Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Henry was looking at his feet. He would not meet her eyes. “Kate, I came to tell you that Francis and I have agreed to postpone our summit until next year. We both feel that it would not be appropriate to hold it in the wake of the Emperor’s death.”

  She nodded, cheered to hear that. If the meeting was delayed for a year, it might never happen. “I think that is fitting,” she said, trying not to think about Henry Fitzroy and how he had changed everything between her and the man seated opposite her—the man she loved, but who now seemed like a stranger.

  “As a token of good faith, Francis and I have agreed not to shave until we see each other, so I am growing a beard, Kate.” Already there was golden stubble on his chin.

  Katherine was dismayed. She hated to see a man unshaven, and to her, Henry’s new beard, its appearance coinciding with what she now knew of him, seemed to symbolize all that was wrong in their marriage.

  “Oh, please, Henry,” she protested, before she could stop herself. “Don’t grow a beard! I love you as you are.”

  “But I’ve given my word,” Henry said. “I think a beard will suit me.”

  Did he think a beard an outward symbol of the virility he had proved in another way?

  “You know I dislike beards,” Katherine persisted, knowing herself defeated.

  “You will get used to it, Kate, I’m sure. I rather like it.” He stroked his chin. “However, I didn’t come to talk about that. I’ve been disturbed by reports from Germany about that pestilential monk, Martin Luther. You remember, he nailed his protests against what he called abuses in the Church to a church door in Wittenberg a couple of years ago? I assumed he was just a little crazed, but his ideas are gaining ground over there, and he must be stopped. I don’t want this canker in England. We can’t have every Tom, Dick, or Harry spouting forth against the Church. So I’m going to write a book, Kate, demolishing the arguments of this Luther.”

  “He sounds a highly dangerous man. This is a worthy cause to take up. I applaud you for doing it.”

  “It needs someone like me, someone who has influence in the world and is a good son of the Church. Luther does have a point about indulgences, though. Why should people have to pay for a pardon for their sins and have to buy themselves out of purgatory?”

  “It is wrong,” Katherine agreed. “Greed is a sin. It does not become the priests who sell these indulgences.”

  “Alas, the practice is widespread. The fellow is right to protest against it, but I would that he had left it at that. The rest of what he says is dangerous. Do you know that he denies all but two of the seven sacraments? Well, I intend to defend them vigorously! The Christian unity of Europe must be maintained in the face of this threat.”

  Seeing Henry so zealous to champion the Church, Katherine found it hard to reconcile him, this man of conviction and principle, with the man who must have been secretly making adulterous love to Bessie Blount for God knew how many years, and who had sired a bastard with her. How could she be sitting here with him calmly discussing the heresies of that fool Luther? Why was she not raking her fingernails down his face or beating her fists against his chest? How was it possible both to love and hate someone at the same time?


  To Katherine’s dismay, the French summit was to go ahead. In May the entire court was to be shipped across the English Channel to the Pale of Calais, where it would lodge for a short time in Henry’s castle at Guisnes. The Pale of Calais was part of England, the last remaining outpost of the empire that Henry’s ancestors had carved out for themselves in France. Mary would be left at Richmond in the care of Margaret Pole, who had replaced Margaret Bryan as her lady mistress—an appointment Katherine had urged, since there was no one she trusted more to look after her child.

  Wolsey was in his element. This meeting was his idea, and he was in charge of all the arrangements, from the vexing questions of precedence and courtesy to the design of the silken pavilions that were to be set up in the field chosen for the meeting, which lay between the towns of Guisnes and Ardres.

  Katherine made no secret of the fact that she was against the visit. She summoned her council, which had been appointed by the King to advise her and help administer her estates.

  “The Cardinal is arranging what I am sure will be one of the most expensive charades ever staged,” she told them. “No expense is being spared on either side, and for what? So that our court and the French court can vie with each other to prove which is the superior in wealth and magnificence. And what good will that do anyone? England and France are ancient enemies; they can never be true friends. England should look to where its trade is, to the lands of the Empire.”

