Sunday, May 4, 2014

Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen

Catherine of Aragon always seems to be seen in reflection - Henry VIII's first wife, Mary Tudor's mother, Charles V's aunt, and the stubborn and deeply religious cause of the English Reformation.  She was more, though - she'd have to be, to survive more time as Henry's Queen than her five successors combined.  She was deeply devout, and brilliant, and politically aware, yet because she was a woman, she had to rely on others in her attempt to prove the validity of her marriage.

The story of Catherine's life is well known, and while Tremlett portrays it well, the facts are too well known for any revelations.  The daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who merged his minor kingdom with her more powerful domain to form the unified Spain that still exists, Catherine's early years were spent as a pawn on the marriage market.  Betrothed to Arthur, Henry VII's oldest son, she traveled to England as a pre-teen to be groomed for her eventual role.  She married Arthur, he died a few months later, and after three years in the limbo of widowhood, she married Arthur's younger brother Henry.  She failed to produce a surviving son, and after Henry took that as a sign that their marriage was cursed, spent the rest of her life trying to maintain her position.

I found Tremlett's insights into Catherine's personality more interesting.  Brilliant and with a flair for diplomacy, she acted as Henry's ambassador and stand in at various points in their marriage.  In fact, she was probably better at running England than her husband - both were intelligent and educated, but Henry, even before the head injury which may have been responsible for his later tyranny, didn't have the attention span or personality for ruling.  Perhaps this brilliance is why the Pope repeatedly postponed deciding on the validity of her marriage, or perhaps that brilliance led to the arrogance which kept her from accepting a settlement.

Catherine's faith, which sustained her through her trials, may have also been their partial cause.  She was from the medieval world which saw mortification of the flesh as necessary for eternal salvation and frequently fasted to the point of starvation, particularly during the three years between Arthur's death and her marriage to Henry.  The teenage Catherine spent those years wondering if she was going to be returned to Spain, married to her father-in-law, sent to a convent, or returned to the marriage market; it's not hard for modern eyes to see her faithful fasting as a way to control something in her life.  Anorexia, or some other eating disorder, could partially explain her pregnancy troubles.

That leads us to the big question - did Arthur and Catherine consummate their marriage?  Tremlett isn't sure.  Would such a devout woman fight so hard for a lie, or did the realization that she would lose everything overrule her ethics?  The announcement of her first pregnancy with Henry provides evidence for both sides of the argument.  The country was eager for an heir, so Henry and Catherine announced her pregnancy - several months before she was, in fact, pregnant.  On one side, this shows a level of comfort with private lies for political means, but Tremlett also discusses the possibility that neither Catherine nor Henry was fully aware of how conception worked.  One would think that if she'd consummated her several-month marriage to Arthur, someone would have provided her with some information.  The mystery remains.

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