Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  For hours she labored, until, hearing the bells chiming midnight, heralding the new year of 1511, she felt so exhausted that she thought she could bear no more.

  “Not long now, your Grace,” the midwife said. “Soon the head will be crowning!”

  “Please, Holy Mother of God, let it be over soon!” Katherine prayed. She was pushing now, mustering all her remaining strength to deliver her child into the world.

  “Just one more push!” the midwife instructed.

  Katherine pushed again, with all her might.

  “God be praised! A fair prince!” the midwife cried.


  Henry was beside himself. He stood there, cradling his son, tears streaming down his cheeks.

  “I can never thank you enough, Kate!” he kept saying. “You have given me an heir to England! He looks like me, don’t you think?”

  Lying in the tester bed, washed, clad in a clean night rail and supremely happy, Katherine smiled up at him. “He does indeed. He has your red hair and mine.”

  Henry laid the swaddled babe in her arms. It was true, he was Henry to the life. She gazed in adoration at his little yawning mouth, his tiny, starlike hands, the milky blue eyes that regarded her gravely, the sweet rosebud mouth. He was perfect in every way. She put him down in his cradle of estate, a vast bed upholstered in crimson and gold fringe. He looked so tiny lying there beneath the painted arms of England.

  “He shall be called after me,” her husband declared. “Henry the Ninth!” He bent and kissed Katherine. “You have brought great gladness to me and my realm. Can you hear the church bells ringing? They’ll be singing Te Deum throughout the land. They tell me the citizens have lit bonfires all over London, and I’ve arranged for free wine to flow in the conduits.”

  “I wish I could see it all!” Katherine said.

  “You lie there and get better!” Henry commanded.

  Five days after his birth the little prince was borne off to his christening, wearing the robe Katherine had brought with her from Spain and a purple velvet bearing cloth with a long train. Well on the way to recovery, Katherine lay against her pillows. Maria had helped her dress in a sumptuous mantle of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine, fitting attire in which to receive the guests after the ceremony. Henry sat beside her, resplendent in green and gold, colors that set off his red hair to advantage.

  “It is not the custom in England for the King and Queen to attend their child’s christening,” Henry had informed her. “It is the godparents’ day.”

  They could hear the procession returning from the chapel and the sounds of excited chatter and happy rejoicing. Soon the Queen’s chamber was full of richly dressed guests, and ambassadors from the Pope, France, Spain, and Venice were bowing low, congratulating Katherine on her noble offspring. When the Countess of Devon, smiling, lay the little Prince Henry in her arms to be named for the first time and to receive his mother’s blessing, Katherine’s happiness was complete.

  Luis Caroz came to pay his respects. “Highness, I was in London on the night of the christening, and the people were thronging the streets, celebrating. I wish you had heard them! They were crying, ‘Long live Katherine and the noble Henry! Long live the Prince!’ ”

  “The people of England have always made me feel welcome,” Katherine reflected, “which is something to marvel at, for the King tells me that, as a rule, the English hate foreigners!”


  Henry announced that he was going on a pilgrimage to Norfolk to give thanks for his son at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

  “She is the special patron of mothers and babies,” he explained. “I will thank Her on your behalf too, my love. While I am gone, rest and concentrate on recovering for your churching, for I have great celebrations planned! Everyone must share in our joy at the birth of our son!”

  He left her serene and full of gratitude for God’s great blessings, and when he returned a week later, she was up and bustling around her apartments, impatient to be back in the world again.

  “I rejoice to see you so well, Kate!” Henry cried, embracing her lustily, regardless of the stares of her women, who clearly thought that such conduct was unbecoming for a woman not yet churched. “How I have missed you, my love. It would have been wonderful to have you kneeling beside me at the Holy House—did you know it was built by angels, in the shape of Mary’s house at Nazareth? And you have to walk the last mile of the pilgrimage barefoot, and leave your shoes in the Slipper Chapel. I did it gladly, with everyone else, but you should see the state of my feet! And I saw the holy relic, the precious milk of the Virgin, and paid it great reverence. Oh, Kate, my heart was bursting with thanks!”

