Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Everyone was praising the new king—how wisely he behaved, how he loved goodness and justice. It was universally agreed that he was the most gentle and affable prince in the world; quick to laugh, and intelligent, with a jolly look, he would always talk to people in a friendly way, with exquisite courtesy. He had made no secret of his determination to distance himself from the parsimonious reign of his father, and to be rid of unpopular advisers. His was to be a new golden age, an age of open-handedness, magnificence, and glory. Katherine stored up every bit of gossip and praise she heard, and was thrilled to learn that this eighth Henry was still filled with dreams of conquering France. “What a hero he now shows himself!” his courtiers applauded. “Our king does not desire gold or gems, but virtue, glory, immortality!”

  “He seems, by all accounts, to be prudent, sage, and free from every vice,” Fray Diego said. “England is blessed in having such a king!” Of course it was! She knew that better than most; she could have said much about Henry’s high ideals and chivalrous nature, his learning and his zest for life. If only she could see him, she thought, and know his intentions toward her.

  The hours dragged. She filled them with prayer, endless embroidery, reading, and walks in the gardens. Maria insisted that she dress becomingly every day—“just in case the King comes courting.” Ignoring Fray Diego’s oft-repeated warnings of the sins of pride and vanity—although surely even he must see that it was all in a good cause—she dressed hopefully, donning crimson damask or the good black velvet. Her hair she wore loose, betokening her maidenhood. She kept looking into her mirror. Did her five years’ seniority show? If he came, would Henry still find her attractive?

  One morning, toward the dinner hour, Katherine was playing tables with Maria when there was a small commotion outside and the door opened to reveal a tall, dazzlingly handsome, elegant young man in a suit of black silk, who swept her a most gracious bow. She caught her breath, for by the glorious grace of God, it was the King himself—Prince Henry, grown older, the planes of his face chiseled in the lines of manhood, his mass of shining red hair framing his beautiful face, his eyes ardent, hopeful. There was eagerness in every pore of him.

  She saw all this before, almost belatedly, she sank to the floor in a deep curtsey; she saw too, to her astonishment, that he had come alone. In that musical voice—deeper now than she remembered—he smilingly dismissed her attendants, then raised her with his own hands, held hers and raised them to his lips, not letting them go, all the while gazing down into her face. There was, in his grasp and his expression, an authoritative possessiveness that was irresistible. She looked into his piercing blue eyes and was lost.

  “Katherine, my lady,” he said. “We must talk.” He made no move to be seated, but just stood there holding her hands. “I am sorry I could not come before. There was so much to do, and my councillors go into every why and wherefore. But I made plain to them one thing: that I have waited too long to make you my wife, and I will not wait any longer. My heart is yours, and always has been.” Suddenly, he dropped to one knee and gazed up at her. “I long to be your servant, and it would complete my happiness if you would consent to be my wife and my queen.”

  Katherine could not speak. This was the moment of which she had dreamed through all those long, penurious, barren years, the moment she had imagined so many times.

  “You are my true love, Katherine!” Henry said, with that irresistible boyish enthusiasm. “I want no other. Say yes! Say you will be mine.”

  Could it be true? This glorious, fresh-faced young man, this Adonis—for Nature surely could not have done more for him—still wanted to marry her!

  “Yes!” she said through joyful tears. “Yes! Oh, yes!”

  For answer, he leapt up, swept her into his arms and kissed her, a kiss so sweet, so tender, and so loving that she thought she would swoon from the pleasure of it.


  The King stayed to dinner; he did not want to break the moment. They had been kept apart too long, he declared. They had years of catching up to do.

  Katherine could not quite believe it was all happening. There was Fray Diego, blessing them both before saying grace, with her momentarily wondering how she could ever have felt attracted to him; and Maria and the other maids blushing as the King paid them compliments; and even the dour chamberlain—now become instantly obsequious—unbending sufficiently to join in a toast to their happiness.

