Did Arthur, Prince of Wales, consummate his marriage to Catherine of Aragon?

Tudor Tempest: Where do you stand?

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

As the discovery of the possible remains of Richard III in Leicester and the renewed debate over the last Yorkist king makes clear, much about the Tudor dynasty is controversial. But that also makes the family that ruled England from 1485 to 1603 pretty fascinating. Novelist Nancy Bilyeau–author of The Crown, a thriller set in 1537—and On The Tudor Trail have joined forces to present a series of questions hotly debated. Since Arthur Tudor, oldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born on September 20th, 1486, we will begin with:

Did Arthur, Prince of Wales, consummate his marriage to Catherine of Aragon?

Arthur Prince of Wales by unknown artist

The reason that this deeply personal question has been debated for five centuries is that Catherine’s second husband, Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII, based his history-changing quest for an annulment from Catherine on the “legality” of the first marriage. King Henry had no son to succeed him from his 18-year-long marriage to Catherine and said it was because he had broken God’s law in marrying his brother’s widow. Leviticus 18:16: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing, they shall be childless.” The pope provided a dispensation for Henry’s marriage in 1509, but later the king claimed that it was wrong to do so, and he sought from a succeeding pope a judgment that the marriage should be annulled, making Henry free to take a second wife. He of course had one in mind: the young Anne Boleyn, one of the queen’s ladies in waiting.

Catherine of Aragon by Michel Sittow

If a marriage is never consummated, it is not legally binding. In some religions, that is grounds for an annulment even today. And that is what Catherine said—her four-month-long marriage to fifteen-year-old Arthur was not consummated. An extremely pious woman she swore on the sacrament to a papal legate that it never happened. Henry VIII claimed differently. When the pope did not side with King Henry and grant him an annulment, he eventually broke from the Catholic Church so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.

What are the facts?

Catherine, 16, married Arthur on November 14, 1501. It was a diplomatic alliance, binding the new Tudor regime to the much more prestigious Spanish family of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The couple were put to bed together on their wedding night. At the time, the courts of England and Spain assumed that they had sexual relations. The recording herald: “And thus these worthy persons concluded and consummated the effect and complement of the sacrament of marriage.” It was decided that when Arthur resumed his residency in Ludlow Castle, in Wales, Catherine would accompany him and they would live as a married couple.

Tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales

Arthur died on April 2, 1502. The cause is debated, since it has implications on his abilities as a young husband. Was it a wasting disease like tuberculosis, or an infectious one like “sweating sickness”? What supports the second theory is that Catherine was very ill at the same time and took months to recover.

Shortly after it was determined that Catherine was not pregnant, Henry, then 10, was made heir to the throne. To maintain the alliance and also to retain Catherine’s large dowry, Henry VII went forward with plans to someday marry his second son to his first son’s widow. The Spanish lady who headed Catherine’s household, Dona Elvira, came forward to swear that the princess never had sex with Arthur. A papal dispensation was granted. King Ferdinand wrote in 1503: “It is well known in England that the princess is still a virgin.”

More than twenty years later, when Henry VIII was fighting for an annulment, this matter was hotly debated. “Witnesses” were called when the legality of the marriage was tried in court in England.

King Henry VIII

Henry’s Side:

At the famous Blackfriars trial in 1529, Arthur’s former body servant testified: “I made the said prince ready to bed and with others conducted him clad in his nightgown unto the princess’s bedchamber often and sundry times when he entered and then continued all night.”

Sir Anthony Willoughby testified that the morning after his wedding, Arthur emerged from Catherine’s bedchamber to say, “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.”

Catherine’s side:

The queen of England had said that Arthur shared her bed only seven nights in their marriage.  Instead of a lusty prince, her Spanish entourage described a sickly youth. Arthur is believed to have been born one month premature. Some historians say he was smaller than Catherine, and she was a petite woman.

A tribunal held in 1531 in Spain at the request of the Vatican’s appeal court heard other testimony. A Spanish attendant at the time said that “[Arthur’s] limbs were so weak that he had never seen a man whose legs and other bits of his body were so small.”

