Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  Henry came to see her that evening after vespers. The baby was sleeping—she was such a good little mite—and Katherine was propped up on her pillows, trying to read her missal but spending most of the time gazing adoringly into the cradle. When she saw Henry in the doorway, she laid her book aside, for it was as if the room had lit up with his presence.

  He sat down on the bed beside her and took her hand. “I trust you are feeling stronger today, darling,” he said.

  “I am,” she told him. “I’m not bursting into tears at everything, thank goodness. Hopefully I’ll be allowed to get up soon. I am longing to be back to normal.”

  Henry’s smile did not reach his eyes. He seemed distracted. “Kate,” he said, “there is some news that I felt I should keep from you until you were strong enough to bear it, but I feel I should keep it no longer. Your father has died, God rest him.”

  She wept then, real tears borne of grief, not of female vagaries. It was so terribly sad to lose the man who had been a guiding presence all her life, to see such greatness brought to dust; sad too that Ferdinand was taken just when he and Henry had become friends again. It had taken a long time, but by last autumn Henry’s anger had burned itself out, and a new accord was established between them.

  Henry had still made it clear that he would never again be in tutelage to Ferdinand. “I will not allow anyone to have it in his power to govern me,” he said. But by then Katherine was happy enough knowing that the two men who meant most to her were no longer enemies.

  The accession of the new King of France had much to do with that. King Francis was three years younger than Henry, elegant, accomplished, notoriously lecherous, and extremely rich. Already his court was the most brilliant in Christendom, a magnet for artists and men of letters and beautiful women, and already he had shown himself to be as devious as any of his wily predecessors when it came to politics.

  Henry was more than a little jealous. No longer was he the youngest, most handsome, most sought-after sovereign in Europe. Right from the beginning, especially after he had been told that the new French king tried to seduce his sister while she was secluded in mourning, he had distrusted and resented Francis; the jealousy was mutual, and there developed a strong sense of rivalry between the two monarchs.

  Henry was determined to prove himself the better king, in every respect. Katherine had been present when he’d asked the Venetian ambassador if the King of France was as tall as he.

  “Is he as stout? What sort of legs has he?”

  “Spare, your Grace,” the ambassador told him.

  “Look here!” crowed Henry. “I also have a good calf to show!” And he opened his doublet to display a shapely and well-muscled leg, much to the ambassador’s discomfiture.

  Happily anticipating a new war with France, he had ordered the construction of several great ships to join the navy he was proudly building. Katherine went down to Southampton with him to review the fleet, and they clambered all over the Henry Grace à Dieu and the Mary Rose. He had been in his element that day, dressed up in a sailor’s coat and breeches of cloth of gold. He was as delighted as a schoolboy to act as pilot, blowing the large whistle of his office as loud as a trumpet, deafening everyone nearby. That had been a happy day.

  Inevitably, he turned away from France and looked to Spain for friendship. Katherine had been overjoyed to find Henry his old loving self, and once more she was at his side at pageants and revels, with him paying her every attention and courtiers competing for her favor—and Bessie Blount standing meekly with her other ladies.


  Henry was holding her, gentling her as she poured out her grief. She was devastated that she could not tell her father that she had at last borne a healthy child. She had been about to write to him with the news. Now the Lord who had given had taken away, with perfect timing. He had sent her child to comfort her. The thought calmed her.

  “What will happen now?” she asked, disentangling herself and lying back on the pillows.

  “Your nephew Charles has succeeded as King of all Spain and Naples,” Henry said. “At sixteen he can take over himself. Nominally he is joint King of Castile with your sister Juana, but effectively he will rule alone.”

  “He will have a great inheritance,” Katherine observed.

  “He will one day be the most powerful ruler in Christendom. When Maximilian dies he will have the Low Countries and Austria, and may one day be Emperor. Thank God you are his aunt, and we have strong trade links with the Low Countries, for we will need his friendship.”

