Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Prince Henry, watching her approach with a confident smile, was no less splendidly dressed, in cloth of silver and crimson velvet. He had grown in height since she’d last seen him, and his red hair was nearly shoulder length. Again she was struck by what she could only describe as something of royalty in his demeanor, his innate dignity, his courtesy as he greeted her. They stood together in the chapel of the Bishop of Salisbury’s house in Fleet Street, her small hand in his firm one, and made their formal promises to each other, the King looking on, a satisfied expression on his face. Katherine was relieved that there was nothing in his manner toward her not in keeping with his proper role as her father-in-law.

  Afterward they all moved into the low-ceilinged parlor, where wine, fruit, and wafers had been laid out on the polished oak table. A toast was drunk to the Prince and Princess of Wales, and young Henry gallantly raised Katherine’s hand and kissed it exuberantly.

  “This is like something out of legend,” he said to her later, as they stood in a latticed window looking down on the busy thoroughfare below.

  “Highness?” Katherine asked, not understanding his meaning.

  “It is the proper reward of a true knight to win his lady,” Henry said. “Usually he has to perform great deeds before she will consent to be his, but all I had to do was possess my soul in patience. I have dreamed of this day, Katherine. Never did I think that you would be mine.”

  Katherine had to remind herself that he was but twelve. She supposed he had been raised on tales of love and chivalry—and she remembered that cold, envious glance at Arthur on her wedding day. What Arthur had, Henry must have. That was how it seemed to her. The title, the succession, and now the Princess.

  She smiled at him. He thought he was grown up, but he seemed so young in that moment, with his fresh, eager face and his high ideals. She remembered that he had not long lost his mother, and surprised herself by feeling very protective toward him. As his betrothed, and later his wife, it would be her duty to comfort and console him, perhaps even guide him. She realized it would be not just a duty, but a pleasure.

  “I am overjoyed to be betrothed to your Highness,” she said, and meant it.

  “Do you know what my first tutor, that rogue Skelton, told me?” Henry said. “Choose a wife for yourself. Prize her always, and uniquely. I assure you I mean to take his advice.” They smiled at each other. The warm feeling coursed through Katherine’s veins.

  Later they talked of books they had enjoyed. Henry had read most of the great classical authors—Homer, Virgil, Plautus, Ovid, Thucydides, Livy, Julius Caesar, and Pliny, or so he boasted. What was so striking was his evident love of learning, something she could share with him, although her education had been more traditional and less comprehensive. He said that he could speak both French and Latin, and promised to learn Spanish, just for her.

  “I hear that your Highness is a musician,” she said.

  “It’s in my Welsh blood,” he told her, “and my mother loved music.” A shadow crossed his face, but it was quickly gone. “I play and I write songs. I will compose one for you, Katherine!” His enthusiasm was infectious.

  “Do you enjoy sports?” he asked.

  “I like riding and hunting,” Katherine said, “although I have had little chance to do either since I have been in England.”

  “I love sports,” Henry enthused. “Daily, I practice horsemanship, archery, fencing, jousting, wrestling, swordsmanship, and tennis.” No wonder he looked so fit and strong.

  “That’s an impressive list,” she said. “And you still have time for all that study!”

  “I want to excel at everything!” Henry cried. “There is not enough time in one life to do all the things I want to do.”

  “You will be King. You will have all at your command. You will be able to do all those things.”

  “I dream of it!” Henry sighed. “Alas, I do not enjoy the freedoms I once had.” His glance flickered to his father, who was standing at the other end of the room, deep in conversation, yet watching his son.

  “I sympathize with that,” Katherine replied. “But you are the Prince of Wales!”

  “It’s true,” Henry said, seeing her surprise. “Since my brother died, everything has changed. Yes, I am now my father’s heir. Yes, I am the second person in the kingdom. But I enjoy far less freedom. I am stifled, Katherine. My father never ceases reminding me that he has lost two sons; he says that my life is all that stands between peace and civil war, so I must be kept safe. That means keeping me apart from the world. I might as well be in a cloister. I see barely anyone but my tutors, and I am kept out of the public eye. Do you know, my bedchamber can be accessed only from a door in my father’s room? I cannot go anywhere, even riding in the park, without his permission.”

