|Arthur Prince of Wales|
Ferdinand and Isabella had five children who lived to adulthood and Katherine was their youngest. There was, as yet, no Spain—at least not in a political sense. There were two Kingdoms—Castile and Aragon. Castile was actually the union of the kingdoms of Castile and León. León in turn had been created from the ancient kingdom of Asturias, where the Reconquista had begun in resistance to the Arab conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century. Little by little the old Christian warrior families of Asturias pushed back the Muslim invaders, gradually expanding the Christian realm to include most of what is today Northwestern Spain. As the Christians won back more and more land and fortified it with Castles, Castile developed its own unique identity and became an independent political unit of its own. It was united with León in the 12th century when Alfonso VI became the King of both Kingdoms. Aragon too was a merged kingdom comprised of the old Roman Province of Tarragona and Charlemagne’s County of Barcelona as well as the Kingdoms of Valencia and of Majorica, and the County of Provence. This realm had pretty much solidified into the Crown of Aragon with the Marriage of Petronilla of Aragon to Ramón Beleaguer IV of Barcelona in 1137. It would expand into a thallassocracy (look that up in your Funk and Wagnall’s) including Sicily, Naples, Sardinia, Malta and much of Provence by the time that Ferdinand II inherited the crown. In other words, it was not confined to the Iberian Peninsula but rimmed that section of the Mediterranean and some of its wealthiest lands. In 1469 Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile. Each retained his or her own kingdom. Incidentally, Isabella was not Queen of Castile, she was King of Castile—Isabella Rex. This was not unusual at the time—Queens regnant (as opposed to the wives of Kings) were invariably called King. Ferdinand and Isabella were given the title Los Reyes Catholicos—the Catholic Kings. That would make an interesting blog entry itself as I think it may have only been with the rise of Protestantism that it was resented for a woman to assume the title of King. But that is another issue. In any event, the two Kingdoms remained distinct, each under its proper monarch. Regardless of the great wealth of the Aragonese possessions in the Mediterranean, Isabella and Castile was the richer of the two, and together their wealth far exceeded any other European Crown. Together they drove the Moors out of Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. With the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims in 1492 and the confiscation of their possessions, even more wealth was added to the immense royal treasury.
Isabella died in 1504 and was succeeded by her daughter, Joanna (aka Joan the Mad). Their son, John Prince of Asturias, had died in 1497. The oldest sibling, Isabella had married the King of Portugal and died in 1498. Ferdinand died in 1517 and Joanna then succeeded to the Crown of Aragon as well. From her holding the crowns of Aragon and Castile jointly, modern Spain emerged, though each Kingdom retained many of its own laws and traditions down through the subsequent centuries. Even today Spain is not a totally united nation with various ethnic and linguistic groups such as the Basques and the Catalonians arguing for autonomy if not fighting for independence.
In addition to John, Isabella, and Joanna, Ferdinand and Isabella had two more daughters—Maria and Katherine. Maria, after the death of her sister Isabella, married her brother-in-law, King Manuel of Portugal. Maria died in 1517. Katherine was betrothed to the Prince of Wales, Arthur, the son of Henry VII Tudor.
It was a strange betrothal and I am not sure what it was all about. England was not yet an up and coming Kingdom. Henry Tudor was a new-comer to kingship and the blood royal ran very thin in his veins. He would prove himself eventually—or his dynasty would prove itself—but in 1499 the Tudors were parvenus, by no means a prize match for marriage into the Spanish Royal Family, not only the wealthiest, but the most aristocratic in Europe.
For one thing, Henry VII was not a rich monarch. England had as yet no overseas empire and it even lacked an effective system of taxation at home. The King was expected “to live off his own”—that is the King was expected to finance the government, the military, the navy, and the judiciary out of his own personal revenues. Parliament could be cajoled into special taxes in times of war and national peril, but it always kept the King a beggar, asking for money. And as said in earlier postings, Henry’s claim to the English Crown was far from secure. He won it by defeating Richard III on the battlefield at Bosworth, but there were several other candidates with stronger claims of rightful succession and there was always danger of further civil wars breaking out to topple the Tudors as Henry had toppled the Plantagenets. In fact, Katherine herself had a stronger claim to the throne of England than Henry. They were both descended from John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III. Katherine was descended from Edward III both through the marriages of John of Gaunt to his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, and to his second wife, Constance of Castile. (Does this sound like a soap-opera or what?) Henry, on the other hand, had claim to Royal Blood only through John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, Gaunt’s son with Katherine Swynford. And to make matters worse, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset was born to Swynford before she and Gaunt were married. While a papal bull in 1396 legitimized John Beaufort and his three illegitimate siblings, all children of Gaunt and Swynford, and while the following year an Act of Parliament also legitimized them, they were explicitly removed from the royal succession. Thus a marriage to the Swynford descended Tudors was not a move up the social ladder for the Princess of Aragon. To the contrary, she was marrying way beneath her status. And to make matters completely unbearable—we are talking about England. This Princess who had been raised in among the sunlit orange groves of Andalusia, living in the open and airy spaces of the Alhambra, was now to face the rigors of the English climate? Did her parents hate her? Did they want to kill this princess?
Katherine and Arthur married on November 14, 1501. They were both 15, though Katherine was ten months Arthur’s senior. The wedding included the traditional “bedding” ritual in which the whole court escorted the couple to their wedding bed and tucked them in for the night before withdrawing to give the newlyweds sufficient privacy to finish the work begun in church.
Arthur was dead in just over five months. Many authors write how Arthur had been sickly or frail throughout his life, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Granted Tudors tended to be anything but average. They were either like Edward VI or several of Henry VIII’s other children who died young, weak and sickly, or they were strong like Henry himself, and like his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. But Arthur seems to have simply been of somewhat average health, much like Henry VII. He died of an illness, not a chronic condition. In fact, Katherine had come down with the same illness but survived it. They were living at Ludlow Castle on the border with Wales where Arthur was serving as President of the Council of Wales and the Marches, a sort of governor for the western reaches of the Kingdom.
Arthur’s death caused huge issues. Katherine was now a widow and if she returned to Spain, Henry VII would lose the dowry—money he had already spent on, among other projects, building what was to become the English Navy. He wanted to keep the money. Moreover, he wanted to keep his son’s Father-in-law, Ferdinand, a valuable ally against England’s traditional nemesis, France. The obvious solution: marry the widow to the surviving son and now heir, Prince Henry.