Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “Highness, His Imperial Majesty wishes me to convey his most sincere love for you, and inquires after your health.”

  Katherine was restrained in her welcome, and conscious of Wolsey’s presence. “I am gratified to hear it, for I have been hurt by His Majesty’s neglect. For more than two years I have had no letters from Spain, and yet such are my affection and readiness for his service that I deserve better treatment.”

  Mendoza looked uncomfortable. “Highness, there has been a coolness, shall we say, between His Majesty and the King your husband. His Majesty has not felt able to be in contact with you, and he wishes you to know that he is very sorry about that. But now I hope matters will improve.”

  Katherine guessed that Mendoza was here to mitigate any consequences of Henry’s new alliance with France, and that Henry, for all his blustering, was anxious to preserve England’s trade with the Empire, even though he and Charles remained, albeit cordially, at odds. Thanks to Henry’s efforts, and Wolsey’s, naturally, King Francis had been released from his Spanish prison, having bound himself to a draconian treaty of friendship with the Emperor, which was to be sealed by his marriage to Charles’s sister Eleanor. Hearing that, Katherine had thought sadly of poor Queen Claude, dead these three years, worn-out with childbearing.

  But as soon as he’d gotten safely back home, Francis broke the terms of that treaty and ratified the alliance with England. Having heard Henry’s ambassador in Paris describe Princess Mary as the pearl of the world, and the jewel her father esteemed more than anything else on earth, he wasted no time in proposing himself, or one of his sons, as a husband for her. Katherine had been horrified.

  “A French marriage for Mary would be bad enough, but giving her to that great Turk would be sheer wickedness!” she had cried. “Besides, he is sworn to marry my niece Eleanor.”

  “I agree,” said Henry. “It must be one of the sons, the Dauphin Francis or the Duc d’Orléans.”

  That was small consolation for giving her only child to a Frenchman, not to mention the prospect of Mary leaving England, perhaps forever. Katherine had never quite come to terms with the fact that it had to come—the inevitable parting—and she was having a dreadful foretaste of it, with Mary at Ludlow. She still did not know how she would face it.


  Katherine’s audience with Mendoza was a short one. Wolsey saw to that.

  “There are many important matters that the King wishes me to discuss with you,” he said to the ambassador, after a mere five minutes of courtesies. “Her Highness will surely excuse us if we take our leave and depart. You shall have an audience at another time.”

  It was to prove almost impossible to arrange one; always, there was a reason why Mendoza was unable to see her. Usually, as she found out later, he had been diverted or detained by Wolsey. She had the uneasy feeling that she was being watched. Surely it was no coincidence that the Cardinal’s servants were always in and out of her apartments on various pretexts? Their presence was beginning to disconcert her. They seemed to contrive to be in her presence chamber whenever she gave audiences, and some were taking an uncommon interest in her maids. Indeed, there was that minx, Lucy Talbot, encouraging one of them with her sideways smile and slanting eyes. Katherine was certain that she was not imagining it all. She wondered if her letters were intercepted; it would not have surprised her. Naturally, Wolsey did not want her influencing anyone in favor of Spain, to the detriment of this new alliance.

  But there came a day when the Cardinal was away on business and, mercifully, his servants were conspicuous by their absence. She seized her opportunity, letting Mendoza know, through Blanche de Vargas, that she would be taking the air in the gardens at a certain time. They could meet as if by chance. And he was there, the good, faithful man.

  As Katherine talked to him, she made a point of looking over her shoulder repeatedly to check that no one was shadowing them.

  “It has not been easy to gain access to your Highness,” Mendoza said.

  “I am watched,” she told him. “We are not supposed to be friends with Spain, and my dislike of this French alliance counts against me. But I would never plot against my husband.”

  “My master would not expect it,” Mendoza said quickly. “Nonetheless, he has been grieved to hear that your Highness is so isolated. Madam, one of the chief reasons I have come into England is to be your friend, and to facilitate your communications with His Imperial Majesty.”