  “You have my sympathy,” Katherine said. “I thought my life was ordered by rules and etiquette. Sometimes I could scream at my duenna, she makes such a fuss about little things.” She would have liked to say more but could not be seen to be criticizing the King. No doubt he had good reasons for being overprotective toward his only heir.

  “I knew you would understand, Katherine!” Henry said, taking her hands and squeezing them. She realized she was enjoying his company. He was like a breath of warm air after the dull routine of her life. And they had more in common than she could ever have suspected. She felt sorry for Henry too, but was deeply gratified that he had confided in her. All in all, she thought, they had made a good beginning. She looked forward to many such meetings over the next two years. And then they would be married.

  It had never been like this with poor Arthur.


  Katherine lay on her bed at Durham House, wondering if she could feel more wretched. This ague and derangement of her stomach just would not go away. It had ruined her stay at Richmond with Prince Henry and the King. In the end, as autumn came, she was sent back to Durham House, where she felt worse than ever. Every day, she shivered, first with cold, then with heat. She had to force food down and her face had developed an unnatural pallor. Her doctors kept reassuring her that she would soon recover, but she had lost faith in their prognoses.

  The worst thing about this illness was that it kept her away from Prince Henry. They’d had such a merry time at Windsor and Richmond. They had gone out hunting every day, accompanied by a train of courtiers. There were picnics under the trees, and she’d had long talks with her betrothed on every subject from mathematics and astrology to siege engines and guns—in fact, she had thought he would never cease talking of war!

  Maria came in, her pretty face concerned. “The King has sent again to ask after your health, Highness.”

  “He has sent every day,” Katherine said. “It is thoughtful of him. He treats me as though I were his own daughter.”

  “Once more he offers to visit you.” Maria bent down and gently wiped Katherine’s brow with a damp cloth.

  Katherine groaned. She did not want King Henry seeing her in her bed or looking so poorly. “No, Maria, please tell the messenger that I thank His Grace, but I am too ill to receive him.”

  She lay back on her pillows, giving in to lethargy, rousing herself only to read a letter that arrived from Margaret Pole. True to her word, Margaret had kept in touch for more than two years now. Her letters had always been cheerful and full of news of her growing family and life on the Welsh Marches. But this one was brief and despairing.

  Sir Richard Pole had died. He had been well, to all appearances, until he started getting pains in his stomach, where an ominous swelling could be felt. The doctors were unable to do anything for him. The genial blond man had died in agony, and Margaret was plunged into grief and financial embarrassment, for there was no money and only a small pension to live on. She was thinking of seeking refuge at Syon Abbey, and of dedicating little Reginald to the Church. Offering a son to God would be a way of laying up treasure in Heaven, she explained. It would also, Katherine knew, relieve Margaret of some of the expense of keepin
g her children. Katherine wept for her, and wished she had money to give Margaret so that poor Reginald could stay with his mother. How desperately sad that they had to be parted.


  The December sky was lowering and the rooms dark, even at noontide. Doña Elvira insisted on having all the candles lit; her eyesight was not good these days, she said. She needed light so that she could see to embroider. More likely to see if I am transgressing, Katherine thought. On the day the sun broke through the clouds, she thought she might suffocate within the four walls of her overheated, overcrowded, dazzlingly lit chamber. At least Christmas would soon be here. Her recovery from illness had been slow and tedious, yet as her spirits returned she felt ever more constrained by her duenna’s strict rules. So she had worn English dress, danced and sang at court, conversed with courtiers, ridden out and tasted a little freedom. Why did that scandalize Doña Elvira so much that she must write to King Henry and her father, insisting that Katherine was disgracing herself?

