Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  As a princess, and then a queen, Katherine had never played the game. She could have encouraged admirers aplenty, but her virtuous Spanish upbringing had ensured that she could never bring herself to do it. Yet she had not discouraged her ladies from these seemingly harmless flirtations, and enjoyed hearing about them.

  But Henry had always been discreet. He had never openly practiced the art of courtly love—at least, not since his brief courtship of Katherine. She thanked God that he had never flaunted any mistress at court, but kept his indiscretions private. It was so out of character, and unconventional, for him, a married man, to proclaim to the world—for that was surely what he was doing—that he was pursuing a lady.

  She so wanted not to believe it. Henry had discarded Bessie Blount long ago. Bessie was now married, and Katherine had heard that she’d borne a daughter. At any rate, she had never returned to court, so it could not be her.

  Who, then?

  She sat there, trying to focus her tear-filled eyes on the contest. When the crowd cheered, she did too. When the victors came to receive their prizes, she presented them graciously. She smiled, she applauded loudly when Henry unseated his opponent. And all the while she was dying inside.

  She tried to tell herself that it probably meant nothing, that the game of courtly love was harmless fun. It was just that, of course—a game. But Katherine knew, as well as any, that such games were often a cover for something less chivalrous. Henry was the King, handsome, athletic, and powerful—irresistible, as she well knew—and there were probably numerous women ready to give themselves to him without hesitation.

  She looked around at her ladies, all of them most becoming in their striking black and white, and wondered if it was one of them. None seemed to be acting suspiciously. And that evening, at the dinner given for the ambassadors, Henry was his usual genial self, full of the jousts and the Imperial alliance, which he spoke of as if it were all his own achievement. There was nothing in his manner toward Katherine to indicate that anything had changed. But then, she reminded herself, he was a good dissembler.

  That night he came to her. He still visited her bed regularly, hoping to get her pregnant again. It was three and a half years since her little Isabella had been born, and both of them were beginning to feel desperate.

  Katherine had not had the heart or the courage to tell Henry that there were three occasions in the past year when her courses had not flowed. Three times her hopes had been raised, then dashed a month later. She, who had been as regular as the phases of the moon, was regular no longer. She fretted about what that portended, and prayed constantly that while there was still time, God would make her fruitful. A son, she pleaded, an heir to gladden England and her husband; grant, O Lord, the boon of a son. Please, please…Was it so much to ask? Everywhere she looked, she seemed to see women with strapping sons of all ages. Why was she denied even one boy?

  Henry never reproached her. He understood that she was as devastated as he at her failure to bear him an heir. It was not her fault, he assured her, time after time. He’d tried to cheer her by saying that getting a boy was as good an excuse as any to bed with her. But the constant pressure to conceive had robbed the act of love of its former joy. It was more a means to an end these days. Henry was loving, yes, but she wondered whether, if they had a palace full of sons, he would come to her as often.

  Tonight was no exception. As usual, he knelt to say his prayers, climbed into bed, kissed her, murmured a few endearments, then took his vigorous pleasure. It never lasted long, but that did not matter. Then they would lie and talk for a while until he left and went back to his own apartments. In many of his residences, he had built secret stairs connecting his bedchamber with hers, so they could enjoy more privacy. He disliked the traditional public nature of his conjugal visits as much as she did. But the best nights were the ones when he fell asleep and remained with her until morning, because then he would make love to her again.

  She could not believe that a man who was hers on an almost nightly basis was pursuing another woman. But then, as Henry began snoring gently beside her, she thought about what that motto had actually said. She has wounded my heart. Of course! The lady had rejected him, unbelievable as it seemed. Katherine wondered who would have dared, who would have had the confidence to do it.

  She was still wondering two days later, when she and Henry attended a feast for the ambassadors hosted by Wolsey at York Place, the London house of the archbishops of York, which the Cardinal had transformed into yet another great palace. She found herself watching Henry for signs that his attention was focused on a particular lady.

