Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  “Poor little thing!” Maria smiled. “How is your Highness keeping?”

  “I am much better, thank you, and just longing to hold my child in my arms.”

  “Looking at you, it will not be long!”

  Maria was right. The baby was born in the night—a girl, a tiny, mewling creature with a fluff of gold hair. Although Katherine’s heart plummeted when they told her the child’s sex, she took one look at her new daughter and fell in love. Isabella, she thought. I will call her for my mother, if Henry agrees.

  Henry. She could not bear the thought of his disappointment. She feared to face him with the news of her failure. Would he love this child as he loved Mary, for all that she was a girl?

  He came to her bedside, crestfallen. He took the child in his arms and gave it his blessing, but there was no mistaking the chagrin in his eyes, and he did not stay long, much to Maria’s ill-concealed disgust. Katherine wept for hours that night, fearing she had lost his love for good. But it was her hopes that had been dashed too. What have I done to deserve this ill fortune? she asked herself.

  “What are they saying in the court?” she demanded of Margaret Pole and Maria the next day.

  Margaret regarded her with sad eyes. “There is much disappointment. They are saying that had this child been born before the betrothal, the Princess would not have been promised, for people now think she will succeed here. The sole fear is that England might be lost to France through her marriage.”

  “They are speaking as if my childbearing days are done! But, Margaret, I will have other children, surely. I am but thirty-three.”

  “I have known women much older than that bear sons,” Margaret’s tone was robust and encouraging.

  “I’m older than your Highness, and look at me,” Maria said, patting her belly. “Thirty-three is not old!”

  Katherine smiled weakly. “You are both very kind.”

  Margaret sighed. “Take some rest, please, dear madam. You need to make a good recovery so that you can get those sons!”

  —

  Henry and Katherine bent over the cradle, their faces fraught with anxiety. Katherine felt as if her heart would break. The new princess, just two days old, was weak and failing, and the King had been summoned. As they watched and prayed, the little hands fluttered and fell. Katherine gasped, disbelieving, and scooped up the limp body.

  “Isabella, my little Isabella,” she keened desperately, as if rocking the child violently might bring her back to life.

  “Kate, please,” Henry remonstrated, more affected than she would have believed. “It is God’s will.”

  “How many times have you said that to me?” she cried.

  “Who are we to question it?” he asked helplessly, tears streaming down his cheeks. “She is my child too! Let me hold her.”

  He pried the tiny bundle out of Katherine’s arms and sat down with it, emitting great shuddering sobs.

  “I cannot bear another loss,” Katherine wept. “Why is God punishing us?”

  “In faith, I do not know,” Henry said, staring into the waxen little face.

  “She did not even live to be christened,” she mourned. “Now her soul is in limbo and she will never know God.”

  “Never believe that!” Henry flared. “I have read that the souls of the unbaptized enjoy every kind of natural felicity. You must hold to that, Kate. And we must let her go.” His voice broke. “I will arrange for her to be buried by the wall of the friars’ burial ground.”

  —

  This seventh pregnancy had finally ruined her figure.

  “Lace me tighter,” she instructed her maids on the day of her churching, but it made little difference. Her body was like a stout column, her great breasts strained at the low square bodice of her gown, and her face was puffy with grief. How would Henry ever desire her now? And how could she herself, weighted as she was with the burdens of loss and failure, ever surrender joyfully to his embrace again?

  But Henry gave no sign that he had noticed a change in her. He came to her chamber an hour after she’d left the chapel and kissed her as heartily as usual.

  “It is good to have you back with us, Kate,” he said. “We must try to put this sadness behind us.”

  “Yes,” she said, thinking that she would never be happy again, and worrying about her misery affecting Mary, whom she had with her at court as often as possible. God forbid that Mary would ever think her parents did not love her as much as they would have loved a son. But that was not her only worry.

  “Henry, can we talk?” she asked.

  “Of course.” He settled himself down by the fire opposite her, his hound at his feet.