  “I might as well live in a nunnery!” she complained to Maria and Francesca.

  “Amen to that,” Maria pouted. “We are all constrained to poverty, obedience, and chastity!”

  “I shall cut off my hair and wear a veil!” Francesca threatened.

  Katherine smiled, despite herself. “We would make awful nuns!”

  But Doña Elvira’s letters to Their Highnesses had made things worse. When the King had invited Katherine to the Palace of Westminster for the feast of All Souls, he instructed her to keep the same rules as in her house. To her frustration, she had to stay mostly in her own apartments, wear her old, outdated Spanish gowns, and, worst of all, had little chance of seeing Prince Henry. And her appeals to her father had no effect. He had not replied to Doña Elvira’s complaints or to her own, increasingly desperate, letters.

  She called for her cloak and emerged into the courtyard of Durham House. The wind was brisk and invigorating, the shadows of the turrets sharp on the sunlit cobbles. Pulling Maria after her—for, of course, it was unthinkable that she be left unattended; heavens, she might speak to a gardener or hum a tune in a groom’s hearing—she made her way through the archway on the riverfront to the lawns leading down to the Thames. As they stood on the jetty above the swirling gray water, Katherine could see the broad sweep of the river, with the hospital of the Savoy and the City of London to the north, Westminster to the south, and all along the shore in between the houses and gardens of the nobility. The river was crowded with boats of all kinds; with the streets being so narrow and congested, it was London’s main highway.

  “It is good to feel the breeze,” Katherine said. “I could not have stayed in there a moment longer.”

  “How long do we have to endure this existence?” Maria asked.

  “I wish I knew!” Katherine replied, watching the gulls swooping over the water. The stink of the Thames assailed her nose, but it was preferable to the stuffiness of her apartments.

  She was still standing there, drinking in the view, when Doña Elvira appeared.

  “Your Highness, I beg you to come indoors,” she said.

  Katherine turned, in no mood to have the duenna interrupt her snatched moments of solitude. But then she saw Doña Elvira’s face.


  She lay on her bed, sobbing into the velvet counterpane. She wanted only Maria with her, for Maria knew what it was to lose the person she loved most. Katherine made her lock the door against everyone else. She had suffered her fair share of blows in her short life, but this was the worst, and she did not know how she could bear it.

  Her mother was dead. Isabella had been ailing for some time, but Katherine had not known. She suspected that her parents had kept it from her so as not to alarm her, because, after all, what could she have done to help, being so far away in England, save offer up prayers? And this, unknowing, she had done, for she always prayed daily for the good health and happiness of her parents.

  Spain was in mourning for the greatest of its queens. Isabella’s fame was legendary; there would never be another like her. Katherine did not need to be told that. This was the mother she had adored and would always try to emulate. But Isabella’s conquests, her achievements, her brilliance, were as nothing compared with the love she had inspired in her youngest child.

  Her head cradled in Maria’s lap, Katherine lay utterly bereft, beyond speech. She had always envisaged herself visiting Spain one day and being reunited with Isabella. She had dreamed of being swept into her mother’s embrace, of hearing her dear voice—now stilled forever. It was hard to accept that she would never see that beloved face again on this earth.

  For two days she kept to her room, refusing food, spending hours on her knees praying for Isabella’s soul, which must surely be in Heaven, and weeping uncontrollably. Maria, for all her kindness and understanding, was unable to do anything for her. She offered sympathy, she cajoled, she bullied—but to no avail.

  At length a calm descended on Katherine, and the first sad glimmer of acceptance. The door was unlocked. On the third day she emerged, pale, red-eyed, shrouded in the mourning weeds she had worn for Arthur. She resisted Doña Elvira’s attempts to comfort her, wanting only Maria. No one else would do.

  Dr. de Puebla came to see Katherine. She received him guardedly in her black-draped chamber, the duenna standing guard, glowering at the little man, unable to forget how he had tried to wed her to the aging King. She stood stiffly as he explained that he had come to offer his condolences and to discuss the implications of Isabella’s death.

