Katharine of Aragon: Forgotten Among The Blessed
Why is Her Name Omitted from the List of English Martyrs?
‘My tribulations are so great, my life so disturbed by the plans daily invented to further the king’s wicked intention, the surprises which the king gives me, with certain persons of his council, are so mortal, and my treatment is what God knows, that it is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine.’
Katharine of Aragon to her nephew, Charles V, November 1531
n a grave, in Peterborough Cathedral, an Anglican diocesan seat, lies the central figure of the English Reformation: Katharine of Aragon. The people of Peterborough honored her in 1986 with a plaque that read: A Queen cherished by the English people for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion. Each year, they pay homage to her on the anniversary of her death, January 7.
What could so move the people of Peterborough to honor Katharine of Aragon with those words? Words that express the very essence of the way she touched the lives of the people; and moreover, continue to honor her each year? One can only assume that it is the story of her life and its profound trials; of her example of patience, perseverance, charity, kindness, compassion, understanding and above all, faith. Why then is she not among the names of the English Martyrs declared ìblessedî by Pope Leo XIII in 1886? Both her friend, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and Poleís eldest son, the Marquis of Exeter are among the “blessed” on the list. In fact, Blessed Margaret Pole was more than her friend; she was the godmother and first Lady Mistress to Katharine and Henry VIIIís daughter, Mary. Indeed, Blessed Margaret Pole was a surrogate mother to Mary who possessed her own household as the Princess of Wales. Given the time in which they lived and their position, Katherine and Mary enjoyed an unusually close relationship , however, Katherine still was not a part of Mary’s daily life in the way Blessed Margaret Pole was. It could well be said that the Princess Mary had two mothers; both of whom possessed great depth of love and a strong faith.
Although Katharine does not technically fit the criteria for a martyr as outlined in the New Catholic Encyclopedia under Theology of Martyrdom, I would like to suggest that either she be included by special dispensation to be added to the list or otherwise given a long overdue special recognition by the Church. I firmly believe that if anyone has earned this delayed recognition, it is she. One need only examine her history to know she lived the model life of a holy person.
Katharine’s faith and mettle were tested early on. Her unusual one-on-one involvement in the rearing and education of her daughter, Princess Mary, came directly from the relationship she enjoyed with her own mother, Isabella of Castile, Queen of Spain who was very involved with the academic and spiritual education of her children. Katharine had been betrothed by proxy to Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII. At 15, Katharine left her parents, never to see them again and setting foot in England on November 4, 1501. The journey was long, difficult and when she arrived on the shores of England it was Autumn, cold and wet. There is little known about their first impressions of one another, but ten days after her arrival Katharine and Arthur were married and she became the Princess of Wales. Arthur was 15 and Katharine one month shy of her 16th birthday. Immediately they were sent to Ludlow Castle on the border of Wales where a few months later both of them became ill — most likely with the “sweating sickness” prevalent there at the time and from which Arthur died on April 2, 1502. Although Katharine herself nearly died, she recovered only to find herself a widow at sixteen with an unclear future. This would be the first in a lifetime’s worth of challenges that would constantly test her faith.
The old adage “nothing ever changes” certainly applies to the greed and politics of world leaders because the first issue in the dilemma of the Prince of Walesís untimely death was Katharine’s dowry. Henry VII was a shrewd businessman and a greedy one and the very last thing he was interested in was returning any portion of Katharine’s dowry to her father, Ferdinand of Aragon, King of Spain. It was the beginning of a seven-year wait that would have tested the faith of far more divine beings than a sixteen year-old girl widow.
Ferdinand wanted his property back, but not necessarily and more unfortunately — his daughter. Henry didnít want to give anything back and didnít care one way or the other for the Princess, her welfare or those belonging to her household. This left Katharine without the care either of her father or her father-in-law. She was now an official state pawn; and she knew it. All she could do – and she learned to rely on it the rest of her life – was to pray. It was all she had. No amount of pleading with her father or her father-in-law got her very far. In a desperate, greedy attempt to keep the dowry, Henry VII conceived that Katharine should marry the new Prince of Wales, his younger son, Henry ñ only 9 years old when his brother died and 5 1/2 years younger than Katharine. In order for the young Prince of Wales and Katharine to marry they had to be granted a papal dispensation because Henry was Arthur’s brother; a moral question of the day. Moreover, it called into question perhaps an even more delicate issue and important one: whether or not the marriage between Katharine and Arthur had been consummated. However, all of this could easily be viewed as moot considering that the Pope had the power to overrule any objection to the marriage. Katharine testified that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated; a fact she maintained until her death. Henry VIII would later dispute this, as well as claim that by marrying his brother’s wife he had sinned against God and was therefore not given the gift of a male heir. He used these points as justification for denying his allegiance to Rome and making himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England.
