Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  In the August heat, she and her ladies were busy sewing standards, banners, and badges destined for the army in France. She also made new body linen to send to Henry, for she knew how fastidious he was about having clean undergarments, and it would not be easy to get laundry done regularly while on campaign. As she sewed and sewed, her heavy sleeves rolled back and her hood discarded in the heat, she could feel the child stir under her girdle.

  For four years she had watched and counseled Henry as he governed England, absorbing the intricate and unspoken rules of the English court. Now she felt ready to act as his regent, attending council meetings, listening to the views of the lords and considering their advice. Much of the business they dealt with was mundane in the extreme. She was in the process of discussing the sending of hay, oats, and beans for the King’s horses when Surrey came bursting into the council chamber and, without ceremony, threw a letter on the table.

  “The Scots are preparing to invade, madam!” he cried.

  There was a moment’s stunned silence as the lords looked at each other, nonplussed, before Katherine stood up. This was her proving time, she knew. As her mother’s daughter, she must be bold and decisive.

  “Then we must face them,” she said. “Gird yourselves, my lords, for we too must go into battle.”

  “Your Grace, you cannot possibly…” Surrey’s voice tailed off. He was looking at her high belly.

  “Good Surrey, I do not mean to lead you myself, of course, but I can rally troops and support you in every other way I may.” She added mischievously, “I might remind you that my mother, Queen Isabella, rode with her armies right up till the time she was confined, and was back in the saddle soon afterward. But I mean to be guided by you, my lords.”

  They cheered her for that and settled down to the serious business of defending the realm. They seemed glad, she thanked God, to be busy with the Scots. Of course, England and Scotland were ancient enemies; the English would be glad of a chance to best the treacherous King James. What an underhanded thing to do, invading England while its King was away fighting in a holy cause!


  When all was finally in readiness and the men were mustered, the veteran Surrey rode out at the head of his army.

  “I am glad, despite my gray hairs, to be useful again,” he told Katherine as he bade her a courteous farewell. “I am hot to go north to trounce the Scots. May God give us the victory!”

  She watched him go, the brave old man, and prayed fervently that he would win the day.

  Soon there arrived news that King James had invaded Northumberland.

  “His army is eighty thousand strong!” Katherine told Archbishop Warham, in some alarm. “I hope we can prevail against it.”

  “Never fear, madam,” he replied. “In my lord of Surrey we have a commander without parallel.” All the same, Katherine wished that Henry, young, strong, and vigorous, was here to deal with this menace.

  Three days later there arrived the most wonderful news from France. Henry and Maximilian had taken the town of Thérouanne. Then, hard on the heels of that, came brave tidings from Henry himself of another great victory, in which he and his allies had routed the French. Their army took one look at our superior forces and fled, he had written, so we are calling it the Battle of the Spurs.

  She wondered how significant these victories were. Would they pave the way to Rheims? Surely Henry would have said. Maybe they were but a preliminary to greater conquests to come. Pray God there would be a decisive triumph, like Agincourt!

  But she would not belittle her lord’s achievement. She hastened to write to Wolsey. The King’s victory has been so great that I think none such has been seen before. All England has cause to thank God for it, and I especially.

  Soon afterward she had a letter from Henry himself. He’d heard that the Scots had invaded, and commanded her in all haste to prepare to defend his kingdom.

  We have done that and more, with great diligence, she informed him. Your realm is in safe hands.

  Her pregnancy was advancing now, the child becoming ever more active. It must be a boy, she thought; it has to be a boy, by God’s grace. Heavy and encumbered as she was, she journeyed north to Buckingham, where she would await news from Surrey. He had left his reserve forces—all thirty thousand of them—camped outside the town, and to a man they greeted her joyfully when she came to see them. Alighting from her litter, she stood on a mounting block, helped up by a sturdy captain, and spoke to the men massed before her, taking care to project her voice into the distance, as she remembered her mother doing all those years ago in Spain.

  “I urge you to victory!” she cried. “The Lord God smiles on those who stand in defense of their own—and remember, English courage excels that of all other nations!” How they cheered her!

  She stayed as the guest of Edward Fowler, a wealthy merchant, at Castle House, his well-appointed brick-and-timber home in the town. It was here, one afternoon in the middle of September, that a letter from Surrey was brought to her. Trembling, she broke the seal.

  Your Grace, I write to inform you that God has vouchsafed us a great victory, she read. The King of Scots and the flower of his nobility lie dead on the field of Flodden.

  “Thanks be to God!” Katherine exclaimed, crossing herself, her heart pounding and the babe leaping within her. This was more than she could ever have hoped for.

  She read on: Our Englishmen fought like heroes. There was great slaughter, and ten thousand Scots were slain.

  Katherine spared a thought for her sister-in-law, Queen Margaret, widowed at a stroke, and of her infant son, another James, who would now be king in his father’s place, which would mean a long regency. The teeth of Scotland had been drawn; with so many of her lords dead, it would be years before she recovered. England was safe. Truly this was a great victory.

  Katherine went to the parish church of Buckingham and gave thanks, the townsfolk cramming in behind her. She prayed especially for Surrey. That brave old man—how well he had acquitted himself! She would see that the King gave him his just reward.

