Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “They encourage light behavior,” Vives explained, “but the Princess will benefit from reading moral tales such as ‘Patient Griselda.’ ” Katherine had read the story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and thought that this morality tale of a woman who endured much sorrow and humiliation at the hands of her husband, yet loved him in spite of it, would offer a good example to Mary.

  Vives was all fired up with his curriculum. “Dr. Fetherston can have overall responsibility for the Princess’s lessons, but I will teach her Latin.” Richard Fetherston, a gentle, devout man, was Mary’s chaplain and a fine scholar.

  “I myself can help Mary with her translations,” Katherine said, warming to the Spanish professor’s dedication and enthusiasm.

  “An excellent idea, madam,” Vives concurred. “She will benefit from your Majesty’s erudition.”

  He dedicated his treatise to Katherine. Govern your daughter by these principles, and she will be formed by them, he wrote. She will resemble your example of probity and wisdom.

  Katherine showed the treatise to Henry.

  “Do you think it is a little severe for a child of seven?” she asked him.

  He read it, praising it heartily. “No, I do not,” he said. “Mary is a clever girl. By God, she will be the best-educated woman in Christendom!”

  Maud Parr applauded Katherine. “I am teaching my daughters to read and write, and I want them to learn French and Latin. In my opinion, girls are every bit as capable of being educated as boys.”

  “Many would disagree with you!” Katherine pointed out.

  “Let them scorn. One day we will be proved right!”

  Mary took to her lessons as a bird to the sky. She was obedient, diligent, hardworking, and always eager to show her parents what she was doing.

  “She is a rare person,” Vives said, “and most singularly accomplished.” He was very pleased with her.


  That summer, Katherine noticed Anne Boleyn going about with a lighter step and a tune forever on her lips, and it was not long before she discovered the reason why. Young Harry Percy was the good-looking heir of the Earl of Northumberland, who had placed him in the household of Cardinal Wolsey, hoping no doubt to secure for him thereby preferment at court.

  Katherine liked to welcome young men into her chamber; she enjoyed their company, and they could converse and make merry with her maids of honor under her watchful but benevolent eye. Whenever the Cardinal came to court, Harry Percy was always at her door, and it was obvious that he and Anne were deeply smitten with each other.

  Then she noticed that another of her maids, Lucy Talbot, seemed put out with Anne. Indeed, it was obvious that she was barely speaking to her.

  “I don’t know what’s got into that girl,” Maud said. “She’s walking around with a face like thunder.”

  “Have a word with her, will you, Maud?” Katherine asked. “Find out what is troubling her.”

  Maud returned minutes later, looking exasperated. “She says it’s nothing, madam. She won’t be drawn.”

  “Best to let her be,” Katherine advised. “They’ve probably had a quarrel. She’ll get over it. Ah, look, here comes Harry Percy—again!”

  Katherine heartily approved of his courtship of Anne Boleyn. It would be a splendid match for Anne, for not only was he ardently in love with her, but he was also the heir to one of the greatest and most ancient earldoms in England. So she encouraged the two young people and looked to hear shortly of their betrothal.

  But then came a September day when her maids came running and told Katherine that Anne Boleyn was lying on her bed, weeping inconsolably, and would not be comforted. Katherine saw her alone and was shocked to see the normally self-assured and exemplary maid of honor looking so ravaged with misery.

  “Tell me what has happened,” she said, sitting down by the bed and taking Anne’s hand.

  “I am ordered home to Hever, your Grace,” Anne whispered.

  “But why?” Katherine feared the worst, yet she could hardly believe that this girl had it in her to disgrace herself and her family.

  “Your Grace will be angry with me if I tell you,” Anne sniffed, choking back tears.

  “Your welfare is my concern. You are my maid and I am responsible for you. If aught goes amiss with you, it reflects on me too.”

  Anne sniffed and sat up, her plaited hair askew on her head. “Well then, madam, I see I have been very foolish. I entered into a precontract with Harry Percy.”

