Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

“God must love me to confer upon me the privilege of such suffering,” Katherine wept.


  One night, as Maria sat late beside Katherine’s bed, she confided to her that she had fallen in love with the most wonderful man, who wanted to marry her.

  “I cannot believe it is happening at last!” she told Katherine, her eyes shining.

  “And who is the lucky gentleman?”

  “It is my Lord Willoughby. He wants to speak to your Grace.”

  Katherine knew him slightly, William Willoughby, a great blond giant with a winning manner and thousands of acres. It would be a fitting match.

  “I will look forward to receiving him,” she said, forcing herself to look cheerful. “I am so happy for you, my dear friend. You deserve to be happy.” It barely touched her, Maria’s joy, so great was her own misery.

  When she had been churched and was ready to return to the life of the court, she looked in her mirror and saw a tragic wraith. With this last pregnancy she had lost her figure; the stiffened bodice of her English kirtle no longer provided effective underpinning, and her ladies had to make her a Spanish vasquina to wear under her gown, and lace it up tightly. She was painfully aware that she looked faded next to Henry’s maturing golden beauty and vitality. She found herself wishing she had not chosen her ladies for their looks as well as their gentle birth, because they no longer complemented her—they exposed all that was lacking in her and made her look old.

  She knew she must continue to put a brave face on things, however. She and Henry were both making an effort to put their grief behind them and make a display of happiness. At Christmas, when he staged a disguising at Greenwich, she showed herself especially delighted; and when he brought masked lords and ladies into her chamber for dancing, it felt like old times, and she thanked him heartily for such an enjoyable evening and kissed him, surprising herself at her boldness.

  Immediately he kissed her back, a proper, lingering kiss, and everyone present clapped and whooped. That night, for the first time in months, he came to her bed and was gentle with her, even affectionate. He did not stay the whole night, but when he had gone, she lay there thinking that this augured well for the future. It was a new beginning.


  Hard on the heels of the new year came news that King Louis was dead. Katherine’s thoughts were with Mary, a widow after less than three months of marriage. Judging by her letters, Louis had been a loving and indulgent husband, so Katherine did not know whether to feel relieved or sad for her. She wondered if Mary had gotten over her infatuation with Suffolk.

  “It sounds like she wore him out,” Henry said. They were at dinner with Wolsey in his privy chamber, all suitably attired in black.

  “By all accounts he was not a well man,” Wolsey said. “God rest him.” He crossed himself.

  Aye, you were his creature, Katherine thought, and probably in his pay.

  “This new king, Louis’s cousin, Francis of Angoulême,” Henry said. “What do we know of him?”

  Katherine could sense a tension in him. Already he was jealous of this unknown young rival—for what else could he be, given England’s long history of enmity with France?

  “He is not king yet, sire,” Wolsey said. “It is not yet known whether the Queen your sister is with child.”

  A gleam came into Henry’s eye. “An English king on the French throne! That would suit me very well! She wrote that she had gone into seclusion.”

  “Her Grace must keep to her chamber for forty days, by which time it will be known whether she is enceinte or not.”

  “God send that she is!” Henry cried.

  “Amen to that,” Katherine said. “But I pity her. I have heard that in France the chamber of a widowed queen is hung with black, with even the windows covered, and that the only light permitted is from candles. And there must she lay, in her white mourning, with only her ladies for company.”

  “I’ll wager that Francis’s mother is keeping an eagle eye on her,” Henry speculated.

  “The ambitions of Madame Louise are well known,” Wolsey observed.


  It transpired that it was not only Madame Louise who was taking an interest in Mary. Soon Henry was getting increasingly hysterical letters from his sister, complaining that Francis himself was becoming an all-too-frequent visitor, that she had no idea what his intentions were and that they might not be honorable, and if they weren’t, God only knew what he had in mind for her, and if her dearest brother did not send envoys to bring her home, she did not know what she might do, for he had no idea how difficult her position was, and she dared not offend King Francis, for God knew she was not with child, and so he was the rightful king after all, but she feared that what he was scheming would be detrimental to Henry and England, and even more so to her, for he saw her as nothing more than a pawn in a political chessboard, and could Henry see his way urgently to bringing her home before something awful happened, and if he did not…

  Henry crumpled the latest letter and put his head in his hands.

