21 November 2010

Catherine: An Unhappy Queen?

Kate Middleton enters a room with her fiance, Britain's Prince William, to pose for a photograph in St. James's Palace, central London November 16, 2010. Britain's Prince William is to marry his long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton next year, after an on-off courtship lasting nearly a decade, bringing months of speculation about his intentions to an end. REUTERS/Paul Hackett (BRITAIN - Tags: SOCIETY ROYALS ENTERTAINMENT)
With the announcement of the royal engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton, speculation has run rife about every imaginable topic. Where will they marry? What will she wear? When will they have their first child? What will her new title be? All of these things are unclear for now, but there is one thing we can know for certain: When William becomes king, Kate will be his Queen Catherine.

But, the name Catherine has not been a joyful one among British queens. There have only been five, but when you learn that three of them were wives of Henry VIII, you will immediately understand the sad history of the name.

Catherine of Valois

Catherine of Valois was the daughter of King Charles VI of France when her husband essentially won her in battle. King Henry V, Shakespeare’s famed ‘King Hal,’ insisted on the long-discussed marriage after his victory at the Battle of Agincourt, and he was even more urgent once he saw how pretty the young French princess was. As a royal ‘love’ match with good political benefits—Henry was also named heir to the French throne—the marriage was destined for success. Of course, it hardly had time to fail: Henry died just two years later, leaving his 21-year-old widow with an infant son, King Henry VI.

The English were concerned that the young Queen Catherine would marry again and, thereby, give control of the king and the kingdom to her new husband, so they passed a law that a widowed queen could not marry without the king’s permission. And, to make sure Catherine had no options, the king was not allowed to consent until he had reached his majority. Catherine would have to wait more than a decade.

She didn’t. As a healthy young woman, she was, as one chronicler wrote, “unable to fully curb her carnal passions” and she began a secret liaison with the Welshman, Owen Tudor. She bore him five children before anyone noticed. (Fashions must have been loose-fitting!) Her son Edmund Tudor married a girl from the House of Lancaster and became the grandfather of Henry VII.

Catherine died as a result of childbirth shortly after her affair was discovered. She was entombed at Westminster Abbey, where Kate and William may marry, but her coffin wasn’t sealed. It was opened many years later to reveal that her corpse had mummified. For hundreds of years, special visitors were allowed access to it and, in the 17th century, diarist Samuel Pepys even kissed her on the mouth. (And to think, the Queen Mother never liked Jimmy Carter because he kissed her on the mouth while she was still living!)

In addition to her Tudor progeny, Catherine allegedly left an even longer-lasting legacy to the British royal family. Some believe that porphyria entered the family through her. This metabolic disorder is thought to have affected many British royals including her descendants Mary Queen of Scots and “mad” King George III. (See her funeral effigy: http://bit.ly/ae4sQ6)

Catherine of Aragon

The next Queen Catherine was a bright and beautiful blonde teenager when she arrived in England to marry the future king. The daughter of the “Catholic Kings” Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine was expected to seal an alliance between the nouveau regime of King Henry Tudor, whose dynastic claim to the English throne was slight, and the powerful Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. After a lavish wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Catherine and her teenage groom, Arthur Prince of Wales, were sent to live in Wales—incidentally where Kate and William will live after their wedding (and before it, too!) Soon after arriving, they both fell very ill. Catherine survived but Arthur did not.

Catherine was now in a state of limbo. She could have returned to Spain and been married off again, but instead, King Henry, lusting after her hefty dowry, kept her in England and began negotiating for her to marry his second son. When King Henry’s wife died, he even thought about bedding the princess himself, but Catherine’s mother was shocked and irate. Over the next several years, Henry delayed returning Catherine (and her money). After Queen Isabella died and the Spanish kingdoms were no longer united, Catherine became less politically appealing and almost lost her chance to be Queen of England.

Then, fate intervened. Old King Henry died and his 16-year-old heir, Henry VIII, played knight errant to his 23-year-old sister-in-law’s damsel in distress. The two were in love with the romance of their situation and, perhaps, even with each other. Well-educated and charming, Catherine showed herself an excellent consort. During her widowhood, she had served for a period as her father’s ambassador—the first woman to hold such a position—and, after her second marriage, she served as her husband’s regent while he was fighting in France. The Scots, taking advantage of his absence, attacked in the north and Regent Catherine was able to report that the troops she sent not only routed the enemy but that the Scottish king did not survive the battle. Henry was not nearly as successful in France.

