Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  When the mayor and civic dignitaries had finished their loyal address, Katherine and her train passed on to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where she was to be married in two days’ time. There, in the cool of the vast nave, she knelt for a magnificent service of thanksgiving, the climax to the day’s celebrations.

  Back at Lambeth that evening, she gratefully accepted a goblet of wine and bade her maids join her by the fireside. They were all full of the excitements and spectacles of the day.

  “Those pageants!” Isabel de Vargas cried. “They must have cost this king a fortune.”

  “They were splendid,” Katherine agreed, then saw Maria’s raised eyebrows and started giggling. “You noticed too! Ladies, in one of the pageants, the ‘Archangel Gabriel’ reminded me that my chief duty was to bear children, because it was for this that God gave mankind the capacity for sensual lust. And in another, a man dressed as our Lord appeared to me and said, ‘Blessed be the fruit of your belly; your fruits I shall increase and multiply.’ If I had not known before, I was left in no doubt as to what was expected of me here. But, oh, I did blush! It would never have been said so publicly in Spain!”


  At Baynard’s Castle by the Thames, in a great chamber hung with tapestries and filled with curtseying ladies-in-waiting clutching their embroidery, Katherine was received by her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth.

  “I cannot welcome your Highness warmly enough,” the Queen said in French, raising Katherine from her own curtsey and kissing her on both cheeks. She smelled of rose water and ambergris.

  “I have longed to see your Grace,” Katherine told her, trying out the English she had practiced so often during the past days. She could understand a good deal of what people said now, but speaking the language herself was more challenging.

  “And I have longed to see your Highness. Come, let us sit and get to know each other,” the Queen said, leading Katherine to a cushioned window seat. It was easy to see that Elizabeth of York, with her burnished red hair and fair skin, had once been a woman of great beauty. She was beautiful still, but her face was pale and she looked tired.

  “I trust you are comfortably lodged?” the Queen inquired.

  “Yes, your Grace, thank you,” Katherine said.

  Elizabeth smiled at her. “From now on you must regard me as your mother, my child. If there is anything you need or that you are worried about, come to me, and I will do my best to help. I have some influence with the King. Soon you will meet his mother, the Lady Margaret. She too has been longing for your coming. Her chief wish is to see all our children happily settled and provided for.”

  Katherine had heard of the Lady Margaret by repute. She was renowned even in Spain as a learned and holy lady.

  “Your Highness has already met my son Henry.” The Queen smiled. “He is a rogue! Arthur was sent away when he was small, to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border, to be taught how to rule his principality of Wales. It is a sound preparation for kingship—yet it was a wrench to part with him, of course. But Henry grew up under my care, with his sisters. You will like Margaret and Mary. Margaret is not much younger than your Highness, and is to be the Queen of Scots.”

  “And the Princess Mary?” Katherine asked.

  “She is but five,” the Queen said. “We must wait to see what God will provide. I had two other children, but alas, God saw fit to take them to Himself. Edmund died only last year. He was fifteen months old.” Her voice faltered.

  Had that been a judgment of God? Katherine wondered. The sins of the fathers being visited upon the young? Forgetting etiquette, she reached across and laid her hand on the Queen’s.

  “My mother also lost two children—two babies. And when my brother Juan died, she was very sad.”

  “That must have been the hardest cross to bear,” the Queen said. “We were grief-stricken ourselves to hear the news.” She squeezed Katherine’s hand. “But today let us speak of happier things, for you are to be married tomorrow, and there are going to be great celebrations and disports! Lady Guildford tells me that you like to dance. She was with the King’s party at Dogmersfield and saw how accomplished you are.”

  “I love to dance!” Katherine cried.

  “Do you know any English dances?” the Queen asked, rising to her feet.

  “No, your Grace.”

  “Then I will teach you some!” Clapping her hands, Elizabeth bade her ladies leave their embroidery and summon the musicians. Katherine was enchanted by her spontaneity and warmth. Her own mother had never been so informal, even with her children. Soon the Queen and her ladies had her gliding across the tiled floor in a branle or skipping in a lively saltarello. It was a wonderful evening; she had not enjoyed herself so much in a long time.