Another attendant testified: “Francisca de Caceras, who was in charge of dressing and undressing the queen and who she liked and confided in a lot, was looking sad and telling the other ladies that nothing had passed between Prince Arthur and his wife, which surprised everyone and made them laugh at him.”

And so the evidence goes, each side supporting a king or queen with sharply differing “eyewitness” accounts. Of course, Henry VIII got his divorce, although it was granted by authorities in England. But what was the truth of the marriage of Catherine and Arthur?

To learn more about Nancy Bilyeau’s historical thriller The Crown, go to www.nancybilyeau.com. Read my review here.

Did Arthur Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragaon consummate the marriage?
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  1. Lois Bateson says:

    No. I don’t believe Arthur and Katherine’s marriage was consumated. In the very short time they were married, Arthur was very ill and also very young. I’m sure at this point they thought that they had all the time in the world to consumate their marriage, but time was not on their side. Further, I don’t believe Katherine would have lied. She was a very pious and private woman, loyal to her then husband and I am sure you wanted to save him any embarassment from the court. In the later years when she was married to Henry VIII, I still believed her. Katherine provided Henry many heirs, unfortunately they all died except Mary. Even though Henry was “convinced” that it was God against him, I believe it was science and biology that betrayed him. He would have said or done anything to get his way. Sad………

  2. Michelle Roberts says:

    I also don’t believe that the marriage of Arthur and Catherine was consummated. I tend to believe that as a pious and religious person Catherine would not have lied; she would’ve been fearful of the repercussions.
    There was a time in the marriage of Henry and Catherine when he genuinely loved her; he was very protective of her despite their age difference. However, as a king who was not awarded an heir by his much older wife, he did what he thought was necessary. Although there is a tendency to believe that much of it had to do with his falling in love with Anne Boleyn, and I don’t wholeheartidly disagree with that assessment, he also needed a male heir for political reasons and would do whatever was necessary to make that happen, even if it meant lying.
    Unfortunately for Catherine this inability to provide a living male heir not only aroused but provoked Henry and his spin doctor’s superstitions on whether the marriage was truly blessed. By using the quote in Leviticus he sought divorce through the word of God, making his request for an annulment all the more feasible.

  3. I also agree that the marriage between Catherine and Arthur was not consummated; Henry’s failure to respond to Catherine’s comment during her Blackfriar’s speech, that “When ye had me at first, I take God to my judge, I was a true maid, without touch of man. And whether it be true or no, I put it to your conscience.” is, IMO, rather telling. Also, JJ Scarisbrick’s biography of Henry VIII shows that she had no motive to lie.
    According to Scarisbrick, the Church long recognized the “Deuteronomy exception” to the rule of Leviticus, such that when a marriage was childless (as was Catherine’s and Arthur’s), marriage to a brother of the deceased husband was obligatory. However, there was a defect in the dispensation, which only dissolved the impediment of affinity (which only existed if the marriage to Arthur was consummated), but did not dissolve the impediment of “public honesty” (which rested on the public wedding and Catherine and Arthur living and holding themselves out as husband and wife) … and would apply even if the marriage was not consummated.

  4. I’m more in agreement with David Starkey on this. I feel she may have lied, she was capable of lying, as she did to her father about her failed pregnancy. I am not saying that Arthur and Katherine were having sexual relations as regular as most newly wed youngsters, but I personally think there was on their wedding night, and a few times after maybe, Arthur knew it was his ‘duty’, as did Katherine, it seems to be agreed he wasn’t the fittest of young men, but was he as ‘weak’ as he is made out to be at the time of his wedding, would it not have been postponded if it was thought he was too ill to go through with what was expected of him, or send him off to live in a cold damp place as they did, he was the heir to the throne, his health issues would have been considered at all times, even though they had a ‘spare’.
    Katherine had been left in limbo after Arthur had died, living on her uppers and well below her status, how humiliated she must have felt. When the chance came to marry Henry she grabbed at it, and who could blame her. Being deeply religious does not make you infallible, therefore the need of the confessional. She would be fogiven for her sins. When her viginity came into question at a later date, she had much to forfeit, her position, and mostly her daughter being claimed a bastard, and unable to inherit the throne, she did not want to be the one to do that to Mary, she would leave that for Henry to try and do. Mothers will go to great lengths to protect their children, and this is what I think Katherine may have done, she would have spent the rest of her life seeking forgiveness if it saved Mary from that disgrace. Kathherine is said to have worn hair shirts for her sins…which sins were they? As for Henry I think he was not as knowledgable as he is thought to be in these matters, did he not have doubts on Anne Boleyns virginity at the end, Anne of Cleeves because of her body shape, and was shocked to tears when her found out Catherine Howard was not a virgin when he married her!!
    It could have been that he was so taken aback with Katherines sincere plea that for once in his life he was speechless…but he was hell bent on getting what he wanted, that is obvious.
    I cannot see Katherine of Aragon as this pious, perfect in all she said and did lady, just as I can’t see Anne Boleyn as a concubine and all things bad. They were both very clever women who suffered at the hands of one man in his quest for a son, which is more shocking than a few ‘fibs’ here and there. One thing is for sure we will never know the truth, but it is always a good topic for discussion. Great article Natalie.