  There was no doubting the sincerity in Mendoza’s face and his tone.

  “You cannot imagine how much that means to me, Don Diego,” she said, knowing that her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

  “It means a lot to me, Highness,” Mendoza said warmly.

  After she had contrived two such meetings, she was in no doubt that the new ambassador was loyal and gallant, a man of astute judgment and deep integrity. He was candid too, but kind, and very wise.

  On the second occasion they met she asked if he had any news of her sister Juana. It was twenty years since she had heard from her, and Juana had spent eighteen of them shut up in the convent of Santa Clara at Tordesillas. Mendoza’s face darkened.

  “There is little news,” he said, clearly choosing his words carefully. “I understand that she is of quite a different temperament from your Majesty.”

  That was true, Katherine knew, for she herself had never been given to tantrums or bouts of melancholy, and she was sure that her love for Henry, deep though it was, was not obsessive, as Juana’s had been for Philip. But poor Juana. She thought of her often, wondering what her life was like, immured in that convent.

  “You are not telling me everything,” she said.

  “I do not want to cause you any grief, madam, but the Emperor has confided to me that she fears the nuns are plotting to murder her. There is nothing in it of course, but since they attend to her daily care and she will not have them near her, it is difficult to get her to eat, wash, or change her clothes. It is a great burden on His Majesty. No appeal to reason can move her.”

  “I will double my prayers for her,” Katherine vowed. “I cannot bear to think of her like that. I remember her when she was young and very beautiful.”


  “Your Majesty is unhappy,” Mendoza said suddenly, during their third meeting. She had invited him—almost at the last minute, to evade Wolsey’s spies—to join her in her barge for a visit to Syon Abbey, where she loved to immerse herself in the holiness of that devout community or browse through the impressive library.

  It was a statement, not a question. Katherine was not sure how to answer, lest she appear to be criticizing Henry, for whatever she said would be reported back to the Emperor.

  “There are sorrows in my life,” she said at length, looking at the water rippling alongside the boat. “I miss my daughter the Princess more than I can say, but that is the lot of queens.”

  “In my opinion, Highness, the principal cause of your troubles is that you identify yourself entirely with the Emperor’s interests.”

  She was taken aback at that. “And you, his ambassador, think I am wrong to do so? How can I be a Spaniard and a lover of the French?”

  “Highness, I too am a Spaniard. You do not have to explain to me. But it is no secret that you hate this new alliance with France. My advice would be to pretend otherwise.”

  “I am no dissembler,” Katherine declared, wondering as she said it if that was entirely true. Her whole life seemed to be spent dissembling with Henry, so as not to upset the fragile accord between them, and to preserve the vestiges of the happiness they had once shared. “I find it hard to conceal my feelings on this matter,” she admitted. “This alliance can bring no good to any of us.”

  “It would be so much better if you could make a show of going along with it,” Mendoza urged. “Wolsey sees your antipathy and fears that you still have influence with the King. He keeps you isolated because of it. That is why he tries to prevent my seeing you. He has no intention of allowing u
s to discuss state affairs in private, for he thinks we will intrigue against the French alliance. But if your Highness could appear to have been won ’round to it—then things might go easier with you.”

  His argument made sense, distasteful as it was. “I will try my best,” Katherine promised. And thus it was that when Henry welcomed a French embassy headed by Gabriel de Grammont, Bishop of Tarbes, who had come to discuss Mary’s betrothal, Katherine stood beside him, smiling and gracious, and remained smiling and gracious through the feasting and tournaments that had been laid on to impress the envoys. But she hated herself for it.

  The King, the Cardinal, and the envoys then sat down to talk terms. Three days later Mendoza came upon Katherine as she and her ladies were in the tiltyard admiring the new banqueting house that had been built there for the visit of the French embassy. It had been designed by Master Holbein, a talented painter from Germany who was recommended to Henry by Thomas More. The artist had created an astounding interior, with a breathtakingly beautiful ceiling portraying the heavens in all their astrological splendor, and tapestries depicting the history of King David. And everywhere there were Tudor roses and Katherine’s own pomegranate, that lying symbol of fertility, which seemed to mock her at every turn.

