History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 March 2009

Did they or didn't they? The brief marriage of Katherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales

“Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.”

~Arthur, Prince of Wales, to his steward on the morning of November 15, 1501.

“. . . as intact and uncorrupt as when [she] emerged from [her] mother’s womb.”
~Katherine of Aragon’s assertion regarding the non-consummation of her marriage to Arthur

After two years of negotiations, by the treaty of Medina del Campo, ratified by Henry VII on September 23, 1490, his four-year-old son Arthur, the Prince of Wales and heir to England’s throne (1486-1502) was contracted in marriage to Catalina, or Katherine (1485-1536), the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536)

Finally, on May 14, 1499, Arthur married Katherine by proxy at Tickhill Manor. But further international wrangling over Katherine’s dowry delayed her departure for England, and she did not arrive there until October 2, 1501.

On November 14, Katherine and Arthur, clad all in white, were united at St. Paul’s Cathedral in a three-hour ceremony, which followed the reading of the appropriate papal dispensations and the formal terms of the marriage, as well as the exchange of the first installment of Katherine’s dowry.

A raised, six-hundred-foot runway, covered in red cloth trimmed with gilt nails had been erected from the west doors of the church all the way to the chancel, where the nuptial mass was conducted on a raised stage. The musicians were stationed in the soaring vaults, which gave the illusion that their resounding melodies emanated from on high.

The bride was considered a beauty, blessed with abundant auburn hair, gray eyes, dainty hands and feet, and the damasked pink-and-white complexion that was so prized in England. But the English had never seen an ensemble quite like her wedding attire. With her skirts stretched over her Spanish farthingale—a horizontal cage tied about her hips—Katherine resembled a ship of state as she sailed along the walkway, high above the crowd. Her white silk veil, or mantilla, fluttered to her waist, weighed down by a jeweled border two fingers’ wide.

Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502)

Outside the cathedral the wine flowed freely from a conduit—royal largesse to the cheering throngs—as the bells of London pealed. After the ceremony the teenage newlyweds, “both lusty and amorous,” were conveyed to Baynard’s castle in a grand procession where a sumptuous feast awaited them, as did a public, though strictly ceremonial, bridal bed.

Preparing the actual bed of state was a production number involving several participants who were honored to get the assignment, including the yeoman of the guard whose job it was to roll “up and down” the litter of straw that formed the bed’s base layer. This brave soul was not merely matting the rushes; he was searching for hidden weapons.

After what amounted to a stag night, replete with bawdy songs to get the groom in the proper frame of mind to perform his conjugal duty, Arthur was escorted to the great bed where Katherine was already waiting for him. The bishops blessed the couple and wished them many years of fruitful life together, then departed and left the newlywed teens to nature.

Or not—depending on whom you asked. And depending on the circumstances in which you asked and how many days, weeks, or years it was from the wedding night itself.

Arthur’s steward recalled his fifteen-year-old master boasting of his sexual prowess on the morning after the wedding night, “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.” Other witnesses heard this remark as well as Arthur’s exhortation, “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.” It could have been no more than macho swagger—but why? Those who saw the young couple together noticed a genuine attraction between them.

And Katherine had a rock-solid sense of duty. Her marriage negotiations had been long in the making; now that she was wed to the future king of England, her job was only half-accomplished. To permanently cement Spain’s alliance with England and fulfill her parents’ diplomatic aims, she had to get pregnant and deliver an heir. Katherine spent the day after the wedding in solitude, receiving only the king’s messenger who delivered the sovereign’s heartiest felicitations—on the consummation of the union, one assumes. And the following day, she went to St. Paul’s to see her husband and father-in-law give thanks to God “that so prosperously His Goodness had suffered everything of this laudable [marriage] to be brought to its most laudable conclusion [the getting of children].” True, she could have just been playing along, knowing it was expected of her, and if there had been a problem in the bedroom she dared not disclose a word of it.

