After the wedding celebrations of Katherine of Aragon to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the teenage couple was ‘put to bed’ in keeping with the Tudor custom. What happened that night would later become an issue of great controversy. In this post we explore whether Katherine’s claim that the marriage was never consummated stands up to scrutiny.
As a trusting kind of person, I’m always inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt. Given that Katherine of Aragon went to her death insisting that when she entered her second marriage to King Henry VIII, she did so as a virgin despite the fact she had briefly been married to his brother, I’ve always tended to believed her.
Of course, given that this (intensely personal) issue was at the heart of her husband claiming a legitimate case to divorce her, perhaps Katherine had little choice but to insist on her pre-marital purity. Certainly a good batch of historians seem to think so.
So I decided to #DigALittleDeeper and I have to confess that – with all the usual caveats around how we can never truly know – I’m still inclined to side with Katherine, although it’s something I’d like to discuss in more depth in the future. To start with, I’m not satisfied that the arguments against her really stack up. Let’s explore.
- There was an assumption , upon her first husband Arthur’s death, that the marriage was consummated – This is based on the fact that they waited a few months before declaring the future Henry VIII, ‘Prince of Wales’ on the basis that Katherine might be pregnant. Similarly, when going through the process of arranging Katherine’s second marriage, her mother was keen to ensure that the Pope granted dispensation for the marriage regardless of the whether the first union had been consummated.
These arguments are sensible enough, but in reality no one probably asked Katherine much about the wedding night. Her mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, wasn’t keen for this clause because she suspected that her daughter had been enjoying the fruits of young love; it was a sensible precaution by a wise and worldly woman who wanted to protect her daughter and the alliance with England, from any future attempts to undermine her second marriage. The fact that even with it, this is exactly what happened, demonstrates what incredible foresight the infamous Queen of Castile must have possessed.
- Prince Arthur seemed to think there had been intimacy – Friends of the 15 year old groom were later to tell of the young prince’s claims the morning after the wedding that marriage was ‘thirsty work’ and that he had spent the night in the ‘midst of Spain.’ There is no reason to think that these friends of Arthur’s were lying, but you really don’t need to be a historian to deduce that this is likely to have been youthful bragging; you just need to have been, or to have ever met, a teenage boy.
- Katherine had a motive to lie – Yes, she did. David Starkey very cleverly argues that given her upbringing in the court of her parents, the Spanish Kings, she was more than aware of the real politick of the Royal marriage market and would have done all she could to advance her country by becoming Queen of England. I have a great deal of time for this argument. However, Alison Weir argues that she would never have continued this lie to her death bed. Given Katherine’s clear devotion to her faith and the fact she would have wanted to meet her maker with a clear conscience, we must conclude that this is the superior argument. What’s more, Katherine seemed rather confident in challenging Henry, that he knew full well that she came to him as a maid. Without wanting to be graphic, if this is true then there would have been ways the King might have noticed it at the time; a daring challenge for her to make if she didn’t know it to be true.
There are other arguments too. When Katherine did declare that her first marriage had been unconsummated, people believed it. Sex in teenage marriages was often not encouraged as it was thought to be dangerous. We know Margaret Beaufort, based on her own bitter experience, intervened to try and protect her granddaughter from teenage intercourse. Could she have done the same for her granddaughter in law (this last point is a bit far-fetched but has given me a great idea for a #WildCard)?
As I said, we can never know. Fundamentally, for me, it comes down to who do you trust more out of Katherine and Henry? Both had reason to lie, but if Henry really did believe his wife did not come to him a virgin, then he was fundamentally unbothered by it for over a decade of his marriage. The change of heart only occurred when he became desperate for both a son and another woman. The rest of Henry’s reign also shows us how he was very comfortable with either lying to others or, more likely, deceiving himself about the true facts of a situation when it suited him to do so. Katherine however, would gain an almost saintly reputation, going to her death bed declaring that Henry was the only man to ever know her.
For me, the jury has come in on this issue and it has declared, at least for now, for Katherine of Aragon.