16 December 1485 – Birth of Catherine of Aragon, First Wife and Queen Consort of Henry VIII

Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandres.
Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandres.

During the night of 15th/16th December 1485, Catherine of Aragon was born at the recently reformed fortified palace at Alcalá de Henares, a town just east of Madrid. Pregnancy had not stopped Catherine’s mother, Isabella I of Castile, from waging war on the Moors, and she had spent the summer of 1485 moving around Andalucia, following her troops’ campaign. Isabella and her troops finished warring for the year in September, and the Royal Court travelled from Andalucia to Alcalá for the winter, and for the impending birth.

Catherine of Aragon, Catalina de Aragón, was the last of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I’s children, and was named after her maternal great-grandmother, Catalina of Castile or Catherine of Lancaster. Giles Tremlett, in his biography of Catherine, writes of how we know various details about Catherine’s childhood because it was recorded by Gonzalo de Baeza, Isabella’s treasurer. For example, we know that she was baptised by the Bishop of Palencia and wore a a white brocade gown which was trimmed with gold lace and lined with green velvet, and that Dutch olanda linen was used to make her sheets, pillowcases, nightshirts and bibs. We also know that scarlet Florentine cloth was ordered to make clothes, fresh cotton was used to stuff her crib mattress, a brass basin was used for washing her, and that she owned a perfume sprinkler – interesting little insights into the life of a newborn Spanish princess.

When Catherine was just three years-old, it was agreed that she should be betrothed to the heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur. The English ambassadors, Richard Nanfan and Thomas Savage, visited Medina del Campo, in Spain, in March 1489 to meet Ferdinand and Isabella, and to discuss the matter. They saw little Catherine and were obviously happy with what they saw as the Treaty of Medina del Campo, a marriage alliance between England and Spain, was agreed and signed. Catherine was destined to be Queen of England, but not with Arthur at her side – he was to die just a few months after their marriage – but with King Henry VIII, a man known for his six wives and his tyranny.

Notes and Sources

  • Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen, Giles Tremlett

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8 thoughts on “16 December 1485 – Birth of Catherine of Aragon, First Wife and Queen Consort of Henry VIII”
  1. One of the stories I always recall about Katherine and her mother is that Isabella was on campaign when she was pregnant and that her daughter was practically born in the saddle; this was one of the earliest stories of Isabella I came across many years ago and the image has never died. What a heroic woman Isabella was amd what a heroic woman her daughter was; brave and determined never to give in and she needed to find that hidden courage years later when she fought for the rights of her own daughter, Mary, and for her dignity as a wife and mother. Catherine was complemented by Henry as a woman of singular and high courage after the divorce and he even remarked to Chapyrus that she could raise an army against him as great as any raised by her mother in the re-conquest of Spain.

    Catherine would need courage in many childbirths, courage against the Scots, courage to face her critics and her enemies, courage during the trial at Blackfriar, courage when charged by her own laywers of being too popular with the people and not obeying the King; courage when faced by members of the King’s council that she should submit to Henry and accept the divorce and his claim as Head of the Church in England; she would need courage when threatened with her life and the loss of her child; she needed high courage when Mary was taken from her and when she was denied access to the court, to her servants, to her daughter and to her friends, and courage when she lay dying of cancer. Catherine did not face an enemy on horseback or with a sword; but she faced a greater enemy; death and she faced the enemy of persecution and self sacrifice. That courage she inherited from her mother and passed on to her daughter.

  2. I have such a respect and empathy for and with Catherine, as I have admiration and respect for Anne Boleyn. It is hard to put a pin between these two women – they were both extraordinary in their own ways.

    I often wonder what what be if only Prince Henry (Catherine and Henry’s first surviving child) had lived, or if she had born a long-living son. How different England would have been! And Catherine would not have suffered such heartache at the hands of the husband she adored.

    Life has such twists and turns in it.

    1. History is full of ifs, and they’re fun to contemplate. My guess is that if Henry and Catherine’s Prince Henry had survived to adulthood, the United States of America would never have been founded, at least not as the kind of new nation it was. Why, you ask. Because North America would probably have been settled by English men and women, but they would have been Catholic, not Protestant.

  3. Why didn’t Catherine step aside and enter a convent when she could no longer bear a child. She added to her own misey. She of all people knew the importance of a male heir to follow Henry VIII. Yet, as the daughter of a warrior queen, stepping aside and entering a convent was not in he genetic or her or religious make up as a devout Catholic. She may have also held on to protect her daughter Mary.

    1. Hello Libby,

      I don’t think Catherine could have gone to a convent, not after how Henry presented the matter to her and the court.

