Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Katherine stood there bearing it patiently, looking at herself in the mirror. Duenna or no duenna, if the King asked her to lift her veil, she would. Her mother would surely hear about it—Doña Elvira was assiduous in sending reports—but Katherine trusted her mother to understand. Isabella would want her to comply with King Henry’s wishes. She stared at her reflection, her heart pounding; she was still shivering, although not just from the chill in her room. She could only hope that the King and Prince Arthur liked what they saw. A pretty round face, a determined little chin, gentle gray eyes, soft lips, and a clear brow.

  “If he insists that you remove the veil, Highness, remember what I taught you about custody of the eyes,” Doña Elvira said, her voice cold. “Keep them demurely downcast, as befits a virtuous maiden! Do not stare.”

  In a trice Katherine was ready, the veil in place, and Maria gave her a mischievous smile and sped down the stairs to make her curtsey and invite the King to come up to her mistress’s chamber.

  In a moment, just a heartbeat, Katherine would come face-to-face with her destiny. And here, entering her chamber, was the debonair Count de Cabra, bowing and obsequious, and with him a tall, middle-aged man in riding clothes, booted and cloaked against the cold. His face was angular, his nose a prominent beak, his graying sandy-brown hair sparse on his fur collar, and he was regarding her almost greedily with shrewd eyes. His rich furs and velvet bonnet with its jeweled ornament left her in no doubt that this was His Grace King Henry VII of England, first sovereign of the House of Tudor. She sank to her knees, her attendants following her example.

  “Welcome to my kingdom, Princess Katherine,” the King said. As the count translated, Henry stepped forward, took her hands, and raised her to her feet. His voice was high but manly, almost musical. She had been told that he had Welsh blood from his father’s ancestors, and the Welsh were renowned as a musical race.

  Before Katherine could reply, the King let go of her hands and raised her veil—and smiled.

  “The ambassadors of the sovereigns have not lied,” he said delightedly. “I had heard of the wealth of Spain, but here is her most priceless treasure. Your Highness is doubly welcome for your beauty and your pretty face.” He lifted her hands and kissed them, as Don Pedro Manrique translated his words.

  “I thank your Grace,” Katherine said, reciting the sentence she had practiced earlier. Ignoring the stony-faced Doña Elvira, she ventured a smile.

  “They told me you did not look like a true Spaniard,” Henry told her. “By your red hair, you are a Lancastrian, like me and Arthur. By God, you look as English as we do! The kinship is plain, for we all descend from old John of Gaunt and King Edward the Third! I could not have found a more fitting match for my son.”

  “I am very proud of my English royal blood,” Katherine said in Spanish. “I am named for my great-grandmother, Catalina of Lancaster.”

  “Gaunt’s own daughter! Well, well. But you must not let an old man keep you from your husband!” the King declared jovially, stepping aside to reveal a youth standing in the doorway, flanked by several lords.

  Katherine’s first reaction was dismay, although she took care to keep smiling. It was the boy in the picture, grown slightly older, yet different. Prince Arthur was tall and auburn-haired, like his father, and had the air of confidence that was customary in those born of princely rank, but the thinness of his limbs was not concealed by his heavy traveling clothes. They hung on him. Even in the candlelight she could see that his cheeks were not rosy at all, but white with a ruddy flush.

  Again she knelt. Arthur gave her an uncertain smile, bowed courteously and raised her to her feet. His hands were colder than hers. Then he bent to brush her lips briefly with his, just as she had seen people doing in Plymouth. She had been told since that it was the custom in England. She dared not look at Doña Elvira.

  Speaking in Latin, Arthur asked her if she’d had a pleasant journey. His voice was light and melodious. She assured him, in the same language, that she had.

  “I have been received warmly and made welcome everywhere in England,” she said.

  “I heard that your Highness had nearly been shipwrecked,” Arthur said. “We were all much alarmed, and relieved when we had news that you had made land safely.”

  “It was a frightening experience,” Katherine told him, searching his face for some spark of warmth, some indication that he found her appealing.

