The death of Catherine of Aragon

‘The most virtuous woman I have ever known and the highest hearted, but too quick to trust that others were like herself, and too slow to do a little ill that much good might come of it.’

(Eustace Chapuys describing Catherine of Aragon after her death)

Catherine of Aragon by Michael Sittow c. 1502

On the 13th December 1535, Chapuys wrote that Catherine of Aragon ‘has recovered and is now well’ (Tremlett, Pg. 417) but on the 29th December Dr Ortiz, Catherine’s doctor, sent an urgent message to Chapuys alerting him to the fact that she had ‘had a serious relapse’ and that he should immediately seek permission to visit Catherine at Kimbolton Castle.

This Chapuys did with great haste, seeking permission from Henry the very next day at Greenwich. Henry gave Chapuys permission to visit Catherine but he was not as generous with Mary, instead turning down her request to visit her mother on her deathbed (Tremlett, Pg. 418).

So, 50-year-old Catherine was forced to spend her final days without the support and company of her beloved daughter but she did receive a surprise visit from her loyal friend, Maria de Salinas. Salinas had gone to great lengths to be by her mistress’ side. She disguised herself and fabricated a story about having fallen off her horse and claimed to desperately need a place in which to recover. Tremlett describes how Salinas begged the men who were running the household to not throw her out into the cold and assured them that the letter licensing her to enter Kimbolton was on its way (Pg. 419).  The charade must have been convincing because the steward allowed Salinas to enter and she proceeded directly to Catherine’s chamber.

Chapuys arrived the following day. By this time Catherine was very ill, she had difficulty sitting up, hadn’t eaten or slept very much in days and complained of a terrible pain in her stomach. Although very good friends, Chapuys and Catherine conducted their meeting in the presence of several witnesses to ensure that Henry VIII could not claim that they had plotted against him even at this late stage.

Chapuys visited Catherine every afternoon for the following four days over which time Catherine’s health began to improve. She was now able to hold down her food and on the fourth day, Chapuys thought it safe to return to London (Tremlett, Pg. 421).

On the 6th of January all was well but that evening things took a turn for the worse. Catherine’s condition deteriorated and she knew her end was near. According to Giles Tremlett, Catherine’s famous last letter that she is said to have dictated to her husband from her deathbed ‘is almost certainly fictitious’ (Pg. 422). He does though concede that the letter may have reflected what she was feeling in the early hours of the 7th of January. This is what was penned:

My most dear Lord, King, and Husband, The hour of my death now approaching, I cannot choose but, out of the love I bear you, to advise you of your soul’s health, which you ought to prefer before all considerations of the world or flesh whatsoever. For which yet you have cast me into many calamities, and yourself into many troubles. But I forgive you all, and pray God to do so likewise. For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her. I must entreat you also to look after my maids, and give them in marriage, which is not much, they being but three, and to all my other servants, a year’s pay besides their due, lest otherwise they should be unprovided for until they find new employment. Lastly, I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone, May God protect you.

Death now had a firm grip on Catherine and the bishop of Llandaff administered extreme unction. Prayer had been Catherine’s companion all her life and now in her final moments it was her only consolation.

On the 7th January at approximately two o’clock, Catherine of Aragon, left all her worldly troubles behind. Henry’s Spanish Queen was no more and Henry’s court was left to celebrate.

Eric Ives claims that the news of Catherine’s death was greeted at court ‘by an outburst of relief and enthusiasm for the Boleyn marriage’ (Pg. 295). This seems very plausible considering that their great enemy was now dead and that Queen Anne Boleyn was pregnant with the heir to the Tudor throne.

At hearing the news of his first wife’s death, Henry cried, ‘God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war!’ (Ives, Pg. 295). Anne was overjoyed and rewarded the messenger who brought the news to Greenwich a ‘handsome present’ – for the first time in her reign; Anne was now the one and only Queen of England.

Ives describes the events of the day after Catherine’s death in his biography ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’,

“The next day, Sunday, the king and queen appeared in joyful yellow from top to toe, and Elizabeth was triumphantly paraded to church. After dinner Henry went down into the Great Hall, where the ladies of the court were dancing, with his sixteen-month-old daughter in his arms, showing her off to one and another. After several days of such paternal enthusiasm, he evidently decided that something more masculine was called for, and the tiltyard was soon busy with his favourite form of self-exhibition.” (Pg. 295)

Although Alison Weir initially claimed that Henry and Anne wore yellow ‘as a mark of respect for the woman that Henry insisted had been his sister-in-law’ as yellow was the colour of royal mourning in Spain (Pg. 299), after further research, Alison found the claim to be unsubstantiated and corrected this error in The Lady in the Tower . Here she plainly states,

‘It is a misconception that yellow was the colour of Spanish Royal mourning: Anne’s choice of garb was no less than a calculated insult to the memory of the woman she had supplanted.’ (Pg. 18)

Although the court seemed happy and relieved at the news of Catherine’s death, not everybody was celebrating. Chapuys was greatly mourning Catherine’s passing and some people even suspected that she had been poisoned, on Henry’s orders, although this seems highly unlikely and in one historians words ‘ludicrous’.

