Heritage & Culture

Katharine of Aragon Festival 2021: Game of Queens

Each year, Peterborough Cathedral’s Katharine of Aragon Festival commemorates 29 January 1536, when Henry VIII's first wife was buried at Peterborough Cathedral after her death in exile at Kimbolton Castle. She lies there to this day. This year, the Cathedral around her has fallen silent – but the Festival goes on… Moment editor Toby Venables talks to writer and historian Sarah Gristwood, author of Game of Queens, who will be delivering the keynote talk on the anniversary day.

First of all, tell us what you’ll be bringing to the Festival…
Every year, someone speaks about some aspect of Katharine of Aragon’s life, and I’m talking about Katharine’s continental connections – the Spanish connections and the Habsburg family, which were hugely important in her life and in her identity – perhaps more than many people realise. The recent TV series about her, The Spanish Princess – historical accuracy aside – has at least got people interested in her story before Henry VIII. And I think we tend to forget that a bit, because what we see in this country is Katharine as Henry VIII’s first queen; in the divorced, beheaded, died ditty she’s the first divorced one. But I think we need to recover Katharine of Aragon as a player, both politically and personally, and the heritage she brought with her from Europe is a huge part of that.

As you say, everyone knows she was one of the Six Wives of Henry VIII, but what we don’t really see is the reason why she became that in the first place.
Yes! She came here – and we tend to forget this bit too – as this glamorous, beautiful young Spanish princess, not with the dark hair that she’s always given on screen, but this very charming sort of strawberry blonde. And, obviously, she came – as princesses did – to cement an international alliance. This was very often a problem for them, and it was for Katharine, because she came here not to marry Henry VIII, but to marry his older brother, Prince Arthur, who, however, died very young – within a few months of their marriage. And, of course, decades later, marriage to Arthur would come up again, because those were the grounds on which Henry tried to annul his marriage to her. So, she came to cement this alliance, and had a bit of a problematic dual role. In a way, Katharine came here with a job to do, and that job, she felt – at least at first – was partly to represent Spain’s interests. At one point, she even got credentialed as her father Ferdinand’s ambassador at the court of Henry VII, and when Henry VII died and Henry VIII inherited the throne and married Katharine, she was very much the voice of a pro-Spanish or pro-Habsburg policy, as opposed to a pro-French policy, and that could leave her a bit vulnerable to political shifts.

Elizabeth I aside, many people tend to regard medieval and Tudor queens as just being on the sidelines while the kings did all the ruling…
No, people are absolutely wrong to think that! At one point early in Henry VIII’s reign, when there was the question of England going to war in alliance with Katharine’s relatives, an ambassador wrote that the English Council was against war but the queen was for it, and no one can stand against the queen. Then, when Henry VIII went to war, Katharine was left as regent – at a time when war with Scotland was looming on England’s northern border. Because, at the Battle of Flodden, Scotland was defeated so decisively, Katharine didn’t have to do what she planned, but three armies were being readied to combat the Scots and Katharine herself – although she was probably pregnant at the time – was all set up to lead one of them. Her mother, Isabella of Castile, had been a warrior queen.

Tell me a bit about that family background…
Well, Katharine was the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the two joint monarchs of most of Spain. Isabella of Castile, a very strong woman who’d actually managed to seize her throne in the teeth of some opposition, had arranged her own marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon. So, the alliance of those two made a really powerful block – and they were joint monarchs, which, of course, was terribly unusual. So, Katharine had grown up as the daughter of a woman who expected to run her own kingdom. And I think that’s probably very, very important in her attitude. That’s why she always believed that her daughter, Mary – the young Mary Tudor – would be able to rule England, even though Henry was a lot less sure.