  “Well, you are here now,” Arthur replied. They smiled awkwardly at each other, for want of anything else to say, until the King rescued them, calling for wine to celebrate this happy meeting and talking about the lavish wedding celebrations he had planned.

  Arthur said little. Although he courteously asked if she had been comfortably accommodated and what she thought of the food in England, and other such pleasantries, Katherine was unnerved by his reserve. Compared to King Henry’s hearty welcome, her husband’s had been lukewarm. She thought of the letters he had sent, so full of longing for her coming. It was hard to believe now that he had written them. Her heart plummeted. Was he disappointed in her? She could detect no ardor in him, none of the passion her brother Juan had shown from the first toward his bride. But she could see something in Arthur that she had seen, belatedly, in Juan—the signs of ill-health. Indeed, Arthur looked so poorly that she feared he was ailing from some dread disease. Yet this was the young man it was her duty to love, as her husband. Her mother had said that it was up to her to win his love.

  “You must be tired after your journey here, sir,” she said, thinking the Latin sounded very stilted and resolving again to learn English as quickly as she could. “It’s cold, and the ground must be hard for riding.”

  “I am freezing to my bones, your Highness,” Arthur admitted. “I expect you find England very cold after Spain.”

  “I do, but already I have grown to love England,” Katherine replied. It was not wholly truthful, for she had seen little of the country on her long journey, enclosed in her litter, with only occasional peeks when the curtains gaped—but it was politic, and one day, God willing, it would be true. “Come to the fire, my lord,” she invited, noticing the King watching them approvingly as they walked together across the room. Arthur accepted a glass of wine, sipped it, and coughed.

  “Is your Highness quite well?” Katherine asked.

  “A winter rheum, nothing more,” he replied, coughing again.

  “Then I hope you will soon be better!” she said brightly.

  “Your Highness is most kind,” Arthur said. “Forgive me if I did not welcome you as warmly as I should have. I was tired by the ride to and from Easthampstead, where I met up with the King, my father. I will be more myself soon, and better company, I hope. I am pleased that you are here.” He flushed, and Katherine warmed to him. She had mistaken weariness and perhaps shyness for indifference. Suddenly the world had shifted. Everything was going to be all right.


  It was midnight before everyone retired. Katherine had enjoyed herself immensely. At the King’s request, she had summoned her musicians to entertain him and Arthur, and to the melodic sound of hautboys and sackbuts, she and her ladies had danced the slow, stately pavaniglia with its two beats to a step. Arthur, somewhat restored after the wine and sweetmeats, wanted to join in, so she and her ladies taught him a dignified baja. Afterward, as everyone clapped, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.

  When he took his leave the next morning, he looked a little better.

  “Farewell, my lady,” he said, still speaking Latin. “I look forward to seeing you in London.” He bent to kiss her hand, bowed to her curtsey, and walked off to join his father and their retinue. Her heart went out to him, poor, thin, sickly boy. She sent up a prayer that God would soon restore him to health.


  Soon they would be nearing London. This night they would lodge in Kingston, and tomorrow they would lie at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Lambeth, just south of the great River Thames. They
were following its course, riding across the gently undulating hills of Surrey. The winter landscape was bleak and overcast, with a hint of snow in the air. Katherine huddled in her litter, her furs muffling her up to her chin, longing for nothing more than to be warm.

  In the distance she could hear the sound of a great body of horsemen approaching. They came closer and closer, and peering through a chink in the leather curtains, she saw that all the riders—a veritable army—were dressed in a livery of red and black, and that at their head rode two finely dressed people: a young man and a boy, both sitting proud and erect in their saddles. As they drew near, the young man, a florid and rather portly gentleman in a velvet cloak edged and lined with sable, signaled to the rest to halt.

  “Masters, we seek the Princess of Wales,” he cried. “The King’s Grace has sent us to escort her party to Lambeth.”