  Another letter from Surrey arrived the next day, informing her that King James’s body had been found among the dead. The messenger had also brought her a parcel. When she unwrapped it, she found the King’s banner bearing the royal arms of Scotland, and his torn and bloody coat. That gave her a jolt, but she did not flinch from it. Instead she ordered the herald to take the banner and the coat to the King in France.

  “Tell His Grace that I am now returning to Richmond,” she instructed him. And there, God willing, his son will be born. By her reckoning, the child would arrive in a few short weeks. She had prayed constantly, and fasted, for a safe delivery. What more could she do to ensure it?


  Katherine paused, her quill poised above the parchment. It was early evening, and all was quiet in the guest house of Woburn Abbey, where she had broken her journey. The nights were drawing in now, and she had ordered candles to be lit, so that she could see to write to Henry.

  Sir, her letter read, by now you will have heard of the great victory that our Lord has sent to your subjects in your absence. To my thinking, this battle has been to your Grace and all your realm the greatest honor that could be, even more than if you should win the crown of France. She read over it again. Would Henry think she was belittling his gains across the Channel by extolling the triumph over the Scots? Surely not! He would realize how important it was in the grand scale of things. Yes, she would leave it as it was.

  She began writing again. Your Grace shall see how I keep my promise, sending you for your banners a king’s coat. I thought to send his body to you, but our Englishmen’s hearts would not suffer it. Instead, the embalmed corpse was being stored in a lumber room in Richmond Palace. My lord of Surrey, my Henry, would know your pleasure in burying the King of Scots. I pray that God will send you home shortly, for without you no joy can here be accomplished.

  She wondered if she ought to tell Henry what she was about
to do. Would he chide her for making such a journey so late in her pregnancy? Or would he feel it was a risk worth taking? She thought, on balance, that he would approve. So much was at stake that she felt compelled to go, even though she was weary after so many weeks of being busily occupied and traveling. So she told him: And now I go to Our Lady of Walsingham, that I promised so long ago to see. She was sure that Our Lady, herself the mother of a king, would understand the need for a healthy heir to England. How that would crown these victories!


  Katherine approached the shrine barefoot, standing in line with the other pilgrims. Here, in the sight of God, all were equal. After the blinding sunshine outside, the chapel entrance was dark. But ahead, to the right of the altar, was a vision of lights, a small statue of Our Lady of Walsingham enthroned, shining with precious stones, gold, and silver, and illuminated by numerous candles.

  In awe, she knelt to pray and receive the Blessed Sacrament. Having accepted her offering, a monk brought to her a crystal and gold vial containing a creamy liquid.

  “The sacred milk of Our Lady,” he said low, offering it to her to kiss. She did so fervently, her heart beseeching Mary to bless her with a son. And suddenly she knew that it was a son, and she was filled with thanks.

  Afterward, when she emerged into the sunlight, the people crowded around her, calling down their blessings and wishing her a happy hour.

  “That’s a boy you’ve got there, my lady,” a woman called. “I can tell by the way you’re carrying it.” As she said it, the babe shifted. Not long to go now, Katherine thought, heartened as much by the woman’s words as by the certainty she had felt at the shrine. Nearly there. Just let me get through the birth, then all will be well.


  Henry had won another town, Tournai. Surrey and Warham brought her the news as she was taking the air in the privy garden at Richmond.

  “It’s a French town, but it lies isolated in Burgundy,” Surrey explained.

  “His Grace has done marvels,” Katherine said. “To have won so many victories! And to come through it all unscathed. God has indeed been watching over him.”

  “The messenger said that the King was fresher after his exertions than before.”

  “I do not know how he can stand it,” Warham observed.

  “You know the King—he is never still or quiet,” Katherine said, smiling. It was strange, but she had the impression that neither Surrey nor Warham were rejoicing as much as they should have been. “From here he will go on to great things,” she said. “I am beginning to believe that he really will conquer France.”

  “It is the hope of us all, madam,” Surrey answered, “but it is now autumn and the end of the campaigning season. The King is in Lille with his allies. They are pledging themselves to launch a combined invasion of France before next June.”

  “The King is also arranging for the marriage of the Princess Mary to the Archduke Charles,” Warham told her.

  “That is good news,” Katherine said. “An alliance with Queen Juana’s son can only strengthen the ties of friendship between our two nations.” She thought sadly of her sister, still shut up at Tordesillas, with no word of her; often she prayed that Juana was too far gone in madness to understand what had happened to her. She wondered too what young Charles thought of his mother, and if her loss, and the macabre end of his father, had badly affected him. Poor child—to be virtually orphaned, so cruelly, and he just thirteen. Her maternal heart ached for him. God grant that the lively and beautiful Princess Mary brought joy into his life.

  “It will be a popular union,” Katherine said. “I thank God that all is going well for us after so many weeks of worry.”

  “This has all been a great strain on your Grace,” Warham said. “You are with child, and for that we owe very much to God.”

  “You forget, Archbishop, who my mother was!” Katherine laughed. “And I have felt very well and equal to the tasks set me.”


