Katharine of Aragon: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Widow

Arthur was buried in  Worcester Abbey, now cathedral. Katharine set out for London in a litter, draped in black, sent by Queen Elizabeth. Initially, no-one was quite sure what to do with the young widow, or with her brother-in-law. If Katharine were pregnant, her child would take precedence, so some time had to be left before Henry was proclaimed as Prince of Wales. In due course, it became apparent that Arthur had not left an heir – surprisingly, what he did leave, was a will giving all his possessions to his sister Margaret, betrothed to James IV of Scotland.

Although Queen Isabella’s immediate reaction had been to request the return of her daughter, Henry and Ferdinand had other ideas. Both kings were parsimonious and disinclined to give up a bargain, and they now fell out about money. Katharine had been allowed to bring part of her dowry in jewels and household goods, with some cash up front, and the remainder to be paid in instalments. In return for her dowry, Katharine was to receive a jointure of a third of the revenues of the Prince of Wales, in the event of her widowhood.

If Katharine were to be returned to Spain, Henry would have to pay her jointure, but as he had not received her dowry, that did not seem like a good deal. In addition, the alliance between the two countries was still valuable. It was decided therefore, that Katharine would be betrothed to Henry, now Prince of Wales, and that they would be married when he reached the age of fifteen. The remainder of Katharine’s dowry was to be paid, and King Henry would support her and her household.

There was another bit of administration to be attended to, as well. Because Katharine had been married to his brother, there was considered to be a bond of either consanguinity (if the marriage had been consummated) or of affinity, (if it had not) between her and Henry. Such a bond was a barrier to matrimony, and would require a Papal Dispensation to remove it. Such dispensations were frequent, and not considered controversial, however, it was important that they covered the details of the case in point.

The correct wording of the document depended on which type of bond existed. No-one seemed quite sure what Katharine and Arthur’s relationship had been. Her duenna said that the marriage had not been consummated, but her Confessor thought it had. In the event, a dispensation was granted on the basis that the marriage had been consummated, but a second version appears to have been issued as a Papal Brief, permitting the marriage “ even if the marriage had PERHAPS been consummated.” A letter from King Ferdinand states that it was well-known that the marriage had NOT been consummated, but he was going for the belt and braces approach, lest the slippery English try to wriggle out of the deal – not that Ferdinand’s word should be taken to stand for much, as will become clear later.

For the next seven years, Katharine’s existence was pretty miserable. In February 1503, her mother-in-law died, following which King Henry became more parsimonious and suspicious of Yorkist plots. Her own mother died in 1504, which was a great grief to her, and significantly lessened her value in King Henry’s eyes, as Isabella’s crown went to Juana and her husband, Philip, leaving Ferdinand to rule over a much diminished territory. Practical life was difficult too. She was kept very short of money by her father-in-law, her father failed to pay over her dowry, and she was reduced to selling her plate to buy food. Within her household, civil war broke out between her duenna and her confessor, and she was seldom allowed to see her betrothed or spend time at Court.

Katharine took refuge in her religion, and began to practice
a level of austerity that prompted a letter from King Henry to the Pope, asking
him to give Katharine’s betrothed the authority to forbid her from indulging
in excessive fasting and praying. His Holiness duly obliged, and Prince Henry
received the information that his affianced wife’s body was not her own to
control, but must be subordinated to his authority so as to prevent her doing
anything that might inhibit childbearing.

This was followed by a scandal relating to her new confessor. He was young, attractive, not as celibate as he ought to have been, and was considered to have far too much influence over her. She absolutely refused to dismiss him, writing to her father that he was the best confessor a woman in her position could have.

The arguments in the Princess’ household between her servants and the various ambassadors of Spain who tried to talk King Henry into fulfilling the marriage treaty with Prince Henry became almost farcical, as the factions in Spain, between Castile and Aragon, were played out in microcosm in Katharine’s household.

In 1507, her political position improved when she herself received letters of accreditation as Ambassador. Katharine showed a talent for intrigue and political machination that stood her in good stead in later life. In particular she played upon Henry VII’s desire to marry her now widowed sister, the Queen of Castile, as a way of encouraging him to look favourably on her own marriage to the Duke of York. She learned to communicate in code and translate replies.

All this gave her a new lease of life and energy, but after an initial improvement in her status, her father’s failure to send the remainder of the dowry gave Henry VII a continued excuse to prevaricate over the marriage. In part her value was diminished by the arrangement that Henry made for her nephew Charles, to marry his daughter, Mary, in a treaty agreed in 1507.

Katharine of Aragon

Katharine of Aragon

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