Katharine of Aragon: Appearance & Character

Chapter 2 : Character

As to character, the overwhelming impression that Katharine leaves is that she was utterly single-minded. What she set her mind on, she never deviated from pursuing.

What can be ascertained from contemporary sources is that she never forgot a friend or an enemy – a maid-of-honour who had disobeyed her during the years as Arthur’s widow, by marrying without consent was never forgiven. On being asked for the equivalent of a reference for Francesca, Katharine refused. Similarly, her former tutor and confessor, Alessandro Grinaldi, incurred her wrath to the extent that, fifteen years after he left her service, she refused to receive him.

On the positive side, Katharine was loyal to those who served her – much of her correspondence relates to recommending her friends and servants. This was a necessary part of her role as Queen, but even her will shows real concern for the welfare of her remaining attendants – requesting extra wages for them.

The years of her widowhood show Katharine as emotional, and prone to despair – perhaps not unusual for a girl in her teens – it is easy to forget that adolescents of the sixteenth century were just as affected by hormonal changes as modern youth. She dealt with her troubles by prayer, excessive fasting, and an over-involved emotional relationship with her confessor, Fray Diego, whom she adamantly refused to dismiss, despite the rumours circulating about his licentious private life.

Once Katharine was Queen, her emotions seem to have been on a more even keel – perhaps the natural effects of maturity. Although she is recorded as lamenting sorely at the death of her son, there is no sign of the immoderate grief her sister displayed on the loss of her husband (transporting his coffined body with her for over ten years!).

Nevertheless, a flair for the dramatic certainly never left her – the dispatch of James IV’s bloodstained tunic, the speech at Blackfriars, the defiance in the face of demands that she move to the damp and unhealthy castle at Somersham that led her to lock herself in her room and say she would have to be dragged out. Even the request to Henry to let her nurse their sick daughter when she told him that if Mary tried to escape England he could do justice on her as the ‘most evil woman ever born.’

In the early days of their marriage, Henry relied on Katharine’s advice – she was five and a half years older than him, and had more experience of diplomacy, through having acted as her father’s accredited ambassador. It is apparent that during her years as Queen, foreign emissaries were aware of her influence – there are many records of instructions to wait upon the Queen, and notes about her influence on Henry. In 1513, she was quite as eager for war with France as Henry – talking to the Venetians about building or chartering suitable ships for the nascent English navy, which could be taken into battle. She is described as ‘very warm in favour of this expedition.’

Later in that year, when Henry was campaigning in France and James IV of Scotland invaded England, she was willing – even eager – to march with her troops herself. When James was defeated, she would have liked to send his body to France as a trophy, but ‘our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it.’ From this we can infer that she was as imbued with the militarism of the age as anyone, and certainly not averse to war. But that was her role as Queen – as a woman, she sympathised with her now-widowed sister-in-law, Margaret, Queen of Scots, and on 18th October, some five weeks after the battle, sent messages of condolence, which Margaret seems to have believed were sent in a genuine spirit of kindness.

When the meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold was planned, she made her dislike of the plan to meet the French King in a spirit of amity known. Charles V’s envoy told his master that the meeting was ‘against the will of the Queen and all of the nobles’. When the French King’s mother questioned the English ambassador as to Katharine’s lack of enthusiasm for a French alliance, the envoy had to fall back on her eagerness to do the King’s pleasure in all things, rather than any real urge to make peace with the old enemy. Perhaps it is not surprising that King Francois denigrated her personal charms!

As to Katharine’s intellectual capabilities, she was highly praised by Erasmus on several occasions. Erasmus was forever on the lookout for patrons, and frequently heaped praise on people in one letter, in the hope of extracting some funds, whilst delivering a snide comment in another to a friend, but, absent any evidence of derogatory comments, it is worth considering his statement:

‘The Queen is well instructed – not merely in comparison with her own sex and is no less to be respected for her piety than her erudition.’

Erasmus was not the only humanist with whom Katharine had contact – Sir Thomas More, John Colet and Bishop Fisher were supported by her, as was Juan Luis Vives, the Spanish scholar whom she commissioned to draw up a plan of education for her daughter, Mary.

Katharine’s skill in argument and ready intellect were well known to even her enemies. Apparently, Anne Boleyn told Henry never to argue with Katharine, as she would surely get the better of him – poor Henry, trapped between them!

Katharine took seriously her Christian duty of charity towards the poor – this also meshed with mediaeval ideas of ‘good-lordship’ – a master or mistress’ duty to be liberal with gifts and money. Henry VIII and their daughter, Mary, shared this trait – noticeably missing in Henry VII and Elizabeth I who were distinctly parsimonious.

The Queen’s accounts show that she spent some five per cent of her income on charitable works, with five times that amount expended on gifts for her affinity. She also gave generous tips to people who brought her small gifts of cakes or flowers as she travelled between palaces.

Books of Hours were given as presents by both Katharine’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth of York, and, it seems, Katharine herself. According to her biographer, Tremlett, in one she inscribed the following message:

‘I think the prayers of a friend the most acceptable and because I take you for one of mine…I pray you remember me in yours.’

Two of the most enduring descriptions of Katharine come from her husband, and his minister, Thomas Cromwell - both determined to break her spirit and force her to accept the annulment, although neither succeeded and one can’t help feeling that no matter how frustrating her stonewall tactics were, they had a deep respect for her.

According to Henry,

‘for were the Lady Katharine, who is a proud and intractable woman, to take into her head to favour her daughter, she might well take the field, raise assemblies of men, and carry on war against him as openly and fiercely as queen [Isabella], her mother, did in Spain.

Whilst the Imperial Ambassador reported that Cromwell had observed that:

‘God and nature had done great injury to the said queen in not making her a man, for she might have surpassed in glory and fame all the princes whose heroic deeds are recorded in history.’

Katharine was not the patient saint of many stories, she was certainly capable of diplomatic lies and dissimulation, but she was also a woman of great faith and steadfastness, so we should perhaps leave her the last word, as she knelt before the husband of twenty years who sought to cast her off:

‘Sir I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us and for the love of God, let me have justice….I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife..’

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

Katharine of Aragon

Katharine of Aragon

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