Letter from Katherine of Aragon to her Daughter Mary – 1534

For some time, Mary, eldest daughter of King Henry VIII, had been separated from her mother Katherine of Aragon and was forbidden to have any contact with her on the orders of her father. Henry married Anne Boleyn in the spring of 1533 and she gave birth to her daughter Elizabeth on September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace. The birth of Elizabeth was a seminal moment in Mary Tudor’s life. At one point, she had been the adored daughter of both her parents and Henry had named her as his successor and heir to the throne of England.

Henry moved mountains to marry Anne Boleyn and with the birth of Elizabeth, Mary’s status was completely invalidated. Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon had been pronounced null and void, Mary had been declared illegitimate and was no longer Henry’s successor. Katherine was not allowed to be called Queen and Mary was not allowed to be called Princess. She was henceforth to be known as the Lady Mary.

Mary was not about to simply drop her title and status as heir to her father and she would definitely not disavow her mother’s marriage. In December of 1533, Mary’s household was dissolved and she was to be transferred to the Princess Elizabeth’s newly formed nursery at Hatfield. Mary was reluctant but she had no choice. She was placed under the guardianship of Lady Anne Shelton, sister of Sir Thomas Boleyn and aunt of Mary and her mother’s nemesis, Anne Boleyn. It was about this time Mary received a secret letter from her mother. Here is what Katherine of Aragon wrote to her daughter:

“Daughter,

I heard such tidings today that I do perceive (if it be true) the time is very near when Almighty God will prove you; and I am very glad of it for I trust he doth handle you with a good love. I beseech you, agree of His pleasure with a merry heart; and be sure that, without fail, He will not suffer you to perish if you beware to offend Him. I pray you, good daughter, to offer yourself to Him…….And if this lady [Shelton] do come to you as is spoken, if she do bring you a letter from the King, I am sure in the self same letter you shall be commanded what you shall do. Answer with few words, obeying the King, your father, in everything, save only that you will not offend God and lose your own soul; and go no further with learning and disputation in the matter. And wheresoever, and in whatsoever, company you shall come, observe the King’s commandments.

But one thing I especially desire you, for the love that you do owe unto God and unto me, to keep your heart with a chaste mind, and your body from all ill and wanton company, [not] thinking or desiring any husband for Christ’s passion; neither determine yourself to any manner of living till this troublesome time be past. For I dare make sure that you shall see a very good end, and better than you can desire…..And now you shall begin, and by likelihood I shall follow. I set not a rush by it; for when they have done the uttermost they can, then I am sure of the amendment…..we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles. Daughter wheresoever you come, take no pain to send unto me, for if I may, I will send to you,

Your loving mother,
Katherine the Queen”

This is an extraordinary letter, giving Mary comfort in her time of trouble and maternal precepts to live by. Katherine has heard that the King will no longer allow anyone to call Mary Princess and force Mary to never refer to herself as Princess. Katherine says God will be testing her in this and that God will help her get through her troubles. She is not to offend God and put herself in his hands. She is warning Mary in advance that Lady Shelton may bring her a letter from the King with these instructions. She asks Mary to be judicious in her words of reply and not dispute the orders. She says Mary is to obey her father in all things except that which would go against her conscience or give her cause to lose her soul.

Katherine instructs Mary to be chaste in her thoughts and in her body. She is to stay away from licentious company and not be desirous of seeking any husband that would take her away from Christ’s passion. If she lives well during this time of trouble, she will receive great rewards in the end and gain everything she desires. Now the great troubles will begin for Mary and for Katherine herself. She is not eager for this to begin. But the only way they both can get to the kingdom of Heaven is through troubles and ills. There is a hint of martyrdom in Katherine’s words here.

Katherine asks Mary to contact her if she can and promises, if possible, to reply. We know Mary never was able to see her mother again although she begged the king many times to do so. We may never know if there were any more secret letters between them. Katherine died in January of 1536. Mary would survive through the next thirteen years under difficult circumstances to become the first crowned Queen Regnant of England.

Further reading: “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards, “Mary Tudor: Princess Bastard Queen” by Anna Whitelock

10 responses

  1. Katherine of Aragon has always been my favorite of Henry VIII wives. Her letter to Mary was a comforting one. It was also written to prepare Mary and to help her focus on the suffering which was to come. Mary had so many physical illnesses even while young and it was hard for her. She suffered physically and emotionally. If she had been allowed to stay with her mother she would have fared better.

