Many years ago, when I first began studying Tudor history, I read the masterful biography of Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly which was first published in 1941. I can vividly remember him describing Katherine’s pitiful, poverty stricken circumstances after her husband Arthur, Prince of Wales had died. She literally was between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”.
Because Katherine’s father had defaulted on paying her original dowry in entirety, King Henry VII used this as an excuse not to provide for Katherine’s welfare as she waited to marry his son Prince Henry. He also forbid her to return to Spain as he could use her as a bargaining chip. And most disheartening for Katherine, she was forced to appeal to her father to pay the dowry at the very most and to provide some monetary assistance at the very least just so she and her servants could eat and clothe themselves. Most of the time her pleas were unanswered by Ferdinand. This letter, originally written in Spanish, survives and illustrates her deplorable living conditions.
“Most high and most puissant lord,
Hitherto I have not wished to let your highness know the affairs here, that I might not give you annoyance, and also thinking that they would improve; but it appears that the contrary is the case, and that each day my troubles increase; and all this on account of the doctor de Puebla, to whom it has not sufficed that from the beginning he transacted a thousand falsities against the service of your highness, but now he has given me new trouble; and because I believe your highness will think I complain without reason, I desire to tell you all that has passed.
Your highness shall know, as I have often written to you, that since I came into England, I have not had a single maravedi (a medieval Spanish copper coin and monetary unit), except a certain sum which was given me for food, and this such a sum that it did not suffice without my having many debts in London; and that which troubles me more is to see my servants and maidens so at a loss, and that they have not the wherewith to get clothes; and this I believe is all done by hand of the doctor, who, notwithstanding your highness has written, sending him word that he should have money from the king of England, my lord, that their costs should be given them, yet, in order not to trouble him, will rather intrench upon and neglect the service of your highness. Now, my lord, a few days ago, donna Elvira de Manuel asked my leave to go to Flanders to be cured of a complaint which has come into her eyes, so that she lost the sight of one of them; and there is a physician in Flanders who cured the Infanta donna Isabel of the same disease with which she is affected. She labored to bring him here so as not to leave me, but could never succeed with him; and I, since if she were blind she could not serve me, durst not hinder her journey. I begged the king of England, my lord, that until our donna Elvira should return his highness would command that I should have, as a companion, an old English lady, or that he would take me to his court; and I imparted all this to the doctor, thinking to make of the rogue a true man; but it did not suffice me – because he not only drew me to court, in which I have some pleasure, because I had supplicated the king for an asylum, but he negotiated that the king should dismiss all my household, and take away my chamber (equipage), and send to place it in a house of his own, so that I should not in any way be mistress of it.
And all this does not weigh upon me, except that it concerns the service of your highness, doing the contrary of that which ought to be done. I entreat your highness that you will consider that I am your daughter, and that you consent not that on account of the doctor I should have such trouble, but that you will command some ambassador to come here, who may be a true servant of your highness, and for no interest will cease to do that which pertains to your service. And if in this your highness trusts me not, do you command some person to come here, who may inform you of the truth, and then you will have one who will better serve you. As for me, I have had so much pain and annoyance that I have lost my health in a great measure; so that for two months I have had severe tertian fevers, and this will be the cause that I shall soon die. I supplicate your highness to pardon me that I presume to entreat you to do me so great favor as to command that this doctor may not remain; because he certainly does not fulfill the service of your highness, which he postpones to the service of the worst interest which can be. Our Lord guard the life and most royal estate of your highness, and ever increase it as I desire. From Richmond, the second of December.
My lord, I had forgotten to remind your highness how you know that it was agreed that you were to give, as a certain part of my dowry, the plate and jewels that I brought; and yet I am certain that the king of England, my lord, will not receive anything of plate nor of jewels which I have used; because he told me himself that he was indignant that they should say in his kingdom that he took away from me my ornaments. And as little may your highness expect that he will take them in account and will return them to me; because I am certain he will not do so, nor is any such thing customary here. In like wise the jewels which I brought from thence [Spain] valued at a great sum. The king would not take them in the half of the value, because here all these things are esteemed much cheaper, and the king has so many jewels that he rather desires money than them. I write thus to your highness because I know that there will be great embarrassment if he will not receive them, except at less price. It appears to me that it would be better if your highness should take them for yourself, and should give to the king of England, my lord, his money. Your highness will see what would serve you best, and with this I shall be most content.
The humble servant of your highness, who kisses your hands”.
Katherine is reluctant to burden her father with her problems, believing she would be an annoyance to him. She had also hoped that her situation would improve but it had not. After Queen Elizabeth died in February of 1503, the idea of a marriage to King Henry VII had been discussed but this was swiftly dismissed by her parents. In June of 1503, the Spanish ambassador Dr. Roderigo Gonzalvo de Puebla negotiated an agreement for Katherine’s marriage to Prince Henry in two years’ time.
Ferdinand agreed to pay the rest of her dowry and Katherine agreed to give up her widow’s jointure from her marriage to Arthur in return for a similar settlement when she married Prince Henry. In the meantime she was dependent on King Henry VII for her livelihood. She was living a solitary life in Durham House with no income. She had no monetary assistance since coming to England from Spain except some funds for food which were insufficient, causing her to borrow money in London. At the time she wrote the letter she had been suffering from a tertian fever, a benign form of malaria. She really was at a low point in her life.
Ferdinand’s situation in Castile became desperate as his control of the kingdom began to unravel after Queen Isabella died in 1504. He had no way to raise the funds to pay for Katherine’s dowry. Katherine was blaming the Spanish ambassador de Puebla for her circumstances but he was not the real problem. Katherine’s duenna Dona Elvira Manuel was instrumental in undermining the ambassador for her own political purposes. Her brother was embroiled in politics with others who were trying to limit Ferdinand’s power in Castile. Breaking up the alliance between England and Castile was part of the plan.
De Puebla eventually convinced Katherine and Ferdinand of Dona Elvira’s treachery. Dona Elvira’s health was not the real reason for her trip to Flanders. She was sent there in exile because of her machinations. After this, Katherine was in charge of her own household until King Henry VII dismissed most of her personnel and compelled her to live at court. Henry took her belongings and used them for his own purposes. The two year waiting period for her marriage to Prince Henry came and went.
She appears to have added a postscript to the letter in which she states that King Henry will not give her a decent value for her plate and jewels. She says he would rather have the money as the items were not worth as much in England. She entreats her father to take her possessions and give King Henry the cash. Eventually she did have to pawn some of these objects to raise funds to live on.
This letter really gives us an insight into Katherine’s status as she awaited her marriage with Prince Henry. She sounds very mature and intelligent. As we know, when Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, Prince Henry ascended the throne as King Henry VIII. He married Katherine on June 11 and her status was raised considerably when they were both crowned King and Queen in Westminster Abbey on June 24.
Further reading: “Letters of the Queens of England 1100-1547” edited by Anne Crawford, “Catherine of Aragon” by Garrett Mattingly