Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Her wariness of her handsome brother-in-law only increased when she was finally able to see Juana. They met in the bustling great hall, surrounded by whispering courtiers and watching eyes. Katherine longed to embrace her and confide her deepest worries, but from their first meeting, her sister was distracted and tearful because Philip was ignoring her. Juana’s famous beauty was furrowed by misery, and her heart-shaped face was set into a permanent tight-lipped mask. Beneath the sumptuous gown, the richly trimmed velvet hood, the cloth-of-gold sleeves, and the armorial cloak of silk, there stood a deeply unhappy woman.

  In the whole three months of the visit, Katherine managed to contrive just half an hour alone with Juana, but it was not long enough to divert her sister’s attention from her own problems. Katherine guessed that their separation was by the King’s design, but Juana was not interested in her anyway; that much was clear. She had eyes for no one but Philip. Katherine tried to get her to talk about her children, especially the heir, the six-year-old Archduke Charles, but that was another conversation that foundered as soon as Philip hove into view. Juana watched him constantly, her eyes hopeful, beseeching, full of devotion, like a lapdog. Katherine cringed to see it. Where was Juana’s Spanish pride, her queenly dignity?

  It was plain that Juana was no queen such as their mother Isabella had been. She was too self-absorbed, too emotional, and it was soon obvious that the real power lay in the hands of her husband. Juana wasn’t interested in the talks between the two kings, and certainly didn’t want to discuss them with her. She wanted only to talk about Philip. In April, when Katherine bade farewell to her sister, she felt not so much disappointment at the failure of her hopes, but a deep sadness for Juana.


  “Dead?” Katherine echoed, horrified. “It isn’t possible. He is only twenty-eight.” And handsome and vital and compellingly attractive, or so he had been that spring. But she, of all people, had reason to know that Death was no respecter of age.

  “Highness, my information is that the Archduke Philip succumbed to a brief enteric fever,” Dr. de Puebla said. “Please accept my condolences.”

  “I did not know him well,” Katherine said. “While I grieve for him, I am thinking of Queen Juana and the suffering this loss will cause her.” Her heart went out to her difficult, envied sister, now to be envied no more. For the adored Philip was dead, and Juana would no doubt be going mad with grief.

  “How I sorrow for Her Highness,” she said to Dr. de Puebla. “And she with child too. How will she rule Castile?”

  “King Ferdinand will be there to assist her,” the doctor reminded her.

  “Of course. There is none more experienced in Castilian affairs.” Katherine could easily imagine how eager her father would be to restore his authority in Castile. “Her Highness will be able to rely on him.”

  Now that Ferdinand’s standing in the world had improved, Katherine’s did too. She was made very welcome at Richmond. King Henry was all benevolence and warmth once more, and Prince Henry’s reserve seemed to vanish overnight. He took to seeking her out for dances and walks in the gardens, all in the glow of paternal approval. When they conversed with others, he took evident pleasure in deferring to her. It was now, “What does the Princess my wife think of that?” or, “My most dear consort would agree with you, I’m sure…” She thrilled to hear him speak of her like that, reveled in being at the heart of the court once more. She sold two of her bracelets and used the money to buy a fine new gown of crimson velvet. Now she could appear in public looking as a princess should; she had recovered from the tertian fever at last, and her mirror told her that the gown certainly became her, setting off her long golden locks and fair complexion, or matched with a beguine hood of the same material. She could not believe that Fortune’s wheel had turned again. It seemed, once more, that everything was going to be all right.


  Katherine was not used to the King opening his mind to her.

  “It is a delicate matter,” he said, leaning back in his chair in his study one dull January day, looking gauntly at her down his proud, high nose, “one that involves a lady, so I thought it fitting to ask for your advice. The truth is, I want to marry Queen Juana.”

  Katherine stared, almost forgetting that she was in the King’s presence.

