Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  Caroz looked as if he badly wanted to say more, but Katherine did not want to listen to any more complaints. The friar had served her exceptionally well and deserved her loyalty.

  “You said there was another matter,” she said firmly.

  “Yes, Highness.” There was a long pause.

  “Well?”

  “I have received a report from the Venetian ambassador in Rome. It may well be unfounded—you know how things get garbled in the telling—but there was a rumor in August in the Papal Curia. I thought you should see this.”

  He drew out of his bosom a letter and handed it to her, then stepped back.

  Katherine saw the seal bearing the lion of Venice. She scanned the letter quickly, then read it again, out loud, in disbelief.

  “ ‘The King of England means to repudiate his present wife because he is unable to have children by her, and intends to marry a daughter of the French Duc de Bourbon. It is said he means to annul his marriage and will obtain what he wants from the Pope.’ ”

  She realized she was trembling. Her thoughts returned to that conversation she’d had with Henry last year, when she voiced her fears about the validity of their marriage. He had reassured her that there was nothing to worry about—but a chill went through her when it occurred to her that she might have awoken his own doubts.

  She made a tremendous effort to calm herself.

  “This cannot be true,” she declared. “It is certainly unfounded. Well before August His Grace knew that I was to bear him a child. He loves me. He would never think of divorcing me, especially when we are both praying for a son to be born to us.”

  “Of course not, Highness. It is unthinkable that the King would make suit to the Pope at such a time. We are all praying for a prince.”

  She was glad to dismiss Caroz. Her thoughts were in turmoil. Was it possible that, back in June, when Henry was furious with her, he had said something in anger that gave the impression he wished to be rid of her? Wolsey would have leapt on it, of course. He had always seen her as a rival, and might well have placed a more serious interpretation on his master’s remarks than they merited. She would not have put it past Wolsey to make preliminary inquiries about the possibility of an annulment. He would be delighted to be rid of her, on many counts, not least because he knew she disapproved of him and saw through the bonhomie to the corruption beneath.

  She wished she could confide her fears to Henry, but they had only just established a fragile accord and she feared to upset it. He was now showing himself solicitous about her comfort. He visited her daily to ask after her health, often placing his hand on her stomach to feel the child leap. He was once more according her every respect and courtesy as his queen. But she sensed that he was still resentful of her for her father’s sake. He was out hunting much of the time, spending the short November days in the saddle, and in the evenings he would be gambling or dancing or flirting, often with her ladies. He had always done that, considering such courtesy an obligation of his chivalry, and she’d never thought amiss of it, but now she felt threatened. Seven months pregnant as she was, she could not compete with the young women who clustered around her husband, all graceful flowers newly in bud. He was only a man, after all, and young men were always hot in pursuit of sensual love; it would be hard to resist such charms, especially as he had abstained from her bed these many months. Yet their long-ago quarrel over Lady Hastings had taught her that it was best not to cast any doubt on his faithfulness; and her married ladies were mostly of the opinion that wives should turn a blind eye to their husbands’ infidelities. Far better to hold her peace and preserve her dignity.

  The birth of this child could not come quickly enough, and several times a day she was down on her knees, beseeching God for a son. Once she had a male heir in her arms, she would be forgiven and all would be well again. But as to what might happen if the child were lost, she dared not think.

  1514–1515

  Katherine began to hear the name of Bessie Blount on people’s lips. Bessie, a distant relative of Lord Mountjoy, was one of her maids of honor, an enchanting girl of sixteen, so it was not surprising that people remarked upon her beauty. Unlike her learned kinsman, she was not blessed with brains, but you could not help but like Bessie—she was gentle and kind, and willing.

  Too willing, as it turned out. Katherine could not help overhearing her women gossiping and linking Bessie’s name with the King’s. She was so shocked that she’d had to slip away to her bedchamber, where she dismissed her chamberers and sat down on the bed, waiting for her churning heart to return to normal. She picked up her glass and stared at her reflection. A plump, tired woman with sad eyes stared back at her. Small wonder that Henry had looked elsewhere.

