Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  A germ of an idea was born in Katherine’s mind at that moment. Henry, she knew, did not trust most of his other Plantagenet relations. Like his father before him, he regarded them as threats to his security as king, fearing they would plot to take his throne.

  “Some of them would like nothing better than to see the House of York restored,” he had confided. “They think we Tudors are usurpers. They forget that my father married the rightful heiress of the House of York. I tell you, Kate, I will brook no challenges to my crown!” Three years ago he had executed his cousin, Edmund de la Pole, the previous Duke of Suffolk, for that very crime. Yet abroad there lurked de la Pole’s exiled brother, Richard, who liked to call himself “the White Rose.” The year before last, Henry was certain, Richard had tried to invade England from Brittany, although it had been said that his purpose there was to look to the duchy’s defenses.

  “I’m having him watched,” Henry growled. “I wouldn’t put it past that fox, King Francis, to offer him support just to discountenance me, as Louis did.”

  The teeth of several of the King’s other dynastic rivals had been drawn over the years, and their children were too young to pose any threat. But when they grew up, they too might take up the old cause…

  Katherine pondered. It seemed to her there was a way to bring to an end to this rivalry and insecurity—a better way than anyone had yet thought of.

  “Margaret,” she said one day, pausing from her blackwork, “has it ever occurred to you that a marriage between your Reginald and the Princess would bind the old royal line with the new one in amity? It would be like the union between the King’s parents, the uniting of Lancaster and York that brought the late civil wars to an end. It would seal a bond between the houses of Tudor and Plantagenet, and it would unite our families in perpetual love.”

  Margaret stared at her, her long, pale face working with emotion.

  “You know, madam,” she said, breaking into a smile, “sometimes I think they should leave the politics to us women!”


  May Day of 1517 dawned golden pink, heralding glorious weather. The palace servants had been up for hours, preparing for the day’s celebrations. Henry had chosen a place in Eltham Park that afforded a spectacular vista of London, and it was here that a royal picnic had been set out on tables beneath the trees. On the nearby heath, deer and their young were grazing peacefully; the hunters would not trouble them today.

  Katherine sat on her cushioned chair, Lord Willoughby’s letter crushed in her hand. She was delighted for Maria, thrilled to hear her news—but desperately envious, and hating herself for it. For Maria had borne her first child, a healthy son who, naturally, she and William had named for the King. Lord Willoughby asked if Their Graces would do them the honor of being godparents. Of course, of course, they would, and Katherine was going to send her chaplain, Jorge de Atheca, now made Bishop of Llandaff by Henry, to officiate at the baptism. Yet she could not help comparing herself with the fortunate Maria. It seemed so unfair that her friend had borne a son with satisfying speed, but that all her own sons had died. What was God thinking of?

  Henry turned to her. “Wake up, Kate! Have some of this pie. It’s wonderful.” He munched contentedly, serving her himself, unaware of her conflicting emotions. She wondered if she should tell him Maria’s news. She did not want to depress his buoyant mood.

  They had just finished the second course and their goblets were being refilled when Katherine caught sight of Cardinal Wolsey approaching at speed like a vast scarlet galleon, with several privy councillors in his wake.

  “Your Grace,” Wolsey called breathlessly as soon as he came within earshot, “there are riots in the City. The apprentices have risen against all foreigners.”

  Henry jumped to his feet. He had been laughing moments earlier, but his face was now like thunder. “By God, how dare they? For years I’ve been encouraging foreign merchants to set up trade in London, yea, and seen they were made welcome.”

  “Aye, sir, and they have prospered. Many of them are Her Grace’s countrymen.” Wolsey bowed his head briefly in Katherine’s direction.

  “England has prospered because of it,” Henry said, still flushed with anger. “How dare these knaves attack those under my special protection!”

  “Sir, there is much resentment. The people do not like foreigners stealing their business, as they see it. But whatever the rights and wrongs, we have to act. Mobs of apprentices are fighting in the streets, and I fear for the safety of our foreign guests.”

  “I will leave for the City at once,” Henry said. “Send my guards ahead, and tell them to bring the rioters under control as quickly as possible.”