  She steered Mendoza into the tiltyard gallery, saying as she hastened him along that she wanted to show him the new disguising house at the other end. For a short time they were out of earshot of her ladies, but she still had the uneasy feeling that they were being watched.

  “I cannot stay long,” she warned him, looking over her shoulder. “What is it? I can tell by your face, my good friend, that something is amiss.”

  “Highness, it seems that the negotiations have reached a stalemate. The Cardinal seems much preoccupied, and the King is in an angry mood, but no one will tell me anything. Whatever it is, they are keeping it very close. Do you know what is going on?”

  “I know nothing,” Katherine told him, hope springing in her that the talks had broken down entirely. “They do not tell me anything. I can only pray that the Emperor will instruct you how to prevent the King from entering into this unfavorable alliance. I would do anything in my power to preserve the old friendship between Spain and England. Alas, though my desire to do so is strong, my means for carrying it into effect are small.”

  “The Emperor has as yet sent no instructions, Highness,” Mendoza said. Her heart sank.

  “Ah, Your Excellency!” said a voice. A dark shadow was cast on the floor. Wolsey stood in the doorway of the disguising house.

  Katherine went cold with fear. What had he overheard? Was it enough to convince him that she was actively working against the French alliance? And if so, what would he do?

  But he betrayed no hint that he had heard anything amiss; he was his usual urbane self. He bowed to her, then turned to Mendoza.

  “Has Your Excellency seen Master Holbein’s wonderful ceiling?” he asked.


  Mary arrived at court after being summoned from Ludlow, to Katherine’s great joy.

  Then Henry told her that Mary was to remain in her care until the time came for her to go to France.

  “You yourself can supervise her studies,” he said. Katherine, speechless with gratitude, had kissed him, hugging him tightly, and was touched when he hugged her back. “I thought you would be pleased,” he said. It was almost as if he was trying to make amends for the French marriage.

  It was wonderful to be once again in charge of Mary’s daily life, to sit with her and watch her at her lessons and see the childish mind developing, and to read their favorite books together. But it soon became clear that her daughter needed stretching.

  She consulted Thomas More again.

  “Mary is older now and her horizons need to be broadened,” she told him. “May I ask for your help if I need it?”

  “Of course, madam, although in my humble opinion she could have no finer tutor than yourself.”

  “You flatter me, Sir Thomas! May I ask what that book is you have with you?”

  “It’s Erasmus’s new book, The Institution of Christian Marriage—I brought your Grace a copy. I can warmly recommend it.”

  “How very kind,” Katherine said, taking the book and glancing through its pages. “Anything by Erasmus appeals to me.” One passage caught her eye. “I like the fact that he writes of the holiness of married life. I was brought up to believe that celibacy was the most desirable state, but we are not all cut out to embrace it.” She thought of the passion she had shared with Henry—now shared no longer, but glorious in its day, and sorely missed.

  “Your Grace speaks truth,” More said with feeling. “It is a dilemma I faced myself. When I was young I felt drawn to the priesthood, but I also craved the love that can be found in marriage. It was a hard decision, but I was forced to agree with St. Paul that it is better to marry than to burn, so I left my cloister and took me a wife. I have never regretted it, so I applaud what Erasmus says.”

  “This book is of supreme importance,” Katherine said. “I hope it will be widely read.”

  “It’s by Erasmus, madam—so you may be assured it will be!”


  The French envoys craved an audience with Katherine. They wanted to see the Princess. Katherine was unhappy about the request, having hoped they would have departed for home by now. But it was clear from what the Bishop of Tarbes said that the negotiations were proceeding as planned.

  Katherine watched as Mary received the French envoys, curtseying gracefully. She looked so delicate and small that it seemed impossible she would be ready for marriage in three years, when she was fourteen, as Henry was insisting; and by the looks on the envoys’ faces, they were thinking the same thing.

