Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Life of Catalina, Katherine of Aragon’s Moorish Servant

by Lauren Johnson

In 1501 a girl set out for England. She had come from the fertile coastal strip surrounding Motril, on the southernmost point of the Iberian peninsula. She traveled with a small household, leaving the heat and Moorish architecture of Granada to cross dusty plains and steep mountain passes until she reached the port of Coruna in Galicia. Taking ship – probably for the first time – she endured fierce storms in the Bay of Biscay, thunder and lightning off the coast of Brittany and was blown far off course in the English Channel. By the time she arrived, the journey had taken four months.

The girl’s name was Catalina.

This is not another story of Katherine of Aragon, referred to in Spanish documents as Catalina. Nor is it a tale of one of her many noble ladies who shared her name. It is the forgotten story of the life of Catalina of Motril, an enslaved Granadan who journeyed with her mistress to make the princess’s bed and attend to other intimate services of her private chambers. And Catalina was to play her part in the most seismic events in English history.

Malaga, George Braun (wikimedia commons)
Catalina probably first entered her mistress’s household as a result of the Reconquista of Granada by the king and queen of Aragon and Castile in the last decades of the Fifteenth Century. These ‘Catholic Monarchs’, Ferdinand and Isabella, were Katherine’s parents and with crusading zeal they had swept through the Andalusian territories of their Moorish neighbours, murdering and enslaving as they went. The city of Malaga (95 kilometres from Catalina’s hometown of Motril) resisted their attack so the monarchs ruled that every single person within its walls should be enslaved when it inevitably fell. The centuries-old customs and culture of Granada were conquered – and, over the following decades, destroyed.

Of course, Catalina’s entry into royal service may not have been a result of the war with Granada. Some Moors found themselves enslaved as punishment for crimes: pleading for alms without a permit, illegally leaving the country, gathering together in groups of more than four, or as a result of capital offences when punishment was commuted to slavery. Other Moors were seized by Christian pirates as ‘the goods of war’, like the Motrilian labourer Faraig Benali; dragged from a coastal path into a life of slavery. But it seems most likely that Catalina was installed in the royal household as a consequence – and symbol – of royal control over Granada.

Ferdinand and Isabella had a number of slaves in their service, including those reaped from their recently claimed territories in the Canary Islands and the New World. They enjoyed converting their slaves to Catholicism, and to serve so intimately upon the infanta Katherine, Catalina must also have been baptized a Christian. Perhaps in the process her name was changed. Slaves commonly took the name of their master or mistress, and alongside the infanta there were several other high-born Catalinas in Katherine of Aragon’s household. Catalina may have been named for, and originally in the service of, any one of them. Indeed, Catalina was one of the most common names for a slave in the Valencia region of Spain.

Catherine of Aragon, Michael Sittow c.1502
(wikimedia commons)
However she entered her mistress’s service, Catalina was regarded highly enough to be chosen as part of Katherine’s household when she left behind her homeland to begin a new life in England in 1501. Katherine was to marry the heir to the Tudor throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales. When she entered London in November, Katherine ensured her Spanish heritage and her parents’ conquest were foremost in people’s minds. Alongside English ladies wearing their own fashions, Katherine and her servants wore their native costumes, which were considered ‘busteous and marvellous’ by the English. Catalina was probably dressed in the native clothing of Granada. Thomas More was among those who witnessed the incredible procession, and he described with some bemusement the ‘undersized, barefoot, pygmy Ethiopians’ who accompanied Katherine. In all likelihood he was looking at young adolescent moors like Catalina, wearing sandals such as those commonly sported in Granada. His words suggest that Catalina endured curious stares and insensitive comments from onlookers that day, although she was far from the first black person to live in the British Isles

On Katherine and Arthur’s wedding night Catalina was in attendance. It was her duty to ensure the royal marriage bed was properly prepared, the expensive linens and silks scented and warmed for the young couple’s arrival. The next morning, she would have been the one to carry the bedding away again. Catalina fulfilled this role throughout Katherine’s marriage, accompanying her to Ludlow to begin her life as Princess of Wales. But barely four months later, tragedy struck. Arthur fell seriously ill at Easter 1502, and a week later he was dead.

Katherine and her household were recalled to London. There, it emerged that not all of her marriage portion had been paid by her family, meaning her in-laws felt under no obligation to provide access to her dower. Stripped of her claim to her late husband’s vast estate she was forced to live with unwelcome frugality. At first it seemed that Katherine would marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry but the certainty of it waxed and waned with the vagaries of international diplomacy. For seven years Katherine’s future hung in limbo – and with it, the lives of her attendants. They no longer enjoyed palatial comforts. Katherine had to pawn her jewels and plates just to keep them in her employ, and even then they walked around ‘in rags’. She wrote to her father Ferdinand in despair, pleading to be allowed to enter a convent. If she had had her wish, Catalina’s future would have been very different.