  She drank in his every word. “I will go to see Her one day,” she vowed. “I will thank Her in person.”

  Henry began telling her what he had planned for the celebrations.

  “You must be churched as soon as possible, so that we can leave for Westminster and the rejoicings can begin.”

  “And the Prince—he will come with us?”

  Henry shook his head. “I would not risk our precious jewel, even for your sake. Here at Richmond the air is purer and there is less risk of infection.”

  “But I cannot bear to leave him! He is so tiny! He needs his mother.” Katherine felt as if her very lifeblood were being leached; no one, she was certain, could care for her baby as well as she. “Let me stay here, Henry, I beg of you!”

  “Sweetheart, your place is at my side. People will expect you to be there. Little Harry is in good hands—never child had better or more loving nurses. You have done your duty—now enjoy the applause. And after we have celebrated, you can come back to Richmond and see him. It is not so far away.”

  She allowed herself to be persuaded, hardly able to bear the prospect of the inevitable moment of parting. And when it came, and she had hugged and kissed her tiny baby as if she would never let him go, she gathered her courage, laid him in the arms of his lady mistress, and let herself be carried away to Westminster, knowing that she had left her heart at Richmond.


  “Oh, Henry!” Katherine breathed as the magnificent mounted knight paused before the royal stand in which she and her ladies were seated. The splendid hangings were of cloth of gold and purple velvet, which the King had ordered to be embroidered with the letters H and K in fine gold, in honor of his love for her. And now here he was, entering the lists as her champion, Sir Loyal Heart.

  He was in his element. Tournaments were in his blood, and he was exultant at the prospect of participating himself, which he could safely do now that he had an heir.

  “From now on I will be holding tournaments twice a week!” he had informed Katherine, his eyes shining in anticipation. “We’ll have them every May Day too!”

  His armor gleaming, his surcoat and the trappings of his horse emblazoned with the words Coeur Loyal and embroidered with Hs and Ks, Henry bowed low in the saddle, dipped his lance and extended it for Katherine’s favor. She stood up, wrapped in furs against the February chill, and herself tied on her yellow silk kerchief, her ladies doing likewise for their chosen knights. Then Henry blew her a kiss and cantered away, to the cheers of the spectators and the admiring gaze of the ladies.

  Katherine held her breath each time he thundered down the lists to meet his opponent. She need not have worried. There were many young men who excelled in this dangerous sport, as she well knew, but today the most conspicuous among them all, the most vigorous in the combats, both on horseback and on foot, and the most dedicated, was her husband. He jousted expertly, and broke more staves than any other contestant, easily surpassing everyone else. He ran several courses against his favorite jousting partners, William Compton and Charles Brandon—and won them all. Those eagerly watching were enthralled, and there were cheers of acclaim from Henry’s friends and the crowds in the stands as Katherine stood to present Henry with the prize as he drew up on his horse before her.

  “My lady!” he cried, flashin
g her that devastating smile. “The mother of my son!”


  Henry and Katherine made love that night for the first time since the Prince’s birth. Katherine had been worried that all would not be as it had been before, and that Henry would find her body too much altered, for she had still not lost the weight she gained in her pregnancy, and her breasts had lost a little of their firmness. But she need not have concerned herself. He was so thrilled to be reclaiming her that she was sure he had noticed nothing amiss, and if his ardor was anything to go by, he loved her so much that it would not have mattered anyway. Again, she thanked God for such a husband.

  Cherishing the secret knowledge that they were lovers again, and firmly suppressing her nagging need to be with her son, Katherine found herself enjoying the elaborate pageants that Henry had devised with his master of the revels. She caught her breath with everyone else as a band of wild men clad in animal skins and leafy garlands came leaping into the hall, growling and snarling, as behind them rumbled a pageant car pulled in by a golden lion and a silver antelope. On the wooden stage a forest had been created, with rocks, hills, dales, trees, flowers, hawthorns, and grass, all fashioned from velvet, silk, and damask; and from it emerged dancers dressed as foresters in green velvet. Rising in the middle of the forest was a golden castle, in front of which sat a gentleman making a garland of roses for the Prince. As the pageant drew to a halt before Katherine, armed knights burst from the castle and summoned the whole court to the tiltyard for yet another tournament.

