True Historical Stories for Catholic Children – Katharine of Aragon

detail of a portrait of Catherine of Aragon by Michel Sittow, early 16th century; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, AustriaKatharine of Aragon was the youngest daughter of those great Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, under whose patronage, Columbus discovered the New World.

She was born amid the stir of battle, for the armies of her parents were then engaged in wresting from the infidel Arabs, that territory in the south of Spain, of which they had been in possession for more than seven hundred years. Queen Isabella invariably accompanied the army, and after the fall of La Ronda, she set out to spend the Christmas holidays at Toledo, then the chief city of Spain. In the course of her journey, the queen stopped at Alcala de Henares, where the little princess was born, December 15, 1485. Her birth was hailed with joy, and her baptism was celebrated with all possible pomp. She was named Catalina, which is Spanish for Katharine, the name by which she is known in English history.

At that time, Spain was divided into two independent kingdoms, one of them, Aragon, was King Ferdinand’s domain, the other, Castile, Queen Isabella’s. Katharine took her name from her father’s kingdom, and was always known as Katharine of Aragon.

Our little princess spent the first four years of her life in the camp of her parents, before the city of Granada, of which the Moors still held possession. They sallied forth one night, and set fire to the pavilion in which slept Katharine and her little brother and sisters. The royal children were rescued, after much difficulty, from the dreadful death which threatened them.

A few months later, the city of Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors, surrendered to the victorious arms of Aragon and Castile, and the little Katharine was taken with her parents, when they made their triumphant entry into Granada. This lovely city, a paradise of marble palaces, sparkling fountains and old gardens, perfumed with countless orange blossoms and roses, and resounding with the songs of nightingales, was henceforth to be the little Katharine’s home. Her mother, Queen Isabella, who was very learned and pious, being anxious that her little daughter should be taught all the learning and accomplishments of that period, her education was begun when she was about five years of age. She learned rapidly, and became very proficient in Latin, a rare accomplishment for a woman in those days.

Granada is the Spanish word for pomegranate, and the pomegranate was the device that Katharine adopted for her own. In England this device may still be seen among the ornaments of certain old buildings with which Katharine was associated, among them the well of Saint Winifred, of which she was a benefactress.

In the year 1501, the Princess Katharine, being sixteen years of age, there was an interruption to her peaceful and happy life in Granada. An embassy arrived there from England, soliciting her hand in marriage for the English king’s eldest son, Prince Arthur. Her parents consented, and Katharine bade farewell to them and to her sisters, sailing for England from the Spanish port of Coruna, August 17th.

Imagine, my dear children, the sadness of this young princess, scarcely more than a child, thus compelled to leave her beloved family and her beautiful home, for that cold, foreign land where the poor stranger was destined to suffer so many bitter trials.

Her ship encountered contrary winds and was forced back on the Spanish coast. She re-embarked in a better vessel on September 26th, and after a fair voyage landed safely at the English port of Plymouth. The entrance of the young princess into her new domain was dismal enough. A dreary November rain was falling, the cold was very penetrating and caused great discomfort to herself and to her retinue, accustomed to the balmy air and warm sunshine of the south.

King Henry VII, Katharine’s future father-in-law, was notified of her arrival, and set out at once, accompanied by a large number of dignitaries, to meet and welcome her to his dominions. Just outside of Dogmer’s field, where Katharine was stopping, he was met by a number of Spanish gentlemen who had accompanied her. Their mission in riding forward to meet him, was the rather difficult one of telling him that it was King Ferdinand’s wish that neither the king, nor Prince Arthur, nor, in fact, any man should behold the face of Katharine until after her marriage. This strange rule of Spanish etiquette caused great consternation among the English and aroused the anger of King Henry, who declared that he would see the princess in spite of them, that was what he had come for, and he would not be turned aside from his purpose.

Seeing him so determined, the Spaniards finally yielded, and admitted him to the presence of his future daughter-in-law. She understood no English, King Henry no Spanish, but they exchanged compliments by means of the Latin language. Presently the king went in search of his son, Prince Arthur, who had been patiently waiting outside and presented him to his future bride.