The marriage slowly deteriorated due to fertility problems. What we see today in scientific, medical terms experienced by many people, King Henry saw as a sign that God was displeased with him marrying his brother’s widow, despite the fact that God didn’t seem to mind giving them a perfectly healthy daughter, the future Queen Mary I. As Henry fought the Church to divorce Catherine, she steadfastly maintained the validity of the marriage and proclaimed her love for Henry. After he took over as head of the Church of England, Henry’s ministers declared the marriage void and he married his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

Catherine was sent away and was even eventually denied the company of her young daughter. When she died at the age of 50, Henry and Anne dressed in bright yellow and held a party to celebrate. Four months later, Anne was no longer celebrating when she became the first of Henry’s wives to meet the executioner. (Read my profile of Catherine of Aragon.)

Catherine Howard

In one of those strange twists of history, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was first cousins with his unfortunate second wife, Anne Boleyn. They were both nieces of the powerful Thomas Howard Duke of Norfolk, who, no matter how many of his kinsman met the axeman, always managed to keep his head (literally!) The Howard clan was very large, but as the daughter of a younger son, Catherine’s prospects were not very good. She was sent to live with her step-grandmother in a kind of girls’ home for similarly unfortunate aristocratic girls. The young ladies slept all together in a large chamber, but some, including Catherine, were apparently rather good at sneaking in companions of the opposite sex. It’s unclear how far Catherine’s pubescent explorations went, but she certainly experimented with a couple of fellows.

When Henry VIII married his fourth wife for diplomatic reasons, young Catherine was sent to be one of her ladies-in-waiting. Disgusted by his “Flanders mare” of a wife, Henry soon took a fancy to the buxom and flirtatious Catherine. As the fourth wife was more compliant than the first, Henry peacefully and quickly left her after just six months of marriage. Weeks later, he made Catherine his new queen.

While it is uncertain how old Catherine was, since no one bothered to document her birth, she was no older than 20, while her husband was nearly 50. He was no longer the handsome and athletic prince who had married Catherine of Aragon. He was bloated and ill and increasingly despotic. Nevertheless, he was positively besotted with his lovely bride and showered her with gifts and attention.

He even allowed her to continue music lessons with her old music master, completely unaware that the man had already “tickled her ivories” as it were. When Catherine started an affair with one of her husband’s companions, she was indiscreet and the affair was soon discovered. Henry at first refused to believe the accusations against his “rose without a thorn,” but when love letters she had written were produced, he sulked in anger and disgust. As her illicit past was revealed, Henry was disconsolate—Catherine, unlike any of his other wives, had truly broken his heart.

With her cousin’s fate in her mind, Catherine was nearly hysterical. One apocryphal tale has her running through the palace and banging on Henry’s door while he stubbornly ignores her cries. Unlike Anne Boleyn, who was probably innocent of adultery, Catherine earned her traitor’s title since it was treasonous to cheat on the king. She was beheaded after being queen for only 18 months.

Catherine Parr

A year later, Henry VIII decided to give marriage another shot, but this time, he chose more wisely, thinking more practically and less romantically. His sixth bride was no lusty teenager. In fact, the thirty-ish Catherine Parr had the perfect background for the aging Henry and his three motherless children. She was used to nursing older husbands, having already been widowed twice, and for looking after stepchildren, some of whom were older than herself.

Catherine had made other plans for herself after her second husband’s death. She wanted to marry the dashing Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane, and a boon companion of the king. However, Thomas dawdled too long in the asking and the king beat him to the punch. Catherine had no choice but to accept.

Well-educated and clever, Catherine was a worthy companion for Henry and his erudite children. She managed to reconcile the far-flung family, which had been divided due to Henry’s turbulent matrimonial choices. As mater familias, Catherine created a more domestic relationship and was loved and respected by them all. She also was an able nursemaid for the king, uncomplainingly changing the bandages on his oozing, ulcerated leg.

Catherine’s only fault was her devotion to Protestantism. Despite common belief today, Henry VIII was staunchly opposed to the Reformation. His break with the Catholic Church was political, not religious. In fact, he earned the title “Defender of the Faith,” which English monarchs have used ever since, by refuting the doctrines of Martin Luther. In his kingdom, it was deadly to espouse any kind of Reformation thinking. Catherine was devoted to the cause, however, and did not exercise enough caution in hiding her reading materials or in posing theological arguments with the king. When councillors became concerned, they convinced Henry to issue an arrest warrant. But, the warrant was accidentally dropped on the ground, and friends of Catherine found it and brought it to her. She was able to reach the king before the guards got to her and she sweet-talked her way out of a very dangerous situation.