  Wolsey sped away, and Henry hastened back to the palace with Katherine and his courtiers. Then he was gone, riding like fury to London.

  The next day, word came to Katherine that the riots had been suppressed and that hordes of apprentices were herded into Westminster Hall to await the King’s justice. She was to take her barge and go there immediately.

  On arrival, she was escorted to the high dais in the vast, crowded hall, where once she had sat for her coronation feast. Henry was already enthroned there, with Wolsey seated magisterially at his side. His face stern, her husband kissed her hand and bade her be seated next to him. She looked down the steps before her at a multitude of young men, all with halters about their necks. Their terrified faces were upturned as one, beseechingly, to the King’s implacable visage.

  Henry leaned over to Katherine. “The world must see that I am determined to avenge these outrages that have been committed against our foreign guests, so I intend to be terrible in my judgment. I wanted you present, Kate, so that you can see justice done, for some of the victims are your countrymen. But you may feel that a degree of mercy is in order.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I leave that to you.”

  She understood immediately what she was required to do. She was really here to allow the King to temper justice with mercy. He would not lose face if she begged it of him.

  Henry addressed the prisoners from the throne in a voice of steel. “You are all guilty of a most heinous and grievous crime against innocent persons who are under my royal protection, as guests in my kingdom. After this evil May Day, what foreign merchant would risk his business by coming to London? It must be made plain to them that London is a safe place and that they are welcomed by all. Those who have risen against them, and made a mockery of my protection, must be made an example of. I sentence every one of you to be hanged.”

  The faces of the apprentices—most of them youths and young boys—registered shock, as from the back of the vast hall came an outburst of the most pitiful weeping and wailing.

  “We made sure that their mothers and sisters were present to hear my judgment,” Henry murmured to Katherine. Some of the apprentices themselves were crying now.

  “Oh, the poor souls,” she breathed. As a mother herself, she could imagine how those women were feeling. How terrible to lose their sons so young and so shamefully! Some of the condemned looked as if they were not even old enough to shave.

  She knew what Henry expected of her, but she would have done it anyway. She rose from her seat, knelt before him, and raised her joined hands in supplication, her tears falling unprompted.

  “Sir,” she pleaded, “for my sake, and the sakes of those poor ladies who are about to lose their sons, I beg of you, spare the apprentices.”

  To her surprise, Wolsey was also sinking stiffly to his knees. “May I add my plea to Her Grace’s?” he beseeched the King. Katherine could not help thinking that this was a gesture calculated to enhance his own popularity with the people—and Henry’s too.

  It was as if the collective breath and tears of the wretches in the hall had been stilled in expectancy, as Henry looked down thoughtfully on the two supplicants kneeling at his feet. Katherine prayed that he would show his humanity; surely he would not turn down such an opportunity of winning the love of his subjects.

His eyes were tender now as he rested them on Katherine. “I can refuse you nothing,” he said. Then he turned to Wolsey. “Your prayers are heard, my faithful minister.”

  Henry stood up. His voice rang out. “All are pardoned and restored to liberty. You young fellows may thank the Queen and the Cardinal for your lives.”

  There were shouts and whoops as the apprentices threw their halters into the air and fought their way through the throng to be reunited with their families. Peals of laughter and joy echoed through the cavernous hall, and everywhere there was praise for the good queen, whose gentle plea had prevailed. Katherine heard it and was deeply touched.

  Henry was beaming broadly, standing with arms akimbo as he watched the joyful scene below him.

  “You have done a good day’s work, Kate,” he said. “And you too, Thomas.” He raised a hand, acknowledging the cheers for himself. There was little he loved more than the acclaim of his people. “Now everyone is pleased, and no harm is done.”

  Katherine had to agree that it had been a masterful piece of statecraft. She wondered if it was Wolsey’s idea.


  Soon afterward, Katherine bade a somewhat relieved farewell to Margaret Tudor and her little girl. They had been living at Scotland Yard for nearly a year now, on Henry’s charity. Margaret’s husband, the Earl of Angus, had refused to join them, much to her distress, and revealed his mercenary motives in marrying her by appropriating her rents in Scotland. Since then she’d done nothing but lament and complain, and even Katherine, sorry for Margaret as she was, had grown weary of it.