The young couple had been betrothed by proxy, but now they went through the ceremony in person. A quaint account is given by an old chronicler of this betrothal, and of the way all the noble company amused themselves afterwards, the princess calling for her Spanish minstrels, she and her ladies “with goodly behavior solaced themselves right pleasantly with dancing.”

Then began the tedious journey to London, a journey which lasted several days, not alone on account of the bad roads, but also because the people, anxious for a view of their future queen, crowded along the road and necessarily delayed her progress. At one place she was met by Lord Henry Stafford and the Abbot of Bury, with a company of four hundred people, dressed in the Stafford livery of scarlet and black, the Abbot, in a speech, welcoming Katharine to England.

At Kensington Palace, near London, the princess was lodged until preparations could be made for her formal entry into the city. On November 12th all was ready, and Katharine, with a large escort of lords and ladies, made her entrance into London. She was seated on a mule, according to the custom of her country, and was curiously dressed, wearing a large, round hat, under which was a veil of crimson with gold lace. Her maids of honor wore similar hats. Each Spanish lady’s mule was led by an English lady dressed in cloth of gold and riding on horseback. The people of London welcomed her with a great representation, or kind of play, of her patroness, Saint Katharine.

And now, Saint Paul’s Cathedral was made ready for the royal nuptials. A high platform covered with crimson cloth was erected, so that all might see the ceremony which took place on the morning of November 14th, 1501. Katharine was conducted to the Cathedral by the young Henry, Duke of York, who afterwards became her second husband. She was attired in a magnificent gown of white satin, with a long veil which completely concealed her face. This veil was embroidered with gold and pearls. The bridegroom, Prince Arthur, met her at the church where the Archbishop of Canterbury performed the marriage ceremony. The royal couple then followed the Archbishop and the nineteen bishops who were present, to the high altar where Mass was celebrated. Katharine’s train was borne by her husband’s aunt, the Princess Cecily, who was followed by one hundred ladies, richly dressed.

After Mass a grand wedding breakfast was served in the bishop’s palace of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, at which the bridal pair were served on plates of gold, ornamented with precious stones. Then followed all the plays and tournaments and feasting, with which a royal wedding was celebrated in those days. To the credit of royalty be it said, that all the enjoyment was not reserved for themselves only, for the people were allowed to be present at all these entertainments, platforms having been erected for their accommodation.

One noble gentleman came mounted on a red dragon led by a giant with a large forest tree in his hand. Another had a great, green mountain carried over him, covered with trees and flowers and with all sorts of small animals creeping up the sides. Of course, the dragon and the mountain were made of a substance something like paper, but I presume they afforded great amusement to the audience. There was a tournament in which the nobles tilted with spears, breaking a great many lances on each other’s bodies, as an old historian writes, but no one appears to have been injured.

When these celebrations were concluded, King Henry presented to the Spanish lords and ladies, costly gifts of gold and jewels, thanking them for the good care they had taken of his daughter-in-law.

Poor Katharine had now to bid these faithful friends good-bye, for their mission of caring for her until after her marriage, was concluded, and they were upon the point of starting on their return to Spain. King Henry, who noted his daughter-in-law’s sadness, invited her and her ladies to accompany him to his library where he showed them many curious and pleasant books, both English and Latin, and where his prudent foresight had provided a jeweler with his wares, rich trinkets of every description, of which the king bade Katharine take her choice. What remained, he distributed among her ladies-in-waiting.

It was the custom in England, at that time, for the king’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, to hold his court at Ludlow in Wales. This court, though small, was modeled exactly on the English court at Westminster. To Wales accordingly went Katharine and her husband, Prince Arthur, as soon as the wedding festivities were concluded. The roads were so bad that the journey could not be performed in carriages, so Katharine rode on a pillion, or kind of saddle, behind her master of horse, while eleven ladies on horseback followed her. The journey must have been a hard one, but the royal couple reached Ludlow safely, where they were joyfully welcomed by the Welsh people, with whom they became very popular.

