Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  Henry held her when she told him the news. He closed his eyes, his face pained. He too understood what the Willoughbys were going through. But he was distracted.

  “There are cases in Surrey now,” he said nervously. “We must leave Woking.”

  “At Richmond?” she cried.

  “No, Kate. Mary is safe there for now. Surrey is a big shire.”

  They traveled west into Hampshire. This time Henry rode ahead, and Katherine followed in a litter. Whether it was the jolting on rutted roads or the effects of her recent illness, she could never tell, but when they arrived at the small, remote, private house that Henry had commandeered from its owner, there was blood dripping down her legs to the floor…

  —

  Katherine watched Mary lift up her skirts and try to copy Lady Bryan in a curtsey.

  “Now try it again for your lady mother,” the governess instructed.

  Mary wobbled before Katherine then toppled into a heap of skirts, giggling. She really was the most enchanting child, so blithe, so willing, and so sweet-natured.

  Sir Thomas More, standing by, laughed merrily. This new privy councillor of the King’s was a renowned scholar and a delightful man. In the short time he had been at court, both Katherine and Henry had come to love him. Today she had invited him to meet Mary, knowing that he advocated the education of women and that in time to come she might want to seek his advice.

  “Do it again!” More said to Mary. The two-year-old scrambled to her feet, eager to please the kindly man with the gentle eyes.

  “Watch me,” she commanded, and curtsied beautifully. Everyone clapped and smiled, even Maud, who’d had little to smile about since the death of her husband from the sweating sickness last November, and the stillbirth that followed, brought on by shock and grief. She and Katherine had clung together in sorrow as both mourned their losses. Katherine had found some solace in her daughter, and then in the new child now stirring in her belly, and it was good to see Maud taking an interest in life again.

  Margaret Pole led Mary away, as it was time for her walk. Katherine liked her daughter to get some fresh air every day.

  “The Princess is enchanting,” More said to Katherine as they strolled along the gallery that overlooked the gardens of Greenwich.

  “I hear that your own daughters are very learned, Sir Thomas.” As she spoke, the child under her girdle shifted and kicked.

  “I have been criticized for giving them the same education as my son, but I see no reason why they should not have it. They are every bit as able—as we see in your Grace too. England is lucky to have as its queen such a virtuous and learned lady.”

  “You flatter me, Sir Thomas!” Katherine smiled. “Tell me, how is Lady Alice?”

  “My wife is in perfect health, madam, and her usual forthright self!” More chuckled. “I jest, of course, madam! I am singularly blessed in my family. And Alice, while she prefers to ignore St. Paul’s injunction to learn of her husband in all submissiveness at home, is yet a valiant and redoubtable lady!”

  Katherine smiled. “I look forward to meeting her.” As she paused by a window to watch Mary skipping about in the privy garden below, her cloak discarded on the ground for all it was November and cold, More stopped in front of a portrait hanging on the wall. “Well, if it isn’t my friend Erasmus!”

  “He is a great scholar. The King and I think very highly of him.”

  “And a great humanist. I count myself proud to know Erasmus. As he says, life without a friend is no life, but death, and ours has been a very special and long friendship. I always keep a room in my house ready for him, should he honor me with a visit.”

  “He is always welcome at court too,” Katherine said. “The King loves little more than entertaining learned men. Sir Thomas, he has asked me to invite you to sup with us tonight. Will you come?”

  “I shall be most honored, madam,” More told her, bowing and kissing her extended hand.

  —

  Henry had planned an intimate supper in Katherine’s chamber, with just the three of them present. He wanted the chance to talk in depth about the subjects that interested both him and his new friend.

  Sir Thomas arrived promptly and confessed to feeling somewhat relieved at being accorded such an honor. “I was so pleased when I was summoned to your Grace’s chamber,” he told Katherine. “It is hard to carry on a conversation amid the clamor of a dinner at court.”

  “Welcome, Thomas,” Henry said heartily, clapping More on the back. “Be seated. We’ll have no ceremony tonight. I’ve been reading your Utopia again, and there are many points I would like to put to you. It’s incredible, your vision of an ideal state. I would that we could have such in England!”

  “I too have read and enjoyed Utopia,” Katherine said.

  “Then I am doubly honored!” More beamed.

  Henry himself poured the wine, and after the first course had been served he laid More’s book on the table. There were several markers in it.

  “This part struck me as very wise,” he said. “If a ruler suffers subjects to be ill-educated, and then punishes them for crimes they commit in their ignorance, what else can we conclude but that he first makes thieves and then punishes them!” He helped himself to roast capon.

  “Which leads us to another argument,” More said, looking a little more relaxed. “Instead of inflicting horrible punishments on those who offend, it would be far more effective to provide everyone with some means of livelihood.”

  “Some are incorrigible villains,” Henry observed.

  “That is true, but, sire, there is much injustice in this world. Poverty and ignorance are at the root of many crimes—and envy. For what justice is there in this: that a rich man who does nothing at all should live in great luxury and splendor, while a mean man—say, a carter, a smith, or a plowman—who works harder even than the beasts themselves, can only earn a poor livelihood and must lead so miserable a life that the condition of the beasts is much better than his?”