  Katherine was startled. What a bold thing to do!

  “Did your parents know?”

  “No, madam. We are in love. We did not think.”

  “That is indeed foolish, Mistress Anne. You should know that a precontract is as binding as a marriage, and that you should both have had your parents’ permission. Harry Percy is the heir to an earldom, and your father is an important man at court. Men like them do not marry off their children lightly, and in Harry’s case the King’s permission is needed, for he is of the nobility.”

  “I know, I know all that,” sobbed Anne. “Madam, we did not think they would be displeased, and we did not mean to offend the King, and maybe they would all have been happy with the match, but the Cardinal said no. He had heard gossip about us, and he taxed Harry with it. He called me a foolish girl in front of all his household! He marveled that Harry had entangled himself with me, and said that if he persisted, his father would disinherit him. And then it turns out that Harry has been betrothed for years to the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter, Mary Talbot.”

  All suddenly became clear. Mary was Lucy’s sister. No wonder Lucy had been angry with Anne.

  “Harry protested, madam,” Anne was saying. “He did his best, but the Cardinal commanded him not to see me again, and I am commanded to leave court!” Anne was beside herself and on the verge of crying again. “Your Grace, I cannot lose Harry—I love him more than life itself—and I do not want to leave your service. Oh, what am I to do?” She buried her dark head in her hands, her shoulders heaving.

  “I will speak to the King,” Katherine said. “But I cannot promise that it will do any good.”


  She raised the matter at supper that evening, relating what Anne had told her.

  “Boleyn’s daughter has aspirations beyond her station,” Henry said, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Wolsey told me of his concerns about their affair, and I ordered him to intervene. Percy is betrothed, and it is a fitting match which I heartily approved. Why should he marry beneath him?”

  “She is very distressed,” Katherine ventured.

  “She said hard words to Wolsey, the pert minx!” Henry frowned. “It will do her good to rusticate in the country for a bit and reflect on her conduct. We can’t have the heirs to earldoms running about and betrothing themselves to any wench who takes their fancy!”

  “But what of their precontract?”

  Henry shrugged. “Wolsey has taken care of that. On my orders.”

  “Nevertheless I am sorry for Mistress Anne. She serves me well, Henry. Will you not reconsider and let her stay? Losing the man she wanted to marry is punishment enough, surely?”

  “Wolsey is much offended by her rudeness. I’m sorry, Kate, she must go home.”

  And she did. Katherine bade her a concerned farewell.

  “When the time is ripe, Mistress Anne, you may be assured of being welcomed back into my household.” She was aware of Lucy Talbot, standing there among the maids of honor and glowering at Anne.

  “I thank your Grace. You have been most kind. But, madam, I have been treated most unjustly and I have been insulted.” And now the anger beneath the doleful countenance became manifest. “If ever it lies in my power, I will work the Cardinal as much displeasure as he has done me!” Her eyes flashed.

  Katherine was startled by the vehemence in her tone. Even Lucy looked alarmed. The thought came unbidden to Katherine: I would not like to cross her. Aloud, she said, “I hope that in time you will find it in your heart
to forgive him. Now God speed you.”

  A graceful curtsey, a wan goodbye, and Anne Boleyn was gone.


  Katherine was on her knees on the prie-dieu in her closet at Windsor, her head in her hands. She was no longer praying, but wondering how to tell Henry that it had been a year and more since her last courses, and that she was fairly certain now that she would never see another. She had asked Margaret Pole what the cessation of her monthly bleeding meant, swearing her to secrecy, and learned the worst. She thought of all the times she had been duped into thinking that she was pregnant, when instead she had been undergoing the change of life. Time was running out for her. Since then, with increasing urgency and fervor, she had repeatedly beseeched God to grant her one last chance to give Henry a son.