A bright future seemed to be in store for them, but Katharine had not been destined for worldly happiness, and her sorrows began early indeed. When she had been scarcely two months in Wales, Prince Arthur fell ill of the plague, which raged at the time, and died, leaving her a widow in a strange land at the age of sixteen. Her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth of York, in her own grief over the untimely death of her eldest and favorite child, did not forget the forlorn young widow. She had a litter of black velvet prepared, in which Katharine made the journey back to England, taking up her abode at the country palace of Croydon, which was to be her home during her widow-hood.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel had paid only half of their daughter’s marriage portion when the news of her husband’s death reached them. They then expressed a desire that she should come home to them and that her dower be returned. King Henry VII, who was very grasping, disliked the idea extremely of parting with so much money, and he conceived the plan of arranging a marriage between Katharine and her young brother-in-law, Henry, who was then only thirteen years old. Her parents consented, provided a dispensation could be obtained from the Pope. Katharine herself was very unhappy, and naturally disliked the idea of becoming the wife of a boy so much younger than herself. She wrote to her father that she had no wish for a second marriage in England, but for him to act as seemed best to him, and not to consult her own wishes in the matter.

There were certain reasons for the granting of the dispensation, and the pope accordingly gave his permission for the marriage of Katharine and Henry, which took place about seven years after the death of Prince Arthur. Henry was nineteen at the time of the wedding, Katharine being twenty-four.

Henry was already a king when he was married, having succeeded his father, who had died a short time before. He was a stout, handsome young man, good-humored, and with a certain heartiness of manner, which made him very popular with all classes. “Burly King Harry ” they called him, and “bluff King Hal” and all of his subjects, high and low, liked the young king and promised themselves much happiness and prosperity during his reign. The ruling traits in his character seem to have been an inordinate selfishness and a stubbornness of will which prompted him to obtain what he desired, sacrificing, if need be, the rights and the happiness of others to attain his object.

Katharine was crowned in Westminster, with great pomp, a few days after her marriage. It is reported that she looked extremely handsome in her beautiful white robes of embroidered satin with a jeweled crown resting on her dark hair.

There were the usual festivities after the coronation, which were interrupted very soon by the death of the king’s grandmother, Margaret of Richmond, and by the outbreak of a great pestilence in London. The king and queen to escape the danger of infection, went with the court to Richmond, a country place not far distant. Here the king amused himself in his usual childish fashion, with all kinds of games and sports. He would suddenly leave the queen, and return dressed as a Moor, or a Russian, or anything else that took his fancy, Katharine good-humoredly pretending great surprise when he appeared before her in these strange disguises.

On New Year’s Day, 1511, a son was born to the king and queen, who was named Henry at his baptism, the Archbishop of Canterbury being one of his sponsors. The birth of the little heir was celebrated at Westminster with a grand ball, which was opened by a beautiful pageant. A number of ladies appeared, seated in a large arbor, of which the pillars were covered with gold, and all entwined with hundreds of silk and satin roses and hawthorn blossoms. The ladies’ dresses were covered with the letters “H” and “K”, the initials of the king and queen, made of pure gold.

Now, as I have told you, every one was allowed to be present at these royal frolics, and, naturally there was an immense crowd, a mob indeed, gathered at the lower end of the hall to see this fine show. The golden arbor, after the ladies left it, had been rolled back within the reach of these spectators. This was too much of a temptation, and they promptly fell to work, and before the court officers could interfere, had stripped the pillars hare of all the gold and flowers. Emboldened by this success, they then turned their attention to the noble actors in the scene, not sparing even the king himself, who was despoiled of all the golden ornaments adorning his rich costume. An old chronicle states that a certain sea captain, who was present at this ball, obtained for his share of the spoils, letters of beaten gold, which he afterwords sold for £3, or about fifteen dollars of our money.

This incident will serve to show you the curious state of society at that time.

Henry took it all very good-naturedly, and as every one at court was supposed to do exactly as the king did, I presume the noble lords and ladies laughed and , pretended to be amused, although probably inwardly much vexed at the loss of their jewelry.

