Falling Pomegranate Seeds: the Duty of Daughters is a fantastic novel written by Wendy J. Dunn, it is the first in her series on Katharine of Aragon. As a result, this focuses primarily on her formative years in Spain. Without vilifying or whitewashing her, Wendy J. Dunn weaves an intricate tale of hope, passion, and self-growth as Katharine prepares for the epic journey that awaits her.
Katharine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife, and before that, his brother’s wife, and the daughter of two of the most prestigious monarchs in Christendom. Born and raised to do her duty, she was also among the most learned women of her times. Wendy J. Dunn doesn’t brush past this fact; it is a key component of her book. The book opens up with Beatriz Galindo, known as “La Latina” for her scholarship, being questioned by the Queen of Castile about her youngest daughter’s education. Beatriz is delighted to be charged with such a task, and dedicates most of her time to Catalina, ensuring that she will grow up to be a learned queen.
It is refreshing to see a historical fiction devote so much time to Katharine’s formative year, and set the stage for the next books in her Katharine of Aragon series.
Her Katharine is how I picture she was in real life. She starts as an assertive and curious child who is determined to become Queen of England because she believes that is her destiny, and as the story progresses, even when we know how it is going to end, we are still rooting for her as she sets sail to her new home. The emotions run high near the end, it plays like a farewell scene but it is not. One chapter of her life has ended and another will begin and we are left eagerly waiting for that.
Wendy J. Dunn brings out the best and worst aspects of her character, something that is much needed in a figure that often gets put on a pedestal or easily disregarded as the ‘boring one.’ Katharine is mischievous, she plays, she is everything you would expect in a child, but she is also curious and intuitive with a mind of her own -which becomes more evident when she is in her teens- and like her mother, she is very proud and grounded in her beliefs that she’s unwilling to compromise when that compromise goes against her moral view of the world.
I recommend this book to all history buffs and those of you who like me, are very passionate about Tudor history.
On the 17th of November 1558, Queen Mary I passed away at St. James Palace. She was forty two. Immediately, her coronation ring was taken to Elizabeth I who upon receiving quoted from one of the psalms declaring, quite coincidentally under an oak tree as one of her namesakes supposedly had been under when Edward IV found her, that “this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” Elizabeth was the new queen, she would go on to become the longest reigning monarch of the Tudor dynasty, and with her the reign of her sister would become less and less important and remembered only for the persecutions.
But before everyone is quick to judge, and the expense of being preachy, we must remember the times she lived in. Her actions should not –by any means- be condoned, but neither should the acts of her predecessors and successors be justified or overlooked because of their success. In her short reign, Mary managed to institute a new coinage, refounded universities, as well as instituted a curriculum that was inspired by the Humanist ideals she’d grown up with, and took a page from her brother’s book of common prayer where religious books were concerned. However, as more Protestants rose up against her, and condemned her for her religious inclination as well as her decision to marry a foreign (Catholic) Prince, her policies which once promised would respect everyone’s faith (as long they practiced it in “quiet charity”) became the opposite.
When the Lady Elizabeth had heard of her sister’s failing health by her sister’s servants and Count de Feria, she was very hostile towards them. Although she appreciated her sister making a codicil to her will acknowledging that she would respect her father’s will, guaranteeing Elizabeth’s place in history as England’s next Queen; she remarked to the Count that regardless of what her brother-in-law had done for her, she would not be in any way grateful to him since she had done nothing wrong. Many decades after her death, Jane Dormer would recall that meeting, claiming that she had also been sent there to deliver some of Mary’s jewels to her. Whether she did or did not, it is possible that Mary sought to reconcile herself with her sister. After all, when Mary had reclaimed the crown, she did so, stating that it wasn’t only her right but her sister’s as well.
Close to death, Mary asked to hear mass before midnight, then at night of the next morning she slipped away.
“So peaceful was her passing” Linda Porter writes “that those around her did not realize, at first, that she was gone.” Mary had endured a lot in her life, and she persevered. Yet, just as in life, she was never to know peace. Shortly after she died, the news was delivered to her friend and distant cousin, Reginald Pole who also lay dying. When he heard the news “though his spirit was great, the blow nevertheless having entered his flesh, brought on paroxysm earlier, and with more intense cold.”