  “Something is tormenting me,” Katherine said, pouring him some wine. “I fear that there must be some reason for the loss of our children, and I have been wondering—Henry, I must say this: is it a judgment of God because my marriage to Arthur was made in blood?”

  “Made in blood?”

  “Surely you must know of the fate of the Earl of Warwick, Lady Salisbury’s brother?”

  Henry frowned. “What of it?”

  “My coming to England was conditional upon Warwick being removed. I know it; I heard my father say so.”

  The frown deepened. “Mine never mentioned it. Not that he would. He was as crooked as a rotten bough, and secretive. Aye, I can believe it. My father was ever one for expediency.”

  “Think of it, Henry. Seven children we have made together, and of them just Mary lives, and with one daughter you are as good as childless in the eyes of men. Is God saying something to us?”

  Henry got up, came to her, crouched on his haunches, and took her hands. “Kate, you are overwrought. This is nonsense. It was not your fault.”

  “You know what they say about the sins of the fathers!”

  “But, Kate, whatever your father or mine may have said or done, Warwick was plotting with the pretender Warbeck. He committed treason.”

  “He was a simpleton, easily led, Margaret says. And it would have been easy to lead him into wrongdoing.”

  “Has Lady Salisbury been putting these fancies in your head?”

  “No, certainly not. The matter has troubled me for years. Henry, there has to be a reason for our children dying—or it is my fault! I have borne my losses with resignation, but the burden of failure is heavy, and it falls on me. People will say that I am deficient as a wife. They will say you should not have married me, that I am too old for you. God knows, I feel it! Do you know what the King of France said of me? I heard it from Luis Caroz. Francis said that you have no son because, though young and handsome, you keep an old and deformed wife.”

  “Hush, Kate. I will not listen to such calumnies. You have nothing to reproach yourself for. We are all in God’s hands.”

  “But it is true!” she burst out. “I am not pretty anymore. My figure is ruined.”

  “Nonsense!” Henry was quick to deny it, much to her relief. “To me, you are beautiful, and it is what I think that matters. By all accounts Francis has deplorable taste in women!”

  “I am so blessed in having you for my husband,” Katherine said, grasping Henry’s hand and pressing it to her cheek. “But tell me truthfully, do you never wonder why God should deny us this one crucial gift of a son?”

  “I do wonder, all the time, but I live in hope. I am a good son of the Church, I live a virtuous life. I won’t pretend I don’t worry about the succession. My throne is based on firmer foundations than my father’s was, but there are still those who might challenge it, and I fear what they would do if I died tomorrow. There could well be civil war. Mary’s very life would be in danger and my dynasty might topple. It gives me nightmares. We must hope that you will conceive again soon.”

  “I pray God you will be spared to reign over us for many years to come, my Henry, yet Mary has great qualities; she could be another queen such as my mother.”

  “Kate, we’ve spoken of this. We do not have queens ruling over us in England. Your mother was ex
ceptional, but it is against Nature for a woman to hold dominion over men. Hundreds of years ago there was a king’s daughter, Matilda, who claimed the throne and fought a civil war against her cousin, King Stephen. She was victorious, but after just two weeks the people of London threw her out before she could be crowned. They could not stand her arrogance. It was unnatural in a woman. Since then no one has wanted a queen in England.”

  Katherine knew it was useless to argue. On this point, Henry’s views were entrenched.

  1519–1520

  The masquers were disguised in the Italian fashion in visors and caps of gold, yet there was no mistaking the identity of the tall, broad-shouldered man in the midst. Henry never seemed to tire of disguising himself or of being unmasked. He delighted in performing incognito, even though he must know that any element of surprise had long since disappeared. Yet tonight he was Troilus to his sister Mary’s Criseyde—both of them being fond of the works of old Geoffrey Chaucer—and he was in his element, bowing to the ladies and cajoling them into the dance, not that they needed any persuasion.