Katherine’s duenna Doña Elvira, a woman with her own political agenda, insisted—and Katherine reiterated as much years later—that the conjugal visits remained chaste. However, it’s also possible that everything went just fine in the boudoir. William Thomas, Arthur’s Groom of the Privy Chamber and one of his most intimate body servants, was in charge of preparing the prince for his visits to the marriage bed. Thomas “made [Arthur] ready to bed . . . and conducted him clad in his night gown unto the Princess’s bedchamber door often and sundry times . . . and that at the morning he received him at the said doors . . . and waited upon him to his own privy chamber.”

And at the end of November Arthur wrote to his in-laws, informing them that “he had never felt such joy in his life as when he beheld the sweet face of his bride. No woman in the world could be more agreeable to him. [He] promises to be a good husband.”

Yet the royal wedding still didn’t mean that all was settled between Spain and England. Initially, Henry had not been keen to have the young couple set up their household and assume full marital relations. Doña Elvira, Katherine’s duenna, agreed with him. But for Katherine, who had inherited her mother’s iron will, time was of the essence and it was she who had managed to change the king’s mind. Additionally, Katherine’s tutor and confessor Alessandro Geraldini persuaded Henry that “on no condition in the world should [he] separate them, but send her with her husband.” Otherwise, Isabella and Ferdinand would be highly displeased and Katherine herself “would be in despair.” So Arthur and Katherine set off for Ludlow, arriving on December 21, 1501.

In the spring of 1502 Arthur became ill, his ailment described by a herald as “the most pitiful disease and sickness that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven, in the singular parts of him inward, [so] that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish and overcome the pure and friendful blood.” Many modern historians believe that the herald refers to the Sweating Sickness that was sweeping the West Country, or else to a bronchial or pulmonary infection, such as pneumonia or consumption. However, the phrase “the singular parts of him inward” may allude to testicular cancer.

An unknown witness recalled hearing one of Arthur’s servants dating the onset of his illness to Shrovetide, February 8, 1502: “He had lain with the Lady Katherine, and was never so lusty in body and courage until his death, which [he] said was because he lay with the Lady Katherine.” Arthur died on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1502.

The servants’ accounts suggest that the Waleses enjoyed frequent conjugal visits. Katherine’s confessor and tutor, Alessandro Geraldini—who was recalled to Spain not too long after Arthur’s death—concurred. But according to Katherine, between their arrival in Ludlow and Arthur’s death, the newlyweds had spent only seven nights together. Nearly thirty years later, during the hearings regarding the validity of her marriage to Henry VIII the same contradiction would emerge. Arthur’s steward repeated his young master’s boast on the morning after his wedding, to the effect that he “had spent the night in Spain,” although Katherine would testify that she had remained “as intact and uncorrupt as when she emerged from her mother’s womb.”
Arthur’s body lay in state for three weeks before it was buried at Worcester Cathedral. Katherine, sixteen years old, nearly alone and friendless in a foreign kingdom, would remain in England for the next seven years in a state of political limbo. She was retired to Durham House to await whatever fate Henry VII and her parents decided for her. Her debts mounted and when she had to pawn her jewels and plate—a contested element of her dowry—to pay her retinue, she was accused of spending Henry VII’s property.

Henry VII (1457-1509)

Eventually, a marriage was brokered between Katherine and Henry’s surviving son, the future Henry VIII, but her marriage to Arthur and the issue of its consummation would remain the elephant in the parlor—rearing its trunk and smashing breakables—for years. It was the subject of the papal dispensations required for her union with young Henry—a brief and a bull that either contradict or complement each other, depending on one’s interpretation of the wording. The argument over whether Katherine’s union with Arthur was a “true” marriage would be fought again when Henry chose to put her aside in order to wed Anne Boleyn. Katherine continued to insist that she had come to Henry’s bed a twenty-three-year-old virgin. But by the time Henry’s Great Matter was under debate in the late 1520s, Katherine’s keen understanding of dynasty and diplomacy had made her more than a loving wife and devoted mother. She was Spain to Henry’s England, an alliance that possibly overrode any qualms of conscience.