  “She is a delightful child,” the bishop said to Katherine. “We rejoice to think of the peace this marriage will cement so firmly between King Henry and our master.”

  How could any Frenchman think that she, a Spaniard, would rejoice?

  “You talk to me of this peace,” she said, unable to help herself. “It is no doubt desirable. But you say nothing of the general peace that ought to prevail all over Europe.”

  There was the briefest of pauses before the bishop smiled. “Madam, it is King Francis’s sincere hope that this alliance will pave the way for that.”

  Empty words, she thought. Francis hated Charles for holding him prisoner; he would never forgive him. Would that he were back in his prison now!

  She looked on, feeling physically sick, as Henry solemnly signed the new treaty—to be called the Treaty of Eternal Peace—then stood up and grinned. It was all concluded: Mary was to be married to King Francis or his second son, the Duc d’Orléans. He had set his seal to it. He had even agreed to the choice of bridegrooms.

  Katherine put on a brave face as she watched Mary and her ladies dancing in the pageant that followed. There had been few in recent years, for Henry now preferred masques, although Katherine feared that the real reason was that the funds in his treasury were depleted after years of lavish spending. She missed the pageants, equating them with the early, happy years of her marriage, yet could obtain no pleasure from this one, taking place as it did in circumstances that were hateful to her.

  In Holbein’s exquisite banqueting house she sat enthroned beside Henry, a bejeweled icon of a queen, a puppet playing the role expected of her. Only when the great pageant car bearing its artificial mountain was borne in, and she saw Mary, did her face light up, for tonight her precious child was enchanting in a Roman-style gown of cloth-of-gold taffeta and crimson tinsel, her long, flame-red hair held in place by a bejeweled caul of gold and a crimson velvet bonnet. So many precious stones sparkled at her neck and on her fingers that the splendor and radiance of them dazzled the sight.

  Mary behaved with impressive gravity when, having changed her headdress for a jeweled garland, she played hostess with her parents at a banquet given for the envoys in the Queen’s chamber.

  “She looks like an angel!??
? Henry observed to the Frenchmen. “She is so fair, would you not agree, my Lord Bishop?” So saying, he pulled off the garland and the caul and let fall her tresses.

  “Very beautiful, sire,” the Bishop of Tarbes declared.

  “As beautiful as ever seen on human head,” agreed his colleague.

  Katherine agreed wholeheartedly. But oh how she wished that such beauty would not be wasted on a Frenchman—especially that lecher Francis!

  “With this new alliance, the power of the Emperor will be curbed,” the Cardinal observed.

  “My master can never forgive him for reneging on the terms of his release,” the bishop said, “and he realizes the necessity for safeguarding the Pope from the Emperor’s territorial ambitions in Italy.”

  Henry leaned forward. “I can never forgive Charles for jilting my daughter! But now she has a more glorious future.”

  Katherine suppressed the shudder that his words evoked. Just then she caught Wolsey watching her, a calculating gleam in his eye. Was it triumph that she read there? He must be pleased to have sidelined her yet again. But then she saw Henry looking almost pensively at Mary, and remembered that every marriage alliance he had made for the child in the past had come to grief. At heart, he could no more relish the thought of Mary marrying into France than she herself did, still less the prospect of England coming under French rule. What was Wolsey thinking of, to inveigle his master into this travesty of a peace? The man was a traitor!


  It was her usher, Bastien Hennyocke, who brought Katherine a sealed letter from the ambassador, Mendoza.

  “Highness, he slipped it into my hand as I was passing in a gallery and whispered that I must keep it secret.”

  She slid the letter into her sleeve and retired to her bedchamber to read it. Outside the open window the sun was brilliant in an azure sky, the gardens at Greenwich drowsed in the sunshine, and birds were singing joyously, but the beauty of the day seemed to mock her as she read, unable to believe what Mendoza had written. The Cardinal, to crown his iniquities, is working to separate your Grace and the King.

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