  After dinner the great hall was cleared and there were shouts of appreciation as a pageant car was wheeled into the hall.

  “Le Château Vert,” announced the Cardinal, rising from his seat beside the King to acknowledge the acclaim. The pageant setting had three towers, from which hung three banners: one with three broken hearts, one with a lady’s hand holding a man’s heart, and the other a lady’s hand turning a man’s heart. Katherine wondered, with a pang, if they were in any way connected with the King’s wounded heart of two days before. Hopefully—she brightened at the thought—they were all part of some elaborate conceit. She was almost convinced of it when Henry got up and left the hall.

  Suddenly, eight ladies sprang from the castle, all clad in gowns of white satin embroidered with Milan-point lace and gold thread, and wearing on their heads silk cauls in different colors and Milanese bonnets of gold encrusted with jewels. Each had the name of her character embroidered on gold on her bonnet. Leading the troupe was the French Queen, still as lovely as ever at twenty-six, in the apt role of Beauty. One of Katherine’s most cherished ladies, Gertrude Blount, played Honor; the half-Spanish Gertrude, with her olive skin and striking black hair, was the daughter of Lord Mountjoy and Agnes de Vanagas, and had recently married the King’s cousin, Henry Courtenay. Constancy was personified by a newcomer to court, Lord Morley’s daughter, Jane Parker, who was affianced to Sir Thomas Boleyn’s heir, George, a handsome, unruly young page about the court. There too was Boleyn’s daughter, Mistress Carey, as Kindness, and her sister Anne, the girl Katherine had first seen in France, as Perseverance.

  Anne Boleyn was now in her own household as a maid of honor. Sir Thomas had approached Katherine only last month and explained that his daughter was no longer welcome at the French court now that King Henry had negotiated a rapprochement with the Emperor, especially as war between England and France seemed a certainty. Taking pity on the girl, Katherine had agreed, and been rewarded, for although Anne Boleyn was not as beautiful as she liked her ladies to be, she was elegant, accomplished, musical, and witty, and she had livened up Katherine’s rather staid household already with her vivacious charm. She danced superbly too, Katherine thought, watching her. Her prettier sister paled beside her.

  Eight splendidly dressed lords entered the hall, their hats of cloth of gold, their voluminous cloaks of blue satin. They were named Love, Nobleness, Youth, Devotion, Loyalty, Pleasure, Gentleness, and Liberty, and despite the disguise, it was obvious that the imposing figure of Love was the King himself, something else that made Katherine uneasy. The lords were led into the hall by Ardent Desire, who was wearing a gown of crimson satin sewn with burning flames of gold. There was no mistaking that this was William Cornish, the genius who devised most of the court revels.

  The lords gleefully rushed the fortress to an explosion of gunfire, yet the ladies defended it vigorously, throwing comfits at the besiegers or sprinkling them with rose water. The men retaliated by assaulting the castle with dates and oranges, and predictably, in the end, the defenders were forced to surrender. The lords took their prisoners by the hand and led them down to the floor, where they danced most elegantly. Katherine could not take her eyes off Henry as he wove in and out among the dancers, bowing, turning, and leaping; he was the tallest and most powerfully built among them, and easily recognizable. There was much applause when they all unmasked,
then Henry, flushed with pleasure, led Katherine to the chamber appointed for her by Wolsey, where she was to host a lavish banquet for the ambassadors.

  Helping himself from the hundreds of tempting treats on offer, and chatting animatedly to the Cardinal and his guests, Henry still betrayed no sign of interest in any other lady present, and when he heartily kissed Katherine good night and thanked her for her hospitality, she felt able to reassure herself that her suspicions were groundless and that the heart and mottos that had struck her as ominous were mere courtly conceits, a prelude to the pageant.