  They had looked at her dubiously at first, and she guessed they were thinking it was wrong of her to criticize the King’s policy. But now, with her mention of the trade with Flanders that was at the root of England’s prosperity, there was respect in their eyes and heads were nodding, and she knew she had touched a chord.

  Then the door opened and Henry walked in. There was a scraping of benches as the men rose and bowed, and Katherine sank into a curtsey. The King signaled to them all to be seated, and took the empty chair at the end of the board opposite his wife.

  “You are all looking very serious, my lords,” he said. “May I know what you are discussing?”

  “Sir, we were speaking of the French visit,” Katherine said.

  “Ah.” There was a pause. “I see why there are so many long faces.”

  “You may tell His Grace what I said,” Katherine said.

  “Sir,” said Lord Mountjoy, “Her Grace has made more representations against the voyage than we would have dared to do.” He repeated her arguments, looking uncharacteristically nervous. But Henry was himself nodding now, and there was approval in his eyes.

  “I am impressed by your grasp of affairs, madam,” he said. “You are right to speak out, and I hold you in greater esteem for it—and I am sure my councillors will agree. You have given me something to think about.”

  Katherine felt herself flushing pink with pleasure. It was a long time since Henry had heeded her political opinions.

  “The truth is,” he said in bed that night, after yet another attempt to sire an heir for England, “I am having second thoughts about this French alliance. I don’t trust Francis, and I must confess that I find the prospect of friendship with the Emperor more appealing.”

  His words brought joy to Katherine’s heart. She hoped that her own arguments had helped to sway him. He was too much under the thumb of Wolsey, who had overmuch love for the French and allowed it to override all other considerations when making policy.

  Henry raised himself on one elbow and began twisting a strand of Katherine’s hair through his fingers.

  “Charles is coming to England,” he said, grinning. “I heard today.”

  Katherine sat up and flung her arms around him.

  “That is wonderful news!” she cried.

  “I thought you would be pleased, my love,” Henry murmured, kissing her tenderly. “He will arrive before we leave for Calais. He says he is eager to bind himself in friendship with England.”

  “Even better news!” Katherine exclaimed, jubilant at this wonderful turn of events. “My Henry, you should cancel this meeting in France. There is no point to it.”

  “My love, I would if I could, but it’s too late. Wolsey’s plans are far advanced, and I’ve outlaid too much money. Besides, it would be an unforgivable insult to Francis to cancel at this late stage; he would have every right to be offended, and where would that leave us? Wars have been fought for less! Anyway, I want to meet him, to discover what I’m up against.”

  Katherine gave up the fight. She knew Henry too well to think she could dissuade him. For all his adverse comments, he was excited about the visit, and had been for weeks. He never could resist an opportunity to show off, especially when it was to his French rival. She had no choice but to prepare to go to France with as much grace as she could muster, w
hile praying that something would happen to prevent the visit.


  Katherine could hardly contain her joy as, on a pleasant afternoon in May 1520, she stood waiting at Christ Church Gate, before Canterbury Cathedral, to meet her nephew the Emperor. Her great train of fair ladies ranged about her, and excited crowds thronged the streets; no one was more impatient than she to see the King’s party approaching. This meeting between Henry and Charles was all-important to her; it might tip the balance against the French alliance, the prospect of which she could not bear.

  She and Henry had outlaid a king’s ransom on new clothes for themselves and their attendants in honor of the Emperor’s visit. For Henry, it was crucial that he appear to be a wealthy and magnificent monarch, a fitting equal to this young man who held dominion over half of Christendom. Katherine, all too aware that her youth was behind her, nevertheless felt that she looked regal in her gown of cloth of gold and violet velvet embroidered with Tudor roses, its skirt parted in the front to show off her kirtle of silver taffeta; on her head she wore a black velvet hood in the Flemish style, ornamented with gold, jewels, and pearls, and her neck was encircled by a carcanet of fine pearls from which hung a costly diamond cross.