  When it grew late and the time came for her to bid the Queen farewell, Elizabeth took her hand.

  “I know you will be a good wife to Arthur,” she said. “Be patient and kind with him. He has not been well, and he is not himself. He thinks I fuss too much, but we all pray he will amend soon.” She spoke lightly but Katherine detected the concern in her voice.

  “I know he will,” she said, wishing to comfort the Queen. “At Dogmersfield he said he was getting better.”

  Elizabeth kissed her. “God bless you for your sweet heart,” she said.

  It was near midnight when Katherine returned to Lambeth Palace to make final preparations for her wedding day. Everything was going to be all right. She knelt and said her prayers, thanking God and His Holy Mother for all their blessings, and hugging to herself the comforting knowledge that Queen Elizabeth would be there to help her prepare for the role she would one day occupy, and initiate her into the realities and mysteries of life at the English court.

  Sleep came fitfully. Katherine was too tense to relax. Tomorrow she was to be married, and initiated into another mystery. The prospect of the high ceremonies and what was to follow overwhelmed her. In the end she could lie there tossing and turning no more, got up and knelt again at her prie-dieu, praying earnestly that she might be blessed with the strength to do well all that was expected of her.


  On her wedding morn, the fourteenth of November in the Year of Our Lord 1501, Katherine rose very early to be dressed in her bridal robes. Her wedding gown was of heavy white and gold satin, pleated and wide-skirted. Her glorious golden hair was to be worn loose in token of her virginity, and on her head Doña Elvira placed a jeweled coronet, and over it a voluminous veil of silk, edged with a sparkling border of gold, pearls, and precious stones. When Katherine looked in her mirror, she saw there a reflection of a glittering, gorgeously robed icon, and there were gasps of admiration from her assembled household when she emerged from Lambeth Palace.

  “Prince Arthur is indeed fortunate to have such a bride!” Dr. de Puebla observed, bowing low. “Your Highness does us all proud.”

  Behind her, Doña Elvira sniffed, and Katherine turned, only to catch fleetingly the contemptuous glance that the duenna was casting upon the ambassador. But there was no time to wonder why the duenna seemed so disapproving, as a flotilla of barges was waiting at the jetty to convey Katherine and her train to the Tower, where the royal entourages were to assemble.

  Already there were people lining the banks of the Thames, waving and cheering, but as the gray riverside fortress loomed ahead out of the morning mist, Katherine suppressed a shiver. On this day, of all days, she did not want to think about what she had heard about the Tower. Instead, as the barge drew up by the Queen’s Stairs and she entered the Tower through a small postern, she focused her mind on the constable’s enthusiastic greeting. He conducted her to the broad tournament ground below the giant white keep, which was called Caesar’s Tower, because, the constable said, it had been built by Julius Caesar. Here the King and Queen and their retinues were waiting to depart for St. Paul’s. Katherine sank into a deep curtsey, and was embraced by both Henry and Elizabeth.

  “Your Highness makes a beautiful bride!” the Queen exclaimed.

  The King was eyeing Katherine appreciatively. “We could not have asked for better,” he said. “Very becoming!”

  Katherine blushed. Henry himself was resplendent in red velvet robes, with a breastplate studded with diamonds, rubies, and pearls, and a belt of rubies at his waist.

  Katherine traveled with Queen Elizabeth in an open chariot to St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the King riding ahead, magnificent on a white horse. The cheering crowds were back in force, the streets still decorated from her reception two days before. She saw wine flowing from the conduits and was amazed when the Queen said that it was provided free for the people, so that they too could celebrate.

  “There will be much merrymaking today, and many sore heads tomorrow,” Elizabeth said wryly.

  The press of people by St. Paul’s was great, the clanging of the bells deafening. They alighted at the adjacent Bishop’s Palace, where the Lady Margaret was waiting for them. Wearing the dark robes and white wimple and barb of a widow, she cut a somber figure, and her long thin face looked stern, but when she broke into a delighted smile at the sight of Katherine, it was transformed. And when Katherine refused to allow this venerable lady to kneel to her, the Lady Margaret’s eyes were bright with tears of emotion.

