Catherine of Aragon and the Botafumeiro

Catherine of Aragon (16 Dec 1485-7 Jan 1536), the youngest daughter of the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, was just a teenager in the Cathedral that day, and, not surprisingly, with all of this display of outward goodwill, Catherine ignored the first of the signs. Everyone ignored the malos augurios, the bad omens. And they appeared, one after the other.

It was the Feast of the Apostle and a Jubilee Year in Santiago de Compostela. Catherine of Aragon had been betrothed to marry the young Prince Arthur, heir to the throne of England, since she was three years old. It was time for her to visit the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela: to offer thanks for the establishment of a political alliance that was also meant to ensure the Catholic future of their two countries, England and Spain, and to donate a lamp to the cathedral, an ofrenda, a traditional way of showing the Apostle one’s thanks.

Appropriately, Catherine’s visit to the cathedral was timed for maximum public relations impact: the Feast of St. James in the Holy Year. Certainly the town would be crowded, both with arriving pilgrims and jubilant locals, and everyone’s eyes would have been fixed on the princess. She had already married Arthur by proxy and was very slowly making preparations on the way to her arrival in England where the formal public wedding would take place in the late fall of 1501.

Catherine traveled north from her family’s new palace in Granada, planning to sail with her household staff, her ladies in waiting, and every one of her 51 pairs of high-topped shoes from La Coruña to Southampton, where she would be met by members of the Tudor court. Along the way, she stopped in Santiago de Compostela and passed the night in the Cathedral in prayer, as Garrett Mattingly suggests in his “Catherine of Aragon,” like a soldier before going into battle.

An eye witness account of her visit to the Cathedral is housed in the archives of the Cathedral of Seville.

“In the year 1499, the Infanta Doña Catalina was going to marry the Prince of Wales, son and heir of the King of England, and she, the daughter of King Don Fernando and Queen Doña Isabel, who went to embark at La Coruña. It was a Jubilee Year and I was in the city of Santiago until the day of the Blessed Apostle, and she heard Mass in the main Church, which was also full of people, that it seemed impossible, without much work, to fit one more person in the transept of the Church.

An incense burner was above all the people, as big as a great kettle, hanging on chains of iron, very thick, and bringing it from above with a certain artifice, it was full of live embers, and inside it, the incense thrown and other smells, and so on, it almost came from one door of the transept to the other; and swinging like that, the chains on which it was hanging were broken, and, as if they were throwing a bombard, it left without spilling a single fire through the door of the Church, where it was smashed, and all the fire that was in it was done without doing wrong to any person.”

If you stand inside the south transept, with your back against the door, the Puerta de las Platerías, look up. It is there that the Botafumeiro slammed into the door during Mass that day.

It would take months of further preparations before she would arrive finally in England. Severe weather, the loss of a ship in a storm, several failed attempts at the crossing, and the general difficulties of sailing from Spain all conspired to delay her arrival. The ships landed ultimately in Portsmouth, the princess not wanting to sail one nautical mile further to Southampton. Catherine and Arthur were married in November 1501 in the old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She would be escorted down the aisle by Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, the future King Henry VIII.

Sadly, Arthur would live only a few months into their union, leaving Catherine as Dowager Princess of Wales until she became Queen of England nearly 8 years later, upon her subsequent marriage to Henry in 1509. While in history, she can be seen as just the first of Henry VIII’s six wives, many accounts of their marriage tell not only of the real longevity of their relationship, given the shorter terms of his five other marriages, but also of what appears to have been a genuine affection between them.

Catherine was ultimately set aside in 1533 by Henry in favor of her lady in waiting, Anne Boleyn. Catherine lived out the remainder of her life in England. She is buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Pomegranates are left on her grave. In life, it was her symbol – the Spanish word for pomegranate is “Granada.”

She was well educated. She was an accomplished musician, she spoke several languages, was very devout in her faith, and she was definitely not what you think of when you think of a 15th century princess. She bore Henry six children, only one of them surviving to adulthood, their daughter Mary Tudor. In 1507, in that time between the death of Arthur and her marriage to Henry, she became ambassador of the Spanish Court to England and the first woman in European history to hold that diplomatic role.

The Botafumeiro would fail only three more times: in 1622, 1925, and 1937. The ropes that the tiraboleiros use to swing it now are made of synthetic fibers, the Cathedral having abandoned the traditional fisherman’s ropes just a few years ago.

For further reading, Garrett Mattingly, “Catherine of Aragon,” and Ann Licence, “Catherine of Aragon,” are both excellent accounts of her life. For fun, try “The Spanish Princess” television series. The first eight episodes tell Catherine’s story, from her journey to England to her marriage to Henry VIII. And if you’d like to read more about her proclivity for shoes, “Raising Infanta Catalina de Aragón to be Catherine, Queen of England,” by Theresa Earenfight.

My books are available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle here.

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