Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Wolsey, he went on, had convened a secret court. Archbishop Warham was presiding, assisted by the Cardinal and a host of bishops and canon lawyers. The King had been summoned and asked to account for having knowingly taken to wife his brother’s widow. He had admitted the charge, confessed that he’d had doubts of conscience, and asked for a decision to be given on his case.

  Elaborate precautions were taken to keep these proceedings a secret, especially from the Queen, but Mendoza’s informants, and his tenacity, had bested Wolsey. The ambassador requested an urgent audience. He feared, he wrote, that false testimony would be given to the secret court and in time even to the Pope, and asked Katherine to be on her guard.

  She sat on her bed, shaking, shattered beyond belief and quivering in apprehension. She had known Wolsey for her enemy but never dreamed that he would go this far. She had no doubt whatsoever that all this was his doing, for Henry had long ago accepted that reservations about the validity of their marriage were groundless. At some point, of course, Henry must have colluded in these proceedings, but he had ever been in thrall to Wolsey, and the Cardinal was clever and manipulative. Yet it hurt her viscerally to know that he had not shared his concerns with her, the other person most nearly involved. Of course, Wolsey would have advised against it. Probably he had said there was no point in worrying her, since it might turn out that there was no case to answer. She could hear him saying it in his unctuous viper’s voice.

  She sent Bastien to find Mendoza and tell him that she was so afraid that she dared not speak with him, for Wolsey’s spies were watching her.

  But she needed to do something. She had every right to be represented at this court. Someone must speak for her!

  She sent for the tutor, Vives. He was a doctor of law and had been a friend to her. She saw his face register shock as she told him what was going on.

  “I need an advocate,” she told him. “Will you represent me at this court?”

  Shock turned visibly to dismay.

  “Madam, I fear I cannot. I dare not offend the King. I am sorry.”

  It felt like a bitter betrayal, and it was all the more upsetting because she saw that it was an indication of what others might say if she asked for their help. After all, who would dare to offend the King, once his pleasure were known? It would take a brave man—or woman.

  She felt so alone, so isolated. Hurt, she withdrew the pension she had paid Vives, then worried that she’d been vindictive. Yet his refusal was crushing. Thank God for Mendoza. He was a true friend.

  She contrived another meeting in the garden, one evening at dusk, instructing Gertrude Blount to keep watch. She walked a little way and found the ambassador waiting for her in a small banqueting house at the end of a lime walk. As she told him about Vives, it was all she could do to keep her composure.

  Mendoza regarded her with compassion. “Do not distress yourself, madam. I have informed the Emperor of this court. I cannot think that he will permit such iniquitous proceedings to continue.”

  “After God, all my hope rests in His Imperial Majesty,” Katherine said, trying not to cry. But it was comforting to know that she had the might of Spain and the Empire behind her.

  “It ought also to rest in the people of England, for your Highness is much beloved in this kingdom. There is no doubt that if the King has your marriage annulled, some great popular protest must ensue. Be assured that there will be many more voices raised in your favor than against you.”

  “I would not wish to be the cause of any disturbance in this realm. I came here to bring peace and prosperity, not dissension.”

  “It may never come to that, Highness. I will urge my master to put pressure on the Pope to tie Wolsey’s hands and, if necessary, have the case referred to Rome for a decision.”

  Katherine shook her head. “There is no need for a decision. The Pope granted us a dispensation to wed, and I cannot understand why that is not seen as sufficient. I assure you, my good friend, that this is all Wolsey’s doing, to drive a wedge between England and Spain.”

  “Wolsey is universally hated. Rest assured, madam, he will not get away with this.”


  As June blazed on in all its golden splendor, Bastien brought another note from Mendoza. The secret court at Westminster had decided it was not competent to judge the King’s case. Henry had gone to the Privy Council for guidance, and his councillors agreed there was good cause for scruple about his marriage, and advised him to approach the Pope for a ruling.