  “Sweet Princess, we are blessed to have you,” she said, and kissed Katherine. The King was nodding enthusiastically in agreement.

  “Come, my lady mother,” he said. “We must go and take our places.” He escorted the Queen and Lady Margaret through a door that led directly to the cathedral, leaving Katherine alone with her ladies for a few moments. As Maria briefly grasped her hand, Katherine breathed deeply and lifted her chin. Then the door opened and Prince Henry walked in, looking splendid in a gown of silver tissue embroidered with gold roses. Again he had about him that air of assurance that had impressed her before.

  “I am come to escort your Highness into the cathedral,” he said, kneeling and kissing her hand before swiftly rising and offering her his arm. As she was not tall, they were much of a height, and she was very conscious of her closeness to him and the strength of his arm. He really was an extraordinary boy.

  They emerged from the Bishop’s Palace to the sound of trumpets, shawms, and sackbuts. The people went wild when they saw Katherine, calling down blessings on her and roaring their approval. At the west door the Queen’s sister, Cecily of York, was waiting to carry the bride’s train, and behind her, in a line that stretched along the west front of the church, there were a bevy of English ladies—there must have been a hundred of them, all expensively gowned.

  Inside the cathedral the guests were already gathered. A high walkway, covered with a red worsted carpet, had been raised along the nave, from the west door to the crossing, so that all might witness this marriage that would bring glory to the Tudor dynasty and ensure its continuance. When the trumpets sounded, Prince Henry again offered Katherine his arm, and they mounted the steps to the walkway and advanced slowly. To one side she could see the King and Queen watching from the privacy of their latticed pew, again to ensure that everyone’s attention was on the bridal pair; and on the other she saw the Lord Mayor and the City fathers.

  Ahead, under the crossing, steps led on all four sides up to a higher platform, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, magnificent in his ceremonial cope and jeweled miter, was waiting to conduct the service. Ranged behind him were a score of bishops and abbots, the princes of the Church come in state to see the Spanish alliance properly concluded and to sanctify it. And there was Arthur, waiting at the foot of the platform, tall, dignified, but looking shrunken inside his padded white satin robes. His pale face impassive, he bowed as Katherine approached, and at his nod she left Prince Henry behind and ascended the stairs on one side to the platform as Arthur went up the other. And there, in the sight of God and—it seemed—of all the world, they were made man and wife.


  After the wedding ceremony the Archbishop and the clergy formed a procession and led Arthur and Katherine to the high altar, where the nuptial High Mass was celebrated. Then, hand in hand, the newly married couple walked back along the platform and knelt to crave the blessing of the King and Queen, who gave it jubilantly. Katherine noticed that, behind them, the Lady Margaret was dabbing her eyes, overcome once more with emotion.

  It felt strange to be married at last. Everything seemed unreal. She stole a glance at Arthur as they descended into the nave. There was a quiet grace about him, an impassive, regal quality as he nodded left and right, but when he caught her eye he did smile, and that smile broadened as they emerged through the cathedral doors to greet crowds erupting in a joyous ovation. They stood for several moments, acknowledging the acclaim, until the King and Queen joined them. Then, at a signal from his father, Arthur raised his hand.

  “Good people,” he cried, “be it known that this day I give to my wife, the Lady Katherine, her dower of one-third of my revenues as Prince of Wales.”

  There were hearty shouts of approval. “King Henry! Prince Arthur!” the people cried, and the trumpets, shawms, and sackbuts blared out once more in celebration. It was then that Katherine happened to glance at Prince Henry watching his brother, and caught the fleeting, hostile glimmer of naked envy in his eyes. Then it was gone and he was beaming again, waving and bowing to the crowds as if their applause was all for him. She supposed it was natural for him to be jealous of the brother who would outrank him at every turn, but nonetheless, it was disconcerting to see such hostility in a young boy’s eyes.