Perhaps Arthur had spent his wedding “night in the midst of Spain” after all.
Do you think the marriage between Katherine and Arthur was consummated? Why or why not?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I dunno. This is one of those tough questions like that of Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen -- did they or didn't they?

The thing that keeps me holding to the belief that they did *not* consummate is that Katherine was a deeply religious woman who would have recognized that such a blatant lie would have been a serious offense against God. And to perpetuate it for years to the point of letting the country be ripped apart...

But it wouldn't take much for you to convince me otherwise, either!


5:22 AM  
Blogger sarah said...

I think they did. They were both of an age where hormones were raging - especially Arthur.

While I believe that Katherine was aware that it was a grave sin to lie about their time together - I don't believe she thought that she would be brought to trail for the validity of her second marriage.

I think the lie came about since she may have thought it was her right to be the English Queen and bare the heir to the throne - she was raise being told this.

I have to wonder if she ever wished to have died that spring with Arthur - then she would have not had to go through the torturous marriage with Henry, countless miscarriages and stillborn babies - to only have Mary - then how Henry left her disgraced.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, I made the decision to refer to Axel Fersen as Marie Antoinette's lover in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (my second book of historical nonfiction written under the name Leslie Carroll). I think they were platonic lovers (not really an oxymoron) to a certain point and then the relationship became sexual. There were numerous love letters exchanged between the 2, many of which have evidently disappeared. I wish I could have included all that stuff in NRM, but I couldn't get too sidetracked from the marriage between MA and Louis XVI. Her affair (or not) with Axel would have to belong in a book I'd love to get a contract for (Continental Royal Affairs -- since ROYAL AFFAIRS was focused on Great Britain).

One of the cool things about NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES was that I had 9 months to research and write it, whereas I was given only 5 months to deliver ROYAL AFFAIRS. So I got to revisit a lot of relationships with the time to do additional research. It was an eye-opener. I came down on the side that Sarah is supporting, essentially for the same reasons she posited. I think they did and I think she lied. I never thought that before until I did a ton of research on Katherine and pop-psychologized (it's a casualty of my also being an actress) what her motives might be for lying and/or for changing her story over the years. In the NRM entry on Katherine and Henry VIII's marriage I go into detail to support my theory.

I had always thought she was far too pious to lie because she thought she would roast in hell for it. But I discovered that she was a very political animal, particularly the longer she stayed in England after Arthur's death and before her marriage to Henry. And you have to remember that her parents were the power-couple of the Renaissance, those uber-politicians, Ferdinand and Isabella.

Sarah, her marriage to Henry was very happy from 1509 when they wed until he started catting around on her. I think by 1519 when his mistress Bessie Blount gave him a son, the royal marriage was on the rocks, though, and it was all downhill from there.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I dunno either. Katherine seems more like her mother Isabella than her father Ferdinand or her sister Juana. I think it's entirely possible that they didn't have sex. Both Tsar Peter III and Louis XVI suffered from sexual malfunction and couldn't consummate their marriages for years. Would it have been possible back then for physicians to have examined Katherine to see if her marriage was consummated or not?

8:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Elizabeth, you make an excellent point. I suppose a physician could have been appointed (ordered?) to poke around down there to ascertain whether she was intacta after the issue of her virginity was first raised. And yet no one did (I'm assuming) because with all the available documentation on her life, you'd think that some historian/scholar/biographer over the years would have mentioned such a gynecological examination.

However, it was not customary for royal physicians (who were all male) to actually touch their patients' bodies, particularly if they were women. Even Queen Victoria's doctor never physically examined her while she lived; he discovered all this medical stuff that was wrong with her only in a post-mortem.