  “I am here, sir,” Katherine said, drawing aside the curtains of her litter as the Count de Cabra came alongside to act as her interpreter.

  The man and the boy immediately dismounted, swept off their plumed hats, and knelt in the road.

  “Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, at your service, my lady,” the florid man said with a flourish. “And I have the honor of presenting Prince Henry, Duke of York, second son of the King.”

  Katherine’s eyes swiveled to the boy kneeling beside him. He was a well-grown lad with plump, rosy cheeks. He had narrow eyes and rosebud lips like Arthur’s, but that was where the likeness ended. Where Arthur was pale and thin, his brother was stocky and blooming with health; even kneeling he exuded vitality and self-assurance. There was no doubting that this was a prince.

  She asked them to rise, noticing that Prince Henry’s gown was a splendid scarlet furred with ermine and that he was grinning broadly at her, the bold imp!

  “Welcome to England, your Highness,” he said. His voice had not yet broken, yet it carried authority. “The Prince my brother sends greetings, and bids me say that he is counting the days until the wedding with impatience.” Prince Henry’s bold gaze suggested that he would be counting them even more fervently were he in Arthur’s place. How old was the boy? Surely he could not be five years younger than Arthur, as she was certain she had heard. He was acting as if he were sixteen, not ten!

  “If your Highness will make yourself comfortable in the litter, we will lead you into Kingston,” the Duke of Buckingham said. “The nights are drawing in and you will be glad of shelter. If there is anything you need, you have only to call.”

  Katherine thanked him, drew the curtains, and huddled back into her furs. She had found Prince Henry a little disturbing. He was a handsome boy with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur, in contrast, had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realize how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!


  Katherine stood as still as her inner excitement permitted while Doña Elvira and the maids of honor made her ready for her state entry into the City of London. Already dressed in rich Spanish gowns ornamented with goldsmiths’ work and embroidery, they helped her step into the wide-hooped farthingale, laced her kirtle as tight as she could bear it, then drew on the heavy velvet gown with bell-shaped sleeves and a wide gathered skirt.

  Katherine surveyed herself critically in the mirror, catching Maria’s eye as her friend hid a smile.

  “It makes me look as broad as I am tall. I am too short to wear this attire. Why can I not wear an English gown?”

  Doña Elvira was shocked. “Because they are unseemly, Highness!” she snapped. She had made no secret of her horror at seeing Englishwomen wearing low-cut, figure-revealing gowns without hoops. “And your lady mother the Queen chose this gown for you. It was most costly!” Doña Elvira was in a bad mood. The rolls of fat under her chin were quivering. She had already lost the battle over the litter. Katherine had been determined to ride on horseback through London, so that the people could see her. She had insisted, and got her way—but Doña Elvira was set on reasserting her authority.

  “You must wear this too!” the duenna commanded. She referred to a little hat with a flat crown and wide brim, like a cardinal’s hat. The duenna placed it on Katherine’s head, over the bejeweled Venetian coif, and tied the gold lace under her chin. No one, thankfully, had mentioned a veil. Fortunately the November sky was bright and it was not too cold; she was gradually getting used to the English climate, and thought she could bear to go out without a cloak. She wanted to look her best for the citizens. This was to be her day. The King, the Queen, and Prince Arthur would play no formal part in it.

  Outside the great doors of Lambeth Palace, Katherine’s Spanish retinue—prelates, dignitaries, nobles, and knights, all richly dressed in her honor—had formed a procession. A gaily caparisoned palfrey was waiting, a sumptuous padded seat affixed to its saddle. With careful dignity she stopped beside it, as an ugly, crook-backed little man with a sparse beard, a hooked nose, and a cloak of yellow damask stepped forward. Doña Elvira, her manner stiff and disdainful, introduced him as Dr. de Puebla. The doctor bowed low, with great courtesy, and Katherine gave him her hand to kiss. As her father’s ambassador to King Henry’s court, he had done much to bring her to this day—more, perhaps, than she would ever know. She wondered how far Puebla had been complicit in the dark deed that had led to her marriage. He must have his secrets. Yet there was no doubt that he had skillfully driven and concluded the negotiations, and so she supposed she should be filled with gratitude. More than that, she felt sorry for him, being so crippled and unprepossessing, and hoped that the duenna had not taken against him on that account.

