Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Another army of tailors, seamstresses, silk women, and goldsmiths had been set to work on a sumptuous new wardrobe for Katherine, most of it in the English fashion. Only rarely now did she wear a farthingale or put on Spanish dress. Her days were a busy round of choosing fabrics and having fittings. Every day new gowns arrived, to be hung on pegs or laid out on the bed for her inspection. After years of wearing an increasingly shabby and sparse wardrobe, she took a near-sensual pleasure in adorning herself once more in rich materials—glossy silk; heavy damask; thick-piled velvet, stiff with raised gold embroidery; and royal cloth of gold.

  Henry lavished jewels upon her. Already he had given her the crown jewels of the Queens of England, pieces that had been worn by former consorts, which were not her own but royal property, and would one day be passed down to her son’s wife. They included the ancient crown of the Saxon Queen Edith, wife of St. Edward the Confessor, a pretty diadem fashioned of silver gilt and enriched with garnets, pearls, and sapphires. There were diamonds, necklaces, rings, earrings, and many fine pieces. Most were old-fashioned, of course, but Katherine valued them not just for their great value and their historical worth, but because many had been the gifts of devoted kings to their beloved wives. There were elaborate collars that she had last seen around the neck of her beloved mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth. There was a garnet cross that had been the gift of Edward III to his adored Queen Philippa. And there was a gold reliquary that once belonged to Eleanor of Castile, whose grief-stricken husband had set up the memorial crosses she had seen on her arrival in London so many years ago. Yes, these jewels were very precious indeed. She tried on Queen Edith’s crown with great reverence.

  She cherished too the jewels that Henry had given her as personal gifts: ropes of pearls; an array of rings; diamond pendants; crucifixes studded with gemstones; brooches fashioned to depict St. George, England’s patron saint, or the letters IHS, representing Christ, which she proudly wore pinned to the center of her bodice. The gift she loved best, because Henry had suggested its exquisite design, was a large cross set with sapphires and three pendant pearls. He also gave her some of his mother’s personal jewels, and her missal too, and in it he wrote, I am yours forever, Henry R. Her joy was overflowing.

  This time there would be no cathedral bells pealing, no crowds, and no feasting. It was to be a private wedding, for Henry and Katherine were still officially in mourning for the late King. They had decided it would take place, auspiciously, on the feast day of St. Barnabas, the patron saint of peacemakers, for certainly their marriage would bring peace.

  Early that morning, Katherine entered her closet at Greenwich, attended by a beaming Maria and some of the new English ladies, all in white. She had donned the new wedding gown, a ceremonious affair of silver tissue that belled out over her farthingale, and her long hair flowed free under a circlet of gold, a wedding gift from her future husband. Henry came clad in a suit of white Florentine velvet with raised embroidery in gold thread, in company with a few of his lords and gentlemen. At the small altar, Archbishop Warham was waiting to perform the ceremony. The little oratory was filled with the scent of June roses—a scent that Katherine was forever after to associate with this wondrous time in her life.

  Henry bowed to her, his eyes telling her that she looked beautiful, and she curtsied. They knelt on rich cushions, and as the Archbishop pronounced them man and wife and blessed them, Katherine was filled with a strong sense of destiny, and overwhelmed with love and gratitude for the young man kneeling next to her. When she stood up, she was Queen of England, and Henry was looking down on her with adoration in his eyes.

  Laughing joyously, they led their small wedding party out of the palace, through the gardens and along the lime walk to the chapel of the Observant Friars for the nuptial Mass. Then it was back to the palace for a quiet dinner in Henry’s privy chamber, where Katherine sat beside him under the cloth of estate and their food was served on gold plates with great ceremony by impassive pages on bended knee, with lords and ladies standing in attendance around them.

  No one had said anything about her being publicly put to bed with Henry, and she had not liked to ask him about it. In fact, she was praying that they would be allowed some privacy.