  Henry scooped up his monkey from the floor and plumped it in his lap, popping a nut into its mouth. “I was struck by the Queen’s beauty when she came to England, but then of course she was married, and naturally I did not think of her in any special way. But now she is alone, and clearly in need of a husband who can rule Castile for her.”

  Katherine’s heart was leaping at the prospect of Juana becoming Queen of England. In her joy it was easy to dismiss how reluctant she herself had been to wed King Henry; she was much younger than Juana was now, and dismayed to envisage a short time as queen, then years of dreary dowagerhood. But Juana was a queen in her own right; she already had six children. Marriage to King Henry would solve all Juana’s problems, and hers too, for it would certainly ensure that her marriage to Prince Henry would follow, doubly cementing the alliance between England and Spain; and it would be so wonderful to have her sister here in England.

  “Naturally I hope you approve of the idea, Katherine,” Henry said, eyeing her shrewdly.

  “Wholeheartedly, sire,” she said.

  “And I hope the King your father will too. You see, I need his permission—and his goodwill.”

  “I do not think my father will demur, sire,” she said. “His friendship with England is very important to him.”

  “Yes, but he is at present ruling Castile himself, and may wish to continue to do so.”

  Of course, Henry wanted Castile as much as he wanted Juana.

  “He can have no formal role in Castile,” Katherine said. “He cannot marry his own daughter!”

  “Very true,” Henry agreed, grinning. “Now, Katherine, I would like you to write to your father and lay my proposal before him.”


  Katherine wrote, and was pleased to receive word that her father was amenable to the marriage going ahead. It was too soon, of course, to know whether Juana was inclined to marry again, yet if she was, Ferdinand was certain it would be with no one other than the King of England.

  She hurried off to beg an audience with King Henry, and when she told him the good news, his craggy face was transformed.

  “Katherine, I am deeply grateful. This gives me the greatest joy.”

  His mother, the Lady Margaret, was with him, looking frailer than ever but beaming broadly.

  “You have done His Grace a signal service,” she told Katherine, “one that will bring much happiness. Bless you, child.”

  Katherine returned to her apartments light of step and heart, anticipating a glorious future, with England and Spain more closely bound by ties of love than ever.

  But then, Dr. de Puebla was waiting to see her, his brow furrowed, his expression grim. He seemed to have some difficulty in speaking. Then it all poured out. There were fears for her sister’s sanity.

  “She has been much stricken by grief, of course, but it is more than that. Highness, she will not give up King Philip’s body for burial.”

  Katherine’s hand flew to her mouth in horror. In her mind there loomed the distant memory of that mad, terrifying old lady at Arévalo, her grandmother and Juana’s.

  “The Queen takes the coffin with her everywhere she travels in Spain,” Dr. de Puebla said. “The body is embalmed, but one report I have received informs me that Her Highness had the coffin opened, and embraced and kissed it. She will not consent to its being laid to rest.”

  Of course. She had Philip all to herself at last.

  Katherine crossed herself. She felt sick. Her mind strove to reject the dreadful images that Dr. de Puebla had conjured up.

  “I can hardly believe this,” she whispered. “It is too dreadful for words. I will pray for her.” Juana must be deranged by grief. Thank God and His
Saints that their father was there to rule Castile for her.

  When Katherine sat down to dinner in her chamber that evening, her heart was heavy. Should she say anything to King Henry? Morally, perhaps, yes, but she so wanted this marriage with Juana to go ahead. All evening she agonized, proving such a bad opponent at chess that Maria got cross with her for not concentrating. And when a groom arrived with a summons from the King, her spirits plummeted still further. But she could tell from the King’s face that he knew the worst.

  “I have had this letter from your father.” He handed it to Katherine to read, and she saw that Ferdinand had told him everything. Now Henry would tell her that the marriage negotiations were at an end.

  But no.

  “When we are married, the Queen your sister will soon recover her reason,” Henry said. Then he saw Katherine’s face. “I do not much mind her infirmity, if that is what is worrying you. It does not prevent her from bearing children.”

