Saturday, November 14, 2009

Today in #Herstory: The Wedding Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur

On November 14, 1501, Catherine of Aragon married Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth, at St. Paul's Catheredral in London. Five months later Arthur was dead and a whole can of worms opened up. Was their marriage consummated? Historians have been debating this question for centuries.

Catherine of Aragon was 16, and Arthur was 15 on their wedding day. The two had already been married by proxy in 1499, waiting only until Arthur was old enough.  The couple later met on November 4, 1501 at Dogmersfield in Hampshire. Little is known about what they first thought of each other, but Arthur wrote to his in-laws that he would be 'a true and loving husband' and told his parents that he was immensely happy to 'behold the face of his lovely bride'.

After their marriage, Arthur was sent to Ludlow Castle, to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches, as was his duty as Prince of Wales, and Catherine went with him. A few months later, they both fell ill, possibly with the sweating sickness. He died on 2 April 1502, and she almost died too, but recovered to find herself a widow at barely 17. 28 years later Catherine would say that she and Arthur had shared a bed only 7 times, and that on none of those occasions did they have sexual intercourse. However, after Arthur's death, Catherine never once mentioned that the marriage wasn't consummated, even during the months when the court was watching to see if she was pregnant.

It was the custom for the bride and groom to be 'bedded,' meaning before witnesses. In the case of Catherine and Arthur, Henry VII and his battle-axe of a mother Margaret Beaufort, Arthur's mother Queen Elizabeth, and a whole host of courtiers crowded into the bedchamber while the curtains were drawn around the royal couple. After the deed was allegedly done, the bridal sheets were produced as evidence.  Witnesses later testified that the marriage was indeed consummated.

The bridegroom even boasted of his prowess. Of course, it's not exactly proof postive. Witness any  high school boy who has boasted to his friends about 'scoring' with his girlfriend, when nothing of the kind took place (Remember the scene in Grease when Sandy and Danny sing two opposing viewpoints in 'Summer Lovin'?). 'Gentlemen, I have been this night in the midst of Spain, and it hath been thirsty work,' Arthur is alleged to have said. Truth or youthful boasting?

In the months after Arthur's death, when everyone was on baby bump watch, Catherine could have said that they were wasting their time. Why didn't she? Was it because of grief over losing her young husband? Or her attempt to prolong her stay in the hopes of eventually marrying his brother Henry? The last thing Catherine wanted was to be returned to Spain. She had been groomed since childhood to be a Queen. All that awaited her was either a long widowhood, or a second less illustrious marriage.

She was aided by  her father-in-law who was reluctant to give her 200,000 ducat dowry. To avoid having to give back the money, it was agreed she would marry Henry who was five years younger than she was. Unfortunately for Catherine, it took 7 long years before she and Henry were married. During that time, she had to endure poverty and insults, treated like a second class citizen.  And the death of her mother, Isabella of Castile meant that Catherine's 'value' in the marriage market decreased. Castile was a much larger kingdom than Aragon and it was inherited by Catherine's mentally unstable elder sister, Juana. The argument was that the marriage was delayed until Henry was old enough, but Henry VII procrastinated so much about Catherine's unpaid dowry that it seemed doubtful that the marriage would ever take place. She lived as a virtual prisoner at Durham House in London. Some of her letters to her father, complaining of her treatment, have survived.

It was only then that she insisted that her marriage to Arthur had been uncosummated. On the 23 of June 1504, she and Henry were officially bethrothed at last. From the beginning, there was opposition to the marriage. The Bishop of London who had officiated at Arthur's marriage to Catherine, disapproved on the grounds of impropriety, that it was against biblical teaching. The papal bull didn't arrive in England until 1506. When it did arrive, it was clear that it assumed that the marriage was consummated. On June 27, 1505 Prince Henry himself lodged an official protest against the betrothal on the grounds that it would be incest. 4 months later the Pope wrote a letter to Arthur, who had been dead for almst four years (was the mail that slow back then?) urging him to curb his wife from excessive religious practices like fasting that could prevent baby making. It wasn't until after the death of Henry VII that Catherine and Henry were finally married. Catherine's second wedding took place on 11 June 1509, seven years after Prince Arthur's death. She married the recently crowned Henry VIII in a private ceremony at Greenwich Church. She was 23 and the new king was just days short of his 18th birthday.

As lovers of history know, when Henry sought to have his marriage to Catherine annulled because of her marriage to his brother. Catherine again vehemently denied that her marriage to Arthur was consummated. There are some historians who believe that Catherine was telling to truth because, in her later years, she earned a reputation for piety. She regularly wore a hairshirt underneath her garments. Yet she tolerated the sinful lifestyle of her confessor, who had a reputation as a womanizer. He slept his way through most of the women at court. Despite his proclivities, Catherine defended him vociferously despite the damage to her own reputation. It was also recorded that early in her marriage to Henry, Catherine continued to claim to be pregnant even after it was clear that she had lost the baby.  Of course this doesn't mean that Catherine wasn't telling the truth about her marriage to Arthur, but it does show that Catherine was quite capable of turning a blind eye to things that she didn't want to deal with or see.

It is entirely possible that Catherine had told the story of her innocence so many times that she began to believe that the marriage to Arthur was unconsummated. It was also expedient for Henry to believe that the marriage was consummated, so that he had a free 'get out of jail' card so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.  Henry had no qualms about bending the law to suit his purposes. No one will ever know for sure what happened between Catherine and Arthur on their wedding night, but what did or didn't happen was to set in motion a chain of events that led to England's break with the Church of Rome, and the monarch of England becoming the head of a new church.


David Starkey, The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn

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