  She need not have worried. As the cloth was lifted and they stood up to have the crumbs brushed off their clothes, Henry smiled down at her. As soon as the servitors were out of earshot, he bent forward and murmured in her ear, “I will come to your chamber tonight, by the secret stair. It leads up from my rooms to yours. Until then, my Queen!”

  Katherine had not even known there was such a stair.

  “It’s behind the arras, in the corner,” Henry told her. “Our marriage is not proclaimed yet. I thought it meet to allow us a few days of privacy to get to know each other.” His intent expression set her cheeks aflame; there was no mistaking his meaning.


  He came before darkness had fallen, when the late evening air smelled cool and sweet, and the trees silhouetted against the dying light lent the gardens below her window an air of enchantment. He came full of youth and vigor, wearing a trailing damask robe embroidered in gold over his fine lawn nightshirt. He came like a lover, gathering Katherine in his arms and tumbling her on the bed.

  “The candles,” she murmured through his kisses.

  “Let’s leave them,” he said, laying her back against the pillows. “I want to see you.”

  Katherine had expected to feel embarrassed, but she was carried away by Henry’s insistent eagerness, and began kissing him back with fervor, surprising herself by her body’s response to his caresses, which grew ever more bold. Soon they were lying naked together on the velvet counterpane, lost in the joy of discovering each other fully.

  “I’ve said it before, but it’s true—you are the most beautiful creature in the world,” Henry breathed.

  Katherine took delight in exploring a man’s body for the first time, and in his burgeoning desire, hard and insistent against her. Then Henry reared up and positioned himself on top of her, parting her thighs and thrusting between them. But he was not yet inside her, just pushing to one side, then the other, which awoke in her the memory of Arthur moving uselessly against her all those years ago. But Henry was no Arthur—he was hard and ready, and all that was needed was for her to reach down her hand and guide him to where he should be. As he thrust again and slid inside her, she felt a hot, stinging pain, and gasped, but he seemed oblivious. Immediately he tensed, and suddenly there was a throbbing sensation and a warm, sticky wetness flooding her.

  When he had withdrawn from her and lay back panting, he flung out an arm and drew her toward him.

  “How I do love you, Katherine!” he whispered. “My Katherine!”

  “And I love you, my Henry,” she answered. She lay blissful in the crook of his arm, a true wife at last. The soreness he had left behind mattered little. What had surprised her was how quickly their coupling had taken place. But soon she was to be surprised afresh, because as the night passed Henry wanted to do it again—and again. And suddenly, the third time, she felt desire awakening in her, like a flower opening out, and then—oh, the wonder of it!—an explosion of the purest pleasure she could ever have imagined, followed by a great calm and a deep sense of well-being. Now she understood what being one flesh meant. If she had loved Henry before, she loved him a thousand times more now for giving her the gift of such joy. And what was so wonderful was that they had all their lives ahead of them to share this rapture…


  When she rose from her marriage bed in the morning, Katherine was surprised to find that, although the sheets were stained, there was no blood. But Henry, lying there watching her appreciatively, did not mention it, or even seem to notice, so she decided that she had been lucky. Obviously not every woman bled the first time.

  Covering her nakedness with her nightgown, she sat down beside her new husband on the bed and put on her gable hood.

  “Now that I am wed, I m
ust cover my hair,” she said.

  “You do not have to,” Henry said. “It is the privilege of a queen to let her hair flow free like a virgin. Your virginity is symbolic, of course.” He grinned. “And I love to see your hair.” He drew her back into his arms.

  “Marriage is merry sport!” he whispered in her ear, nuzzling her. And then, of course, he wanted to do it all over again…

  “Did you like that, Katherine?” Henry asked sometime later.

  “How could I not?” she giggled.

  “You are the first woman I have ever known,” he said, gazing at her.

  That was unexpected. “I am glad,” she told him. “I imagined that ladies had been throwing themselves at your feet! You are the King, after all.”