  The court was at Penshurst Place, being lavishly entertained by the Duke of Buckingham. Katherine loved the beautiful, rambling old building, which lay amid enchanting gardens in the lush green countryside of Kent, at their best in this lovely month of June. She was impressed by the magnificent hall in which the masque was taking place and by the hospitality of her host. Yet there was something about Buckingham that disquieted her. He was the perfect courtier, noble of bearing and deferential to his sovereign, but proud and outspoken, and he cared not whom he offended, even if it be the great Cardinal himself. He made no secret of his enmity for Wolsey, who for the main part ignored it—look at the Cardinal now, engrossed in the masque and talking animatedly to his neighbor, the Countess of Surrey. Katherine had long had the feeling that Buckingham did not like Henry either—it was as if he was always trying to outking him! And Henry, she noticed, was often watching Buckingham.

  But that was the least of her worries, because she had sensed that her women were keeping something from her. She had not missed the covert glances they kept giving her—and each other—and she was aware of an undercurrent of whispers. She was sure she hadn’t imagined it all. In the last few days she had noticed a palpable tension in her chamber, and conversations being suddenly hushed when she approached. She feared it might concern Maria, who had just written with the happy news that she had borne a daughter—her own goddaughter, named Katherine after herself—but, reading between the lines, it was clear that she had suffered a hazardous confinement. Katherine prayed that nothing had happened to Maria or the child. Surely they would not keep it from her?

  “Margaret,” she asked Lady Salisbury as they walked in the gardens the next morning, “has something happened? Please don’t pretend there isn’t anything. I’m aware that people are giving me odd looks.”

  Margaret looked as if she would rather be anywhere else. “Your Grace is right, there is something, and I would give much not to be the one to have to tell you.”

  “What is it?” Katherine sat down on a stone bench, bracing herself.

  “The talk is that Bessie Blount has borne the King a son.” Margaret’s cheeks were pink with embarrassment.

  Katherine gasped. Suddenly she could not breathe. She felt dizzy and thought she might die. People had dropped dead after receiving bad news, hadn’t they?

  She made herself stay calm and take deep breaths.

  “Is it true?” she whispered, forcing the words out, and knowing the answer. For Bessie, all honey-blond, meek and demure, had come to her in February begging leave to go home to be with her mother, who was sick. Taking pity on the girl, but relieved to see her depart, Katherine had agreed, and she had not given much thought since to her maid of honor’s continued absence.

  “If you listen to the gossip it is,” Margaret said, sitting down beside her and taking her hand. “I try not to, but it seems to be the sole topic of conversation.”

  It would be, Katherine thought: how the King’s mistress can give him a son and his wife cannot.

  “And I am the last to know!” she said, her breathing coming more evenly now. But the pain of betrayal, the immensity of Henry’s betrayal, was intensifying, swelling into something horrible and obscene. Worse still was the terrible realization that it must be her fault that they did not have sons. Either there was some bodily deficiency in her or she had offended God. Yet surely Bessie Blount’s offense was greater? So why had she been vouchsafed a son?

  Katherine could no longer blame Henry for straying. The fair Bessie—her allure could not be denied—was a merry girl with a love of singing, dancing, and revelry. She had youth and vitality on her side, and could offer lighthearted companionship and more—and more…Whereas Katherine knew that her looks had faded and that the loss of six children had aged her and made her more serious and devout and introspective. She was no longer the golden princess whom Henry had married.

  And yet, give him his due, he was still loving toward her, still kind, still caring. He came to her bed regularly, and their loving was everything she could have wished for. It would have been better, she thought, for her not to have known about Bessie Blount, otherwise there would have been no clue that anything was amiss. But now she had to deal with this dreadful pain, and face public humiliation.

  “What are people saying?” she asked. “Tell me the truth.”

  Margaret sighed. “Apparently His Grace sent her to a house in Essex. It had an unusual name—Jericho.”

