not given quite enough credit for just how well-connected through Europe she was, a situation which neither Henry VIII nor any of his subsequent wives could come close to replicating. As of when she married Henry in 1509 her sisters were the queen of Castile and Portugal and her father the king of Aragon. By the time she was mired in her divorce case with Henry in the late 1520s and 1530s, her nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor, her niece his wife, her other niece the Queen of France and her nephew the King of Portugal.

Margaret of Austria

As for her sister-in-law, Margaret of Austria, so close to becoming the Queen of Spain and altering the trajectory of Western Europe, she would make a re-emergence in the history books all on her own. Not only did she raise the future Emperor Charles as though he were her son, but after the death of her next husband she established her own court of artists and thinkers, into which she often took noble children to complete their education. One such child was none other than Anne Boleyn.

4 thoughts on “The Upbringing of Katherine of Aragon & Her Siblings

      1. Sandra hall

        Brilliant. Thank you. Like a giant jigsaw.
        Constance of Castile, John of Gaunt second wife only had one daughter after years trying to give birth to a son. Fertility problems seems like a significant problem with the Castilian women.Culminating in Katherine of Aragon tragedy and England’s subsequent ongoing crisis.
        Elizabeth 1st actually may have done the right thing after all by not going on the royal path of endless pregnancies leading to being weak and exhausted worn out. All the while fighting endless battles against murder treason and plots.

  1. Funny you mention Constance of Castile – I was just thinking that it’s about time I wrote up a post on her. Particularly since I’ve covered Blanche of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford – she’s due!

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