She was, in the words of historian John Edwards, Henry VIII’s “greatest queen.” But though Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to the Tudor king lasted 24 years—collectively, his five other marriages spanned just 14 years—she has long been overshadowed by her successors.
The daughter of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine came to England as the bride of Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. But Arthur died shortly after the pair’s wedding, leaving his 16-year-old widow in a precarious position. Though Spain and England initially sought to maintain their alliance by marrying Catherine to another member of the Tudor family (both Henry and his father, Henry VII, were suggested as potential suitors), negotiations soured as diplomatic relations shifted. Ultimately, Catherine spent seven years mired in uncertainty over her future.
The princess’ fortunes shifted when Henry VII died in 1509, leaving the throne to his sole surviving son, who promptly married his alluring young sister-in-law. The couple’s loving relationship, however, eventually deteriorated due to a lack of a male heir and the king’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn.
Catherine is often portrayed as a dowdy, overly pious, stubborn old woman who refused to yield her position for the good of the kingdom. The truth, however, is more nuanced—a fact increasingly reflected in cultural depictions of the queen, including Starz’s “The Spanish Princess” and West End hit Six: The Musical, which features a fictionalized version of Catherine chiding her husband for forgetting that “I’ve never lost control / No matter how many times I knew you lied.”
Far from being the troublesome, unappealing wife of popular imagination, Catherine was actually a charismatic, intelligent and much-loved queen. Three years into the royal couple’s marriage, Henry was still so besotted with his consort that he invited a Spanish visitor to look at her “just to see how bella and beautiful she was.”
In 1513, the queen, then 27 years old, was entrusted with command of the kingdom while her 22-year-old husband waged war against France’s Francis I. Henry left behind a small group of advisors, but as newly discovered documents demonstrate, Catherine didn’t simply defer to these elderly men’s counsel. Instead, she assumed an active role in the governing—and protection—of England.
“When she is left as regent, she is in her element,” says Julia Fox, author of Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. “… She has the power to summon troops, to appoint sheriffs, to sign warrants and to get money from the treasurer of the chamber.”
As Henry and his troops besieged the French town of Thérouanne, Catherine and her council readied for a clash closer to home. Just over a month into the queen’s regency, France’s ally, Scotland’s James IV, had declared war on England, bringing a period of peace between the neighboring nations to an end.
The fact that James was married to Henry’s older sister, Margaret, did little to dissuade either him or Catherine from entering the fray. According to 17th-century chronicler William Drummond, the pregnant Scottish queen pleaded with her husband to desist, noting that he was poised to fight “a mighty people, now turned insolent by their riches at home and power abroad.” But James, buoyed by the possibility of conquest (and of dealing a blow to his egotistical brother-in-law), refused.
Catherine, for her part, appeared to “relish the opportunity” to exercise her full authority, says Giles Tremlett, author of Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen. In an August 13 letter, the queen wrote, “My heart is very good to it.” Wryly referencing women’s traditional role in warfare, the queen added, “I am horribly busy with making standards, banners and badges.”
Though Catherine did, in fact, order the royal wardrobe to furnish two banners bearing the arms of England and Spain, as well as “standards of the lion crowned imperial,” such tasks made up just a small portion of her preparations. Working with councilors, she mobilized forces across England, communicating with local authorities to determine how many men and horses their parishes could provide. When the mayor and sheriffs of Gloucester failed to respond in a timely fashion, she gave them a deadline of 15 days and emphasized that “writing and news from the Borders show that the King of Scots means war.”
In addition to recruiting soldiers, the queen dispatched money (£10,000, to be exact), artillery, gunners, a fleet of eight ships and supplies ranging from grain to pipes of beer and armor. She had Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey—a combat-hardened, 70-year-old veteran of the 1485 Battle of Bosworth—and his army of around 26,000 mount a first line of defense near the border with Scotland and asked Sir Thomas Lovell to lead a secondary force in England’s Midlands.
What Catherine did next was unprecedented, particularly for a kingdom where warfare was considered an exclusively male domain. As records recently found at the United Kingdom’s National Archives testify, this daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella—two famously bellicose rulers who’d spent Catherine’s childhood driving the Muslim Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula—left the safety of London and headed north toward the English-Scottish border with 1,500 sets of armor, as well as a golden “headpiece with crown” that Tremlett likens to “an armored sun hat,” in tow.
“The new details involve the queen more deeply as a director of events rather than a passive figurehead managed by those of Henry’s counselors left in England,” Sean Cunningham, the archivist who discovered the papers, told the Times’ Mark Bridges in May. “… [They] let us know that Catherine was heading for Warwick [Castle] and the Tower [of London] had pretty much been emptied of armor.”
Catherine and her troops were ready to face the Scots if James IV managed to defeat both Surrey’s and Lovell’s forces. One contemporary, Peter Martyr, reported that the queen, “in imitation of her mother Isabella,” regaled her reserve army with a speech compelling them to “defend their territory” and “remember that English courage excelled that of all other nations.”
This incident is widely referenced—including in an upcoming episode of “The Spanish Princess,” which will feature a highly exaggerated version of Catherine, clad in armor fashioned to accommodate her visible pregnancy, riding directly into battle—but many historians now consider Martyr’s account apocryphal. (Ambassadors’ correspondence indicates that the queen delivered a premature son who died shortly after birth in October 1513, but the pregnancy’s veracity remains a point of contention; in Sister Queens, Fox argues, “[I]it seems unlikely that she would have risked a much-wanted child by accompanying the army from London.”)
