The Spanish Queen of England.

This portrait of Catherine was painted by Michel Sittow, who worked as a court portrait painter, for Isabel of Castile, the Habsburgs, and other royals in Spain and the Netherlands.


Queen Isabel of Castile had four children, Juan, Juana, Maria, a stillborn twin of Maria, and finally, Catherine. Juan was to be her heir to the throne, and he was married to the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, but tragedy struck when he became ill and died in 1497 at the age of 19, leaving no heir. Isabel took his death badly, and never really recovered her spirit. Her health began to decline. Juana became the female heir at the age of 18 and married Philip the Handsome. Her sister, Maria, married Manuel I of Portugal, and last, but far from least, Catherine was married to Arthur, the Prince of Wales, the son and heir of Henry VII of England.


 Catherine’s marriage had been arranged when Arthur was only three and Catherine two. It was a high-profile agreement between two nations designed to cement an alliance between Spain and England against France. The Treaty of Medina del Campo was a bold plan by Henry II Tudor, who had ousted the Plantagenet line at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and was worried about the many more rightful claimers to the throne of England who were still alive. Of the twenty six clauses in the treaty, seventeen covered economic trading deals and military agreements, only one was about the marriage; the rest were negotiated rights following the wedding. Catherine’s dowry was fixed at 200,000 crowns (Over £5 million pounds in present day values.) and both parties happily signed the contract. After this, things started to become a little silly.

Arthur’s father was a great believer in the legend of King Arthur of the round table, and at that time legend had it that Worcester was where the fabled court of Camelot had been established. He built a manor house there, and took his wife to have his child there, so that his son would be born in the same place that King Arthur ruled from. When she had a boy, Henry II was overjoyed, and called his son Arthur in anticipation of a golden future ahead for the child.

Before the children were of age, a request was sent to the Pope for a dispensation to marry them, even though they had never met, and were still far too young to be considered a husband and wife. The Pope duly sent his blessing, and they were married by proxy in 1497 at Arthur's home, Tickenhill Manor near Worcester. Eleven year old Arthur was reported to have said to Roderigo de Puebla, the Spanish proxy for Catherine that “He much rejoiced to contract the marriage because of his deep and sincere love for the Princess.”

The young couple wrote to each other in the common language of Latin for four years until 20 September 1501 they were deemed old enough to live together. Arthur was 15 and Catherine was 14. Catherine arrived at Plymouth on 2 of October and a month later, the children met each other for the first time at Dogmersfield in Hampshire. They immediately discovered that they had been taught different forms of Latin, and could not understand each other. Despite this setback, they eventually rode to London to be married.


On 14 November 1501, the marriage ceremony finally took place at Saint Paul's Cathedral. Both Arthur and Catherine wore white satin and the ceremony was conducted by Henry Deane, Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by William Warham, Bishop of London. Following the ceremony, Arthur and Catherine left the Cathedral and headed for Baynard's Castle, where they were entertained by "the best voiced children of the King's chapel, who sang right sweetly with quaint harmony."

Arthur’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a party to the next bout of insanity when Catherine was led away from the feast and undressed by her ladies-in-waiting. They veiled her and placed her in the nuptial bed, which had been sprinkled with holy water beforehand. Arthur was led in escorted by his gentlemen friends, to the accompaniment of viols and tabors, with no less a dignitary than the Bishop of London, who blessed the bed then led everybody from the room. In royal weddings, this was a not uncommon thing but this was probably the only public bedding recorded in Britain during the sixteenth century. Needless to say, the marriage was not consummated that night.

The following morning, the poor boy had to brag to all the courtiers of his prowess in bed, but the truth was that Catherine was still a virgin, and would remain so until after the unfortunate Arthur died of a chest infection six months later.

With his carefully laid plans in disarray, Henry VII now had to pass his title on to his second son, also named Henry, but he needed very much to carry on with the trade treaty with Spain that a marriage to Catherine brought. Catherine was now 17, but Prince Henry was only 11 years-old. To continue with the lunacy seemed reasonable, so Catherine was betrothed to little Henry. The Spanish were a little dubious of the marriage arrangements, but they feared the French, and an alliance with England was much desired.

Eight years later in 1509, Henry VII died, and 25 year-old Catherine married Prince Henry, who had now become King Henry VIII, and the crown was secure again.  Weeks after their wedding, Catherine was crowned Queen of England alongside Henry in an extravagant joint coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.


Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbien the younger around 1536


Henry VIII was nothing like his brother Arthur, as Catherine found out on their wedding night. Henry was an ardent lover and he thought the slightly plump Catherine “The most beautiful creature in the world.” With her red-gold hair that hung below her hips, she was everything that the 18 year-old King desired. Needless to say, she conceived almost immediately. Henry announced to the world that his wife was pregnant and on the 1st November 1509 he wrote to King Ferdinand, her father, that “Your daughter, our dearest consort, has conceived in her womb a living child, and is right heavy therewith, which we signify to your Majesty for the great joy thereof that we take, and the exultation of our whole realm.”  The whole of England celebrated because the child removed the possibility of dynastic civil war.

Queen Isabel of Castile had watched all these ridiculous arrangements unfold over the years, but long before she became queen, she had realised that those of royal lineage did not have normal lives.  She had her own experience to draw upon and her children were subject to the same manipulation. Her second daughter, Maria, whose husband had died young before they had time to conceive a child had been married to his brother to preserve the dynastic link.

She would have no doubt been happy to hear the good news about Catherine’s pregnancy. Undoubtedly, she had been corresponding to her youngest child all along, but she had died the year before Catherine’s coronation, and now King Ferdinand was regent for Catherine’s sister Juana until they had an heir apparent.

However the elation was to be cut short when she went into labour six months into the pregnancy and the child, a girl, was stillborn. Catherine knew the importance of her producing a male child and was heartbroken, not only for her lost child, but for the shame of letting her family down. She could not bear to tell her father, nor let anybody else tell him. Finally, she was persuaded to write him a letter.

“Pray, your Highness, do not storm against me. It is not my fault. It is the will of God. The King, my lord, took it cheerfully, and I thank God that you have given me such a husband.” She added, as if to reassure herself. “It is the will of God.”

Henry wasted no time in getting her pregnant again and on 25 May 1510 her confessor was able to inform her father “It has pleased our Lord to be her physician, and by His infinite mercy He has again permitted her to be with child. She is already, by the grace of God, very large.”

Just after midnight on New Year’s Day 1511, Catherine gave birth to a boy and bonfires were lit all over London and Te Deum was sung in the churches. The boy was christened Henry “With very great pomp and rejoicing.”

The festivities were curtailed when news was delivered to the celebrating King and Queen that their child had died. Henry showed no outward signs that he was disappointed, but consoled a heartbroken Catherine. The King lavished a fortune on the funeral of his lost heir, and had him buried in Westminster Abbey.

In early 1513 Catherine was again pregnant, but events of state intervened and Henry had to lead an army in France. Whilst he was away the Scots, who were allied with the French, opened a second front by invading England. Catherine, though heavily pregnant, traveled to Buckingham in June to give a resounding speech to the troops who were to meet the Scots at Flodden Field. She praised their courage and the English resolve against the foes of England. She was as good a Queen as the English could hope for, and they and they defeated the Scots, killing their king, James VI, and ten thousand of his men, whilst the English lost but a thousand troops.

Though Catherine carried the flag of England to triumph, she lost the battle within her body, and in October she gave birth to a premature boy who died. When Henry returned from France, he knew what she had suffered, and showed great compassion, but the pressure was on for Catherine to produce a male heir.

By July 1514 she was pregnant again, but in November she gave birth to a boy who, according to different sources was stillborn or a premature birth due to anxiety. Relations between Ferdinand I and Henry VIII had become tense and this must have been preying on Catherine’s mind during the pregnancy. She was approaching 30 now and had lost the bloom of youth. In 1515 she was described as “Rather ugly than otherwise.” And there were plenty of prettier faces among her ladies in waiting.

Henry’s displeasure abated, and Katherine conceived again the following year and on the 18 February 1516 she gave birth to a healthy daughter, whom they called Mary. The king was delighted with this “right lusty princess.” When the Venetian ambassadors congratulated him, he told them, “We are both young; if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God, the sons will follow.”

The next year, in August 1517, Catherine was “supposed to be pregnant.” But no more was heard of it. Her last child was conceived in 1518 when she was 32. It was kept secret from the country, but by July she greeted Henry when he arrived at Woodstock, telling him that the child had “Quickened in her womb.” He was so delighted that he gave a great banquet to celebrate. Henry knew that time was running out for them both, and this pregnancy was vital. He wrote to Cardinal Wolsey that he didn’t want to come to London for fear of disturbing Catherine and that the birth of a boy was “Not an ensured thing, but a thing wherein I have great hope and likelihood.”