  Henry had concluded a new truce between England and Scotland, which gave Margaret hope of recovering the regency and custody of the young King James and allowed him, at last, to send his sister home. With unflattering alacrity, Henry appointed the Earl of Shrewsbury to escort Queen Margaret north. The farewells between brother and sister were strained, and when Margaret’s cavalcade had disappeared up the Great North Road, Henry turned to Katherine and let out a long sigh.

  “Thank God!” he murmured. “If there’s any talk of her coming here again, I might just need to plan a campaign in France!”


  “We must leave London right away, Kate,” Henry said, his eyes wild. “I’ve just had a report that there is a case of the sweating sickness in the City.”

  Katherine’s first thought was of Mary, secluded in her nursery at Richmond. She had heard of the dreadful epidemic of the sweating sickness that visited England in the year in which Henry’s father won the crown, and killed thousands, but that had been long ago. The late King’s enemies deemed it a judgment of God, for thousands had died of the disease.

  For a man of such great courage in nearly every other respect, Henry had an inordinate fear of illness and death. They disgusted and terrified him. Katherine had lost count of the times he had shown her a blemish or rash and asked if she thought it was a symptom of some dread malady. If he caught a cold, he treated it like a serious illness. He could not bear to be in the company of anyone afflicted by sores or disease.

  She wondered if the loss of his brother Arthur, closely followed by that of his mother, had instilled this fear in him. She guessed it was made worse by the heavy awareness that if he died, there was as yet no son to succeed him. But she was sure it was not just the threat of civil war that panicked him. This was something far more personal.

  She had seen him flee from the plague that visited London nearly every summer and flourished in the filthy, narrow streets. She had seen him hide himself away in some remote house, with only a few attendants, to escape it. Plague, he often said, was no respecter of persons, and he had to keep himself safe. Yet she had never seen him as terrified as he was now.

  He drew her to him distractedly. He was trembling.

  “The sweat is deadly,” he muttered, “far worse than the plague. Kate, we’ve been fortunate never to have experienced an outbreak of the sweating sickness, but I’ve heard awful things about it.” He turned to his hovering physician. “Dr. Chambers knows how virulent it is.”

  “Indeed, your Grace. It is a loathsome disease, and frightening, because a man can be well at dinner and dead by supper time.”

  “Most of those struck down with it die,” Henry said gloomily.

  “It is highly infectious too,” the doctor added. “It spreads with terrifying speed. Your Grace is wise to get away from London.”

  “But what happens to those who catch it?” Katherine wanted to know, still thinking of Mary.

  “Madam, it begins with stiffness, shaking, a headache, sometimes giddiness. The victim suffers severe prostration. Between one and three hours later they develop a violent, drenching sweat and a rapid pulse, which worsens until the crisis is reached.”

  Katherine shuddered. “Will the Princess be safe?” she asked.

  “I have sent orders that at the first report of any cases within five miles, she is to be removed,” Henry replied. He relinquished Katherine and began shouting for her women. “Make ready! Make ready! We’re leaving for the country!” he cried, greatly agitated.

  Katherine hastened to scribble a hasty note to be sent to Margaret, Lady Bryan, who was in charge of Mary’s nursery household, urging her to take the strictest precautions. “See that this goes to Richmond now!” she commanded one of her grooms, thrusting the letter into his hand as she hurried out of her lodgings.

  Wolsey was waiting in the porch to say farewell. He’d had the sweat in childhood and recovered and so was immune and able to stay in the capital, looking after affairs.

  “Make it clear to everyone, without fail, that under no circumstances is anyone who has been in contact with the sweat to approach us,” Henry said. Then he mounted his waiting steed and was away. It seemed to Katherine that they had packed up and taken to the road within ten minutes.

  Several hours later, after pushing the horses to the limit of their strength, they arrived at Woking Palace, which had been hardly used since the days when Henry’s grandmother, the Lady Margaret, owned it. As soon as they had clattered over the drawbridge, Henry shut himself up in his hurriedly prepared lodgings, devising preventatives for the sweat. He had a wide knowledge of physic and enjoyed mixing his own medicines.

