Katherine of Aragon: Have We Been Harsh on Henry VIII's First Queen?

Out of all Henry VIII's queens, it is Katherine of Aragon that seems to be stuck with a 21st-century image problem. Just the mention of her name conjures up thoughts of a dowdy old woman, face permanently downcast in a solemn frown and dressed in nothing but black.  This is the Katherine that I learned about in school, and the one that frowns frumpily through historical dramas. But is this the real Katherine? And has history been a little too harsh on her? 

I think so. 

Let's not forget that Katherine, a daughter of the famous Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was, at the time of her arrival in England in 1501, considered quite a catch. An alliance between the fragile roots of Tudor England and the powerful Ferdinands was a good thing, thought Henry VII, and people had good things to say about this young, glamorous Infanta. She was never considered an outstanding beauty, but she wasn't bad looking either. Thomas More, during Katherine and Arthur's wedding procession through the streets of London wrote: "Take my word for it, she thrilled the hearts of everyone; she possesses all those qualities that make for beauty in a very charming young girl. Everywhere she receives the highest of praises, but even that is inadequate." (1)

Wenceslas Hollar, 1647. Katherine of Aragon, Public Domain. 

Katherine's glamorous sense of fashion is not often discussed, but it's evident in the scrawls of ambassadors and the paintwork of artists that daubed her likeness onto their canvases. She wore white to both her weddings, cloth of gold in Spain to meet dignitaries and in 1509 at her coronation was described as "the most beautiful creature in the world." At Charles V's visit to England in 1520, she wore a dress of gold and silver with a black head-dress and glittered in diamonds and pearls. (2) Contemporary portraits identified as Katherine have her wearing scarlet, gold, black, white and always expensive jewels. (3)

It's true that her looks seemed to diminish as she grew older. One account by an onlooker in 1531 tactfully remarked that "if she is not handsome, she is not ugly". 

But let's put that into context for a second. She would have been 45 years old, Queen of England for over twenty years. She had been notified of proceedings against her in possibly the messiest divorce in history. She had endured the stress and humiliation of being elbowed in favour of a younger woman that wasn't even of royal birth. Henry's illegitimate son was being paraded around court as a Duke, a constant reminder of the one thing she had been unable to provide. Six or seven (the figure is contested) gruelling pregnancies later, she had only one child, Mary, that survived infancy - and Mary would be taken from her care in the same year. And, as this comment was being scribbled down, folded and pushed into a messenger's bag, she would only live for another five years. An autopsy after her death in January 1536 showed that her heart was riddled with a "black and hideous" tumour. Is it possible that Katherine was showing not only the mental strain of her private life by now - but also some early outward symptoms of the disease that would later kill her? This is likely, especially as it has been suggested that the heart tumour could have been a secondary cancer, spread from a primary tumour elsewhere in the body. She may have actually been ill for some time. (4)

I mean, seriously. Give the woman a break.  

The depiction in popular, modern culture of Katherine's age is also something that might surprise you. Yes, Katherine was older than Henry, but there were just five years and six months between them. Not much of a gap when you consider that she is often portrayed as much older, while Henry is young, athletic and gallant. In The Tudors, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the actress who plays Katherine, Maria Doyle Kennedy - have an age gap of just over 12 years and in Wolf Hall, the actors have a gap of 9 and a half years - around double that of the real-life characters. This might go some way into understanding why many people think Katherine was much older than Henry and how the differences between them might have been exaggerated. 

Far from being sombre and miserable, Katherine was fun-loving, too. She led the festivities during Philip of Burgundy's unexpected arrival to court in 1506, even trying, unsuccessfully, to drag her reluctant brother-in-law onto the dance floor. (5) She enjoyed watching her husband in his sports, observing jousts and hunting and hawking. She liked music, too, with payments from Henry own purse being made in 1510 to the 'Queen's Minstrels'. (6) And according to the account of 1531, and despite everything she had been through, Katherine was said to have "always a smile on her face." (2)

Maybe history has been a bit harsh on her. 

The picture that emerges from historical records is far from the miserable, stark, severe, bloated woman of Tudor legend. Instead, we see a committed and glamorous queen, decked out in the latest fashions and sparkling jewels, with contemporaries falling over themselves to complement her looks and personality. Far from being infertile, she conceived multiple times, and had a number of activities she enjoyed. She certainly smiled and laughed her way through pageants, dances and state visits. 

What do you think? Have we been a bit harsh on Henry's first queen? Let me know in the comments below... 

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Notes and sources
1. Thomas Penn, Winter King, 2011. p60. 
4. The Anne Boleyn files. The Death of Catherine of Aragon. Accessed 28 Dec 2020. 
5. Thomas Penn, Winter King. p218
6. BHO Letters and Papers 1510 - The King's Payments Accessed 28 Dec 2020.