  She was too appalled even to cry. How could she lure him back, eight months pregnant and worn down by misery as she was? Did he not cherish the memory of the five wonderful years in which they had been all in all to each other? Surely he could not have forgotten how much he loved her? This flirtation with Bessie Blount—it could be nothing more—was doubtless a fleeting fancy to divert him while his wife’s bed was forbidden him.

  How long she sat there, she did not know, but the evening shadows were lengthening when she finally got up, smoothed down the covers, and drew the curtains, not even realizing that she was performing tasks normally done by servants. Then, stiffened in her resolve not to be defeated by this latest trial, she summoned her women and bade them dress her in her finery, for she had a mind to grace the court with her presence this night. There was to be a supper in the presence chamber, followed by music and dancing. She would wear a brave shade of red for that.

  She called for her bath to be prepared, stepped into the tub lined with holland cloth, sat down on soft sponges, and luxuriated in the herb-scented water as the Vargas sisters sponged her with Castile soap.

  “I’ll wear the scarlet velvet with the slashed sleeves. Maria, please fetch my cross with the pearl and the quatrefoil necklace.”

  Maria regarded her warily. “Would your Grace like a brooch for your corsage?”

  “Yes, the IHS. And I should like my hair loose over my ears and gathered into a plait at the back. Fetch my Venetian cap, please.” She knew she was being too much on her dignity, but she could not face unburdening herself, even to Maria. If she did, she would start crying and never stop.

  When she was ready, she was gratified with the transformation. The dress was becomingly low-cut, displaying to advantage the fullness of her pregnant bosom. She bit her lips to redden them, splashed on some damask rose perfume, then smiled approvingly at the ladies who were to attend her, all of them sumptuously dressed in their black and white gowns.

  —

  She could tell that Henry was impressed when he raised her from her curtsey and kissed her.

  “You look very fine, Kate,” he said. It was the first time he had called her Kate in months, and she dared to hope that he had at last forgiven her.

  They sat together at table and chatted quite happily. There was no sign of Bessie Blount at supper, but she appeared afterward when the courtiers assembled in the presence chamber for the dancing. Katherine saw her across the room, in a group with Compton, Elizabeth Carew, and Brandon, now newly created Duke of Suffolk. They were all laughing, and Katherine saw that Suffolk was gaily consoling himself in Mary’s absence; no doubt a dukedom and two pretty maidens were sufficient to distract him.

  Seeing Bessie flirting with him and Compton, she was now convinced that Henry’s interest in the girl had been a passing one—if that. Once she saw Suffolk beckon Henry over, but Henry shook his head and turned back to Katherine. He had sat out every other dance with her and dutifully taken to the floor in between with every married lady present, as was courteous. Never once did Katherine see his eyes stray in Bessie’s direction. It was over, she told herself. It must be. Maybe it had never happened.

  —

  Two days later Henry came to see her.

  “I have a serious m
atter to discuss, Kate. Some of your household came to me this morning and complained that your confessor is fornicating with women of the court. Has anyone said aught of this to you?”

  “Fray Diego fornicating?” Katherine echoed, setting aside the rich hood she had been lining. “I would not believe it of him. But I do know that several of my servants are jealous of the influence he enjoys, and I would not put it past them to make it up.” Or Caroz, she thought, but she did not mention him, lest she give Henry cause for further complaint against Spain.

  “You will not object if I question him?” Henry said. “Nothing must be allowed to touch the honor of my queen.”

  “Not at all,” Katherine agreed, her eyes drawn to Bessie Blount bending her blond head over the altar cloth she was sewing. “By all means question him.” She beckoned a page and sent him to fetch the friar.

  Fray Diego stood before the King, his swarthy face reddening angrily when he heard what had been said against him.

