The story behind a Queen’s tomb - Stuart Orme, Peterborough Cathedral

Stuart Orme ANL-160522-215930009
Stuart Orme ANL-160522-215930009

Eagle eyed Peterborough Telegraph readers might have spotted Peterborough Cathedral on the telly before Christmas. As part of the BBC series ‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley’, the TV Historian was filmed walking through the Cathedral 
before paying her respects at the tomb of Katharine of Aragon. It showed our wonderful building off to a national audience in all its glory.

The programme was well timed as it came out in the run up to our annual Katharine of Aragon Festival, marking the date in 1536 when Henry VIII’s first wife was buried at Peterborough Abbey (now the Cathedral). Katharine is arguably the most famous figure associated with the city’s history, and is our most renowned burial, bringing visitors here from all over the world.

Katharine of Aragon was born in 1485 at Alcalá de Henares in Spain (today one of Peterborough’s twin towns), daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. She came to England in 1501 to marry Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII, but he died after only six months of marriage.

When Henry VIII became king in 1509, he promptly married Katharine, his brother’s widow. For much of their marriage, the relationship seems to have been good – they were married longer than all Henry’s later five marriages combined. Katharine was unable to produce a living male heir, something Henry regarded as essential for the continuation of his dynasty. Only a daughter, the future Queen Mary I, survived infancy.

As was common royal practice, Henry had mistresses and illegitimate children, but when Anne Boleyn arrived at court he became besotted with her. She refused to become a mistress, forcing Henry’s ‘Great Matter’: that he could only have Anne if he could annul his marriage to Katharine. In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement to annul his marriage, but he was refused.

In 1532 Henry split from Rome, being proclaimed the Supreme head of the Church in England. In May 1533 his marriage to Katharine was annulled on the grounds of her pre-marriage to his brother being against canon law. She was exiled from court, latterly to Kimbolton Castle, where she died on 7 January 1536, most likely of cancer. Katharine was buried with a royal funeral at Peterborough Abbey on 29 January, as the nearest great church that befitted her status, whilst not burying her in London where she was politically embarrassing.

Katharine’s tomb was vandalised by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War and later its marble was removed in the 1700s for lining the floor of the Dean’s summerhouse! The current memorial slab was installed in 1895 after a national campaign for the ‘Katharines of England’ to all donate a penny for it.

There’s a programme of events to celebrate Katharine’s life and times from 26th – 29th January at Peterborough Cathedral and Peterborough Museum. These include a Royal Audience with ‘Henry VIII and Queen Katharine’, a Tudor living history weekend and exhibition, plus a talk by the broadcaster and historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb.

For more details and tickets go to www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk