Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “But I do believe him,” Katherine said. “He was most agitated, and deeply worried. No, Doña Elvira, it is you I do not believe. You and your brother intrigued to overthrow my marriage and bring about an alliance detrimental to King Ferdinand, to whom you owe unquestioning loyalty.”

  “I owe Aragon nothing!” screeched the duenna. “I am a Castilian, and a proud one too. While your sainted mother lived, I was pleased to bow the knee to your father, but it is her daughter who rules Castile now, and he has no right to its governance!”

  Katherine stared at her, shocked. She’d had no idea that Doña Elvira held such strong opinions. She swallowed. “Out of your own mouth you have condemned yourself,” she said, anger taking over. “You have betrayed my father’s trust, and you have betrayed me! What was I supposed to do once Prince Henry was married to Princess Eleanor? Go back to Spain in disgrace, rejected and scorned? That was the fate you had in mind for me! You, who my mother entrusted with my safekeeping!”

  Doña Elvira bridled. “I have done my duty by you, God knows, but my first duty is to Castile and its queen.”

  “You are a traitor!” Katherine shouted, losing her temper. “A traitor to my mother, to my father, and to me! If I had my way, you would be locked away somewhere, but I have not that power. What I can and will do is send you away. You will have to go to the court of Burgundy—for be assured you will not be welcome in Spain, where the long arm of my father reaches far. And then you and your unspeakable brother can meddle in things that don’t concern you to your heart’s content!”

  Doña Elvira’s plump face sagged and turned a nasty pasty color.

  “Highness, maybe we should not be so hasty…”

  “We? My mind is made up. Do not try to change it. Think yourself fortunate that you have got away with this without worse punishment.”

  “But what will your Highness do for a duenna? No one knows how to manage your household like I do.”

  “I will manage it myself!” Katherine cried. “At my age, I do not need a duenna. Now go, and make ready to leave. I will order the chamberlain to arrange your passage to Flanders.”

  “Forgive me, Highness! I have been most remiss.” The old woman sounded desperate.

  “Doña Elvira, my mind is made up!”

  The duenna opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it. “What will you say about my departure?” she asked meekly.

  “In justice, everyone should be told the reason for it!” Katherine said. “You deserve nothing less. But I do not care to appear a fool in the eyes of the world.” She thought for a few moments. “It is known that you have had trouble with your eyes. I will say that you have gone blind in one eye and are losing the sight in the other, and that I have sent you to Flanders to be treated by the physician who healed the eye trouble of my late sister, the Queen of Portugal. In the circumstances, I think that is a very generous explanation. You will not, of course, return.”

  “But, Highness, I do not wish to end my days in Flanders!”

  Katherine erupted. “Do you wish to end them on a gallows in Spain? You do not seem sensible of how lucky you are. If I sent you back to my father, he would deal with you as a traitor!”

  “I beg your pardon, Highness!”

  “Just go!” Katherine commanded.

  Much on her dignity, Doña Elvira curtsied and left the room without another word. Katherine slumped in her chair, her heart pounding, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had hated having to confront and dismiss the duenna, but she’d had no choice but to assert her authority. Still, the interview left her feeling drained and with a horrid sense of guilt. Yet what else could I have done? she asked herself.

  There was a tap on the door. Maria came in, a look of grave concern on her face as she saw Katherine’s distress.


  “What a terrible hour this has been,” Katherine said, wiping away her tears.

  “We all heard you,” Maria said. “You were shouting. I could not believe it was your Highness. Whatever did she do to deserve it?”

  “I cannot tell you—even you,” Katherine said. “But I have dismissed her. She has gone for good.”

  “God be praised!” Maria exclaimed. “I never could stand her.”

  “If only you knew,” Katherine said, rising and embracing her friend.

  “Highness, you are shaking,” Maria said.

  “I know.” Katherine sighed with relief. And then came the realization. She was her own woman, at last.


  While Katherine had believed Dr. de Puebla when he revealed how the Manuels had used her, she could not accept that it was purely her reduced status that accounted for King Henry’s treatment of her. She suspected that some of what Doña Elvira had said had been the truth, and that the doctor was susceptible to bribes and wanted an easy life at the English court. It took a lot to stir him to a remembrance of his proper role, as she had seen. And while Herman Rimbre had gone home to Flanders—on the same ship as Doña Elvira and her husband and their servants, she had heard—and there had been no more talk of the meeting at St. Omer, she received no word from King Henry and her situation was no better. In December, the December in which she was twenty—and still unwed—she wrote again to her father, leaving him in no doubt as to her plight. It was Dr. de Puebla’s fault, she told him; the doctor had transacted a thousand falsities against Ferdinand, and done her a great disservice. She stressed how troubled she was at seeing her servants so at a loss and unable to buy the new clothes they so badly needed.

  Two other matters were bothering her. Before she left, Doña Elvira had pleaded with her to find a new duenna. Katherine had ignored her advice, but she feared that some of her people, and Dr. de Puebla, who were all Spaniards, would find it scandalous that she should take control of her household herself. They would assuredly feel that she should have an older woman to chaperone her, at the very least. And King Henry might be of the same opinion. She realized that she could not take it upon herself to assert her authority.

  Then there was the problem of finding a new chaplain. Doña Elvira had taken Father Duarte with her, and Katherine had no priest to hear her confessions. She had invited the local parish priests from St. Martin’s and St. Mary le Strand to Durham House, but her English was not good enough, she felt, to make herself properly understood, and it was impossible trying to confess in stilted Latin, so she gave up, feeling bereft without a chaplain to guide her and give the spiritual consolation she so badly needed.

  To add to her troubles, the tertian fever had returned, and never a day went by when she was not shivering with ague or feeling like death. Constant worry only made her worse. She had to do something, so she gathered her strength and consulted Dr. de Puebla. There was no one else to ask.

  “My advice is that your Highness go to court to see the King yourself,” he said. It was clear that he was not interested in speaking on her behalf.

  Reluctantly, she summoned her maids and an escort and, ill as she felt, took a barge to the court. She felt desperately self-conscious as the Lord Chamberlain, despite her sorry state, escorted her through the palace to a guest chamber. She would have preferred a more discreet route, but clearly he felt that her rank entitled her to go by the public halls and galleries, which were crowded with people, many of them staring at her. There she goes, the poor, slighted princess from Spain. How they have made a fool of her!

  Katherine was aware that her finest gown, in brown velvet with bands of goldsmiths’ work, was well past its best. She knew she looked haggard and ill. So she was horrified when, while coming from the chapel royal one morning, having gone to be confessed by one of the royal chaplains, she met the Prince coming the other way. Flustered, she sank into a deep curtsey, waiting for him to raise her, but all he did was bow, then walk on, averting his eyes. How she got to her feet she did not know, and when she gained the privacy of her chamber, she lay on her bed and wept. She felt so weak and ill and wretched that she thought she wou
ld never get up.

  That evening Dr. de Puebla asked to see her. She splashed water on her face, smoothed her hair, and forced herself to receive him.

  “I have talked to the King and negotiated a solution to your Highness’s problems,” he announced.

  Immediately Katherine was suspicious. “But I was to speak to the King!” she said angrily. “That is why I am here.” And I wish to God I had never come.

  “Will your Highness let me finish? The King says there is no need to replace Doña Elvira. He will dismiss most of your servants and disband your household. That way, money can be saved. Henceforth you will live at court.”

  That was exactly what she had hoped to avoid. “And this serves my interests best?”

  “I believe it will.”

  “Then you are a traitor!” she cried. “Can’t you see that the King does not wish to pay for the upkeep of a separate household, and that you have played right into his hands by agreeing to this? Negotiating indeed!”