  “I think of him as a mother does, since Juana cannot be a mother to him. And though I would give anything to have my father alive again, it is good to see Spain reunited.”

  “It is a very good thing,” Henry said. “I never told you that when your mother died and your father ceased being King of Spain but was merely King of Aragon, my father made me secretly repudiate my betrothal to you because he thought he could wed me to a greater princess. But I held steadfast to you all those years, and now you are a princess of Spain once more.”

  “I never knew that!” Katherine said. “I remember my grief at his coldness, and that he would forever keep us apart. It all makes sense now, the change in your father’s attitude toward me, and his demands to my father. I could never understand why he was so unkind to me when he had been so eager for me to marry Arthur.”

  “My father was a changed man after my mother died. He ceased being human.” Henry’s mouth set grimly. “I hope I have made it up to you, Kate. And Kate…” He paused, then squeezed her hand. “I know I said some harsh things about your father, and about you. I regret them now, very much.”

  “They are forgotten,” Katherine said, thinking that out of sadness something good and precious had been born.


  That spring, Katherine was overjoyed to be standing beside Henry when he welcomed King Charles’s ambassadors to England. Her husband looked exceptionally magnificent leaning against his gilded throne, wearing a cap of crimson velvet, a doublet of striped white and crimson satin, scarlet hose, slashed from the knee upward, and a mantle of purple velvet falling in heavy folds at his feet. From his gold collar there hung a diamond the size of a large walnut.

  It delighted her to preside with him over the feast given in the envoys’ honor, even if it did drag on for seven hours and she felt she would burst after eating so much rich food. She loved sitting in the royal stand at the jousts given in honor of her countrymen, marveling with them and the French Queen as Henry showed off his horsemanship in a breathtaking display. They all gasped in wonder as Governatore, his noble charger, performed almost supernatural feats, making what seemed like a thousand jumps in the air. Then, changing mounts, the King made his fresh steed fly rather than leap, to the delight of everybody.

  From feasts to jousts to private dinners in Katherine’s chamber, Henry offered her countrymen every honor. There was a lavish reception in the great hall, at which Katherine looked on proudly as Henry showed off Mary to the envoys, his delight in his daughter lighting up his face.

  The only cloud in her sky was the relentless presence of Wolsey. Last year, the Pope had made him a cardinal, which was far more than he deserved, the worldly, arrogant knave. Then Henry had appointed him Lord Chancellor, immeasurably increasing his power. She watched Wolsey making his stately way about the court in his red silk robes, the great chain of office weighted about his neck, and her resentment festered. She knew that he would never again let her enjoy the influence that had once been hers. Henry was so busy disporting himself and spending his father’s riches that, more than ever, he was willing to leave affairs of state in Wolsey’s capable hands. The Cardinal was now virtually running the country, and her heart sank to think that Henry was happy to let him do it.

  Luis Caroz had been quick to raise his concerns. “It is impossible to speak to His Grace these days,” he said, drawing Katherine aside after attempting to meet with Henry. “It is essential to
speak first of any serious matter to the Cardinal, and not to the King. Highness, whatever you do, do not cross this man.”

  “I have no intention of doing so,” Katherine declared. There were subtle ways in which she too could make herself indispensable to Henry, and if God sent them a son next year, she would be in a very strong position. So when Wolsey invited her and Henry to see his new palace of Hampton Court, she resolved to put on a smiling face. Yet when His Eminence, bustling about in his gaudy finery, proudly showed her his massive red-brick residence—his private apartments lined with gilded linenfold paneling, the vast wall paintings by Italian masters, the ceilings delicately carved and painted in gold leaf, the accommodation for thousands of retainers, and a host of other wonders—she burned with anger, for this house of the Cardinal’s far excelled any of the King’s palaces in its luxury and its grandeur. And well could Wolsey afford such extravagance, for the King had been fabulously generous to him. But it was not right for a servant to appear richer than his master!