  “I know the house. The King leases it from a priory. He keeps apartments and uses it as a hunting box.” And as a secret trysting place, obviously.

  Margaret seemed reluctant to go on. “You may be aware that there is a lot of gossip about the house,” she said, and swallowed. “They say that no one is allowed to approach His Grace when he stays there, and that his servants are warned not to ask where he is or talk about his pastimes or the hour he goes to bed.”

  It was horrible, hateful.

  “And this is where the child was born?”

  “Indeed. Madam, I am so sorry. This must be very difficult for you.”

  “Thank you, Margaret. But I wanted to know the truth. What is the child called?”

  “Henry—Henry Fitzroy.”

  Fitzroy—son of the King. Henry, who was usually so discreet, could not have been more obvious in proclaiming to the world that he had a son at last. And who could blame him? All men wanted sons, especially kings, and Henry was a magnificent, virile man of twenty-eight; the lack of a male heir diminished him and reflected on his manhood. But not anymore. The whole world would soon know that Henry Tudor was capable of siring boys.

  She imagined Henry’s joy when they brought him the news, the moment when the child was presented to him, his gratitude to the woman who had made it possible. It pained her that someone else should have given him this gift—it should have been her, his wife, who gave him this one thing his heart desired.

  “There is more, madam,” Margaret said as they got up and walked back toward the house. “Cardinal Wolsey is appointed the child’s godfather, and he is arranging for Bessie to marry Lord Tailboys. An honorable marriage for a dishonorable woman!” Margaret was uncharacteristically savage.

  Katherine was shocked. “Has the Cardinal forgotten his calling, that he must descend to this?”

  “Fear not, madam—there is much outrage about it. People openly criticize. They say he is encouraging young women to indulge in fornication in order to find husbands above their station.”

  “And so he is.”

  She felt a burning anger toward both Henry and Wolsey. Henry was still devoting himself to amusements day and night, intent on nothing else, and leaving all business to the Cardinal. The man ruled everything! And now he had shown himself little better than a procurer.

  —

  She wondered what her nephew would make of this—not that she would ever be so disloyal as to complain to him, or that
it would do any good if she did, for all Charles’s power. For Maximilian had just died, and at only nineteen Charles was now Holy Roman Emperor and the master of half of Christendom. Overnight, Katherine’s status had soared. She might be barren, but in England she represented the combined might and glory of Spain and the Empire.

  But what was it all worth? she wondered as she lay wakeful that night, watching the dying embers of the fire. Henry was friends with King Francis now, and absorbed in plans for a meeting between them this summer, which precluded any close alliance with Charles. She herself enjoyed little influence in affairs of state these days, and her role as Henry’s queen had been whittled down to a merely ceremonial one. She stood by his side on state occasions; she received foreign ambassadors; she presided with him at feasts, banquets, and masques. For the rest of the time she stayed mainly in her apartments. Her days were governed by the offices of the Church, and she spent hours on her knees in her private chapel, praying for a son. She had been several times to see Our Lady of Walsingham too, but it had done her no good. She passed as much time as she could with Mary, or embroidering endless church vestments and altar cloths, or stitching clothing for the poor. She made music with her ladies, played cards or dice, or read devotional books. She felt she had outlived her usefulness. She had failed in every way that mattered.

  —

  Katherine was dizzy with exhaustion through torment and lack of sleep, and was looking wrecked the next morning when Henry came to see her. He stared at her for a long moment, then that shuttered look came down. He did not ask how she was, for surely he did not want to hear her answer.

  He kissed her cheek and sat down, resplendent in cloth of gold; they were to dine with some French envoys later.

  “God, I have a foul headache,” he grumbled.

  “Another one?” she asked, concerned despite herself. Henry had complained several times lately of headaches and megrims.

  He rubbed his forehead. “It makes reading and writing somewhat tedious and painful.”

  She wondered if this was a bid for sympathy, intended to deflect her suspicions or her anger.

 
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