Antonia Fraser argues that Henry was aware that Catherine was gravely ill and that ‘God was likely to carry off Catherine soon enough without extra help’, she also states that Henry VIII regarded poison ‘with moral repugnance’ and preferred to punish those that went against his authority in public using other weapons (i.e. Axe and rope) rather than using poison in secret (Pg. 228).

In Tremlett’s biography, ‘Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen’, he states that she almost certainly died of cancer (Pg. 424). The embalmer whose job it was to prepare Catherine’s corpse ‘found all the internal organs as healthy and normal as possible, with the exception of the heart, which was quite black and hideous to look at’ (Pg. 424). Tremlett describes how the embalmer cut Catherine’s heart in half and washed it in an attempt to cleanse the heart of its black appearance. He also commented on another ‘strange black body’ attached to it that Tremlett believes was caused by a ‘secondary melanotic sarcoma’ (Pg. 424).

The fact remained that although not everybody was rejoicing at Catherine’s passing, her death failed to produce any rebellion against Henry.

Catherine of Aragon's tomb at Peterborough Cathedral

Catherine was buried at Peterborough Abbey, later cathedral, on 29th January and was given a funeral ceremony befitting her position as ‘dowager princess’.

Alison Weir describes the funeral in The Six Wives of Henry VIII:

“The Chief mourners were lady Bedingfield, the young Duchess of Suffolk and the Countess of Cumberland, Eleanor Brandon, the king’s niece…The funeral sermon was preached by John Hilsey, who had replaced Fisher as Bishop of Rochester; he was a staunch King’s man, and alleged, against all truth, that Katherine had acknowledged at the end that she had never been the rightful Queen of England. Then the woman who had in reality stoutly maintained to the last that she had been the King’s wife was buried as Dowager Princess of Wales in the abbey church.” (Pg. 300)

Henry VIII did not attend the funeral and instead remained at Greenwich where he wore ‘black mourning clothes and attended a solemn mass’ (Weir, Pg. 300). Henry VIII also refused to allow Mary to attend her mother’s funeral. He had denied her leave to visit her mother on her deathbed and he now deprived her of this final moment.

Chapuys chose not to attend, as they were not burying Catherine as Queen.

It seems though that Catherine had the last laugh because on the very day of her burial, Queen Anne Boleyn miscarried of her saviour.

Catherine of Aragon's badge

Today a wooden plaque on Catherine’s tomb describes her as: ‘A queen cherished by the English people for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion’.

Catherine of Aragon always- Humble and Loyal.

(Read about Anne Boleyn’s Reaction to Catherine of Aragon’s Death)

References

Fraser, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1992.

Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004.

Tremlett, G. Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen, 2010.

Weir, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2007.

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Comments

  1. I have always felt sorry for Catherine of Aragon–what a sad life–dying alone and unloved by one’s husband, unable to say goodbye to one’s only child–Henry could be cruel and cold. Yet, for me, she has never held the fascination of Anne Boleyn. THanks for a great article.

    • Thank you Anne, I am glad you enjoyed the post. Catherine is a fascinating woman but, like you, Anne has always intrigued me and captured my imagination more than any of Henry’s other wives.

      • Gabriel Porras says:

        Ana Bolena era una cortesana. Nada que ver con la educada y culta hija de los reyes Isabel y Fernando.
        Catalina supo mantener su dignidad, su ejemplo y sus valores hasta su muerte.
        Creo que los ingleses deberían estar orgullosos de contar entre sus reinas con esta española ejemplar que fue, además, tan amada por el pueblo.

  2. *sigh.*

  3. Lyn-Marie says:

    A very good and well researched article. However, many authors misread the evidence on whether or not both Henry and Anne wore yellow and what was meant by Henry’s alleged and I stress alleged remarks that now he thanked God that he was delivered by the threat of war with the Emperor. The sources actually tell us that only Anne Boleyn wore yellow and that she alone revelled in the death of her rival. Henry, was devastated and the sources tell us that he in fact ordered the court into mourning and that he himself wore mourning and heard mass for her soul. He was relieved that the threat of war was over and he may even have renewed his relationship with Charles, but he still courted France, until well after the death of Anne Boleyn. The sources also tell us that he sent several representatives to her funeral as above, her niece, Eleanor and her godchild, Katherine, as the official mourners and his representatives. It is also known that he wept over her last letter. It is now likely that he danced around in yellow. He may have worn yellow some time later when they had celebrations at the end of January and the fatal joust in which Henry was unconscious for 2 hours after a fall, and that led to the loss of Anne’s son, but this was nothing to do with Katherine’s death; it was to welcome a new ambassador to court. The joust and the celebrations had already been planned and went ahead as usual, and this is misunderstood as celebrating the death of Queen Katherine. Anne may have celebrated in yellow: Henry, it is certain that he did not, but mourned her as was fitting her status.