  “But they are wrong,” Katherine cried. She had told Margaret, Maria, and Maud everything, and they were all doing their best to comfort her. “There is no good cause for scruple, and no need for a ruling. Pope Julius gave us a dispensation. Is Wolsey now challenging the infallibility of the Pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth?”

  The three women shook their heads sadly as Katherine paced up and down in great agitation.

  She had not seen Henry since Mendoza broke the news about the secret court. He had not visited her chamber or been in chapel for Mass. She was certain that he was avoiding her—and so he should be, for he had much to explain!

  “If the case goes to Rome, it will be months before we hear anything,” she said, biting her lip. “I do not think I can bear it, especially when it is all so unnecessary!”

  She broke off as a page announced the arrival of Lord Mountjoy. He entered the room looking unusually distracted, and his air of agitation caught everyone’s attention.

  “Your Grace, there is terrible news! Rome has been sacked by mercenary troops of the Emperor.”

  Katherine’s mind reeled, as she and her ladies instinctively crossed themselves.

  “The reports are shocking,” Lord Mountjoy went on, “and I forbear to give you some of the details, but over four days there was such violence and such murder as has never been seen.”

  “God have mercy!” Katherine whispered. “Tell me what happened. I must know.”

  Mountjoy swallowed. He was a man of great courtesy and sensibility, and was clearly shocked by what he had heard. And it was against every precept of his well-known chivalry to be discussing such dreadful things with ladies, so Katherine knew they would all receive a heavily censored account. “Those mercenaries were worse than wild beasts,” Mountjoy said. “The atrocities they committed were dreadful, and they rampaged unchecked, for neither the Emperor nor any other commander was there to stop it. The soldiers slew at pleasure, murdering women and children. They pillaged houses and churches, even St. Peter’s itself. There were altars desecrated, prisoners taken, monks and nuns forced to—I will not say it, for shame. To think that such things could happen in one of the world’s most civilized cities!”

  It did not bear thinking about.

  “This is terrible,” Katherine murmured, crossing herself again. “I have never heard of such evil. All Christendom must deplore and condemn such an outrage. What of His Holiness?”

  “The last we heard, he had taken refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo, northwest of Rome, but he is virtually the prisoner of the Emperor.”

  This was appalling. “But the Emperor was not there! Surely none of this was done by his will or with his consent?”

  “No, madam, it was not, and by all reports he is as outraged as anyone else by it, but he has seized his advantage. It suits him well to have the Pope in his power.”

  And it will suit me well too, Katherine realized, for with the Pope a prisoner of the Emperor, her nephew, a favorable decision on Henry’s case was unlikely to be forthcoming. Immediately she reproached herself for thinking of her own interests when so many had suffered horribly.

  “I will order Masses for the souls of the dead,” she said. “I will pray for them.”


  “People are talking openly about the King’s case.” Maud was indignant. “They are calling it the King’s Secret Matter, but it’s no secret anymore!”

  “It’s true, Highness,” Maria said, her eyes flashing with outrage. “It’s as
notorious as if it had been proclaimed by the town crier.”

  Katherine’s ladies had returned from the gardens in a furious mood. They had cut short their walk after a pair of the court’s renowned gossips stopped them, unable to resist passing on the latest rumors from the City.

  “They say the King has commanded the Lord Mayor to ensure that the people cease gossiping, on pain of his high displeasure,” added Margaret.

  “They are even speculating that His Grace might marry the French king’s sister,” Maud said. “God forbid!”

  Katherine was horrified. The whole court, and the whole of London, it seemed, knew of Henry’s Secret Matter, and yet she, the person most vitally concerned, had not been informed of it. Nor had she seen Henry. That hurt went deep. He could at least have had the courtesy to talk to her about it. There was so much that she was burning to say to him. Maria, furious with him on her behalf, had urged her to find him and give him a piece of her mind; Maud and Margaret, always sensible and cautious, had advised her to ask him if there was anything he needed to discuss with her. Yet she did not want to seek him out, because she feared that what he might say would confirm her worst fears.