On the night of the 9 October 1518, she gave birth to a baby girl who was so weak that she did not survive long enough to be christened. King Henry was by now disillusioned with Catherine. Over the years of their marriage she had given birth to six children, including three sons, but all of them died except for one – their daughter, Mary born in 1516. Bitterly disappointed and ashamed, Catherine was to suffer further humiliation in the coming years, but her battle was not yet over, and she and her family would eventually split England down the middle. 


Anne Boleyn painted by an unknown artist.


For years, Henry had been casting a roving eye around his court, where he had a choice of young girls. In 1523, a young girl of 15 years came to take up a post as maid of honour waiting on his wife. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, and he had brought his daughter back from France to marry her off.

Anne had spent some of her childhood and teenage years in Europe where she had been a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Margaret in the Netherlands. In 1514, her father arranged for her to be a lady-in-waiting at the French court to Queen Mary, King Henry VIII's younger sister. She later served Queen Claude of France for almost seven years.

Anne had a striking beauty, and her sophisticated manners earned her many admirers at court, but she agreed to be betrothed to Lord Henry Percy who had fallen for Anne.  His father and Wolsey were incensed with Lord Henry for acting impetuously and the relationship was cut short. It has been debated by historians that the King already had his eye on Anne and had had a quiet word with Wolsey. 

Before he pursued Anne, Henry had already had an affair with her sister, Mary. Henry showered Anne and her family with titles and gifts. Anne's ambitious father was created Earl of Wiltshire and her brother, Lord George Rochford, was appointed to the Royal Privy Chamber.

 Although she resisted Henry VIII's advances, by 1533 Anne was pregnant to Henry. This is just what Henry had been waiting for. He appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne. The Pope was afraid to go against the will of Catherine's nephew, Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor, and refused his plea.

At this time, the Catholic Church was an empire bigger than that ruled by its predecessors, the Roman Emperors, but equally as oppressive. Priests were offering indulgences for cash. For a donation to the Church coffers, your everlasting soul would be saved from purgatory. There was a chant that the priests used to extort their cash. “As soon as the coin rings – the soul springs.” For nearly a thousand years the language of the Church had been Latin, and only the priests could write and read the Gospels and Old Testaments. The illiterate masses had to take the word of their priests for the word of God, and the two were not always the same. 

A voice of dissent

Martin Luthor, painted by Lucas Cranach the  Elder


There were some within the Church who strongly disagreed with the way the Church was exploiting its followers, and they were beginning to form a rebellion from within. A 33 year old Professor of Moral Theology called Martin Luther teaching at the University of Wittenberg in Germany was urged to make a stand against the tyranny of the Pope. 

In 1517 he had nailed a list of 95 points of contention with the Church on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg  and published a sermon in German that all could read. At this time the first printing presses were being used for posters and books and Luther had his thoughts printed for publication. The sermon he printed can be read aloud in ten minutes, but it became a best seller with sixty thousand copies sold all over Christendom.

 Luther was summoned to Worms in 1221 to face charges of sedition but his anti-establishment views were hailed by the populace, and he was received as a hero. Worms had become the centre of a movement that would change the face of Europe. By now he had produced and printed a manifesto for the reform of the Catholic Church which had sold by the thousands. The Church was furious, and Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, excommunicated Luther. He was escorted out of town, but friends intercepted the carriage, and he was spirited away to safety.

Cardinal Wolsey had sent one of his men to Worms to observe, and he returned with the news. Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London and Thomas Moor, Lord High Chancellor of England, one of Henry VIII’s councilors, received word of Luther’s rebellion and they all condemned Luther’s work and backed the excommunication.

By 1522, and still in hiding, Luther had translated the Bible into everyday German from Hebrew and Greek making it more accessible to the laity. A copy of Luther’s bible came into the hands of William Tyndale who wrote an English translation from slightly different sources to Luther. His Bible, which became known as the Tyndale Bible, was shown to Tunstall, who forbade Tyndale to publish such heresy in England.

King Henry VIII had been told about Luther’s bible and he was prompted to denounce it and back the Pope. Henry wrote his own book which he re-affirmed the seven sacraments, or seven stages of the soul through life to heaven. The Pope was so pleased with Henry’s devotion that he granted him the title “Defender of the Faith,” a title which all British Kings or Queens still carry.