  This was the culmination of all her hopes. God had seen fit to answer her prayers, and she was filled to the brim with thankfulness. She was to be Queen of England, raised by this magnificent young man to be the bride of his heart and the mother of his heirs. Those who had scorned her and tried to humiliate her would now have to defer to her—she tried not to relish the prospect, but she was only human. The days of want were gone for good; very shortly she would be the wife of the richest king ever to reign in England.

  She apologized for the poor fare on the table—pottage, of which she was heartily sick, coarse bread, a cheese, and a dish of cherries.

  “No matter, no matter,” Henry said, waving away her concerns. “I love cherries. And after today, you shall never be in want again.” He raised her hand to his lips.

  With his great, silk-clad frame seated at table, he made the room feel small; he filled it with his presence; he put everyone at ease. He was quick to laugh and talked to her people in a friendly, knowledgeable way. In no time at all Katherine was laughing out loud at his jests.

  “Here’s another!” he said, grinning. “A knight returned from the northern shires, bringing his king many prisoners and much gold. The king asked him what he had been doing. He said he had been plundering and pillaging, burning all the villages of the king’s enemies in the North. The king was appalled. ‘But I have no enemies in the North,’ he said. ‘You do now,’ said the knight.” Henry roared with laughter.

  Katherine laughed too, unable to tear her gaze from him as he sat there at his ease, his quick and penetrating eyes repeatedly straying in her direction, making her blush all the way down to her pearl-edged neckline. Her people were relaxed now in his company; she had noticed this before, his common touch. No one within its compass could fail to love him. He was more like a good fellow than a king.

  She could not quite believe that he was hers. She had been told often enough while growing up that she was a great prize for any man, but the long years of struggle had eroded her confidence. She was twenty-three; Henry was eighteen. Not so many years’ difference, and clearly it did not matter to him. He could have had his pick of every princess in Christendom, but he had chosen her, loved her, and waited for her, just as she had done for him. And now he had rescued her from poverty, ignominy, and humiliation. She was ready to give her passionate, loving heart unreservedly to this glorious young man—her king, her knight-errant, her lover.


  In the afternoon they sat together in a tree-shaded arbor in the gardens, for they had much to talk about and plan.

  “We must be married immediately!” Henry said. “The coronation is planned for midsummer, and I want you to share it with me as my queen, sweet Katherine.”

  He broke off a pink rosebud and gave it to her. Raising it to her lips, she smiled at him. She wanted him to go on talking. She loved listening to him. Every word from his lips was as a pearl of wisdom to her.

  “You know my father wanted me to marry you,” Henry said. “On his deathbed, he gave me his express command that I should do so. Not that I needed any, for my mind had long been made up.” He gazed at Katherine, his eyes warm. “My council are also in favor. They extolled your virtues; they said you are the image of your mother and have the wisdom and greatness of mind that win the respect of nations. They told me that in every way you would be the perfect queen. But Katherine, know this: that whatever anyone else has said, and whatever good reasons there are for our marriage, I desire you above all women; I love you, and I have longed to wed you for yourself.”

  His arm had crep
t along the back of the stone seat; his hand was resting lightly on her shoulder. She had never dreamed that a man’s touch could have such a powerful effect. Nothing in her life had ever truly awakened her to the realities of physical love. Now she understood why the poets and minstrels made so much of it, why people were ready to languish, die, or kill for it. And a light touch was as nothing to what was to come when they were married…Her heart began racing at the thought.

  “I am sorry for the way my father treated you,” Henry said, his face becoming more sober. “I protested about it many times, but he would not listen. Nothing I said carried any weight with him. I looked out for you, although I knew he was keeping us apart. I heard from others how bravely you coped with a difficult situation. Believe me, Katherine, if I could have rescued you, I would have. I hated my father for what he was doing to you.” From the passion in his voice, she guessed he had hated the late king for many other things besides.

