Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  Nor could she bear to think what this was doing to her dear friend. Maria was longing to be married, but no man of status would look at her without a dowry. She must not let Maria down, or deprive her of the chance to escape from this miserable existence. She had even written to her father, begging King Ferdinand to provide what was needful, but after weeks of waiting there had again been no reply.

  “You have served me well, Maria,” Katherine said now, dreadfully embarrassed. “You do not deserve this. I am so shamed.”

  “Highness, I would rather be with you than marry anyone,” Maria said bravely, not quite concealing her disappointment. “Maybe God does not wish me to wed.”

  Katherine hugged her, her heart heavy with guilt.

  She felt sad for Maria, and wearied by Francesca de Cáceres’s constant pleas to return to Spain. She had written to the girl’s parents in Extremadura, but they wanted Francesca to remain with her. At that, Francesca had wept, and sulked for three days.

  These were not the only crosses Katherine had to bear. The gowns she had brought from Spain four years ago were now becoming shabby, and she could not afford to replace them. At court, even if you were confined mostly to your chambers, there was a certain standard of dress to be maintained. She could not shame herself and Spain by appearing in public in rubbed velvet and splitting seams. Already she was turning her gowns, or cutting up one to refurbish another. And there was Doña Elvira, whose eyesight had deteriorated to the point where she could not see the flaws in the gowns properly, clucking about decorum and propriety and the correct behavior to be observed by a Spanish princess! It was intolerable. Did the duenna not realize that she had far more pressing matters on her mind?

  It was early June, the roses in full bloom, before her father wrote to say, quite correctly, that it was King Henry’s responsibility to provide for Katherine and her household.

  “But that is of no help to me!” she cried, throwing the letter down. “I must go to the King.”

  “No!” snapped Doña Elvira. “You cannot ask him outright for money. The very idea!”

  “Then Dr. de Puebla will have to do it for me!” Katherine flung back.

  “Much joy you will have of him!” Doña Elvira retorted.

  And Puebla did refuse to help. Of course, he did not want to compromise his rapport with King Henry.

  “So we are to tighten our belts!” Katherine challenged him. “What I cannot understand is why! What have I done to deserve such treatment?”

  Dr. de Puebla looked uncomfortable.

  “If you know, you must tell me!” she commanded.

  “I am as perplexed as your Highness,” he said. “My advice is to be content with what the King has decreed. At the end of this month Prince Henry will be fourteen, and you will soon be married. Then all will be remedied.”

  That was true. Once they were wed, Prince Henry would be responsible for her maintenance, which he would provide out of his revenues as Prince of Wales, as Arthur had. King Henry would be aware of that. He was not, after all, pushing her into a situation where she had to use the plate—he would get it soon enough. Suddenly she realized all would be well. She must just be patient. It was time to go back to Durham House to make ready for her wedding.

  —

  Prince Henry’s birthday came and went. No one mentioned it. No one said anything about the marriage. There was no invitation to court. Soon it became glaringly obvious that no preparations were being made for a wedding. Why? she asked herself, again and again. Why?

  By the autumn her financial situation was desperate.

  “The time has come for your Highness to resort to the plate and jewels you have in keeping,” Doña Elvira said.

  Katherine stared at her. “But we have always agreed that I should never touch them. They are part of my dowry.”

  “Who would know if a few pieces go missing? And if anyone complained, your Highness could say that necessity drove you to it. It is the truth! Your creditors are clamoring for payment.”

  Katherine thought about this. The idea was tempting—and if she did not do something soon, she would be horribly embarrassed financially.

  “All right,” she capitulated. “But we must take the minimum of pieces to satisfy the creditors.”

  Doña Elvira agreed. That night, when everyone else had gone to bed, they unlocked the chests. Katherine gasped at the riches that lay within them—gold, silver, and a multitude of precious stones, winking in the candlelight. Feeling like a thief, she took out a collar of goldsmith’s work and four pieces of gold plate.

  “Will those suffice?”

