Katharine of Aragon: Life Story

Chapter 1: Childhood

Katharine of Aragon was born in the small town of Alcala de Henares on the night of 15 - 16 th December 1485, the fourth daughter and fifth surviving child of her parents, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Some six years previously Isabella had confirmed her hold on the kingdom of Castile by defeating the rival claimant Juana ‘ La Beltranaja’ and her marriage to Ferdinand, who became King of Aragon in that same year of 1479, had combined all Spain under their sovereignty, although the kingdoms remained as separate states.

A few days after her birth, dressed in a christening gown of white brocade lined with green velvet with a gold lace trim, Katharine was baptised by the Bishop of Palencia. At the time of Katharine’s birth her parents were engaged in a war and the first five or so years of her life were spent following the army Ferdinand and Isabella were leading to fulfil their ambition to complete the Christian Reconquista of Spain.

For centuries after the Iberian Peninsula was overrun by the Moors in 711 AD, the Christian Kingdoms had fought back, until, inch by inch, the Moors had been driven into the last stronghold, the Kingdom of Granada on the south coast. The Spanish monarchs were determined that this final bastion would fall, and mounted a ten year campaign to win it. During this period, Isabella, accompanying the army (although not, of course, fighting) kept her children with her, to supervise their education.

In June 1491, Granada finally surrendered in a staged ceremony witnessed by Katharine and her siblings, but the royal family did not immediately take up residence there – instead they continued to travel around Spain, as the Catholic Kings (a title granted to Ferdinand and Isabella by the Pope after the fall of Granada) toured their kingdoms, administering justice and asserting royal authority. In around 1499, a more permanent Court was established in the Alhambra, the jewel of Granada, one of the most sophisticated and elegant palaces in the whole of Europe.

Katharine and her siblings received the best education available in the 1490s. Queen Isabella was determined that her daughters would be better educated than she had been, and had them taught Latin, the language of diplomacy, normally only taught to boys. Katharine wrote and spoke it fluently. She also studied the other branches of an early Humanist education – history, poetry, the writings of Aristotle and other philosophers and law. In addition, she learnt the traditional skills of upper class women – managing a great household, needlework, both plain and fine, music, dancing, etiquette, pastimes including chess, tables, cards, and hunting.

A key element of Katharine’s education was, of course, the practice of her religion. Isabella was famously devout and her daughters were brought up to consider their faith the most important thing in life.

The purpose of Katharine’s education was to make her a suitable wife for her future husband, and to give her enough knowledge and wisdom to influence him to think favourably of her native country. Royal women were the living symbol of alliances between their native land and their husband’s realm.

Having completed the conquest of the Moorish Kingdom, Ferdinand had turned his not inconsiderable talents as a military strategist and soldier to the recovery of Pyrenean provinces lost by Aragon to France, and to the increase of his holdings in Southern Italy.

The rivalry for the dominance of Italy by France and Spain was the foremost European political problem in the first half of the 16 th century and the relative strength of the contending parties at different times is the backdrop to the whole of Katharine’s life. The Kings of France, first Charles VIII then Louis XII and finally François I, were determined to make good their claim to the Duchy of Milan. At the same time, Ferdinand wished to dominate not only the island of Sicily, which had been ruled by the Crown of Aragon since 1282, but also to regain the mainland kingdom of Naples which had devolved upon his illegitimate uncle, Ferrante, in 1458, once Ferrante died in 1494. Caught between the two powers, was the papacy, which ruled over central belt of the peninsula, known as the Papal States, although the extent of these fluctuated.