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Almost the Perfect Woman: Public and Private Expectations of Catherine of Aragon, 1501–1536

Timothy G Elston, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In the early morning hours of 7 January 1536 Catherine of Aragon, recently created dowager Princess of Wales by her ex-husband, Henry VIII, died at Kimbolton Castle. With Catherine's death, Henry's discomfort with having a living ex-wife that “never had been his wife” disappeared. By then, however, Catherine's supporters had created an almost mythical woman, whose life and reputation for near-saintly goodness and virtue became the accepted canon within the public understanding of the Catherine vs. Henry story and as suggested by her contemporary, Juan Luis Vives, a model for Christian women everywhere. The accuracy of Vives' claim for Catherine as the paradigm of Christian womanhood for sixteenth-century English women in comparison to aristocratic expectations and Catherine's own deliberate presentation of herself is the subject of this dissertation. Catherine was, in truth, a woman whose dynastic position required a great many images dictated by gender: some demanded by religion, some stipulated by an aristocratic society that strongly favored patriarchy, and others required by circumstances that forced Catherine to choose between accepted patriarchically imposed behavioral expectations and, at times, her very existence. Consequently, though Catherine's legacy has focused upon her steadfastness in the face of much suffering and in the process nearly created her a “saint,” Catherine was actually a woman who attempted to live according to accepted societal norms. When she found that those standards differed from her immediate or perceived needs, Catherine failed to uphold the standards of English aristocratic and dynastic society, manipulating her own image in the hope of changing other's opinions of her.

Subject Area

European history|Womens studies|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Elston, Timothy G, "Almost the Perfect Woman: Public and Private Expectations of Catherine of Aragon, 1501–1536" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3142078.