  She had been ill and feverish from November last year to February—three precious months lost. At one point she thought she might die, and wondered if that was God’s mysterious way of answering her prayers, for if she died, Henry would be free to marry again. Weakened by her illness, which Dr. de la Saa and Dr. Guersye vaguely diagnosed as an imbalance of the humors, she had descended into misery, and it was only when news came in March of the Emperor’s great victory over the French at Pavia in Italy, and the capture of King Francis, that she had begun to rally in spirits.

  Henry was ecstatic to learn that his rival was Charles’s prisoner. He’d actually embraced the messenger and told him, “My friend, you are like the Angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus Christ!” England had erupted in celebration.

  When all the euphoria had died down, Katherine began to face the likelihood that she would never bear another child. She had hated deceiving Henry, letting him think there was still some hope of an heir when there was not. And it was not just that. She feared that if she told him the truth, he would cease coming to her bed altogether. What man could desire an aging, barren, and overweight wife? And yet…how could she expect him to respect her when she was not honest with him?

  She felt dragged down by a terrible sense of failure. What was worse, she was now inflicted with a horrible, foul-smelling discharge from her woman’s parts. She shrank with embarrassment at the thought of mentioning it to anyone, and suffered in silence, assuming it was part of the change she was undergoing.

  Henry came to her that night, for the first time since her illness. She was to shudder whenever, in the future, she thought of what had passed between them. In the past his virility had failed him but once, but now it happened again. She was shamefully conscious of the slight stench from her womb, and prayed he had not noticed it, but he was an unusually fastidious man with a sensitive nose, and she sensed him drawing away from her in distaste.

  “I think I am too tired, Kate,” he said, sitting up and reaching for his nightgown.

  “I am still not well,” she told him, burning with humiliation.

  “Let me know when you are better,” Henry said, standing up and sliding his feet into his slippers.

  She sat up, hoping for his kiss of farewell. She could not bear to have him think of her as unclean and abhorrent. But Henry merely bowed courteously, which confirmed her suspicion that he was revolted by her. It was all too much. As he picked up his candle and turned to go, she burst into tears.

  “Kate, what is it?” Henry asked, hovering by the door.

  “There is something I must tell you,” she sobbed. “There will be no more children. I am past the ways of women.”

  There was a silence. It was worse than any storms of reproach.

  She raised her wet face to see Henry still standing there. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

  “I am so sorry, so sorry,” she cried, wanting to fly across the room and comfort him.

  “All those years, all those prayers,” he said in a broken voice. “All for nothing. All! Other men have sons! Poor men have more than they can feed. But not me, the King, who needs a son more than anyone else. Why? Why, O Lord!”

  It was the bitterest pill for him to swallow. This robust, virile man of thirty-three must face the fact that he would have no more legitimate children. It was a slur on his manhood.

  “How can we have offended?” Katherine asked for the hundredth time.

  “I do not know!” Henry cried. “I need time to think about it. I have to decide what I am going to do about the succession. Oh, God!”

  He stumbled to the fireside, slumped into a chair, and sat there staring helplessly at the flames. “I must acknowledge Mary as my heiress,” he said at length. “You know what that means. On my death, as matters stand, England will become a state of the Empire. Charles must be informed. I will have to tell him that you are past the age of childbearing. I imagine he will be pleased to hear it. Another territory to add to the many he already possesses.” His voice was bitter.

  Katherine wept again at that, and to hear him so defeated.

  “I am sorry, so sorry…” she kept saying.

  “I’m sorry too, Kate: I’m sorry for you, and for me, and I’m sorry for my kingdom. It galls me to think that the Tudor dynasty will end with me. But I have to secure the succession. Do you think I want Charles to have England? Tell me, what is the alternative?”

  “Mary’s son could inherit.”

  “It amounts to the same thing. A Habsburg on the English throne.”

  “Yes, but one with Tudor blood.”

  “I have a son with Tudor blood,” Henry flung back, suddenly angry, “only he’s not yours, more’s the pity. By God, I could have Parliament declare him legitimate and name him my heir; I could even get a dispensation from the Pope and marry him to Mary.”

  Katherine was shocked.