Last year we interviewed Leslie Smith from Tutbury Castle, who mentioned that there had been madness in Katharine’s family…
Katharine had several sisters, and one of them – Juana – was indeed known as ‘Juana the Mad’. She inherited Castile from her mother, Isabella, and, OK, let’s admit that her behaviour was a little peculiar, certainly by modern standards! When her husband, Philip the Handsome, died abruptly, there were stories that Juana would not let his body be buried, that she insisted on keeping it by her. But… there was some power play going on behind the scenes here. Neither Juana’s husband while he was alive, nor her father Ferdinand, nor her son, Charles – later Charles V – wanted her to be the one running Castile and wielding all that power. So, while Juana’s behaviour was undoubtedly obsessive (she both loved and hated her husband Philip, this handsome philanderer) there were also people who had a pretty powerful vested interest in having her declared unfit to rule. So, we need to look at that a little bit carefully. In fact, Katharine and Juana’s sister-in-law – a woman who we know as Margaret of Austria – behaved in a not dissimilar way when her last husband died. But guess what? No one said Margaret was mad! Indeed, she went on to be the regent of the Netherlands, and was a really powerful and dominant force in European politics – and was the woman who found divorce lawyers for Katherine when the time of the trial of her marriage to Henry came.

Photo: Matthew Roberts

Of course, attitudes to death were quite different then – there was hardly a church at the time that didn’t have some saint’s body parts on display. Is there always a slight danger of trying to impose 21st century attitudes on the past?
It’s a complicated one… Because there are almost layers of danger. There is always a danger of looking back on the past through the attitudes of the present, and I think the thing that catches us is some of the religious inspired behaviour of the 16th century. What seems utterly appalling to us – like religious persecution – seemed very different then. But on the other hand, it can go the other way. Our view of the women who exercised power in the 16th century can often have been coloured by the perceptions of them over the centuries, and particularly the perceptions of what was written in the Victorian age and in the earlier 20th century – ages which weren’t very keen on women in power. There is very often a rather dismissive attitude. And then again, all our attitudes inevitably get coloured by things like film and television. Most of us grew up on images of Henry VIII and his six wives – and more recently films about Anne Boleyn – which tend to cast Katharine in opposition to Anne, as this figure who is doughty, formidable and who was much wronged, but also someone you wouldn’t really want to spend time with. What’s worked traditionally for film and TV is to see Anne as this immensely glamorous, charismatic figure – which she was – but the result is that Katharine gets cast as this kind of middle-aged old frump, which is deeply unfair to a very forceful and complex woman.

It seems the crux of the problem is that we rarely, if ever, see Katharine at her peak…
Absolutely right. Because our interest in Katharine mostly centres around her divorce or annulment in the Blackfriars trial of her marriage, and her conflicts with Anne, we only see her in what was effectively the last period of her life. As you say, we don’t see her at her peak in her young womanhood as Henry’s adored and enormously influential queen.

How much of a sense do we have of their feelings for each other?
I’m currently finishing my next book, which is called Tudors in Love, but actually follows the story of courtly love from the 12th century, which I think massively coloured the feelings, actions and the self-image of the Tudor dynasty. And we actually do have a lot of written evidence in the early years of Henry VIII’s reign for the passion that he and Katharine felt for each other. Ambassador after ambassador was writing that they were the perfect couple, and that the love the king felt for the queen was absolutely incredible. After all, he came to the throne as this innocent, golden, young god and she was this glamorous, intelligent, cultivated woman of 23 and they did have this huge love affair. Henry kind of swooped in when his father died and rescued Katharine, because she had this enormously difficult period between the death of her short-lived first husband, Arthur, and her marriage to Henry VIII. She was writing home that her household hardly even had enough money for food. And then, suddenly, the minute he comes to the throne, Henry declares he wants to marry her. For her, it must really have felt like coming from this dank, dark, prison into wonderful springtime – eternal May. The question then, of course, is how and when it started to go wrong. We all know the main problem – the fact that Henry and Katharine didn’t have a son. Of course, the attitudes of the day were always inclined to blame the woman. And then, my own feeling is that the very strength of Henry’s original feelings for Katharine – the way he leant on her as his advisor, as well as his wife – almost fueled his hostility, so that when he turned against her, he turned more vicious for the fact that he had once been so influenced by her, and so in love with her.

What do you think ultimately sealed Katharine’s fate?
There are three possible elements in the breakup of Henry and Katharine’s marriage. The one we all know about – the big one – is the lack of a male heir. There are also possibly political elements; Katharine did very strongly represent a kind of Spanish imperial foreign policy, and when that began to look a lot less appropriate for England, that made her position more fragile, perhaps. But then there is the question of Henry’s passion. And in a sense, it’s always going to be a sort of juggling act with those three balls in the air. Even contemporaries were juggling the question of exactly what was going on. Politically, Henry did want to get more autonomy over his country, and he wasn’t the only ruler to be nibbling away at the question of the Pope’s authority in their land. So, it came to be a bit of a perfect storm, really.