These uproarious celebrations came quickly and sadly to an end. On the twenty-second of February, the little prince Henry died, being less than two months old. His death is chronicled in one of the old records of Westminster Abbey, and reads this way: “In the second year of our Lord, the King, there was born to him and to her Grace, the Queen, a son, whose soul is now among the Holy Innocents of God.”

Poor Queen Katharine was overwhelmed with grief, but she tried, like the brave woman that she was, to overcome her sorrow, and to fulfill bravely all the duties of her station in life.

Soon after the death of the little prince, war broke out with France, and King Henry led the invasion into that country in person. He embarked, with his troops at Dover, where Katharine parted from him very affectionately and sadly.

The king made her regent of the kingdom during his absence, intrusting her with higher powers than had ever been given to a woman regent in England. Besides placing the government of the country entirely in her hands, he made her captain of his troops, and empowered her to borrow money, if the necessity should arise, while he was in France.

This confidence of the king in his wife’s discretion and judgment, proves the character of Katharine to have been one of ability and sterling worth.

Before the king’s return, war was declared between England and Scotland, in which the English were victorious, the Scottish monarch, James IV, dying on the battle-field of Flodden.

The war in France was of short duration, and after winning the battle of Guinegate, King Henry sailed for home. He landed at Dover, and rode on to surprise the queen at Richmond, where there was an affectionate meeting between them. King Henry’s conduct had not been above reproach in France, but Katharine, with her customary kindness and charity overlooked this, and the royal pair seem to have been very happy for a time, joining in all kinds of merry-making and festivals.

Peace having been declared between the French and English, a marriage was arranged between King Henry’s sister, Mary, and the French monarch Louis XII. Mary disliked this match which had been made for her, and departed sadly on her journey to France, taking an affectionate leave of her good sister-in-law, Queen Katharine.

Among the Princess Mary’s ladies-in-waiting, who accompanied her to France, was a beautiful young girl, Anne Boleyn. Remember her name well, for you will learn more about her before this story is finished.

In the following Hovember, another little prince was born, who died when he was but a few days old, to the great sorrow and disappointment of poor Katharine.

How happened an event, which, though seeming to have but little connection with Katharine, was probably the cause of all her future misery. The French King, Louis XII, who had married Henry’s sister Mary, died less than three months after the wedding. Mary had never liked the idea of this marriage, and she remained a widow but a very short time, entering into a second marriage with the Duke of Sutfolk, whom she had known before she became the wife of Louis. Mary then accompanied her new husband to England, and with her came her ladies-in-waiting, among them Anne Boleyn.

On February 18, 1516, the Queen’s only daughter was born. This child, the only one of Katharine’s children who lived past infancy, was named Mary for her aunt, the Duchess of Suffolk. She afterwards occupied the throne of England. When Mary was less than two years old, a third son was born to her parents, who lived only one day. The loss of all their sons, was a great sorrow to Henry and Katharine, who were very desirous of an heir to succeed them on the throne. Katharine’s grief, after the loss of her last son, was increased by the fact that the king began to treat her with cold neglect. She was thirty-nine years old at this time, King Henry about thirty-four. Her health was very delicate, in fact, for three years she was so ill that her life was at times despaired of.

In the meantime, the king’s foolish fancy had been captivated by the young maid-of-honor, Anne Boleyn, who had returned with his sister from France.

She became one of Queen Katharine’s ladies-in-waiting, and was always treated by her with the utmost limit of Christian charity and forbearance.

To make a long story short, King Henry wished to marry Anne Boleyn, and in order to rid himself of poor Queen Katharine, he pretended, having been married to her for sixteen years, to be suddenly much troubled in his conscience because she had been his brother’s wife, and he accordingly set about getting a divorce from her so that he could make Anne Boleyn his wife.

He appealed to Rome, but the pope refused to consider any such scheme, and said that as Henry was lawfully married to Queen Katharine, he could not marry again while she lived, under penalty of excommunication.

Matters dragged on for some time without any decisive step being taken by the king, who now treated Katharine with the utmost injustice and cruelty. He even sent to intercept a letter she had written, asking advice and help in the trouble which had come upon her, of her nephew, the Emperor Charles V of Spain.