  “I deny it, sire!” he growled.

  “Then you are saying you have been badly used?” Henry replied.

  “I certainly am. And if I am badly used, the Queen is still more badly used!”

  Katherine saw Henry’s face tauten. He frowned. Did he fear that the friar was about to throw discretion to the wind and accuse his sovereign of fornication with Bessie Blount?

  “You had better explain yourself,” he said, “and be careful what you say. I would not have you impugning anyone without good cause.”

  Fray Diego almost glared at him. “I meant, your Grace, that you had best take a look at my accusers before paying heed to them. I know who they are, and that they resent me for refusing them absolution. They should be dismissed from Her Grace’s service. One is a perjurer and traitor, one has a bastard son, and one leads an unclean life.”

  “Then you have never had any connection with Thomasine Haverford or Cecily Swan?” Katherine started in surprise at his naming of her laundresses.

  Fray Diego had started in surprise too. His hot denial came after too long a pause, and Henry pounced.

  “Ah, but you did meddle with them, you cur, didn’t you?”

  “No, sire, I did not!” barked the friar.

  “I don’t believe you,” Henry said, “and I cannot allow any taint of scandal to stain the honor of my queen. You are forthwith dismissed from her service and will return to Spain.”

  Katherine was about to protest, but Fray Diego forestalled her.

  “Your Grace, that is unjust. For nine years I have served the Queen faithfully. I have endured many evils for her sake. Now your Grace has called me a fornicator. By the Holy Gospel, I swear this charge is false. Never in your kingdom have I had to do with women. I have been condemned unheard! Those who complained of me are my enemies and disreputable rogues. Yet I am willing to forget all this unpleasantness, and I am prepared to remain in Her Grace’s service if you desire it—but only on condition that I be heard by honest judges.”

  No one, Katherine was sure, had ever spoken to Henry in such a condescending manner, and it was small wonder that he had gone red with fury.

  “You are prepared? You are willing to forget…? Do you question my justice? Am I a dishonest judge?” He was almost spluttering in rage. “Get out. Go!”

  Fray Diego bowed. “As your Grace pleases.” His voice shook. “Wherever I go I shall pray that you have sons.” He stood up and bowed to Katherine. “God go with you, my daughter.”

  Then he was gone.

  Henry was still seething. “The man is a liar as well as a womanizer.”

  “You had no choice but to dismiss him, if it was true,” Katherine answered, trying to come to terms with the shattering of her illusions about the friar.

  “It was true,” Henry insisted. “The women concerned made a complaint about him pestering them. He was overfamiliar with them in the confessional; he tried to seduce them. I will not go into details.” Outside their bedchamber he was prudish about discussing such matters.

  Katherine thought back to before her marriage and the times when Fray Diego had touched her and she thought it merely a gesture of comfort. Had there been more in it than that? She could hardly bring herself to believe it, but…

  “Have I been a fool?” she whispered at length. “Was Francesca right all along, and Don Luis? But I refused to heed them. Did I treat Francesca unjustly?”

  “You are too full of goodness to see evil even when it is under your nose,” Henry said, then fell silent. Was he thinking of another evil she could have seen, in the person of a fair-haired wench with a winning manner? But maybe—hopefully—she was mistaken. Henry cleared his throat. “Do not reproach yourself, Kate. I’d rather you had a pure mind than a prurient one.”

  When he had gone, promising to find her a new confessor, she was troubled in her mind. After all Fray Diego’s years of service to her, she felt she had let him down. She had not even questioned him herself, or insisted he be given a chance to explain. No doubt Henry was right and the friar had behaved immorally, but she felt that she too had come out of the affair badly.

  Had Fray Diego confessed his vile sins? If he had not, or he had backslid, there was little hope of Heaven for him. Because a priest occupied a position of the greatest trust, and to take advantage of it was the worst kind of betrayal. Yet how could she have been blind to his wickedness all these years? There was still in her mind some worm of doubt, some guilty sense that Henry—and she herself—had not dealt fairly with the friar. But all she could do now was recommend Fray Diego to King Ferdinand and appoint Jorge de Atheca her personal chaplain in his stead. Hopefully, his dismissal would have taught him a lesson.