  But she forgot about it when Arthur took her hand in his clammy one. She noticed then the sheen of sweat on his forehead. He did not look well, and she was concerned about him having to endure all the high ceremonies and celebrations. It troubled her that he was still suffering from the malady he had dismissed as a mere rheum ten days before. Yet there was no time to worry, as he was steering her in the wake of Prince Henry, who had been chosen to lead the grand procession back to the Bishop’s Palace, where a great feast was waiting.

  As Katherine entered the hall, she almost collided with the Lord Mayor and aldermen, all craning their necks to get a good view of her, and there was much laughter. She was impressed to see that not only the royal family but the whole company was dining off solid-gold plate ornamented with pearls and precious stones. In the candlelight, the myriad jewels and heavy gold chains of the noble guests winked and glittered. The feast went on for what seemed hours, as course after course was brought in to the sound of fanfares and the wine flowed endlessly. She was seated at the high table in the place of honor at the King’s right hand, and next to her was the witty Don Pedro de Ayala. He was supposed to be her parents’ ambassador in Scotland but had come to London on diplomatic business some years ago and stayed.

  “I like it here, Highness,” he told her. “It suits my health, for Scotland is too cold by far for a Spaniard. And, of course, it proved useful to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to have me in London in the time leading up to your marriage.” Katherine gained the impression that Don Pedro had no intention of resuming his duties in Scotland. In fact, he told her, now that she was married, he was expecting to go home. He seemed popular with the English courtiers and the King, and she rather liked him too, but she noticed that Dr. de Puebla was glowering at him from his lowlier position farther down the table. It did not take much imagination to deduce that Puebla, their Most Catholic Majesties’ resident ambassador, felt his position had been usurped by Don Pedro.

  The King chatted amiably, speculating keenly on the value of the plate on display and wondering aloud how this or that lord had been able to deck himself out so finely when he was late with his taxes. The Queen steered the talk around to how moving the ceremony had been and how delicious the food was. Katherine politely agreed, although privately she thought English food bland and nowhere near as varied as the rich diet she had enjoyed in Spain. It was all roasted meats and hard-crusted pies!

  Prince Henry could talk of little but the tournaments and pageants
to be held over the coming days, in honor of the marriage. He was desperate to take part, and in the end the King had to say no, quite firmly. He was too young. Henry sulked for a bit, until his sister Margaret told a joke, then he was all smiles again. Katherine liked Margaret, a russet-haired, lively, headstrong girl of twelve, and hoped that it would be some time before she was sent north to wed the King of Scots. She guessed that Queen Elizabeth would miss her daughter sorely, for it was plain that they were close.

  Arthur said little and only picked at his food. Katherine wondered if he was as nervous as she at the prospect of the wedding night to come. She knew her duty, and so must he, but it was daunting, and she was embarrassed to think that every person in this crowded hall knew what she and Arthur would be doing later.

  “It is a good dinner,” she said in her halting English, trying yet again to draw him into a conversation and find out what was wrong with him. Again, she saw that he was perspiring. The smoke from the central hearth was making her cough, so Heaven knew how he was feeling.

  “Do you find it hot in here?” she asked.

  “It is indeed, my lady,” Arthur agreed. “I’d give much to be in bed.” There was a pause as he realized what he had said, then—at last—he smiled. In that moment the tension was broken, and Katherine giggled nervously. The King and Queen leaned forward to see what was going on.

  “Time for some merriment, I think!” King Henry said, signaling for the tables to be cleared. “It would please us greatly if the Princess and her ladies treated us to a display of Spanish dancing.”

  “It would please me too, sire,” Arthur concurred.

  When the cloths had been lifted and the trestles carried out, the musicians assembled in the gallery above. Katherine stepped down to the floor of the hall and beckoned to her ladies to join her. Holding up their trains, they performed a pavaniglia for the company to the accompaniment of shawms and a slow, rhythmic drumbeat. Katherine was conscious of everyone’s eyes on her as she dipped and stepped in dignified style. She was aware of Arthur watching her, and of the intent gaze of King Henry, and of Prince Henry casting bold eyes upon her, hardly able to sit still.

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