“She like himself, “had been harassed during many years for one and the same cause, and afterwards, when it pleased God to raise her to the throne, he had greatly participated in all her other troubles entailed by that elevation.” Just twelve hours after Mary’s passing, he too died, unreconciled with and condemned by the pope.” (Whitelock)
Mary I and Reginald Pole tried something similar her maternal grandmother had done in Castile which was root out corruption in the Church, this as we can imagine probably wasn’t very popular with some clerics. But the pope’s discontent largely has to do with England’s religious landscape. England would never be a Catholic kingdom. Almost a decade later when their cousin, Margaret Douglas, conspired to have her eldest son married to the Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I’s men spread rumors that she tried to have Mary alter their father’s will so she would be name her heir in place of Elizabeth. In another effort to further slander her name, she was also accused as being the main culprit behind the sister’s rivalry.
“Within hours of Mary’s death, the preparation of her body began. Her heart and bowels were removed, her belly opened and filled with preservative herbs and spices.” (Whitelock)
She remained at St James for almost a month until her funeral in mid-December. Elizabeth spared no expense for the funeral. A beautiful eulogy was written for Mary titled ‘The Epitaph upon the death of our late virtuous Quene Marie deceased’which read the following:
“How many noble men restored and other states also Well showed her princely liberal heart, which gave both friend and foe. As princely was her birth, so princely was her life, Constant, courtise, modest and mild; a chaste and chosen wife. Oh mirror of all womanhood! Oh Queen of virtues pure! Oh constant Marie! Filled with grace no age can thee obscure.”
This however was altered, as ordered by Elizabeth, to include the new Tudor Queen and create a starch contrast between the sisters, where Mary is praised but so is Elizabeth who it is implied will be a greater monarch than her predecessor.
“Marie now dead, Elizabeth lives,
our just and lawful Queen In whom her sister’s virtues rare, abundantly are seen. Obey our Queen as we are bound,
pray God her to preserve And send her grace lie long and fruit, and subjects truth to serve.”
This wasn’t the only thing that was changed. John White, Bishop of Winchester delivered the funeral sermon praising Mary’s virtues, saying that “she was a king’s daughter, she was a King’s sister, she was King’s wife. She was a Queen and by the same title a King also” concluding with wishing Elizabeth a prosperous reign “in peace and tranquility if it be God’s will.” That last sentence sealed his fate and he was placed under house arrest.
Elizabeth I’s successor went a step further and ordered a great effigy for the Tudor Queen, and also ordered that two sisters be put together. Mary I’s tomb was once marked, and although it still is, only one of the two sisters is remembered in this great monument and that is Elizabeth.
Perhaps it is the romantic in all of us that wish that these two troubled sisters found peace in the afterlife, but given their loss and struggle, especially Mary’s whose reign is still obscured and seen through one lens, it is impossible that they ever will. History is written by the victors, they say and that couldn’t be truer. Mary’s achievement which were continued (albeit some of these improved) by her sister, are nearly forgotten.