  She saw Henry looking enviously at the riches unfolding before him, and thought he was thinking the same thing. Yet when they were seated in their barge, being rowed back to Greenwich, he was in a buoyant mood and seemed in no way jealous of Wolsey.

  “Seeing Hampton Court has made me realize that many of my houses still need refurbishment,” he said. “I’m going to enlarge and beautify Greenwich and Richmond and Eltham, and one day soon they will excel Hampton Court in magnificence.”

  It was dusk when they alighted and made their way through the gardens by the light of torches, their retinue trailing behind them. Then, out of the evening darkness, a man’s voice sang out above the chatter:

  “Why come ye not to court?

  To the King’s court or to Hampton Court?

  The King’s court hath the precedence,

  But Hampton Court hath the preeminence!”

  There was a burst of jeering laughter, but Henry was frowning. Surely he must have heard what people were saying about Wolsey, Katherine thought. He said nothing, though. It was clear from his shut-off expression that he did not want to know.


  Katherine thought that Henry would be pleased to reunite with his sister the Queen of Scots, but she could tell he wasn’t. He made a good show of it, of course, riding out himself to welcome Margaret Tudor at Tottenham, taking with him the white palfrey that Katherine had sent for her; and he escorted her in procession through his capital, both of them acknowledging the cheers of the people who had flocked to see them: the golden young king and the poor, much wronged Scottish queen, forced to flee from her adopted country after its lords had seized the regency from her. Back at Greenwich, Henry and his two sisters were reunited, and to see them feasting joyously and catching up on the last dozen years, you would never have guessed that Henry was feeling disgruntled with Margaret.

  “Her proper place is with her husband,” he said later, when he and Katherine were lying in bed. “Yes, I know she’s been badly treated in Scotland, and that she’s been wrongly deprived of her office and her son the king—my God, she hasn’t stopped complaining about it—but she insisted on that rash marriage with the Earl of Angus. She knew the lords hated him. Heaven knows, it was the worst thing she could have done.”

  “They did imprison her,” Katherine pointed out. “She was forced to flee to England when she was near her time. It’s a wonder she did not lose her baby.”

  “Yes, and because of that I have to spring to her aid, for I cannot have them treating my sister like that. But I’ve suffered years of her complaints—you have no idea, Kate, for I would not weary you with them all. And now I have all to do to make peace between her and the lords of Scotland. As if I haven’t enough on my hands!”

  Katherine felt sorry for Margaret. She knew that the Earl of Angus had stayed with his wife only to see her safely delivered of his child, then raced back to Scotland, hoping to secure the regency for himself. She admired Margaret’s tiny daughter and namesake, who was being cared for with the Princess Mary in the royal nursery at Greenwich. Henry was much taken with his niece—little Marget, as he called her—who was just five months older than his own adored child; the cousins looked very alike, and Katherine liked to think they already were friends.

  She spent many long, happy hours with her sisters-in-law, the Scots queen and Mary, the French Queen. Three queens together, they had much in common. Margaret had lost five of her children in infancy, and understood exactly how Katherine had suffered; all had known a great love and had recently become mothers. Katherine, holding Mary on her lap, looked on enviously as the French Queen proudly showed off her newborn son, named Henry for the King.

  The sisterly idyll lasted only a short time. The French Queen could not afford to stay at court for long, and had to go home; and Henry made available to his sister Margaret Scotland Yard, the London palace of the Kings of Scots.

  “I’m not having her at court nagging me anymore!” he declared.

  Maria was leaving court too. Having just become a naturalized subject of the King of England, she was to marry Lord Willoughby. Radiance shone from her; she was headily in love, and Katherine was glad that her friend had finally made a good match.

  “Oh, I shall miss you, my dear,” she said, hugging Maria tightly as they bade farewell. “You have been with me through so much these past fifteen years.”

  “I shall miss you too, Highness,” Maria declared, with tears in her eyes, “but we can visit each other. I will come to court as often as I can, and I hope your Grace will visit us in Lincolnshire in our new house.” The King had bestowed Grimsthorpe Castle on the couple as a wedding gift.