  “Spain is once more divided,” he said, looking unusually perplexed. “Castile is now ruled by your Highness’s sister, Queen Juana, the next heir to your mother, and your father King Ferdinand is again King of Aragon.”

  The significance of that did not escape Katherine. Ferdinand was no longer King of Spain, but the ruler of a much smaller kingdom. How hard it must be for her father, having for thirty years governed Castile too! He had lost not only a wife but a crown.

  And Juana—beautiful, passionate, unstable Juana. How would she fill Isabella’s shoes?

  “The question is,” Puebla was saying, “will Philip of Burgundy—or King Philip, as we must now call him—leave the rule of Castile to King Ferdinand?”

  Katherine saw Doña Elvira purse her lips.

  “My sister is Queen,” she said. “It is she who will rule there, as our mother did.”

  “She has the right,” declared Doña Elvira, glaring at Puebla.

  “There are those who would prefer Philip.” He glared back.


  Katherine did not go to court at Christmas; it would not have been fitting for one in mourning. But soon afterward the King summoned her to Richmond, and she arrived hoping that she would soon see Prince Henry again. She longed to talk to him, knowing that he too understood what losing a mother meant. But when the King received her, the Prince was nowhere to be seen.

  “I hope you will stay with us for some time,” King Henry said as Katherine knelt before him. She rose from the floor, realizing that his words were a mere courtesy, for his eyes were unaccustomedly cold. She took her leave feeling puzzled, hoping she had not offended him in some way.

  As she entered her lodging, she found Dr. de Puebla sparring with Doña Elvira. The duenna, usually adept at controlling her emotions, looked distressed.

  “What is the matter?” Katherine asked.

  “Highness, I must be honest with you. My husband tells me that we are running out of money. King Henry has not paid your allowance.”

  Katherine looked at Dr. de Puebla for help.

  “The King says that your Highness lacks for nothing,” he told her. “He says you have the means to support your household.”

  Katherine was dumbstruck. “But, lacking money, how am I to pay my servants? Are they expected to work for me for love alone? This will put me in a very embarrassing situation. What of my maids? They have come to England hoping to make good marriages, but without an income, I
can give them no dowries. Doña Elvira, will you ask Don Pedro if there is enough to pay this quarter’s wages?”

  There was not.

  It occurred to Katherine that the King meant her to use the plate and jewels he had long coveted, and thus devalue them, so that he must ask her father for their value in cash. Heaven forbid that she should be driven to that! Probably that was why the perfidious Dr. de Puebla had not made a fuss on her behalf.

  “I will see the King myself!” she declared.

  “No!” protested Doña Elvira, rubbing her eyes, a habit she had developed lately. “It is not fitting. You cannot go begging to him.”

  “Would you rather we starved?” Katherine snapped, and asked Dr. de Puebla to request an audience; and then asked again. The King was busy, she was told. It seemed a most discourteous way to treat her, a princess of Spain and the future Queen of England. Clearly she had offended Henry, although she was bewildered as to how.

  She wished she could see the Prince and enlist his help, but she was kept cloistered in her apartments and he in his; they would be unlikely to meet by chance, and Doña Elvira’s rules precluded Katherine from seeking a meeting. In fact, to her dismay, she did not see Prince Henry at all.


  It was now April, now May. Katherine was in no doubt that something was very wrong. There had been no word from the King, nor any sight of her betrothed. Dr. de Puebla had done nothing but write to her father, and she could only hope that King Ferdinand would remind Henry of his obligations.

  She sat by the open window of her chamber with Maria, unable to enjoy the spring sunshine. She knew her face was etched with worry over the expenses that she could not meet. Her servants at least understood her plight. They loved her and were willing to serve her without pay. Where, after all, could they go in this strange land? Here at court at least they had bed and board, and the company of their own kind. She could not express her gratitude, her heart was so overwhelmed.

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