  She turned to the French Queen, who was almost as splendidly attired as she was herself. It was a joy to have her sister-in-law with her, and a shame that they saw each other too seldom, for the Suffolks were still burdened with debt, and now the French Queen had three young children to occupy her.

  “I have long dreamed of meeting my sister’s son,” Katherine said, elated at the thought. “I thank God I shall see his face. It will be the greatest good I can have on earth.”

  The French Queen gave her a searching look. She knew what Katherine wanted but dared not voice. Katherine was counting on Charles to dissuade Henry from meeting Francis.

  The Emperor’s procession was approaching now; Katherine could see the banners bearing the two-headed sable imperial eagle and the arms of Castile and Aragon, and was thrilled to her soul. There was Henry—who was styling himself “His Majesty” now, since Charles had adopted the title, and Henry felt it lent to his own magnificence as King. He rode next to his guest at the head of the long column of lords and dignitaries, raising a hand to point out the soaring cathedral ahead. The two sovereigns dismounted, and Henry embraced Charles warmly, then led him over to where Katherine was waiting. She sank into her curtsey, and when the Emperor raised her, greeting her in Spanish and doffing his wide-brimmed hat as he bowed, she saw that he was not the comely young man she had expected the son of Philip the Handsome and Juana to be. He had Juana’s dark hair, cut short and straight at the chin and across his forehead, but also the heavy Habsburg jaw, so pronounced in his case that he could not close his mouth, as the French Queen had long ago asserted. Katherine had thought Mary was exaggerating, and was saddened to find that she was right.

  Charles’s manner was correct rather than warm, but she could not fault his courtesy to her. In the ordinary exchange of pleasantries she would have asked about his mother, but did not like to. As far as she knew, Queen Juana was still shut up at Tordesillas. She had been there for eleven years now—goodness knew in what state of mind and health. She hoped that Charles was a dutiful son and visited her.

  Like the Emperor, Henry was clean-shaven. He had held out against Katherine’s complaints until November. Sir Thomas Boleyn, his ambassador in Paris, had placated King Francis by explaining that it was all the Queen’s fault.

  “Far from being offended,” Henry had told her, “Francis was amused, and thanks to you, Kate, I am now known throughout Europe as a Samson to your Delilah!”

  “At least peace has been preserved!” she had laughed. “I am happy to take the blame.”


  It was painful to watch Charles eating during the feast given in his honor. Because he could not close his mouth, he could not chew his food properly, and between this and his innate reticence, conversation at the high table was a challenge. But afterward, when they had all three retired to Katherine’s privy chamber and hippocras was served, Charles came quickly to the point.

  “I would prefer it, brother, if you would cancel this proposed summit with King Francis,” he said. “We both know where your true interests lie. Why go ahead with this great farce when you know it will lead nowhere?”

  Henry explained why the meeting had to go ahead. “The Queen agrees with you, nephew,” he said, “yet my hands are tied. But when I am done in France, let us meet up again in Flanders and seal our pact.”

  “We will do that, you have my word on it,” Charles promised. It was not quite what Katherine had hoped for, but it was enough to sustain her during the coming ordeal.


  The great retinue—more than five thousand persons in all—wound its lengthy way into Guisnes on a beautiful warm day in early June. Katherine gazed up in awe, despite herself, at the new palace that Wolsey had had built there—a miracle of illusion, for it was in reality a temporary structure in wood and canvas. Yet she thought it extraordinary, the most noble and royal lodging she had ever seen. She almost gasped when she beheld the unsurpassed magnificence of her apartments. Her closet was hung with cloth of gold and jewels; in the chapel the altar was adorned with pearls and precious stones, and on it stood twelve great images of gold; even the ceiling was lined with cloth of gold and precious stones.

  The French Queen stared in awe. “It’s superb!” she declared. “Tragic to think they’ll take it all down afterward.”

  “I shudder to think of how much money has been lavished on this,” Katherine said. Now that she had had time to acclimatize herself to the splendor of her surroundings, she was beginning to find them slightly on the vulgar side—just what one might expect from a butcher’s son!

