Katherine of Aragon at Croydon Palace

The guest speaker at the Alumnae 81-86 Reunion was the historical novelist Alison Weir. Although not an alumna herself, she has a close connection with the school, in that her daughter is an alumna. Here she describes how Katherine of Aragon lived at the ‘Old Palace’ for much of the year 1502.

It is often stated that Henry VIII’s first queen, Katherine of Aragon, lived At Durham House, the Bishop of Durham’s palace on London’s Strand, after the death of her first husband, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales in April 1502. In fact, Henry VII gave the young widow – she was sixteen – the choice of two residences: Durham House and Croydon Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence in Surrey. Katherine chose Croydon and, by 4 May, was lodging there.

At that time, Croydon Palace was a large, stately courtyard house with opulent chambers, a great hall, a chapel and a great parlour.  There had been archiepiscopal buildings on the site since the tenth century. Since the archbishops used the palace as a summer residence, Katherine was probably accommodated in their own chambers, which had recently been partially rebuilt.

Late in May, the Queen, Elizabeth of York, sent her page, to Croydon, possibly to check on the Princess’s health, and perhaps discreetly to ask her servants if there were signs of any pregnancy.

During the months Katherine stayed at Croydon, her future remained under discussion. Her parents, the Spanish sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, were naturally concerned about her. On 10 May they had sent an ambassador to England with instructions to preserve their alliance with Henry VII, ask for the immediate return of Katherine and her dowry and, if possible, secure the Princess’s betrothal to the new heir to the throne, Prince Henry, who, at eleven, was five years her junior. Everyone was aware that, if Katherine had conceived a child by Arthur, her union with Henry would contravene canon law.

Doña Elvira, her duenna, was adamant that the marriage had not even been consummated and wrote to Queen Isabella insisting that the Princess remained a virgin. In July, when it was beyond doubt that Katherine was not pregnant with Arthur’s child, Isabella informed Henry VII that her daughter remained a virgin. But, although Henry also wished to preserve the Spanish alliance, he was hesitant. Months would pass before he reached a decision on the proposed betrothal between Katherine and Henry. Meanwhile, with her future still uncertain, Katherine had moved to Durham House; she was living there by 6 November 1502.

Her stay at Croydon must have been shadowed by sorrow and anxiety. All her life, she had been brought up as a future queen of England; now that destiny had been stolen from her. It would be seven long, stressful, penurious years before it was restored to her and she became Henry VIII’s first wife.

Alison Weir