The Myth of Bloody Mary by Linda Porter
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
Isabella has been compared with Ferdinand and her larger than life, Anglican counterpart, her granddaughter Mary I’s half-sister, Elizabeth I. But it was Isabella, who had firstly defied gender stereotypes, who refused to conform to the life of a docile and pleasing wife, and teach her daughters domestic skills that would have pleased their husbands. She couldn’t change their attitudes, nor their arrogance. Some of them suffered from the latter, others were more conniving than their oldest siblings, but all of them benefitted greatly from their mother’s example and the education she brought them. All of Isabella’s daughters had the opportunities this imposing Queen never had. She had been born to a highly religious, and very jealous mother, Isabel of Portugal. Named after her, she grew up in a very religious environment but also a very unusual one. Chacon, her tutor and longtime friend, taught her to admire strong female saints and biblical figures who were known for their outspokenness and fighting skills rather than for their passiveness. The girl who was abandoned by her half-brother when he became King, and denied, her, her mother and her younger brother their annuities and lands, and had to watch as girls of lesser rank than her dressed more richly, grew up to become one of the most fearsome figures of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Downey could not have said it better when she said, that in Isabella Castile and all of Spain had a true monarch, a woman who did not see her gender as an impediment but rather as a strength and gave her daughters the best things money, religion and status could buy. “Out of all her daughters” Downey writes, it was Katherine who was the most “resembled the Spanish monarch” in appearance and demeanor. Katherine of Aragon was sweet, beautiful, and petite like her mother and also headstrong, devout, cunning, and ambitious, using whatever tools she had to her advantage and further her cause. During Katherine’s early years of widowhood, Isabella was teaching her most difficult child, Juana how to rule. Juana as the author states here was *not* crazy but in fact very sane. The problem lay in her husband who has gone down in history as Philip “the fair”. A vain, conniving man whose patronage of artists and scholars did not make up for his incompetence. Like Isabella’s father and brothers, he was dominated by his male courtiers who had a deep dislike for the Spaniards whose customs they considered odd. Juana’s religiosity was nothing out of the ordinary. In Castile widows were known to take chastity vows and cover themselves from head to toe in black, or lead ascetic lives or take religious orders. Isabella’s mother had been one of these widows. Though she had dressed in the finest gowns when she was queen and like Juana had a strong temperament, she had left all this behind when her husband died and her stepson, the new King, Enrique took her allowance and everything else that was left for her and her children. Juana did not go to these extremes, but she did take comfort in the religion that had so often comforted her female ancestors and gave her mother strength. She had seen her mother at her best and worst, and she was determined not to let her down. Unfortunately, Juana thought that Philip would give her the same love and respect that he had given her mother in the first years of their marriage and that their marriage would become a partnership as theirs had during the campaign against the Moors, and the defense of Italy against the Turkish menace and later the French. Philip did not show any interest in Juana, other than using her to breed children and get money out of her. When she became his wife, he locked her up, retired her servants and bribed her remaining ones so they would be loyal to him and when he was told she’d given birth to his daughter, he showed disgust and told the ambassadors that he would leave Juana to support herself. There was talk that he would leave her for a French bride –which was the hope of his councilors who were the real rulers of Burgundy- and he was this close to doing this but Juana gave birth for a second time, this time to a boy two years later in Ghent. This boy would become Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and I of Spain. Isabella always the pragmatic woman, immediately recognized him as her heir, and so did Ferdinand. But Ferdinand would prove to be a poor Regent to his wife’s dominions after she died. In recent dramas he has been depicted as a loving husband, whose union to Isabella was a love match and filled with passion, but the truth is not so beautiful. Using primary sources and delving into the history behind the religious conflicts between all three monotheistic faiths of the time, Downey paints an accurate picture into the life of Isabella I of Castile, and explains how is it a woman whose reign started with a greater degree of tolerance (than her brother’s) could have descended into one of religious persecution to the point where Spain became a region of religious homogeneity; and the reasons behind every one of her daughter’s actions, including her daughter in law (the beautiful Marguerite whom Isabella grew very fond of and whose miscarriage of their dead son’s baby, sent the imposing Queen into despair and extreme melancholy and left many to question her reign); and last but not least, how is it that a woman such as her, whose sponsorship of such brave but merciless men like Christopher Columbus, Humanists like Martyr, “La Latina” among others, has been forgotten and had her name blackened for centuries?
History is written by the winner. Isabella wrote history, she changed history, her story is herstory. She defied gender roles and made her own rules, made promises before God then conveniently forgot them. She did and said many things, regardless if they were sanctioned by the church or not, and her ideas were very similar to Luther’s -who defied her successor a decade after her death- and whose heroes were among Isabella’s. She saw herself as the real power behind the church, she brought this institution to its knees, bullied and forced it to reform. While Spain benefitted from this, many of the people she had welcomed with open arms and made many promises before God, did not. After altering the deal she had made to Muslims, shortly after the surrender of Granada on the second of January 1492; she gave them an ultimatum: Convert or leave. Those who remained would face the horrors of the Inquisition. To be fair, Downey also puts forth the horrors the Jews and Muslims faced on many other countries. Christians themselves were not safe, after the fall of Constantinople many women had been raped, enslaved, or killed in a most horrible manner. And although some of these accounts are Christian and could be exaggerating, some of them are not and the Turks themselves boasted of such horrors. Slavery, cruelty, debauchery, was the law of every land. Isabella was no stranger to these. Like every monarch of her times, she used cruel methods to accomplish her goals.