Even with a papal dispensation, Henry VII was determined that the marriage between Katharine and her young brother-in-law would not take place before Prince Henry came of age. So even this betrothal was fraught with frustration because now Katharine would have to wait until Henry came of age in order to marry him. And it would be another sixteen months before the papal dispensation to allow them to marry was granted. Once that happened Katharine was given her own residence and yet within ten months of this she was forced to give it up because she had not the finances to maintain it and was forced to move to court. Within five months of her move to court Henry VII decided that Prince Henry was underage at the time of the betrothal and suddenly invalidated the promise between Prince Henry and Katharine. Talks of a future betrothal were postponed until Ferdinand paid the rest of her dowry.
This latest blow meant that Katharine could no longer even pay her servants. Within a year she was forced to sell some of the jewels and plate that were part of her dowry; within eighteen months she had nothing left to pawn. Relief finally came four months later with the death of Henry VII in April 1509 and at last Katharine’s seven year life in limbo came to a hopeful end. In June the Privy Council urged the new King Henry to marry Katharine – which he did on 11 June. He was just over two weeks shy of his 18th birthday; she was 23. When Katharine was crowned Queen 13 days later, she had endured youthful widowhood in a political limbo plagued by virtual poverty for over seven years . Those seven years were one continuous, struggle for survival; each day a future uncertain and unsecured. Now, Katharine was at last Queen of England, in love with her husband; her poverty and tentative life at an end.
From the moment her promise of a happy life ended with Arthur’s death within six months of their marriage to the moment Henry cast her off – Katharine – for her nearly 36 years in England – embraced the power and comfort of prayer. And itís a good thing because although Katharineís life with her young, handsome, and doting husband – who adored his queen bride – was blissful, this new chapter would ring in a fresh set of trials that would again test her faith and make her understanding of how to pray essential to her physical, spiritual and emotional survival.
Katharine and Henry enjoyed a life of mutual love and respect. They shared a common love for their Church and their faith. Perhaps their only trial and, indeed, their greatest, was their difficulty in having a male child. Beginning in January 1510 – with their first child brought stillborn, to the joy over the birth of their son Henry who was dead within six weeks through to the death of their sixth and final child in November 1519, Katharine turned each time to prayer and to her faith for strength. Only their daughter Mary had survived and Katharine was well aware that her inability to produce a male heir was a dynastic dilemma. Given Katharine’s time in history and her station in life, we must assume that she had no illusions about her husband’s; especially a king’s sexual fidelity. She had been conditioned and prepared from birth to become a queen. Part of that conditioning and preparation was understanding that, although the King her husband would share her bed, his prime reason for doing so was to fulfill his dynastic obligation of producing a male heir. It was her duty as his wife and, more importantly, as the Queen, to submit to this and accept it.
Katharine and Henry were more fortunate than most of their time and position because history tells us they were mutually attracted to one another and enjoyed their marital relations. However, as King, Henry had the unspoken right to have sexual relations with women other than his wife. Katharine tolerated all of his dalliances even in the case of his mistress, Bessy Blount. But how much pain must it have caused her when, seven months after her sixth and last child died, this mistress gave Henry his much-wanted son, Henry Fitzroy. Her faith allowed her to turn her head to this until Henry openly recognized this bastard child – actually giving him the title, Duke of Richmond. For the first time perhaps did Katharine feel true anger towards her beloved husband and alarm for her daughter’s right of succession. Yet even in the face of this she conquered her fears. She was patient and put her faith in God – believing that only a child of hers would sit upon the throne of England. With this turn of events, however, Katharine slowly began to draw away from court life – unable to face the humiliation of her inability to produce a son. She prayed for her daughterís safety and right to succession and she prayed that she would not lose the affection of her husband.
Five years after the birth of Henry Fitzroy, Henry stopped having sexual relations with Katharine, who was then besieged with gynecological problems. A year later, the Princess Mary was set up in her own household – ironically – at Ludlow where Katharine and Arthur had first lived. Being separated from her daughter indefinitely was unknowingly the beginning of the end for Katharine and a return to the sadness and loneliness she had known for those first seven years in limbo as a political pawn.
