Wednesday, December 16, 2020

This Day in English History (Birth of Catherine of Aragon, First—and Best—of Henry’s Six Wives)

Dec. 16, 1485—Catherine of Aragon, whose marriage into the Tudor dynasty was intended to advance power relations between two of Europe’s major royal houses but wound up putting them at odds and widening the continent’s Catholic-Protestant fracture, was born in Alcala de Henares, Spain, the last child of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.

Catherine’s pivotal role in the fate of Europe came about, of course, because she was the first of the six wives of King Henry VIII of England—the king whose desire to obtain a divorce set off England’s violent and protracted split from Catholicism. For years, schoolchildren desperate to distinguish her fate from that of her successors as Henry’s wives remembered that she was the first in the following helpful mnemonic device:

“Divorced, beheaded, died;
Divorced, beheaded, survived.”

I first became aware of this wronged woman back in the summer of 1971, through the U.S. premiere of the BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. As fine as the series (and especially Keith Michell as Henry) was, it helped further the general visual representation of Catherine as an aging, tired, pious spouse unable to compete with court minx Anne Boleyn.

That picture needs some adjustment. Particularly at the beginning of their marriage in 1509, Catherine was regarded as having few rivals for beauty in England. At the time, 18-year-old Henry not only had no problems with her, but was even eager to wed this attractive widow of his older, sicklier brother, Prince Arthur. “She was 23, plump and pretty, and had beautiful red-gold hair that hung below her hips,” according to historian Alison Weir. “Henry spoke openly of the joy and felicity he had found with Catherine.”

Many people have written about Catherine over the years, in fiction and nonfiction alike. One of the more fascinating accounts is Garrett Mattingly’s 1941 biography, Catherine of Aragon, which approaches her from his primary interest: diplomatic history. 

Expertly using recently discovered archives in Vienna and Brussels, Mattingly depicted a woman who needed all her strength, intelligence and faith to keep her footing amid neglect by her father, court intrigues waged by royals, envoys and clerics, and settlement in a strange foreign land—all at the hands of males who, more often than not, did not have her best interests in mind.

But one drawback of this biography is its author’s male point of view. Mattingly simply couldn’t understand why Catherine might quarrel with Henry over his infidelity. After all, royal wenching was the norm in that time. Even Catherine’s father, Ferdinand, was unfaithful.

It seems never to have occurred to Mattingly that some women are sincerely bothered by husbands who can’t control their wayward impulses—and don’t even try.

There is a further irony in Catherine’s sad fate: though Henry came to fault her inability to produce a male heir, neither could Anne Boleyn--and the one he was eventually able to have, crowned Edward VI, lasted on the throne only six years before dying himself.

For all his sexism, Mattingly couldn’t help praising Catherine for her “core of iron self-reliance [and] lonely stubbornness.” Like him and the current saucy interpreter of the royals, Lucy Worsley, I, too, am a member of “Team Catherine.”

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