But the greatest legacy of this great queen perhaps is that she strengthen, for future generation of Christian rulers, including Protestants, Christianity and weakened the Turks and stopped their advance into Italy, further into the Iberian Peninsula and into other places of Europe (including Eastern Europe). Unfortunately, the man she married turned out to be her complete opposite. Always eager for profit, Ferdinand carried very little about the state of the church, or their daughters’ affairs. Isabella made him promise her on her deathbed never to marry again, and he said yes but as soon as she was dead he was out there negotiating for his next marriage. He chose the “Beltraneja” the daughter of their rival, Enrique IV whom Isabella always conveniently claimed, could not be her niece and displaced her from the line of succession. If he married this girl, then he could claim his marriage to Isabella was a sin before God and that his wife had been an usurper and his daughters (including Katherine and Juana) were nothing but bastards. Juana was not a fool, acting with stealth and determination that her husband did not possess, she ordered the Beltraneja be kept under lock and key and this angered her father even more.
He married a French Princess who fashioned herself the Queen of Castile and worked alongside him to usurp his eldest daughter’s throne. Both he and Philip worked tirelessly to strip Juana of her sanity, but Juana retained it and fought against them, but in an era where female rule was frowned upon and where she did not have the pragmatism her mother had, she failed to defeat them both and she remained locked up for the rest of her life, first by her husband, then when he died by her father who claimed her extreme mourning was proof of her madness (it wasn’t. Isabella had done more extreme mourning when Juana’s brother died, but nobody said anything then. For the Flemings Juana’s customs were odd since they and the French were not used to such examples of religious devotion), and then her son who placed her under the supervision of an even crueler torturer. And for many years to come, her youngest daughter would not fare any better. Although Katherine obtained her goal and became Queen of England, she failed in giving the King what he wanted: a son. She was a firm believer that her daughter could be Queen, she had emulated her mother’s virtues, watched how her mother took advantage of the belief that women were weak and soft, and used it against her enemies to claim ignorance whenever it suited her or use it to attack her father’s mistresses and other female rivals. But England was not Castile, and it would be many years before the country got used to the idea of female rule. As for the memory of Isabella, it was already being shaped and rewritten by her male successors; Machiavelli, a contemporary of Isabella chose to praise her enemy Cesare, forgetting that it was Isabella whose qualities mirrored those in his book “The Prince” and it was her who became the most ardent defender of Christendom, and finally it was her who dared to do the impossible: Take Granada, unite Spain, bring the papacy to its knees, reform the church and take the crown –when it was not hers to take- and name herself Queen.
A century before the Holy League was formed to combat a powerful woman who was Queen in her own right, and strip her of that right, there was another woman, a powerful ancestor of her late sister, the first Queen Regnant of England, and of her dreaded rival, Philip II of Spain. Her name was Isabella and this woman was the first to head this Holy League, as well as the first to set a precedent of this scale. Isabella’s path to the throne has been widely explored many times in countless biographies, and indeed she deserves many more for her rise as her English counterpart, is fascinating. But this thread is not about her ascension but instead of her leadership and bringing Christian countries together at a time when they couldn’t be farther apart.
