Rummage in a royal womb

Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen

In his biography of the Spanish-born queen, Giles Tremlett sets out to show that there was a great deal more to this woman than the dispute about her virginity which rocked Europe and set the Reformation in England on its gory tracks. He shows also that while, in a country ruled by an increasingly manic king, where the five queens who succeeded her were used by the men around them as pawns in fight for religious and political supremacy, Catherine decided on her own role herself.

The learned and devout Catherine — played by Maria Doyle Kennedy in The Tudors — was the daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and almost from her cradle was betrothed to Arthur, heir to England’s Henry VII (Arthur was nine months younger and also in his cradle at the time).

When Catherine was sent to England for her wedding in 1501 her primary function was to deliver a son who would secure the future of the shaky Tudor monarchy.

Before she could accomplish this duty, however, Arthur died, and six months after her wedding Catherine entered an uncomfortable widowhood during which she had no position, no money, and no ability to get herself back to Spain (her notoriously mean father-in-law didn’t want to repay her dowry).

Everything changed on the accession of Arthur’s brother. The 18-year-old Henry VIII decided to marry this intelligent auburn-haired 24-year-old princess still stuck in a crevice in the royal household. A special dispensation had to be obtained quickly because of the laws regulating consanguinity; it was worth it, according to Henry’s ministers and his own ambitions, as Catherine secured Spanish allegiance for England’s planned war on France.

The couple seemed compatible and shared many interests, and as the years went on, despite Catherine’s failure to produce a living son, they developed a loving companionship which included Henry’s trust in Catherine as regent while he was making war on French soil. Catherine even tolerated Henry’s spasms of adultery until he fell under the spell of Anne Boleyn.

It was downhill thereafter for Catherine. But there was a long tumultuous meantime: to marry Anne the king had to find a reason to divorce Catherine, and that reason was to be Henry’s insistence that his marriage to his brother’s wife contravened a biblical prohibition for which the punishment was his lack of a male heir. And this depended on the presumption that Catherine had consummated her teenage marriage to Arthur.

On that private act between two teenagers unschooled in the realities of sexual intercourse lay an international debate which raged for more than seven years and opened the door to England’s secession from the Church of Rome. Entire embassies, cardinals, legates, theologians and doctors fell to discussing the queen’s genitalia while the pope eventually found it difficult to dispense with the 20-year-old dispensation and Henry therefore found it extremely difficult to dispense with his wife.

Especially as that wife, now humiliated, friendless, stripped of her title and wealth, and separated from her daughter Mary, yet remained just one step ahead of the king’s manoeuvres, even at a time when to refer to Catherine as queen merited a hideous death. The issue has never been resolved and certainly Tremlett can’t clear it up. His researches in Spain indicate a possibility of that early consummation, yet Catherine was a model of truthfulness and her denials were unwavering even on her deathbed.

As well they might be: married life had taught her all about sex and childbirth and therefore she must have been able to interpret her actions with Arthur in their true and relatively innocent nature. As much later excuses go, it might be said that she didn’t inhale. In the end, despite Henry’s vengeful desperation, this became a contest between two mothers and their two daughters; it continued when both mothers were dead, taking along with them a remarkable clutch of male and female grandees, bishops and commoners and including Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell and eventually Thomas Cranmer.

Tremlett tells this bloody story well, just as his special interest in Spain (where he works as correspondent for the Guardian) allows him to discover and relate the diplomatic and family background to Catherine’s own character and upbringing. He could have done with a little editorial advice: working to the journalist’s creed of grabbing readers with the first paragraph he opens chapter after chapter with some newsy immediate event, an arrival, a departure, a procession which he then has to decode so the story can continue.

This is disconcerting, but not as annoying as the decision to eliminate footnotes in a text which on page after page screams for attribution or provenance. Instead readers are informed that the footnotes can be obtained via the publisher’s website; readers with the American edition can find the notes in traditional format.

Such a device is intensely irritating in a book which relies so much on valuable research and new resources. It reduces the impulse to recommend a study which is otherwise competently written and which covers such a momentous period and such astonishing personalities.

Above all this is a work which reasserts the long contemporary popularity of Catherine’s 22 years as Queen of England and which, in its detail and comprehension, acknowledges a fact earlier expressed by historian David Starkey (in Six Wives; the Queens of Henry VIII 2003): although Catherine in her resistance acted, as she was convinced, from the best of motives, “nevertheless the awful truth remains that the Reformation, and all it entailed, was her work as much as Henry’s and Anne’s.”

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