  “Was ever man so beset? But for all her ranting, she is shrewd, my beloved sister.” And he showed Katherine what Mary had written.

  “I would not trust Francis, or any Frenchman,” Katherine said at length. “I would hate to be in her position. It must be intolerable.”

  “She will not be in it for much longer,” Henry declared, standing up. “It’s clear that Francis means to marry her off to his own advantage. Well, I’m having none of that. If anyone is finding a husband for her, it’s me!”

  This, of course, was not the right time to remind him of his promise made to Mary, as she boarded her ship to France, that she could choose her next husband. But then, of all the people he could have chosen, Henry sent Suffolk to Paris to escort Mary home.


  Katherine thought she would never forget Henry’s anger when he found out that Suffolk had secretly married Mary, with the connivance of the French king. She was only glad that his sister had not witnessed that explosion.

  “But, Henry, you did promise that she could choose her next husband,” Katherine remonstrated, taken aback at such an unprecedented display of the royal Tudor temper. “I heard you myself.”

  There was no reasoning with him. His anger against Katherine over her father’s perfidy had been a cold fury; this time he was at white heat.

  “Are you stupid, Kate?” he bellowed. “Mary’s marriage would have been a valuable political asset to me. Her marriage could have secured an important foreign alliance for England, and brought great advantages.”

  “They love each other,” Katherine said.

  Henry snorted. “Much joy they will have of each other when I’ve finished with them! I have loved Suffolk, he has been my boon companion and friend, and I have advanced him and showered favors on him. And he repays me with this! Of all the cursed ingratitude!” He was stamping up and down now. “The son of a knight, however puffed up he is with a dukedom, is no fitting match for my sister.”

  If he said it once, he said it countless times, or rather shouted it, to anyone within range. There was no limit to the punishments he intended to mete out to the hapless Suffolk once he returned to England. He would have his head for this, he threatened, at the very least…He even threatened to send Mary to the Tower. By now he was kicking the furniture.

  Katherine knew better than to argue with him. He was like the enraged bulls she had seen as a child in the arena in Spain, and there was no reasoning with him. Even Wolsey was keeping his distance. But behind the scenes he had been working to bring about a reconciliation. It was Wolsey who finally calmed Henry down and stilled the troubled waters. Give him his due, he managed it all most diplomatically. In the end the Suffolks agreed to pay a crippling fine and gave Henry the Mirror of Naples—and Henry, miraculously restored to a good humor, graciously consented to take them back into favor. And so they were summoned home.


  What made that sweet spring special for Kathe
rine was the May Day pageant Henry staged for the ambassadors of Venice. Wearing a gorgeous Spanish gown of crimson velvet, she rode on horseback at his side, followed by a vast train of courtiers, into the woods of Greenwich Park, bound for a secret destination. Henry was waxing very mysterious, and indeed could hardly contain himself until suddenly the track opened out and they found themselves in a glade where there were tables beneath the trees, set with a lavish feast.

  “Welcome to Robin Hood’s hideout, masters all!” Henry cried excitedly. “We are now in the heart of Sherwood Forest, and will make merry!” It was a favorite theme of his, one he returned to again and again.

  As if on cue, birds began caroling sweetly—Katherine glimpsed cages almost hidden in the branches of the trees. The melodious sounds of shawms, crumhorns, lutes, sackbuts, regals, pipes, and tabors echoed from a leafy bower where musicians played unseen. Then, dressed in the familiar Lincoln green and carrying bows, Robin and his merry men emerged from the woodland.

  “Your Graces, we invite you heartily, and all your company, to come into the greenwood to see how we outlaws live!” Robin Hood cried. Katherine recognized William Cornish, Henry’s talented musician and deviser of revelry, behind the disguise.