  —

  Katherine, holding six-year-old Mary’s hand, was standing in the doorway to the great hall, waiting to greet her nephew Charles. Her spirits had lightened considerably when she learned that he had at last arrived in England for his betrothal to Mary, and that Henry—who was finally bestirring himself to take command of more state affairs—had overruled Wolsey for once and joined Charles in declaring war on France, determined to halt Francis’s ambitions in Italy.

  Henry had gone to greet Charles and bring him in the royal barge to Greenwich, and as the young Emperor knelt before her, her heart was full.

  “Madam my aunt, I humbly crave your blessing,” he said, and she gave it most gladly, and raised and kissed him.

  “I cannot express my great joy at seeing your Majesty.”

  Charles’s face broke into one of his rare smiles. “And this is my future bride!” He took Mary’s hand and kissed it, and she curtsied prettily, holding wide her damask skirts. “You promise to become a handsome lady,” he told her, “the very mirror of the Queen your mother.”

  Mary dimpled and blushed, then showed Charles the new brooch pinned to her bodice. It bore the words The Emperor. Henry had it crafted for her.

  “I am a lucky man indeed to have such a devoted wife,” Charles told her, patting her small red head.

  Naturally, Henry had arranged tournaments in the Emperor’s honor. On the first day, Charles sat beside Katherine, watching from the gallery over the tiltyard, and on the next day he jousted with Henry, who took care to ensure that the match was a draw. The delicious supper afterward was followed by dancing and a masque.

  In June the court traveled to Windsor for the formal betrothal ceremony. Katherine watched, greatly moved, as Mary put her tiny hand in Charles’s large masculine paw and lisped her vows. She looked so small beside him, in the chapel and at the high table at the feast held to celebrate the occasion. It was all quite overwhelming for Katherine, since her delight in her daughter’s betrothal was tempered by the knowledge that Mary would be leaving her to go to Spain after she turned twelve, and that—God forbid—she might then never see her again.

  Again she thought of how small Mary was. She seemed so young for her age, so fragile and vulnerable. All sorts of doubts came rushing into Katherine’s mind. How would she fare without her mother’s love and guidance? How would she cope with the rigid etiquette of the Spanish court after the greater freedom of the English one? Would she be ready at twelve to bed with Charles—and would he, please God, be gentle with her? She understood now how her own mother, Isabella, felt when she had to let her daughter go. Six years, six short years—that was all the time she had left with Mary. It was too short, much too short a time!

  Henry was not quite his usual expansive self during dinner, and Katherine wondered if he was feeling the same pangs and misgivings as she was, or if he had another of his headaches. Charles did not seem to notice anything amiss. He was talking about the splendid celebrations he would be ordering for Mary’s reception in Spain, and the great household he would provide for her.

  “She will have much to learn and accustom herself to,” he said, echoing Katherine’s own concerns. “I wonder—do you not agree that it might be better if she came to Spain earlier, to be educated as befits a future Empress and Queen of Spain?”

  The food suddenly turned tasteless in Katherine’s mouth. She could not, would not, part with Mary a day before she had to.

  But thank God for Henry!

  “No, brother,” he said. “If you searched all Christendom for someone to bring Mary up after the manner of Spain, you could not find one more qualified than the Queen her mother. For the affection she bears to you, Katherine will bring her up to your satisfaction. I doubt anyway that Mary will be ready to bear the voyage before she is twelve, or strong enough to be transported to the air of another country.”

  Charles nodded politely as Katherine offered up a silent prayer of thanks.

  “The Princess’s welfare must come before all other considerations,” he said, but it was clear that he was disappointed.

  —

  It was late when Henry arrived in Katherine’s bedchamber that night. She was in bed, but he was still fully dressed and seemed restless, pacing the floor before throwing off his gown and settling himself in the chair beside the fireplace.

  Katherine got up, drew on her nightgown, and took the chair opposite.

  “Some wine?” she offered.

  “No, Kate, I’ve had enough.”

  “What is troubling you?” she asked. “I know there is something. Is it the thought of Mary leaving us?”

