Classy Days in History: Happy 531st Birthday, Katherine of Aragon

There are important days in history. There are sad days in history. There are just plain cool days in history. But this is Mind Vitamins, so when I mark a day, it’s going to be because it is classy. Today is the birthday of several historically classy people, but my favorite one shall take precedence.

December 16th, 1485

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Katherine in her youth

Let us give a large slice of Historical Birthday Cake to a most impressive woman: Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and first wife of Henry VIII. I confess that I am a bit of a fangirl for Queen Katherine, a historical hero of strong womanhood. While usually remembered as simply being the poor sap who got booted by Anne Boleyn, she was so much more.

In a time when ideal womanhood consisted of being blonde and shutting up, Queen Katherine stood apart. As the daughter of the powerful, though definitely controversial, Queen Isabella of Spain, Katherine had a strong female role model from the beginning. Differing from many of the European nobility of the day, she and her three sisters received just as excellent an education as their brother, John. From her childhood, Katherine was thoroughly educated in arithmetic, literature, philosophy, law, theology and more alongside the all of the domestic skills women learned in those days. Besides her native Spanish, she achieved mastery over French, Latin, Greek and eventually English. She was almost certainly one of the most educated and impressive people, especially women, in Europe at the time. Even without her title and position as a Princess of Spain, she was a fit spouse for a king.

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Katherine as Queen of England

At first, Katherine was married to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died of an illness, they decided Katherine should marry Henry, next in line for the throne. This arrangement was a bit irregular, but Katherine gave her word that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so they were able to receive a special dispensation to marry from the Pope.

Katherine proved to be an excellent queen. She was a patron of education and the arts, and was known for her charity to the poor and her mercy to the condemned. The English people adored her. Whenever her husband crossed metaphorical swords with her father, the King of Spain, she gave her allegiance to her husband and her new country of England. Several times, she even performed her husband’s duties for him. She once acted as regent for six months when Henry was in France. During this time, a very important battle took place, and rather than let down the troops, Katherine rode to the battlefield while pregnant and in full armor. There, she gave them a reportedly superlative and memorable speech, which spurred them to a great victory.

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Queen Katherine (detail from The Great Matterby  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Then, in came the event for which Katherine was sadly best known: the infamous divorce. As a woman, I find complaining needlessly about sexism to be a sign of weakness. However, the treatment Katherine of Aragon received is a truly disgusting testament to the misogyny of the Tudor Era. Her protests of her royal validity meant nothing to the court of Henry VIII. Discounting all of her intelligence, accomplishments, virtue, and the decision of the church on the validity of her marriage, she was cast aside for the simple reason that she could not produce a male heir. Henry, now self-proclaimed leader of the English Church, declared that their marriage had never been valid. This proclamation now made the great Queen Katherine little more than a mistress and her daughter, Mary, a bastard. To make matters more humiliating, Katherine’s replacement would be Anne Boleyn, her lady in waiting:  inferior in rank, education and every other way besides.

But it was done. How he could do this to a woman who had done so much for him is beyond comprehension, but Henry cast Katherine aside and took her daughter away from her. After all of the rejection and humiliation, she was exiled to an isolated home in the English countryside. She was offered better treatment and the ability to see her daughter Mary if only she would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as rightful Queen. But the truth and her dignity was more important to Katherine than her own comfort, and she never conceded her title and status as long as she lived. She died in banishment without any of her family. She had every reason to hate Henry and never wish to see or speak to him again. No one would have thought any less of her if it had been so. But, being a devout Catholic, Katherine chose to be “the bigger man” as it were and forgive him. This, her final letter to Henry, is witness to the nobility of her heart.

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 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 them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.

For a woman of such strong and bold character, this letter is surprisingly gentle. But all of the love, forgiveness and concern she expressed for Henry were lost on him. Both he and his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, were reported to have openly and callously celebrated her death and Henry would not give Katherine any funerary honors more than was due to a “Princess Dowager”, referring to her marriage to his brother Arthur.

It would have appeared that Katherine would be wronged forever. However, history has happily justified her. Although she was stripped of the title of Queen in life, in the 19th century, her grave was re-marked by the will of the people to read “Katharine, Queen of England” in golden letters. A historical jab if ever I heard one. And well-deserved. Katherine of Aragon was a pillar of strength and dignity. She was and is truly an inspirational figure of history. She was loved by her people and respected by all and is represented in books, plays and cinema almost always with grace and majesty. Even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell could not help but admire her, and said of her: “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Happy Birthday, Queen Katherine! You will be remembered forever.

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Katherine’s grave at Peterborough Cathedral adorned with pomegranates, a symbol of power and sovereignty

Featured picture: Calendar by Johannes von Gmunden, 1496