Henry’s faith in Catherine was never shaken again. After three and half years of marriage, she outlived the king and then secretly married Thomas Seymour. As the widow of the king, her marriage was considered an affair of state and the couple was strongly criticized when it was revealed. Nevertheless, Catherine was contented to have, at last, a husband of her own choosing and at 36, for the first time in her life, she became pregnant. Tragically, her happiness was short-lived: Catherine succumbed to childbed fever and died days after the birth.

Catherine of Braganza

When Catherine of Braganza was born, the Spanish king was still king of Portugal. By the time she was two, the Portugese had instituted a coup d’etat and placed her father on the throne. Now an infanta, the toddler became a major commodity on the royal marriage market. Not only did she come with a huge dowry that included the ports of Tangier and Bombay, but she also represented a strong alliance against Spain. So, any prince who wanted to oppose the still-powerful Spanish king was interested in young Catherine.

During her childhood, England seemed an unlikely alliance since the English had abandoned the monarchy and beheaded their king. But, that changed when the dashing King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Catherine’s mother saw an opportunity and seized it immediately. Within a year, Charles had agreed to accept the money he desperately needed and the wife that came with it. Despite its obvious economic advantages, however, the marriage was hardly popular because Catherine was staunchly Catholic, a fact that kept her from being crowned in the now-fervently Protestant England.

As a fun-loving, playboy King, Charles II may have been less than impressed with his pretty but dowdy wife. At 23, she had spent much of her life being raised by nuns and her Portugese fashions were demure and prim in the raunchy atmosphere of Restoration England. Charles may have been a rascal, but he was no cad. He might privately have remarked that “they had brought him a bat” instead of a bride, but officially and publically, he was always gracious. A self-proclaimed connoisseur of women, he declared, “she hath as much agreeableness in her looks altogether as ever I saw.”

Despite the fact that Charles installed his mistresses in Catherine’s household and that he readily acknowledged his numerous bastards, he always insisted that Catherine be treated with respect. He always took her side over the mistress du jour and even defended her when presented with (fabricated) evidence that his Catholic wife had plotted to have him murdered.

Her religion was not Catherine’s only difficulty in England. Far more personally disappointing and politically dangerous was the fact that she had no children. She suffered several miscarriages and still births, but produced no living heir. Although Charles could have followed his predecessor Henry VIII’s example and found a way to rid himself of his wife, Charles was never even unkind to Catherine. Her quietly affectionate and tolerant personality made it easy for him to genuinely like her. Once, when she was deathly ill, he even indulged her delusion and told her that she had given birth to healthy children.

The combined issues of heir-lessness and Catholicism made the situation volatile. Charles wished to be tolerant of all religions, including Catholicism. However, when his brother and heir, James Duke of York, converted, Parliament was infuriated and passed legislation which forced James to resign as Lord High Admiral. By the time Charles died, religious tensions were prevented from exploding only because James’ presumed successors were his two Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne.

When Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, led an unsuccessful Protestant revolt against James, Catherine put aside her religion and any natural jealousy she could have felt for husband’s bastard. Instead, she demonstrated her continuing loyalty and affection for her late husband by pleading for his favorite child’s life. His Uncle James was less sentimental: he executed Monmouth.

As the anti-Catholic fervor grew more intense, Catherine decided to return to Portugal, where she acted as regent for her brother, King Peter II, on a couple of occasions. She died after an illness at the age of 67 and was buried in Lisbon.

Although she mothered no kings, Catherine of Braganza had an impact perhaps greater than many other English queens. Not only did she introduce the nation to the “English” tradition of drinking tea, but her dowry of Bombay became one of the major keystones to British imperial power.


  1. Very interesting and well written!

    Found 2 typos...shhhhhh, I won't tell anybody!

  2. Thanks! But please point out the typos for me so that I may correct them. Cheers!

  3. Let us hope that Prince William's bride will break the pattern of unhappy Queen Catherines...

  4. So interesting. Thank you Cheryl for this story full of fascinating but sad facts.
    Cross fingers for future of young royal family.

  5. I just found your articles and am loving them!

    Just one note though - When you talk of Catherine Parr, you make note that she wanted to marry Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry's second wife, Jane. Jane Seymour was his third wife.