I have to admit that my decision to write about Catherine was inspired by the fact that I’m just getting around to watching The Tudors on Netflix and wanted to learn more about her. I should admit upfront that I am no historian; most of the information I got about her was collected on the internet, so if I offend any purists with my faulty folk wisdom, I apologize.
Her parents were Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who, for good or for bad, had a huge effect of world history. (They were the king and queen that sent Columbus to sail to the Americas. So.) Their young daughter Catherine was betrothed to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur, when they were both still little children. They married when it was decided they were old enough (15), but Arthur died shortly after of “the sweating sickness,” from which Catherine also became sick, but survived.
Henry’s father…Henry (the VII) still wanted his family to be connected to this powerful family, so they received a dispensation from the Pope to allow Catherine to marry Henry VIII. It says in the bible that a man can’t marry his brother’s wife; however, Catherine maintained that their marriage was never consummated, and so was not valid in the eyes of the Catholic church. This seemingly simple maneuver would come back to haunt Catherine many years later.
Catherine had the devastating experience of losing many children, either through miscarriage or sickness during their infancy. Only one child, Mary, who would grow up to make her own mark on English history, survived. As they both continued to age, Henry started to panic over the fact that he wouldn’t leave behind a male heir. Since he was also courting his new love, Anne Boleyn, at the time, he started to become eager for his marriage to Catherine to end.
Well, Catherine was having none of it.
Catherine was raised very devoutly Catholic, she was extremely well-educated, and despite tolerating Henry’s previous mistresses she was completely opposed to his taking on a new wife. She completely refused all of his (and his underlings’) attempts to patronize, appease, intimidate, or outmaneuver her. Thanks to her resistance, the matter stretched on for several years. Her reasons for refusing to give up her marriage seem to have been motivated by her own convictions, but also for a desire to allow her daughter, Mary, to retain her title. (Spoiler alert: Mary did end up becoming Queen of England, though the outcome of her reign was for her to be given the nickname “Bloody Mary.” She also restored Catholicism to England, reversing her father’s split from Rome.)
After Henry’s eventual break from Rome and official declaration that his marriage to Catherine was null and void, she declared:”A queen I am and a queen I will die.”
The things that jump out to me about Catherine are her intelligence and her stubbornness. Catherine was extremely well-educated, which was rare for women at the time. She spoke several languages, and had a wide array of hobbies and skills. Also, I’d be remiss in not mentioning her most badass accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned: during their younger years, Henry left Catherine in charge when he left for an extended time for France. The Scots invaded England, and Catherine, heavily pregnant at the time, rode out to address the troops in person. When the Scots were defeated, and their king killed in battle, Catherine wrote a letter to Henry giving him the news, and enclosed the bloodied coat of the defeated king.
I’ll end with a quote from Thomas Cromwell, which is frustrating to read, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in reading it as his acknowledgment that women weren’t regarded as highly as men, not necessarily his agreement with it. “Nature wronged her in not making her a man. But for her sex, she would have surpassed all the heroes of history.”