Catherine of Aragon’s death

On the 7th of January 1536, Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s expelled first wife, died at two o’clock in the afternoon at Kimbolton Castle.

Catherine of Aragon's death the Tudors

Catherine of Aragon’s death from Showtime series ‘The Tudors’

For years, Henry wanted to rid himself of Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, but the Great Matter dragged on and on for so long that we often forget when exactly Henry abandoned Catherine.  In June 1531, his passion for Anne was so strong that he allowed her to replace Catherine at his side during formal events such as audiences with foreign ambassadors, as well as on informal occasions.  Anne, not Catherine, accompanied the king on hunting parties, without female attendants of her own, and she presided over all feasts and banquets as if she were queen.  At the time, Catherine was ordered to remain at Windsor.

The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall commented:

“The King after Whitsuntide [28 May] and the Queen removed to Windsor, and there continued till the 14th day of July, on which day the King removed to Woodstock and left her at Windsor. And after this day the King and she never saw together.”

Hall believed that Catherine’s relationship with Henry, not her queenship, had ended at that moment. Many historians have the same opinion, but there are some facts, suggesting that it might have happened sometime later.

In his “Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII”, David Starkey writes:

“…On the 14th, Henry indeed left Windsor. But instead of starting out boldly to distant Woodstock, he shifted only a short way to Chertsey Abbey, a mere seven miles to the east of Windsor. And there he and Anne remained for at least ten days, crossing and recrossing the river by the ferries at Hampton Court and Datchet, and hunting in the neighbouring parks which clustered round the great forest of Windsor: they were at Mote Park on the 17th, at Ditton Park near Windsor on the 19th and at Byfleet Park on the 22nd.

Only on the 26th did Henry make a more decisive move. But it was to the south – that is, in the opposite direction to Woodstock. He was at Guildford on the 29th, at Farnham on the 31st and on 4 August reached The Vyne, near Basingstoke in Hampshire where he stayed for three days. There was good sport round about, and Henry and Anne hunted in Wolmer Forest on the 2nd, in Beaurepaire Park on the 5th and in Basing Park on the 6th. But they had other, human quarry as well.”

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Bearing in mind that the Great Matter split the country into his friends, who mostly belonged to the Howard-Boleyn faction, and Catherine’s staunch supporters, Henry endeavored to garner the nobility’s support for an annulment of his marriage, and Anne flaunted herself before the nobles.  His strategy worked: Henry and Anne visited the Vyle, the estate owned by William Sandys, 1st Baron Sandys of the Vyne, who sided with Anne and the Boleyns despite remaining conservative in religion. There were many such nobles.

In accordance with the tradition to communicate at least once every three days, Catherine sent Henry a message:

to inquire about his health, and to signify the regret she had experienced at not having been able to see him before his departure for the country”.

However, this time the king was not happy to hear from her, saying that “he cared not for her adieux”. That was the real end of their relationship.

Henry wed Anne (either in November 1532 or in January 1533), and his marriage to Catherine was declared invalid in May 1533.  Mary was bastardized and prohibited from meeting her mother.  Nevertheless, despite being deprived of her crown and styled the Princess Dowager, Catherine did not admit her defeat and called herself the king’s only true wife until her death. She was convinced that Anne stood between her and her reunion with Henry, but she was wrong – Henry himself didn’t want his old and barren wife anymore.

Catherine fell grievously ill in the early winter of 1535, but on the 13th of December, 1535, Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote that she was recovering.  The improvement in her health was temporary.  On the 29th of December, 1535, Dr Ortiz, Catherine’s physician, sent an urgent message to Chapuys to warn him about the critical state of her health.  Shocked by the grave news, Chapuys appealed to Henry VIII to be permitted to visit Catherine, which was granted.  Unfortunately, Henry’s disfavor spread on his daughter Mary, who was not allowed to be with her mother on the deathbed.  Then Chapuys hastened to go to Kimbolton alone.

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On New Year’s Eve, Catherine was visited by Maria de Salinas, Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, her lady-in-waiting and her close friend.  To get to Catherine, Maria disguised herself and deceived the men at Kimbolton that she had fallen from her horse and needed to find a place where she could recover.  Next day, Chapuys arrived in Kimbolton. By that time, Catherine felt horribly: she could barely seat in her bed, she did not eat and had difficulty to fall asleep, lamenting that she had a searing pain in her stomach.  Catherine was really dying!

Despite the queen’s poor health, the ambassador had a private audience with her.  They met in the presence of several witnesses to make sure that Henry would not claim later they had plotted against him.  The audience was short: she thanked him for his services, loyalty, and friendship, and he labored to elevate her mood, saying in the end that the “the king was very sorry for her illness”, which was a flagrant lie for the queen’s sake only.  Chapuys visited her every day, and they talked about the emperor, heresy, and some other things.  On the fourth day, the ambassador began to think that it was safe to begin his journey back to London.

However, Catherine’s condition suddenly deteriorated further on the 6th of January, and before the midnight she awoke from the pain in her abdomen, feeling that her end was nearing.  On the 7th of January at dawn, Catherine listened to her last Mass and took the sacrament.  Then she prayed hard and beseeched the bystanders to pray with her for her soul and for the king’s.

Catherine allegedly said: “God would pardon the King her husband for the wrong that he had done her, and that the divine goodness would lead him to the true road and give him good counsel’”.

According to Giles Tremlett, Catherine composed her farewell letter to Henry and dictated it to one of those who were by her side.  But Tremlett pointed out that the queen’s letter was “almost certainly fictitious”, although he agreed that it relayed her emotions on deathbed.

Catherine’s supposed last letter to Henry VIII could look like this:

“My most dear Lord, King, and Husband, The hour of my death now approaching, I cannot choose but, out of the love I bear you, to advise you of your soul’s health, which you ought to prefer before all considerations of the world or flesh whatsoever. For which yet you have cast me into many calamities, and yourself into many troubles. But I forgive you all, and pray God to do so likewise. For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her. I must entreat you also to look after my maids, and give them in marriage, which is not much, they being but three, and to all my other servants, a year’s pay besides their due, lest otherwise they should be unprovided for until they find new employment. Lastly, I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone, May God protect you.”

The death of Catherine of Aragon

Catherine’s tomb in Peterborough Cathedral

At 10 o’clock, on the 7th of January, Catherine received Extreme Unction.  She died four hours later, before 2 p.m.  On the same day, letters were sent to Cromwell with the questions about Catherine’s burial.  The rituals of preparing the queen’s body were definitely royal, although she was only Dowager Princess of Wales in England while being the rightful Queen of England in the eyes of the Pope and Catholic Europe.  She would be laid to eternal rest on the 29th of January, 1536 at Peterborough Abbey (nowadays, it is Peterborough Cathedral).

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2019 Olivia Longueville