Henry VIII’s Wives: Catherine of Aragon’s family and childhood

By , April 26, 2010 2:32 am

Catherine of Aragon (1485 to 1536)was King Henry VIII’s first wife – out of six. She was his wife for 24 years, but ultimately fell foul of Henry’s obsession, that he father a legitimate son.

This post, the first of a series about Henry’s wives, is not about the political and religious context of Catherine and Henry’s marriage, but about Catherine of Aragon herself – her family, her education, and her appearance.

What Catherine of Aragon looked like

Catherine did not look like a modern view of a typical Spanish girl. She was not dark-haired or olive-skinned. Like her sisters and brother, she seems to have had reddish-blonde hair, and fair skin. She also had bright blue eyes.

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon when she was Prince Arthur's widow, by Michel Sittow

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon when she was Prince Arthur's widow, by Michel Sittow

Catherine was also small – as a girl, both short and petite, although (not surprisingly) she put on a considerable amount of weight because of repeated pregnancies.

The English Tudor ideal of a beautiful woman was one who was fair-haired and fair-skinned, and Catherine seems to have been attractive and a pretty girl and young woman.

The portrait to the right of this text shows Catherine as a young woman, after she was widowed by the death of Prince Arthur, older brother of Henry VIII. She was therefore about 17 when it was painted.

Further down in this post, there are portraits of Catherine’s mother, Isabella, and one of her sisters, Joanna, both of whom looked very similar to Catherine, particularly in colouring.

Daughter of the Catholic Kings

Catherine’s parents were both monarchs in their own rights – Ferdinand (1452 to 1516) was King of Aragon, and Isabella (1451 to 1504) was Queen of Castile.

Ferdinand of Aragon, Catherine of Aragon's father, painted by Michel Sittow

Ferdinand of Aragon, Catherine of Aragon's father, painted by Michel Sittow


The couple, awarded the title of “The Catholic Kings” by the Pope, ruled together over the greater part of the Iberian peninsula, and completed the reconquista, or wars against the Moors.

At the conclusion of the reconquista in 1492, there were no Islamic states based in Spain for the first time for over 500 years.

They also expelled the large, successful and well-integrated Jewish communities throughout their realms.

Ferdinand and Isabella married in 1469, aged 17 and 18 respectively, and established co-sovereignty over the two Kingdoms, with both their heads appearing on coins, both signatures on royal proclamations and charters, and both costs of arms equally displayed.

Isabella made sure that she did not submit (as Ferdinand wanted) to being a royal consort, she was Queen in her own country.

Isabella travelled with her armies, camped with them, even when heavily pregnant, and saw herself, it appears, as the religious warrior Queen.

Isabella of Castile, Catherine of Aragon's mother

Isabella of Castile, Catherine of Aragon's mother

Machiavelli had a particular admiration for Ferdinand, saying:

From being a weak King he has become the most famous and glorious King in Christendom. And is his achievements are examined, they will be found to be very remarkable

Birth and siblings

Catherine was the youngest of 5 children who survived to adulthood. The older four, in order, were Isabella, Juan (the only boy), Juana, and Maria.

Isabella (1470 to 1498)

In April 1490, aged 19, Isabella married Prince Alfonso of Portugal in Seville. He died the following year, and she returned home to her parents before marrying Manual I of Portugal, who was Alfonso’s uncle. She bore him a son, Miguel, in 1498, but died in childbirth, Miguel himself died aged 2.

Juan or John (1478 to 1497)

Juan / John married the Archduchess Margaret in 1497, and died 6 months later. His posthumous son was still born also, meaning that the position of heir to Castile and Aragon passed to his older sister Isabella, then her son Miguel, then to his younger sister Joanna.

Joanna the Mad, Catherine of Aragon's sister, painted by Juan de Flandes in about 1500

Joanna the Mad, Catherine of Aragon's sister, painted by Juan de Flandes in about 1500

Juanna / Joanna (1479 to 1555)

Joanna the Mad is the title normally given to her, which sums up the general view of Joanna later in her life. She married Phillip of Burgandy, also known as Phillip the Handsome, when she was 16 years old, in 1496.

Joanna had 6 children who lived to adulthood, born within 8 years of each other – the four girls became queens (of France, Denmark, Bohemia and Portugal) and both her sons, Charles and Ferdinand, became Holy Roman Emperor in turn.

Joanna and Phillip appear to have had a tempestuous marriage, and there were many affairs and illegitimate children on Phillip’s part. When Phillip died, she had his body carried around in a coffin for some time before she permitted burial.

Her father, Ferdinand, did not want his throne to pass to Joanna and / or her son Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

When Ferdinand failed to produce another male heir by his second marriage, and had to pass his first wife’s throne of Castile over to her, he resented it, and engaged in machinations and devices, such that he was regent of Castile after Isabella’s death.

Maria (1482 to 1517)

After the death of her older sister Isabella, Maria was sent to Portugal to marry Isabella’s widow, Manuel I of Portugal. She married him in 1500, when she was 17 years old.  The couple had 7 children who lived to adulthood. After Maria’s death, Manuel married Eleanor, who was the niece of his first two wives (Joanna’s daughter) which makes for a very incestuous marital history – two sisters, and a third sister’s daughter.

Childhood and education

Catherine of Aragon's badge when she was Queen of England

Catherine of Aragon's badge when she was Queen of England

Isabella of Castile embraced the humanist and classical revolution espoused by Erasmus. Her own education had not been thorough, and that planned for her children was academic and detailed. Catherine of Aragon (like her siblings) was well-educated in Latin as well as Spanish, although her texts were principally those written by Christian Romans, such as Augustine, Jerome and Gregory, as well as the moralists from Ancient Rome, such as Seneca.

She was also tutored in Spanish literature, and Spanish translations of stories about King Arthur and Camelot.

Isabella’s own obsession with religion and military matters may have been the reason that Catherine and her sisters were not given the courtly education, including music, singing, poetry and so forth, that most European princesses and aristocrats had.

Nor were they taught the languages of their intended future husbands, which seems a bit odd – so Catherine spoke, fluently, Castilian Spanish and Latin, but not English.  Fortunately, her first husband, Prince Arthur, was also well-educated in the classics, so they could communicate in Latin.

Catherine’s religious education was setting her up for trouble in the long term. The rigid views of her parents, particularly her mother, were fortified and strengthened by their victories over the Islamic Moors, and the expulsion of the Jews from Castile and Aragon. One of Catherine’s sisters, Maria, made it a condition of her marriage to the King of Portugal that he follow her parents’ example, and expel all Portugese Jews.

Catherine’s religion was therefore a rigid, militaristic, and non-compromising faith. In the coming Age of Reformation, that would be distinctly awkward.

6 Responses to “Henry VIII’s Wives: Catherine of Aragon’s family and childhood”

  1. [...] Henry VIII’s Wives: Catherine of Aragon’s family and childho Catherine of Aragon (1485 to 1536)was King Henry VIII's first wife out of six. She was his wife for 24 years, but ultimately fell foul of Henry's obsession, that he father a legitimate son. This post, the first of a series about Henry's wives, is not about the political and religious context of Catherine and Henry's marriage, but about.. Read ahead [...]

  2. jo oliver says:

    It is odd that she has so many fair skin features. Interesting look at her childhood and extended family.

  3. pinkpackrat says:

    Funny– never knew Catherine of Aragon was a redhead or that she was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella– fascinating. Thanks

  4. [...] Henry VIII’s Wives: Catherine &#959f Aragon’s family &#1072&#1495&#1281 childhood | Hist… [...]

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