Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  In a fine mansion called Palace House, the nobles and worthies of Devon were assembled, standing respectfully behind long tables laden with a hearty display of food. Everyone bowed low as Katherine and her entourage entered the hall, then a trumpet sounded and grace was said.

  She could eat little. She was still feeling a little nauseated, the food looked and tasted strange, and it was difficult trying gracefully to convey it from the plate to her mouth when the constricting veil kept getting in the way. She felt uncomfortable partaking of a meal with strange gentlemen watching her, for the privacy of young girls of high birth was closely guarded in Spain. But clearly this was how they did things in England, and she must accustom herself to it. So she responded to everyone’s compliments through her chamberlain, and did her very best to be courteous and friendly, remembering how her mother exerted herself to set people of all ranks at their ease. And when the time came for Katherine to bid the good folk of Plymouth farewell, she knew that they had warmed to her for her own sake, and not just because of who she was.

  Her most pressing need now was to give thanks for her safe arrival in England. As she left Palace House, she asked if she might go to some holy place. The mayor willingly led her to a church dedicated to St. Andrew, where the rotund and rather excited little priest celebrated Mass for her. She knelt, filled with exultation, thanking God for His goodness to her, praying that His wrath might not be visited upon her for the secret sin committed by others to her advantage and that she might do as well in the rest of England as she had in Plymouth.

  Outside, the horse litter was waiting, with the lords of Devon mounted beside it, ready to escort Katherine’s train to Exeter, where they were to lay that night. Katherine would have liked to stay in Plymouth and rest, but the mayor had given Doña Elvira a letter from Dr. de Puebla saying that the King of England was eager to see her, and that he had been kept waiting long enough, so she must press eastward to London with all speed. As she climbed into the litter and seated herself comfortably on its embroidered silk cushions, Doña Elvira, whose English was good, commanded that the curtains be closed, for Spanish etiquette demanded that none should look on the face of the royal bride until she was wed.

  —

  Katherine could not sleep. The weather vane on the spire of St. Mary Magnus next door to Exeter’s deanery kept creaking, and she had sent a servant to complain. But that was not the only thing keeping her awake. After two days in this alien land, she had found herself crying into her pillow, filled with an overwhelming longing to be at home in Spain, and to see her mother. And when she thought of how Queen Isabella must herself be feeling, now that the last of her children had gone from her, she wept even more. “Madre, Madre!” she sobbed.

  For as long as she could remember, her mother had been the guiding presence in her life, even though Isabella had often been busy with state affairs and with war. For many centuries Spain had been occupied by the Moors, who were cruel and savage infidels and in league with the Devil. They had haunted Katherine’s childhood nightmares, terrifying her as much as El Roba-Chicos, the man who was said to carry children off in his sack.

  Katherine had imbibed with her nurse’s milk the story of how, for hundreds of years, the rulers of the Christian kingdoms of the Spanish peninsula had fought bravely against the Moors, gradually reconquering their land, inch by inch. She had been told of the great rejoicing when her father, the King of Aragon, and her mother, the Queen of Castile, had married and united Spain under their joint rule. Both were zealous in ridding the land of the Moors, and in 1492 the last infidel kingdom, Granada, had fallen to the victorious sovereigns.

  Katherine had been six then, but she remembered as clear as day riding across the River Vega with her parents, her brother Juan, and her sisters, and looking ahead in awe to see King Ferdinand’s great silver cross set up on the watchtower of the Alhambra palace, and the royal standard being hoisted beside it. That was the signal for the royal procession to enter the city. She would never forget the shouts of “For King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella!” resounding from hundreds of triumphant onlookers, or her father and mother falling to their knees to thank God for vouchsafing this magnificent victory.

  They had all been together then, the royal siblings. Sad Isabella, in her widow’s black, mourning Alfonso of Portugal, her husband of just seven months, cruelly dead after a fall from his horse; Juan, Prince of Asturias, the cherished heir to the throne—“my angel,” as their mother called him—tempestuous Juana, the beauty of the family, passionate and longing to be a bride; placid Maria; and Katherine, the youngest of them all. Those had been the happy years. After the conquest of Granada, Katherine and her sisters had lived in the Alhambra. For the children, the old fortress had been a magical place, and they loved exploring the old palaces with their colorful tiles and strange Moorish decorations, the pavilions, the arched patios, and the water gardens with their pools and cool, splashing fountains, where once the caliphs had kept their harems. The views of the Sierra Nevada mountains from the Generalife Palace, where the sultans had once retreated in summer, were breathtaking.

  The Christian princesses had rarely left their sunny home, except for the great occasions of state at which their presence was required, nor had Katherine wanted to. She wept afresh when she remembered those long, spacious days in the Alhambra when the future seemed so far ahead and she had been content to play in its courtyards or apply herself to her studies. How sad it was not to know how happy you were until it was too late.

  Her mother, believing that princesses benefited from a good education, had appointed the pious Alessandro Geraldini as her tutor. He had taught her to read and write, instructed her in Latin and the ancient classics, and given her devotional books to improve her mind and teach her virtue. Now he had come to England as her chaplain. From her duenna, she had learned needlework and dancing, lacemaking and the intricacies of Spanish blackwork embroidery. She knew it would be committing the sin of pride to say she was good at the embroidery, but it could not be denied that she had mastered the skill.

  The year when Katherine turned seven had been an exciting one. Not long after the fall of Granada, Cristóbal Colón had returned to Spain to report that he had discovered a new world across the Atlantic Ocean. Queen Isabella had financed his voyage, and it was to the Spanish court that he brought the gold and the natives captured on his voyage. The dark-skinned savages were outlandishly dressed, but they looked terrified and ill, poor heathen creatures. Katherine had preferred the beautiful birds and plants that Colón showed her, his eyes afire at the prospect of many more voyages to come. Her tutor impressed on her how important Cristóbal Colón’s discovery was, for now that the Turks controlled the eastern Mediterranean, it was vital to find new trade routes with the East. One day, Father Alessandro told her, with a faraway look in his eyes, he hoped to visit this wonderful new world and see it for himself.

  It had been inevitable that Katherine’s older sisters would marry and go away before she did. She was ten when Juana had eagerly left for Flanders to marry the Archduke Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy, and life had been very quiet after that. The Infanta Isabella had wanted to enter a nunnery and drown her grief in prayer, but King Ferdinand was having none of it, and she was packed off back to Portugal to marry the new king, Manuel, her late husband’s cousin. Three years later young Isabella was dead, Maria was married to her widower, and Katherine was all alone.

  That was after the great tragedy that had befallen her family. She still grieved for her beautiful, chivalrous brother Juan, who had died four years ago in the flower of his youth and promise, at just nineteen. Her parents were inconsolable at the loss of their angel. The delicate Juan had not long been married to the lively young Margaret of Austria, Archduke Philip’s sister, and Katherine had heard gossip that he died as a result of overexerting himself in the marriage bed. She had not quite understood what that meant but was painfully aware—as was everyone else—that Spain had been left without a male h
eir, and that Juana was now next in line for the throne. Unstable, unhappy Juana, whose temperament had been volatile from childhood, and whose husband was making her life a torment with his infidelities.

  Queen Isabella had aged in these years, worn down by worry and grief. Her once-fair skin became puffy and lined, her green-blue eyes dulled by care. Yet to Katherine, her pious mother remained the perfect example of a Christian queen. There were people who said that women should not rule and should not wield dominion over men, but Isabella had proved them wrong. She had governed her kingdom and even led armies; not even female frailties stalled her. Katherine had heard that while campaigning against the Moors her mother gave birth to Maria and was back in the saddle within days.

  It was true that Isabella had had little time to devote to her family, yet she’d always loved her children. She had constantly looked to their welfare, and personally supervised their education whenever she could. She was their champion, whereas their wily, self-seeking father, Ferdinand, was more interested in what advantages his children could bring him. Katherine had been brought up to respect and obey her father, but she did not love him in the way she loved her mother. Isabella was everything that she wanted to be, and she had resolved always to emulate her example.

  She was thrilled when, shortly before they bade each other farewell (God, let it not be forever, Katherine now prayed), Isabella had said, “You, Catalina, are the most like me of all my children. I pray that your life will be happier.” Katherine felt sure in that instant that it would be, especially with her mother’s prayers behind her.

  She did not want to think of the moment she’d had to say goodbye. It was postponed so often she had begun to think it might never come. But, inexorably, the day had arrived when she knelt for the last time for her mother’s blessing, was raised by loving arms and folded into one last embrace. And at that memory she wept afresh into her pillow, racked with longing.

  The maid of honor on duty that night was Francesca de Cáceres. She had been asleep on the pallet at the foot of Katherine’s bed, her dark locks spread out on the pillow, but now she sat up, rubbing her almond-shaped eyes.

  “Highness? What is amiss? Why do you cry?”

  Katherine did not like Francesca as much as she did Maria, but she needed to talk to someone.

  “I think I am a little homesick,” she sniffed, trying to compose herself. “Francesca, are you missing your mother?”

  “Of course, Highness,” Francesca said. “I think we would be unnatural if we did not.”

  “Do you think we will ever see our mothers again?” Katherine asked.

  “Maybe not for a while, Highness. But Prince Arthur might one day wish to visit Spain, or Queen Isabella may come to England.”

  Katherine thought mournfully that neither eventuality was very likely. She could not remember her mother ever leaving Spain. Again, the need to be with Isabella swamped her. If I go on like this I shall go mad, she told herself. Her grandmother had been mad—she could remember visiting the older Queen Isabella at the grim castle of Arévalo, and hearing the old lady say she was being pursued by ghosts. It had been a frightening experience for the young Catalina, one she had never forgotten. And now there were rumors that Juana had become more unbalanced, throwing tantrums and attacking ladies at the Flemish court because Philip’s eye had lighted upon them. Dear God, let me not end up that way, Katherine prayed silently.

  She made herself dwell on Prince Arthur. All her life she thought of him as her husband, yet they had not been married by proxy until two years ago, and then again last year, just to make sure the alliance was watertight. Now King Henry was planning a state reception and wedding of such magnificence as had never been seen in England, even though her parents urged that he outlay only moderate expense, for they did not want their daughter to be the cause of any loss to her adoptive realm. But the King had insisted, and Katherine guessed why. He had pursued this marriage to seal his sovereignty, for he was king by right of conquest only, and needed the reflected glory of mighty Spain to legitimize his title. Spending a fortune on celebrations was a small price to pay for recognition by Ferdinand and Isabella.

  She knew her father had worried that the English King was insecure on his throne. Henry had vanquished King Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, yet reports reached Spain that there remained many kinsfolk of the late monarch to claim or contest the crown, and there were also pretenders who had tried to unseat Henry. Yet Ferdinand had told Katherine last year that there now remained no doubtful drop of royal blood in England to threaten his throne. She did not like to dwell on what that had meant, and kept trying to put it from her mind. But she could not forget the whispers of what King Henry had done to ensure it…

  Again she wondered what Arthur would be like. His portrait showed a youth with pink cheeks, narrow eyes with heavy lower lids, and a pursed rosebud mouth. He seemed so young, so girlish, and so unlike the princely hero people had described. But then portraits often lied. As did people, whispered her inner voice.

  She would not listen or pay heed. These were night thoughts, and things would look different in the morning. The bells were now mercifully stilled. Francesca was lightly snoring, and Katherine resolved to do the same. She turned over and shut her eyes tightly, trying to think only of pleasant things.

  —

  At Dogmersfield, Katherine was so cold she could not stop shivering. The upstairs chamber of the Bishop’s Palace had a large fire roaring up the chimney, and she’d had the table pulled over in front of it so she could copy out her English sentences, but while the side of her nearest to the fire was warm, the rest of her was chilled to the bone, and when she had to force herself to get up and use the closestool in the privy at the far corner of the room, her teeth started chattering. The warmth from the hearth did not penetrate the stone walls. Winter was setting in with a purpose now, and she was trying harder than ever not to wish herself back in the warmer climes of Spain. How was she going to endure months of this freezing, bitter weather?

  The bedchamber, with its fire stoked high, was only marginally warmer. Maria was preparing her for bed and had just unlaced her gown when they heard the loud clatter of many hooves on the cobbles below. There was a stir and some commotion, then a man’s voice raised in anger echoing from below.

  Minutes later Doña Elvira burst into the bedchamber, her normally severe features flushed, her erect figure bristling with rage. She was panting heavily.

  “The King is here with Prince Arthur,” she announced in a hoarse voice. Katherine began to tremble with anticipation, but Doña Elvira did not notice. “His Majesty is acting outrageously!” she fumed. “We told him that your Highness had retired for the night, but he said he wished to see you. I said you could see no one, it was not fitting, and he gave me a very evil look, as if I had spirited you away somewhere.”

  It was bad enough hearing that the King had been angered, but almost worse to realize that Doña Elvira’s judgment was not as rock-sound as she had always believed. It was as if the foundations of her world were suddenly shifting beneath her feet. But it just would not do to offend the King at this first, crucial meeting. Her whole future lay in his hands, and he was all-powerful here, as she of all people had cause to know. What was Doña Elvira thinking of?

  “I must go to His Majesty, if he commands it,” she said. “Maria, please lace up my gown.”

  Maria moved to obey, but Doña Elvira stopped her with a furious gesture.

  “Your Highness will stay here!” she insisted, plainly shocked at this unaccustomed defiance. “This English king is a rude, uncouth fellow. Despite what the Queen your mother told me to expect, he has no respect for Spanish customs! He demanded to know why I would not let him see you, and when I told him, he asked, ‘What is wrong with the Princess? Is she ugly or deformed?’ Highness, I would not have repeated this, but you should know.”

  This was getting worse by the minute. Doña Elvira had to realize that they were in England now, and she could
not always stand fast on Spanish ideas of ceremony. It seemed that the duenna’s insufferable pride was about to wreck years of careful and courteous diplomatic negotiations.

  “I said to him,” Doña Elvira was saying, “that in Spain a young lady must be veiled when presented to a gentleman. I repeated that you had retired for the night. And do you know what he said?”

  Katherine’s heart sank further.

  “He said that this is England, and that he would see you even though you were in your bed. The very shame of it! We are come among savages!”

  This had to stop. “Doña Elvira,” Katherine said firmly, “the King is my father-in-law and this is his kingdom. We are bound to obey his orders and observe English customs. I pray you, do not think ill of me, but I must do as he commands.”

  Doña Elvira looked at her as if a lamb had just roared. There was a short, charged silence, then she said, “I am not a fool, Highness. I had not the courage to argue further, even to preserve propriety, so I told him that he might see your Highness. I had no choice, as you say! Maria—lace up that gown and bring me the veil.” Having reasserted her authority, she picked up a comb and began raking it none too gently through Katherine’s hip-length, wavy red-gold hair.

 
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