  “You know there were few ladies at my father’s court after my mother died,” he said. “And he made me lead a cloistered life. There was never an opportunity for dalliance. But it was you I wanted all along, Katherine. Beside you, all other ladies were wanting. And now I have you; by God’s good grace, I am blessed indeed!” He looked at her intently. “I must know. Did Arthur ever…”

  “No, Henry. He was too ill, the poor boy.”

  “Then all their carping was for nothing,” Henry muttered.

  “What carping?”

  “Oh, Warham and a few councillors, bleating on about our marriage being forbidden in Scripture.”

  “But we have the Pope’s dispensation!” she cried. Nothing must mar this newfound bliss.

  “So I told them. Do not worry, my sweet. All is well. Think you I would have married you if there had been the slightest doubt? I would not have risked your future, or mine. But the Pope has given us his blessing, and now you are my wife in the eyes of God.” And he began kissing her fears away.


  Over the next three days they enjoyed a precious period of privacy. Katherine was utterly swept away by the new joy in her life, and forgot about that brief conversation. Her head was too full of Henry, her body surprised by the unsuspected pleasure he had awoken in her. They spent most of the time in bed, even taking their meals there. When they were not loving each other they played cards, dice, or backgammon, or made music. Henry was an excellent musician, she discovered. He could play on almost every instrument, and was especially accomplished on the lute, the recorder, and the virginals. Lying back on the pillows, Katherine watched him singing from the book, reading the music effortlessly. He could compose too, as she well knew.

  “Do you remember, Katherine, the day we were betrothed, and I promised to make a song for you?” he asked.

  “How could I forget?” she answered.

  “Well, how like you this?” And he sang in his high, perfect tenor:

  “Without discord

  And both accord

  Now let us be;

  Both hearts alone

  To set in one

  Best seemeth me.

  For when one soul

  Is in the dole

  Of love’s pain,

  Then help must have

  Himself to save

  And love to obtain.

  That lovers be,

  Let us now pray,

  Once love sure

  For to procure

  Without denial.

  Where love so sues

  There no heart rues,

  But condescend;

  If contrary,

  What remedy?

  God it amend.”

  Her eyes filled with tears when he sang of their being lovers, for no word could have described it better. She loved the way he thought about things, the sensitivity he showed in both his lovemaking and his verses. She loved the fresh, clean smell of him, his innate fastidiousness, the newly washed linen he put on every day. It was scented with the herbs in which his laundress laid it away, a scent she would always associate with her husband. She truly was the luckiest woman alive!


  When it was proclaimed that they were man and wife, she made her first appearance at court as Henry’s queen, wearing a blue mourning gown with a low-slung golden girdle, and a rich mantle lined with ermine.

  “From now, my Queen, you will be at my side at all state and court ceremonies,” Henry told her, his eyes alight with pride.

  That night he told her to be ready for him, so she dismissed her ladies and sat down on the great tester bed to await his arrival, expecting him to emerge from behind the arras at any moment. But then she heard the tramp of several feet approaching, and suddenly the door to her bedchamber was flung open and he came in, wearing his damask nightgown. Behind him, she heard the outer door to her apartments shut.

  “Why did you not come up the secret stair?” she asked.

  “I was escorted by my guards and two of my gentlemen,” he answered. “People know we are married now, and it is customary in England for kings to be seen to visit their wives. It is a matter of public interest, you understand. The succession must be seen to be assured. Don’t worry, my guards will remain outside until I am ready to leave.” He grinned. “They might have a long wait!”

  They made love; at first Katherine found it a little hard to relax, but she told herself she would get used to this new arrangement. It was not for her to question English customs. Then the familiar joy overwhelmed her, and she forgot all else except Henry’s touch and his melodious voice murmuring love talk in her ear.


