Katherine of Aragon in the Media. What does this say about our culture?

The best known portrayals of Katherine of Aragon in TV and Film.
The best known portrayals of Katherine of Aragon in TV and Film.

Something that’s always bugged me is how Katherine is portrayed in the media or fiction (or history for that matter). She is always old, super pious or to put it simply an outdated ‘bitch’ who doesn’t want to give her poor, sweet and younger Henry his much needed divorce. We have no idea what these people thought so we cannot know what really went through Henry’s mind when he broke the news to Katherine or through Katherine’s. We can assume based on their letters and their actions but that’s it. If we want to be Sherlock Holmes, we can go further by investigating the customs and morals that dictated the period, but even then, we will never get the answers we want.

Katherine of Aragon has continued to fascinate historians for decades (and will continue to do so as her darker and more alluring counterpart Anne Boleyn). But to pit this woman against her rival in a game of “who was more beautiful” or “who was more worthy of wearing the crown?” Or worse yet, “whose daughters showed through their actions that their mothers were the rightful Queens of England” are ridiculous. The cults built around certain figures has become too religious -if it wasn’t before- for my taste and nothing scares me more than cults and religion. When people speak about the Tudors and they think of Katherine of Aragon, the first thing that comes to mind is either victim or stubborn, old, ugly woman. What does this say about our own culture? I always say if you want to look at our society, look at the way people view history, he way people view old people and that will tell you everything. As political satirist Bill Maher has said, young people today do not value the wisdom in their elders. Yes, some elders are not that wise, but that is no excuse to bash old people and say they deserve to be pushed away because they are old, ugly and what not. Katherine of Aragon was not always old and she was not certainly ugly!

Mary Magdalene. Allegedly Katherine of Aragon was the model for this biblical figure.
Mary Magdalene. Allegedly Katherine of Aragon was the model for this biblical figure.

Amy Licence in her latest biography on the Six Wives, weighs in on this:

“The teenaged Catherine with her petite, plump figure and regal colouring, she did not disappoint the English.
Her ‘fair auburn’ hair hung down past her shoulders, loose under the cap she wore, held in place by a gold ribbon.”

Katherine of Aragon in her middle-age years.
Katherine of Aragon in her middle-age years.

Furthermore, Kyra Cornelius Kramer adds that when Katherine got older and she was unable to give the King anymore children, she was by no means ugly:

“Katherine was now “middle-aged” by the reckoning of her time period, but certainly still young enough to have more children. However, having lost her youth, she had also begun to lose her good looks. She had started to “run to fat”, and her face was becoming “round and blotched and bloated” (Starkey, 2006: 37). This seems natural enough in light of the fact that she had undergone repeated and yearly obstetrical tribulations, had the added emotional burden of being blamed for not producing a living heir to the throne, had successfully acted as regent for her husband during a war, and had suffered a total breach with her father in favor of her husband, who incidentally was angry with her for her father’s behavior. It would be very difficult to retain ‘girlish’ good-looks under such stress.
This is not to say she had completely lost her charms, however, since one contemporary recorded that while the Queen “was not handsome” she was “certainly not ugly” either (Fraser, 1994: 75-76). Moreover she was intelligent, a good wife, and was adored by her English subjects. An ambassador from Venice reported that while Katherine was “of low stature and rather stout”, she had the virtues of being “very good and very religious”, spoke “Spanish, French, Flemish, and English”, and was “more beloved by the Islanders than any queen that has ever reigned” (Froude, 1891: 32). Some historical writings emphasize the fact that she wasn’t as pretty as she approached mid-life as she had been as a girl, particularly as a result of her weight gain.
When Katherine’s plumper body is discussed, Henry’s desire to end his marriage is usually portrayed more sympathetically, on the assumption that a fat, middle-aged body could never be pleasing to a man. This is more a reflection of the modern bias against the fat female body than a true representation of Katherine’s attractiveness. Clearly some of the writings about the Queen have been steeped in the modern socio-cultural belief that if an individual female is fat she must therefore be considered ugly, and her body is consequently interpreted “as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will”, which in turns turn renders fat women ‘bad’ and repellent (Bordo, 1993: 192). It is very problematic to ascribe this bias to Henry, who was the product of very different cultural norms. Since fashion in the Tudor time period “favored slimness”, some historians have argued that this was Henry’s own preference (Starkey, 2003: 161).
Notwithstanding the fashion for a trim waist, Henry was probably unaffected by the ‘excessive’ adipose tissue of his sexual partners. Although his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was very slender, his fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, with whom he was utterly infatuated and enthralled sexually, was plump with the “fetching beginnings of a double-chin” (Starkey, 2003: 651). Clearly the King was attracted to many different body types. Katheriea’s weight gain may not have been an issue for Henry the way it can be for people reared in a modern fat-intolerant cultural climate. Regardless of the change in her physical appearance, the King still found her comely enough that she became pregnant again a few months after the loss of yet another son.”

