Catherine of Aragon, unfortunate first wife of Henry VIII was born on this day in 1485 at the Archbishop’s Palace in Alcala de Henares near Madrid. I really love this 1505 painting of her by Michael Sittow, as it is a complete contrast to the rather staid and unattractive depictions that we are used to seeing from her time as a beleagured middle aged Queen.
I remember that when I first saw this painting as a little girl I thought that the halo around Catherine’s head was an enormous over sized coif. Sorry, if that is now an indelible image for some of you.
It’s interesting though, or maybe it is just predictable that because Catherine was Spanish, she is almost always depicted as being swarthy, sloe eyed and dark haired when in fact she was a tiny little thing with pale cheeks, blue eyes and auburn red hair. If anything, her successor Anne Boleyn looked more stereotypically ‘Spanish’ than Catherine.
Anyway, it just amuses me that we’re always being presented with the physical, intellectual and emotional contrasts between Henry VIII’s wives and yet the biggest and most dramatic contrast and surprise of all is all too often overlooked. Even by The Tudors, which otherwise seems to have left no petticoat unturned in its quest to make the already fascinating Tudor court a hot bed of iniquity and drama.
Oh push off, I’m not being a snob about The Tudors. I love love LOVE Marie Antoinette and Plunkett and Macleane for heaven’s sake so don’t go off thinking I’m some sort of earnest pedant who goes nuts over authenticity and veracity. I can deal with a bit of license taking so long as the over all atmosphere remains true to life – I can well believe in a Marie Antoinette who loved hot pink, the Georgians going mad for trance music and contemporary slang and a Tudor court where er the King was a bit hot and everyone was trying to fulfil their own secret agenda by sticking their prettiest, most nubile female relation in his bed.
Anyway, Catherine of Aragon. Let’s look at some pictures of her in her golden haired youth and think about what a shame it is that no pictures of her in her middle years, when she was an adored young Queen seem to have survived. Let’s also think about what a pity it is that she seemed to want to button up and cover her lovely hair up beneath ugly coifs as much as possible in her later years.
At age eleven by Juan de Flandes, she was married to Prince Arthur of England six years later on the 19th of May 1499.
Two paintings, said to be of Catherine by Michel Sittow again. Dating is speculative on these works but they probably depict Catherine in her late teens either when she was still living at the Spanish court before leaving for England or shortly after her marriage to Prince Arthur.
Either way, if the girl in these paintings is indeed Catherine then she was clearly very pretty indeed and you can see why Arthur, Henry and probably their father too all fell under her spell. I just wish more people would, instead of rushing past her to get to Anne Boleyn.
Catherine of Aragon, on behalf of jilted woman and first wives everywhere, I salute you for doing your very best to teach us how to behave with dignity, decorum and discretion in the face of flagrant and humiliating awfulness on the part of a man.