Katharine of Aragon: In Fact & Fiction

A Reading List

Katharine probably appears more frequently in histories, both serious and lightheaded, than any other queen in history save, perhaps, her rival, Anne Boleyn.

So far as biography is concerned, unusually for a woman, so far in the 20th and 21st centuries, she has attracted only male biographers.

Garrett Mattingley’s 1942 Catherine of Aragon has been the standard work for over sixty years. It can still be found in libraries and bought second hand, but is no longer in print.

In the last five years, two new biographies have recently appeared – Giles Tremlett’s Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen and Patrick Williams’ Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s first unfortunate wife. Full reviews of each are provided in our Book Reviews section, so suffice to say here that they look at Katharine from a much more international viewpoint, as at the heart of the political alliance with Spain.

As an important woman in the European stage in the sixteenth century, Katharine is prominent in the various contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles and records of the time. There is a raft of diplomatic correspondence surrounding arrangements for her marriage to Arthur and then negotiations for marriage to Henry. A number of her own letter are also preserved.

So far as books or pamphlets are concerned, she first appears in The Receyte of the Lady Kateryne, probably written in the early sixteenth century, describing her reception in London in 1501.

She appears in the following works, published after her death, between about the end of Henry’s reign (Hall) and the 1580s: George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, Hall’s Chronicle, Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historiae, Nicholas Harpsfield’s ‘The Treatise touching the pretended divorce between King Henry the Eight and Queen Katherine’, Nicholas Sanders’ ‘De Origine ac Progressu Schismatis Anglicani’, Holinshed’s Chronicle, and John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

In them, Katharine’s own character is treated overwhelmingly favourably, even by the supporters of the Reformation and the Protestants of the next generation who maintain that her marriage to Arthur was consummated. For the Catholic writers she is little short of a saint. This picture of a courageous woman, battling against the overwhelming power of her husband and his ministers reaches its culmination in Shakespeare and his fellow author, John Fletcher’s, portrayal in Henry VIII.

Each age requires its heroes and heroines to reflect its own world view and preoccupations, thus in the sixteenth century, Katharine was a martyr for her faith, by the nineteenth century she is a model of domestic faith and virtue in the evergreen Lives of the Queens of England and by the mid twentieth century she is a side note in the serious business of male politics.

In the twenty-first century, opinion is divided. In a non-religious age some historians, notably Dr David Starkey, have no problem believing that Katharine repeatedly lied on oath, and in the confessional about the consummation of her first marriage. Katharine’s obfuscation with her father over her first miscarriage, and a willingness to indulge in the usual diplomatic practices of half-truths and possibly misleading statements are used to support this interpretation.

Modern pragmatists in a non-religious age believe she should have accepted the annulment and retired rich and comfortable – rather as Anne of Cleves did. A more feminist agenda is torn between admiration for her courage, and disappointment that she stood for so long in the way of Anne Boleyn, whose temperament seems more in tune with our own times.

There are a number of joint biographies:

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Alison Weir) and The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Antonia Fraser) are overwhelmingly favourable, the latter in particular. Starkey in Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII is generally less so, highlighting less favourable interpretations of many of Katharine’s actions (Katharine crying when when Henry told her he was seeking a divorce was ‘no doubted intended’ to unman him).Still, it is good to hear a different perspective.

Amy Licence in The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII gives some fascinating background detail on childbirth customs and Katharine’s general gynaecological health. With a wider focus on Henry’s love-life, Katharine is not the focus.

England’s Queens by Elizabeth Norton, gives a good summary of the facts of Katharine’s life.

Professor David Loades, in his Tudor Queens of England sums up the argument that Katharine should have accepted the annulment. Whilst he acknowledges that Katharine believed herself to be acting on principle, he does identify that her motives had the very human attribute of resentment at the thought of being supplanted by Anne Boleyn.

In fiction, the classic is Norah Lofts’ The King’s Pleasure, a beautifully written work which exposes the emotional pain of the annulment. Alison Weir’s Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen (5 May 2016) has a similar perspective. Jean Plaidy’s trilogy I find drags a little. Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess is popular, but I wanted to throw it across the room as ahistorical.

Hilary Mantel treads an interesting line in Wolf Hall. It is clear that Cromwell can admire Katharine’s courage, but ultimately, he thinks her a fool for holding on to a marriage that can never be revived, rather than accepting the annulment with good grace – she is eager for martyrdom and, he believes, willing to take her daughter with her, of which he disapproves.

All in all, there is a wealth of material, to suit every taste.


Listen to our interview with Renaissance English History Podcast on Katharine of Aragon here