  But as if thinking about Henry could conjure up his presence, here was Lord Mountjoy announcing the arrival of the King.

  “Leave us!” Katherine commanded her ladies, and rose to greet Henry with a graceful curtsey.

  She had never seen him looking as nervous as he did that afternoon. He stood before her, a magnificent personage with great presence, but seemed diminished by an unaccustomed diffidence. She gazed at this man who was her husband—whatever anyone said. Never, now that she feared she might lose him, had he been so attractive to her: at thirty-six, he was in the vigor of his age. And he was hers—and no man would put them asunder, she vowed it to herself in that moment.

  “Be seated, Kate,” Henry said, and took the chair on the other side of the empty fireplace, the hearth of which was now filled with flowers.

  He smiled uncertainly at her. “I trust you are well,” he said.

  “I am in health, thank you, and all the better for seeing you.” She tried not to sound reproachful.

  “And Mary?”

  “She is well too, and Lady Salisbury tells me she is making good progress with her studies.” It occurred to her that Mary, living at court as she did, might have heard the gossip about her parents’ marriage. Please God she had not.

  “Kate,” Henry said, fiddling with a loose thread on his doublet, “I need to talk to you. Of late I have been troubled—much troubled—in my conscience about the validity of our marriage, and…and I am sorry, but I have reluctantly come to the resolution that we must separate.”

  It was as if he had dealt her a mortal blow. This could not be Henry, her Henry, saying these things to her.

  “Who has put these words in your mouth?” she asked, her voice cracking.

  Henry looked disconcerted. “During the negotiations, the Bishop of Tarbes expressed reservations about Mary’s legitimacy, and it kept preying on my mind. What he said made me wonder if God had denied you and me sons because our marriage is unlawful. My conscience is troubled, Kate. I am in great fear of God’s indignation.”

  “Are you sure it is not the Cardinal who has encouraged you to have these doubts?” Katherine asked. “He wants to get rid of me. Now that you have agreed to this French alliance, it is no longer an advantage for you to have a Spanish queen.”

  “No, Kate, that is not so.” Henry looked nonplussed, which almost confirmed her suspicions. “It was Wolsey who assured the bishop that Mary was legitimate,” he said. “He does know of my doubts, of course, but from the first he has been against my acting upon them, although he is as anxious as I am to have them allayed. It was he who advised me to ask the Pope to resolve them.”

  “There is no need!” Katherine insisted. “We have a dispensation.”

  “But the Bible warns that God will inflict a severe penalty on a man who marries his brother’s widow. You know what Leviticus says, Kate! ‘They shall be childless.’ Believe me, I have studied the matter, and I am convinced that we have broken a divine law. Surely a marriage that gives me such fear and torment of conscience cannot be lawful!”

  “Henry, it is lawful! The Pope said so. How can he be wrong?”

  Henry got up and began pacing the floor. “The evidence of God’s displeasure is there for all to see. All our sons died soon after they were born. That is our punishment.”

  He turned to her and spread his hands open in supplication. “For a long time now I have felt that I am living under the awful displeasure of the Almighty. Now I know why—and I dread His heavy wrath if I persist in this marriage. That is why, out of regard for the quiet of my soul, and the need to ensure the succession, I have to have these doubts resolved.” Tears glinted in his eyes.

  Katherine closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her thoughts. She could not doubt that Henry was sincere, yet she needed desperately to convince him that his fears were misplaced. If she could do that, this whole sorry business could be forgotten.

  “Have you talked to your confessor?” she asked.

  “Yes. He was the first person I spoke to. He was unsure as to how to counsel me, and urged me to seek Archbishop Warham’s advice. Warham held an inquiry. Kate, I’m sorry if this brings you grief, but it has to be resolved.”

