Saturday, 8 January 2011

January 7th, 1536: The Death of Katherine of Aragon

As a French diplomat stationed in London, Jean de Dinteville heard many strange stories. It was, after all, an age of rumour. Many he found to be insufferable for, like most Frenchmen abroad at that time, he liked the 28 year-old Queen of England, Anne Boleyn, despite what others may think of her. It was certainly preferable from France's point-of-view to have the King of England married to a woman who had been brought-up in Paris, rather than one who had been born in Madrid, as he had been only three years previously. Yet, despite pockets of popularity in parts of London and the south of the country, the young queen was more regularly the subject of either total indifference (from the vast majority of the population, who felt the king should be allowed to marry whomsoever he chose) and a tiny but extremely vocal minority who loathed her for having displaced King Henry's former wife, the 50 year-old Katherine of Aragon, currently living under de facto house arrest at Kimbolton Castle. There the beleaguered woman was heroically refusing to accept the legitimacy of her three year-old divorce or the title of "Princess Dowager of Wales," which  had been legally thrust upon her by Parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the eyes of Katherine's most fervent supporters, Anne Boleyn was little better than a she-devil; a pantomime villainess driven by cruelty and venomous immorality. Anne, they contended, was little better than Herodia, the biblical queen soaked in the blood of the martyred saints.

Katherine and Anne had circled each other for the best part of a decade, playing a potentially lethal and often stupid game which flitted between over-estimating and then underestimating their rival. Anne, having kept silent on the subject of the woman she was replacing for the first four years of their rivalry, had quite understandably taken against Katherine when, also understandably, Katherine had taken to placing spies in Anne's household. Having discovered this, Anne then slid from a lucid and astute analysis of Katherine's actions into an unsettling paranoia, in which she seemed to imagine Katherine both capable and willing of starting either a civil or foreign war and driving both Anne and her baby daughter, Elizabeth, to the scaffold. The one thing Anne, unlike almost everybody else opposed to Katherine, including her former husband, had always recognised in Katherine, however, was her great and formidable intelligence. That quality she had paid tribute to on more than one occasion, however begrudgingly, but it was no secret that by 1536 Anne Boleyn hated Katherine of Aragon - and the feeling was more than mutual.

Seigneur de Dinteville could not understand, therefore, the story that he heard from his many friends in Queen Anne's household at the end of the first week of January 1536. When the news was brought to her that Katherine had died at Kimbolton, the Queen did not seem to take the news in the way she had been expected to. Instead of rejoicing, she had locked herself in her private oratory and wept. De Dinteville offered no explanation for Anne's puzzling reaction: perhaps it was guilt over the misery of Katherine's lonely death? Perhaps it was relief that their long feud was, at long last, over? Perhaps it was a strange feeling to know that the woman she had so long feared, admired, respected and hated had finally gone? Or perhaps it was hormones, for the Queen was fourteen weeks pregnant by this stage? Who knows? What is thoroughly unbelievable is the later Spanish story that Anne joyfully proclaimed, "Now I am indeed a queen!" It would have been unthinkable for Anne, who had been crowned nearly three years earlier at Westminster, to publicly suggest that Katherine's death had somehow made her queen. Anne was always conspicuously careful to stick to the official government line about Katherine - as Arthur Tudor's widow, she had legally been Dowager Princess of Wales since 1502; as such, she had never legally been Queen of England. 

The next day, spurred on by this rigorous interpretation of Katherine's status, the normally fashion-conscious Anne committed a stunning P.R. blunder - an "own goal," if you will. At that time, every royal family in Europe had their own colour which they wore for mourning. In France, it was white; in Spain, yellow. Making the point that Katherine had, as a widow, been a member of the Spanish royal family who just happened to be living in England at the time of her death, Henry and Anne stuck to the minutiae of etiquette and wore yellow to dinner on the evening after her death. The Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, wrote to the Emperor recording their outfits and he passed no comment. He knew exactly what point they were trying to make, but he couldn't technically criticise them for it. By the rules of etiquette, they were doing exactly what was expected of them, however much Chapuys disliked it. The problem was not the Spanish reaction, but the English one. Yellow did not seem to be a particularly sorrowful or respectful colour in English eyes and Anne, and more especially Henry, have been condemned by generations of popular historians, enraged that they apparently partied the night away wearing the international colour of joy upon hearing the news that Katherine was dead. In fact, Henry insisted on cancelling the court festivities for the next week, since he was, after all, supposed to be in mourning for his long-dead brother's widow. The English monarchy was nothing if not tenacious in sticking to its official version of its genealogy.