Other biographers such as Julia Fox add that Katherine was better prepared than other princesses. Whereas royal women were taught to knit, sew, sing and dance and be the epitome of feminine virtue, Katherine’s mother added another component to her daughters’ education. 

“Acutely aware of her own educational deficiencies, she determined that her children would not suffer from the same limitations.” (Fox)

Isabella I of Castile had been taught a very basic education, something she always regretted and didn’t want her daughters to have. Her daughters would not marry simple courtiers or second-sons. They would be queens or royal duchesses, and Isabella trusted them enough so that they would steer their husband’s policies to Spain’s favor. But she wasn’t completely pragmatic. As ambitious as Isabella was, she was also human and she regretted parted with all of her daughters. The most was Catalina or Katherine as she later changed her name to, because she was the youngest. 
Isabella had been taught religious devotion at a young age. But she had also learned how cruel the world could be. Her brother Enrique was supposed to honor their father’s will and ensure her mother received the revenues from Arevalo where she, her mother and brother were living, and other nearby towns but instead Enrique kept it all to himself. Nearby was Medina, where every world trader came to sell rich fabrics and other things that got Isabella curious in naval exploration. But with the frugal pension her mother received, she could boast of no wealth or pretty clothes like the ones her older brother the King and his new wife -Juana of Avis, Princess of Portugal- wore. 
As expected, Isabella was “tutored in skills expected of the wife of a ruler” (Downey). She was taught to read and speak in Italian, her native Castilian and also Portuguese, but she was taught no Latin and it was not until she was older that she began to learn. In spite of these obstacles, Isabella grew to be a very tenacious and fearless woman. 

“She was strong and active, a good horsewoman at home in the saddle. She loved to hunt; she enjoyed parties, games, art, and architecture” (Downey)

And more than that, she grew to admire women who took destiny in their own hands instead of waiting for others to choose for them. As Elizabeth I’s, ironically her granddaughter’s half sister and rival would one day be quoted of saying “God helps those who help themselves”; no one emulated this more than Isabella. Isabella grew to distrust and even abhor the noble class. This was the same class that pulled the strings of her brother’s courts, the sort that stayed silent when her mother was nearly raped (likely on Enrique’s orders) and more than that, the sort who shifted sides every time it was convenient for them. Of course, Isabella was not blind to the harsh political reality of her country. Castile was split into many factions and people had to do what they could to survive. Nonetheless Isabella was not about to be as indecisive and weak as her brother had been. When he died, she took control and without waiting for Cortes (the Castilian Council) to declare her Queen of Castile, she took the crown for herself and asked one of her favorites to carry the sword of justice on her behalf as she and her men walked behind their newly self-crowned Queen.

From her mother, Katherine knew the power that women could have, even in a patriarchal sphere such as theirs. England of course was more patriarchal than Castile. It had no Salic Law, but plagued by recent civil wars, they had no desire to see women rule on their behalf. Women were there to bring babies, that was their main function. Katherine of course defied these concepts. But she did it in a way that did not upset the status quo. Emulating the feminine virtues that she was taught from an early age, she lived by these virtues, praying more than anybody and giving as much to others as other Queen Consorts had done before her. Her education and her actions during Henry’s reign of course, tell a different story.

Katherine of Aragon by Sittow
“She was not only taught the traditional feminine accomplishments of embroidery and dancing, but studies similar topics to Arthur, including religion, canon and civic law.” -Licence.

Stoic, proud, she was the product of her mother’s court. Surrounded with scholars of both genders, and watching her mother “championing educational achievements”, she desired the same for when she became future Queen of England.

“Like her sisters, Katherine was nurtured in the classics, her parents engaging two remarkable humanist scholars, Antonia Geraldini and his brother Alesandro (who stepped in when Antonio died) as teachers. Alessandro, who took his duties very seriously, wrote a book on the education of girls. The book has long since disappeared, but it clearly remained in Katherine’s memory, for she was to commission a similar work for her own daughter … Katherine would have had access to her mother’s extensive library, although her reading was carefully monitored. She was introduced to the Christian poets, to history, to law, to the lives of the saints, and to religious works such as the writings of Saint Augustine, as well as to carefully vetted classical authors like Seneca … and for yet lighter relief, there were always Isabella’s copies of Arthurian romances and chivalric tales. Every mindful of her own experiences, the queen was determined to give her girls the best start available.” (Fox)

The kind of law that Katherine of Aragon was educated was both canon and secular law. If women were allowed to practice law as they are today, she would no doubt have made a great lawyer. One cannot help but wonder if it was more of Katherine’s words put into her defenders -such as Bishop Fisher, her grandmother in law’s former Confessor- mouths than their own? As Queen Consort, Katherine was just as active as her husband. Thanks to her regency, England won a major victory against Scotland. Scotland “lost all the flower” of “her youth” and their “chivalry” (Porter).
When Katherine wanted to prepare her daughter for her future role as Queen rather than Queen Consort as she was prepared, she ensured her daughter received a top education. Mary learned to dance, play various instruments, poetry, letters, and of course canon and civil law as her mother; but she was also taught about ruling since she was up until that point, her father’s heir-apparent. To ensure her legacy, Katherine not only invited the scholar Juan Luis Vives to court, but she also wrote her own defense of her church after her husband Henry had done so, and for this she was named ‘Defendress of the Faith’.