  “Under the terms of the betrothal treaty the King is entitled to order your household as he sees fit,” Dr. de Puebla said, unruffled.

  “Not to my dishonor!” Katherine stormed. “I will write to the King my father and tell him everything!”

  Her quill flew across the parchment. Even though she was wilting with fatigue, she knew she must send this letter.

  I entreat your Highness to consider that I am your daughter! Dr. de Puebla has caused so much pain and annoyance that I have lost my health in a great measure. For two months I have had severe tertian fevers, and because of this I shall soon die.

  She almost believed it. Surely her father would not ignore so desperate an appeal?

  She urged him to send gold in lieu of the plate and jewels; she did not dare mention that she had been forced to take more pieces from her store, which she’d pawned and never redeemed. With gold coin in his coffers, the King of England would be content, and all would be well again. “I will be lost if I am not assisted from Spain,” she wrote.

  There was no reply. It seemed that her father had abandoned her. Feeling alone and desperate, she had no choice but to tell most of her servants that their sacrifices had been in vain and they must now go home to Spain. She hated doing it, hated to see the disappointment in their faces, hated to say goodbye. She had failed them—but it had been none of her doing. She was at pains to make that clear.

  Francesca de Cáceres was among those who were to remain. As Katherine had anticipated, the girl protested. “Your Highness knew I wanted to go home!” Her sallow, olive-skinned face was mutinous.

  “Francesca, I have to bear in mind your parents’ wishes, and I still have need of young ladies of good family such as yourself to serve me,” Katherine explained.

  “Highness, why do you stay?” Francesca burst out. “There is nothing for any of us here but want and humiliation!”

  “Go to your chamber,” Katherine said coldly. “It is not for you to dictate royal policy. When you are ready to show a proper humility, you may return.”

  Francesca fell to her knees and apologized, with tears in her eyes. Of course, she did genuinely long to go home, and who could blame her? But if Katherine herself could endure suffering and privation, and others did without complaint, then Francesca must do so too.

  With her much diminished train, she obeyed the King’s command and went to court, where she was assigned a small suite of rooms at some distance from the royal lodgings. There were just four chambers, including her privy chamber and bedchamber, into which she and her remaining servants would somehow have to squeeze themselves. The diamond-paned windows looked out over a narrow courtyard, and the wall hangings were so old and faded it was hard to tell what they were meant to depict. The rush matting on the floors was grubby and needed replacing, and the furnishings looked like castoffs from the last century. Mortified, Katherine asked to see the King. It took some negotiating and pleading, but finally she was admitted to the royal presence.

  Henry looked up as she entered his study. His face had aged and was scored with deep lines. The once-red hair was gray and hung in lank strands over his fur collar. He sat hunched in his heavy robes, regarding her warily. It was hard to believe that he had once treated her with kindness.

  “Your Highness asked to see me,” he said. His voice was brisk, businesslike.

  Katherine looked at him pleadingly. “Your Grace, I have no money. I am destitute. I have closed up my household, but I cannot pay the servants who remain with me. I have no money to buy the clothes I need—”

  “Stop there!” the King commanded. “I am credibly informed that you do have the wherewithal to support yourself.”

  “Sire, I do not. And, if I may remind your Grace, under the terms of my betrothal—”

  “I know the terms of your betrothal. I have provided for you. You live at my court. I pay for your food. I have kept faith with the treaty.”

  “Sire, it is not enough. I implore you to help me! I am all but naked, my gowns are so worn. My servants have been reduced to begging for alms. And the rooms I have been assigned here are not fit for scullions! It has all made me ill. I have been at death’s door for months!” She was weeping uncontrollably now, past caring if she angered the King.

  “I am not responsible for your plight,” Henry barked, then began coughing, clutching a kerchief to his face as the spasm passed. When he spoke again his voice was harsh. “Be grateful for what I have done for you. I am under no obligation. I have been cheated out of your dowry.”

  “How so?”

