This Week in History: The Death of a Queen

January 1-7

This Week in #History – where I have more than 500 characters in a post! I love getting to post on Mastodon ( and one of the things which has been a real boon to me has been posting a daily #OnThisDay post. I’ve gotten the chance to share some things I already knew but have gotten to learn so much more, and I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months now.

My hope is this year that I’ll be able to build up a regular posting schedule, which includes an extended version of my OnThisDay posts – InThisWeek, where I’ll take one of my daily mini-posts and go a bit deeper. Usually these will be topics where I have some fair expertise, or they’ll be a chance to geek out on something entirely new to me! It’s all fair game and I’m so excited to get going on something that I’ve written about in other formats: the death of Katherine of Aragon and the mythologizing of her final days.

Katherine (Catalina, Katharina) of Aragon was an infanta of Spain, Princess of Wales, and Queen of England throughout her fifty year long life. She was the youngest daughter of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon, born in 1485. Katherine was initially married to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was the first born son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, but he died shortly after their marriage. Instead of returning to Spain, she remained in England and eventually married Arthur’s younger brother, Henry. Henry had become King of England after his father’s death in 1509 and one of the first things he did was marry Katherine.

Katherine’s life after that was a series of ups and downs – she become patroness of many schools, head of her household, became pregnant many times and unfortunately lost those very wanted children, went on pilgrimages and progresses around England, and elegantly turned her eye away from Henry’s wandering codpiece. She gave birth to Mary in 1516, her only child to survive infancy. Katherine knew that Mary could rule just as well as any son could, given her mother Isabel’s history, so Katherine had Mary educated with a curriculum fit for a prince (which, as ‘prince’ can be a gender-neutral term, Mary certainly was).

Unfortunately for Katherine, Henry was both desperate for a male heir and bored with her and he unilaterally decided to divorce her and marry one of her attendants, Anne Boleyn. Divorce wasn’t really a thing, though kings had put aside wives before (usually for the wives’ own sexual indiscretions or for infertility). What Henry really wanted was an annulment, which was a way of retconning the whole marriage and saying that it never happened. Henry was convinced that because Katherine had married his brother before him, that they totally must have had sex, and that meant that his marriage to her was null and void (which completely ignores the instances in recent memory where kings had married sisters or other similar kin-related situations – in Katherine’s own family. Katherine’s oldest sister, Isabel, had married Afonso, the prince of Portugal. He died not long after. Isabel married Afonso’s uncle, Manuel, after a few years. Isabel died. Maria, Isabel and Katherine’s middle sister, married Manuel. Some of their children married the children of the other sister, Juana. That’s a whole different story after the Habsburgs, Juana and Philip, come into it).

Katherine, understandably, did not take too well to that. She insisted until the day she died that she was still the rightful queen of England.

She died at Kimbolton on 7 January 1536 at around 2pm (Earenfight, 183). Katherine was not alone – one of her friends, Maria de Salinas, managed to spoof her way through Henry’s guards (as he’d sent her from palace to palace to house to keep her away from court, away from Mary, and away from the eyes of her loving people) to be at Katherine’s side when the end came.

One of the most romantic notions which surrounds the death of the noble queen was her last letter. I’ve seen it circulated about on the internet for a long while now, and have tried to track down the manuscript — the original, handwritten letter, from 1536, or at least a verified copy of it. I mean, how cool would it be to:
1) get to hold something that she’d held in her hands?
2) examine something that old?
3) analyze it for my research?

So to figure out where it lives, first we track the citations. The letter is quoted in her Wikipedia entry in its entirety, and they actually cite where they pulled the text from. The Wiki says that this:

came from

Okay – that’s easy enough to track down. It’s from 1828, which means that it is super into public domain and because it’s a history book from the nineteenth century it’s likely that Google Books has a scan. Lucky for us! And not to be too nitpicky, the publication isn’t cited properly in the wiki. It should be The Modern History of England, Part the First – The Reign of Henry VIII, vol. 2, and it was published in 1827, not 1828. I’ll have to log into my editor login on wiki to fix that up at some point in the near future.

After finding the appropriate page, which isn’t in the Wiki citation (page 433) this is in a footnote talking about Katherine’s death.

So — what, then, my friends, is “Herb. 403”? This appears to be where Turner got the letter from, so let’s take a gander at the book to see what that abbreviation could mean.

After doing a search in the book (I do love living in the 21st century), one of the results came back with this:

So now, to find who this particular historian must have been, the title of his work, and hopefully it’s available online!
After doing a couple of quick searches, looking for historians/antiquarians from before the early 1800s (as this “Herbert” must have published before the 1820s so as to have been influential and available for Turner’s reference). Here’s a promising lead –

Pic pulled from the EEBO entry.

So Herbert could possibly be Edward Herbert, first Baron Cherbury. This edition of this Life and Reign of King Henry the Eighth was published in 1672, but an earlier edition dates to 1649 (though it was finished in 1639). He had actually met Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, on several occasions. He was particularly handsome enough for her to have remarked “It is pity he was married so young!” This book – on Henry VIII – was requested by Charles I, and with a royal patron, Herbert gained access to all sorts of official documents as well as the manuscript collection of Robert Bruce Cotton.

Herbert, not on page 430 as Turner suggests (but this could be a difference in editions as the book had been reprinted several times over the 150 odd years between its initial publication and when Turner referenced it), does mention that Katherine dictated a letter to Henry (which he wept when he read it, blah blah. It really is hard to feel any sympathy for the man who kept a mother away from an ill daughter, divorced her because none of her sons survived as if she wasn’t already sad about that, and forced her into unfit accommodations and tried to keep her alone and broken until she died).