The king pretended to hold a court in London, before which his case was tried and where the poor Queen made a piteous appeal to him for justice, calling herself a friendless stranger in a foreign land. All this was of no avail, however, and when Henry found out that there was no hope of obtaining the pope’s sanction to his divorce, he renounced the Catholic Church and influenced Parliament to pass an act, called the “Act of Supremacy,” which declared the king to be the “Only Supreme Head of the Church in England.” Thus was founded the Protestant Episcopal Church, whose present head is King Edward VII of England.

The pope had written privately to Henry before he took this fatal step, commanding him to give up all idea of divorcing Queen Katharine, but when the king renounced allegiance to the True Church, sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him.

How began a reign of terror in England. The good monks, who for hundreds of years had been the benefactors of the people, ministering to their spiritual and temporal wants, were forced to abandon their monasteries and lands, which were given to King Henry’s followers. It was treason, punishable by death, to deny the “Act of Supremacy,” and, as Catholics were liable to be asked their opinion of this at any time, many brave souls suffered martyrdom rather than betray their holy Faith.

Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn had been privately performed some time before, and Katharine was banished from court, taking up her abode at Buckden Castle, near Huntingdon, a few faithful friends following her to share her exile.

Katharine’s father, King Ferdinand, was dead, her daughter, the Princess Mary, by the King’s command, was separated from her, and now, her faithful confessor, Father John Forrest, was thrown into prison, where he languished for two years before suffering a martyr’s death.

The Queen’s room at Buckden had a window opening into the chapel, and it is said that in the morning the stone sill was so wet with the tears she had shed, while praying during the night, that her attendants thought at first that a shower of rain had fallen upon it.

King Henry now began a persecution of Katharine’s two confessors, Fathers Forrest and Abell, in the hope of extorting from them something the Queen might have confessed which would make his divorce more valid. No priest has ever been known to violate the secrecy of the confessional, and these two faithful servants of God suffered a horrible martyrdom in the performance of their duty.

Katharine, being now upon her death-bed, requested as a last favor that she be allowed to see her little daughter. King Henry, with incredible cruelty, refused his permission. She had previously removed from Buckden to Kimbolton Castle, and here she died, January 7, 1536, having received the Last Sacraments with great piety and fervor.

When word of Katharine’s death was brought to Anne Boleyn, she was washing her hands in a costly basin, which she gave to the messenger in gratitude for his welcome tidings, exclaiming, “Now I am indeed a queen.” The king ordered that the court go into mourning, but Anne dressed herself and her ladies in bright yellow, to show the joy she felt over her rival’s death.

The character of Katharine of Aragon is one of the most noble and lovely in history. She neglected none of the difficult duties of her exalted station in life. She was a dutiful daughter, an exemplary wife, a fond mother, a noble queen. Although not disdaining the amusements of her station in life, she devoted the greater part of her time to duties of a serious nature. It was her custom always to rise at night to pray. She fasted twice a week and received Holy Communion every Sunday. Dress and frivolity were not to her taste, and she was once heard to say that that part of her time spent in dressing and adorning herself she considered entirely wasted.

Her treatment of Anne Boleyn is perhaps the most conspicuous example of her saintly virtue. Some time previous to her death, one of her attendants began a conversation about Anne, in the course of which she reviled her as the cause of all of Katharine’s troubles. The Queen, who was weeping bitterly, dried her eyes and rebuked the speaker, saying, “revile her not, but rather pray for her, for even now is the time fast coming when she will need your pity.” This prophecy was singularly fulfilled in a few short years, when Anne Boleyn suffered death upon the scaffold, to make way for her own waiting- woman, Jane Seymour, to whom King Henry had transferred his affection.

Katharine of Aragon commanded the admiration and respect of even her enemies, not one of whom ever dared to calumniate her. Her friends loved her for her goodness and her benevolent unselfishness, and all posterity must admire her for those many beautiful virtues which shine forth so brightly in the darkness of her sorrowful life.

– text taken from True Historical Stories for Catholic Children, by Josephine Portuondo, 1907