Ranking Catherine of Aragon on Screen

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Catherine of Aragon — the first, and often one of the most underrated, of King Henry VIII’s wives. Here, we rank Catherine of Aragon’s screen performances to see which actresses most resembled the real person.

When I was young, I read Antonia Fraser’s Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir’s Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Karen Lindsay’s Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII. I fell in love with Catherine as a tragic figure (Henry VIII = world’s biggest shmuck!) who at the same time had a spine of steel (never agreed to a divorce, never stopped considering herself queen, refused to go meekly into that dark night). Oh, and she was born with the way cooler name “Catalina,” which is far more interesting than “Catherine.”

Most depictions of Henry and his wives start when things get interesting, when Anne Boleyn comes on the scene and Catherine is relatively old. However, when Henry and Catherine married in 1509, they were very much in love. Well, as much as the shallow, spoiled Henry ever could be, which was narcissisticly. He loved the idea of rescuing this beautiful princess, and everything seemed rosy. And, in fact, while Henry wasn’t a saint, it wasn’t until 1525 — 16 years, mind you — that he really gave up on Catherine. Again, see above re: shallow bastard.

Now that I’m older, I’m of a more mixed opinion about Catherine. I still admire her spine of steel, and still feel sorry for the way Henry treated her. But, I also wished she would have been a little bit more realistic, so that she didn’t have spend her final years suffering, and her daughter Mary hadn’t had such a crappy childhood and turned out so messed-up. And, then maybe Henry wouldn’t have turned on Anne Boleyn (and daughter Elizabeth) so quickly (okay, yes, appeasing spoiled brats is probably not the best option).

But, of course, you can’t rewrite history! Or can you? Because filmmakers sure love to do so!

Catherine of Aragon was once young, pretty, and admired by her husband. She was fair complexioned and had strawberry blonde hair. Perhaps this is due to the fact that her maternal great-grandmother (Catherine of Lancaster) was English. Perhaps it was due to the fact that there are all kinds of colorations amongst Spanish people. Also, she started out curvy, and definitely got fat by late middle age.

An Infanta, possibly Catherine of Aragon or Juana, By Juan de Flandes, c. 1496

Possibly Catherine of Aragon (or her younger sister Juana). Either way, this is a good idea of what she looked like as a child. By Juan de Flandes, c. 1496.

CatherineAragon

Possibly a young Catherine, about 4-9 years before her marriage to Henry. Alternately, it could be Henry’s sister Mary.

Catherine of Aragon (c. 1525) by Lucas Hornebolte

Much more definitely Catherine, age about 40 (c. 1525). By Lucas Hornebolte.

Catherine of Aragon, c. 1525 by Lucas Horenbout

Again, definitely Catherine, c. 1525 (age 40). By Lucas Horenbout.

Very few of these physical traits have ever made it to film. Most filmmakers seem determined to depict her as SPANISH (ole!) with olive skin and black hair, and as old and dried up by making her skinny-bordering-on-bony.

Luckily, there are a few productions that got it right (or, at least, better).

Ranking Screen Catherine of Aragons, from Hell No! to Yes! Yes!

(Note: I’m skipping black & white productions, as I can’t pick on the hair color there)

1969-Anne of the Thousand-Days

HELL NO: Irene Papas in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). Black hair, olive skin, bony. I’d divorce her too, just out of total confusion — “Wait, I married a curvy redhead, and then I woke up next to her complete physical opposite. WTF?”

2008 The Other Boleyn Girl

APPARENTLY WE’RE IN FANTASY LAND. WHATEVER. Ana Torrent in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). Wrongity wrong wrong.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2001) starkey

ARE WE EVEN TRYING HERE? Annabelle Dowler in David Starkey’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2001) documentary. Listen, Starkey. I know you’re a pop historian, and I know you’re a misogynist, but come ON. I find it very hard to take your history seriously when I’m looking at that hairstyle (or lack thereof). In fact, I rate you as worse than The Other Boleyn Girl (2003), just for having offensive hair.

2003 The Other Boleyn Girl

I CAN’T EVEN. Yolanda Vazquez in The Other Boleyn Girl (2003). I’m letting a lot slide here, just because I’m so relieved I don’t have to look at much of her hair.

ARE WE EVEN TRYING HERE? EVEN A LITTLE? Assumpta Serna in Henry VIII (2003). I mean, the hell??!!