    • I agree, Dawn… In my opinion, the marriage was consummated. There would have been gossip if it wasn’t. The couple didn’t have a private life, with all these people serving them. They would have noticed if there was no consummation.
      Furthermore, I know, like you, say that Katherine could certainly lie if it was necessary. She may also have thought that she did God’s work by lying, as she saw her being Queen of England as her destiny.
      You make an excellent point about Henry’s bad “virgin-dar”. If after many women, he couldn’t say if Katherine Howard was a virgin, imagine how confused he must have been as an inexperienced 18 year old!

    • Some great points Dawn that I have not considered before. Thanks for thought proviking.

    • First I want to address, the whole lying and being forgiven. When someone makes a mistake, in order for repentance to happen, you ask for forgiveness and stop sinning. Sin is never okay and as a Catholic, KOA would have understood this fact. To keep lying about the state of her marriage of her Arthur, would have been a mortal sin and would have endangered her soul. She can’t be truly repentant if she keeps doing the same thing over and over again. I for sure wouldn’t make assumptions about the hair shirts and for what reasons those may have been. And again, the dispensation covered if the marriage had been consummated, so don’t see why she needed to lie. There is no God’s work by lying, I’m sorry but that is 100% untrue. Sin is sin, and that doesn’t change no matter what the reason a person may have for doing so!

      And did you know that Maria (KOA’s elder sister) married with a dispensation Manuel I of Portugal who had been previously married and had a child with their eldest sister Isabel? Whose to say the Catholic Monarchs, upon discovering that the marriage had been consummated, wouldn’t have applied for a dispensation solely on the fact that it had been consummated?

      And because KOA wasn’t a saint, that means she was a liar? No, sorry, I don’t buy that line of reasoning. As for Henry, notice the pattern of him telling lies about his wives to get out of marriages. As for Blackfriars trial, well he wanted out the of the marriage badly and knows she was lying, and when the time comes, he is stupefied? Again, I don’t believe this, that was the time to denounce KOA as a liar and their marriage as invalid. I am going with the opinion, that he knew she was telling the truth, and that KOA’s first marriage wasn’t consummated.

      Also consider the fact, that KOA needed a dispensation for her marriage with Henry. She believed in the Pope’s authority, so if the marriage had been consummated, why would that defeat her case? Especially when the dispensation covered it? She believed in the Pope’s authority, and would have still saw her marriage as valid. To suggest that she though that her marriage would rendered invalid, means that she didn’t give credence to the Pope which wasn’t true at all!

    • Janis Gage says:

      It will be a mystery that will never be solved. Boastful young men talking about their conquests are a dime a dozen. I believe KOA was too pious to lie even if it meant her possible death.

  5. How timely that my interlibrary loan of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales: Life, Death and Commemoration just came in (hard to find that one without being at university) – will weigh in after I’ve read the evidence!