Tremlett deems the speech “almost certainly invented” but points out that this “doesn’t mean it [didn’t] reflect the spirit of the moment.” Fox, meanwhile, says Catherine probably made “a speech, … but whether it was quite as rousing or as wonderful, I don’t know.”
As it turned out, neither Lovell nor the queen ended up seeing action. On September 9, Surrey’s troops and James’ army of more than 30,000 engaged in battle. The English wielded the bill, a simple hooked weapon derived from an agricultural tool, while the Scots opted for the longer, steel-tipped pike. An afternoon of “great slaughter, sweating and travail” ensued, and by its end, some 10,000 Scots—including 12 earls, 14 lords, an archbishop, a bishop, 2 abbots and James himself—lay dead. Comparatively, the smaller English army only lost around 1,500 men.
The Scottish king’s brutal fate was, in a way, evocative of the broader blow inflicted on his country in the wake of the defeat: As historian Leanda de Lisle explains, “James’ left hand was almost severed, his throat gashed, and an arrow was shot through his lower jaw.” (Additional ignominies, including one at Catherine’s own hand, awaited the king’s corpse.) With the Stuart monarch’s passing, his infant son, James V, became the leader of a grieving, much-reduced nation.
According to Fox, the Battle of Flodden (which draws its name from nearby Flodden Edge) left Scotland “in a powerless situation.” She adds, “Not only have you just defeated them in a spectacular way, but [the kingdom is] in disarray. Scotland is practically at [England’s] mercy.”
Prior to Cunningham’s find, historians had only known that Catherine was in Buckingham, around 60 miles north of London, when she received word of Surrey’s victory. But the new evidence suggests that the queen intended to travel further north, if not directly into battle like Joan of Arc, then at least into the vicinity of combat.
“Many a queen would have quite simply hotfooted it to the Tower of London, pulled up the drawbridge and sat there fairly safely,” says Fox. “… But she doesn’t do that. She’s no milk sop. She’s not taking refuge. She really is out on the road.”
Three days after the battle, Catherine penned a letter to her husband, who had successfully captured Thérouanne and was now besieging Tournai. She began by emphasizing Flodden’s significance, writing, “[T]o my thinking this battle hath been to your grace, and all your realm, the greatest honour that could be, and more than should you win all the crown of France.” As one might expect of such a deeply religious individual, the queen proceeded to thank God for the victory—and subtly remind Henry to do the same.
Catherine’s missive then took a rather unexpected turn. She’d sent her husband a piece of the Scottish king’s bloodied surcoat (“for your banners”) but lamented that she’d originally hoped to send a much more macabre trophy: the embalmed body of James himself. Unfortunately, the queen reported, she soon realized that “our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it.”
This “gleeful and somewhat bloodthirsty” sentiment may seem out of character for a woman renowned for her piety, but as Tremlett points out, “Plenty of pious people were also violent, [and] plenty of people were violently pious.” Few exemplify this seemingly contradictory mindset as well as Catherine’s own parents, who waged a relentless, violent campaign against all non-Christians in their kingdom.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquest of Spain culminated in the January 2, 1492, fall of Granada, which marked the end of 780 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Then an impressionable 6-year-old, Catherine witnessed the Moors’ surrender, as well as her mother’s leading role in the military crusade.
“This [stays] with her,” says Fox. “This idea of a woman involved in battles is there. And when she actually comes to the divorce question, she sees it as a battle. She sees fighting for her own marriage as just as important as fighting for the Catholic faith.”
Though Catherine was careful to praise her husband’s success in France, she and other contemporary observers knew that Henry’s triumphs paled in comparison to Flodden.
As Antonia Fraser writes in The Wives of Henry VIII, “[T]he Scottish threat was removed for a generation by the slaughter of its leaders. … Compared to this, the Battle of the Spurs won over the French, although part of an expensive campaign, was a purely temporary check, forgotten the next year when the King turned his foreign policy on its head.”
Catherine wasn’t the first English queen to assume the reins of power in the absence of a male monarch. Sixty years prior, another foreign-born princess, Margaret of Anjou, took charge of the kingdom amid the Wars of the Roses, fighting for her son’s inheritance and making major decisions on behalf of her disastrously incompetent husband, Henry VI. More recently, Henry VIII’s grandmother Margaret Beaufort—an “uncrowned queen,” in the words of historian Nicola Tallis—had acted as regent in the brief period before the young king came of age. (Years after Catherine’s death, her beloved daughter, Mary I, followed in her mother’s footsteps by rallying troops to her cause and seizing the throne from those who had sought to thwart her.)
Combined with the example set by Isabella and other relatives, says Tremlett, “Catherine had some very strong role models for women who could rule, for women who could fight.”
Whereas Margaret of Anjou’s seizure of power made her deeply unpopular, Catherine’s regency cemented her already sterling reputation. In the mid-1520s, when Henry first raised the question of divorcing his wife, he found that public opinion was firmly on the queen’s side. She viewed the survival of her marriage as inextricable from the survival of the Catholic Church, according to Fox, and refused to back down despite immense pressure.
Catherine’s legacy, adds the historian, “is that of a wronged woman … who did not accept defeat, who fought for what she believed to be right until the breath left her body.”
Henry, for his part, never forgot the tenacity his wife had demonstrated in the days leading up to Flodden. As he later reflected with no small amount of trepidation, she was perfectly capable of carrying “on a war … as fiercely as Queen Isabella, her mother, had done in Spain.
(Smithsonian magazine, October 14, 2020)