  4. Magdalena says:

    It is very sad that Katerine died alone and without Mary. I don’t like her, but her history was misery.

  5. Cristiane Melo says:

    I was very impressed with this article! Very curious! It’s great to know more details like these. By reading this article I felt like I was living at that time! Great post, congratulations!

    Hugs from Brazil!

  6. I feel great sympathy for Catherine. She arrived in this country very young, almost alone, not knowing the English language or people and a suffered a very difficult first short marriage. She was then faithful to Henry for over 20 years despite suffering greatly from intrigue, miscarriages, separation from Mary and her friends as her status plummeted. In the end she died virtually alone, not being allowed even a visit from her daughter. She may not have been the most exciting of Henry’s queens, but I feel she is the most interesting and worthy of great respect and pity.

  7. BanditQueen says:

    We are coming up in a few days to the commemoration of the death of Queen Catherine of Aragon and again a very beautiful article. I have just been notified of a new post which shows that this lady is still of interest to people. Her tomb is actually a very private and quiet part of the Cathedral in Peterborough and was of course part of the original monastic buildings. The commemorative plaque, placed of course by the Victorians gives her, her proper title Katherine the Queen, as signed in her last letter to King Henry VIII. The early years of her faithful marriage to Henry were both joyful as he treated her as a Queen and companion, and very sad. Today we would mourn and be sad if anyone suffered one or two miscarriages and hope that a medical reason was found. Katherine and Henry suffered seven or more failed pregnancies. They even suffered the cot death of their two month old heir in their second year of marriage. We do not always think of this when studying the life of Henry and Catherine: history is so clinical, but this couple had a very sad life together. I do not care what anyone says: both Catherine and Henry cannot have failed to have been devastated at the loss of their children: so much more reason for them to cherish Mary. Mary was cherished for the first seven or eight years of her life, but then into the mix comes Anne and Henry suddenly has issue with his marriage.

    Catherine is a lady that I deeply admire and was overwhelmed when I visited her grave two summers ago. The royal arms of England and Spain fly at either side, but it is a simple monument. Her life is told in beautifully illustrated boards to one side and a plaque from Spain shows devotion to the lady. Flowers, cards and candles were present when I was there. It was lovely to see that someone takes the trouble to care for her grave and people honour her. She was 15? when she came to England, handed over in a tent when she was examined in the middle of the night by her father in law, was alone save for a few female and male retainers and did not speak English. Of course after 4 years she taught herself one of the most difficult languages in the world and was married to a boy the same age, who was dead a few months later. She spent the next seven years of so wondering what will happen and Henry VII refused her dowry payments. It is only with the marriage to Henry VIII that it seems that her new life has begun and for a time it must have indeed seemed that way. But things were not to work out and Catherine became isolated and forced into a different household and even to defend her honour and her marriage before a court of law. She must have felt insulted and again alone. Who could she trust at this time? Anyone who wanted to support her either had to put caution to the wind or were too afraid of Henry to do so. She then found herself separated from her friends, her supporters, her main household and her daughter, her only child. Finally, she was banished and lived her last years in relative poor health and discomfort.

    Her only real friends: Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Fisher were imprisoned and executed, her daughter was bullied by her rival Anne Boleyn, and it was only due to extreme bravery that Maria Salinas was allowed to stay at her side at the end. I have heard somewhere that Maria when she died a few years later had herself placed in her mistresses tomb: and that when the tomb was opened two female skeletons were found inside. I do not know the source for this or if it is true, but I read it long ago in a very old book. The book was about her godchild: the young Katherine, fourth Duchess of Suffolk, Maria’s only child.

    I have also read that not only did Henry mourn her in public but that her last letter actually moved him to tears. Was he actually still in love with the woman that he had treated so cruelly? Henry was a very emotional being, so it is not something I can dismiss. He even accused Anne of plotting to poison both Mary and Katherine, although he did little to prevent it. Was he caught emotionally between two women and his daughter? Did Henry VIII actually know what he wanted other than a son at all costs or did he not even care? I am no analyst but a modern therapist would have a field day with the great monarch. They would probably have one with Anne Boleyn as well!

