29 April 2011

Waity Kate, the 1509 Edition

I always enjoyed history lessons but for me, the kings-and-queens part was my favourite. Economic history was fine and political history OK but it was the personalities of the powerful, the calibre of the kings and the quirks of the queens that interested me most. That said, I wasn't watching a certain royal wedding this morning because my interest wanes somewhere in the 17th century.

Just over 500 years ago, for example, another wedding took place between another Catherine and another royal. Like Kate Middleton, Catalina de Aragón had to change her name to Catherine (probably spelled Katherine) to make it more suitable for a queen or future queen of England, and like Kate Middleton, Catherine of Aragon had been awaiting the marriage for a number of years. Catherine originally married the eldest son of Henry VII, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1501.

The youngest daughter of the formidable Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, whose marriage created, temporarily, a united Spain, Catherine was a powerful bargaining tool and her marriage to Arthur was supposed to ensure that England maintained a strong alliance with the Spanish against those pesky French. They married at St Paul's and then, like Prince William and the new Duchess of Cambridge, returned to live in Wales (OK, technically, it was Ludlow). Catherine and Arthur were about the same age but Catherine is said to have shared a dance with Arthur's younger brother Henry, a more outgoing, fun-loving lad, who never expected to be king.

But then of course Arthur died, leaving Catherine stranded in Ludlow as the Dowager Princess of Wales. Henry VII was unwilling to return her dowry (which was probably already spent) and Catherine's parents were too busy with Spanish concerns to sort out her return. And then Isabella died, leaving Castile -- the richest Spanish kingdom -- to her eldest daughter, Joanna (called "the mad" but she was probably just really very sad about the death of her husband, Philip "the fair"), with Ferdinand still ruling Aragon. This meant Catherine's value in the marriage market had dropped. Henry VII, whose wife died the year after Arthur and who was, by this time, nearly 50, contemplated marrying Catherine himself but to her probable relief, this never quite worked out.

When Henry VII died in 1509, his son Henry became Henry VIII and Catherine's lingering in this cold foreign kingdom finally came to an end. Henry VIII had to get a dispensation from the Pope to marry his brother's widow, which was, of course, to come back to haunt him ten years later, but the couple were married in June 1509. The wedding ceremony was a quiet one in Greenwich Church but Catherine's coronation in Westminster Abbey, a few weeks later, drew huge crowds. Catherine became immensely popular, which, again, caused trouble for Henry when he wanted to divorce her, and although she was five years older, she and Henry made an attractive couple: Catherine with her attractive, petite figure and auburn hair, and Henry, tall, athletic and handsome. Unusually for the time, it seemed to be a love match, but you can never quite imagine the strains that a failure to produce a mail heir can cause...

It took Henry seven years to get his annulment, which was issued in 1533. Catherine died three years later having spent much of the last 20 years of her life as she had spent those long years at the turn of the 16th century -- alone, abandoned, hoping. But her popular support was never supplanted by any of Henry's subsequent queens and given what happened to most of them, maybe Catherine didn't fare so badly...

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