The Death of Catherine of Aragon

On this day in history, 7th January 1536, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Catherine of Aragon died at Kimbolton Castle. She had been ill for a few months but felt worse after drinking a draught of Welsh beer in December 1535 and this, combined with the embalmer’s report that all of her organs were healthy apart from her heart, “which was quit black and hideous to look at”, gave rise to rumours that Catherine had been poisoned. However, the embalmer, who Giles Tremlett points out was a chandler (a candle maker) and not a medical expert, also found a black body attached to Catherine’s heart, and Tremlett concludes that “a secondary melanotic sarcoma was almost certainly to blame”, a secondary heart tumour caused by cancer in another part of the body.

Catherine of Aragon’s Last Days

On the 29th December 1535 Catherine’s doctor sent for Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador and a friend of Catherine’s – Catherine had taken a turn for the worse. Chapuys sought permission from the King to visit Catherine and it was granted. Mary was not so lucky, Henry refused to let her see her mother in her last days, something which must have broken the hearts of both women. As Chapuys travelled to Kimbolton, Catherine received a surprise visitor, her former lady-in-waiting and confidante, María de Salinas, now Lady Willoughby, on New Year’s Day. Giles Tremlett writes of how María had rushed up from London on hearing the news of Catherine’s illness and that “she acted out an elaborate charade to force her way into the house, claiming the letter licensing her to enter was on its way” and pretending that she had been thrown from her horse and was in urgent need of shelter. She was allowed in.

The Catherine that María saw on that day must have been a far cry from the Catherine she had once known. Tremlett describes how Catherine “could barely sit up, yet alone stand”, that she had been unable to keep food down and that she was unable to sleep due to severe pains in her stomach. Chapuys arrived the next day and although the former queen was weak she was still lucid enough to know that she needed witnesses in the room when she first spoke to him so that she could not be accused of plotting against the King, later conversations, however, were in private. Chapuys visited Catherine every afternoon for two hours over four days and he reported that she was worried about her daughter, Mary, and her concern that the Pope and Emperor were not acting on her behalf. Catherine was also worried that she might be to blame for the “heresies” and “scandals” that England was now suffering from because of the battle over the divorce. She was haunted by the deaths that had resulted from Henry’s Great Matter and the fact that it had led to England breaking with Rome – were they down to her stubbornness, her refusal to go quietly? These were the questions preying on her mind during her last days.

Catherine’s health seemed to rally in the first few days of January, she ate some meals without being sick, she was sleeping well and was chatting and laughing with visitors, so Chapuys was dispatched back to London. However, on the night of the 6th January, Catherine became fidgety and in the early hours of the 7th she asked to take communion. It was unlawful for communion to be taken before daylight but Jorge de Athequa, Catherine’s confessor and the Bishop of Llandaff, could see that his mistress did not have long to live and so administered communion and listened to her confession. Tremlett points out that although he had promised Chapuys to get a deathbed vow from Catherine that she had not consummated her marriage to Prince Arthur, Llandaff forgot. Catherine settled her affairs, giving instructions on what she wanted done with her worldy goods and her burial – she wanted to be buried in a chapel of Observant Friars (Franciscans). It is also said that she wrote a letter to her former husband, Henry VIII, although Tremlett believes that the letter “is almost certainly fictitious”:-

“My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my dear now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part I pardon you everything and I wish to devoutly pray to God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants, I solicit the wages due to them, and a year or more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.”

Tremlett writes of how Catherine then prayed, asking God “to set Henry back on the right path and forgive him for wronging her” before asking her Father’s pardon for her own soul. She continued praying until the end, until her loving Father took her into Paradise. Catalina de Aragón, daughter of the great Catholic Reyes, Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, was dead. She had died not in some sumptuous palace surrounded by her loved ones, but in a small, dark, cold castle with her faithful staff in attendance. A sad end to a woman who had once been Queen of England and who had defeated the Scots as Regent.

Although, as Tremlett points out, Catherine “died, her mind still troubled by whether she had been good to a country which, in the end had been bad to her”, she was finally at peace, and I hope that her friends had been able to reassure her and ease her worries during those last days. I can’t see that Catherine could have acted any differently. She had married Henry VIII before God and despite the annulment and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, Catherine believed that she was still his true wife and Mary his legitimate heir. She had to fight for what she believed, for the sake of her soul and for that of her husband. I’m sure that her conscience would have been even more troubled if she had agreed to the annulment and risked their souls.

Catherine and Peterborough Cathedral

On the 29th January 1536, Catherine of Aragon was laid to rest at Peterborough Abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral. She was, of course, buried as the Dowager Princess of Wales, not as Queen, but her grave is now marked with the words “Katharine Queen of England”.

Peterborough Cathedral commemorate Catherine’s death and burial each year with a special service and programme of events. This year the programme includes:-

  • Friday 28th January, 10.30am, Catherine of Aragon Commemoration Service – The annual service which commemorates the life of Henry VIII first wife, Catherine
  • Friday 28th January, 5pm, Candelit Procession and Vespers – “A candlelit procession of honour of Katharine through the Cathedral grounds and up to her tomb. The procession harks back to her funeral and the 1000 candles lit for Katharine by approximately 200 mourners in 1536.”
  • Saturday 29th January, 9am, Roman Catholic Mass by the grave of Catharine of Aragon – A Mass in Catherine’s memory
  • Saturday 29th January 10.00am to 3.00pm, Tudor Living History – “A chance to meet Catharine and Henry Vlll, Tudor dancing and music, Tudor crafts, archery, surgery and much more.”
  • Saturday 29th January at 7.30pm, The Sixteen in concert – “The Sixteen are recognized as one of the world’s greatest choral and period instrument ensembles. This unique concert which will only ever be performed this evening will feature music Catharine would have heard at court, and also a piece reputedly written especially for her by Henry VIII. “

You can find out more about this programme of events at The Katherine of Aragon Festival 2011 webpage.

Notes and Sources

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