 Tyndale went to Germany where he continued to work on the translation and produced a partially complete edition in 1525. He was betrayed to the Church and had to flee to Worms to finish his New Testament, which he published in 1526. He continued working on the translations and his work became the basis for the modern King James Bible.

The printed works of Luther and Tyndale were being shipped clandestinely into England, and Cardinal Wolsey ordered their collection and burning before the doors to the old St. Paul's Cathedral. The power of the Catholic Church in England was being undermined by the reproduction of a bible that all men could read. The clergy knew that real danger was that everybody could see that the Catholic Church had been distorting the true meaning of the faith for centuries.

Henry VIII had sown his seed which was about to grow within his wife and change England forever, but Anne had a seed of her own which would split Christendom in two. When she came to Henry’s court, she brought with her a book written and published in Antwerp by William Tyndale entitled “The Obedience of a Christen man, and how Christen rulers ought to govern.” Anne had lent the book to one of her ladies-in-waiting who had lent it to her lover. The boy had it taken from him by a priest who sent it to Cardinal Wolsey. Anne asked Henry to get it back from Wolsey, who grudgingly returned it.

Henry had condemned Tyndale and his Bible, but here was his pretty lover with a book that told Henry that kings were accountable only to God, and not the Pope. She had underlined the passages that she wanted Henry to read. When he had finished, he remarked that “This book is for me and all kings to read.”  Henry had seen the lesson in Leviticus.  “And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.” He believed that by marrying his brother’s wife, Catherine, he had cursed himself to childlessness.

He asked Wolsey to negotiate a divorce from Catherine, but the Pope was adamantly against it. For seven years, the letters went back and forth to Rome begging for a divorce. Wolsey’s failure to provide an annulment angered Henry and the Cardinal lost favour.  In 1530 Henry trumped up charges against Wolsey and summoned him to face trial, but the 50 year old man died on the journey and saved the executioner a job.

Catherine pleaded with Henry not to divorce her, saying that her marriage to his brother had never been consummated. There was no curse.


With Anne pregnant with a possible male heir, Henry was backed into a corner. He made a monumental decision, and broke with the Catholic Church. He passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring that he was the head of the English Church, and appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer immediately annulled the marriage between Catherine and Henry and announced the wedding of Ann and the king. In 1533 Henry VIII and Anne were married in a secret ceremony, and in June 1533 Anne was crowned Queen of England in a lavish ceremony at Westminster. As soon as he heard the news, the pope excommunicated both Henry and Cranmer.

Henry and Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, (the future Queen Elizabeth I) was born in September 1533. Two more pregnancies ended in miscarriage, in the summer of 1534 and in January 1536. When Henry discovered the second baby had been a boy, he became convinced this marriage, too, was cursed. Henry was still desperate for a male heir, and his anger focused on Anne for not providing one. He took Anne’s lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour as his mistress and started thinking of a way to end his second marriage.


Meanwhile in 1535, Tyndale had been arrested by the Church authorities. Tyndale had opposed Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon which earned him the king’s enmity, but the new head of the Church of England, Thomas Cranmer, attempted unsuccessfully to intervene on his behalf. The Catholic Church was implacable, and Tyndale was executed for heresy the following year.

Catherine of Aragon had been forced out of court and died on 7 January 1536 at Kimbolton House in Cambridgeshire. She was given a small funeral and buried in Peterborough Abbey. Anne had reigned as England’s Queen for a thousand days before Henry concocted charges of high treason against her. Her jury included her uncle and the man she had originally been betrothed to, Henry Percy. She was, of course, found guilty and beheaded on 19 May 1536.

The day after Anne’s execution Henry announced his betrothal to Jane. They were married in May 1536, and on 12 October 1537 Jane Seymour gave Henry what he had been waiting 28 years for; a son. The hardened King, who had split Europe and faced down the might of the Pope’s massed minions wept as he held his son for the first time.   

Jane did not live to see her son grow. She died of postnatal complications less than two weeks after the birth. She was never crowned Queen of England because plague was running through the streets in the capitol, but she was the only one of Henry’s wives to receive a queen’s funeral, and his only consort to be buried beside him in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Henry VIII was at last content knowing that his son Edward would succeed him as King of England. Henry had only ten years of life left, but he managed to fit in another three wives during that short time. He was a strong willed King, who had created far reaching changes in his own lifetime, but the wake of his passage would bring turbulence to England for centuries to come. 

Meanwhile, in Florence


The Da Vinci painting in the Louvre.

During these turbulent times in Europe, a man whose genius has transcended the centuries was beginning work on arguably the most famous painting in history.

Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have started the Gioconda in October 1503 in Florence, and was the portrait of a Florentine lady by the name of Lisa del Giocondo, who was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.  The painting is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. La Gioconda (the Italian name for the painting) means 'jocund' ('happy' or 'jovial') or, literally, 'the jocund one', a pun on the feminine form of Lisa's married name, Giocondo.

 Although Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, experts on his work have suggested that the style is more representative of the later years of his life. He seems to have been working on the portrait for 4 years, and it is possible that he did not finish the painting in Florence. Thirteen years after he started the Mona Lisa, he was invited by King Francis I to come and paint at Clos Lucé near the Château d'Amboise in France. It seems that he took the painting with him and continued working on it until 1516 when Leonardo lost the use of his right arm. He died in 1519 leaving the painting unfinished. 


 The Del Prado Mona Lisa before restoration.


In 2011 restorers began work on a painting that had been hanging in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid for just over 180 years. During all this time, it had been considered one of many copies of the painting hanging in the Louvre. Preliminary infra-red photos and X-rays of the copy revealed that they were dealing with something more than just a copy. The background to the painting in the Prado was black, but the infra-red photos revealed a landscape just like the da Vinci painting.  When the restorers compared the x-ray photos with the existing ones for the da Vinci original, the charcoal drawings beneath the two paintings were identical, including parts where da Vinci had erased and started again.

 A radiocarbon test was carried out on the walnut panel that the copy was painted on and it was discovered that the dates were the same as the original in the Louvre, which was also painted on a walnut panel. A chemical analysis on the pigments of the two paintings showed close similarities, and the restorers came to the conclusion that whoever painted the copy had been looking over Leonardo’s shoulder when he painted the original. Other clues confirmed the similarities. The frames of both paintings were also made from walnut, a very expensive material at that time, but one favoured by da Vinci.

 The first record of the painting was when it appeared in the 1666 inventory of in the Galleria del Mediodia of the Alcazar in Madrid as Mujer de mano de Leonardo Abince (Woman by Leonardo da Vinci's hand). The black layer covering the landscape background was added sometime after 1750. It is still unknown when the painting entered the Spanish Royal Collection, but it could have already been in Spain from the early 17th century, and when the Prado was founded in 1819, the painting was already listed in its collection.The question now is who painted it?

When Leonardo was working in Florence he had several pupils.  Salaì or Francesco Melzi are the most plausible authors of the Prado’s version, though other experts are of the opinion that the painting could have been executed by one of Leonardo’s Spanish students.

Leonardo Salaì as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.


Leonardo Salaì was taken into da Vinci’s studio in 1480 at the age of 10. He was the son of Pietro di Giovanni, a tenant of Leonardo’s vineyard near the Porta Vercellina, Milan. He was described at the time as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted.”

Leonardo himself described the boy as “A liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton.” He stole from Leonardo several times, but Leonardo kept him in his household for more than 25 years.

 Da Vinci is thought to have used Salaì as the model for several of his works, specifically St. John the Baptist and Bacchus. Leonardo’s sexual orientation is still unclear, but it seems that Salaì got away with many things that would have resulted in dismissal for others. For instance, Salaì was responsible for Monna Vanna, a nude version of the Mona Lisa which may be based on a charcoal sketch by Leonardo.

The other candidate is much more plausible than Salaì. During Leonardo's second stay in Milan, he took another young pupil, Francesco Melzi. Unlike Salaì, Francesco was a son of a nobleman. When Leonardo travelled to Rome in 1513 and to France in 1516, Salaì and Melzi both accompanied him. As an adult, Melzi became secretary and main assistant of Leonardo, and undertook to prepare Leonardo’s writings for publication. A contemporary says that Melzi "at the time of Leonardo was a very beautiful and very much loved young man".


In France, Francesco Melzi was greeted as "Italian gentleman living with master Leonardo" and granted donation of 400 ecus, while Salaì, 36 years old, was described as "servant" and granted a one-time donation of 100 ecus. Salaì left Leonardo and France in 1518, and later returned to Milan to work on Leonardo's vineyard, previously worked by Salaì's father, half of which was granted to him by Leonardo’s will. Leonardo left all personal belongings, paintings, drawings and notes to Francesco Melzi in his will, but it is unclear whether this included the Mona Lisa. 

Whoever did paint it has left us with a beautiful duplicate of one of the most famous paintings in the world, and greatly increased the value of the Prado collection.