The Unlikeliest Loophole

Eamon Duffy

  • Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett
    Faber, 458 pp, £9.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 571 23512 4

Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first and longest-lasting queen, at the heart of his glittering court for almost two decades. In the early years of their marriage, the Spanish princess, daughter of the most glamorous monarchs in Europe, must have seemed every bit as regal as her husband. Yet in the historiography of Tudor England she has become a shadowy figure, a sad frump eclipsed by her savage husband and the brazen mistress who supplanted her. Giles Tremlett’s splendid biography seeks to correct that perception. Notoriously, Henry came to hate the cast-off wife he once doted on, but it’s Tremlett’s contention that when Henry made Catherine his enemy, he found to his cost that he had never encountered a tougher opponent, ‘on, or off, the battlefield’. It is the book’s achievement to make that claim both intelligible and persuasive.

For a new and insecure dynasty on the western fringe of Europe, a marriage with the Spanish infanta was a tremendous prize. Catherine’s mother, Isabel of Castile, was the most powerful woman in Europe, a defiantly hands-on female ruler whose marriage to Ferdinand, king of the lesser Spanish kingdom of Aragon, created the germ of modern Spain and marked the arrival of a formidable new power in world politics. Their conquest of the Moorish emirate of Granada and their deployment of the Inquisition, forced conversion and, eventually, ethnic cleansing to rid Spain of its Jewish and Muslim populations, marked the end of a period of religious coexistence in the peninsula, and in modern times has made Ferdinand and Isabel seem bywords for blinkered bigotry. To contemporaries, fearfully conscious of the menace of the Turkish empire on Europe’s southern and eastern borders, they must have looked like the saviours of Christian civilisation. In 1496 that worldly sophisticate Pope Alexander VI recognised this by awarding Catherine’s parents the title of ‘Catholic Monarchs’. Shrewd dynastic marriages for their children linked the Catholic Monarchs to the rulers of Portugal, the Low Countries and Habsburg Germany and ensured that their grandson Charles V would rule an empire encompassing much of the known world. By these standards the betrothal of their fifth child to Prince Arthur of England was small beer. But not for England: the marriage of two successive heirs to the throne to the same daughter of the most formidable and militantly Christian monarchy in Europe represented the arriviste Tudor dynasty’s eager quest for international legitimacy and a potentially invaluable ally against England’s traditional enemy, France.

For the 16-year-old Catherine, by contrast, marriage to the Prince of Wales in November 1501 must have seemed like a parachute descent to an alien and unappealing planet. She spoke not a word of English, and both she and her entourage found English food, English social customs and English weather difficult to adjust to. Within weeks of her arrival, and despite the lavish celebrations that marked her wedding, she was desperately homesick, and her notoriously tight-fisted father-in-law, Henry VII, was reduced to cheering her up by giving her the run of the royal jewel-house. They were the last gifts she was to receive from him, for the courts of England and Aragon were soon bitterly at odds over delays in the delivery of her dowry.

Within a month of the wedding and in the dead of winter, she and her boy bridegroom were dispatched from the comforts of the court at Richmond to spend Christmas in the Welsh Marches so that Arthur could resume his duties as Prince of Wales. There had been doubts about whether Catherine should go. Some feared that too much sexual indulgence might sap the prince’s strength (Catherine’s newly-wed teenage brother Juan had died, it was said, from just such injudicious application to the duties of the marriage-bed). But in the end, bride and groom went together. The transition within a few months from the golden courts of the Alhambra to the dripping gloom of Ludlow Castle must have been devastating. By the spring, both Catherine and Arthur had fallen ill, perhaps with the sweating-sickness. She recovered, but on 2 April 1502, Arthur, who may already have been suffering from tuberculosis, succumbed to the illness and died.

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