“She could quite easily take the field, muster a great army, and wage against me a war as fierce as any her mother Isabella ever wages in Spain”. – Henry VIII
Some readers may question why I have decided to include Katherine of Aragon in this blog series on prominent Queen Mothers, possibly because she never actually lived to see her only-surviving child, Mary, ascend to the throne. Some may also believe that as Katherine and Mary were separated for much of Mary’s youth, which occurred during the break-up of the parents’ marriage and the rise of Anne Boleyn at court, it must simply be impossible for a mother to have any effect upon her young daughter. However, in recent years, research into Mary I’s childhood has unearthed some fascinating evidence which suggests that she was actually highly influenced by her mother, and continued to be for years after her death. In this blog, we shall discover the ways in which Katherine meticulously planned her daughter’s education from a young age and how this close relationship between mother and daughter stayed with Mary and influenced the way in which she ruled when she ascended to the throne in 1553.
Katherine, a Spanish princess who married Henry VIII in 1509, proved to be both popular with the English public and a competent Queen Consort, especially when she became regent during Henry’s campaign in France in 1512. Contemporary accounts note that the King and Queen lived quite contently during the first decade or so of their marriage. Although the first few years as Queen were successful for Katherine from a political standpoint, her personal life was not so lucky. Katherine experienced six pregnancies where she miscarried and suffered stillborn births, leaving only one surviving child; Mary (b. 1516).
Katherine may have been aware of the possibility that she may not give birth to a son and heir, and so focused on the upbringing of her only daughter. Having had a comprehensive education led by her own mother, Isabella of Castile, which many contemporaries such as Erasmus praised her for, Katherine was conscious of the benefits of giving her daughter a complete education. Although Mary’s education had elements to them that were typical for female members of the royal family at the time, such as learning the importance of preserving chastity, morals and the role of becoming a potential queen consort, the princess also gained an education in areas that were unconventional for a female at the time. After becoming involved in a circle of leading European humanists, Katherine felt it beneficial for her daughter to learn skills that were more suited to male heirs to the throne. An example of this is when under the tutoring of Juan Luis Vives, Mary became skilled at writing Latin quickly, rather than neatly. This was believed to be a talent that the sons of Kings were expected to hone in order to develop their administration skills before they succeeded the throne, and not something that a royal princess would be expected to do. Although Mary was not confirmed as Henry VIII’s successor, Katherine clearly saw this as an opportunity to educate Mary as a potential heir and possibly make a point to Henry that their daughter had the same capabilities to rule as any male.
When the Chamberlain and Chief Justice of South Wales, Sir Rhys ap Thomas, died in 1525 Henry VIII was in need of a form of royal representation in the Welsh Marches and he found this in his nine year-old daughter. This position was traditionally filled by the heir to the throne (The Prince of Wales), and although Henry may have refused to acknowledge his daughter as ‘heir-presumptive’ in the last hope that Katherine may still produce a son, Katherine certainly did not doubt her daughter’s new position. Although Mary may never have received the title of ‘Princess of Wales’, and therefore confirmed her position as Henry’s heir, Katherine and the people of the Welsh Marches most certainly did see this nine-year-old girl as their future Queen Regnant. Katherine may have been sad to have been separated from her only daughter, but she supported Mary’s new position and requested that her tutors wrote to the King and Queen at least once a month in order to give them updates of Mary’s progress with her education.
Mary was recalled to court from her position in the Welsh Marches in 1528, marking the beginning of the break-up of her parents’ marriage. With this in mind, we must dismiss any arguments of twentieth century Tudor historians who claimed that Katherine was bereft of political skill, weak and submissive to those of higher authority during this time. Throughout Henry’s pursue for a divorce from his wife of over twenty years, Katherine was a symbol of defiance and determination, who strove to preserve her daughter and her marriage’s legitimacy. Mary, being in her teens at this point, was fully aware of the consequences that would occur and go against her if her parents’ divorce were to go through, and with this in mind she most certainly learned from her mother’s defiance during this time. Just as her mother defended her innocence and legitimacy, Mary displayed the same characteristics throughout the 1530s. Even with encouragement (and then force) from Henry VIII and Cromwell, Mary never refrained from referring to herself as ‘princess’. In one candid letter to her own father she stated that she would on no occasion recognise her parents’ divorce and never refer to herself as the inferior title of ‘The Lady Mary’.
