The Queens of Henry VIII
Parents: a power couple
Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, was born on 16 December 1485. Her mother, the warrior-queen Isabella of Castile, had spent most of her pregnancy on campaign against the Moors (as the still-independent Islamic inhabitants of the southern part of Spain were known), rather than in ladylike retirement. Only after her capture of Ronda did she withdraw from the front, first to Cordoba and then to Alacala de Henares to the northeast of Madrid, where the child was born. The baby was named after Catherine, her mother's English grandmother, who was the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. She took after the English royal house as well, with reddish golden hair, a fair skin and bright blue eyes.
The Englishness of her name and appearance proved prophetic. After a happy, secure childhood, Catherine's life was to become a series of struggles: to get married, to have a child and, above all, to protect her marriage and her child against her husband's determination to annul the one and bastardise the other. And the scene of these struggles was England.
Catherine's parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, were the most remarkable royal couple of the age. They were both sovereigns in their own right: Isabella of Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon.
Castile formed the larger, western part of what we now call Spain, stretching from the Bay of Biscay in the north to the marches of the Islamic kingdom of Granada to the south. It was a country of torrid, sunburned mountains and castles and high plains roamed by vast flocks of sheep. The territories of Aragon lay to the east. They were smaller, but richer and greener, encompassing the foothills of the Pyrenees, the fertile valleys of the Mediterranean coast and the great trading city of Barcelona. The traditions of the two kingdoms were as distinct as their landscapes. Castile was insular, aristocratic and obsessed with the crusade against the Moors in which lay its origin and continuing raison d'être. Aragon, in contrast, was an open, mercantile society: it looked north, across the Pyrenees towards France, and east, across the Mediterranean towards Italy.
To a striking extent, the two sovereigns embodied the different characteristics of their realms. Isabella was intense, single-minded and ardently Catholic, while Ferdinand was a devious and subtle schemer. But he was much more: a fine soldier, who won more battles, both in person and by his generals, than any other contemporary ruler; a strategist, with a vision that was European in scale and grandeur; and a realist, who had the wit not to let his numerous successes go to his head. Understandably, Machiavelli worshipped him as the most successful contemporary practitioner of the sort of power politics he himself recommended: 'From being a weak king he has become the most famous and glorious king in Christendom. And if his achievements are examined, they will all be found to be very remarkable, and some of them quite extraordinary.'
Catherine manifestly took after her mother. But, I shall also argue, there was more in her of her father's qualities, both for good and bad, than has been commonly realized.
Neither Castile nor Aragon had belonged to the front rank of medieval powers. And their standing was diminished further by a particularly bad case of the disputed successions and civil wars which afflicted most European monarchies in the fifteenth century. In both countries, under-mighty kings had bred overmighty subjects and the two royal houses had fissured into a tragi-comedy of divisions: brother was pitted against brother and father against son. Only the royal women seemed strong, leading armies and dominating their feeble husbands. It was a Darwinian world, and none but the fittest, like Ferdinand and Isabella, survived.
They married in 1469, he aged seventeen, she a year or so older. Immediately Isabella was disinherited by her brother, Henry IV of Castile, in favour of his doubtfully legitimate daughter, Joanna. After the death of Henry IV in 1474, a civil war broke out between niece and aunt. This resulted in Isabella's victory and proclamation as Queen of Castile, and Joanna's retreat into a nunnery. Five years later, Ferdinand succeeded his father in Aragon. Ferdinand was the son of John II by his second marriage, and only after two deaths, both rumoured to be by poison, was he delivered the throne. Having fought everybody else to a standstill, Ferdinand and Isabella then threatened to come to blows themselves. He was determined to be King indeed in Castile; she was equally resolute to preserve her rights as Queen Regnant.
Finally their quarrel was submitted to formal arbitration. This established the principle of co-sovereignty between the two. Justice was executed jointly when they were together and independently if they were apart. Both their heads appeared on the coinage and both their signatures on royal charters, while the seals included the arms of both Castile and Aragon. And these were quartered, as a gesture of equality, rather than Ferdinand's arms of Aragon 'impaling' Isabella's arms of Castile, as was usual between husband and wife. Such power-couple equality was unusual enough in a medieval royal marriage. But, in fact, Isabella was the first among equals since, with the exception of the agreed areas of joint sovereignty, the administration of Castile was reserved to her in her own right.
Not surprisingly, Ferdinand jibbed. But he soon submitted and, united, the pair carried all before them. For, despite Ferdinand's four bastards by as many different mothers, he and his wife were genuinely, even passionately, in love. But even in this there was rivalry. 'My Lady,' one of Ferdinand's letters to the Queen begins, 'now it is clear which of us two loves best.' But they were in love with their growing power even more than with each other. Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain, surrendered in 1492 ... Six Wives
The Queens of Henry VIII
. Copyright © by David Starkey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.