  “It will be a wrench,” Henry said, “but I have far more on my mind than that. It is the prospect of England becoming just another dominion of the Empire or Spain, which is what will happen if Mary marries Charles and we have no son. As of today it is a very real prospect. I don’t want to go down in history as the last King of England.”

  Katherine felt the increasingly familiar fear come upon her. What if she never bore another child? It had now been four years since her last pregnancy. She had no words of comfort to offer Henry. He still did not know about the missed courses, and he had not noticed the night sweats that were afflicting her with increasing regularity. Was she ill? Surely, at thirty-six, she was not too old to bear a child? Why, why, did God not answer her prayers?

  “Kate, I have a son,” Henry said, his voice gentle, his eyes regarding her warily.

  “I know,” she answered, trying not to sound reproachful. “Clearly the fault lies with me.” The words came with difficulty, halting, painful.

  “I did not wish to imply that, Kate. God knows, I did not want you to know.”

  “You cannot keep secrets in courts, Henry.” She thought she saw him blanch at that.

  “I was wondering—if God sees fit not to bless us with a son—if there was some way that the boy might be legitimated.”

  “No!” she cried out. “Mary is your heir. She has it in her to be as great a queen as my mother ever was. She has those same qualities, evident already. Married to Charles, she could rule in England.”

  “And he would rule through her because she is a woman and subject to him as his wife. No, that is not what I want, Kate, and my people would never tolerate it. You have seen how they dislike and distrust foreigners.”

  “They have always shown great affection to me, and taken me to their hearts; they love me almost as much as they love you. And Mary is my daughter and yours. They would love her for our sakes. Henry, you cannot set aside Mary’s rights!” And you cannot humiliate her or me by displacing her with your bastard. It was on the tip of her tongue to say it.

  “Then what am I to do, Kate?”

  “We must keep praying, Henry, and trying for a son.”

  “Which is why I am here,” he said, sounding almost weary.

  She helped him to undress, unlacing his sleeves and laying the rich clothes over a chest. He clambered naked into bed and clasped her to him. They were as close—almost—as a man and woman could be, and yet nothing was happening.

  “I’m sorry, Kate,” Henry muttered at last. “This is one lance that won’t be raised for the attack tonight. I must have drunk more than I realized.” It sounded like an excuse. He had not really been in the mood, that was plain; and she had a horrible feeling that he was here more out of duty than because he wanted to be.

  —

  Katheri
ne stretched out her hand to the handsome, swarthy man with the hooked nose that proclaimed his Jewish ancestry, although there could be no question about his Christian orthodoxy. He kissed it and rose at her bidding.

  “Welcome to Greenwich, Professor Vives,” she said, smiling. “It is good to receive one of my countrymen, especially one so eminent. My lord the King has told me much of your learning. We both enjoyed reading your commentary on St. Augustine.”

  “Your Majesty is most kind to say so.”

  “Please be seated. I am interested in your views on education, especially the education of women. You will know of Sir Thomas More, who has had his daughters tutored as well as his son. Having heard of your reputation, he recommended you to the King and me.”

  The man in his dark, furred scholar’s robes sat down opposite Katherine.

  “I am a great admirer of Sir Thomas More, and grateful to him for putting my name forward to your Majesty. He has shown the world that an educated woman can also be a virtuous woman, rather than one who wastes her learning on writing love letters!”

  Katherine smiled. “My mother, Queen Isabella, held similar views, for which I am grateful. But while I have been able to teach my daughter, the Princess, her letters and her catechism, I am not qualified to be her tutor. Which brings me to the reason why His Majesty and I asked you to come here. I know that you will be staying in England for a time, lecturing at Oxford, but I wanted to ask if you would devise a curriculum for my daughter.”

  Vives’s solemn face lit up. “Madam, I should be honored. There is no queen in Christendom who is more renowned for her learning than your Grace.”

  Over the next week, with Katherine’s assistance, he drew up a program of study that involved much learning of the Scriptures and the ancient classics and histories. Romances were forbidden.

 
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