I’m working on a project about Catherine of Aragon and keep coming back to one question: Why are so few people interested in her? Yes, there are plenty of biographies and I’ve read them all, both scholarly and popular, and I can tell you that they are strikingly alike. They all rely the same set of sources that every author has used for the last century and a half: the Calendar of State Papers and a few letters to, from, or about Catherine edited and published well over a century ago. The biographers devote two-thirds of the book to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the King’s Great Matter, otherwise known as The Divorce.
Part of the problem with Catherine is that scholars have followed the lead of male authors—Garrett Mattingly, David Starkey, Giles Tremlett, Patrick Williams—who portray her as the dour and bitter Spanish wife Henry ditched in favor of the lively and sexy Anne Boleyn. After a while, honestly, it gets a little dull. To be fair, scholars have begun to consider Catherine in other ways, such as her patronage of humanist writers. But where is Catherine the queen? Why are there so few studies on what she did, rather than what happened to her?
When I started this project I thought perhaps the sources were lost, damaged, or maybe lurking about in some obscure archive. Trained as a feminist scholar, I knew that women are overshadowed by men and that women’s lives have been overlooked, but come on, this is Tudor England. Surely, there must be something.
Well, there is. There is plenty. And it’s not lurking in a secret archive—it’s in printed sources that have been available for decades, sources that are now readily available to anyone with a library card and access to the internet. It doesn’t even require a university library account. British History Online, a tremendous project spearheaded by the Institute for Historical Research, has made available the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, a compendium of many—not all, mind you, just many—of the documentary archival material available in The National Archives at Kew. Scholars have been editing household accounts, inventories, and wills. Archaeologists have been documenting the material side of history, the houses and town where people lived. And the joys of the search function allows us to type in “Catherine” or “queen” or “princess” or the name of anyone close to her and voilà, there she is, waiting to talk to us. This is no secret. Anyone who teaches the history of England knows the value of British History Online as both a research tool and a boon to teaching.
But I had an “aha moment over the weekend. I am reading the household accounts of Catherine’s mother, Isabel I of Castile, from 1477 to 1504 (Cuentas de Gonzalo de Baeza, tesorero de Isabel la Católica, edited by Antonio de la Torre and E. A. de la Torre, 1955). I was looking for records of members of Catherine’s entourage who travelled with her to England in 1501 when she went to marry Arthur, her first husband who was the elder brother of Henry. I’m happy to say that I found her court and entourage, but I’m even happier to say that I found out a lot about things like shoes. Her shoemaker, Diego de Valencia, started to make her shoes when she was two years old and continued until she left for England. That year, 1501, he was a very busy guy. 36 pairs of borçeguies (leather shoes that come up over the ankles) and 48 pairs of xervillas (slippers). It’s likely that these were not all for Catherine, that she gave them as gifts to her ama, Ines Vanegas, or one of her maids-in-waiting, María de Rojas, María de Guevara, or Elvira Manuel. I imagined Catherine giving black velvet slippers as gifts and wearing the leather shoes of Diego de Valencia, dancing, strolling through gardens, boarding the ships that took her England.
And with that image of a real person wearing shoes, Catherine came alive to me.