Fertility problems throughout her marriage meant that Catherine of Aragon never fulfilled her most important obligation – to produce a male heir. Could this have been a result of her ‘disordered eating’? Historian Giles Tremlett investigates.
The warning signs were there. The teenage girl due to become England’s queen consort was not eating properly. Behind her back, worried letters were sent from one side of Europe to the other. In a sharp echo of the words used to describe anorexia, bulimia and today’s food-orientated illnesses, Catherine of Aragon was given to ‘disorderly eating’ – or so one close observer would go on to write in the early days of her marriage to Henry VIII.
The 15-year-old Spanish princess had arrived in England in 1501, after a long , storm-tossed journey from the magnificent surroundings of her home at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. Catherine had always known her destiny was to marry the future king of England and bear a son to continue the Tudor dynasty. Her first years in England, however, were miserable: a time of loneliness, uncertainty and almost continuous illness. Her eating problems did not help. But could they have had a knock-on effect, making it difficult for her to produce the desired male heir and thereby pushing her husband into the arms of Anne Boleyn and changing the course of English history?
We think of eating disorders as a uniquely modern phenomenon. Blame is pinned on everything from skeletal catwalk models, fashion magazines and bikinis to exams and career stress. But self-starvation and binge eating have been with us for centuries – at least since the Romans began vomiting after meals, or it first occurred to someone that fasting was virtuous. It is quite possible that Princess Diana was not the first famous royal to suffer.
Anorexia wasn’t formally diagnosed as an illness until the end of the 19th century, but candidates for early anorexics are now thought to range from Joan of Arc to Mary Queen of Scots. ‘Did this exist before? Absolutely. It just wasn’t called anorexia nervosa,’ says Dr Julie Hepworth, a specialist in eating disorders. ‘The symptoms have been called different things at different times.’
It is impossible to make a medical diagnosis five centuries later, but Dr Hepworth agrees that Catherine’s situation as a powerless, unhappy young woman and the symptoms I describe her experiencing in my biography Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen are reminiscent of the lives of modern sufferers. ‘There are striking features which are very similar,’ she says.
Catherine’s troubles started soon after her arrival in England. She had not originally come with the intention of marrying Prince Henry, but had been engaged since the age of four to his elder brother Arthur, heir to Henry VII. A wedding ceremony at St Paul’s sealed the match between the two 15-year-olds, and a wedding bed awaited Catherine and Arthur in the neighbouring Bishop’s Palace. It was there they were meant to set about the business of producing a future heir to the English crown.
But her marriage to Arthur seems to have been as unhappy as it was short. Historians have argued endlessly about whether the two ever managed to have sex. Catherine insisted they did not, and her retainers told of an embarrassed Arthur shuffling out of her chambers, leaving a sad and dissatisfied Catherine behind. ‘I fear he will never be able to have relations with me,’ she said, according to one retainer. That must have been a blow to her self-esteem, especially as her main task was to provide heirs. Her sense of failure and worthlessness would have been acute.
After weeks of partying the young couple were sent to live inside the towering grey walls of Ludlow Castle, close to the Welsh border in Shropshire. But Arthur died within months, and Catherine found herself a widow at 16, ill and, presumably, anxious to leave what her mother called ‘that unhealthy place’. Her kindly mother-in-law, Elizabeth of York, eventually sent a black-fringed carriage to take her back to London, but Henry VII and her parents, the mighty Spanish monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand, soon had fresh plans for her. In 1503 she was engaged to marry Arthur’s young brother Henry. Her new fiancé was, however, still an 11-year-old child. She must wait to marry him.
In the meantime her parents abandoned her to the care of the tight-fisted Henry VII, but repeatedly failed to send the final instalment of dowry money that would allow her to remarry. Seven glum years were spent in misery-provoking limbo. ‘I fear my life will be short, owing to my troubles,’ she told her father. Henry VII was sometimes cruel, hoping that might force her family to send the money.
Catherine was a pawn in European politics – trapped and powerless. She complained bitterly, especially about money: at one stage she was forced to sell her bracelets in order to buy herself a new dress.
Grief then added to Catherine’s woes. On 26 November 1504 Queen Isabel died. Catherine lost not just a mother, but her marriage-market status as daughter to the queen of Castile – a title that passed to her elder sister, Juana ‘the Mad’. If
Catherine was already powerless, her mother’s death can only have made her
feel increasingly worthless.