  Henry grimaced. “Thomas, you are a heretic! Who has the right to question the station to which God called him in life?”

  More smiled. “I am the last man you could call a heretic. But I am not making a case for material wealth. It is through learning that ignorance and want are banished. Your Grace knows this better than anyone, for you have cultivated all the liberal arts and possess greater erudition and judgment than any previous monarch. In Utopia nobody owns anything, but everyone is rich.”

  “But someone has to push the plow,” Katherine said.

  “Very true,” Henry said. “And some are called to be kings. Thomas would have us all equal!”

  “We are all equal in the sight of God, sire—and a happy plowman will be a better plowman. But remember that Utopia is a state in which everything is perfect.”

  “And therefore it can never exist. But something like it could work—perhaps one day. These are powerful ideas, Thomas, ideas that all kings should read. I will give it to my son when he is old enough to read it.” He smiled at Katherine, looking proudly at her high stomach.

  Katherine smiled back, sipping her wine. “Sir Thomas, I did think it a little indecent that Utopians have the bride and bridegroom presented naked to each other before marriage.”

  Henry laughed and More grinned.

  “Ah, but, madam, they would wonder at our folly! If we buy a horse, we want to see every part of him, that there be no secret hid under any trappings; and yet, in the choice of a wife, on which depends a man’s happiness for the rest of his life, he ventures into marriage on trust. Not every man is so wise as to choose a wife only for her good qualities. A pretty face may be enough to catch a husband.”

  “Bring in that custom and you’ll have all the women in Christendom running for cover into nunneries!” Henry observed, grinning. “Many a man may marry on the strength of a pretty face, so I suppose it’s a fair point. Yet it can only be true of poor men, for princes have no choice; they must take the wives others have chose
n for them. I was lucky.” He raised Katherine’s hand to his lips.

  “Beauty may attract a man, but it also takes character and good nature to hold him,” More observed. “No woman could compete with Her Grace in those qualities. I rejoice to see your Graces so happy together.”

  Spiced wine, wafers, and candied plums were brought.

  “It took a lot of persuading to get this fellow to come to court,” Henry told Katherine. “He accepted only with great reluctance, when everyone else is baying at me for preferment and offices.” He pretended to be put out.

  More looked pained. “Do not think me ungrateful, sire. I was unhappy about leaving the peace of my home for public life.”

  “And are you enjoying being at court?” Katherine asked him.

  “Madam, I must be honest. As I feared, I hate it. I am as uncomfortable here as a bad rider is in the saddle. But His Grace is so courteous and kindly to all, and you have both done all in your power to make me welcome. I feel honored to be singled out for special friendship.”

  “I know what a sacrifice you made to humor me,” Henry said, serious again. “I should not like to think that my presence had in any way interfered with your domestic pleasures. I am just intrigued by a rare man who has no ambition and is content with his family and his books and his animals.”

  “In my view, sire, anyone who actively campaigns for public office disqualifies himself for holding any office at all!” More quipped, and they all laughed. What stimulating company the man was.

  “Well, Thomas, there is one thing you will enjoy while you are at court. I hear you like astronomy. I have a great love for it myself, and tonight we will go up on the roof and look at the stars together!”

  “That will be both an honor and a pleasure, sire!” But as the two men rose, and Henry put his arm around More’s shoulders and led him away, Katherine thought she had detected a note of falsity in More’s response. He had been hoping, she was sure, to get home and spend the rest of the evening with his family.

  —

  “It is hateful—horrible—to think that the Princess is to be the bride of the Dauphin!” Katherine blurted out to Thomas More. They were wrapped in fur-lined cloaks and striding briskly through the wintry landscape of Greenwich Park, far out of earshot of Katherine’s ladies and the few others who had ventured forth on this cold day.

  She had not been able to contain herself. Fortunately, she knew she could rely on More’s discretion, even though she felt slightly disloyal to Henry for voicing her complaint. And yet it was not so much Henry as Wolsey with whom she was angry. She would never say anything against the King. She knew that More, no friend to Wolsey, would understand that and respect her confidence.

  He shook his head sadly, regarding her sympathetically with his kind, intelligent eyes. “Treaties between princes are never set in stone,” he murmured.

  “Pray God you are right! I had so hoped that Mary might be married to Reginald Pole or to King Charles of Castile himself—but to be wasted on France! And she is so precious to me. The prospect is unbearable, dear friend.”

  “I may not criticize the King’s policy, your Grace,” More said, “but I understand your feelings.”

  Katherine shrank from the implied criticism. “I myself do not venture to criticize His Grace’s decisions, so I have never mentioned the idea of a marriage with King Charles to Henry; and when I brought up the subject of Reginald Pole, he was dismissive. He said that he was no match for the Princess and that she was destined for greater things. But, Sir Thomas, Reginald is of the old royal blood and surely a fit husband for her!”

  “I imagine that marriage with one of Plantagenet blood is a touchy subject with the King,” More observed, his smile wry.

  “It is.” She remembered the shuttered look on Henry’s face that had told her the matter was closed.

  She sighed and sank down on a low stone wall. The unborn infant was busy beneath her girdle. Not long to wait now…She invited More to sit beside her.

  “My only comfort lies in the fact that the Dauphin is just a babe in arms,” she told him. “It will be years before he and Mary are of an age to wed, and much can happen in those years. Betrothals can be broken…Do you know, it galled me to be present at the celebrations marking the signing of the treaty, but I forced myself to smile and be gracious to the French ambassadors.” She grimaced, remembering how, at the center of it all, there had been Wolsey, now Papal Legate in England.

  “I have the Cardinal to thank for this alliance,” she fumed. “It seems that he now rules both the King and the kingdom. I can recall a time, years ago, when he would say, ‘His Grace will do this or that.’ Then it was, ‘We shall do it.’ Now—and I have heard him say it several times—it is, ‘I will do it.’ The Cardinal is king. Everyone says it, even Luis Caroz.”

  She got up, feeling the chill through her cloak, and began walking back in the direction of the palace. More kept pace with her.

  “Even the King hardly knows in what state matters are,” he said in a low voice. “The Cardinal rules all. He is a clever man. I have noticed that he always tells the King what he ought to do; he never tells him what he is able to do. In that he is shrewd, for if the lion knew his strength, it would be hard to rule him.”

  Katherine stared at him, but the genuine concern in his face convinced her that he meant no disrespect to Henry. She knew better than to press the matter, but More’s words troubled her. Was he implying that Wolsey was preventing Henry from realizing his full potential as a king? Or—but surely not!—that it would be better for everyone if Henry did not reach that potential?

  “I hope, if this child is a boy, to enjoy sufficient influence to counteract that of the Cardinal,” Katherine told him. Henry, she knew, would refuse the mother of his son nothing.

  “I pray God heartily that this child of your Grace’s may be a prince,” More responded. “Nothing would be more welcome, for the surety and comfort of the realm.”

  “I am praying hard too, as you may imagine,” Katherine replied.

  He smiled at her. “God will surely listen to the prayers of so devout a lady.”

  If only she could believe that, she thought.

  “How is Lady Alice?” she asked, determinedly changing the subject.

  “It is kind of your Grace to ask. She is well, and merry. I hear that you had a triumphant visit to Oxford; I was told that the students welcomed you with as many demonstrations of joy and love as if you had been Juno or Minerva.”

  Katherine smiled at the memory. “I was deeply touched. They made me most welcome. There was talk that the Cardinal plans to found a new college at Oxford.”

  “The Cardinal again!” More mused. They walked in silence for a while, then he asked, “Did His Grace tell you that he has asked me to join him on the leads again tonight to look at the stars? I do hope that you will be coming too.”

  “If I can get up the stairs!” Katherine laughed, looking down at her great belly.

  —

  She was aware that Henry was becoming more and more frustrated by his lack of an heir.

  “The Turks are encroaching on Europe in the east,” he told her. “They will be at the gates of Vienna before we know it. How I long to lead a crusade against them. Alas, it cannot be!” And he sighed and thumped his fist hopelessly on the arm of his chair. He could not risk himself while the succession was still not settled.

  Fearful of it ending in another disaster, they had kept this pregnancy secret until Katherine could conceal it no more. As the months went by with no mishap, they allowed themselves to hope; Henry had even given a feast to celebrate her quickening. Now she was near her time and about to take to her chamber, and he was refusing to leave her lest anything went wrong. He would hardly let her move, he was so fearful of her losing the child. So she had rested and rested, and her ankles were now badly swollen. And here was Henry, hovering around her, to the ill-concealed exasperation of her women, who regarded birthing children as a strictly female occupa
tion.

  “I’m loath to leave you, sweetheart,” he said. “I’m not going to London until you are safely delivered.”

  “I am in perfect health,” Katherine protested. It was true.

  “You know very well that a happy outcome is not an ensured thing,” Henry said sternly. “Remember, I have great hopes of it.”

  It was because she did remember that she did everything he asked, to please him. All she wanted now was for the birth to be over—and her son safely in her arms.

  She took to her chamber, grateful to have got this far, and while she was warmly ensconced there, the King, the court—and indeed, the whole realm—waited anxiously for news. And then, to Katherine’s great comfort, Maria arrived to be her gossip at her lying-in: an older Maria, honed by love and loss, and plumper than she had been, but still the same, beloved friend. When she removed her riding cloak, it seemed strange to see her in a rich gown of crimson damask, instead of the black and white she had always worn as Katherine’s maid of honor. But then she turned, and Katherine saw that her stomacher was unlaced.

  “My dear! You are expecting too!” she cried.

  “Next spring, Highness. This little one is very active.” Her face clouded. It was clear she was thinking of that other little one who was irrevocably lost to her.

  “Then she will surely take after her mother,” Katherine declared.

 
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