  There were several other pageants, along with feasts, banquets, and of course dancing, in which Henry acquitted himself marvelously, leaping and jumping and proving himself indefatigable. He was in such an expansive mood that he commanded that the doors to the White Hall be left open to allow the common people to come in and watch the festivities. Katherine could not take her eyes off him, he looked so debonair. The gold Hs and Ks from his tilting costume had now been sewn onto his purple satin doublet, so that he could continue to proclaim his love for her to the world.

  Luis Caroz admired these ornamental initials. “They are surely not real gold, your Grace?”

  “I don’t think so,” the Earl of Surrey chimed in.

  “Oh, but they are, I assure you both,” Henry said, “but if you don’t believe me, I will prove it!” He jumped in one lithe leap onto his chair of estate, and a hundred pairs of eyes turned to him.

  “My lords and ladies!” he cried. “There are some here that doubt that these ornaments are gold, so now we will dance, and I invite all of you, if you can, to divest me of them for largesse, so that you can see for yourself that they are! Let the music begin!”

  The consort of musicians in the gallery broke into a lively brawl, and Henry took Katherine’s hand and led her to the floor, where he twirled her around, bowed, skipped, and whirled her by the waist as his courtiers tried to snatch the golden initials from his clothes. But now the common people, thinking that the King’s largesse was for them too, surged forward and began grabbing and pulling, and before long Henry’s doublet had been ripped apart, his bases were torn, and he was standing there in his shirt and breeches, laughing helplessly, for his good commons were now setting about his lords and divesting them too of their finery.

  Katherine had taken refuge with her ladies on the dais, where Henry hastened to join her.

  “Don’t you think they should be stopped?” she asked nervously, but Henry just chuckled.

  “Let them have their largesse in honor of the Prince!” he said. “I will cry it! Largesse! Largesse! Mother of God, look!”

  Katherine looked up to where he was pointing, and there was Sir Thomas Knyvet, Chancellor of the Exchequer, shinning up a pillar to escape the rapacious hands of the mob. He was stark naked and affording the ladies a comprehensive view of his manly parts. Henry was vastly amused.

  “They have gone too far, for shame!” Katherine protested, rising to her feet as the milling crowd began edging toward the dais. She was horrified to see two homespun-clad fellows reach out for her ladies and tug at the green and white silk gowns they had worn for the pageant. Henry had seen too.

  “Enough!” he said in a voice like a trumpet, signaling to his guard, and suddenly armed pikemen were in the midst of the throng, pushing the people back toward the doors and ejecting them from the hall, leaving the King and his tattered courtiers staring at each other. Someone threw poor Knyvet a torn gown. Then Henry laughed again. There was a pause, and others followed suit, until the rafters were echoing with the sounds of mirth.

  “Let us to the banquet!” the King cried. “As you are!” And he took Katherine’s hand and led his merry, bedraggled throng into the presence chamber.


  As the trumpets sounded, Henry and Katherine headed the procession into the great hall, followed by the Queen’s ladies, the foreign ambassadors, and all the nobility. Henry himself showed the ambassadors to their seats, then sat down beside Katherine at the high table on the dais, beneath the canopy of estate bearing the royal arms of England.

  Katherine was wondering if she could face another feast. It seemed to her that she had done nothing but eat and drink for the past weeks, and she felt she was putting on more weight daily. She had heard that at the French court a tiny waist and a full bosom were the ideal; well, she had the bosom, but she doubted that her waist would ever be tiny again. Yet Henry, unbothered about his trim figure, which stayed trim thanks to all the exercise he got, was hungrily eyeing the huge platters of food being borne toward him with great ceremony. There were meats garnished with costly spices and sauces, raised pies with rich crusts, and—most magnificent of all—a peacock roasted and redressed in its plumage.