  “They will, Highness.” Doña Elvira appeared very satisfied with their night’s work.

  Two days later she informed Katherine that the creditors had been paid. But that was only one problem solved. There was still no money to pay the servants, and even though Doña Elvira urged her to do so, Katherine dared not purloin more of her plate.

  She could not look her people in the face, lest she saw reproach there. Her nights were spent wakeful, as she went over in her mind what she could possibly have done to cause the King to treat her like this. What of her marriage? Why had nothing been said? And why would the King not see her?

  Again she entreated her father to pay her servants’ wages, but in vain. King Henry had sent her a small sum, but it was only for food. And all the while, Dr. de Puebla did nothing, and Doña Elvira spent her days castigating him for it.

  Katherine had stopped listening to her complaints, but one day her duenna’s words caught her attention.

  “It is his fault that you are kept from the court!” Doña Elvira insisted. “He feeds King Ferdinand with lies, so that he has no idea of what you suffer. No doubt he has poisoned King Henry’s mind against you, and that is the cause of the King’s coldness.”

  “But why is the doctor doing this?” Katherine asked in bewilderment.

  “Because he is a traitor who has abandoned his true master for the King of England’s bribes!”

  “Then truly I am alone!” Katherine cried. “What can I do?”

  Doña Elvira tilted her head to one side and considered. “Your Highness could write to Queen Juana and explain to her how ill-served you are. Once she learns how you are forced to live, she and King Philip will force King Henry to treat you properly, and you will be restored to your former happiness!”

  It was not often that Katherine felt warmly toward her duenna, but at that moment she could have kissed her. This might be the perfect solution to her problems.

  “How shall I approach Queen Juana?” she asked.

  “This is in confidence, Highness, but my brother, Juan Manuel, who is at the court of King Philip and Queen Juana, has told me they have an envoy at court here just now, come to negotiate a marriage between the King and your sister-in-law, the Archduchess Margaret. I myself will approach him on your behalf.”

  Katherine seized her hands. “You are a true friend to me, Doña Elvira!”

  It was the happiest day she’d had in a long while. Not only might there be an end in sight to her misery, but also the heartening prospect of her warm and lively sister-in-law becoming the Queen of England!

  The very next day Doña Elvira ushered Herman Rimbre, King Philip’s envoy, into Katherine’s chamber. Rimbre was a suave, elegantly dressed Fleming with long flaxen hair and warm blue eyes, and Katherine liked him immediately.

  “Doña Elvira has acquainted me with your Highness’s plight,” he told her. “I am sorry to hear it, and I am confident that I can help. Queen Juana has often said of late that she is eager to see your Highness.”

  “She cannot long to see me as much as I long to see her!” Katherine exclaimed.

  “Then why not write to her and suggest that you both meet?” Doña Elvira suggested.

  “King Henry can hardly refuse you leave to visit your sister,” Herman Rimbre said, “and it so happens that I have a courier waiting to depart with my dispatches. He could take a letter from your Highness
to the Queen. I am happy to wait while you write it.”

  “That would be so kind!” Katherine replied. “Doña Elvira, please fetch my writing chest.”

  —

  Within the week she had a reply. Queen Juana would be delighted to meet with her as soon as possible. King Henry was invited too, and if he was pleased to cross the sea to St. Omer, Philip and Juana would be waiting there to greet him and Katherine. We will have celebrations and fireworks to mark this special occasion, Juana promised in the letter, and King Philip and I will speak to King Henry on your behalf and make all right. I long to see you, dearest sister.

  Katherine could not wait. King Henry must agree to the visit, he must!

  “Doña Elvira! My sister has written a very kind letter! Listen to what she says…” She read it aloud to the duenna, who beamed happily.

  “We must look out your best gowns, and see how we can make them as new,” Doña Elvira said. “But first, your Highness should write to the King. My brother has heard that King Henry is eager for an alliance with King Philip. I think you will find His Grace amenable to your request.”

  When she had written her letter, Katherine left it unsealed so she could read it to Doña Elvira for her approval. Nothing must be left to chance in this important matter.