Two years after moving Mary to Ludlow, Henry told Katharine they had to separate because he believed they had been living in sin; that by marrying his brother’s wife God had punished them by not giving them a son. Of course, the historical reality is, Henry was going through a classic mid-life crisis. He was infatuated with a woman: Anne Boleyn. He was tired of his wife and he wanted a legitimate son. It is important to understand that Henry became Heir Apparent only as a result of the sad twist of fate in Arthurís young and sudden death. As the younger son of Henry VII, with no foreseeable chance to inherit the throne, Henry VIII was educated by men like Desiderius Erasmus, who prepared him for the life of a churchman. Ironically it is this very education that gave him the in-depth knowledge of scripture and church doctrine that he used to help him out of his marriage to Katharine. After nearly twenty years of wedlock, Katharine sat there – stunned – listening to this man whom she adored tell her their marriage was sinful, asking her to go away while the matter was sorted out. From the moment in June 1527 when Henry made these feelings known to Katharine until December 1529 – when she was asked to leave the palace at Greenwich – Katharine defended herself – with Rome and the English people firmly behind her. By this time Henry didn’t care and began making his way to break with the Church. And this from the man whom Pope Leo X named Fidei Defensor. And perhaps the greatest irony in this saga is Henry’s Statue of Six Articles that reaffirmed his belief in traditional Catholic practices and their enforcement – a move that perplexed and angered all Reformers of his time. Itís an irony that will remain forever sad, because in the final analysis it means that all the unhappiness he brought to Katharine, to Mary, and ultimately, to himself, was for naught if these were truly the feelings of his heart and conscience.
Although attempts of civility on Henry’s part towards Katharine were exhibited over the next two years it was no use. By the end of the summer of 1532, in a cruel and very personal action, Henry ordered Maria de Salinas – Katharine’s closest friend who had come with her from Spain – to leave Katharine’s household – forbidding to her to have any contact with Katharine. The following month Katharine was sent to a less hospitable residence in Enfield. Several months later she was moved again – once more to less hospitable accommodations. It was here that Katharine learned of Henryís marriage to Anne Boleyn, that she was no longer queen and that she would henceforth be known as the Princess Dowager of Wales. She was told that she could remain where she was, but would be financially responsible for the household and the servants. Conversely, in the same breath, it was intimated that if she submitted to the King’s will a very different situation would be found for her and she would be generously provided for. Katharine could have easily agreed to this or she could have retired to a convent as Henry had even suggested . Indeed, it is not unlikely that Henry would have built or given her an abbey. But to take such bribes would have been to renounce her faith, her child, her heritage and her self-respect – in essence saying that she had lied before God; and this she would not do. Her refusals were met with the harsh threats that if she continued to maintain her stance things would not only go badly for her, but for her daughter. Still she did not bend. Martyrs, under torture have refused to recant their faith. It would seem Katharine was doing the same thing – even with threats to her child.
Once the Act of Succession was introduced that nullified Mary’s right to ascend the throne – recognizing only the children of Anne that right, Katharine knew she had true reason to fear for herself and for Mary. She continued to pray, however, not caving into the fear and placed her trust in God.
It was now four years since Katharine was sent from court and she was moved to Kimbleton Castle. No matter how many times the King’s men came to her – demanding she swear the Oath of Succession – she refused. No matter how many documents were placed before her to sign, she crossed out Princess Dowager of Wales and wrote, Katharine the Queen, as she had always signed herself – being the rightful wife of the king in the eyes of God, the Church and the people. She was fearless before men who easily could have done her harm. Katharineís friend Maria and her daughter were still refused permission to see her and she grew progressively more ill. After two years at Kimbleton, with its unhealthy conditions and the people – who dearly loved their queen – bringing her food – Maria de Salinas finally forced her way into the castle in defiance of Henry’s order.
As the end drew near, Katharine in her last confession reaffirmed once again, that the marriage between she and Arthur had not been consummated. On 7 January 1536 at age 50 Katharine of Aragon – Queen of England – died. That same day she wrote her final letter to the man who had betrayed her, but whom she still loved. Even with its mild rebukes, it is a letter of love and forgiveness. It read: My most dear lord, king and husband, The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. – Katharine the Queen.
In a strange twist of fate – in what could be viewed as a true Old Testament display of God’s wrath upon those who break his commandments – three weeks after Katharine died – Anne Boleyn delivered a stillborn son. Some believe Katharine was slowly poisoned at the distant instructions of Anne – some believe it was cancer – perhaps it was both. Regardless, the conditions she was forced to endure hastened her death. Again, easily could she have accepted the title of Dowager Princess of Wales and lived a rich, royal life or retired to a convent. Yet she refused these things because had she not, she would have been untrue to herself, her child, her country, her heritage, her faith, and her God. She was the rightful queen. She was a virgin when she went to Henryís bed and her child, Mary, was the rightful heir. To deny any and all of this would have meant a simple loss of faith. God knew what was right and would preserve her and sustain her. By taking this course, she trusted to the will of God whatever that course was or where it would take her.