    Even Cromwell admitted that he admired Queen Catherine and he despised Anne Boleyn and he was meant to be her enemy. His problem was he was too fond of his own skin and too busy doing what pleased the King an his own agenda to actually do anything to relieve Catherine’s suffering. She had supporters in the court but they were put down one by one by King Henry and in the end they fell silent. A great lady who deserved so much more from her life.

    One footnote: an eerie one! It is said that on the morning of the execution of Anne Boleyn that the candles at the tomb of Katherine of Aragon lit themselves, and this was taken as a sign that she gave her approval to Henry’s ending of his second marriage and his second Queen. Now I do not believe in ghosts; but……

    Cheers and Happy New Year

    • I’m grateful for any information on Catherine of Aragon and especially about her goddaughters, especially if they were named Catherine. Can you tell me the title of the book about Maria de Salinas’ daughter, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk and goddaughter of Catherine of Aragon?

      • BanditQueen says:

        Hi June,

        Thanks for your email. I have two books but the one with most detail and I think mentions this strange burial and find is quite old: A Woman of the Tudor Age (sorry, have packed it away so do not have author) and the other is My Lady of Suffolk which is about 20 years old, and there is one coming out in 2014 I think by a recent author called Kelly Hart who wrote a book last year about the wives and mistresses of Henry VIII called The Other Tudors, and then had a baby so the new one was delayed. It will be called The Seventh Wife as she thinks that Henry intended to marry Catherine Brandon after Suffolk’s death as he found her very attractive and his sixth wife was nagging him. It was suggested by the Netherlands Ambassador at the time that he had an eye for young Catherine. As she was just as far gone in what was then called the New Learning: the Protestant Faith as Catherine Parr, her friend and mistress; and later in Edward’s reign became something of a zealot: she probably would have nagged him as well, but you never know. Another book about the family of Catherine Brandon is the new, but expensive book Berties of Grimsthorpe: Bertie being the last name of her husband after Charles Brandon. There is also an old book by Mary Luke about Catherine of Aragon, as well as several published from 1955 onwards all that are very good. I got the old ones from second hand bookstores and Alibris or Abe on the net: and Amazon market place sometimes have copies. You may be also to get from a reference library or very old library. I doubt they are on digital readers, but anyhow I love old books and the feel and smell is not the same on a flat screen. Hope you have luck with them. There is also a good fiction book called Nonsuch that tells the story as well, and the books by Plaidy about Katherine of Aragon are brilliant and still in print. Hope this helps. Cheers

  8. Chris C says:

    “On the 7th January at approximately two o’clock, Catherine of Aragon, left all her worldly troubles behind.”
    It is my dearest hope that there is a heaven. People like her deserve it.

    • Gabriel Porras says:

      Estoy muy de acuerdo con usted. Gracias por sus palabras hacia mi compatriota Doña Catalina de Aragón. mujer culta, instruida, extremamente educada y fiel a su familia y a su esposo el rey inglés.

  9. Laura Jane Seagrave says:

    A clever, stubborn, resilient and brave woman who suffered much sadness and indignity in her eventful life. She deserves great sympathy for having to endure uncertainty after the death of Arthur, so many tragic pregnancies, then the humiliation of Henry’s ingratitude and obsession with Anne and the provision of a male heir for England. Henry treated her cruelly and her last few years must have been truly miserable, not least being deprived of the comfort of her daughter in her last days. She should be remembered with respect and admiration.

  10. Does anyone know a good biography of Catherine or of Mary I? I am really interested in their stories and I want to find a modern biography with correct historical details. May both Catherine and Mary RIP

  11. I have loved Catherine of Aragon. There is a book by Giles Tremlett, wonderful book about her life. I also would love to more know about Anne of Cleves. So little is talked about these two women. Perhaps due to the fact they were one of 4 queens who kept their heads.

  12. HI, Thank you for this piece on Catherine of Aragon. I am a 1st cousin 17x removed to Catherine Parr, my 17th Great grandmother was her grandmother, but I am fascinated with Catherine of Aragon. I am reading the book The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII Catherine of Aragon right now, the book is fantastic. I think it is such a terrible shame, that this woman who loved her husband was treated as she was, and to deny her and her child to be together on her death bed saddens me.

    There is a book of the memoirs of Eustace Chapuys which I will get next. Keep up the good work 🙂

    • S E Roberts says:

      Nicole, in view of your ancestry, do you know what became of Catherine Part and Thomas Seymour’s child ?

  13. k chaveli says:

    I believe the child of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour (a daughter) died soon after
    but this is only remembered from reading and I stand to be corrected

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