Nerdy post alert! For those of you who don’t know me all that well, I am a huge history buff. English/British history has been my main focus point since I was a kid, particularly the Tudor era. So it was so much fun to visit Peterborough for the Katherine of Aragon Festival last month!
This festival is held to commemorate Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, who was buried in Peterborough Abbey (now the Cathedral) after her death in 1536. As my favorite person in history and the subject of my 47-page senior paper for my university degree, I can say without a doubt that Katherine of Aragon was a huge badass, and certainly worth commemorating.
I was lucky enough to go to the Katherine of Aragon Festival in 2014, during my study abroad in Nottingham. It was such an amazing experience, to be surrounded by so many other people who were as interested in Katherine as I was. So when I moved to England permanently last fall, I knew that I would be attending the 2017 festival no matter what.
The Katherine of Aragon Festival is hosted by Peterborough Cathedral, and takes place during the last weekend of January, in honor of when Katherine was buried (January 29th). There are various events throughout the weekend, some aimed for kids, some aimed for adults, but all with the goal in mind of showcasing the Tudor era and Henry’s first queen, Katherine.
The Commemoration Service is one of the standout events from the weekend. The greeter at the cathedral told me I was “a bit keen” by arriving half an hour early—ha! Little did he know, I had actually gotten to town an hour before and woken up before 6:30am on my day off work to get to the service!
The service is attended by lots of local schoolchildren, and by several civic dignitaries, including the mayor of Peterborough, and a representative of the Spanish Ambassador to the United Kingdom (Katherine was a Spanish princess, after all!), who process to her grave with flowers and wreaths. My favorite part of the service was at the end, when a woman dressed as Katherine read her famous “last letter” to Henry VIII, in which she forgave him everything and which was defiantly signed “Katherine, the Queen.”
Throughout the weekend, there are Tudor-themed events at both the Cathedral and at Peterborough Museum. To be honest, there’s not much else in Peterborough to see besides the cathedral and museum.
Peterborough Cathedral has recently opened a Visitor Center in the cathedral precincts, which gives a fantastic overview of the cathedral’s long history (nearly 900 years old!), as well information about religious life, both past and present. They had a special exhibition about Katherine of Aragon, which was very informative—I highly recommend it!
Peterborough Cathedral also runs guided tours of the cathedral during the weekend as part of the festival. Peterborough Cathedral is absolutely magnificent, both inside and out. The beautiful three pointed arches of the West Front are without architectural precedent, the fan vaulting is some of the most beautiful in the country (in line with Westminster Abbey, King’s College in Cambridge, and Gloucester Cathedral), the Norman nave and painted ceiling will make your jaw drop, and the cloisters are definitely worth a wander
If you’re headed to the festival, definitely make time to take a tour and learn more about this amazing building from the experts!
Peterborough Museum is typically free (although they charged a fee for events during the Saturday/Sunday of the festival this year), and is housed in an old Victorian hospital. The Museum had just opened a great new exhibit called “Tremendous Tudors,” which explored the area’s connections to Tudor times and what life was like during the Tudor era. They had a stunning Book of Hours on display, as well as a portrait of Mary Queen of Scots that I had never seen before! (A rarity these days!) The museum had several other interesting exhibits, including Norman Cross (a Napoleonic prison camp in the area), Peterborough and Its People (a history of modern life in Peterborough), and First People (about the area’s many Roman connections and artifacts). If you’re in town, the Museum should be your other main stop after the Cathedral.
One of the highlights of the festival was the festival lecture, given this year by one of my favorite historians/authors, Suzannah Lipscomb! Suzannah Lipscomb gave a great talk about Katherine in the context of the legacy of her family—her mother, Isabella of Spain, and her daughter, Mary I.
It was such a refreshing take on Katherine, much different from the classic “wronged wife/victim” category that she is all too often thrown in.
There was a book signing afterwards, so I not only did I get to meet Suzannah Lipscomb, but I now have two of her books autographed!
The lecture took place in Peterborough Cathedral (which was stunning at night), after the Tudor pottage and ale supper (which I skipped out on because it was super expensive). There was another author lecture on the Saturday night, which I unfortunately missed due to train times.
There were also these people dressed up in Tudor costume (including a Spanish Katherine of Aragon!), but I’m pretty sure they just do this kind of thing for fun, they weren’t part of the cathedral’s official program. “They don’t even go here!” (EDIT: This group was part of the official program! They were also at the Tudor Pottage and Ale Supper.)
Another highlight from the Katherine of Aragon Festival that I really enjoyed was the Royal Audience, with Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon themselves! The event was aimed more for kids with crafting, but was in reality a talk about Tudor etiquette and clothing. The king and queen were full of information and took lots of questions from the audience, and I got photos with them after!
The Tudor Walk in Peterborough was an event that I went on during my first Katherine of Aragon Festival (in 2014), but missed on this trip because of my early train. But I thoroughly enjoyed my guided walk around Peterborough and the cathedral quarter, and learned a lot about the buildings and the city itself during the Tudor era!
My love for Katherine of Aragon is one of those things that will stick with me for life. It was a great honor to lay both my senior paper (all 47 pages of it) and flowers on her grave, and to be there for the festival this year. She is my favorite person in history—strong, tenacious, determined, loyal, and a spirited and intelligent international diplomat. She famously gave a moving speech to Henry VIII during their divorce court proceedings at Blackfriars (21 June 1529), then got up and walked out of the court—my favorite moment in history! History has portrayed her as such a passive victim, but she was so, SO much more.
Just for fun (it’s my blog after all!), here’s a photo of The Blackfriar, a pub in London, which is on the same site of the former monastery—the setting for my favorite moment in history!
Three years ago, in May 2014, I took an overnight bus in Spain from Barcelona to Madrid, and visited the town of Alcalá de Henares at 7:15 in the morning. I walked out of the bus station with no map and no sense of direction, and running on very little sleep. But this town was Katherine’s birthplace, and I found my way to the Archbishop’s Palace, where she was born in 1485.
There this beautiful statue outside, and I knew that spending 17 out of 24 hours on buses was worth it for this moment.
The Katherine of Aragon Festival in 2017 was such a great event! As a Tudor fan and (obviously) a huge Katherine of Aragon fan, I loved every minute of it, and Peterborough Cathedral was a fantastic setting for the festival. I definitely intend to return for next year’s festival in 2018!
And a special thank you to Adam, for letting me share it all with you. And for taking photos of me all weekend. 🙂
Have you ever been to a fun event or festival—nerdy or otherwise?!