  “Henry, on what grounds are you doubting our marriage? I came to you a virgin. Arthur and I never consummated our marriage.”

  “But you bedded together at sundry times, you lived at liberty in one house…”

  She was stunned. “Are you saying I lied to you, that I am lying still?”

  “No, I mean, Kate—I do not know! And maybe you don’t either. You were an innocent, maybe it happened and you didn’t realize it.”

  “Oh, Henry! You think I wouldn’t know? It was painful the first time with you.”

  Henry shook his head impatiently. “That’s all beside the point. Leviticus applies whether your marriage to Arthur had been consummated or not.”

  “I don’t see how!” Katherine was becoming exasperated now. She was still certain that Wolsey was behind this. “The barrier to the second marriage only exists if the first has been consummated, and in my case it wasn’t. I can’t be clearer than that. What else do I have to say to reassure you? The Pope looked at all the evidence over twenty years ago. He would not have issued a dispensation if there had been any doubt. I’ll say it again, Henry, there is no cause for these scruples of conscience. You have not offended God—and we have not lived in sin these eighteen years!”

  Henry glared at her. “The Pope had no right to issue that dispensation.”

  “No right?” She was aghast. “He is invested with the authority of Christ. Are you challenging that? Are you saying he had no power to dispense at all in our case?”

  “That is what I am saying.” Henry sounded defiant, mulish. His piercing blue eyes glittered.

  “It is heresy, no less. Do you not realize that? Oh, Henry! Do not do this thing, I beg of you.” Spontaneously she fell to her knees before him, raising her hands as if in prayer.

  “Kate!” He grasped her wrists. “Do not do this to me. I am moved only by a scrupulous conscience, and because I despair of having any sons.”

  She felt the tears spill over. Henry stared at her, grief in his eyes, and she thought for a moment that he might take her in his arms, but he let her hands drop and she knelt there for a moment, unable to move, then got up and returned to her chair, feeling utterly defeated. Was there nothing she could say that could move him?

  “And if the Pope rules that our marriage is unlawful?” she asked. “Which he will not, I assure you.”

  “Kate, you will want for nothing, not for riches, honor, or love. You can have any houses you want.”

  “And our daughter? Have you thought of what this will do to her? She is your heir.”

  “And as our marriage was made in good faith, she will remain so, un
til I have sons.”

  So he had already thought of taking another wife! And she, his faithful but barren spouse of eighteen years, would be discarded, just like that.

  “You want to remarry. Why don’t you just say so?”

  Anger colored Henry’s face. “It’s not like that. I’ve told you, I need to set my conscience at rest. But if the only way of doing that is by a divorce, then yes, I must take another wife to ensure the succession and the quiet estate of my realm. It is my duty, no less.” He stood up and walked to the door, then turned to face her. “All will be done for the best, I assure you, Kate,” he said. “I ask you not to speak of this matter to anyone, for I fear that the Spaniards in your household might make some demonstration, and I don’t want to provoke the Emperor.”

  Katherine could not answer him. She could not believe that this was Henry, talking about separating from her and replacing her as Queen. As he opened the door to leave, she found she could no longer control her emotions and broke down completely, emitting great, tearing sobs that sounded like an animal in pain. All those years together, all the love between them, the children they had conceived and lost, the joys, the sorrows, the things they had shared…They had been one flesh, and now Henry wanted to break them asunder and end it all. It was more than she could bear.

  “Oh, God! Oh, Holy Mother!” she keened. “Oh, please help me!” She sank down on knees that had turned to water and buried her face in her hands. “What did I do to deserve this?”

  “Kate, don’t,” Henry pleaded. “Please, stop crying. Stop it!”

  But the dam had been breached and Katherine could not cease. She knelt there, rocking in misery. There was a long silence, then she heard the latch click. Henry had gone, and the world came to an end.


  Her ladies crowded around her, soothing her, bringing dry kerchiefs and wine to calm her. Maud was firm with her.

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