29 January: Catherine of Aragon

Alas, what shall I do for love? 
For love, alas, what shall I do? 
Since now so kind 
I do you find 
To keep you me unto. 

‘Alas, what shall I do for love?’ by Henry VIII (1491-1547)

I once had to go personally to the Passport Office in Peterborough to renew my passport. Whilst I waited for them to process it, I spent an hour or so in Peterborough Cathedral. Catherine of Aragon is buried there.  She has a piece of black slate over her grave, wonderfully carved and inscribed and lying on it was a single red rose. Nothing else, no card, no message, just an homage to someone who was a Queen of England for over twenty years and some would argue even longer if you count the years after Henry VIII divorced her. 

Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough on the 29th January and the city now holds a Catherine of Aragon Festival to commemorate their most famous, albeit deceased, resident. She died in 1536 at Kimbolton Castle where she had been a virtual prisoner, denied even the opportunity to communicate with her only child. Here she is as a pious young woman, still in mourning for her first husband and about to be married to his brother.

Catalina (as she was known before her marriage) was the youngest child of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain - who funded Christopher Columbus and she was a very clever woman indeed. Isabella had not expected to succeed to the throne of Castile and felt herself to be a disadvantage because her education was limited, so she ensured her own daughters were very well taught.

Catherine spoke fluent Latin, she knew Erasmus, she was versed in diplomacy and law, she could make a shirt and she could bake!  I'm really impressed that her Mother thought that she needed to know how to do the two last things. Not because I think all women should understand the domestic arts, but because it was meant as a reminder that you might be a Queen but you are also a human being who needs to be clothed and to eat, just like everybody else. 

Catherine was betrothed to Henry after the death of his elder brother Arthur, a frail youth to whom she had been briefly married. The world turned twenty years later, when after six pregnancies she had only produced one healthy but inconveniently female child. Had she slept with Arthur? The Reformation of the Church in England depended on that one thing. It wasn't the legal union with Arthur that Henry argued made his marriage to Catherine incestuous, it was the fact that she had become 'one flesh' with his brother. Well actually she hadn't, but it was very convenient to say that and to forget that Henry himself had boasted Catherine was a virgin when he married her. 

This is the recently discovered portrait of Catherine now reunited with its partner portrait of Henry. Note the similar jewels.

Catherine's heraldic symbol was the pomegranate - it was a pun on Granada, her birthplace. The pomegranate symbolises fertility and fecundity and we've seen that on the blog before. (Feasts and Festivals_ Cerealia). After Henry divorced Catherine, Ann Boleyn, who was already pregnant (with a girl who was to become Elizabeth I) commissioned a new coat of arms and she chose the falcon as her symbol. It means 'I will not rest until I reach my goal' and Ann's falcon was pecking a pomegranate.  I think that's cruel, how hurt Catherine must have been, I always thought Ann was a heartless strumpet.

Henry VIII had a sister, Margaret Tudor and she turned out to be a bit of a scandal too. In 1503 she was escorted to Scotland to marry King James IV, on the way she stayed with the Earl of Northumberland and he kept meticulous household accounts. From his steward's records we get a clear view through a window into a Tudor dining room. 

For breakfast, sprats were popular with the ladies, served on a manchet - a thick slice of white bread to soak up the juices. There's also an old New England recipe for sprats with bacon  - maybe that travelled over with the early settlers. So I've made sprats and bacon on a manchet, transformed into a hearty starter or a light lunch dish.

Sprats in Bacon on a manchet

Oven 200c.

For each person you’ll need a slice of sourdough bread, 3 sprats and 2 slices of smoked streaky bacon. Oil an ovenproof dish or a baking tray. Wrap the bacon round the sprats and put on top of the bread. Bake for 15 minutes.

You could grill this too – just be careful the bread doesn’t burn. You might do the fish and bacon first, but part of the point is for fishy bacony oil to soak into the bread. Serve on a strong leaf salad dressed with mustardy vinaigrette.

I love this brilliant poem by Thomas Wyatt one of Henry's courtiers.

In court to serve decked with fresh array, 
Of sug'red meats feeling the sweet repast:
The life in banquets, and sundry kinds of play, 
Amid the press of lordly looks to waste, 
Hath with it join'd oft times such bitter taste. 
That who so joys such kind of life to hold, 
In prison joys fett'red with chains of gold. 

‘The Courtier's Life’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

PS. People sometimes ask where and how I do the research for the blog and why I don't attribute my findings. Well it's not an academic paper that I'm writing, it's a snippet and I don't want it cluttering with footnotes. But to satisfy the curious - todays research was based on Antonia Fraser's immensely readable 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' and ditto Colin Spencer's 'From Microliths to Microwaves: The evolution of British agriculture, food and cooking'



Toffeeapple said...

I learn so much from your delicious posts, thank you. I too renewed my passport at Peterborough, but was thoroughly unaware that the Cathedral held one so hard-done-by.

I am very interested in the whole Tudor dynasty and must do more reading on Catherine, it has been so long since I last did so. Did you find the Antonia Fraser book difficult to read or was it quite easy? I remember struggling, many years ago, with one of hers.

I was surprised that she could bake and sew a shirt.

Was Thomas Wyatt not 'involved' with Anne Boleyn at some point in her life?

The recipe is one that I shall try when I next see some sprats, it has been some time since I had those too.

Liz Woods said...

I found the Antonia Fraser quite easy.. I'm just got as far as Ann of Cleves. She does manage to give some of those little details that make it come alive - like the shirt business and the fact that Ann stayed at court as a 'Royal Sister' even after Henry divorced her. Give it a go!

I think you're right about Wyatt.

Hazel Cottage said...

A lovely post. I've always had a soft spot for Catherine of Aragon.

I found the Antonia Fraser Henry VIII book relatively easy to read, but found another of hers very dense and more difficult. I think its the sheer detail she puts into it!


Toffeeapple said...

Thank you, I ordered the book through Amazon and it has arrived today. 500 pages and only £2.80! I shall start to read it tomorrow.