  6. There is also Dona Elvira, Katherine’s duanna to consider in this matter too. She was a strong minded woman who had had Katherine’s well being placed in her hands by her parents, and by all accounts seemed to have fiercely protected her.
    Apparently Katherine hung on her every word and was guided in all things by her. Elvira could have seen the ‘bigger picture’ here, more so than a naive 16 year old in a strange country, newly widowed. Maybe she had a leading hand in Katherine ‘fibbing’ about her virginity, seeing that another Prince could be on offer. It also seems that Dona Elvira was not a stranger to subterfuge or having her own agenda either, as eventually Katherine suffered betrayal through her duanna and she was sent back to Spain in disgrace…

  7. I believe that it was, but at 16 she didn’t quite understand what had happened and later might have been persuaded by Doña Elvira that it hadn’t. And then maybe her later experience with Henry was so different that it confirmed to her that her marriage to Arthur hadn’t been consummated. I mean, like Dawn pointed out, Henry was pretty bad at telling if women were experienced or not and this may have been why. From the off women had not been completely honest with him.

    Continuing with possibliliy that Catherine may have been clueless at the time of her first marriage. Which was possible, as we have the example of Anne of Cleves, who had to have the meaning of consummation explained to her to get the annulment Henry needed. And maybe others did use that fact and exploit it to protect Catherine, who believed that her experiences did not mean the marriage was consumated.

    I don’t like to think that Catherine was actively lying, but I do know it was a possibility she had proven she could after all. I like to think of her as being misguided.

  8. Maybe the marriage of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon was not consummated we will never know now. She did say it hadn’t because Arthur was young and sickly unfortunately. But the fact is that Henry V111 found a loop hole to rid himself of Katherine because she failed to produce a male heir that lived long enough to be crowned King. Poor Katherine I think was a loyal wife who suffered miscarriages and still births as did Anne Boleyn who I think was beheaded for something she did not do cheat on Henry V111. Henry was to me a man who would do anything to get his way even put to death his own wives. As soon as one wife was cast aside he found another within a short space of time. He married Jane Seymour days after Anne’s beheading I think I am right in saying.I think Henry had double standards he wanted his wives to be virgins but he had mistresses himself. Catherine Howard was thought to be a virgin but rumours were she had relations with men before Henry, but she was said to have had a lover during her marriage to Henry that is why she was also beheaded. The Duke of Norfolk Katherine Howard’s and Anne Boleyn’s uncle was the person who made the match between the women with Henry especially with young Katherine Howard he was most likely trying to advance his place in Henry’s court. There was so much sculduggery going on I would think you had to watch your back who was a friend and who wasn’t.

    • I think we just have to accept that in those days it was only natural for men like Henry not to be virgins (especially since he was the King and therefore the most desired man in the country!). There is no doubt about it – Catherine knew about Henry’s many mistresses, but then that was how life was for 15th Century women. While it is true that both Catherine and Anne did suffer many miscarriages and stillbirths, you simply cannot say that Anne Boleyn “was beheaded for something she did not do, cheat on Henry VIII” – like this issue of whether or not Catherine and Arthur’s marriage was consummated, and as you say yourself on the matter, we will never know if Anne was adulterous or not. However, she was convicted (although her trial was dramatically unfair) and there is evidence in her character that she may have been able to commit such acts. Nonetheless, I do agree that allegiances did change frequently in court, and so “watch[ing] your back” would have been highly necessary.

    • Rosamond Forbes says:

      The queens in those days where there only to give the King an heir. Henry V111 I think had some sort of genetic problem. Most of the male children all died either at birth or shortly after. His only son Edward only lived to be 15 or 16 years old. Henry V111 mostly likely had a sexual transmitted disease which could have been transmitted to his son. His daughters not Mary but Elizabeth lived quite old for those days. It is an irony I think that Henry’s quest for a male heir marrying so many times 6 in all and one of the most famous monarchs in English history was his daughter Elizabeth 1.