      Had he come to her explaining the dynatic and political need for a son in England due to the history, agreeing to put aside Anne Boleyn, secured Mary’s rights and inheritance in writing and offering Catherine a say in who he married after her retirement then yes I think we could all agree that Catherine should have taken him up on the offer.

      But no Henry, bone head that he was started blathering on about his conscience and the book of Leviticus when in all actuality he was hot for Anne Boleyn and was looking for an excuse to put her aside and no self respecting woman would put up with that type of foolishness.

  4. I have to agree that acceptance of the offer of the Papal Nuncio to retire to a convent in peace and honour may have been impossible for Queen Katherine, because she also had a righteous cause.

    Henry believed his marriage was not just because he had sinned when he married his brothers widow, something he discovered after several years of marriage, because he had no sons. He believed he had a righteous cause as governed by the Third Book of Moses, Leviticus, while those who advised Katherine turned to the Fourth Book, Deuteronomy. Both had valid authority, but both referred to different circumstances. While Leviticus forbids such a marriage, it does not refer to those who have no children and it is debatable as to whether the translation is wife or widow. The second is an express command to marry the widow of your brother who is without children or protection and to give your brother an heir. As Katherine and Arthur had no child it was argued that the verses in Deuteronomy take precedence. More importantly Katherine said her marriage to Arthur wasn’t consummated so her marriage to Henry was perfectly valid. For Katherine her calling was to be a Queen, mother and wife. She was devout, yes, but not called to end her life in religious retirement.

    Katherine also argued that her marriage was not childless, she had given England a perfectly good heir in Mary. She couldn’t just stand aside because she didn’t accept her marriage wasn’t valid and why should she just give Henry what he wanted, another woman? Katherine also had to fight for Mary, who was in Ludlow learning to rule and being prepared as Henry’s heir. Mary was all they had so without a son, Henry had to accept tgings as God’s will. Katherine could not just step aside as everything she believed in and wanted for Mary was in jeapardy if she did. For Katherine Henry was wrong, he was not in his right mind and Anne and his advisers had influenced him into this action. As time went on Katherine became more disillusioned as did Henry but they were both stubborn and believed that they were both right. Henry would not back down and neither would Katherine. To our modern eyes this seems unrealistic but England was a Catholic country as any other and Kings and Queens agents of the Lord, crowned and anointed and they saw their calling as sacred.

    Katherine was anointed and crowned and to her, this was her calling and the fact she was blessed with holy oils made her holy and revered. The calling could not be laid down at will. She was just as much a sacred monarch as Henry by his coronation and they were crowned together. Katherine saw no reason to stand aside although it would have been much easier. Had she come to an agreement with Henry she would have had a settlement and honoured retirement as with Anne of Cleves and because both parties were innocent of entering into a banned marriage, the Church provided for any children with a good faith clause to protect the children from the stain of being declared illegitimate. The church could also make the marriage good. However, Henry wanted out both for a male heir and to marry Anne Boleyn but the Church would not allow his divorce because of Katherine and the fact that her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V had the Pope under his thumb. The nuncio offered Katherine a get out clause, the convent but in reality she could never in good conscience accept this.

    There is one more thing which may have hardened Katherine and her resolve, the second reason for his divorce, to marry a young woman he was in love with and obsessed with, who had promised him sons and would only be his Queen, not his mistress, Lady Anne Boleyn. Anne was one of her ladies, a servant, the mistress that Henry wanted to set Katherine a regal high born Queen to one side for. There was no way the proud daughter of their Catholic Majesties of Spain would give up her crown for the daughter of a knight and this made her fight even more. Anne was very well educated, had served in France and Flanders and was sophisticated, had much in common with Henry, could argue and understand theological matters and had reformed connections who could help him to achieve his divorce. Katherine was one of the best connected Princesses in Europe, had Lancastrian blood, was well educated and she was revered and popular. Anne was accused of being the other woman, although Henry was also to blame and had looked into an annulment before he courted Anne Boleyn. He needed an heir as a woman was not believed to be able to rule and only a man could protect his people. Anne merely provided him with a convenient answer and herself as a wife and future mother of his sons without him having to make a new alliance. To Henry it was perfect, to Katherine it was a ridiculous insult, one not to be tolerated.

    Katherine fought on because of her daughter, but ironically Henry didn’t honour the good faith and had his daughter made illegitimate. It meant the banishment of Katherine and estrangement from Mary, but Henry made his own rules and divorce and this was not good for Katherine, who refused to accept defeat but ended her life in exile.

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