  A nobleman placed before the King a gold platter of meats.

  “Let me serve you, Kate,” Henry said, all courtesy, and speared with his knife the choicest portions, placing them on the silver-gilt plate in front of her. “Wine for the Queen!” he commanded. A page was instantly at the table with his ewer.

  Katherine raised her goblet.

  “To your Grace, my beloved lord!”

  Henry’s eyes drank her in. “And ever shall be!” he declared. “I have written a new song for you, Kate, a winter ballad. After dinner you shall hear it!”

  “I will look forward to that,” she said.

  Henry could not remain seated for long. He was soon walking around the tables, chatting to his guests. He then disappeared for a time. When he came back he was wearing Turkish robes and was accompanied by a troupe of players, with whom he proceeded to dance for the delight of the assembled company. Then, flushed with his exertions, and basking in the ovation, he rejoined Katherine at table, just as the subtlety was carried in, a monumental sculpture of sugar in the form of a great castle, which drew many an admiring gasp.

  “That’s something for valiant teeth to assault,” Henry muttered in Katherine’s ear, and politely waved it away as it was presented at the high table. Then he tried unsuccessfully to conceal his mirth as he watched others trying to eat the rock-hard confection.

  Katherine smiled. “At least it looks impressive.”

  When the cloth had been lifted and the trestles taken away, hippocras was served, and Henry called for his lute. A hush descended as his clear, true voice sang out.

  “As the holly grow’th green

  And never changeth hue,

  So I am, e’er hath been

  Unto my lady true!

  As the holly grow’th green

  With ivy all alone,

  When flowers cannot be seen

  And greenwood leaves be gone.

  Now unto my lady

  Promise to her I make:

  From all other only

  To her I me betake.

  Adieu, mine own lady,

  Adieu, my special,

  Who hath my heart truly,

  Be sure, and ever shall!”

  As he sang the final lines his eyes met those of Katherine, who thought she would swo
on with the joy of it.

  “Bravo!” she cried, clapping her hands and leading the applause. “That is a beautiful song.”

  “Thank you, sweetheart,” Henry said, bowing and acknowledging the applause. “I think I might add a chorus, something like, ‘Green grow’th the holly, so doth the ivy…’ I haven’t got the last lines yet.”

  “Another, sire!” cried a voice from the near end of a lower table. It belonged to Sir Thomas Boleyn, one of Henry’s tilting partners.

  “Yea! Yea!” others called.

  “Please, sir!” Katherine echoed. Then she became aware that the Earl of Surrey had appeared and was murmuring something in the King’s ear. Henry turned to her.

  “Urgent business calls me, Kate. I’ll return as soon as I may.” He got up, bowed to her, and preceded Surrey through the door at the side of the dais.

  “Maybe our minstrels will play us a tune!” Katherine cried. “Let the dancing begin!”

  She had sat there for five, maybe ten minutes, enjoying the music and the sight of the couples treading a stately measure down the hall, when Surrey returned, without the King.

  “Madam.” His long, wall-like face was grave. “His Grace requests your presence in his closet.”

  Katherine rose, wondering what this could be about, and hastened with Surrey to the King’s lodgings, her ladies following. As they passed through the deserted presence and privy chambers, the guards sprang to attention, then in the antechamber beyond, Surrey turned to Katherine.

  “His Grace would see you alone, madam.”

  “You may go,” she said to her women, then pushed open the door, her heart full of foreboding.

  Henry had lit two candles. Their dancing light illuminated his tearstained, tragic face in the dark room. She knew then what it was he had to say to her, but her whole being was gathering its resources to deny the truth of it. If the words were not said, they could not be true. But then Henry reached out his hands to her and spoke. Suddenly she was screaming and screaming, and then strong arms were around her as she sank down and down into the terrible darkness…

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