Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  She decided not to accompany Henry on his hunting progress. With his permission—a trifle too readily given—she retreated to Woburn Abbey to seek solace for her troubled soul. Abbot Robert and his white monks received her cordially and assigned her a simple room, clean and light, in their guesthouse. Attached to it was a little oratory where she spent many hours praying for strength and resignation.

  Then came the thing she had dreaded: a letter from Margaret Pole informing her that Mary was ill.

  Katherine caught her breath. No! No! It could not be, not when she was apart from her beloved child. The longing to canter across England to be with Mary was almost unbearable. It only abated when a messenger brought the news that the Princess was on the mend. Katherine wrote letter after letter to Mary, pouring out her love and concern, and telling her how much her absence troubled her.

  Mary’s own letters, painstakingly composed and regular as clockwork, were a great joy, as were the written exercises enclosed with them, even if there were a few forgivable errors. It was clear that Mary still craved her mother’s approval in all things and thought of her constantly, and that was balm to Katherine’s wounded soul.


  Henry’s coffers were running low, but he was still lavishing money on court entertainments. There were not so many tournaments these days, but he insisted on holding one at Greenwich on Shrove Tuesday, even though the weather was likely to be cold. Such minor inconveniences did not bother him. In fact it was freezing, and Katherine did not relish the prospect of spending hours in the royal stand watching him and the other knights breaking lances and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. But there was no help for it. He liked her to be there, cheering him on. And, as on so many previous occasions, he would wear her favor and compete in her honor. It was something she held precious and, given that their marriage these days was not what it had been, the tournament at Greenwich was not to be missed.

  She had her ladies dress her in her warmest gown and kirtle, with furred sleeves and a voluminous woolen cloak lined with sable. On her head she wore a gable hood made entirely of white fur, beneath the hood of her cloak, and as she left for the tiltyard she drew on her thick padded embroidered gloves. Blanche de Vargas had thoughtfully gone ahead to place a hot brick wrapped in flannel by the footstool where her feet would rest, and when she arrived in the stand she found a brazier burning merrily by her chair. Her women clustered around her, wrapped up warmly, their breath misting the sharp air.

  They did not have long to wait before the cheering began and Henry appeared, magnificent in a jousting outfit of cloth of gold and silver embroidered in gold. And Katherine saw the words picked out in silks, Declare I dare not, surmounted by a man’s heart engulfed in flames—and then it was not only the bitter February cold that chilled her heart.

  She tried to tell herself that it meant nothing, that it was a pretty conceit such as the motto Henry had worn—four years ago, was it?—at another joust. And nothing had come of that. She had no reason to suspect anything, none at all. Be sensible! she admonished herself. It means nothing!


  Lord Willoughby was dead of a fever.

  Katherine let the letter from Grimsthorpe fall into her lap. Maria’s uneven script had betrayed the depth of her grief. I can take no food, and only a little wine, she had written. I hardly sleep. If God would summon me to join Him, I would go, gladly. Katherine tried to imagine how she would feel if Henry died. The world would simply end, she knew, and she would not care what became of her. But others would, as she herself now cared about Maria.

  All she wanted was to comfort her friend. In past years they had corresponded faithfully, sending each other warm, witty letters with accounts of their daily lives and their children, and Maria had visited court three more times, but she’d lost another son, Francis, and been immersed in her life in Lincolnshire, so for two years Katherine had not seen her.

  “I would like to go to her,” she said to Henry, who had hastened to commiserate with her over the sad news. “There is no risk of contagion. Lord Willoughby died far from home, on a visit to Suffolk. Maria, to her grief, was not with him.”

  It was October and they were at Henry’s new palace of Grafton, Northamptonshire, on the last stage of a progress that had begun in Sussex. All was fair between them, and Katherine had almost forgotten her disquiet over the motto she’d fretted about in February. Again, it had been meaningless. What befell poor Maria was far worse, she thought, recalling her dismay. It was important to keep a sense of proportion.