At the time, public reaction to the former queen's death was muted, almost indifferent - with the exception of the devastated grief of Katherine's 17 year-old daughter, Mary Tudor, and that of the Spanish ambassador to London, Eustace Chapuys. This indifference poses a fundamental problem for those who perpetrate the myth that Katherine was loved the length and breadth of England at the time of her death. Despite Chapuys's loyal insistence to the contrary, Katherine had ceased to be a political relevance almost twenty-four months before her death - if not longer. Some or many people may have lamented her treatment, but very, very few were seriously advocating her reinstatement as queen. She had passed the menopause; there was no prince of Wales. The future therefore belonged with Anne, whatever one might think of her. And if she couldn't do it, the future belonged with someone else. 

Politically, Katherine might have been totally irrelevant, particularly once her European family showed themselves unwilling to wage war on her behalf, but many had admired her greatly - as well they might. Her stubborn refusal to accept her divorce or demotion, her steadfast devotion to her private Catholic faith, her charm and her dignity all suggested - and indeed, were - heroic. 

Yet a death, however noble, can never be the whole picture. Katherine's refusal to step aside, even when it became clear that her decision had lead directly to her self-absorbed husband's decision to break with Rome, was something which many devout papal Catholics in England absolutely could not forgive her for. As far as they were concerned, the horrors and humiliations, the terror and cruelty, of the last three years had been as much Katherine's fault as Henry's. It was her ego, just like Henry's, which had decided that the lives, bodies and happiness of hundreds of ordinary Catholics were of secondary importance in the battle for Katherine to keep her queenship. The Bishop of Winchester, a pious man who felt tormented by "the iniquity of heresy" now infesting England, Wales and Ireland, later declared that God had allowed Katherine to die such an agonising death precisely because her pride had inflicted so much damage on Holy Church.

Perhaps the good bishop was being too harsh on the dead queen. I understand why he felt that way, but by the time it became clear where the Divorce was leading (i.e. schism), it was 1531 and Katherine had already been waging a battle with her husband for four long years. It was simply too late for her to backtrack now. There was no alternative but for her to keep going. A few weeks before she died, she had dispatched a fantastically scathing letter to the Pope in which she blamed her husband and the Vatican, in equal measure, for the mess she and England now found themselves in. Still, in the final few days of her life, Katherine had apparently become tormented by the thought that the Pope and King might not have done it all on their own. She had confided to Chapuys - in what turned out to be their last ever conversation - that her conscience was sorely troubled by the thought that the heresies and executions sweeping the country might, in some small way, be her fault too. Had her refusal to surrender led to the Break with Rome? Chapuys, like any good friend, assured her that such thoughts were nonsense. She was blameless. 

In death, Katherine's life soon became a hagiography. The remarkable, beautiful, loving letter she was said to have written to her husband on her deathbed, in which she declared "mine eyes desire you alone," has very recently been judged "almost certainly fictitious" by her sympathetic biographer, Giles Tremlett, who quite rightly suggests it was probably written by a pious "fan" of Katherine's, in much the same way as the alleged letter from the Tower was probably written by an admirer of Anne Boleyn's. The ghosts of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, like the women themselves whilst they lived, have a talent for creating legends and stirring emotions. The trauma of the Reformation for British Catholics was such that by the 17th century the personal tragedy of Katherine's divorce and the cultural dislocation of the Break with Rome had come to be seen as one in the same thing. They were not. More, Fisher, Houghton and hundreds of others did not die in protest for Katherine to be put back on her throne; they died for the Roman Catholic faith. Katherine's struggle, however, was noble, courageous, improbable and it showed super-human levels of self-belief, assurance and tenacity. Equally, it was often misguided, selfish and unfathomably ill-advised.

Whatever her political mistakes, Katherine of Aragon was certainly a very brave lady and her final few days had been a testament to that and to her grace in extremity. She had been joined in her final days by Lady Maria Willoughby, a childhood friend from Spain but who had married in England and who had ridden through foul weather and at great risk to her personal safety to nurse Katherine in her final days. Katherine, emaciated from her agonising struggle with cancer, had burst into tears of joy at seeing her old friend, saying, "In all my suffering, she is the only one who gives me consolation." The two of them had even laughed together, recalling old memories and happier times, and it was perhaps the first genuine joy that Katherine had felt in months. She began taking more care over her appearance and dressing with some of her old flair and love of magnificence. It seemed that her health, just might, be improving.

Cancer, it turns out, was a more merciless predator even than Henry VIII. In the small hours of January 6th, Katherine sat up suddenly in bed and became agitated. She began asking her servants what time it was, over and over again. She wanted to take Holy Communion and she was worried that she might not live to see daybreak, the earliest allotted time she could be allowed to partake of the Eucharist. In a panic, her maids fetched Katherine's Spanish confessor who, as a bishop himself, told her that he would be able to celebrate Mass for her now and apply for a dispensation afterwards. Given the circumstances, everyone would understand, he assured her. Katherine refused. As a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, she had always been devout and a true believer in Mother Church. She would play by its rules, especially now that the "veil of tears" was so very nearly at an end.