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  2. Mary’s great tragedy was to fall in love with her younger husband, but even so she resisted his pressure to give him equal status as monarch, something her Privy Council were determined not to permit. Hers was a life of almost unrelieved emotional pain and deprivation – but she had immense courage, something which comes across strongly in Anna Whitelock’s biography Mary Tudor.
    It’s sad that what we mostly remember is ‘Bloody Mary’ burning her subjects for heresy, since she was portably pushed into this course by her husband whom she adored and was anxious to please. Alas, he loved her not.

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  3. King Henry dared not find a husband for Mary. To choose an Englishman would be threatening, as any man could use Mary an an excuse to form an army in a coup attempt. By that time there was a considerable undercurrent of disgust for Henry’s divorcing his first queen. A married Mary was a very dangerous Mary, even if she were but a pawn.

    There were plenty of petitions for Mary’s hand from the Roman Catholic countries that recognized her as Henry’s only LEGITIMATE child. A young & nubile Mary was a great prize & worth an invasion of England to secure her rights. It was only after Prince Edward was born that the crush to marry Mary subsided, as he was acknowledged legitimate because Catherine was dead.

    Egocentric & megalomanic Henry seldom considered anyone’s needs above his own unless he benefited as well. It SUITED him to see to the comforts of his daughters only as long as they completely submitted to him.

    Elizabeth knew only a vacillating father whom she must handle with kid gloves. Mary remembered a happier time before Henry’s mental issues were so dangerous. She could recall two loving parents & a happy childhood; she desperately wanted them back.

    It was such a tragedy that Mary never again experienced such happiness. That her husband abandoned her & she was childless added to the tragedy for English Roman Catholics as well. The Roman Church suffered for centuries from the fallout of Mary’s vindictive paybacks. She was not cruel by nature, but she was determined to destroy the heresy that ruined her life and the lives of many English people. Sadly, she only lit the fuse for the persecutions of Roman Catholics.
    Elizabeth observed it all and was determined NEVER to lose her authority! Thankfully, an unmarried Elizabeth proved that England could be competently ruled by a lone woman. (An eye-opener for men everywhere!) This was a great accomplishment considering how easy it would have been to create an army against her. She was always on guard against that possibility. I doubt she seldom truly rested easy. Elizabeth was on the lookout her entire life.

    Do appreciate the chance to read Catherine’s carefully worded letter! One wonders if she pondered long and hard how she would word it or if it came easily. She was knows to write well-worded letters.

    Ms. Abernethy, I wish you a warm week full of great discoveries!

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  4. Hindsight is a marvelous tool for not making the same mistakes over and over. As a historical tool of evaluation, it stinks.
    I always need to catch myself when I read history bec I evaluate a time period by my own personal knowledge. This is a struggle for all historians and all humans! Lol
    In that awful & ridiculous mindset, I want to give a lecture to Katherine and Mary about religious adherence, wars etc. To no avail whatsoever. Not only would they not listen to me, they’d have me burned at the stake, I’m afraid.
    Everyone surrounding Henry lived life on the edge of execution, banishment or royal disfavor. But the women seemed to suffer far more as they were perpetually under the thumb of Henry, et al.
    No wonder Elizabeth trusted almost no one and remained alert and wary all of her life.
    What a time to be an observer of the court! But not to be a participant.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this Susan. This makes me think of Mary and her desire for love. She could not get it from her mother and she definitely could not get it from her father. I am certain Chapuys gave her as much love as he could as an Ambassador. Do you think it was just Anne Boleyns hatred of Mary, her father’s libido blindness or her mother’s letter were the reason Mary did not marry when she was young? Just curious.

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    • Great question Kim. She did not marry when she was young because she was considered a pawn on the marriage market and valuable for political alliances. This was not unusual in the 16th C.

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  6. I’ve always been fascinated with the Tudors. In fact I’ll be re-watching the Tudors on Netflix soon. I hope that The Other Boleyn Sister gets released as well!. I love that era. Even though there wasn’t much on women because they lived in the shadow of men, I do believe women had a certain status.

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Mimi Matthews

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