  “But that is all in the past,” Henry said firmly. “I am not my father! We are in a new age. There is money aplenty in the treasury, and that gives me the power to make changes. My father dreamed of a new Arthurian age, and it was my poor brother who was to usher it in, but I will do it in his place. It will be a new age of chivalry! I mean to revive England’s ancient claim to the throne of France. I will make such a war on the French that Agincourt will seem like a skirmish, and I swear to you, Katherine, that one day I will have you crowned at Rheims.” His eyes were alight at the prospect of such a glorious future.

  “My father will support you,” she assured him, thrilling to his words. “France is no friend to Spain.”

  “Together England and Spain will be invincible!” Henry said, his eyes alight with fervor. “King Ferdinand has already written to me, urging me to marry you without delay. He has promised that your dowry will be punctually paid. His banker, Signor Grimaldi, has put the arrangements in hand.”

  His words burst the bubble of Katherine’s happiness. Her plate and jewels! Dare she tell Henry how depleted they were? She began trembling, fearing that, with her next words, he might well change his mind about marrying her.

  “Sir,” she faltered, “part of it was to be paid in jewels and plate. I had to sell some, to buy food and other necessities.”

  Henry leaned forward and kissed her. “We will not waste time over trifles,” he reassured her. “The plate and jewels are of no importance.”

  And with those few words he banished the anxiety that had been consuming her for years. Never had a woman felt so loved!

  “I cannot thank you enough for your understanding,” Katherine said, kissing him back, “and I am deeply thankful that the alliance between our countries is to be preserved.”

  “And I am thankful that you are to be my wife and queen!” Henry said, bending forward and kissing her soundly on the lips. “I love that pretty Spanish accent of yours. You are the most beautiful creature in the world.” He pulled off her velvet hood and she shivered in pleasure as he ran his hand down the length of her hair, which was now so long that she could sit on it. Then he took her in his arms and held her close. Willingly she surrendered to his kisses, thankful that the trees gave them privacy and that the King’s Yeomen of the Guard were standing watch at the entrance to the privy garden. A lifetime would not be long enough to express the love and gratitude she felt.


  There was much to be done, and all in haste. An army of craftsmen and workmen were set to work refurbishing the long-empty queen’s apartments for Katherine. Furniture and tapestries were delivered from the Royal Wardrobe, painters were refreshing the decorations, and linens and napery were purchased, all of the finest quality. Henry was busy appointing a great household for Katherine, numbering 160 persons, and many of those who had faithfully served his mother had been recalled to serve her. It was to be headed by a new chamberlain, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, a personable man in his early thirties who had studied under Erasmus in Paris and was now renowned as a friend of the great scholar and a learned humanist in his own right.

  Mountjoy’s assured manner inspired confidence. Katherine had no doubt that this urbane, cultivated man would run her household with effortless ease. And she was delighted to learn that Mountjoy had fallen in love with one of her maids, Agnes de Vanagas, and proposed marriage.

  She was so grateful to Henry for allowing her to retain most of the Spaniards who had been in her train since she came to England. He liked Fray Diego and approved of him staying on as her chaplain. Another Observant Friar, the devout and gentle Jorge de Atheca, who had served as her clerk since her coming to England, was now promoted to the post of household chaplain. Dr. Alcaraz was going back to Spain, for family reasons, but her other physicians, the patrician Dr. de la Saa and the avuncular Dr. Guersye, would remain to look after her.

  In her happiness Katherine could find it in her heart to forgive those servants who had been disrespectful and insubordinate when her fortunes had been at a low ebb. Henry had readily paid the arrears of salary due to them, and she had asked her father to chastise them for their boldness and then pardon them.

  “If it pleases you, I wish to keep Maria, and she desires more than anything to remain with me,” she had entreated Henry.

  “You may keep whoever you wish, sweetheart, as long as you have some English ladies waiting on you.”

  “I should like that very much,” she said, kissing him in gratitude.