At some stage Catherine began eating erratically. Fasting on religious grounds offered her an opportunity to shun food. Today’s eating disorders are often associated with exaggerated perfectionism, and religion provided Catherine with examples of ways to pursue that. Some of the more extreme practices could involve self-harm – ranging from self-flagellation to starvation. Famous medieval saints such as Catherine of Siena had even starved themselves to death. ‘She was constrained every day to vomit the food she had eaten,’ the saint’s confessor had reported. Comparisons with today’s self-starving anorexics chasing a perfect body are apt. The saints replaced ‘the ideal of thinness with holiness’, says historian Rudolph Bell, author of a book on female saints whom he called ‘holy anorexics’.
Among those who spotted the danger to Catherine’s health was the Pope. Julius II, whose permission was required for many marriages between Europe’s royal families, was a key player in continental politics. So when he received news that Catherine was overdoing her fasting and jeopardising her ability to bear children, he wrote to the Prince of Wales.
The Pope’s letter is dated confusingly and it is not clear whether it was meant for Prince Arthur or Prince Henry, but Catherine was probably aged between 15 and 19 – the age at which today’s eating disorders appear. Julius leaves little doubt about the worry she caused. He had been told that the ‘fervour of her devotion’ was such that she excessively observed ‘holy oaths and prayers, fasting and abstinence’ without the Prince of Wales’s permission. Catherine ‘does not have the full power of her own body’, the Pope wrote. ‘And the devotions and fasting…if they are thought to stand in the way of her physical health and the procreation of children…can be revoked and annulled by men.’
He gave the prince ‘authority to restrain and compel’ her and prevent anything ‘that would stand in the way of the procreation of children’. Catherine, in other words, could be ordered to eat.
Catherine was plagued by mysterious, long-lasting illnesses. Her own doctor believed she suffered one continuous bout of illness that lasted for six years after her arrival in England. The symptoms were varied and erratic. They included ‘derangement of the stomach’, hot sweats, cold sweats, fevers that came every other day, summer colds and summer coughs that baffled King Henry’s physicians. She would complain, on the same day, of ‘suffering cold and heat’. It is difficult not to see her underlying illness as depression. Her doctor said as much. ‘The only pains of which she now suffers are moral afflictions beyond the knowledge and ability of her physician.’
The cures were various. Mostly they involved blood-letting and purgatives that would have provoked both vomiting and diarrhoea. Catherine preferred blood-letting. The cures at least guaranteed her a little bit of attention, if only from her physician. Spaniards at court speculated that an early bout of illness was caused by the fact that ‘she was a virgin, and that if she married someone who had skills with women, she would get better’. What she needed, they meant, was a ‘real’ man in her bed. Her own physician proposed something more sensible – a little bit of love. Some ‘paternal solicitude’ from her uncaring father, he insisted, was ‘her only hope’.
Catherine’s troubles were brought to a sudden end by Henry VII’s death in 1509. The 17-year-old Henry VIII was proclaimed king, and one of his first decisions was to marry Catherine, now aged 23. The final dowry payment was made quickly, and the young couple were apparently happy, but overanxious to produce children. Catherine’s strange eating habits soon drew the attention of a worried Spanish ambassador.
‘Irregularity in her eating makes her unwell,’ he reported. ‘Which is why she does not menstruate well.’ Little surprise, he went on to say, that Catherine was having trouble conceiving.
A disturbed menstrual cycle is one of the first symptoms to appear in modern eating disorders, and problems getting pregnant can be another knock-on effect. In fact Catherine did conceive – at least half a dozen times – but her pregnancies mostly ended badly. Stillbirths, miscarriages and infant deaths were a painfully repetitive part of her existence. This was not abnormal for the times, but research also suggests that both miscarriages and underweight babies can be linked to eating disorders.
Only one of Catherine’s children survived into adulthood – Mary Tudor, the future queen who would go down in history as Bloody Mary. Crucially, Catherine provided no male heir – and a daughter was not enough for Henry VIII. It was the desire for a son, as much as the spell cast by the bewitching Anne Boleyn, that drove Henry to leave Catherine. This only happened after 17 years of outwardly successful, amicable marriage (Catherine eventually lasted twice as long as Henry’s queen as the five wives who followed her put together).
A long and messy divorce battle, which Catherine fought tenaciously despite the obvious dangers to her life, ended only when Henry decided to split the English church from the Pope and Rome. He could then appoint an archbishop of Canterbury who would do his will and grant a divorce, a decision that reverberated through English history for generations.
So was it an eating disorder that robbed Catherine of her ability to give Henry the male heir he craved? At this distance, and with the evidence available, it’s impossible to be sure. We can’t know if she had some other medical condition that might explain her symptoms, and we know little about her weight. Later portraits and descriptions certainly show her as plump enough.
But anorexics and bulimics, as their families know only too well, often spread their suffering beyond themselves.