While Katherine continues to be appreciated by modern American and British audiences in TV and fiction, her native country has made a greater leap forward by casting her in a more favorable (and accurate) light in the hit TV drama “Isabel”. American and British audiences will say this is unfair because the Spaniards are being bias, but they are in fact not. What the series did for her was something American and British historical dramas have failed to do. They always start her story in the later years of her marriage when Anne comes into the picture and she is older (“too old” for Henry who is portrayed as much younger and handsome) and is a great contrast to the drop-dead gorgeous figure of Anne Boleyn. For once, we have a Katherine who is younger than any actress who has portrayed her, and is also fair skinned, blue eyed and blond. While Katherine was described as auburn-haired, this is a nice change from the past decade’s portrayals of her.

A younger and more vivacious Katherine of Aragon from the series "Isabel" that has none of the dark coloring or shows an advance age as is normally seen in American/British period dramas. The actress Natalia Rodriguez who plays her said in an interview that she read extensively on Katherine and that is sorry that the series ended with her mother's death in 1504 when Katherine was only 19 yrs old. She says "she deserves a series of her own of at least four seasons minimum".
A younger and more vivacious Katherine of Aragon from the series “Isabel” that has none of the dark coloring or shows an advance age as is normally seen in American/British period dramas. The actress Natalia Rodriguez who plays her said in an interview that she read extensively on Katherine and that is sorry that the series ended with her mother’s death in 1504 when Katherine was only 19 yrs old. She says “she deserves a series of her own of at least four seasons minimum”.

And this brings me once again, to stress what Bill Maher said in his past show about tween audiences versus older and more mature audiences. People will get old. You were young once, you were hot once, “but you get older, and you get wiser duh!” It’s the natural cycle of life and it will happen to all of us. Anne for future generations had the good luck that she didn’t get old because Henry cut her head off. She was beheaded under false charges and while this is regrettable, it nonetheless made her a figure for all times. A timeless, ageless figure who like many figures who go down young and with a bang, are admired because they were young, they were beautiful, they had it all! But these figures are victims of their own sons, daughters (in Anne’s case) or successors’ propaganda. Alexander the Great died when he was still young and hot. If he had lived, would he be remembered as ‘The Great’, the epitome of  ‘I can do whatever I like because I am freaking young!’ Of course not! And neither would Henry V who is praised as the greatest of all Plantagenet Kings for conquering France. Yes, like Anne, they are worshiped, revered because they died young, because they died tragically, or in the case of the two kings, while they were still young and famous. But had they lived, guess what?! They would have aged too and it wouldn’t have been pretty. In an age where cosmetics were not what they are today, they would have become wrinkled, thinner or probably (in Anne’s case) gain weight with every pregnancy. But that would be normal because that is what is meant to happen to all of us. Our bodies changes, we lose our looks but that doesn’t mean we become lamer or duller. Some do, but some become wiser and continue to be active as when they were younger. For Katherine, this is exactly what happened. Age did not affect her brains. She was still the same active, educated woman she had been when she came to England. She became religious as she got older, this was normal in a woman her age after all she had suffered. Her predecessors, Queens and Kings’ mothers, had done the same. Elizabeth of York was well known for her piety and so was her mother in law, the indomitable Margaret Beaufort. Her grandmother the Duchess Dowager of York “Proud Cis” had taken on a strict religious routine after her son and husband who had been killed during the battle of Wakefield were re-interred in York. But this was not an impediment as Starkey and Loades point out in their respective biographies on the wives, on Katherine’s pragmatism. She proved to be her mother’s daughter to the end, and she sent many strong letters to the pope and bishops, demanding them to side with her and press her husband to leave his intended bride. Katherine’s struggle for survival was much her own as it was her daughter’s, for Katherine not only believed that she was meant to be Henry’s Queen, but that her daughter in spite of her gender, was meant to rule as England’s first Queen Regnant. 

Sources:

  • Sister Queens: The Noble and Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile by Julia Fox
  • Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Loades
  • Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey
  • Blood Will Tell by Kyra C. Kramer
  • The Myth of Bloody Mary by Linda Porter
  • Tudors VS Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
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