  “It’s not so far, Kate,” Henry said. “But Maria may not want all the ado of a royal visit.”

  “I would go as a private person. Please give me leave.”

  “Of course,” he said. “I would not stay you. While you are there I would like you to give Maria a message from me. She will be aware that the Willoughby inheritance now descends to her daughter, who is a minor—and a great heiress. She will not lack for suitors! In the meantime, she is my ward, her father being dead. I want you to tell Maria that for now her daughter may remain with her.”

  “That is kind—and very generous.” Katherine was aware that many would be clamoring to buy the wardship of Katherine Willoughby. She hoped that Henry’s magnanimity would extend until the girl was of an age to wed.

  As Katherine entered her bedchamber in search of her maids and chamberers, whose job it was to pack for her journey, she came upon Margery and Elizabeth Otwell sobbing over the clean linen they were laying away in a chest.

  “What is wrong?” she asked.

  Margery sprang to her feet and wiped her eyes. “Your Grace! I am sorry. I will get on with my work.”

  Elizabeth’s white face registered pure misery. Katherine was touched that they were so moved by Maria’s loss.

  “It is terrible news,” she said. “We are all much affected by it.”

  The sisters exchanged glances.

  “It is, madam,” said Margery. She was clearly making a huge effort to control her tears. “We feel for Lady Willoughby. How can we help your Grace?”

  “I am going to visit her, and need you to make all things ready for me. I will not be gone for more than three or four days.”

  Maud came in. “I’ve brought your Grace’s book,” she said, then noticed the wan expressions of the Otwell sisters. “Come now, ladies, let us get packing!” she said briskly.


  It was a pleasant, mild autumn, with leaves of red, gold, and russet adorning the trees, and the roads were dry and free of mud. Katherine’s small party covered the fifty miles between Grafton and Grimsthorpe in two days, receiving hospitality overnight from the Abbot of Peterborough.

  After supper that evening she walked into the great abbey church, which was lit by a hundred candles. It was empty, and Katherine relished this brief time of solitude. She walked up the nave to the crossing, made her obeisance to the altar, then turned right into the transept and knelt to pray in the chapel of St. Oswald, whose arm was one of the abbey’s most precious relics. She gazed at it in reverence, then rose and continued around the apse to the beautiful Lady Chapel, and then returned down the north aisle. As she was passing the altar on her left, she paused, halted by she knew not what. It was like a great sense of peace descending on her, a sense of coming home and being lifted up to unimaginable happiness.

  She did not know what to think. She would be committing the sin of pride if she allowed herself to believe that St. Oswald or another of Peterborough’s ancient saints had vouchsafed her a spiritual revelation. Maybe she had imagined it—it only lasted for seconds, and it would be easy in such a holy place to conjure up that feeling of peaceful well-being in Christ. Maybe it was a sign, sent to help her comfort Maria. Whatever it might have been, it was what she had prayed for.


  Grimsthorpe was an old castle with a tall tower that had been converted into a comfortable residence sometime in the past. Everywhere, she saw evidence of Maria’s more recent hand, in wal
l hangings, painted beamed ceilings, tiled floors, and carved furniture.

  Katherine had come expecting to find Maria in a state of emotional collapse, and to offer support and sympathy, but she found her friend bearing up bravely, and coping admirably with all the sad tasks that widowhood brings. It was only now that she realized how much inner strength Maria possessed. From the moment when they clung to each other in Grimsthorpe’s hall to three days later, when Katherine bade her farewell, she never once saw Maria cry.

  She had hoped to be in time to attend the funeral, but Lord Willoughby was already buried.

  “It was such a short illness,” Maria said over supper, which was served in a black-hung parlor. “Such a shock. He rode away in excellent health, looking as handsome and fit as ever, and then I heard he was dead. He was just forty-four.” She paused and breathed deeply. “I must be grateful that we had ten happy years.”