  “Willingly!” Katherine agreed. “My Lord Willoughby.”

  The personable big man with the kind eyes stepped forward and bowed.

  “I know I do not need to tell you to take good care of my Maria, for I know that you will,” Katherine said, “but I beg you to spare her to me sometimes. She has been a true friend to me.”

  “Madam, it will be my pleasure to bring Maria to court whenever you wish it,” the kind man said. Then, after many embraces and kisses, they were gone, and Katherine felt bereft. At least Maria was happy, with her William.

  Fortunately, there was the baby Mary to distract her, and Margaret Pole and Maud Parr were at hand to fill the gap left by Maria. Maud now had permanent lodgings at court, and she divided her time between there and her husband’s house in the Strand, so that she could supervise her children’s upbringing. Henry had restored to Margaret Pole the earldom of Salisbury, which had been borne by her noble forebears, and with the upturn in his mother’s fortunes, and to her evident relief, her clever and gifted son Reginald was rescued from his miserable existence at Syon Abbey. He had become Henry’s special protégé, and was now at Oxford at the King’s expense. Katherine suspected that, like her, Henry felt the need to make up to the Pole family for the injustices and tragedies they had suffered in the past, although he would never say so. That would be to admit that his father had connived in judicial murder.

  He was forever praising Margaret Pole.

  “She is the saintliest woman in England!” he declared. “I know few ladies as devout and learned—and you are one of the others, Kate!” It did not trouble him that the new Lady Salisbury was of the old royal blood, for her loyalty shone forth.

  Katherine loved the happy hours she spent with Margaret, talking about their children. The older, more experienced woman was ready with advice when Katherine needed it, and even Henry listened avidly to her.

  “I always thought that two was rather late for weaning,” Margaret said one crisp morning when the rusty red of autumn was tinting the leaves outside, and they were all three together in the royal nursery, Katherine holding Mary and kissing her downy red head. “Not that your Grace has to worry about that yet! But what a dear, sweet child my goddaughter is, and so good.”

  “We are truly blessed,” Katherine said, hugging her baby tightly. Lady Bryan, Mar
y’s motherly lady governess, caught her eye and nodded, smiling. “Indeed you are, your Graces,” she said. “She is no trouble at all—a princess to be proud of.”

  Henry lifted Mary from her mother’s arms and swung her high in the air as she squealed with delight. “This little one acquitted herself well yesterday,” he said. “When I showed her to the Venetian ambassador and he kissed her hand, she behaved most regally. I told him that she never cries.”

  “That is true, sir,” Lady Bryan said. “She is the most contented child I ever saw.”

  “She looked at the organist and said, ‘Priest! Priest!’ ” Henry told them. “Didn’t you, my little lady?”

  Mary laughed at him, showing three pearly new teeth.

  “Lady Bryan, you have schooled her well,” Katherine said approvingly.

  “Her natural grace is inherent, having such parents. It’s a joy to see how well she loves her father,” the governess said. “Every time she sees His Grace, she leaps up in my lap.”

  “God could not have sent us a sweeter child,” Henry declared, handing Mary to Margaret Pole, to whom the little girl had taken an immediate fancy.

  Later, when Henry was gone, Katherine walked with Margaret in the autumnal gardens as Margaret spoke of her plans for her castle of Warblington. Katherine grew wistful, thinking of those other children who had not lived. What would they have been like? She could not but imagine them romping around in the alleys and bowers, healthy, happy heirs to England, delighting their mother’s heart.

  “If God would send us a son, I would count myself perfectly happy,” she said.

  “Your Grace is young. There is plenty of time yet.”

  “You are lucky, Margaret. You had five sons and a daughter before you were thirty. I am thirty and have just the one daughter.”

  “Just have patience, and pray, madam. I’m sure your prayers will be answered.”

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