  “I will be your Highness’s escort,” he told her. He had earned the honor.

  Once Katherine had mounted, and the bent little Dr. de Puebla had climbed on his own steed with some difficulty, the procession set off at a stately pace along the river to Southwark, Puebla pointing out the sights of London on the way. On the opposite bank Katherine saw the great abbey of Westminster rising above the lofty pinnacled roofs of Westminster Palace.

  “That is where the English kings are crowned, Highness,” Dr. de Puebla said. “And ahead on that side, see the town houses of the nobility along the riverbank and the Strand, the road that leads to the City.” There were many of them, all with fine gardens sloping down to the river. Beyond, she was told, lay the Inns of Temple and the magnificent monastery of the Black Friars.

  Dominating the City’s skyline was St. Paul’s Cathedral, a vast edifice with a mighty spire, and clearly the largest church by far in a sea of spires. And on her right there was another great monastery, the Priory of St. Mary Overy. Just past that was London Bridge—a bridge with shops and houses crammed in on both sides, and even a chapel!

  Katherine felt herself beginning to warm to Dr. de Puebla, who was proving such a knowledgeable and entertaining escort, and whose unfortunate appearance belied his friendliness.

  “The bridge links the City to the Surrey shore of the Thames,” he explained as they crossed it through packed crowds. At the end was a great gatehouse, and it was through this that Katherine entered the City of London itself.

  She was immediately surrounded by hordes of eager, expectant citizens, all jostling for a good view of her. Everywhere she looked, colorful banners and tapestries were hanging from the windows of tall, prosperous-looking houses, and her ears were assailed by the endless joyous pealing of bells from what seemed like a hundred churches. The tremendous ovation was deafening, though she was offended to see some of the common people laughing at her attendants’ clothes, and pointing at the Christianized Moors among them, cr
ying out, “There go the Ethiopians, like devils out of Hell!”

  Her progress was slowed by the press of citizens, and six times along the route she paused to admire elaborate pageants that had been mounted in her honor. This city must be rich indeed to be able to afford such outlay on pretty tableaux adorned with gaudy heraldic shields, she thought, and people dressed as saints and mythical heroes loudly lauding their future queen with music and verse. The sight of a fierce Welsh dragon perched atop a mock castle made her gasp, and she was relieved to hear that it was meant to be the red dragon of Cadwaladr, a near-legendary Welsh ancestor of the King.

  The procession wound its way along Fenchurch Street to Cornhill, and then to Cheapside. Here, Katherine glimpsed King Henry and Prince Arthur watching her from the windows of a fine house. The King raised his hand in greeting, the Prince bowed. With them was a plump lady with a kind face, wearing a velvet gable hood with long lappets and smiling down at Katherine. She must be Queen Elizabeth, Katherine concluded. The Queen had corresponded with her own mother, saying how thrilled she was at the prospect of having Katherine for a daughter, and how lovingly she would look after her. Katherine looked forward to meeting Elizabeth. She seemed charming, and certainly the people thought so too, for many were cheering her.

  When her cavalcade came to a halt beside an elaborate stone cross, Katherine was formally welcomed to London by the Lord Mayor of London, who stood at the head of a large deputation of men in furred robes with heavy gold chains. These were the aldermen and sheriffs of the City, and the representatives of the wealthy craft guilds and livery companies.

  The Lord Mayor spoke, with Dr. de Puebla translating. “Your Highness may be interested to know that this cross was erected by the first King Edward in honor of his much-loved queen, Eleanor of Castile, your Highness’s own forebear. After she died, the King had thirteen of these crosses built at every place where her body had rested overnight on its way to Westminster Abbey. It is our prayer that your Highness’s own marriage to our prince may be as happy.”

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