The Feminine Mystique: Catherine of Aragon

Feminist studies tell us that until the last century women were down-trodden, abused things without much will or choice in life.

This seems to be the basis for the argument that now is our chance to shine, to take control, to find our true strength. Only, the strength that we see in the successful career women looks like a pale copy of men’s strength, rather than a rejoicing in the gifts particular to femininity.

The late Pope John Paul II, in one of his many writing on women, (with their authentic beauty and strength,) says ,

“The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that god entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and ever other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way – precisely because of their femininity – and this particular way determine their vocation . . . .

“A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God entrusts the human being to her, always and in ever way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself. This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes strong”

As everyone knows, even a berzerking soldier is afraid of the angry mother who can lift two-ton trucks to save her child. Women are terrifying.

And this was true even in those dark days of female oppression.

Catherine of Aragon
(Queen Katherine, wife of Henry VIII)

When the wives of Henry VIII are discussed, it is Anne Boleyn who steals the limelight. Sadly, Henry’s first wife, the courageous and intelligent Catherine, is often brushed aside.

But Catherine was not just the Woman Who Got Pushed Out. She was strong,  beautiful, cunning when she had to be, faithful, loving, inspiring, artistic, and she was willing to fight for her love and her belief.

Anne Boleyn admitted that in every argument, Catherine would have the upper hand. Even over Henry himself.

Her greatest enemy, Thomas Cromwell, said, “But for her sex, she would have surpassed all the heroes of history.”

She was the daughter of Isabelle and Ferdinand of Spain, was married to the crown prince of England at the age of sixteen. The prince, Arthur, seemed delighted with his princess and intending to make a good husband. This despite the fact that as neither spoke the other’s language and they had learned different pronunciations of Latin their communication was restricted  to the French and Greek tongues.

When Arthur died a few months after the wedding, Catherine was kept in England as the nominal betrothed of the next prince in line for the throne: the thirteen year old child who would become King Henry the Eighth. This was mainly because the king did not want to give Catherine’s dowry back to Spain. So she stayed in London, ignored by the court and people alike. She was allowed little money or consideration, and while struggling to maintain the household she was required to keep, she also learned to keep quiet and listen.

Her political skills were put to the test when her father appointed her the Spanish Ambassador to England.  She was the first female ambassador in European history, and Henry the Seventh and his court thought that they could easily manipulate her.

They were wrong.

She was about 21 years old, had been given the classical education that was then denied to English women, and she could hold her own.

When, a few years later, she did marry Henry VII, they seemed well matched despite the difference in age. Except, even at the tender age of 18, Henry was putting his personal desires before his political duties. Wanting play at being the hero Henry the Fifth, Henry the Sixth left for France to win some battles.

Catherine was appointed regent of England while the king was away. Which was fortunate, because with the young king out of the picture, courtiers and countries tried to attack. Catherine kept  the court in line. And when Scotland declared war, she rode North, rallied the troops, gave an awe-inspiring speech is is still quoted today, and won the war.

Henry conquered a puny castle in a forgotten corner of France.

Catherine kept civil order, smoothed political unrest, and defended the country in a major battle with the ruthless aplomb of a queen.  All while being eight months pregnant.

Unfortunately for Catherine, her political career probably interfered with her family life. Of her six children, only one survived infancy. The child she carried at the Battle of Flodden was stillborn.

When Henry later offered her the chance to retire quietly to country while he remarried Anne Boleyn, Catherine refused. It was not just her dignity and position at stake; she believed that the divorce was morally wrong and it put Henry’s spiritual life in danger. She fought it in the law courts, where she was her own lawyer. And it was only through the very tricky machination of Cromwell that she lost her suit.

But until the end her days she insisted that she remained “the King’s true wife”.

When her lady-in-waiting began to curse Anne Boleyn, Catherine stopped her and told her to pray for Anne instead, as “someday you will pity her more than anyone else”.

In Shakespeare’s play “Henry VIII”, Catherine is portrayed as a strong, passionate, wise, virtuous, and vibrant character. In fact, she is one of the strongest and most virtuous of Shakespeare’s female characters in general. (Interestingly, Shakespeare’s “Ann Bullen” character is completely ambiguous. She could be played either as conniving or naive.)

Exiled to a cold, drafty castle, Catherine left her room only to attend church, and spent much her time in prayer and study. Henry offered her better quarters and treatment is she would acknowledge Anne as the rightful queen, but like Sir Thomas More, Catherine refused to trade her conscience for comfort.

Upon her death, Henry and Anne held a day of celebration.

Henry had sacrificed the political stability of his country for the sake of his lust, but one of his worst sins was that of refusing to see or value the incredible beauty and strength and virtue of his wife.

I disagree with Cromwell that Catherine’s strength was limited by her sex.  Hers was the type of strength that is particular to women. She was “limited” by her own morals and values. Henry admits in a letter to Anne that if Catherine chose to champion her daughter’s right to the throne, she could have swept the country.

She had learned of the martial strengths from her warring parents, and she put that to good use in the field. But her real strength of character came not from her power or skills, but from her dedication and love. Her ability to rally troops is impressive, but her passionate concern for the souls of the human beings around her – the human beings who wronged her – is the highest mark her character.

She led the country and she fought for her faith  like a true queen. She was a strong woman.

And in her this courage and strength of “caring for human beings” can be easily identified as Love. Her strength was not of this earth.

Which, really, makes her even more terrifying.

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