Catherine of Aragon Sets Sail for England

On this day in history, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon of the 27th September 1501, Catherine of Aragon set sail for England from Laredo in Spain to marry Henry VII’s son and heir to the throne, Prince Arthur.

Catherine had originally set sail from Coruna on the 17th August, but strong storms in the Bay of Biscay had forced her fleet to land at Laredo, near Bilbao. After hearing of her first failed attempt to reach England, Catherine’s future father-in-law sent one of his best captains, Stephen Butt, to steer her ship through the treacherous Bay of Biscay.

Negotiations for a marriage agreement between England and Spain had begun in 1488 when King Ferdinand of Aragon, Catherine’s father, sent his ambassadors to England. According to David Starkey, Ferdinand saw an opportunity: he had a daughter, Henry VII had a son, and a marriage agreement could united England and Spain against their common enemy, France. In 1489, Henry VII sent his ambassadors to Spain to settle the agreement and in March 1489, in the Treaty of Medina del Campo, the two king agreed to a marriage treaty and alliance. Ferdinand and his wife, Isabella of Castile, agreed to pay Henry VII a marriage portion or dowry of 200,000 (about £40,000), split into 2 instalments, and Henry agreed to settled a third of the Prince of Wales’ lands on Catherine so that she would have income if Arthur died.

Although Henry VII wanted the three year old Catherine sent immediately to England, her parents refused and David Starkey points out that in the 11 years between the signing of the treaty and Catherine arriving in England, there were many times when it looked as if the marriage would be abandoned, for example, in 1492 when Henry VII made the Peace of Étaples with France and when Perkin Warbeck challenged Henry for the English throne. However, on the 18th July 1497, Henry VII ratified new treaties with Spain and at Woodstock, in July 1497, Prince Arthur pledged his troth to Catherine in front of his parents and the court and De Puebla, the Spanish ambassador, acted on behalf of Catherine, pledging her troth to Arthur. The couple were now formally betrothed and wedding preparations began.

After the formal betrothal, Elizabeth of York, Arthur’s mother, started writing to Isabella and Catherine in an attempt to get to know her future daughter-in-law and to establish communications so that preparations could be discussed. As Catherine did not speak English (she spoke Latin and Spanish), it was suggested that she should learn French from her sister-in-law, Margaret of Burgundy, so that there was a common language between Catherine and her ladies in England. Catherine spent the next two years with Margaret and quickly learned French. Elizabeth also made it clear that Catherine’s entourage of ladies should be beautiful and of high birth. Ferdinand and Isabella also had their demands. They demanded that there should be two proxy weddings before Catherine departed Spain for England. On the 19th May 1499 at Bewdley in the Welsh Marches, Arthur and Catherine, represented by De Puebla again, were declared husband and wife. The second proxy wedding took place in December 1500 and this time it even included a wedding feast!

The marriage treaty between England and Spain had specified that the wedding between Catherine and Arthur should take place at the end of Arthur’s 14th year, i.e. September 1500, but although word came that Catherine was to travel in Spring 1500, it did not happen. Isabella of Spain had been grief stricken by the death of her heir and grandson, Dom Miguel, in 1500, just four years after the death of her only son and heir, Don Juan, in 1496. She fell into depression and it is likely that she did not want to be parted from Catherine. Also, in Spring 1500, the Moors of the Alpujarras in Southern Spain rebelled and Isabella and Ferdinand had more pressing things to think about than sending their daughter to England. Catherine’s departure was therefore delayed as the family journeyed south to deal with the revolt.

After the defeat of two rebellions in Southern Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella promised that Catherine would leave Spain for England on the 24th June 1501, the Feast of St John the Baptist. In May 1501, Catherine’s departure was delayed for a few days as the Spanish princess fought off a fever, but she finally left Granada, in Andalucia, on the 21st May to begin her 500+ mile journey to the northern coast of Spain to set sail for England. The extreme heat and the fact that she had to cross mountains meant that the journey was hard and slow. Catherine and her parents did not reach the coastal region of Galicia until early August. A fleet was waiting and Catherine said what must have been a tearful goodbye to her parents and her homeland on the 17th August 1501. I wonder if Catherine realised that she would never see Spain again.


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