The Coronation of Henry VIII & Catherine of Aragon
(wikimedia commons)
But in April 1509 Katherine’s prospects changed considerably for the better. Her father-in-law Henry VII died. His seventeen-year-old son succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII, and one of his first acts was to reinstate his betrothal to Katherine. They married in May and on Midsummer’s Day (24 June) were crowned together at Westminster. Was Catalina part of the great celebrations that greeted this joint coronation? She was certainly there on Katherine and Henry’s wedding night, fulfilling the same role she had carried out for her mistress’s first wedding. Did anyone ask Catalina if Katherine came to the marriage a virgin? At the time people did not seem much to care.

For over twenty years, Katherine was queen of England. And during those initially happy and then increasingly wretched years Catalina disappears from the records. She was there for the joy and hope of both of Katherine’s weddings, and she appears again when her mistress’s second marriage had crumbled into misery and recrimination. By 1530, Henry VIII had convinced himself that his marriage was cursed, that he had displeased God by marrying his brother’s widow and that his now-menopausal wife was really nothing more than a sister-in-law. He insisted that she be set aside. Katherine, meanwhile, insisted that her first marriage had been no true union – that she had come to Henry’s bed a virgin. Since Arthur could not answer to the truth of the matter, other witnesses were called. Among them was Catalina.

By then the woman who was ‘once the Queen's slave’ had left royal service. She had evidently been gone some time. Her life can only be reconstructed from the notes of Spanish examiners eager to find her and glean her testimony on the marriage, for ‘she (was) said to be well informed’.

Catalina had led an itinerant life since departing England. Quite when she had braved a return journey across the storm-lashed seas is unclear, but she broke her journey in Valdezcaray in northern Spain, and there married a Moorish crossbow-maker called Oviedo.

Morisco family, Christoph Weiditz's Trachtenbuch
(wikimedia commons)
Together, Catalina and Oviedo returned to Granada, to live in Malaga. Perhaps they had family there or perhaps they hoped that as Moors they would have more opportunities in this once great Granadan city. Catalina gave birth to two daughters before Oviedo passed away in Malaga, and then she moved once more, taking her daughters back to her hometown of Motril. Her life had come full circle.

Had Catalina been given her freedom by Katherine, to enable her to move around Spain in this manner? Sometimes freedom was granted when a slave married, sometimes on payment of a sum of money. It is possible that simply by living in England Catalina had to all intents and purposes been freed – at the time the only recognized form of slavery in England was native ‘villeinage’, the enslaved status of serfs. The freedom of the Portuguese slave Pero Alvarez was upheld, even when he returned to Portugal from England.

Morisca mother and daughter, Christoph Weiditz's Trachtenbuch
(wikimedia commons)
And there, like so many historical lives, Catalina’s story is left hanging, the archives falling frustratingly silent. We do not know if Katherine’s agents ever found her. We do not how long Catalina lived, or if she knew of her mistress’s eventual divorce and death. We do not know what became of her daughters. It is worth being reminded that we may not even know her real name.

The unknowns of Catalina’s life vastly outweigh the knowns, and even this reconstruction is just one version of the slim facts of this forgotten woman’s story. But we can gather enough from the gleaming shards in the archives and the rich context of the history through which she lived to create a Catalina whose story can be told and remembered.

I created this speculative life of Catalina as research for a play that will tell another version of her tale: Catalina by Untold (written by Hassan Abdulrazzak) will be performed at Colchester Arts Centre at 2.30 and 8pm on 31st March, and at Ovalhouse Theatre London from 1st to 4th April at 7:45pm daily.

There are post-show discussions of Catalina’s life on 31st March (after the 8pm show in Colchester) and 2nd April Ovalhouse London.


Lauren Johnson is the author of The Arrow of Sherwood (Pen & Sword Fiction) an origin story of Robin Hood, rooting the myth in the brutal, complex reality of the twelfth century. She is currently working on a history of the year 1509 (when Henry VIII came to the throne), to be published by Head of Zeus in 2016.

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  1. What a fascinating story! Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this and was glad the servant girl got her own life (at least at some point!). Oh, the stories she must have told her daughters.

  3. Thanks Margaret and Regan - yes, I wonder how much she revealed about her life at the English Court.

  4. Enjoyed your reasoned and rational conjectures on Catalina's life - nice post!

  5. Thank you so much for this interpretation of Catalina's life, as well as for your research.


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