catherine of aragon

The Flemish stained glass window in St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster

Let’s dive into the fascinating history behind that stunning Flemish stained glass window in the eastern window of St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster. It’s like a time capsule that takes us back to one of the most important moments in English history: the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon on June 11, 1509. If you haven’t noticed it before, the church is right next to Westminster Abbey and is where the MPs go to pray, so it’s definitely worth a visit.

Photo: © Copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

So, picture this: you’re standing in the heart of the church, and your eyes catch the glimmer of this Flemish stained glass masterpiece. Created around 1526 in the Netherlands, it depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But what makes it truly precious is the depiction of the couple of the hour: Henry and Catherine of Aragon. You can spot them kneeling in the lower left and lower right corners, commemorating their marriage that happened right there.

To really grasp the significance of this marriage, we’ve got to rewind a bit. Catherine, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, initially married Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, in 1501. Sadly, Arthur passed away just five months after the wedding. To keep those Anglo-Spanish ties strong, King Ferdinand II proposed that Catherine marry Arthur’s younger brother, the six-years-younger Henry. So, they cooked up a marriage treaty at Richmond Palace on June 21, 1503, and it got the royal stamp of approval on March 3, 1504. That’s when King Henry VII signed off on an agreement that said young Henry, at the age of 12, and 17-year-old Catherine would be officially betrothed on June 28, 1505, when Henry turned 14. And get this: the treaty even said Ferdinand II would cough up an extra dowry installment on top of what he owed from Catherine’s previous marriage to Arthur.

But, alas, there was a religious hitch. Canon law had a thing against marrying your brother’s widow. Leviticus in the Bible straight-up said, “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing… they shall be childless” (Leviticus 8:16). Although Pope Julius II in Rome granted a special dispensation for Henry to marry Catherine, King Henry VII kept things in limbo, and they struggled financially. He was kinda holding out for a marriage that could make a political or financial splash. It was only on his deathbed that he finally told his son to marry Catherine.

In a letter written by Henry VIII to Margaret of Savoy, the daughter of Emperor Maximilian, on June 27, 1509, he spilled the beans: “It is true that, considering the respect we are bound to observe for the treaty and the agreement that has been made, promised, concluded and sworn to for a long time between the deceased King our Lord and Father and our father-in-law and our mother-in-law, the King of Aragon and the Queen of Spain, his consort, regarding our marriage with their daughter Catherine, and also considering the betrothals which were subsequently made between us and her per verba pruescenti [contract of marriage]; and we having reached full age, just as among the various wise counsels, honorable instruction and precepts that the King, our deceased Lord and Father, gave us when he called us before him, being then on his deathbed, he gave us an express order that we should marry Lady Catherine, to fulfill the aforesaid treaty and agreement of the aforesaid betrothals.”

And that, my friend, is the story of that remarkable stained glass window and the tangled web of challenges, politics, and life-altering decisions that led to Henry and Catherine’s marriage. It’s like a visual relic from a bygone era where the destiny of nations and individuals was woven with threads of diplomacy and love. Cool, huh?

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