Martyr to Married Love: Catherine of Aragon

Like her mother Queen Isabella, Catherine was Catholic first and a monarch second.

Anonymous, “Catherine of Aragon,” 16th century
Anonymous, “Catherine of Aragon,” 16th century (photo: Public Domain)

In September 1501, aged 15 years, Catherine of Aragon set sail from Spain to marry a prince. The sea voyage proved a difficult one; her retinue was ill on account of the swaying seas. They had planned to dock at Southampton; instead, due to storms, they were forced to land at Plymouth. There is something strangely prophetic in this journey—a difficult one that ended in a different port to that expected.

Catherine came to marry Arthur, eldest son of King Henry VII to build a Catholic dynasty linking the royal house of England with that of Spain. With Arthur’s untimely death six months later, it was as the wife of Henry, Arthur’s younger brother, that her destiny was to lie. Seven years after her first wedding to an English prince she married Henry on June 11, 1509. From then on she was given her part in a domestic drama that soon became a national one, and would end in the sundering of Christendom.

The story of what happened next is well-known. Although the couple were to have a daughter, Mary, Henry abandoned Catherine when she could not provide him with a living male heir — their son Henry, Duke of Cornwall had died 52 days after his birth in February 1511. Eventually, Henry VII married Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony on Nov. 14, 1532, and later had his marriage to Catherine declared invalid. By so doing, he also abandoned his faith and went on to establish his own church to legitimize his actions.

By December 1535, aged just 50 years old, Catherine lay dying. Banished from the royal court, with a few faithful attendants she was at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. As the end drew near, the king continued to refuse her pleas that she might see their now 19-year-old daughter, Mary.

In worldly terms, suffering was all this queen was to know, and, indeed, had known for many years; with those final few years proving to be bitter fare indeed for Catherine of Aragon. She had watched a younger woman, Anne Boleyn, bewitch her husband and covet Catherine’s royal title. Nevertheless, not for a moment did Catherine countenance divorce, nor would she have any part in the theological games Henry played in his attempt to salve a guilty conscience. Throughout it all, she saw his predicament not as a constitutional but as a spiritual one.

This was no ordinary woman. It is sometimes forgotten that Catherine was the daughter of Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Like her mother, Catherine was Catholic first, a monarch second, understanding her life and vocation in that order. Her faith was to be no pragmatic political piety; under her royal robes she wore the garb of the Third Order of St. Francis. Each day her religious devotions took many hours; a rosary was never far from her hands. Even in the forlorn days of exile from Henry’s court, she prayed earnestly for her husband. Now, her final act was to write to him:

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death 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 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 them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.

Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Catherine the Queen

Catherine knew it was the end, but had one last wish: to hear Holy Mass and receive Holy Communion a final time. As she began to lose strength that night, her chaplain had offered to say Mass for her before the permitted canonical hour. Gently she admonished him, and clung on. At 4 a.m., her wish was granted though when it was then permissible for the priest to robe and for the candles to be lit.

On Jan. 7, 1536, in the stillness of a dark morn, with the Mass now concluded, and as the light faded from the extinguished candles upon the altar, an earthly sojourn also ended.

During her life, Catherine had had to endure much because she would not relinquish the man whom she had married, or repudiate the vows she had exchanged on their wedding day. Royal or not, she was first a wife, then a mother, but above all a Catholic, and when asked to call a truth a lie, even by an earthly king, she could not do so. It was for this she suffered.

On hearing the news that his wife was dead, Henry was initially silent, thoughtful even, but, quickly, his mood changed. Thereafter, throughout the day, dressed in a garish yellow, he proceeded to display a marked jollity to all present at court. When the news reached Anne Boleyn, she rejoiced — her only regret was that the child, Mary, had not accompanied her mother.

On Catherine’s death, Henry denied her a State funeral at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Instead, he had her buried hurriedly in Peterborough Abbey near where she died. Now known as Peterborough Cathedral, there are many monuments and tombs there. Yet, the former Queen of England’s grave is a simple one. There is little to mark it out save her name. In fact, her grave was barely marked for centuries. The few identifiers present today are recent additions. Even now, it looks as if her grave is intended to be hidden from view, its positioning a form of denial of who she was, what she had been, and, one day, perhaps, what she will become. To that end, to the right of the cathedral’s high altar, where no Mass has been offered for centuries, Catherine of Aragon is buried, awaiting the return of her true King.

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.