  Katherine was shocked. The King’s words brought home to her how little he cared about Juana or her mental state. He was only interested in her beauty, her fecundity, and the kingdom she would bring him. Katherine supposed that was how most men thought of marriage. How fortunate she was to have as her future husband young Henry, who loved her for herself.

  “I will tell your father that I am happy to proceed,” the King said, oblivious to the signs of her disapproval.


  As the spring approached, Katherine again became a martyr to tertian fevers, and even the King expressed concern more than once. But what grieved her more than being unwell was a new suspicion: that he was keeping her and Prince Henry apart. For weeks had gone by since she had set eyes on her betrothed.

  “Seeing His Highness so seldom is the most difficult thing for me to bear,” she confided to Dr. de Puebla. “As we all live in the same house, it seems to me a great cruelty.”

  “I will speak to the King,” the ambassador promised.

  The response was not what Katherine wanted to hear. “His Grace tells me that he keeps you both apart for your Highness’s good.”

  “What good could it possibly do me?” she cried.

  “He did not say, but assuredly he meant that if you accustom yourself not to be with the Prince, it will hurt less if the betrothal is broken off.”

  “Broken off?” Katherine echoed, appalled. “Who said anything of that?”

  “Forgive me, Highness, I was merely trying to foresee all possibilities. He has been offered many other princesses for the Prince of Wales, all with greater marriage portions.”

  It may have been a bluff, but it put the fear of God into Katherine, and she wrote to her father, begging him to comply with Henry’s wishes. Please do so, to prevent these people from telling me that they have reduced me to nothingness.

  There was still little money. Her servants were walking about in rags, and she felt deeply ashamed that they lived in such misery. She again beseeched her father to help them. She was aware that their patience, like their clothes, was becoming frayed at the edges. But King Henry would not act unless he received her dowry, while all Ferdinand seemed to care about was that she preserved intact her plate and jewels. In this, her time of need, she still very much felt the lack of a Spanish confessor. One advantage of living at court was the availability of several royal chaplains, but they served the King, and their loyalty was primarily to him. King Ferdinand had remained deaf to her pleas to send a friar of the Order of St. Francis, for which she had a special affection and reverence, so she determined to shift for herself and wrote to the head of the Franciscan order in Spain, asking for help in finding a new confessor.

  And that was how, in April 1507, Fray Diego Hernandez came into her life.

  He was announced as she was seated at the rickety table in her chamber with her illuminated psalter open in front of her. She looked up to see a tall young man with swarthy good looks and intense black eyes, dressed in the gray habit of the Franciscans. Even as he stood unmoving before her, she could sense a physical dynamism more natural to a man of action than one of the cloth. There was a suppressed energy about him, and an air of authority that commanded instant respect.

  She extended her hand and he knelt to kiss it. The touch of his lips startled her. Many men had done a similar duty, but none, apart from Prince Henry, had aroused such a response in her. She found herself inexplicably drawn toward Fray Diego. God forbid that he had noticed!

  “You are welcome, Father,” she said, and as she spoke the formal words of welcome, felt herself blushing. Then she told him of the months of spiritual deprivation. “It has been a great grief to me. I long only to be properly confessed and absolved of my sins.”

  “I will hear your confession this evening,” the friar said, his dark eyes boring into hers. “It seems my coming is long overdue. Well, I will remedy all, and make sure that none of your people has fallen into error. Be of cheer: the dark days are over.”

  He whirled into her household and charmed nearly everyone with the sheer force of his personality. Her maids instantly fell in love with him.

  Katherine’s first confession was a revelation. She knelt, admitting her few sins—Heaven knew, she had no opportunity to commit many, but the tensions in her household bred venial sins, and she had been guilty of anger and envy and pride. Yet where Father Alessandro would have dismissed her with a few hail Marys, the new friar was unexpectedly strict.