  Henry looked magnificent. His robe was crimson velvet trimmed with ermine, and beneath it he wore a coat of raised gold embroidered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, great pearls, and other rich stones. Katherine was wearing her wedding gown. It was midsummer, and they were seated on cushions in the royal barge, which was gliding majestically along the Thames, surrounded by a flotilla of gaily decorated boats. Behind them was Greenwich, ahead London and the Tower, where they would lay that night; Henry had explained that it was customary for English monarchs to lodge in the Tower before they were crowned.

  Crowds lined the riverbanks, waving and cheering as they passed. Henry acknowledged them with smiles, nods, and a raised hand, and Katherine bowed her head to left and right, touched by the people’s acclaim. It was the same all along the river.

  “They love you!” Henry turned to her. “They love you not only because this marriage has strengthened our trade, but for yourself too!”

  “I am humbled that they have so taken me to their hearts,” she said.

  They alighted at the Court Gate and entered the Tower by the Byward postern, where they were received by the constable and his Yeomen Warders, and thence conducted in procession along Water Lane to the royal apartments. The court crowded into the ancient rooms in the Lanthorn and Wardrobe Towers, where, in the afternoon, the King created twenty-four Knights of the Bath, with Katherine seated beside him.

  She did not like the Tower. It was not just the knowledge that the hapless Earl of Warwick had been imprisoned there a decade ago; there was something sinister about the place, and she was glad they were spending only one night there—and that Henry had spent a fortune in refurbishing the gloomy old chambers. Even so, she disliked the Queen’s lodging; the June sunlight did not penetrate far beyond the narrow windows, and there was a miasma of sadness in the very air. Of course, Queen Elizabeth had died here. No wonder the apartments felt dismal, despite the rich new furnishings.

  That evening, as Henry and Katherine took the air along the high walkway that led from the Wakefield Tower to the Lanthorn Tower, and looked out over the inner and inmost wards, Henry was in such a buoyant mood that Katherine forbore to speak of her aversion to the Tower. But then he turned to her.

  “Tonight, my love, I will not be coming to you. I wish to keep vigil before my crowning, in the Chapel of St. John.” He had taken her up to the top floor of the massive keep, Caesar’s Tower, and shown her the exquisite little chapel earlier.

  Her heart sank, but she smiled and said, of course, that was only fitting. One of the things she loved most about Henry was his piety. Like
her, he heard five Masses every day, and he had instituted the habit of coming every evening to her chamber so they could hear Vespers together. Theology was a passion with him, and he basked in the reputation of being an acknowledged authority on religious doctrine. His faith was pure and fervent, and she understood his need to keep this vigil.

  That night she chose Mary Roos, one of her maids, to sleep on a pallet bed in her chamber, instructing her to leave it discreetly if by any chance the King came. Then she tried to sleep, but the fate of young Warwick was preying on her mind. She wondered where he had been held, and if he had understood the consequences of his plotting and what awaited him. She shuddered, imagining his terror on the day they had come for him. Then her mind turned to the fate of those two little princes, done to death in the Tower by the wicked King Richard a quarter of a century ago. No one spoke of it even now, save in whispers. She shivered, although the bed was warm. The bones of those children were here somewhere, and yet to be discovered…

  It was a long time before she drifted off.


  She awakened to the sound of sobbing. It was still dark.

  “Mary?” she said softly. There was no reply, yet the sobbing did not cease.

  Katherine sat up. There was a woman seated in a chair in the corner, her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. She was not Mary. Her dress looked black and her hood was a strange shape.

  “Who’s there?” Katherine asked, wide-awake now and wondering which one of her women would have needed to take refuge in her room to have a good cry—and why.

  The woman ignored her and went on weeping, obviously in great torment. Katherine leaned over the side of her bed, wondering if Mary had been woken too, but she saw that her maid was still soundly asleep.

  “Whoever you are, please let me help you!” Katherine said. Again the woman took no notice. Katherine’s eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness, and she could see that although her visitor was wearing a hood in the familiar gable shape, its lappets were very short—a fashion she had never seen.

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