catherine of aragon

Catherine of Aragon, the Queen of England who inspired an army

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Nov 8, 2018

All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.

When most people think of Catherine of Aragon, they think of a poor woman who was rejected by King Henry VIII of England. They might remember that she was his first wife (out of six), or that she had been married to his brother Arthur before him. They might know that the obsession Queen Catherine’s husband had for her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn was one of the catalysts for Henry changing the entire religion of England so he could divorce Catherine and marry her. They’re certainly familiar with her daughter Mary I, also known as Bloody Mary, and they may know the sad story of her miscarriages and the fact that she didn’t produce a son to carry on the royal line. Perhaps you’ve even heard her beautiful and powerful speech during the trial about how she had been a virgin when they married, and how much she loved him, right before he decided to never see her again.

Catherine of Aragon’s later life was cruel, but what most people forget is that she helped win a war early in their marriage while Henry was fighting elsewhere. They forget that she inspired an army to fight off a Scottish invasion. They forget that Henry and Catherine were once very much in love and that Catherine was a powerful enemy. November is Warrior Women Month, and in honor of that, let’s talk about the warrior Queen Catherine of Aragon, and celebrate the fierce part of this woman that is so often forgotten. 

Catalina de Aragón was born to Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon on December 16, 1485. Yes, that Isabella and Ferdinand. She was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, at three-years-old. He was the son of King Henry VII of England, who had taken the throne from Richard III in battle. The Infanta of Spain was a lovely child and distantly related to the new English royal family. In fact, she had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VII did. Catherine (which is sometimes spelled with a K) had been raised to be a queen, and when she was married to Arthur by proxy in 1499, they wrote to each other until he was old enough for a wedding. He was 15. In 1501, they met and married again in person. Arthur died in 1502 of what was likely sweating sickness. Henry didn’t want to return Catherine’s dowry, so he kept her there in England. He even thought of marrying her himself, since his wife Elizabeth had died in childbirth. Then he betrothed her to his younger son Henry, who was five years her junior. The wedding was on again, then off again (they needed a papal dispensation since she’d been married to his brother), and she was living in relative poverty. When Henry VII died, Catherine and Henry wed in 1509. Catherine was pregnant a number of times, but only Mary lived to adulthood. They had a son who only lived a short time. 

Early in their marriage, they were reportedly very much in love. She was also beloved by the people of England for her entire life. In 1513, Henry left for France for military action. He trusted Catherine enough that he made her Regent in England. She was even given titles like “Governor of the Realm and “Captain General.” He sent her his prisoner Louis d'Orléans, Duke of Longueville. She and Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s confidant, corresponded, and she told him that the Duke should be moved to the Tower of London because she was really too busy dealing with the Scots. 

Catherine created “standards, banners and badges” while at Richmond Palace for the war with Scotland that was likely coming, and come it did. They invaded England in 1513, and she ordered an army raised to fight them. Catherine, who could have ordered someone else to take over, decided to head out to visit the army, wearing full armor. Oh, and one little thing: she was super pregnant when she did this. She gave a rallying speech to bolster the troops, who won the Battle of Flodden Field. She was near Buckingham at the time, and she headed to Woburn Abbey to write a letter to Henry. To inspire him, this daughter of a battle Queen sent him a piece of King James IV’s coat and his banner, covered in blood. It is reported that she wanted to send his head to Henry to inspire him, but that her ministers talked her out of it. 

Catherine was also known to have championed education for women. The book “The Education of a Christian Woman” by Juan Luis Vives was dedicated to her. She even commissioned it. Thomas Cromwell, who actually helped end her marriage, respected her enough to say, “if not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” She worked for the poor and was a patron of scholars.

Catherine has been remembered in song, books, theatre, TV, and film. Joanne Whalley played Catherine in the PBS series Wolf Hall  (which you absolutely should watch). Maria Doyle Kennedy played her in a powerhouse performance in the historically inaccurate (but fun) HBO series The Tudors. Back in the 18th century, famous actress Sarah Siddons took on the role.

Instead of focusing on the end of her life and the sadness there, let’s remember Catherine of Aragon, daughter of a powerful woman and powerful women in her own right. Let’s remember the woman who inspired an army and fought to have women educated. Let’s remember what she could have been if she’d lived in a different time.

Who is your favorite warrior woman in history? Stay tuned for our continuing series and let us know on Twitter @SYFYFangrrls.

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