  Walking along the passage in search of the duenna, she came face-to-face with Dr. de Puebla. He eyed the letter in her hand, a frown on his face. She could not help herself: she had to let him know that there were some intrigues that he could not manipulate.

  “Ambassador!” she said, “I hope to see my sister soon. She has written to me about it, and I am writing to the King, begging him to grant our request. Maybe you would like to see my letter.” She handed it to him. Let him wonder what was afoot! Let him know that, although he had failed her, others were ready to help!

  Dr. de Puebla’s eyes scanned the paper. His ugly face creased into a grimace. He swallowed. “Very commendable, Highness.” His voice came out as a croak. She had bested him! Now she knew why they said revenge was sweet!

  In a firmer tone, Puebla said, “It would be more regular for a request for such a meeting to come direct from the King, through me, as Queen Juana’s ambassador. Let me take your letter to him.”

  Interfering again! “No!” Katherine snatched back the letter. “There is no reason why I should not write to the King myself, and I will send this by one of my own servants!” And she swept on past him.

  She found Doña Elvira in the great chamber and handed her the letter. The duenna read it and nodded approvingly.

  “Seal it,” she said. “The chamberlain is waiting below, ready to take it to the King at Richmond.”

  —

  Katherine had just sat down to dinner in her chamber when she heard a commotion outside and voices raised in anger. One of them was Dr. de Puebla’s.

  “I must see the Princess!” he was shouting. “This is a matter of the highest import!”

  “I said, Her Highness is at table and must not be disturbed.” That was Doña Elvira.

  “Madam, the fates of Spain and England are at stake! Dinner can wait!”

  Katherine laid down her knife, gripped with a sense of foreboding. “Come in, Dr. de Puebla,” she called.

  The door opened and Doña Elvira charged in. “Highness, do not listen to him! He is a traitor!”

  “That is rich coming from you, madam!” Puebla retorted, hard on her heels. “Highness, may I speak with you alone?”

  “No, you may not!” cried the duenna. “He has come here full of lies!” she told Katherine.

  Katherine saw that the doctor’s face was a mask of fury and fear, stained with tears and streaked with sweat. Obviously he was deeply troubled about something. It occurred to her that whatever he had to say, he was agonizing over it, which was so unlike him, a man renowned as a subtle and wily intriguer.

  “Doña Elvira, please leave us,” she said.

  “Highness, I beg of you—”

  “Please leave us!”

  Red-faced and outraged, the duenna heaved herself out of the room. Katherine waited until her footsteps died away, then turned to Dr. de Puebla, who was mopping his brow.

  “Please be seated,” she said, trying to stay calm and cool. “Now, Ambassador, tell me about this matter that can so affect England and Spain.”

  Dr. de Puebla sank gratefully down on a bench. Katherine poured him some wine, which he downed quickly.

  “Highness, I hardly know where to begin.” His voice was choked with emotion. “Please be calm and hear me out.”

  “Speak freely,” Katherine said.

  “Your Highness may not be aware that the court of Burgundy is riven by two parties, both eager to settle the future of Castile. Juana is queen, but how shall she rule? Certainly not alone! The Aragonese faction is led by King Ferdinand’s ambassador, Fuensalida; they want King Philip to entrust the government of Castile to your father. They say that Philip is slow and lazy and not very interested in Spanish affairs, whereas King Ferdinand is vastly experienced, having ruled Castile with Queen Isabella for many years. It makes sense, and it is by far the most advantageous solution for your Highness, for with your father back in power in Castile, your former status as a Princess of Aragon and Castile will be restored. I believe it is the devaluation of that status, Highness, and nothing I have said or done, that has caused King Henry to become cold toward you.”

  Katherine nodded, but she was not convinced, and not sure where this was going.