  “The King is here!” Maria cried, breathless. “I saw him just now from the gallery, riding through the gatehouse with a small company.”

  Katherine stood up, smoothing down her skirts and straightening her hood. There would be no time to change. She picked up her mirror and pinched her pale cheeks. How she had longed for this moment in the four months since he had left. And how, latterly, she had dreaded it.

  She wished now that she had written to him, but there would have been no guarantee that a letter would have reached him while he was journeying home, and anyway, she had not wanted to write. And now it was too late, and he would see at once…

  “Kate! Kate!” She could hear him calling her name, hear eager footsteps approaching, and by the sound of it he was not alone. And here he was, every inch the returning hero, looking so virile and handsome in his riding clothes, taller than she remembered him, and mantled with a new and attractive confidence.

  “I came with all speed!” he said, and drew her close to him, covering her lips with his, heedless of their avidly watching attendants, or the grins of Brandon, Compton, and Boleyn.

  “My lord, I am so proud!” Katherine told him, when she could speak. “And my eyes have longed to behold you. It has been so long. I can hardly believe that you are here at last.”

  “I have missed you, my darling,” Henry said, kissing her again, then murmured in her ear, “Shall we get rid of all these people so that we can be private together?”

  “I would like that more than anything,” she whispered. So far there had been nothing in his manner to indicate that he was aware she was not as he had expected to find her. But he was a good dissembler. She prayed he would not reproach her when they were alone.

  He did not. Instead he took her chair by the fireside and drew her down onto his lap, folded her into his arms and kissed her, long and hard this time.

  “I fear I have overburdened you with duties, Kate,” he said gently. “They told me what happened. I am very, very sorry.” He pulled her closer.

  She was determined not to cry. Nothing must mar their reunion.

  “I too am sorry, Henry. I am deeply sorry to have let you down. I should have had more care for myself, but there was so much to do—and I was happy to do it.” Never let him think that she had grudged doing the task he had entrusted to her.

  “It is the will of God,” Henry said, his face tautening, “and we should not question it. He has blessed us in so many other ways. All I care about is that you are all right.”

  She thought of the long hours of labor, the pain, the blood, that tiny, fragile babe being coaxed by the frantic midwife to breathe, mewling weakly, then lying waxen and limp in his nurse’s arms as she herself opened her mouth in a soundless scream…

  “I am much restored,” she lied. “The sight of you, my Henry, is all I needed to return to perfect health.”

  “God be thanked! Kate, we must not mourn, for this is a time to be joyful. Come, let me greet the ladies!”


  He lay with her that night, even though she was still bleeding slightly. She knew she had flesh to lose, and that her breasts had been left slacker than before, after the milk dried up. Three pregnancies had taken their toll on her body—and what had she to show for them?

  But Henry took his pleasure as passionately as usual, though gently, mindful of her comfort. Afterward he kissed her and lay beside her, his arms curled around her.

  Long after he had drifted into sleep she lay wakeful. It troubled her beyond measure that God had seen fit to take all three of her children. How joyful life would be if He had permitted her to keep them. Young Henry would have been nearly three now, his sister a year older, and this last babe thriving in his cradle. There would have been two male heirs to England—and she a happy mother, not empty-armed and tormented by failure and fear for the future.

  She envied Maud Parr, who now had a healthy son, William, and a daughter, sweet little auburn-haired Kate, to whom she herself was godmother, and who had been named in her
honor. Maud’s grief for her lost son had been tempered by these blessings; Katherine could only mourn for the children she had lost.

  She knew that Henry must feel the same. She wanted above all things to present him with that thing he needed most, a living son, and God knew that she had done her very best. Three pregnancies in four years of marriage—yet still she was barren.

  How have I offended You? she kept asking God. Surely a sin that merited such punishment would be obvious to her. She had searched her conscience again and again, and found it quiet, but her mind would not be stilled.

  She rested her hands on the soft mound of her recently pregnant belly and wept for all the hopes that had been dashed. She could not stop thinking of that tiny dead baby—she had never even held him—and a great sob escaped from her.

  It woke Henry up.

  “Darling,” he said, instantly alert. “Oh, darling.” He turned and took her in his embrace, holding her tightly. “Put it behind you, Kate. These things happen. My mother lost three young children, and yet she had me and Arthur and Margaret and Mary.”

  “What have I done that God should take my babies?” Katherine wept.

  “You have done nothing. We have done nothing.” He stroked her hair, soothing her.

  “It is a judgment of God!” she cried out.

  “For what?” he asked, drawing back and looking at her directly.

  “I do not know! I wish I did.”

  Henry closed his eyes. He looked pained.

  Then a terrible thing occurred to her.

  “Is it our marriage?” she said, faltering. “There were some—Warham, I think—who thought it against Scripture. But the Pope sanctioned it. We have his dispensation.”

  “It is not our marriage,” Henry said firmly. “Would you have every couple who lost three children in the Church courts? The queue would be endless. What of my sister Margaret? God saw fit to take five of her children. Sweetheart, you should not take this so seriously. There is no cause for concern. We are young yet—you are not twenty-eight. We will get other children, I promise you. Now try to sleep and forget your fears.”

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