  “Dr. de Puebla informed me that the King your father promised to pay it all in cash. So far I have not seen a penny. Now go. Be grateful that I give you bed and board.” The heavy-lidded eyes were cold, the mouth a tight-lipped slash.

  Anguished, Katherine dipped the briefest of curtseys and fled to her dismal chamber, feeling as if she was about to collapse. How could everything have gone so wrong?


  Katherine smoothed her new gown and straightened her spine, ignoring the dizziness that kept threatening to overwhelm her. She could not wait to greet her older sister after so many long years. Juana and Philip had been shipwrecked off the English coast while sailing from Flanders to Spain, and had battled their way through the January winds to Windsor Castle. Even now they would be in the great hall, ready to celebrate their deliverance at a feast hosted by King Henry. How much they would have to talk about! And, as Queen of Castile, Juana would surely understand Katherine’s plight, and take steps to put things right.

  Earlier that evening two new Spanish gowns had been delivered to her apartment—gifts from the King. Katherine was astonished at this unexpected munificence, but then understanding dawned. The gowns had been sent to give the lie to any complaints of ill-treatment that she might make to Philip and Juana. Still, they were beautiful, one in black velvet and one in yellow damask with crimson sleeves. She chose the black, even though it emphasized her pallor. If only she felt better. She had needed Maria to help her out of bed to dress, and her friend was a step behind her now, one hand ready to steady her.

  As they entered the great hall, Katherine searched for the beautiful face of her sister. There was the King; there, to her delight, her own Prince Henry. Seated with them at the high table was a strikingly attractive man, who turned to watch as she walked slowly past the crowded tables. She could feel him examining her with almost indecent interest and knew this must be Philip.

  Katherine could see why they called him “the Handsome.” Tall, with long dark locks, his full, sensual lips and narrow-lidded eyes hinted at a powerful, barely concealed sexuality. No wonder Juana was possessive! Yet there was a coldness too, which left Katherine in little doubt that ruthless self-interest was what drove her brother-in-law. As she reached the table, he addressed her as his dear sister, but his eyes had already moved on to other ladies.

  Juana was nowhere to be seen.

  Katherine was surprised to find herself seated in the place of honor besid
e King Henry. It only confirmed her suspicion that Henry meant Philip to return to Spain with glowing reports of how honorably she was being treated; she could hardly believe that it marked her return to favor. As she sat down, she looked again for Juana, but she was not there.

  “I hope my sister is joining us?” she asked the King.

  Overhearing, Philip flicked a wrist as if in dismissal. “She is still recovering from the journey. No doubt she will be in better spirits tomorrow.”

  Katherine tried not to show her dismay. She had placed such hope in this meeting. Suppressing her desire to demand that she be taken straight to her sister, Katherine turned to Prince Henry, who was seated at the King’s other hand. At least she would be able to speak with him. At fourteen, he had already shot up in height, and was taking on the image of manhood. As he greeted her, he was as courteous as ever, but still aloof, and she saw in him something of the reserve she had found daunting in his brother Arthur. Was it because Henry no longer wanted her? She prayed that was not true. As the first course arrived—all twenty dishes of it—she tried to engage him, but his answers were short, with little of the passion she remembered in their previous conversations.

  When the feasting was done, the King asked her to dance with her ladies for Philip’s entertainment. She could feel the fever rising, making her light-headed, but she stepped forward for Prince Henry’s benefit, and was gratified when he applauded her loudly. At his father’s bidding, she invited Philip to join the dancers, but he refused, and remained deep in conversation with his royal host, talking politics.


  And that was the way it remained—the weeks that followed were dominated by interminable parleys and meetings, in which she had no part, nor would have expected to. But something secret was definitely being discussed, and she suspected it concerned her. When she was invited to join the two monarchs and their parties, she was dismayed by the disrespectful way Philip spoke of her father, making no attempt to hide his dislike for King Ferdinand.

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