  Chattering delightedly, everyone sat down to dinner, at which the King and Queen were served succulent venison.

  “Poached from my own royal forests, no doubt!” Henry jested, raising his wine goblet to their hosts.

  Afterward, an archery contest was held for the entertainment of the foreign visitors, and of course Henry had to have a go, and of course he won.

  The afternoon’s entertainments culminated with the crowning of the May Queen—Margaret Pole’s pretty, giggly daughter, Ursula, who blushed furiously when Henry placed the garland on her head. Then the magical day was over and it was time to return to the palace. A fleet of gilded triumphal cars adorned with figures of giants was waiting to convey everyone back, and as these were borne on their way, escorted by the King’s guard, music played and everyone sang. Word of the revels in the woods had spread, and people came running to see the spectacle. Behind the last car, in which Henry and Katherine sat, smiling and waving, thousands followed as they made their way home.

  And then Mary Tudor returned, luminously beautiful and basking in the love of her husband. The two of them knelt abjectly before Henry, and he forgave them with expansive magnanimity and warm embraces.

  “The irony was,” Mary confided to Katherine later, “Henry thinks that Charles had his wicked way with me—but it was me who forced him into marriage. I warned him that if he refused, I’d go into a nunnery. I cried a lot…” She smiled mischievously at the memory.

  A week later there was another wedding, this time with the proper royal trappings, at Greenwich. Henry could not bear the thought of his sister being wed in that furtive, secret ceremony in Paris; no, she must have all the magnificence due a Tudor princess! And he himself must have a new suit of clothes in cloth of gold to set off the Mirror of Naples.

  From her place of honor by the chancel of the chapel of the Observant Friars, where her own nuptial Mass had been celebrated, Katherine watched the couple taking their vows, and marveled that only the summer before, Mary had been distraught at the prospect of a loveless marriage. How the wheel of Fortune had spun! Now that Louis was dead, Mary had been able to arrange for Jane Popincourt to return to France, and she had gone, rejoicing, to be reunited with her lover. Katherine was so glad that both Mary and Jane had found happiness, and that all was rosy once more between Henry and his sister.


  “A beautiful healthy daughter, your Grace!” beamed the midwife, reverently laying the cloth-wrapped bundle in Katherine’s outstretched arms. Katherine looked down into the tiny face and gazed in wonder at a miniature image of herself—the same uptilted nose, firm chin, rosebud lips, and wide eyes. But the coloring, the red hair—that was Henry’s. This child was a true Tudor—and a true Trastamara.

  She could not feel disappointed that the baby was a girl and not the longed-for son. This little one was bawling forcefully and likely to thrive, and after losing four babies, Katherine found it miraculous to have a healthy child in her arms at last. She could not stop thanking God for this precious gift, could not take her eyes from the beautiful little face.

  It was soon after four o’clock, still dark outside on this February morning, and the Palace of Greenwich was cloaked in the hush of night. But as soon as Katherine had been washed, clad in a clean night rail, and lifted into her bed of estate, someone was sent to wake the King and inform him that he had a daughter. It was only minutes before he arrived, and when he entered the room, the skewed clasps of his furred nightgown bearing witness to his haste, he stopped and stared in wonder at Katherine with the babe in her arms.

  “God be praised!” he exclaimed, hastening over to kiss her and taking the child, as the ladies looked on beaming or wiping away a tear.

  “A right lusty princess!” he declared, his voice filled with emotion. “May God bless and preserve you all the days of your life—my little daughter!” He looked at Katherine. “You have done well, Kate, very well,” he said. “She is a beauteous babe. I do trust that all is well with you?”

  Katherine smiled up at him, enraptured at the sight of him cuddling their child. “I am tired,” she said, “but so thankful that all went well. I would have been yet more pleased had I borne you a son.”

  Henry shook his head. “What matters is that you have come through your ordeal safely and that we have a healthy child. We are both young; even if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God sons will follow. We will name her Mary, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Does that please you?”