COULD WE MAKE AN EFFORT HERE? Assumpta Serna in Henry VIII (2003). I mean, the hell??!!

2015 Wolf Hall

PLUS 2 FOR A NICE GABLE HOOD, MINUS 1 FOR DARK BROWN HAIR. Joanne Whalley in Wolf Hall (2015).

The Tudors (2007)

TEETH GRIND: Maria Doyle Kennedy in The Tudors (2008). She’s a lovely, talented actress… but she’s Irish and she looks it. She’s got black hair. She’s got a beautiful regalness (regality?) that is a different look from Catherine. Granted, if they’re trying to show that Catherine wasn’t just a boring old hag, then, I will let this slide a little bit. Not too much, though. Don’t go getting cocky.

Mad Love/Juana la Loca (2001)

WAIT, SHE WASN’T ALWAYS A DRIED-UP OLD HUSK OF A LADY? Nerea García in Mad Love/Juana la Loca (2001). Fair skin, dark hair, daw-look-she’s-little-and-cute.

Henry VIII (1979)

THIS INTRIGUES ME! Claire Bloom in Henry VIII (1979). Wait, what? Strawberry blond hair? Well bless my beating heart!

1972 Henry-VIII-and-His-Six-Wives

WELL HOT DAMN THEN! Frances Cuka in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972). She’s curvy! She’s young! She’s pretty! SHE HAS PALE RED HAIR! But what there’s more!

1972 Henry-VIII-and-His-Six-Wives

Frances Cuka in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) again. She gets older, but she still has red hair! She’s still curvy! She’s still halfway-decent-looking! She actually looks a little too good!

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

YES! YES! YES! Annette Crosbie in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). *weeps tears of joy* Strawberry blonde! Pale skin! A nose like that possibly-just-before-marriage portrait! THE BBC LOVES ME! But wait there’s more…

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Annette Crosbie again in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). SHE LOOKS LIKE THE AGE 40ish PORTRAITS OF CATHERINE. SHE’S STILL CURVY. HER HAIR HAS WASHED OUT BUT IT’S STILL RED. SHE’S DEPRESSED BECAUSE HENRY’S A JERK (wouldn’t you be?). SHE LOOKS OLDER AND TIRED AND SAD. THANK YOU, BBC, THANK YOU. APPARENTLY I’VE BEEN A VERY GOOD GIRL THIS YEAR!

25 Responses

  1. Trystan

    The 1970s “Six Wives” has some problems, being a classic BBC production, all filmed indoors in the same sets, & some of the costumes are very gold lame & plastic pearls (which shows more on today’s HD TV than they prob. did when originally broadcast), but the casting & acting is AMAZING. Each queen is spot on & Henry is so right in all stages.

    It’s on Netflix, so ppl, go watch it now!

    • Andrew

      Eh, I take issue with Dorothy Tutin’s casting. I think she played the part well but frankly she was too old.

    • Hally

      I agree that much of the casting was excellent in that series. Amongst the wives, Annette Crosbie definitely ticked all of the boxes when it came to her physical resemblance and the way in which she chose to portray the part. Amongst the wives though, I have to say that I hard a hard time accepting Dorothy Tutin in the role of Anne Boleyn. Her acting was acceptable and she certainly possessed the physical attributes according to Anne’s contemporaries, but I just found her too old looking to be convincing in the role. The actress was about 40 years old and I actually thought she was older than that. Anne was roughly 35 years old when she was executed. Of course, the lighting they used was not the most flattering, but even then, the wrinkles were very evident.

  2. Sara

    Have you read Garrett Mattingly’s bio of Catherine of Aragon? It’s wonderfully written and he definitely shows Catalina as far more than just a bitter wronged wife. Mattingly also puts her story in political perspective internationally, not just from the English political point of view. Highly recommended!

    • Kendra

      I have, but it’s been a long time. It IS sitting on my bookshelf, though — does proximity count? ;)

  3. Katie

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve often said that if one of the boys had lived, we’d talk about Henry and Catherine as one of the great royal love stories. Personally, I’d like to see a miniseries that starts with Catherine’s marriage to Arthur, and lets us see how she and Henry fell in love, and then how their marriage slowly fell apart. Of course, as s friend pointed out, if you did that people would want to throw rocks at Anne Boleyn when she showed up.