  “But there is another party at King Philip’s court, a party led by a skillful and dangerous man, a true Castilian who hates King Ferdinand. This man is Juan Manuel—ah, yes, I see you are understanding a little now—and he is, as you know, Doña Elvira’s brother. He is hated and feared, but he is powerful and commands a strong following. His party wishes to oust King Ferdinand from Castile and set up Juana and Philip as joint sovereigns. To this end, Juan Manuel wants an alliance between King Philip and King Henry, who will unite to expel the Aragonese. And like many alliances, it is to be sealed with a marriage—or two, in this case. For the plan is that the Archduchess Margaret will marry King Henry—and Eleanor, the daughter of King Philip and Queen Juana, will marry Prince Henry.”

  Katherine could not stop herself. “No!” she cried. “I am to marry Prince Henry!”

  “Not if Juan Manuel has his way, Highness—or King Henry. For while Philip is irresolute, the King is ready to proceed, and therefore Juan Manuel wants this meeting you have so willingly arranged.”

  Katherine was speechless. “You are lying!” she challenged.

  “Do I look like a man who is lying?” Puebla countered. “Highness, I know that Doña Elvira has turned you against me. She hates all Jews, and for years she has done her best to undermine me. I did not want to come here; I know where I am not welcome. But earlier today, when you showed me your letter and I realized what was brewing, I confronted Doña Elvira. I was tactful: I suggested that she did not realize what this meeting at St. Omer was about, or know of the grave issues involved. I assured her that nothing could be more harmful to Spain, to King Ferdinand, and to your Highness. She did not like that, but she agreed that writing to King Henry was a mistake. So the chamberlain was sent away and I went home. Fortunately, I left one of my fellows on watch near your gates, and as I was myself sitting down to dinner, he came racing to tell me that the chamberlain had just ridden off to Richmond.”

  Katherine felt stunned. She had been manipulated and deceived by the people she had trusted most, to her own detriment! She could not doubt that Puebla was telling the truth—she had never seen him so distressed and agitated—or that Doña Elvira and Juan Manuel had used her most treacherously. The realization hit her like a blow. That Doña Elvira could have actively pursued a marriage for Prince Henry that would leave her, Katherine, publicly abandoned, humiliated, and heartbroken was dreadful, beyond belief. It was the worst act of betrayal.

  Dr. de Puebla was regarding her with sympathy. “Hig
hness, you alone can frustrate this conspiracy,” he said. “Write again to the King. Persuade him against the meeting. Your duty to your father demands no less.”

  “I will do it,” she said. “But I feel such a fool. I have been incredibly naïve.”

  “Your Highness is but nineteen years old, too young to have learned how perilous life in courts can be. But I am an old man, and I have seen it all—the plotting, the lies, the crooked schemes, the enemies who turn a friendly face, the deceivers…”

  “But to find such things in my own household is terrible,” Katherine said.

  “There is something else,” Puebla told her. “Your second chaplain tells me that some of your plate and jewels are missing, and I fear that Doña Elvira may have stolen them to compromise the terms of your marriage contract.”

  Katherine felt the hot tide of shame rising from her chest. “I agreed to it, God forgive me! It was to pay my creditors. The need was pressing.”

  The doctor regarded her with sympathy. “But she suggested it?”

  “Yes.”

  “Her motive was the same. Highness, you should be grateful that she has been exposed. You have been nurturing a viper in your bosom.”

  Katherine got up, her knees almost giving way under her, went to the buffet and poured some wine, which she drank to steady herself. Then she walked shakily into the inner chamber, fetched her writing chest, and returned to her place. Taking out a sheet of paper, ink pot and quill, she turned to Dr. de Puebla.

  “Tell me what I must write.”

  —

  When Puebla had left for Richmond, Katherine braced herself and summoned Doña Elvira. She did not relish the prospect of a confrontation, but anger and honor demanded one, and righteous indignation would bolster her.

  The duenna came in looking truculent, defiant even. Katherine did not bid her to be seated. She let her stand there, while she herself recited what Dr. de Puebla had told her.

  “What do you have to say to this?” she asked.

  “It is all lies!” Doña Elvira spat. “You should know better than to believe that lying, crippled Jew.”

 
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