  Katherine reached across to Maria and laid her hand on hers. “In that, you were blessed. And you have your daughter to console you.” She was much taken with her goddaughter, seven-year-old Katherine Willoughby, a sweet, lively child with dark locks and a winning tilt to her nose. “She favors you in looks.”

  “Yes, her nurse calls her the little Spaniard!” Maria smiled. “How does the Princess?”

  “She is ten now, and forward for her age,” Katherine told her proudly. “I wish you could see her.”

  “I wish it too,” Maria said. “She is a charming child. It would make me so happy if our daughters could be friends, as we are.”

  “God willing, they will be,” Katherine replied, thinking that Maria was still attractive, even in her heavy black mourning gown, although her hair was now silvered lightly with gray. We are both older, she thought, but with Maria there was something more. There was a new brittleness to her, as if she was holding herself tightly in check—as well she might, given her situation.

  “Roast of kings!” Katherine exclaimed in pleasure, as the lamb dish was placed on the table on its great silver platter. “I haven’t had this for years. I used to love it as a child.”

  “Your arrival was well timed,” Maria said, helping Katherine to slices of the meat.

  “It’s as if you knew I was coming. Mmm, just as I remember it. Peppered to perfection!”

  As they ate, they caught up with each other’s news. Maria wanted to hear all about what was happening at court, and then she wanted to talk about William.

  “It helps to talk about him,” she said. “It keeps his memory vivid. Thank you for listening.”

  Katherine told her about the latest scandal at court. “The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk have separated, and she has moved into her own house.”

  “Was it because of Bess Holland?”

  “It was. That has been going on for years, as we all know, and then Elizabeth refused to have the woman in the house, so the Duke cut off her allowance and Bess had her revenge by tying her up and jumping on her chest until she spat blood.”

  Maria’s dark eyes widened. “That’s appalling!”

  “What was worse, Elizabeth had just given birth, and she says the Duke dragged her by the hair from her bed when she complained, and cut her cheek with his dagger. Of course, he denies it, but no one believes him, least of all me! He’s a nasty man. Elizabeth says he regards neither God nor his own honor.”

  Maria toyed with her food, gave up, and poured more wine.

  “I don’t know what he sees in Bess Holland! She’s his laundress, isn’t she?”

  Katherine shook her head. “So the gossips say, but in fact she’s related to Lord Hussey. Be that as it may, she’s a wicked woman.”

  As the candles guttered out and the shadows deepened, they spoke of other old friends and of various people at court.

  “I take it the Cardinal is still riding high,” Maria said, almost innocently. She hated Wolsey as much as Katherine did.

  “Indeed he is.”

  “It galls me how the King allows him such precedence.”

  Katherine hesitated. She felt she should not criticize Henry to her friends. But this was not the court, and it was only Maria who was listening—Maria, whom she could trust. “Henry remains in thrall to him. Sometimes I think he sees him as a father figure.”

  “Your Highness, of all people, should be able to understand what moves the King in regard to the Cardinal.”

  “I? Why would I understand?”

  “Remember Fray Diego. You behaved as if he were a saint. We all wondered about him, and some raised concerns, but you wouldn’t listen. To you, he was perfect, the epitome of sanctity. Maybe that is how the Cardinal appears to the King.”

  “As the epitome of sanctity? I doubt it!” Katherine grinned. “But you may have a point. I was very naïve back then, and lonely. I needed a spiritual direction. Fray Diego gave me that—but I also think he took advantage of me.”

  “I know he did!” Maria smiled. Katherine was startled for a moment, but then she understood that Maria had been referring to the friar’s undue influence. No, she would never speak of that night. Older and wiser now, she had come to believe that Fray Diego’s interest in her had been more than spiritual, and that he had deliberately tried to lead her into sin—as, it seemed, he had several others.

  It was late evening when Maria called for hippocras to be served. “Well, it’s a special occasion,” she said. “It’s not every day that the Queen of England calls on me!”

