Catherine of Aragon came to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales. His early death was to have significant repercussions for her – and for the country.
Catherine of Aragon is best known as the first wife of Henry VIII and for the fact that she was put aside to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn. Although the real reason for her divorce was the fact that she was unable to produce a son to secure the succession, the excuse for it hinged on her short-lived first marriage, to Henry’s brother Arthur.
Arthur of Wales and Catherine of Aragon: a Political Match
Through much of history, marriages between dynasties have been tools of political alliances, not love matches: the match between Catherine and Arthur was no exception. Their union was not between individuals but between the royal houses of England and Spain, instrumental in cementing an alliance between the two nations against their common enemy of the time, France.
The marriage was especially important for the English, as Henry struggled to establish his fledgling Tudor dynasty – a feat which was spectacularly achieved by acquiring Catherine, who was the daughter of the royal Spanish power couple, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, as a bride for his son. Arthur, as Henry’s oldest child (he bore the title of Prince of Wales) was expected to succeed to the throne.
The couple were married at St Paul’s Cathedral in November 1501 and the nuptials were celebrated in spectacular style, with feasting and jousting which lasted for a month (Horrox). Catherine was just short of her sixteenth birthday and Arthur almost a year younger (marriages between people of such a young age were far from unusual)
The question of the consummation of the marriage, which was to become so significant for Catherine, remains unresolved. While it was not unusual for young couples to produce children, Antonia Fraser points out that it was equally possibly that they might wait until an appropriate time. Although the couple were ceremonially ‘bedded’ there is no evidence that intercourse took place.
In December they left for Ludlow Castle in Shropshire (Arthur, as well as Prince of Wales, bore the title of Warden of the Marches) where they were to establish their household and Arthur was to continue acquiring the skills of kingship. The marriage was to be short-lived, however, and only a few months later, in April 1502, Arthur died.
The Death of Prince Arthur
The cause of the Prince’s death remains unclear. It has been suggested that he may have succumbed to the plague (Gardiner and Wenborn) and Antonia Fraser records that there was plague in the area – but there was also an outbreak of the sweating sickness. She also notes that Arthur, who was born prematurely and whose physical development was slow, had never been strong and that he may have suffered from tuberculosis.
Whatever the reason for his death, the loss of the heir to the throne had devastating consequences both for Catherine, a young and possibly still-virgin widow, and for the kingdom as a whole. She remained in England while her parents and father-in-law debated about what was to become of her: her future was not resolved until the death of Henry VII in April 1509. Within weeks she was married to the new king, Arthur’s brother Henry.
Aftermath: The Question of Consummation
Catherine’s marriage to Henry VIII was part love match (Henry was incurably chivalrous and Catherine undoubtedly a lady in distress) and part pragmatic move to maintain the Spanish alliance. Although there were theoretical legal problems because she had been married to his brother they were not insurmountable (two of her sisters had been successively married to the King of Portugal). The issue was insignificant until, without an heir, Henry needed an excuse to put Catherine aside.
It was only after more than two decades of marriage, that the vexed question of whether Catherine’s first marriage had been consummated was discussed. In the absence of any evidence the whole matter hinged upon Catherine’s solemn oath that it had not been against Arthur’s much-quoted claim that he had been ‘in the midst of Spain’ – which Horrox describes as ‘possibly….no more than adolescent braggadocio’.
The arguments over the long-finished marriage dragged on for a period of years. In fact the balance of probability suggests that the marriage was not consummated (Fraser speculates that Arthur’s delayed development meant that he had not reached puberty) but Henry’s supporters successfully argued that the marriage was invalid – and it was enough for Henry to put his wife aside after almost three decades together. Their marriage was declared void in 1533.
- C. S. L. Davies and John Edwards, ‘Katherine (1485–1536)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Antonia Fraser The Six Wives of Henry VIII Book Club Associates 1992
- Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn (eds) The History Today Companion to British History Collins & Brown 1995
- Rosemary Horrox, ‘Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486–1502)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004