Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s First Victim- er, Wife- Dies in Exile
“The most virtuous woman I have ever known and the highest hearted, but too quick to trust that others were like herself, and too slow to do a little ill that much good might come of it.” — Eustace Chapuys
Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII who was married to him longer than his other five spouses put together, died on January 7, 1536, most likely of cancer.
She died in exile, separated from her beloved daughter by the husband who could never bend Catherine to his will, no matter how seemingly subservient she was on the surface. The only reason she lived long enough to die a natural death (unlike two of his wives who displeased Henry VIII) was that she was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
During the final days of 1535, 50-year-old Catherine’s health began to fail rapidly. She was living in remote Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, a drafty and damp outpost dating back to Norman times, far away from all of those she held dear. This was a punishment meted out by Henry VIII for her staunch refusal to accept that their 20-year marriage had been invalid and that she was no longer Queen.
Over the years, Henry tried to sweet-talk, reason, bribe, plead, and threaten Catherine to step aside so he could remarry and provide a male heir for England. Catherine was an obedient but also incredibly devout wife — even for the times — so God’s law came first. Catherine insisted there was no impediment to their marriage no matter how hard Henry banged the “you were married to my brother” drum. She swore in the confessional the marriage wasn’t consummated, and in any case, the pope had issued a dispensation allowing the union. In the eyes of the Catholic Church,(the only eyes that mattered) their marriage was sound.
Which was why Catherine wouldn’t budge, and why Henry broke away from the Church. It was also why Catherine was dying alone in a remote castle.
Catherine’s condition had deteriorated so badly by December 29 that her doctor sent word to Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Imperial ambassador to the Tudor court and a close friend of Catherine’s. Chapuys sought King Henry’s permission to visit Catherine, and he granted it.
However, when his daughter Mary begged to see her mother one last time before she died, Henry refused her request, saying the two could use the opportunity to plot against him and his new wife, Anne Boleyn.
As much as this must have devastated both women, a surprise visit from her old and dear friend María de Salinas, now Lady Willoughby, on January 1, 1536, surely brightened Catherine’s last days considerably. Knowing that she too would most likely be denied permission to see Catherine, Maria took off from London disguised and on horseback.
Maria talked her way into Kimbolton by saying she fell off her horse and desperately needed shelter and a place to recover. She also claimed that a letter authorizing her entrance to enter the castle would be arriving soon. She must have been very believable because she was ushered in and allowed to proceed directly to Catherine’s chambers.
Catherine was a shadow of her former self by this time. Chapuys arrived on January 2 to find her so weak she couldn’t even sit upright without support. But she was still lucid and mentally rehashing the events of the past few years, wondering whether her actions had caused the people of her adopted land to suffer through the “heresies” and “scandals” caused by Henry’s “Great Matter.”
Late on January 6, Catherine became fidgety and uncomfortable, and it was obvious to her and all present that the hour of her death was fast approaching. The letter dictated to Henry VIII from his jilted, dying Queen is believed by some to be fictitious, but few historians dispute the sentiments expressed were Catherine’s as she lay breathing her last.
“My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything and I wish to devoutly pray to God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants, I solicit the wages due to them, and a year or more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.”
Catherine died at two o’clock in the afternoon on January 7. Anne Boleyn rejoiced, as she was finally the only queen in England (her enthusiasm may have been tempered had she realized her own death was right around the corner in May, courtesy of her husband and an executioner doing his bidding).
Mary was not allowed to attend her mother’s funeral Mass on January 29, a final cruelty for Catherine’s grieving only child to endure. But, as a bit of poetic justice, Queen Anne suffered a grave misfortune on that very day. She lost the male child she was carrying, just as Catherine had done so many times during her own marriage to Henry.
The crucial difference was Anne had neither Catherine’s humility nor her powerful foreign relatives — so Anne’s miscarriage on the day of Catherine’s funeral was the beginning of her end.