  “The people would never accept a bastard for their king,” she cried. “I am surprised you could even contemplate it.”

  “I am contemplating it because I have to!” Henry retorted. “The situation is desperate.”

  “It could end in civil war,” she felt bound to say. “There are those who might feel they have a better claim than your bastard.”

  “The alternative might be worse. The English people would never take kindly to a foreigner ruling over them. Oh, Kate, I cannot think straight.”

  “I am so sorry,” she said again.

  “You have no need.” He made a visible effort. “It’s not your fault.”


  Afterward, nevertheless, it felt as if it was, and that he was punishing her. He still came to her bed occasionally but never made any attempt to touch her. Yet by day he was still his normal affectionate self, the Henry of old. She could not have said there was any breach between them, except in the physical sense, yet she realized, with painful clarity, that his desire for her was dead, and that he visited her bed only because he was concerned to spare her the shame of people knowing that. Servants, after all, could be trusted to gossip.

  Yet she still had the feeling that his reluctance to touch her was a form of revenge for her terrible failure. Initiating lovemaking was something she had never done, and did not have the courage to start doing now, for she was terrified of being rejected; and anyway, she was still experiencing her embarrassing complaint and knew she would be offensive to him. So she suffered in silence, turning to prayer to heal the pain of rejection.

  Then came an even worse humiliation.


  At midsummer, Henry appointed a day on which he would ennoble various deserving persons, and there was a great ceremony in the presence chamber at Bridewell Palace in London. Katherine was there, seated beside Henry with her maids and ladies behind her, making herself smile and be gracious, as if all were well. The room was thronged with courtiers, and there was an excited, expectant hum of murmuring. Sir Thomas More was busy with a pile of patents, checking that they were in order before handing the first one to the King. Then he gave the nod.

  Trumpets sounded and the herald at the door cleared his throat.

  “The Lord Roos!” he cried.

  Henry’s cousin, Thomas Manners, a bearded man in
his thirties who looked so like him, approached the dais and knelt, as More, standing beside Henry, read out the patent of creation that made his lordship Earl of Rutland. Henry stood, belted the ceremonial sword around Roos’s waist, and invested him with the mantle and coronet of his earldom.

  Then came Henry Courtenay, another of the King’s cousins, to be made Marquess of Exeter. They had been brought up from boyhood together, their mothers having been sisters, and Courtenay’s wife, Gertrude Blount, was one of Katherine’s close friends, so she was delighted for them both.

  “Lord Henry Brandon!”

  Katherine smiled at the French Queen as a tall knight walked in carrying two-year-old Henry Brandon. How she wished she had a fine boy like that. Henry bent to pat the head of his nephew as the knight, still holding the child, knelt for the ennoblement ceremony, for which the belt, the sword, the mantle, and the coronet had all been made in miniature. Katherine caught sight of Henry’s face as he created his young namesake Earl of Lincoln: just for an instant he let his guard fall and looked wistful, even emotional. She thought of the little boy’s brother and namesake, who had died three years ago, aged six. The French Queen had also known tragedy, but at least she still had a surviving son. Katherine prayed that he would live.

  “Sir Thomas Boleyn!”

  Boleyn strode up to the dais and knelt in his turn. This blunt-featured, blunt-spoken man had become a great friend of the King and served him well for many years now. Katherine had never warmed to him, but she recognized that he deserved this honor. Evidently others thought so too, as there was a ripple of hushed comment when he appeared. As he was made Viscount Rochford, a voice behind Katherine murmured, “The wages of sin!” It was Anne Boleyn, now forgiven and back at court. Astounded both by the remark and the fact that Anne had ventured to make it to the detriment of her own father, Katherine was about to turn and reprove her, but the announcement of another name made her freeze.

  “Henry Fitzroy!”

  Katherine was dumbstruck. How could Henry humiliate her in public like this? It was outrageous and cruel—like flinging her failure in her face. And everyone was looking, staring, craning their necks to see how she was reacting.

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