Isabella was born in 1451, she came to the throne in the early 1470s, taking the crown instead of waiting for the Cortes to appoint a legal successor to her late half-brother, Enrique IV. Isabella *took* the Crown and she owed her ascension to no one else but herself. And she brought many nobles to heel and appointed many conversos and people of humble beginnings to important posts that of course caused a lot of dissension among the “Grandees” –the noblest families of Spain. But Isabella was there to stay, and her decisions would not be questioned –even by her husband. However, as we all know, there was a darker aspect to Isabella. This was an age of massive religious intolerance. Though there was the practice of “convivencia” or healthy living in Spain between Moors, Jews, Conversos (converted Jews) and Christians, this tended to fluctuate. Finally when the Turks made their intentions clear to encroach on the Italian peninsula and started taking on Eastern Europe, the Christian kingdoms became more hostiles. There were reasons for these hostilities. The Turks tended to capture Christians and sell to slavery and the women would fare worse. One of the few captives who managed to escape was a student at the time his country (Romania) fell to the Turks. His name is Georgius de Hungaria, his memoir bemoans how he saw “public selling ground, the poor captives are brought, bound with ropes and chains, as if sheep for slaughter. There, they are examined and stripped naked … There a son is sold with his mother watching and grieving. There, a mother is bought in the presence and to the dismay of her son. In that place, a wife is made sport of, like a prostitute, as her husband grows ashamed, and she is given to another man…”
Georgius’ memoir became a best-seller and was reprinted between 1480 and 1500. During these twenty years, Isabella was waging war on the Nazari Empire on the borders of Castile. This dynasty was the ruling dynasty of the last Taifa Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. Since the Reconquista started shortly after the Muslim invasion in 711, the Iberian Peninsula had been comprised of many of these kingdoms. Slavery was not exclusive to Muslim kingdoms, in fact, Christians practiced it too and as Downey notes in her biography of Isabella of Castile, at least two or three of the women in her daughters’ retinue were Moorish or African slaves. But Christianity had become more militant and prone to paranoia since these developments. Isabella turned her faith in Spain into a fiercer weapon, with an arduous belief that they needed to expel the “infidels” from their Christian lands. At the same time, the Turks advance into the Italian Peninsula was a very real threat to Isabella. Even after Boabdil’s surrender on the second of January in 1492, she continued to press many monarchs to unite against further attacks. Many did not listen to her. They did not have to because if anyone was to suffer any attack, it would be Spain or Italy, and even then with so great a cost into this enterprise, the Turks were likely to withdraw once these were exhausted. But with a new Sultan, Bayezid II, who was more conservative than his predecessors, this was not so. Also, the enmity between the Vatican and France and the latter’s invasion to the papacy in 1496, made it possible for Bayezid to believe that Western Europe was vulnerable. Finally, when Isabella convinced many of the Italian city-states and Republic of Venice to turn against France, she turned to Henry VII and James IV.
James IV of Scotland said it bluntly, that it was not his business. Henry VII, more diplomatic, said that he would love to do something but he had no resources. Isabella however was not about to be dissuaded and she blackmailed him for the lack of a better word, with her daughter Katherine. One simple decision and she could call the whole engagement between his son and her daughter off.
Henry VII finally relented and in March 1496, he agreed to form part of her new League, a Holy League that repelled France. That same month, saw the finalization of the marriage treaty between their offspring, with the seal of approval from the Pope, Alexander VI.
France was one minor objective of this league. Charles VIII had been obsessing over the throne of Naples, and although the Catholic Kings were not happy with having Ferdinand’s nephew on the throne, it was better than the French alternative. In December they were granted the title of “Catholic Kings” with the Pope praising them for their defense of the Holy See:
“You serve as a public notice and example to Christian princes, because your strength and arms have not been for the ruin and killing of other Christians out of ambition for territory and dominion but instead for the benefit of Christians and in defense of the Church and faith … Your reverence and devotion to the Holy See, so many times demonstrated, is once again patently clear in the recent war in Naples. To whom, then, is the title Catholic Monarchs better suited than to Your Majesties, who continually strive to defend and enlarge the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church.” (Pope Alexander VI, December 1496)
Less than four years later, a year after the Turks began to advance into Venice, Isabella once again contacted Henry VII, and reminded him of his promise. This time however, the King of England was not about to be cowed by his future daughter-in-law’s mother. Ambassador de Puebla, the Spanish Ambassador to England wrote to the Queen that the King of England “greatly praised” her intention and Ferdinand’s “of sending a fleet against the Turks but added that, although he was on very intimate terms with Venice, the Venetians had said nothing to him about their great need” and therefore, he felt his help was not required.
