Catherine of Aragon lived from 1485–1536. Her father was Ferdinand of Aragon, and her mother was Isabella of Castile. She was sent from Spain to England at 15 to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales. Soon after their November 14, 1501, marriage, Arthur died. Catherine waited for seven years for her father and Henry VII to debate her fate, while she lived in neglect and poverty.
Her fortunes turned in 1509, when Henry VIII became king. One of his first acts as ruler was to marry Catherine, his brother's widow. By all accounts, they had a happy and harmonious marriage for 20 years. Their only surviving child was a girl, Mary, who was born in 1516. Catherine's inability to produce a male heir eventually led Henry to doubt whether their marriage had been legal. His feelings were compounded by his infatuation with another woman, Anne Boleyn. He gave Catherine a Protestant divorce, which she refused to accept. Her opposition led to her separation from her daughter and her imprisonment in Kimbolton Castle, where she died.
One of the earliest records of Catherine's life is Juan Luis Vives' Instruction of a Christian Woman. The text, which is considered the dominant conduct book for women of the 16th century, was printed nine times in English during the 1500s. The English reprintings demonstrate reconstituting the historical record, as allusions to Catherine of Aragon reflect swings in the politics of the Tudor court. The consecutive versions show how she was gradually removed from her position of power as a public figure.
In 1523, Vives first composed the text in Latin and dedicated it to Catherine. At the time, she was the much-admired wife of Henry VIII, a learned queen who dazzled in her husband's court. She was a skillful, powerful political figure. Her followers regarded her as a strong woman who had survived the difficulties of a lonely widowhood before her remarriage. Vives' praises are many, an appeal to the beneficent queen for patronage and a tribute to her strength. He wrote in the preface that he intended to portray the ideal woman in Catherine's image.
Catherine's influence on Sir Thomas More's circle was profound. More, an important councilor to Henry VIII, was recognized as a saint within the Catholic Church. He was a virulent opponent of the Protestant Reformation. More was ultimately tried and beheaded for treason because he would not disparage Henry's marriage to Catherine.
By the time Vives' text was translated into English in 1529, Catherine's star had started to fall, and her fate was in doubt. Anne Boleyn had appeared on the scene, and Henry proposed a divorce. Catherine's future was a major political concern. In the 1529 version, Vives' praises remained intact, even though her patronage was no longer possible. He expressed admiration in an attempt to be useful to the queen.
In 1531, when the next edition of the tract appeared, the strife about the royalty had intensified. Vives' text no longer contained the extensive praises of the queen of the earlier versions. Catherine's supporters in More's party had come under a cloud of suspicion. Catherine was deserted by the king and separated from Princess Mary, her daughter. Catherine was left at Windsor, and later in Hertfordshire, while Mary was ordered to go to Richmond. In 1532, her marriage was declared invalid. She was told to call herself princess dowager instead of queen. Reportedly, she spent most of her time in prayer until her 1536 death.
The 1541 version of Vives' text more dramatically demonstrated the queen's fall from grace. It is not dedicated to her, and she is described as wife, maid and widow instead of queen. Her marriage to Henry is not mentioned.
The next versions, in 1547, 1557 and 1567, also omit references to the queen. Those editions also do not mention Sir Thomas More. However, by the latter part of the century, anti-Catherine sentiment seemed to have faded. Printings of the text in 1585 and 1592 returned descriptions of Catherine to the earliest; 30 years later, her image as a good Christian woman, free from political associations, had returned.
Catherine has gone down in history as a chief influence on religion in England. Her actions led to the English Reformation. Henry claimed to be a believing Catholic and accused the pope of betraying him and the church by refusing to allow him to divorce Catherine. Henry challenged the old religion by dissolving the monasteries and convents. Catherine became a symbol of the old religion, and those with convictions like hers were doomed.