      • Henry having a sexually transmitted disease is now widely thought by many historians and those with medical knowledge to be very unlikely. The same conclusion has been reached with the idea that Henry bedded every women he could get his hands on. These are the typical views, misconceptions if you like, that have built up over the years about Henry being a rampant sex maniac…he enjoyed the ‘Art Of Courtly Love’ and was a tremendous flirt apparently…but no lothario
        There are a few books out there on the mistresses of Henry and you will be surprized how few he actually had. I have read Kelly Harts and The other Tudors by Philippa Jones. All the ladies he did sleep with came from good families, women who would not have made a habit of sleeping around, to relent to the King was considered an honour and beneficial to the Lady, and her family.
        He was also very health conscious, fearful of the illness, and had a good knowledge of medicine/potions of his time, so I feel he would not have put his own health at such a risk by bedding ladies of ill repute and dubious background.
        Though concerning the genetics of Henry might be a different thing. But miscarriage, stillbirth, infant mortality were very high then, it could be just that he was very unlucky in the baby department, much to his wives misfortune.
        Perhaps Katherine of Aragon had Gestational Diabetes, causes many problems, perhaps Henry had diabetes which affects the health of his sperm, and impotence at times….the list is endless really, and something I reckon we will never know the truth about. Fun speculating though :)

  9. I’m late to the party, but loved your piece. I believe it was consummated. Catherine had everything to gain by lying (the crown which she had strived for literally her entire life) and nothing by telling the truth (back to Spain as a widow, if not disgraced, then a burden to her family). Her entire identity was as much Queen of England as Infanta of Spain; the thought of *not* becoming queen must have been unthinkable. And we know she was perfectly capable of lying. Also, Ferdinand’s daughter? Yeah…she could be tricky when the spirit moved her. :-)

  10. I agree with you here, it is likely that her marriage to Arthur would have been consummated, in my opinion (of course, I cannot say for sure). Despite being a pious and reputedly sensible woman, Catherine would have had to have lied at some point in her life. After the death of Arthur at Ludlow, Catherine was effectively wrapped up in cotton wool (even though this wasn’t around yet!) in case she was pregnant with, potentially, the heir to the English throne. Yet she didn’t tell anyone that she was not, in fact, pregnant and therefore if they had never consummated their marriage, is this not a lie? If she was not lying and did believe that there was a possibility of her being pregnant, then this behaviour shows they did consummate their marriage. Yet to be able to marry Prince Henry later, she had to claim that Arthur never had sex with her and so her conduct after Arthur’s death could show that she was lying to Henry. Equally, she had to again push for her innocence upon Henry’s desire to annul their marriage so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, in order to ensure the position of her daughter, Princess Mary. If she had consummated her marriage, this was a lie, if it wasn’t then Catherine was simply the victim of Henry VII’s selfish desires.

    We will never know for sure, but I do feel that the likelihood of her having lied despite her devoutly religious front, suggests that she was willing to let the truth slip in some cases.

    • So Lucy, because Katherine was human and at one point may have lied, that means she was lying about Arthur?? That’s not really an argument to make. If you believe the marriage consummated, that’s fine. But I want to clarify some things, one it was protocol that after a royal husband’s death, the woman was checked to see if there was any pregnancy. Dona Elvira wrote to the Catholic Monarchs in 1502, saying that Katherine of Aragon was a virgin. At this time, from what I have read Katherine said nothing. So yes, if she was a virgin and she knew people were looking to see if she was pregnant, then she lied in that aspect. Another major point, is that the dispensation was originally granted upon the fact that the marriage had been consummated and then because the Catholic Monarchs protested, the word forsan (perhaps) was added to the clause. So, if the marriage was consummated, the dispensation covered it, though it wouldn’t be right if Katherine was telling lies about it obviously. And I want to address those who put forth arguments, such as Katherine lied to become Queen of England. I like to see the evidence for this, and not the usual “oh she was raised since she was three to become Queen of England” nonsense that I usually here. First of all, Catherine was 16 when she died, a young woman without the machiavellian machinations of her father and mother (though that later changed as evidences by her tenure as Ferdinand’s ambassador). Her parent’s were in charge of deciding her marriage, not Catherine, and it just so happens that the Catholic Monarchs wanted to preserve the English alliance (for political reasons). And the whole, she would have been sent home in disgrace is blatantly untrue and there isn’t any evidence to back that up. Why? Her elder sister, Isabella of Aragon, was in a similar predicament. She married the Prince of Portugal, he died after a short period and she returned home. She wasn’t in disgrace nor had she failed her parents. In fact, Isabella wanted to enter a nunnery, but her parents persuaded to marry King Manuel of Portugal years later. For some strange reason it seems people love to believe (against all evidence that shows otherwise) that Katherine apparently was this little Machiavellian schemer since she was three years old. Sorry, I don’t think so. Oh, and Lucy, regarding Henry’s whims, you have to wonder at his audacity, when he obtained a dispensation to Mary Anne, because he had slept with Mary Boleyn, which placed him in the same degree of affinity as his marriage to Catherine did.