Both of these monarchs were very headstrong. They were going to have their will no matter what, but as often happens when strong personalities clash, one has to give in or both parties do and that is what happened. Isabella reflected that she could not blackmail Henry anymore, he had his own problems, and this was entirely her enterprise now. Besides, she could not afford to lose England as an ally over this. If she did, then England would seek France as an ally. So Isabella dropped the matter and each resolved to solve their own issues, domestic and foreign.
Meanwhile, Isabella and Henry VII’s Consort, Queen Elizabeth of York, remained in tight correspondence with each other. So much so that Elizabeth also wrote to her future daughter-in-law, Isabella’s youngest daughter and future Princess of Wales, Katherine of Aragon. In 1497 when Marguerite of Burgundy had married Prince Juan of Asturias, Elizabeth of York wrote to Isabella advising her to tell Katherine to practice her French with the Princess of Asturias as it would help her communicate with her son better when she came to England. The two women often asked each other about their offspring’s health and in spite of her higher rank, Isabella was always very cordial and polite to the Queen of England, and Katherine of Aragon herself, was very warm to her as well.
“The Queen and the mother of the King wish that the Princess of Wales [Katherine] should always speak French with the Princess Margaret who is now in Spain, in order to learn the language, and to be able to converse when she comes to England. This is necessary, because these ladies do not understand Latin, and much less, Spanish.” (De Puebla)
It is hard to say how much influence did Isabella had in the Western European stage, the answer is likely to be a lot, but so many events happened that made this possible and she was not always successful. She recognized at some points her weaknesses, as well as her allies who also recognized their own weaknesses. In spite of these, Isabella recognized the importance of compromise and after her second youngest daughter married the King Manuel I of Portugal, she agreed with Henry VII with the betrothal of his eldest daughter Margaret with the King of Scotland. If both countries were at peace, it meant that her daughter as future Queen of England, would stir both countries into Spain’s influence and keep Scotland away from French interests. Henry VII also knew this very well. Henry VII saw things in the long run, and war was always too costly, peace was better and during his reign there was a mutual cooperation between England and Scotland where both countries set up law courts that prosecuted border criminals by a jury of Scottish and English peers –something unheard of years before.
Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
Isabella: Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey.
Katherine of Aragon by Patrick Williams
Six Wives and the Many Mistresses by Amy Licence
Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World by Alison Weir
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
On the 2nd of January 1492, Granada surrendered to the Catholic Kings. The Spanish Reconquest or “Reconquista” was over.
Ferdinand and Isabella rode ahead of their armies. The others present saw how the last ruler of Granada, Boabdil gave the King of Aragon the key to the city. This was a glorious day. Years of campaigning had finally paid off. The Spanish had been fighting the Moors for more than seven hundred years, little by little they had been taking back what the Moors took and at last, Isabella closed that chapter of their bloody history.
But …the truth was that the Reconquista as the Spaniards called it, was not merely taking back what their invaders took. It was meant to give a message to Western Europe, that the King and Queen of a new and unified Spain, were blessed by God.
There has always been a lot of debate as to whether the Moors were really invaders or the other way around. The fact was that Spain had been occupied many times, first by African and Celtic tribes and later by Roman and Germanic. There was never such a thing as a ‘Spain’ until the country became one under a single ideal, a single religion and the people responsible for this were Mary’s grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella. The two had married when they were Princes. Later they became Kings and Isabella fought long and hard for her crown. Some still regarded ‘La Beltraneja’ as the true Queen. Isabella maintained that was not true, she was the true Queen because her niece was not really her niece, she was not even her brother’s daughter. But nothing could ever be proven. Yet Isabella won in the end and shortly after that she initiated a campaign to take Granada from the Moors.
Her enterprise was long and costly but at last she succeeded. On the second day of 1492, she, accompanied by Ferdinand, rode with their armies to meet Boabdil. He greeted Ferdinand and gave him the key to the city, Ferdinand in turn gave it to Isabella. She wasted no time and appointed Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, Count of Tendilla as governor and her confessor, Hernando de Talavera as Archbishop. Boabdil was allowed to live as an aristocrat but left the Spanish Court for North Africa where he died many years later. His mother and half siblings stayed and were assimilated into Castilian noble society.
Sister Queens: The Noble and Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile by Julia Fox