Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon the Spanish Princess

Today is another anniversary of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  Henry married his brother’s widow nearly six years after they had originally been betrothed, and almost 7 years after Prince Arthur’s death.  The wedding took place in a private ceremony in the queen’s closet at Greenwich Palace, and then preparations began for their joint coronation.  Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

After Arthur’s passing in April 1502, Catherine was left with the title of Dowager Princess of Wales.  Although the political reasons for an alliance between England and Spain still existed, she was not betrothed to Henry, the new Prince of Wales, straight away.  During the next several years, the conflict over Catherine’s substantial dowry escalated between the two families.  Despite her union with Arthur, the bride’s dowry was not paid, and Henry VII of England reduced her allowance significantly in order to put pressure on her parents to pay the dowry.  Finally, in June 1503, Catherine and Henry were formally betrothed, assuming that they would enter into matrimony after he turned fifteen.  But nothing was set in stone yet.

At one point, the forty six year old English ruler said that Princess Catherine should wed him instead of his son, but Ferdinand and Isabella found this proposal horrible while being still keen on forging an alliance with England.  Catherine’s union with Arthur was defined in the rules of the Catholic Church as consanguinity.   Therefore, to marry, Henry and she would need a papal dispensation, the final version of which was ratified in August 1503.  However, Isabella of Castile died in late 1504, leaving no surviving male issue, and Catherine’s elder sister, Juana, became the Queen of Castile.   This changed the European political landscape in the eyes of the Tudor king.

Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII the Spanish Princess

Young Catherine of Aragon and Prince Harry from the Spanish Princess (TV Mini-Series 2019)

In spite of Henry VII’s constant demands for its payment, Ferdinand of Aragon offered to settle the matter only in 1508, but there was still no agreement on the amount to be paid.  Some other things were uncertain as well.  Meanwhile, after having lived in miserable conditions for several years (Catherine was forced to sell her jewelry and her plate to cover her life expenses), the princess asked to return to Spain and join a convent.

Fate intervened: Henry VII breathed his last on the 21st of April, 1509.  According to some sources, Henry VIII, the new king, told the Spanish ambassador that he would marry Catherine quickly because it was his father’s deathbed wish.  Nevertheless, we should take it with a pinch of salt because Henry VII obviously had second thoughts about this union, so he was unlikely to say such a thing.  After Isabella’s passing, Catherine was daughter of only one reigning Iberian monarch, becoming far less desirable as a wife for the young Prince Harry.  The fact that the marriage did not take place during Henry VII’s lifetime confirms that the old king had his doubts.

Henry VIII did not have to marry Catherine, but he chose her.  Before his death, Henry VII surreptitiously started negotiations for a marriage between his heir-apparent and several European princesses.  One of them was Eleanor of Austria, Catherine’s own niece and the future Queen of Portugal and France.  But what if Henry had selected to marry someone else? Eleanor of Austria and Marguerite de Nanarre

Portraits of Eleanor of Austria and Marguerite d’Angoulême

There were other available princesses for the young monarch’s marriage, and they were younger than Catherine of Aragon.  For example, Eleanor of Austria or Marguerite d’Angoulême, King François I’s elder sister.  If Henry VIII had married any of these women, their childbearing history could have been better than Catherine’s, and if his wife had given him a healthy male heir, then Henry would not have had six wives.  Unless some genetic or medical condition did not cause Henry’s reproductive woes.  Whatever it was, we will never know, but it is interesting to speculate.


All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2019 Olivia Longueville