  “Your Highness must set an example! All sins offend God, and venial sins can lead to mortal ones. Omit nothing!”

  So she racked her brains and remembered that she had accepted a second helping of lamb at dinner, which of course she should not have done when money for food was in short supply.

  “I accuse myself of the sin of gluttony,” she whispered.

  “Very reprehensible!” Fray Diego barked. “As penance you will fast tomorrow. Fasting—and any form of self-denial—purges the soul.”

  He absolved her and blessed her, and she suffered her penance, but his strictures were not confined to the confessional, for he was not reticent in reminding Katherine and her household where they had sinned. If they showed anger or impatience, it was a sin; drinking what the friar considered to be too much wine was a sin; even laughing immoderately, as he put it, earned censure.

  Katherine did not mind, for from the first, Fray Diego had set out to be her champion. He understood how valuable her role in England could be to her father. He was as eager as she to see her marriage concluded. One evening, as they sat at supper, she found herself confiding to him her fears about her betrothal, her father’s failure to pay her dowry, and being kept apart from the Prince.

  “I am sorry to hear it.” Fray Diego leaned forward and laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “It is Dr. de Puebla’s fault, I have no doubt. He has been dilatory in his duties.”

  “Duplicitous, as ever,” she said, very much aware of the friar’s touch and his brilliant eyes, like dark pools. “If he had been any kind of man, he would not have consented to my being treated so shabbily. And now he is ill, and has to be carried from his house to the palace.”

  “Your Highness should urge the King your father to send a new ambassador, someone who will dare to speak an honest word at the opportune time.” The friar’s eyes were boring into her; they seemed to be saying something else entirely.

  She felt her voice falter. “I have asked him several times already, but I will write again.”

  “Tell him that any new ambassador coming to England would be appalled at what you have suffered, and worried about your future.”

  Katherine stood up, at once glad and sorry to see the friar’s hand drop. Had it been presumptuous of him to touch her? Or had it been purely a kindly gesture, intended to comfort her? Of course it had been! He was a man of God and had seen the troubled soul, not the Princess of Wales.

  She wrote to her father that very evening. Then she and Fray Diego spent a very pleasant hour in which he gave her news of Spain and they
discussed St. Thomas Aquinas’s views on Aristotle. She had been pleased to find the friar well-read and very learned, and to discover that she could easily confide in him. It was thanks to Fray Diego that her situation was improving and that she no longer felt so alone in her troubles.


  She looked at the letter from her father in disbelief, then read it again. Never in all the histories she’d read had a woman been so honored!

  She summoned her household, bubbling with jubilation.

  “I have very important news,” she announced. “King Ferdinand has appointed me to act as his ambassador in England.”

  “It is a great honor,” said Fray Diego approvingly, his dark eyes warm.

  “It is not usual,” Katherine said, “but the King my father believes it a necessity. He says there is no one else who knows the situation in England as well as I do. Of course, it is only until a proper replacement can be found.”

  For now, though, she could work for a closer bond between England and Spain, and perhaps move her father and King Henry to understand how difficult it had been for her to be caught in the middle of their squabbles.

  “Be wary of the sin of pride!” Fray Diego warned, but she could not help being gratified at people regarding her with a new respect when she passed through the palace on her way to see the King. No longer did he receive her in his study, but enthroned in his presence chamber, with courtiers standing around at a respectful distance.

  “Come, you must meet my council,” the King said, and led her into an adjacent room, where there was much scraping of benches as the men seated along an oak table rose to their feet and bowed.

  Henry took his place at the head of the table and bade Katherine be seated next to him. The talk was all of pleasantries and court entertainments. She tried to steer it around to the subject of her marriage, but soon realized that she was being deftly thwarted at every turn. She left it there, not wishing to provoke any unpleasantness during this first meeting.

  Back in her chamber, she flung off her hood in disgust.

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