Your book, Game of Queens, looks at the lives of powerful women of the 16th century – of whom there were quite a few. How did that book come about?
Katharine, her mother Isabella, and her daughter Mary, were a huge part of how it came about. I began looking at the question of some of the women in the 16th century, and particularly the fact that, as Europe came to be divided along religious lines, very often there were women at the forefront of the debate. In England, of course, there was Mary Tudor versus Elizabeth Tudor, and then Elizabeth Tudor versus Mary Stuart. But I began looking back. When I thought about the whole question of women in power in 16th century Europe, what struck me was how very often there were these lines of power, and information about how to use power being passed from mother to daughter. So, I’d seen one line of inheritance going from Isabella to Katharine and on to Mary. Sometimes it was a bloodline. Sometimes it was a line of influence, because, weirdly enough, Margaret of Austria, who helped Katharine find lawyers to defend her marriage, had also helped to raise Anne Boleyn. She had been sent to Margaret’s court before she went to the French court. So there really are women or girls learning from the ones who had come before, whether a mother or her mentor figure. And you really could see this going on down the century – a kind of female family tree, if you like. A female network.

Without any doubt the Tudor period is the most written about, and the most read about historical period. Why do you think that is? Is it just because we have more written records from that time, or is it also that there are these prominent women, and the period has a particular appeal for women?
It is one of the great questions, in a way, why we are all quite as fascinated by the Tudors as we are. Yes, there are numerous dramatic events, and enormously fractious, and violent marriages. But heaven knows that had happened earlier in English history – and indeed in the history of every other country. But I think there are a few things going on there. One is that the Tudors are the first dynasty for whom we have quite so much information about people’s feelings. I wrote a book about the women behind the Wars of the Roses, Blood Sisters. Amazing stories, but we tend to have very little information about their feelings. That really kicks in with the Tudors. But also, yes, I think the fact that women were so important in the Tudor story – and the story of the 16th century – give a lot of us, now, a special feeling for that era.

Finally, you’ve written many historical books, but I know you started out as a journalist, interviewing and writing on film. How did that lead into the historical work?
I began with just one book, called Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, about Arbella Stuart, who was expected by many in her day to inherit from Elizabeth. And Arbella had this dramatic and tragic life. As a child, many did say that Arbella would be the next queen. As Elizabeth was dying, she made a bid for the throne of herself, which failed, and she wound up under her cousin James, making an illicit marriage, fleeing abroad disguised as a man, and finally dying in the Tower, possibly insane. But she also left some amazing letters. And that ties in really with what we were saying earlier about how this era is the first for which we have such good sources. Arbella left letters where she was pouring out her feelings for page after page. So, I began with that story. But I did actually find that the skills that serve you as a journalist are also, in many ways, the ones that are useful to you in writing history, partly sheer writer’s skills, but also, perhaps, the skeptical attitude that suggests you look for evidence of what people actually do, rather than just what they say. In many ways, the kind of critical attitude of the journalist is also vital for the historian.


The Spanish Queen: Katharine of Aragon and her Continental Family
A talk by Sarah Gristwood

Fri 29 Jan, 7.30pm; Sat 30 Jan, 4.00pm Online (Zoom)

Sarah Gristwood, author of Game of Queens, explores the pressures and powers at work in Katharine’s family, not just through her mother Isabella of Castille but also in the light of the times in which she lived, when large parts Europe were under a reigning queen or female regent. Sarah’s talk will examine how Katharine’s fierce loyalty to Spain during her early years in England changed during marriage to Henry into a strong allegiance to the English cause, switching back after the annulment to renew old loyalties to her powerful European relatives.

Tickets: £5 per person. Pre-booking essential. Approx. 45-50 mins.

NB The Fri 29th talk is now SOLD OUT. Tickets for Sat still available, but hurry! For the latest details, visit: https://www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk/katharine.aspx

Game of Queens is published by Oneworld Publications. Find out more about Sarah Gristwood by visiting: sarahgristwood.com

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