Friday 21 January 2011

Defending Katherine of Aragon

As part of a new series of articles, Claire Ridgway, creator of The Anne Boleyn Files and its sister site The Elizabeth Files, will be writing on the popular stereotypes which still govern the reputations of Henry VIII's six wives. She begins by querying if Katherine of Aragon really was the "boring one," before going on to discuss the nuances of various modern views of Henry's first wife and the mother of Queen Mary I.

"To our modern eyes, Catherine appears a religious fanatic, a victim, a woman who wallowed in her misery and would not let go of her marriage, and many blame her for the woman her daughter Mary became, an intolerant and cruel queen. People say that she should have accepted the failure of her marriage and gone into a convent, and that doing so would have saved her and her daughter a lot of grief, but, we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how the story ended and what a damaged woman Mary became. We are also looking on the situation with our 21st century eyes and not taking into account the times Catherine lived in or the beliefs that surrounded marriage... She stuck to her principles and her beliefs against a man who went on to execute two wives. She was prepared to die a martyr if she had to and I admire her strength and her courage."
To read Claire's full assessment of Katherine's life and career, click here.

Above: Irish actress Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon in the television series The Tudors.


  1. I look forward to reading her assessment. I sometimes get the impression that Katherine was the most fun one, at least when she was young, because Henry seemed to have a such a long lingering guilt over his marriage to her.

  2. Thanks for spreading the word about my Catherine article. I think I'm on a bit of a crusade to get people to look properly at these women and not just label them. What do you think of Catherine?

  3. Thanks for an interesting link and post--I just finished reading Giles Tremlett's biography and would have to answer that there is no way that Catherine of Aragon was the "boring one". Plenty of drama and excitement in her life and reign. I'll post a review early next week.

  4. Well, Elena Maria, you know my thoughts on who the most fun of Henry's wives was ;-) However, I think you're absolutely right about her being a lot of fun when she was younger. In his new biography of her, Giles Tremlett entitles one of his chapters "Party Queen" and it's great to think of Katherine as a much younger woman. And I can't wait for Stephanie's review of it!

    Claire, I have to say that I am going through a process of re-evaluating my opinion of Katherine. Since I'm doing this blog's (admittedly slow moving!) series on the queens of England, I've started trying to think about all of them differently. What I've tried to do with Katherine is not to think of her as the first of Henry VIII's six wives, but rather as the twenty-first queen of England - if that makes sense? I'm trying to evaluate her life not as part of the "legend" of Henry's six queens, but rather as I would the life and career of any other queen-consort. Which is why obviously I'm interested in your series and think it's such a good idea! Any criticisms I have of Katherine now tend to shy away from my earlier criticism of her (which is, as you mentioned, the argument that she herself destroyed Mary's life), but rather I tend to try and look at the entirety of her life, balancing the good and the bad. Her less than praiseworthy treatment of several Spanish ambassadors, her vindictiveness when it came to those who either were her enemies or who she thought had failed her in her service, her flare for melodramatic exaggeration (which is something I think Tremlett points out brilliantly), her spy networks (is that a negative? I'm inclined to think she played the game much better than we think, so maybe it's a positive!), the gaudiness of her early career as queen and, of course, what strikes me as the bizarre and erratic behaviour of the years after the Divorce (I think it's worth remembering that she wasn't the same woman in 1535 as she was in 1529) need to be set alongside her obvious virtues (her courage being the most recognisable one, of course), her intelligence, her friendships, her piety, her skill at politics and her perseverance. I think, in the end, when you look at Katherine's WHOLE life, from start to finish, and everything in between, the halo sits a little less firmly on her head but the story of her life becomes much more fascinating and the story of a brave, but flawed, woman emerges.

  5. Anyone who would blame Catherine for turning Mary into a "cruel" and "heartless" person is seriously mistaken. Queen Catherine was known for her charity and devotion to the poor. Henry, on the other hand, is more known for his cruelty.

    It isn't just a mother's responsibility for how a child turns out. Mary had other influences and lived in a harsh, cruel world and married the self centered and cruel Phillip of Spain. If I had Mary's life, I doubt I would have turned out much better.

  6. "I think, in the end, when you look at Katherine's WHOLE life, from start to finish, and everything in between, the halo sits a little less firmly on her head..."

    I agree that we have to look at her whole life, her qualities and her failings, to portray her in a balanced light as a historical figure. As for her potential sanctity, though, any saint only reaches that state after many ups, downs and struggles (consider St. Augustine, for instance!), so Katherine's flaws do not necessarily mean that she did not become saintly by the end.


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