He couldn’t look to England’s traditional enemy, France, so he approached the powerful “Kings of Spain,” Ferdinand and Isabella, each of whom ruled a Spanish kingdom. After uniting their thrones through marriage, Ferdinand and Isabella launched a holy war against the Moors, reclaiming Spanish territory from the Muslims. Simultaneously, they parented a large family. Their youngest daughter, Katherine, was nearly born on the battlefield—Isabella left the saddle just long enough to give birth.
From infancy, the little Infanta was considered a great beauty. Even better, she had powerful parents and an excellent lineage. Henry thought she would be just the person to make his family a dynasty. So, at the age of three, Katherine of Aragon was engaged to Henry’s son, Arthur Prince of Wales, who was two. In addition to glory and prestige, Katherine would also bring 200,000 crowns (money, not headgear!) as her dowry.
For the next several years, negotiations moved along smoothly. There were two different proxy weddings. But something wasn’t quite right. Queen Isabella was hesitant to send Katherine to England when the agreed-upon time arrived. She just couldn’t bring herself to trust her child to Henry Tudor, who had gained a reputation for being a conniver and an opportunist. Besides, England had a bad habit of deposing its kings willy-nilly and a pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck, was causing trouble. Even when Warbeck’s uprising was put down, Ferdinand and Isabella were still worried. There were, after all, numerous people with far better claims to the English throne. If Henry would dispose of one of those fellows. . .
So, following the execution of Earl of Warwick, first cousin of Henry’s wife, Ferdinand and Isabella bid adios to their daughter. Katherine was greeted with tremendous pageantry. Her mother worried that Henry was spending too much money; instead of demonstrating Katherine’s welcome with riches, Isabella wrote Henry that she wanted that the “substantial part of the festival should be his love.” But, Henry, who was actually a cheapskate, wanted to demonstrate the glory of his kingship and his wealth—not a cent was spared on the pageantry.
Katherine and Arthur’s lavish wedding took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral (the last Prince and Princess of Wales to wed there until Charles and Diana) in November 1509, just weeks before Katherine’s sixteenth birthday. After the wedding, the youngsters were ceremoniously put to bed together and left to do their duty. The next morning, according to testimony nearly three decades later, Arthur bragged that he had spent the night in “the midst of Spain.”
The first half of the dowry was paid and the King decided to send the young couple to Wales where Arthur could learn to govern his territory. Aside from some minor squabbling about the final dowry payment, everything seemed fine. Then, disaster. Arthur and Katherine both came down with “sweating sickness”—after less than six months, Katherine was a widow. While her mother and mother-in-law were concerned for her health and welfare (Elizabeth sold some of her own gold plate to personally finance Katherine’s transportation back to London), Ferdinand and Henry were more concerned about the state of their political alliance. Once it was clear that Katherine was not pregnant, both fathers decided separately to propose a marriage between the 16-year-old widow and Arthur’s 11-year-old brother, Prince Henry. The wedding would take place when Henry turned 14. This agreement allowed Ferdinand to keep his military ally and Henry to keep the prestige and the money.
Just to make sure that the Catholic Church would be okay with young Henry marrying his brother’s widow, both Kings applied to the Pope for a special dispensation. One of the crucial questions was whether Arthur and Katherine had consummated their marriage. Katherine said they had not but others said that they had. Just in case, the Pope indicated that his dispensation would be applicable either way. (The Pope’s decision to grant this request would lead to the creation of the Church of England.)
Then, Queen Elizabeth died. King Henry was saddened, but not so much so that he didn’t mind asking if he could marry the luscious Katherine himself. Isabella was horrified and disgusted. Henry didn’t push it; there were lots of other rich princesses he might marry. Why not keep Katherine’s dowry and get someone else’s too?
Then, Queen Isabella died. Her oldest daughter, Juana, succeeded her as Queen and the two Spanish kingdoms were no longer a strong, united power. Over night, Katherine lost a lot of her political attraction. King Henry had Prince Henry, now 14, secretly renounce his betrothal and they started looking for brides for both father and son. Henry also cut off Katherine’s allowance.
Recovering from a protracted illness and devastated by her mother’s death, Katherine was bewildered by King Henry’s sudden neglect. She and her fiancée were no longer allowed to see each other. She became deeply depressed. She quickly ran out of money to pay her staff, to replenish her wardrobe or even to feed herself and her household. She sold jewelry to buy day-old fish. She wrote to her father, who insisted that King Henry should provide for her. Henry, however, duplicitously insisted on receiving the second half of Katherine’s dowry, even though he had no intention of honoring the betrothal between her and his second son. Ferdinand, for his part, was struggling to raise the money while simultaneously funding his huge armies. Besides, under the terms of the contract, he didn’t have to pay until Katherine and her second husband consummated the marriage. The fact that Henry Tudor was one of the richest kings in Europe did nothing to make the situation better.
For the next five years, Katherine grew increasingly desperate. Her staff remained with her but became more and more troublesome. Since she couldn’t pay them, she had a difficult time chastising them and she couldn’t fire them. Her clothes were tattered. Debt collectors were harassing her. She was frequently ill, lonely and sad—in such deep despair that she even considered suicide.
In 1509, however, King Henry started to feel guilty. Perhaps it was the fact that Ferdinand, at last, had the remaining 100,000 crowns. Perhaps it was the fact that he was on his deathbed. Just before he died, he told his son to marry Katherine.
That June, the new 16-year-old King Henry VIII enacted his own romantic fairy tale and rescued his “very beloved” damsel in distress from her years of deprivation. At 23, Katherine was a bit old for a 16th-century bride but she was still a golden-haired beauty and she was deeply in love with her young knight. Indeed, everyone who met Henry was entranced by him. Athletic, musical, highly intelligent, standing nearly 6’3, with muscular legs and a poetic heart, the clean-shaven King would take many years to transform into the bloated, tyrannical, egomaniacal man who would cruelly abandon his “beloved” Katherine before sending two other wives to the executioner and another to the divorce court. One other died before she could displease him and the sixth one managed to keep her head—barely—and outlive him.