“‘For the Debt of Blood’: Form, Rhetoric, and Performance in Catherine of Aragon’s Letters to Ferdinand of Aragon and Charles V, 1502-1536”
Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 20.3 (Summer, 2020): 85-119
Although we have about seventy extant letters written by Catherine of Aragon–most of them in her hand–there has been virtually no treatment of this queen consort’s epistolary voice. This neglect may stem from a scholarly tendency to privilege women letter writers with a reputation for transgression or independence over those like Catherine, with a reputation for modesty and deference. Such perspectives overlook how Catherine–like many early modern women letter writers–actively and assertively scripted her reputation for modesty and conjugal loyalty. This essay considers how Catherine, over a period of thirty-five years, learned to move from writing expressive and original, but largely ineffective letters to using the nuanced dialogic possibilities within letter-writing conventions so as to shape constructive epistolary networks. Her ability to skillfully navigate such networks allowed her to enlist powerful male allies whose active interventions forced Henry VIII to delay the annulment of his marriage to Catherine by five years. And Catherine’s rhetorical self-presentation as Henry’s pious, loyal, deferential wife was so successful that it has dominated our cultural memory for the last five hundred years–despite active efforts by Henry and his allies to portray her as Henry’s foreign, treacherous, and illegitimate queen.