  “You know my brother!” the French Queen said, laughing. “He never does anything by halves.”

  “I rather think this is Wolsey’s doing.” Katherine could not hide her chagrin.

  The French Queen took her hand. “I understand how you feel, Kate, but I owe much to Wolsey. If it hadn’t been for his intercession, Charles might not have a head on his shoulders. So I have an affection for the man; he does have a heart, you know. There was nothing in it for him, but he helped us all the same.”

  Katherine forbore to say that Wolsey, in negotiating that steep fine, had made his master the richer and therefore all the more grateful, and had thereby further entrenched himself in Henry’s good opinions. “Yes, but he loves the French too much!”

  “You should learn to hide your distaste for him, Kate. And you make it too clear that this visit is against your will. Just smile and bear it. In two weeks all the mummery will be over.”

  “I long for the day!” Katherine sighed. Her baggage was being carried in now. Two new and very willing chamberers, Margery and Elizabeth Otwell, sisters in their early twenties, had started unpacking the chests. Margery was handling the Queen’s gowns as reverently as if they were altar frontals. She had come to Katherine on a recommendation from Sir John Peche, whose wife she had served, and Katherine was pleased with her. Margery, with her russet curls and open, heart-shaped face, was honest and diligent. Elizabeth was a paler copy of her sister but as good at her duties.

  Katherine smiled at them both, then beckoned to Mistress Carey, one of the ladies who had been accorded the honor of waiting on the Queen during this visit, by virtue of being married to gentlemen of the King’s privy chamber.

  “Be so good as to fetch us some wine,” she said. “It is a hot day.”

  Mistress Carey smiled and hastened away. The smile had lit up her docile face, and Katherine suddenly remembered her as a weeping young girl who was frightened to board a ship.

  “I see you have Mary Boleyn in your household,” the French Queen said, her voice a trifle tart.

  “She served you in France,” Katherine recalled.

  “She did, and nearly got herself a reputation. There were whispers that she was
bedded by King Francis himself. Her father carted her off to the country before her good name was irrevocably damaged.”

  “I can see what Francis saw in her. She is very pretty.”

  “She is, and I suppose—if I am to be fair—that she had no choice. I should know—Francis laid siege to my virtue, the devil! He can be very persuasive, and he is the King. Little mouse Boleyn would not have stood a chance against him.”

  “Well, she is safely married now,” Katherine said, glad that Mistress Carey was not one of her permanent ladies, for she could not have in her service any whose virtue was in question.

  “That’s no proof against anything!” the French Queen said, laughing once more.


  Even the ground had been leveled, so that neither king should be higher than the other. To this field between Guisnes and Ardres, Henry and Francis came in peace, swearing undying love for each other, but each had an army at his back. They met against a backdrop of silken pavilions the colors of jewels, and it was hard to say what was the more brilliant—the magnificently clad monarchs, their resplendent courts, or the fantastic landscape of gaudy tents. There was so much peacock finery on display, in rich apparel and marvelous treasure; the courtiers glittered in cloth of gold, and countless gold chains and collars, way beyond estimable price, winked and shone in the sunlight.

  Katherine watched as Henry and Francis saluted and embraced each other. She made herself smile as they exchanged gifts, and tried not to show her distaste when they signed a new treaty of friendship. She prayed that Charles would not take it amiss when he heard, and was relieved to hear Henry tell Francis of his hopes for a reconciliation between France and the Empire.

  Outwardly Henry and Francis were brimming with goodwill. They behaved like brothers and best friends. But Katherine knew Henry, and her intuition told her that Francis was playing a part too. They were not just rival kings but rival males, and they were not at peace. It was clear to her—and Henry had as good as told her—that they hated each other cordially. If anything, Katherine thought, this empty charade that cost such a fortune had actually served to seal the rivalry between them. It was obvious that Henry’s jealousy of Francis was driving him directly into the arms of the Emperor.

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