  She was pleased with the ladies-in-waiting he chose for her, and delighted that Margaret Pole was among them.

  “I know you have an affection for her,” Henry said, “and she is of royal blood and highly suitable.”

  “You could not have chosen better!” she cried, kissing him again.

  Margaret Pole had changed. Widowhood had taken flesh from her already slender frame and etched lines on her face, and she was paler than Katherine remembered, but every bit as warm and kindhearted as when they were together at Ludlow. Katherine quickly found that they were as comfortable with each other as if they’d met only a week ago, rather than seven years.

  Three other ladies-in-waiting were descended from the Plantagenet royal house. Elizabeth, Lady FitzWalter, and Anne, Lady Hastings, were the sisters of Henry’s distant cousin, the mighty, overproud, and bombastic Duke of Buckingham. Elizabeth Stafford, the Countess of Surrey, who Katherine liked enormously, was Buckingham’s feisty daughter. They were all to serve as great ladies of her household, alongside the countesses of Suffolk, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Essex, and Derby.

  “I would also recommend the wife of my comptroller, Sir Thomas Parr,” Henry said. “He and his family have given excellent service to the crown, and my grandmother, the Lady Margaret, thought highly of them. Thomas’s mother and grandmother were ladies-in-waiting, and while I know it is not usual to appoint one who is not a noblewoman, I think you will like her.”

  Katherine did. Maud Parr was a warm and delightful lady, unusually literate and learned. The two women took to each other on sight and found they had much in common. Like Katherine, Maud was fortunate enough to love the husband chosen for her. She was seventeen years old, curly-haired, pretty, and elegant. Margaret Pole got on very well with her, despite the twenty-year age gap between them, as did Maria, who preferred the approachable Maud to most of the other great ladies of the household, since they tended to be much on their dignity.

  Once the word was out that the Queen would have thirty maids of honor, there arose a great clamor for places in her household, with the highest families in the land vying like hucksters to secure appointments for their daughters. To Katherine’s relief, Henry did not object when she asked if she might also retain her Spanish maids; all he wanted to do was please her, he declared. He approved several names himself, and appointed some who had done good service to his mother. One was French: Jane Popincourt, a petite, glossy-haired lady in her late twenties with a neat, precise manner and an elegant taste in dress. Katherine would have preferred not to have a Frenchwoman in her
household, but Henry thought highly of Jane, who had given good service to his mother and his sister Mary, so Katherine made no protest but welcomed the woman for his sake.

  The rest he allowed her to choose herself—with his advice—and when she interviewed the likeliest candidates, she looked above all for virtue and beauty, so that her maids would be ornaments to their mistress whenever she appeared in public, and their exemplary conduct would be a credit to her. She ordered that the lucky selected few wear only black and white, in contrast to the deep shades of purple, crimson, and tawny that she favored herself.

  “Your virtuous conduct is crucial,” she told them when they were all assembled before her. “Your families expect me to find you good husbands, so no breath of scandal must touch you. Remember that it would reflect very badly on me too.”

  They nodded earnestly, plainly proud to have been chosen among so much competition, and aware of their good luck.

  “You must choose a badge as Queen,” Henry told Katherine.

  “It will be the pomegranate, which is granada in Spanish and was adopted by my mother after the fall of Granada as a symbol of the reconquest.”

  “And it is a symbol of fertility,” Henry said, smiling. “Very apt, for I hope we will have many sons!”

  “I have longed for children,” Katherine admitted, thrilling at his words.

  “God willing, your prayers will be answered soon!” Henry drew her to him and kissed her. “The sooner we make an heir to England, the better!”

  She blushed at that.

  She chose for her motto the device “Humble and Loyal,” and soon it was blazoned, with an array of pomegranates and castles for Castile, everywhere in the King’s palaces, where carpenters, stonemasons, and embroiderers were also busy chiseling, painting, and stitching her initials and Henry’s H and K on every available surface.

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