  Katherine left him to it, not supposing for a moment that any remedy he made would be efficacious against this dreadful disease. A headache had been threatening all day, giving her no small cause for concern, and she retired to her bedchamber to lie down for the rest of the afternoon. Yet she could not sleep; she kept worrying about young Mary and wishing she was with her. She was also praying that her headache would subside, but it did not, and when Henry came to her apartments for a private supper, she was too unwell to join him—and becoming increasingly worried. She was not surprised to hear that he had left in rather a hurry.

  The next day she was decidedly unwell and stayed in bed, coughing until her chest ached, terrified that she was going to die and leave Mary motherless. Dr. Chambers reassured her that it was most certainly not the sweating sickness and prescribed an infusion of butcher’s broom leaves, berries, iris petals, and comfrey roots mixed with honey. It tasted vile, but she dutifully drank it. The arrival of a letter from Lady Bryan reassured her that Mary was well and that there were no cases of sweat reported in the area. But it had been written two days before, and anything might have happened since. Worry about what might be happening at Richmond kept Katherine from the healing rest she needed.

  It was on the sixth day of her illness, when she was beginning to feel a little better, that she realized she had missed her courses for the second time. Oh, please, Almighty Father, let me be pregnant, she prayed. She arose from her sickbed, she spent hours on her knees in chapel, she made bargains with God, she fasted.

  “Madam, you are doing yourself no good,” Margaret Pole admonished. “If you are with child, you must look after yourself.”

  “But I need to show God that I am worthy of this child,” Katherine protested.

p; “He knows that, you may be sure,” Margaret said. “Please go back to bed. You do not look well. Let me pray that you may have the blessing of a son.”

  Katherine gratefully sank into the pillows. Presently she slept, and when she awoke, there was Henry’s anxious face peering down at her.

  “How are you, Kate?” he asked, taking her hand and squeezing it. “I have been worried about you. Chambers said I was not to see you, for fear of infection, but I have been asking after you continually.”

  “I am on the mend,” Katherine assured him, squeezing his hand in turn. “And Henry, I think I am with child!”


  She was up and about again, and Henry was treating her as if she were made of fragile glass like his Venetian goblets. But she felt much restored, and the news from Richmond was still reassuring. She was suffering only a little nausea in the mornings, and had a good presentiment about this pregnancy, although she dared not voice it.

  Maud Parr was newly pregnant too, and it was pleasant to sit and talk about their coming babies, while stitching tiny layettes in the finest lawn and soft woolen cloth. And—joy of joys—there was a letter from Maria, full of news of her darling baby Henry and her wonderful William. Her lively, witty style evoked memories of the years when she and Katherine had been girls together, and then queen and confidante. Always they cheered Katherine.

  But the reports about the sweat were nerve-racking. It was raging in London and had spread well beyond its suburbs. The death toll was rising, with a resurgence of Katherine’s anxieties about Mary.

  In September, Lord Willoughby wrote to inform her that his and Maria’s baby son had succumbed to the sweat. Maria had taken it heavily, and Katherine, her heart aching for her beloved friend, understood only too well what that meant. It was not two weeks since she had been reading of little Henry’s pretty ways, his silky dark curls and first tooth. She knew what it was to look upon an adored child’s face and see Death claim it. She longed to go to Maria, to comfort her, as Maria had comforted her in the losses of her own children, and she was desperate to see her own child and know that she was well. But it was impossible. Only a crazed person would travel across country with the sweat raging. It could be lurking around any corner. So she lit candles for the soul of little Henry Willoughby, which must surely be with God, and for his grieving parents. She sent them a beautifully illuminated copy of the Lady Julian of Norwich’s book The Revelations of Divine Love, and wept over the words of comfort it contained: “God did not say, You will not be troubled, you will not be belabored, you will not be afflicted; but He said, You will not be overcome.” It was a favorite of Katherine’s, and had brought her consolation in her own dark hours.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]