Outliers: Katherine of Aragon’s lady of the bedchamber

Season Two of HRP’s Outliers podcast is here – our history fiction podcast that tells stories from the perspective of those standing in the shadows of historical events. In this Outliers blog series, we’re uncovering the true history that inspired our podcasts’ compelling stories. This week’s episode, Secrets of the Bedchamber, tells the story of Catalina, a Spanish Moor, slave and royal bedmaker to Katherine of Aragon.

Katherine of Aragon, unknown artist © Merton College, University of Oxford
Katherine of Aragon, unknown artist © Merton College, University of Oxford

In 1501, Katherine of Aragon left Spain to form a marriage alliance with Arthur Tudor, older brother to the future Henry VIII, accompanied by her retinue of servants and courtiers. Among the entourage was a woman with the same name as the Queen: Catalina, a Spanish Moor.

Though relatively few records survive about Catalina’s life, we do know that Catalina was probably born in Motril, Granada, into a Moorish Muslim family. Her status as part of Katherine’s royal family household is vague. Catalina was probably brought up Muslim and enslaved as part of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain’s Reconquista [re-taking] of Granada in the 15th century. Catalina was likely not her real name but might have been adopted when she was placed in the service of Katherine of Aragon.

Catalina was probably one of a very few black servants of that era to arrive in England; John Blanke, trumpeter to Henry VIII, being another. When Arthur Tudor died, Catalina remained in Katherine’s service and continued to serve her after she married Henry VIII.

Writer SEVAN sets this podcast story many years later, around the end of the 1530s, when the King is attempting to divorce Katherine. Catalina no longer works for the Queen. We know that she eventually left Katherine’s service, returning to Spain where she married a crossbow maker named Oviedo. The search for her by Henry VIII ‘secret service’ is documented, but no mention exists of her being located.  However, this tantalising evidence inspired SEVAN to imagine a visit, by two unnamed men, to Catalina’s home, where they question her closely about her life with Katherine, and specifically, whether she can confirm without doubt that Katherine and Arthur’s marriage was ever consummated. The men attempt to intimidate Catalina into giving them vital information that would secure Henry VIII’s divorce. But Catalina is stronger than they suspect.

Catalina is a historic character of much interest and mystery because of her potential knowledge; as royal bedmaker, there is little doubt that she would have known the intimate details of Katherine’s marriage night with Arthur.

Though we have records of Catalina’s early life, once she reached England, her status is harder to determine. In English law the position of slave did not exist. The fact that we do not know how Catalina or Katherine viewed her role in the royal household leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But perhaps it is not so difficult to imagine that she remained loyal to the strong woman she had served for so many years.

Secrets of the Bedchamber is now available for downloading. Listen to the new story and to all previous episodes on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or Stitcher.

You can read the full transcript of Secrets of the Bedchamber here

Claudia Strange
Assistant Digital Producer

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