(It was only after the implementation of the Treasons Act, and the consequential deaths of the likes of John Fisher and Thomas More who stood firmly against Henry’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church, that Mary reluctantly had to sign away her title of ‘princess’ and her legitimacy in order to protect herself.)
It was during this time that Henry refused to allow Katherine and Mary to see each other. Even when Mary became very ill in February 1535, Henry denied Katherine to visit her daughter and professed his ex-wife to be a “proud, stubborn woman of high courage”. Reflecting upon her strong political following, Henry also stated: “If she took it into her head to take her daughter’s part, she could quite easily take the field, muster a great army, and wage against me a war as fierce as any her mother Isabella ever wages in Spain”. We can only imagine what would have happened if Katherine had gone ahead with such an idea…
During Katherine and Mary’s separation both remained in contact with Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador and their close confident. He acted as a go-between for the mother and daughter with their extended family members in Europe, most prominently Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Katherine’s nephew. Mary learnt from her mother that some of her strongest supporters were those not in England, but in other areas of Europe, and she used these connections to her benefit both before and after she gained the throne in 1553.
On 7th January 1536 Katherine of Aragon died at Kimbolton Castle. Owing to Henry VIII’s demands, she had not seen her daughter in four years at the time of her death. Mary was naturally devastated and Charles V wrote to his wife fearing that Mary would “die of grief”. Katherine was buried as a princess dowager and not as a Queen, much to the objection of her daughter and loyal supporters, and Henry refused to allow Mary to attend the funeral at Peterborough Cathedral. However, Katherine’s death did not mark the end of her influence upon her young daughter. Although Mary’s position at court and her relationship with her father seemed to improve somewhat during the late 1530s, the memory of her mother did not fade.
Skip forward to 1553 and the imminent death of Mary’s half-brother, King Edward VI. Whilst the Duke of Northumberland was grooming Lady Jane Grey to succeed to the throne after the King’s death, albeit against the terms of Henry VIII’s last will and the Succession Act of 1544, Mary on the other hand was reinforcing her legitimacy and promoting her position as the true heir in order to gain followers and rightly take the throne from Northumberland’s hands. Mary and her band of loyal followers believed strongly in the validity of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s marriage, therefore rejecting any right that Jane had to the throne. Mary’s success in gaining the throne against the odds in 1553 was from a number of factors, but the memory of her mother, Katherine’s popularity with the public and her legitimacy were notable factors in this fight for the throne.
During Mary’s short reign, Katherine’s influence continued in some ways. Mary used her Spanish ancestry from her mother’s side to forge alliances with the Habsburgs and sort out a Spanish marriage to Charles V’s son, Philip, who became King of Spain in 1556. Having learned the importance of political alliances between countries from her education and time at court from a young age, Mary now understood, that by being a female ruler of a small Kingdom, making an alliance with a leading European power was essential.
Although we cannot say whether the events that took place in Mary’s reign were at all influenced by the memory of her mother, we can be sure that the Queen continued to stress the validity of her parents’ marriage and her legitimacy to anyone who may have doubted her position. Some may argue that Mary was ‘too Spanish’ in her ways, her dress and her alliances, especially as she seemed to favour the company and advice of the Spanish ambassador and her husband rather than her English courtiers. Yet we cannot say this was solely down to Katherine’s influence.
What must be admired is the loyalty that Katherine and Mary shared for one another, and how this alliance continued even years after she had passed away. Upon her death, Mary had requested that “some honourable tombs or decent memory” be made for her and her mother in order for them to be buried near each other, but sadly this dying request was ignored. One cannot doubt that such a request would be made by Mary if she did not have a dear connection with her mother.
Overall, it must be argued that Katherine played a key part in Mary’s education and upbringing, in order to prepare her daughter for the possibility of succeeding to the throne. During the last years of her life, it may have seemed unlikely to Katherine that Mary would ever succeed to the throne, most notably because of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the news of the new Queen’s pregnancies. And yet Katherine’s princely education plan and the upbringing of her daughter did not go to waste when Mary rallied for the throne in 1553 and illustrated her capabilities as a Queen Regnant and legitimate monarch. Katherine was most certainly a defiant woman, who fought for her cause and did not allow her husband to simply bully her to submit to his will. She battled to preserve her innocence, the legitimacy of her marriage and her daughter’s position in line to the throne. Katherine may have not been able to witness her child’s accession or coronation like other Queen Mothers in this blog series, but she certainly prepared her daughter for the crown and influenced her more than we may have first thought.