Many of those on the list of English Martyrs, died not because they were executed, but because they were subjected to conditions that lead to their deaths. Surely, the conditions under which Katharine was forced to live because of the resoluteness in her faith, that hastened her death, puts her on equal footing with the many priests who were put aboard ships and died from the harsh conditions. It is her cause and her faith that inspired every person who died at the hands of both Henry and later, Elizabeth, to go to their deaths bravely. For all those who were sentenced to death under Mary, just as many, if not more, perished at the hands of her father and half-sister.
Simply because Katharine was not put in a literal prison does not mean she was not imprisoned or ill-treated. She was Queen of England. She was cast out by a husband who had lost his perspective, his faith and his soul to lust and to an obsession for a male issue. Because she would not renounce the vow she had made before God as his wife, the testimony she had given before the Church swearing she was a virgin when she came to Henry’s bed, or the legitimacy of her daughter, she was punished as any person deemed a traitor was punished. Had she been anyone other than who she was she would surely have been sent to the Tower and/or executed as so many of her loyal friends were. Being sent from one bad living condition to another, cut off from her child and her friends and left to the mercy of the people to feed her, she endured no less hardship, torture or suffered any less than those on the list of English Martyrs. Indeed, hers was not simply a physical suffering, but an emotional torture and spiritual struggle – and a long one. She could well have caved in to her physical, emotional and spiritual discomfort in order to secure her own comfort, be reunited with her daughter and on some level, have a relationship with the man she adored even if it was platonic. To do that, however, meant denouncing her faith and her Church and like all holy people faced with this choice, she chose God and His Church.
Perhaps the greatest irony and the saddest aspect of Katharine’s story to me is that had Henry simply waited it out, history might have been very different. Katharine was nearly six years older than Henry, and she was already not well that terrible day he told her he wanted a divorce. There is no question she would have died before him, leaving Henry a widower and free to marry again that, in turn, would have given him to the opportunity to produce a male heir which, of course, he did with Jane Seymour. Had this been the case it would not have been Henry who created an English Reformation. This, however, seems not to have been the will of God.
In the final analysis Katharine was cruelly oppressed. She was cruelly oppressed in a way that was equal to any traditional torture inflicted on those who did not bend to the sovereign’s will. Indeed, her torture ended up being both physical and emotional. Some would argue that she lived a long life for a person of her time. I suggest, however, that her will to live was spurred on by her faith and determination in defending truth and in defending the sacrament of marriage. Indeed, Katharine’s defense of the sacrament of marriage is perhaps her tie and relevance to the modern world. In an age where the sanctity of marriage is all but disregarded, she stands – 475 years later – as the model defender of the sacrament of marriage. She died in her defense of it. And the sacrifice was her life: the royal one she was born to, the man she loved and her child. Because as precious and vital to her existence as these things were and defined her life, her faith , her belief in God, His Church and the Sacrament of Marriage were what truly defined her life . In a full circle of irony and sadness – Katharine left this life in her adopted country in the same way she first came to it and lived for seven years after Arthur’s death: she died abandoned and in less than hospitable circumstances with no one coming to her defense or aid. Yet in the last moments of her life she held fast to her faith – forgiving the one person who had betrayed her above all others – yet whom she loved still. This is the essence of holiness – the essence of Jesus’s message in the Gospels; the message of love and forgiveness.
Perhaps it seems odd that someone would try to champion Katharine’s cause after centuries of indifference, but when I was ten years old – I saw the BBC’s production of the Six Wives of Henry VIII. I had just learned to serve mass and had become an altar boy. I always loved the Church and loved serving mass. In looking back, something that I can only identify as empathy and sadness touched me from the moment I learned Katharine’s story. Since that time and after years of reading biographies about her, a feeling of wanting to help her has always been present. She has ever remained a symbol of goodness and the model of perfect faith in my mind. I only learned of the list of English Martyrs a few years ago and I can only surmise it was that which finally showed me a possible way to help her.
Her story speaks loudly enough for itself and serves as the perfect justification as far as I can see for either placing her name on the list and gifting her with the title of Blessed Katharine of Aragon or given a special recognition by the Church. From everything history tells us we know that Katharine of Aragon lived a model life of piety, patience and faith. She proved herself a worthy daughter of the Church. Her example of faith and perseverance should no longer be forgotten. The people of Peterborough – Anglicans not Catholics – have never forgotten this good woman and continue each year to recognize and honor her. Perhaps I overstate or over-dramatize when I go so far as to suggest that she should be named the patroness for the cause of reunification between the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church; perhaps not.
Under his holiness, Pope John Paul II, many were made blessed and many made saints. And although Katharine may not qualify for martyrdom, surely she has earned recognition by the Church – some title that would honor her faith and her defense of the sacrament of marriage. The Holy Father recognized the importance of acknowledging holy people and I believe that Katharine of Aragon earned her right to be placed among them.