At dawn, Mass was said and the Bishop of Llandaff celebrated her final Mass for her. Then, he took her  confession and administered extreme unction. She entrusted her final will and testament to him also - in it, she requested to be buried in the Church of the Observant Franciscans in London (she did not know it had already been destroyed), she asked that five hundred Masses should be said for her soul at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (it was to be destroyed within two years), she left some of her Spanish jewellery and her collection of furs to her daughter Mary, smaller bequests were made to some of her favourite servants and she  left the rest of her clothes to be given over to the Church. 

Then, at two o'clock in the afternoon of January 7th, 1536, Katherine of Aragon, daughter of the "Catholic Kings" of Spain, one-time wife to a Prince of Wales and then to a King of England, aunt of an emperor, sister of three queens and mother of England's first queen-regnant, passed away at the age of fifty. She was given a magnificent state funeral, which many of her friends refused to attend since she was buried as Dowager Princess, not as a queen. Some of them would later spread the rumour that she had been poisoned by Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk or by witchcraft. The autopsy and modern science confirm the more tragic and more poignant truth - a black tumour was found upon her heart. In some sense then, she had, quite literally, been one of the only queens in history who actually died of a broken-heart.


  1. A thought-provoking and well-written post, as usual.

    What are Tremlett's reasons for questioning the authenticity of the letter, said to have been written by Katherine?

  2. Matterhorn, thank you. I realise I'm not as well-acquainted with Katherine as I am with Anne, but I find her story fascinating.

    I'm still reading the biography at the minute and have only scanned the final section. I believe the basic arguments for it being a "pious forgery" are that there are massive handwriting discrepancies and it isn't mentioned in any original accounts of her death - or being delivered to Henry VIII.

  3. Regarding the handwriting discrepancies, might Katherine have dictated the letter to someone else?

  4. I am well aware that the likes of Chapuys cannot always be trusted, but I find this article worryingly partisan. Anne Boleyn was probably not viewed by the "vast majority" of Englishmen with indifference at best; extant evidence makes it very clear that it was hatred bordering on violence. Retha Warnicke describes how Anne was attacked by many of Henry VIII's subjects, who used sexually charged language to denigrate her as an adulteress. A woman as controversial as she provoked passionate emotions, and indifference was not one of them.

    I also disagree that Anne kept silent about Katherine for the first four years (1526-30; 1527-31). Chapuys relates the devilish story that she publicly stated that she would rather see the queen hanged than acknowledge her as her mistress; and even if this story was fabricated, it's more than possible that Anne slandered the queen in public or in private.

  5. Yes, he relayed that she made that comment about the hanging in 1531.

    And as for the evidence that Anne was physically attacked, that exists in only one source and it is not an eyewitness one. It is remarkable that it does not appear elsewhere, if she was under such sustained a threat. Furthermore, even if there were incidents that demonstrated her unpopularity - and there were - they were often confined to London. Even there, the scenes greeting her coronation were, according to every source except Chapuys, generally positive, although I would perhaps agree with the French ambassador's report that this was largely because of hope for a safe succession and a desire to please the king, rather than because of any huge groundswell for Anne herself. This is why I said indifference. Thank you.

  6. And if I may take issue with the point "A woman as controversial as she provoked passionate emotions, and indifference was not one of them." That only carries weight if one assumes the vast majority of the population were literate, which they weren't, and had regular exposure to Anne Boleyn, which they didn't. In an age when royalty was rarely seen by the vast majority of their subjects and Katherine was regarded as a barren wife, the only evidence of favour or disfavour for either queen comes from literate members of the elite or the politically interested mercer classes. There is very, very little evidence of how either Katherine or Anne was viewed outside the narrow circle around him, where their personalities mattered.

  7. I'm curious about your comment that Katherine of Aragon was blamed and hated by many devout Catholics in England. I have never heard that before and from my readings of biographies on her, she has always come across as a popular queen consort. Why? She was charitable, donated to the poor, effective queen regent, promoted women's education, pleaded for the lives of those rascals during the May Day rebel and had her own network of supporters (Aragonese faction) during the Great Matter. Why even Martin Luther agreed with her stance. As for Gardiner, I am not surprised he said that, after all he tried to help Henry obtain a divorce, which goes to show not all Catholics helped Henry by default. I don't think I can agree with you regarding that, but I am curious as to what lead you to such a conclusion.


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