Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Royal Wedding: The Other Queen Catherines

On Friday, Catherine Middleton will marry into the British Royal Family and one day, all being well, she will become the sixth English queen to be called Catherine. In a spirit of patriotic delightfulness, here is a run down of the other five!

1. Catherine de Valois (1401 - 1437) Probably best known today for being a character in the Shakespeare play Henry V, Catherine was the daughter of King Charles VI of France and his German queen, Isabeau of Bavaria. Her elder sister, Isabelle, had already been Queen of England before her when she had been married off at a very young age to King Richard II. Catherine's marriage in 1420 to England's handsome warrior king, Henry V, marked the end of the current wars between France and England. A tall, slim and beautiful blonde, Catherine was basically the medieval period's picture-perfect-princess. Unfortunately, the so-called "bride of peace" didn't have very long to enjoy life as Queen of England. Two years after the marriage and not long after the birth of their son, Henry, the King died on military campaign and Catherine was left a widow at the age of twenty-one. She caused quite the scandal a few years later by running off with her handsome Welsh servant, Owen Tudor, with whom she had three more sons and helped found the Tudor dynasty. Tragically, the ex-queen died in childbirth in 1437. In a much more creepy end to the story, Catherine's body was buried in an air-tight coffin which was discovered centuries later in the time of King Charles II - perfectly preserved! In what I think is a totally disgusting and pretty weird move, the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys was allowed to view the body on his birthday and kissed its lips, boasting that his birthday treat had been to kiss a queen. Eh, yes, but one that's been dead for three hundred years. Weirdo.

2. Katherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536) The first of Henry VIII's six unlucky wives, Katherine was born in Spain in 1485 and initially married Henry's elder brother, Prince Arthur. When Arthur died during the plague epidemic of 1502, Katherine was married off to his younger brother, Henry, once he became king in 1509, despite the grumbling of certain English churchmen that marrying your dead brother's wife contravened Old Testament law. The marriage was a satisfactory one, with Katherine being both dignified enough to carry out the duties of a queen perfectly and she was prepared to look the other way at her husband's numerous affairs, which started almost as soon as the ring had been slipped onto her finger. However, Queen Katherine's six pregnancies resulted in only one healthy child - a daughter, Mary. By 1524, after fifteen years of marriage, she had passed the menopause and Henry was already considering divorcing his wife when he fell violently and obsessively in love with Lady Anne Boleyn, the nineteen year-old French-educated "it" girl of the Tudor court. Katherine, a devout Catholic, fiercely resisted the divorce but in the process, her stubbornness and bravery may actually have contributed to England's famous break with the Roman Catholic Church. She was banished from court in 1531 and stripped of her title in 1533. She refused to accept that her marriage was over right up to her death from cancer in 1536.

3. Catherine Howard (?1523 - 1542) The fifth of Henry's wives, Catherine was a party-loving teenager when the enormous, middle-aged monarch made her his mistress in 1540. He divorced his fourth wife, a German princess, in order to marry Catherine, much to the delight of her ambitious family who used Catherine's rise to the throne to destroy several of their political enemies. Catherine took no interest in politics and for the first year of the marriage, she seemed quite happy to spend, dance and party. She spent a fortune on clothes and jewels. However, after a royal tour of the north, she was placed under house arrest when allegations emerged that she had not been a virgin at the time she married the king. The investigation into Catherine's private life eventually uncovered strong evidence that she may have been having an affair with Sir Thomas Culpepper, reportedly the most handsome (and badly behaved) man in London. A love letter found in Thomas's rooms showed that this affair had started when she was actually married to the king. The poor, traumatised girl was sent to the executioner's block before her twentieth birthday. Today, she is still buried in the Tower of London.

Tamzin Merchant as Catherine Howard in Series Four of The Tudors

4. Katherine Parr (1512 - 1548) Henry VIII's sixth and final wife, he married her eighteen months after executing Catherine Howard. An intelligent and elegant thirty year-old, Katherine had already been widowed twice by the time she married the king. Terrified at what had happened to his other wives, Katherine Parr fairly obviously didn't want to become queen of England, but there was no way of saying "no" the marriage proposal without destroying her family's position. A devout Protestant, Katherine nearly suffered a nervous breakdown trying to cope with her bloated husband's unpredictable mood swings. One minute he was smothering her with gifts and affection, the next she was being threatened with arrest if she didn't learn to tone down her support for evangelical Protestantism. Henry died in 1547, leaving her one of the wealthiest women in Europe. She married again, this time for love, but died in childbirth eighteen months later.

5. Catherine of Braganza (1638 - 1705) This daughter of the King and Queen of Portugal was not beautiful, or even pretty, but whilst her husband King Charles II had numerous mistresses and over a dozen bastard children with them, he always treated his wife with great respect. In fact, it's almost certainly true that Charles II's best friend was his wife. Married in 1662, gentle Catherine was described as "a saint" by her royal mother-in-law and along with bringing the ports of Tangiers and Bombay to the British Empire as her wedding presents, she's also credited with introducing the custom of drinking tea to the British Isles. Which, frankly, makes her a hero. Seriously, though. Anyway, Catherine's failure to produce any living children meant that many politicians were urging King Charles to divorce her and marry the beautiful socialite, Frances Stewart (who formed the inspiration for the figure of Britannia on the 50p pieces, apparently.) Charles, however, gallantly refused to subject his faithful wife to such public humiliation and declared that if he couldn't have children with Catherine, then the throne would just have to pass to his younger brother James when he died. Despite her kind nature, Queen Catherine was the target for a public hate campaign in the 1670s because of her Catholic faith and she was briefly forced to avoid making appearances in public. By the time her husband died of kidney failure in 1685, she had recaptured the public's respect, as she deserved. Seven years later, though, she left Britain after becoming increasingly uncomfortable at the ultra-Protestant regime then in power. She went back to Portugal where she surprised everyone with her unexpected political skill by taking over the government on two occasions when her brother, King Pedro II, suffered a nervous breakdown. 

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