So – and I do love these older chronicles for this – Herbert is saying that he is pulling from Polydore Vergil. Vergil was the author of another English history, the Anglica Historia, which was originally commissioned by another king, Henry VII. Like Herbert’s history, Vergil’s also went through several reprints. It was originally published in 1534, which covered events through 1509. The second edition (1546) was a revised version, and kept the end date through 1509. The third (which is the one linked, 1555) added the bulk of Henry’s reign through 1537.

Vergil tells the same story that Turner and Herbert do – but doesn’t really give a source of his letter. This is a quote pulled from the Anglica Historia – Henry VIII

But let me return to Catherine. After her divorce from her husband was made final, she retired to Bedfordshire, to a royal manor called Kimbolton, a very unhealthy place, where, wonderfully armed with true patience, she lived a pious life. But afterwards, when her health was undermined by sorrow, she began to ail. As soon as Henry heard of this he arranged for Eustache Chapuys, the emperor’s ambassador, to visit her and greet her on his behalf. Eustache did his duty diligently and with speed. But six days thereafter Catherine’s health deteriorated and, having a presentiment of her impending death, she had an educated lady in waiting write two copies of the same letter, one to the king and the other to Eustache, which she dictated in the following words:

61. My most dear lord, king and husband, The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

62. In her letter to Eustache she added that, should Henry not honor her final request, he should ensure that the emperor would remind Henry of his duty. And on that selfsame day she departed this life, on January 6 in the year of salvation 1535. Reading her letter, the king wept lovingly. For who could have been so harsh and hard-hearted that he would not be moved by that pure and sincere expression of good will towards himself? The body of this excellent queen was taken to Peterborough and honorably buried in the Benedictine monastery there. Let me pursue Henry’s marital affairs. Upon Catherine’s death Queen Anne was gladdened by the passing of that royal consort, because the legitimacy of her marriage would no longer be in doubt. Likewise the king was in high hopes of fathering children, especially male ones, which was his greatest desire, since Anne was pregnant. But see how quickly good fortune can be turned back in its course. For a little later Anne was caught out in adultery and immediately beheaded, together with her lovers.

So – now we have to look at the names listed here to see if we can find where that letter went after Katherine’s maid took it down. It says that there were two copies (how convenient). One went to Henry, which could ultimately end up in an official archive… like the one which Herbert made use of less than 100 years later. If it had survived, he surely would have cited the manuscript itself, rather than relying on Vergil’s account. The second went to a “Eustache” which was Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire — Charles V, who was Katherine’s nephew. Eustace was a major ally and supporter of Katherine, and he seems to have really cared for her from the missives he sent back to Charles V. Eustace wasn’t informed immediately after Katherine’s death – and indeed was taken by surprise when he did hear, as he’d just left visiting her and she had seemed to have been on the mend. He’d heard about her passing when he’d gone to court to talk with Henry about getting her a better house that wouldn’t keep making her sick. Eustace immediately suspected that Henry was having her poisoned, which at this point, we can’t know for sure.

What we do know is that Eustace wrote a missive to Charles as soon as he’d learned of Katherine’s death (no. 3 – Eustace Chapuys to the Emperor). His missive didn’t mention a letter enclosed from Katherine. There was no reason to leave her letter out – he’d written almost entirely in cipher, and he would have mentioned that he was sending along the queen’s last words for safekeeping (it was with Charles that she’d trusted to keep the original papal dispensation OKing her marriage to Henry. Katherine trusted Charles – and she trusted Chapuys). He was fine talking about Henry having Katherine poisoned, so it stands that he would mention, even briefly, that she’d sent a letter along – the letter was much lower political stakes than alleging the king of England murdered his ex-wife (though to be fair, he did later have two of his wives murdered… I mean… executed. So it might not have been out of the realm of possibility).

So… it seems as though the buck stops here, folks. Either someone is mistaken along this path in where they got the letter from or where it went or there was really no letter left at all.
To be entirely honest with you – I don’t think that letter ever existed. I could, of course, be wrong. I very much so could be.

Other ways of tracking it down also end up fruitless.

It’s quoted at length in Anne Crawford’s Letters of the Queens of England (179-180). She got it from Mattingly – Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon (429-430). Mattingly’s footnote about it is as follows:

No original text of this letter survives. That it was written, at its general contents, we know from Chapuys. The differences and similarities of the two texts given, in Polydore Vergil (1556) II, 1742, and Sanders (1587), p. 119, point to the existence of English copies in the sixteenth century.

Mattingly, page 463

Here’s the rub though – you can look yourself through Chapuys’ letters to Charles. He doesn’t mention letters from Katherine. Several sent to the Queen, but none from. Unless I’m reading it wrong, which I will always be the first to admit that I’m quite fallible.

Other historians quote the letter from other sources – Patrick William’s Katharine of Aragon pulls it from Sander’s Intimate Letters, which doesn’t give a citation from where she pulled it from.

Two other recent biographies, that of Giles Tremlett and Theresa Earenfight either also doubt the existence of the letter or simply don’t address it at all. Earenfight focuses her work on other things – those which are verifiable and can be used to understand Katherine better. Tremlett calls it out as “almost certainly fictitious (364).” I’m inclined to agree.

It is interesting in how much this letter endures as part of Katherine’s mythos – it certainly is one which we want to be real and true. It fits what we think of as Katherine’s personality. It gets one more over on Henry and makes Katherine look amazing to anyone who reads it. It feels like truth. It’s got that truthiness to it – you feel it in your gut that it’s real. But I’m not sure that it really was.