  “What will you do now?” Katherine asked as her goblet was filled.

  “I am considering my options,” Maria told her.

  “The King is content to leave your daughter with you. He asked me to tell you so.”

  Maria did not react as she had expected. “Actually, I have been wondering about that. You see, Highness, I am lonely. William was my life, but that is over, and I would have once more the company of my dear mistress and countrywoman. I would willingly leave my daughter with her nurses and tutors if I could return to my old position at court.”

  “But of course!” Katherine cried, elated at the prospect. She loved Maud Parr and sorely missed Margaret Pole, but Maria was her oldest friend and she was glad to welcome her back into her service, even if Maria had been restored to her for the saddest of reasons. “You must come as soon as you are ready. And it will not be your old position, for you are no longer a maid. You will be one of the great ladies of my household—and more welcome than I can say!”


  When Christmas approached, Katherine hardly dared ask Henry if Mary might come to court. It had been sixteen months since she had seen her daughter, and still she felt the parting cruelly. As the days went by and it was November, then December, she thought she would go mad with frustration. If Henry did not bring up the matter soon, she would be forced to speak.

  But on St. Nicholas’s Day he visited her chamber and told her that he had sent for Mary to join them for the festive season. Beside herself with happiness, she threw her arms around him and kissed him, regardless of the stares of her startled ladies.

  “I see I shall have to invite Mary more often!” he jested, a little pink in the face.

  Mary arrived at court looking and behaving startlingly older than Katherine remembered her. How she clung to her daughter, wishing never to let go…How Mary wept a little and said how much she had missed her dearest mother. Their days were filled with joyous pastimes, making holly wreaths and singing the old carols and catching up on the myriad things that had happened in the time they were apart. Katherine was avid to know every detail of her daughter’s life, and Mary was eager to tell her. And then there was a Christmas never to be forgotten, with abundant feasting, revelry, masques, disguisings, banquets, and jousts. As Henry led Mary out before the court in a pavane, Katherine watched, her heart full, as they danced together and everyone clapped.

  It was a magical, golden time. But then, after Twelfth Night, Mary, at Henry’s insistence, had to go back to Ludlow, and Katherine was left with only her memories and her lon


  Maria was back in attendance on Katherine by the spring of 1527, when the new Imperial ambassador came to be formally welcomed by the Queen at Greenwich.

  It soon became apparent that a decade of married life with an indulgent husband, and the running of a noble household, had changed Maria. She was brisker and more forthright than she had ever been. Understanding immediately that Katherine was deeply unhappy, she was determined to be her champion.

  Unlike the circumspect Margaret Pole, Maria did not hesitate to criticize the King. “He asks too much of you,” she declared. “He should have a care to your feelings. William always took account of my wishes.” She was fond of reciting William’s virtues, and beside him Henry was usually found wanting. “Your Highness is too meek, too accepting, if I may say so.”

  “I am his wife and sworn to obedience,” Katherine insisted.

  “You are too kind and courteous for your own good! Men are easily handled. There are ways of persuasion. A little tactical withdrawal? It worked wonders with William. He would do anything for me.”

  Katherine, for all her sympathy for Maria, was already growing weary of hearing about how wonderful William had been. “I doubt Henry would notice,” she said. “I am not in a position to make tactical withdrawals.”

  Maria was about to make some tart retort, and no doubt praise William again, when Anne Boleyn came sweeping in, in the elegant manner that came effortlessly to her, and announced that Don Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Luis Caroz’s replacement following the latter’s recall, was waiting in the antechamber with Cardinal Wolsey.

  The Cardinal presented the new Imperial ambassador to the Queen, and looked on eagle-eyed as Mendoza bowed and kissed her hand. The Spaniard was a swarthy, attractive man with a shock of dark hair and a very correct manner. Considering that he had just come from an audience with the King, who was still furious with the Emperor, he was remarkably composed.

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