    • I agree with Lucy I think the marriage was consummated. And just because someone is religious doesn’t mean they don’t lie. There are some religious people out there that have done some horrible things in the name of god

    • I agree with what you’re saying

  11. Brent Johnson says:

    According to http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/aragon.html “Katharine herself wrote to her father that she had no wish to remain in England but she would obey his decision.” Why would Katherine lie if she didn’t want to stay in England. Katherine was well educated and she promoted education, that’s why Erasmus praised her when he visited in 1514. Katherine preferred to hang out with scholars instead of with the royal “court” crowd. Several commentaries claim Katherine wanted to be queen very badly. How do they prove this? It is just possible that Katherine wanted to go back to her own country where she would be treated with respect, after all, it wasn’t her fault Arthur died. In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12 verse 20-22, Jesus was given a story of 7 brothers who each married the same woman after her husband (their brother) died. Jesus made no complaint about the marriages. First Corinthians 7:39 says “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” So Henry VII and Henry VIII and the Church were hopelessly chasing shadows. Katherine and Arthur were married whether they had sex or not. And Arthur was dead whether Katherine had children or not. Finally, Katherine was free to marry, whether the king or church leaders recognized that or not.

  12. Andrew Larkin says:

    No one seems to have noticed that when Henry Viii’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy ,whom he created the Duke of Richmond, was married at the age of 15 to Mary Howard, Henry forbade them to have sex until they were older. His reasoning was that he believed that Arthur’s early death was partly caused by the fact that he had too much sex as a young man !! This doesn’t fit with the image of Arthur being a sickly boy incapable of sex. If he was as keen on sex as Henry believed him to be, would he have not had marital sex with the fabulous Spanish Princess to whom he had just been married ??

  13. Henry VII should have put Katharine back on the first boat to Spanish territory right after Prince Arthur’s funeral. Then declaring publicly that his surviving son cannot marry his sister no matter WHAT she said, he could have set up a proxy marriage for Henry with: any princeses from the German speaking city states, or do the same with an Italian princess from the city states not controlled by Rome, married royal princesses from the Scandinavian countries or have been bold like his illustrious predecessor Henry V, whom right after beating France in a violent war, went to the defeated French King and his eligible daughter and sought and GOT her hand in marriage. There were war like tensions between the two countries, but they were not in direct war against each other as Henry V was in his time against France. Such a marriage without the hint of incest may have made Henry VIII more accepting of his female offspring if his marriage had produced such children; even HE knew that he couldn’t play God and demand a male heir; the norm would have been accept what was begotten to you by your lawful and before marriage virgin spouse!

    • Henry VII would never have ‘put her on the first boat back to Spanish territory” because by doing so he would have lost out on her dowry, which was substabtial. greedy bugger that he ws he would NEVER hve lost out on that.

  14. I think Katherine as some have said not known what being consummated was that is possibele I don’t think they taught princesses much sex education in those days young Prince Arthur boasted about it. Some people have said that she wouldn’t have lied but maybe she did it because she fancied prince Henry he was handsome and muscly when he was young. maybe she kept on denying it because she loved Henry and I think she would have done better to have given in to the kings demands he might have been a bit kinder to her and many people wouldn’t have died and maybe Anne wouldn’t have got such a big head
    also maybe Prince Henry was a better prospect than other potential suitors at the time

  15. Claire1964 says:

    Catherine and Arthur could have been naive about pregnancy. Remember that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette slept together without sex for seven years because neither of them knew the penis needs to penetrate the vagina. After a talk with her brother, pregnancy ensued. But they were clueless all those years.

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