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The inability of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to produce a male heir was a trigger that set in motion the English Reformation and the creation of the Church of England. Henry had married Catherine, who was the widow of his older brother, Arthur, under a special dispensation given by the pope. When the desired son was not produced Henry decided to do without Rome. He sought a new wife and removed all the symbols and features of Catherine's royal position. She lived in relative poverty at Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire, until her death in 1536, at which timeCatherine was buried in Peterborough Abbey. This building was raised to cathedral status in 1541. The presence of Catherine of Aragon's tomb may have been a factor in its change of status.
The tomb of Henry's first wife can still be seen in the cathedral. It is in the north aisle next to the sanctuary and is marked by an engraved slab of marble. Above the tomb hangs the Royal Banner of England of the period with fleurs de lys and lions passant guardant, as well as a banner based on the coat of arms of Catherine. On our most recent visit the slab was decorated with flowers and seven pomegranates. This fruit is usually present on the tomb as an acknowledgement of the part it plays in Catherine's coat of arms.
As royal tombs go this is a very modest affair. The cathedral authorities must have recognised this because they commissioned a sign made of individual gold letters to draw attention to it. The letters spell the deceased queen's name with a "K" rather than the more usual (today) "C". However, the tomb's setting alongside the richly decorated sanctuary and the massive stonework of the Norman columns, capitals and vaulting is undoubtedly impressive. On the other side of the sanctuary is the site of Peterborough's other royal connection. Mary, Queen of Scots, was buried here in 1587 after her execution at nearby Fotheringhay Castle. Her body was re-buried in Westminster Abbey on the orders of her son, King James I of England so what we see now is the site of the earlier tomb. It too has gold lettering to mark the location.
photograph and text © Tony Boughen
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