    • Kendra

      I would LOVE to see that! Plus, you could also get into the whole Catherine and Arthur thing. Philippa Gregory tried this in one of her novels, but it wasn’t very good (typical!).

  4. clara

    Hi! Long time follower, first time poster here.
    Just a small correction: Juana was the older sister, not Catalina (who was the baby of all of Isabel and Fernando’s children, who go like this: 1. Isabel 2. Juan 3. Juana 4. María 5. Catalina)
    Also, if you ever get access to it, I dearly recommend you the Spanish TV series “Isabel” about the life of Catalina’s mother, Isabel de Castilla. It’s three seasons and Catalina only appears in a few episodes of the last season, but the choice of casting (a young actress called Natalia Rodríguez) is pretty much excellent.
    Here you have a side by side comparison of two portraits of Catalina and two screencaps: http://38.media.tumblr.com/0fc6d58a562ff2a0a57c6b5923e3d44d/tumblr_ndtixui8Ok1ro4t7go1_500.jpg
    Overall it’s a highly recommendable series, pretty accurate historically speaking and with a pretty solid cast. Also, the costuming is pretty much excellent considering it was done on a budget and reused a lot of costumes from other historical productions.

  5. Staz

    I could never for the life of me find the 1972 “Henry VIII and his Six Wives” movie, but all the stills I’ve seen make me think I might like it.

  6. Maria

    Hi! I just discover your website and it’s amazing! I love Catalina de Aragon (I’m spanish, so if I have some mistake, sorry) but, you should watch the TV series ‘Isabel’, it takes the live of Isabella of Castile, mother of Catherine and I must say that in last season it’s about the marriage of her children and Catherine it’s blonde (quite amazing for what I say). Thanks you

  7. Hally

    Thanks for your commentary on Catherine of Aragon. Really enjoyed reading it and I totally agree with your assessment. In fact, I just watched Annette Crosbie in the role this evening and you’re right – she fit perfectly. Nothing against the other actresses, but when it came down to physical characteristics, Crosbie was definitely the winner. She was also very believable in her portrayal of one of the most endearing and tragic queens in English history.

  8. Miri

    Hello, I found actually another actress who played Catherine of Aragon; Adrienne Byrne in “The Shadow of the Tower” (BBC 1972). She also has red-fair hair and bright skin. In this series she is shown with her just married husband Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales (one episode).
    Here are some good pictures of her:
    http://catefanclub.tumblr.com/post/133231516525/catalina-de-aragon-adrienne-byrne-played-the
    I think she’s the most historically accurate actress playing Catherine.

  9. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    Thank you, thank you! As a fair skinned, red haired, green eyed woman of Castillian decent it really frosts my flakes that Catherine is portraited as looking old and well, mexican. She is also shown looking decades older than Henry, when in fact the age difference was 7 years.
    I would love for a biopic to show her as more than the long suffering wife being wronged and focus on her political savy. If she had been more cold hearted she could have continued to rule from the shadows while Anne was used as a brood mare. Or, if she disliked Anne that much, another girl of her choosing to be Henry’s baby maker. Because if she agreed to retire to a convent and allow a divorce contingent on Henry not wedding Anne, he would have agreed to disolve the marriage.

  10. Miss Sara

    To be fair to Wolf Hall, there is a part where Worsley talks about Catherine’s red hair. Perhaps they thought the actress’ own hair wouldn’t show from beneath the hood. Still, not as poor a casting as some of the Others…

  11. k

    I’ve always believed the Sittow portrait to be of Katherine rather tha Mary, because of the Ks in her necklace….signing her name, Katherine tended to spell it with a K rather than a C.

  12. Brittany

    I like how the 1970s programs ACTUALLY took the time to research and get Queen Catherine right!! Like I saw Juana la Loca and they even got Juana wrong like her and Catherine were the only ones out of Isabella’s children that resembled their mother and didn’t have the contemporary Spanish looks. Spain……SPAIN of all people couldn’t get Catherine or Juana right.

  13. Lillian

    It’s almost like the shows get Catherine and Anne’s looks reversed: Catherine is shown with darker hair/skin/eyes when it was really the other way around.

  14. Sam Marchiony

    I’m here now because I’m mildly curious about where Charlotte Hope of the PFG Spanish Princess series falls — I’m guessing right around Maria Kennedy Doyle, bc while they did try for an actress who looks like Catalina looked, the writing is just…no.