  He has served me very faithfully all the time he has been in England, and much better than certain persons pretend, she wrote to her father, lest Francesca de Cáceres tried to spread her calumnies in Spain. Katherine did not want Ferdinand thinking that she herself had been so unwise as to retain in her service a man of bad character. And she did understand why Henry had summarily dismissed him. Even the slightest breath of scandal could rebound on her.

  —

  All told, it had been a miserable year. There was still some awkwardness between her and Henry, and she was beginning to doubt they would ever recapture the joy they had once shared. The child she carried should bring them together, but too often Katherine could think only of the babes she had lost, and the pain she had yet to endure before this one was safely in the world. Wolsey had undermined her influence over her husband. England was shackled to France, although at least Mary’s letters were cheerful, and it sounded as if she was leading her feeble husband a merry dance. And now she herself had been deprived of the confessor upon whom she had always relied. Justified or not, that was a cruelty at such a time.

  When Henry spoke of her father, Ferdinand, he still did so with contempt. And when Ferdinand wrote of Henry, he was scathing. If someone does not put a bridle on this colt, it will be impossible to control him, he raged. Katherine found her loyalties brutally torn. When Henry got into a fury about Ferdinand, he spared her nothing, and after he had ranted and roared, she would seek refuge in her bedchamber to cry. Once that November she cried so much that her nose bled all evening.

  The next morning her pains started.

  “Mother of God, it is too soon!” she sobbed. She had not even taken to her chamber.

  The midwife, summoned in haste, spoke sternly to her. “If you carry on like that, your Grace, you won’t do yourself or the child any good. Now stop fretting. I’ve delivered many an eight-months child that’s thrived.”

  For hours Katherine labored, hoping and praying it would all be worth it and that this prolonged travail meant the babe was healthy. And then she could reason no more, for it seemed she had entered a long dark tunnel of agony and that her only aim was to rid herself of the relentless pains. They were all shouting at her to push, but they did not seem to understand that she needed them to do something to ease her suffering. It was only when she f
elt a great wrench, as if her body were being torn in two, that she remembered she was birthing a child, and then she did push, with all her remaining strength, and soon there was a violent, wet, slithering feeling between her legs as the babe was drawn out of her.

  All she heard was silence. Maria, sitting by the bed with her hood abandoned and her sleeves rolled up, was holding her hand tightly and shaking her head.

  “What is it?” Katherine croaked.

  “A boy, your Grace,” the midwife said, gathering up a bundle in her arms and laying it on the chest at the foot of the bed.

  “A prince!” Katherine said weakly. “I have borne a prince!” Then she realized that she had heard no cry from the infant. She struggled to raise herself and saw a tiny bloodied form lying on a towel. The midwife was frantically massaging its breast.

  “Get me water,” she was panting. “That might revive him.”

  Water was brought and splashed liberally over the child’s crumpled blue face. It gave a slight cough, then did not stir.

  “No!” Katherine screamed, the sound a long howl of misery.

  —

  This time Henry was devastated and could not hide it.

  “What have I done to deserve this?” he stormed. “How have I offended God?”

  Katherine had no words that could soothe or comfort him. The only one in whom she could confide was Maria, who sat up with her every night of her lying-in, talking her through what happened.

  “I was already out of favor,” Katherine wept, “and now I know that the King’s love for me has died. He still holds me responsible for what he is pleased to call my father’s treachery, and I fear he thinks that the loss of our son is down to some fault in me. But I was desperate for that child. I longed for him. I wanted him to live so much.”

  “I am sure His Grace understands. You have both suffered a bitter blow,” Maria commiserated, looking distraught herself.

 
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