  “I could not think of a better name,” Katherine said contentedly. “And it is in honor of your sister.”

  “We will have a splendid christening in the Observant Friars’ chapel,” Henry said. “Margaret Pole must be one of the godmothers. But we can talk about that later. For now, you must get some rest. Where is the nurse?” A woman stepped forward and he laid the baby in her arms. “Put her in her cradle and see she is rocked to sleep gently.”

  He stood up. “Bless you, Kate,” he said, stooping to kiss Katherine tenderly. “I will visit you when you are rested.”


  The Princess Mary, now Duchess of Suffolk but known to all as the French Queen, was one of the first to visit Katherine after she sat up. Katherine was relieved to be upright after days of being made to lie flat, and she was even gladder to see Mary’s lovely face smiling down at her. During the past months they had become close.

  “What a beautiful babe!” the French Queen exclaimed, peering into the great cradle and pulling back the cloth-of-gold coverlet so she could see little Mary, who lay there swaddled and bonneted, sweetly slumbering. “I hope God vouchsafes me such a pretty child!” She was nearing the time when she would have to take to her own chamber, and Katherine hastily bade her sit down.

  “The whole court is celebrating,” the French Queen told her. “There is so much joy in England at the birth of the Princess.”

  “There is much joy here too,” Katherine said. “Henry and I are now in as perfect love as ever we were.”

  “I know that the last two years have not been easy,” her sister-in-law said. “Even Louis said he felt sorry for you. He knew that the alliance with France would be hateful to you.”

  “It was not just the alliance, but the fact that Henry blamed me for what he saw as my father’s treachery.”

  “That was unjust of him. I’m sorry I could not help. I knew that things were going hard for you, but it was not my place to criticize my brother, and I had troubles of my own. I was dreading leaving England and all I held dear to marry Louis.”

  Katherine squeezed her sister-in-law’s hand. “But he was not such a bad husband.”

  The French Queen sighed. “He was very kind. He had laid on so many celebrations in my honor, and was so generous and loving to me. H
e told me I was his Paradise, would you believe? And he kept apologizing because his health did not permit him to join in all the festivities. It was easy to feel affection for him. I had not expected that. And the other…” She flushed slightly. “It was not so bad, except that Louis went around boasting to the court that he had thrice crossed the river on our wedding night! He hadn’t, but I wasn’t going to deny it. It was embarrassing, though, but as nothing to what poor Charlotte d’Albret suffered when she wed Cesare Borgia. People were spying on them through the keyhole. That marriage was consummated six times! They say I wore Louis out in bed, but it’s a long way from the truth. He was ill for most of those few weeks we were married.”

  “Poor man. I am glad he was good to you,” Katherine said, though she felt uncomfortable discussing such intimacies. They were best kept private between the two persons concerned. “But you are happy now,” she said, changing the subject.

  “Never happier,” the French Queen declared, her eyes brilliant pools of sapphire blue. “Especially now that Henry has truly forgiven us. I wish I could come to court and see you more often. You do understand that we can’t afford to?”

  Katherine knew that it would take the Suffolks years to pay their debt to Henry. “You are here now,” she said, stretching out her hand again, “and I am so glad. I have been feeling weepy these past few days. It’s silly, when I am so happy, but the midwife says it is normal at this time. Henry has been marvelous. He’s been coming twice a day to see me and he adores Mary. You should see him with her!” She smiled to think of it.

  Yet she had sensed that Henry was holding something back. There was no doubting his delight in his daughter, but she suspected that he was nursing disappointment about not having a son. She could not blame him, for it was only natural that he was concerned about the succession, and every man wanted a boy to carry on his line, be he king or yeoman. But Katherine, the daughter of Isabella of Castile, did sometimes wonder why it was seen as essential for a man to rule. Her mother had been a great queen, and pray God that Mary would take after her; and thus she herself could see no good reason why Mary should not rule. Yet now was not the time to say that to Henry. That conversation would have to wait on an opportune moment.

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