Here's some food for thought about Katherine and Arthur: During the Great Matter (Henry's prolonged process to get his marriage to Katherine annulled so he could wed Anne Boleyn), Cardinal Wolsey dredged up the documentation stating that after Katherine and Arthur's wedding night, the bloodstained sheet was sent to Spain so her parents could have proof that their little ambassador did what she was supposed to do. I would sooner believe that Katherine lied about consummation than sprinkled the sheet with animal blood to fake the loss of her virginity.

Yet, even though I eventually came to a determination that lying was entirely possible, the subject still remains a mystery to me. And I could be persuaded to rethink my rethinking if new, valid and plausible research emerged to justify her insistence that she came to Henry's bed a maid.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Now that is a tough question. While Katherine was indeed very religious, I think any woman raised by Isabella of Spain would be the consummate politician capable of giving Machiavelli a run for his money.

And lets face it, young Arthur was almost obligated to boast that the deed had been done. They were both so young and perhaps a bit naive about sex. I am sure there was SOME sort of sexual activity between them. I just don't know if we will ever know if there was actually a completed encounter between them.

As in all things, history is written by the winners and it was in Henry VIII's best interest for his marriage to Katherine to be null and void.

And I am sure at some point after her marriage to Henry fell apart she may well have wished she had followed Arthur into the great beyond as from all accounts he at least treated her decently.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Argh! Blogger just ate my post! I had written that it was interesting that 2 of you feel that Katherine must have wished herself dead after things with Henry fell apart, but I have a hard time seeing it quite that way, though I agree, she was miserable. Her driving ambition became to see Mary's rights of succession restored, because she knew that Mary would restore Catholicism to England. Yet another reason I think Katherine may have lied ... because she had to protect Mary from the taint of bastardy at all costs (even at the peril of her mortal soul).

12:16 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Amanda! Did Katherine swear she was a virgin at the time of her marriage to Henry? Or was it assumed that the papal dispensation would take care of the past? By the time Katherine had lived as Henry's Queen, I can completely imagine her justifying lying to protect her daughter's future and rights, not to mention her religion and country. It was indeed a very political age and religion and politics were closely mixed.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Tracy!

After Arthur died, it became convenient for Katherine to be a virgin (again?) because she knew her job was to produce the heir to England's throne. Arthur died in 1502 and negotiations to wed her to young Henry began in 1503 and dragged on for years because Ferdinand never completed sending the dowry payments to Henry VII for the Katherine-Arthur marriage. But she wanted that second marriage to take place at all costs. And when she began insisting that she and Arthur had only slept in the same bed 7 times but hadnt copulated, she was very aware of why she needed to say it. Katherine had received a comprehensive humanist education which included enough theology to know about the passage in the Book of Leviticus that says it is a sin for a man to lie with his deceased brother's wife. Henry of course would use that passage as the cornerstone of his argument for an annulment during the Great Matter.

And when Katherine insisted she was still a virgin after Arthur's death, it got Henry VII's hackles up; if she was not the "true" Princess of Wales, why the heck should he keep supporting her and her household in England? So Katherine remained in limbo for years. After his father died in 1509, Henry VIII immediately ordered that their wedding plans commence without further delay.

I have always wondered what he thought on their wedding night when they surely consummated their union. Was the lusty nearly-18-year-old king a virgin himself? Would he have been able to tell whether Katherine was? In any case, since it had been 7 years since Arthur's death ... how do I put this? Things kind of ... tighten up a bit ... down there if those muscles haven't been used in that long. Did anyone parade around with the bedsheet the way they did after Katherine's first marriage?

4:53 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I suppose a physician could have been appointed (ordered?) to poke around down there to ascertain whether she was intacta after the issue of her virginity was first raised.

Nope. He might have looked and made a pronouncement, but the is NO WAY TO TELL if a woman is a virgin or not. This is a myth. See my posts Anatomy 101: The Hymen:


And my friend Scott Moore the medical historian's blog post on the same topic:


10:44 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I stand reminded, Kalen, because now I do remember your posts. So ... whether Katherine and Arthur consummated their marriage will remain one of History's Mysteries.

2:55 PM  

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