History Files


Early Modern Britain

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Edited from Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series by Doctor David Starkey, September 2001

Part 2: Catherine of Aragon

The marriage of sixteen year-old Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon in 1501 to Henry's elder brother, Arthur, prince of Wales, had allied England to the most powerful royal house in Europe. Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, one of the great military partnerships in history. She was impressively educated and prepared for power.

They got on well and, unusually for a couple so young, she and the fourteen year-old prince lived together at Ludlow, Arthur's seat as prince of Wales. But within four months disaster struck when they both became ill and Arthur died.

Catherine's fate swung in the balance until a betrothal was formalised in June 1503 to his younger brother Henry, now heir to the throne of Henry VII. They were to marry two years later, once Henry had reached the age of fourteen.

The arrangement was all but ended by Henry VII when Queen Isabella died a year later. Spanish power was weakened by her death but, upon his succession to the throne in 1509, Prince Henry - now Henry VIII - still asked Catherine of Aragon to be his wife and queen.

For Henry the marriage assured her father, Ferdinand of Spain, as an ally in the war which he was determined to fight against the French. For Catherine, it was her destiny to be queen of England.

'She is descended from great kings,' wrote Sir Thomas More, 'and she will be the mother of kings as great as her ancestors.'

But Catherine failed to produce an heir. Repeated miscarriages, a stillbirth, and a christened prince dead at fifty-two days old were a cruel blow to Henry's hopes.

As a ruler she fared better when, in June 1513, Henry launched his invasion of France and appointed Catherine as regent of England. Armies under her command defeated the Scots and, when writing to Henry to compare her successes with his, the competition was clear.

Double-crossed by Spain when they reached a separate peace with France, a furious Henry struck his own deal with the French, masterminded by rising star Thomas Wolsey, to eliminate Catherine as a possible rival for political influence over the king.

Part 1: Marriage Lines
Part 2: Catherine of Aragon
Part 3: Anne Boleyn
Part 4: Jane Seymour
Part 5: Anne of Cleves
Part 6: Catherine Howard
Part 7: Katherine Parr

When another child failed to survive, the king became obsessed with a passage in Leviticus: 'And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing; he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless'.

Even with the birth of a surviving girl in 1516, the king confided in Wolsey that he doubted the validity of his marriage, and required an annulment.

The decision turned on whether or not she had consummated her marriage to Arthur, and Wolsey failed to obtain the necessary decision from Rome. Catherine also refused the king's request for an annulment.

With the encouragement of his mistress, Anne Boleyn, Henry realised that if he could justify a break with the pope, he could make the decision to annul the marriage himself. Catherine's fate and the destiny of a nation became one.



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