Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “Your Grace, whatever the matter is, you must have a care to yourself. All this weeping is not good for you.”

  “Here, madam, drink this,” said Maria, handing her a goblet of malmsey.

  Katherine gulped and tried to catch her breath. She dabbed at her eyes. The worst of the storm had passed.

  “His conscience is troubling him,” she whispered. “He himself wants to end our marriage. He fears that it is an offense to God.”

  Surely not, the ladies said. She must have misunderstood, or the King had been misled by those who should know better. All would be well. If it came to it, the Pope would make all well.

  “No,” she murmured. “He knows what he is doing. He spoke of taking another wife.”

  “It is unforgivable of him to do this to you!” Maria said.

  “Best not to criticize His Grace,” Maud murmured.

  Looking on, her face suffused with sympathy and rage, was Gertrude Blount, Lady Exeter. “I’ll wager I know who is behind this,” she said, shaking her head with its glossy black curls.

  Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk, nodded savagely. “That jumped-up butcher’s son!”

  Katherine rested her head back on the chair. “He hates me. I represent Spain, and he hates Spain too. But I dare not openly oppose him. I am alone and without counsel, far from my friends in Spain, and his spies watch my every move. But I have to think of Mary!”

  She drew herself up in her chair, more composed now. She remembered that she was the daughter of Isabella the Catholic. She must be firm in her convictions and have the courage to stand by what she believed to be right.

  “My marriage to the King is good and valid,” she declared, her voice strong again, so that it sounded like a battle cry. “Pope Julius permitted it, and that is sufficient for me. I am the King’s true wife, and Mary is his rightful heir. It is Wolsey who has led my lord astray and planted these doubts in his mind. It is my duty to persuade my husband that he is in error, and I will do it, so help me God!”

  Her ladies applauded her resolve. She would win through, they assured her. They brought her more wine and the sweet cakes she loved, and books for her diversion. They offered to do anything that might bring her comfort. She looked up into their kind, concerned faces and thanked them, touched by their loyalty and their love for her. And then she saw Anne Boleyn standing to one side, watching her, her face slightly flushed, no doubt from embarrassment at seeing the Queen’s loss of control.

  “I am all right now, Mistress Anne,” she said, taking the young woman’s hand and squeezing it.


  Life went on as before, except that nothing would ever again be as it was. No more was said about a separation or Katherine moving to another house, and she remained at court. She spent time each day with Mary, reading, helping with her studies, and sometimes playing and singing with her. She had made a decision never to reproach Henry. She resolved instead to be cheerful and supportive in his company, for no man wanted a wife who was miserable and complaining. That was not the way to win him back!

  It seemed that Henry was also trying to make things right between them. He visited her chamber regularly, chatted and played for her, and sometimes summoned Mary so that he could test and praise her progress in her lessons. Things between him and Katherine had been awkward at first, but he was clearly making an effort to return to normal. He was affectionate and respectful, and when they appeared together in public he showed her every courtesy. She began to hope that he had changed his mind about pursuing an annulment.

  But then there came an evening when he told her that he hoped before long to hear from the Pope.

  “I know what you will hear,” she said, the illusion of security shattering about her.

  “Why do you persist in ignoring my scruples?” he snapped.

  “I am your lawful wife and your queen! I stand to lose everything that is dear to me, and what for? A needless doubt planted in your head by my enemies.”

  “I’ve told you, Kate—no one planted it. And you are allowing earthly pride in your queenly rank to stand in the way of my conscience.”

  “It is not just pride that prevents me from acknowledging myself to have been your harlot these past eighteen years!” Katherine cried, fearing that she would break down and lose control again. “It is the love I bear you.”

  Henry would not meet her eye. He looked beyond her, staring at the wall.

  “You know the right of it is on my side,” she said quietly, “and to that I will stand firm to my dying day.”

  “You would defy me?” he growled, his voice menacing.

  “I am, as always, ready to obey you in all things save that which touches my conscience. In all this talk of your conscience, Henry, you have forgotten mine, but it is entirely at peace in regard to our marriage.”

  Henry got up. “That may be so, madam,” he blustered, “but I must be satisfied nevertheless.” And he stumped out of her chamber.


  Katherine wondered if she should ask the Emperor to intercede with the Pope on her behalf. After hours on her knees begging for guidance, she decided that she would seek Charles’s help. If anyone could aid her, he could, and the Pope would be looking to please him.

  It would not be easy, she knew. Wolsey’s spies were hovering, more obtrusive than ever now. How would she outwit the all-powerful Cardinal?

  Suddenly a plan occurred to her. She summoned one of her most loyal servants, Francisco Felipez—and she explained, in a low voice, what she needed him to do.

  Then she went to the King.

  “Sir, my servant Francisco wishes to visit his widowed mother in Spain,” she told him, meek as milk. “I do not want him to go at this time, for it is inconvenient, but he says his mother is ill, so I cannot say him nay, and so I would be grateful if you would grant him a safe conduct.”

  Henry looked at her with narrowed eyes. “Very well,” he said at length.

  He signed the safe conduct that very afternoon. Katherine gave it to Francisco and then slipped him the letter she had written to the Emperor, which he concealed in his bosom.

  “God speed you!” she said fervently.


  “Don’t try to deceive me again!” Henry roared as Katherine’s ladies scattered. “This was found on your servant in Calais, where my officers caught up with him and arrested him.” He waved her letter at her. “He is now back in England, and will not be going to Spain again in the foreseeable future.”

  Katherine stood mute. There was nothing she could say in her defense. At least Henry now knew that she was ready to fight to save their marriage. And surely Charles would have heard of her plight from Mendoza?

  “Why did you send men after him?” she asked.

  “To find out what he was really about. I’m not the fool you take me for, Kate.”

  “I have a right to be heard in Rome!” she protested.

  “You have no right to incite the Emperor to war, which is how this letter may be construed.”

  “That was never my intention!” she cried. “How could you believe it of me?”

  Henry glared at her. “By the evidence of my own eyes!”

  “You believe only what you want to believe,” she said, stung, “but I assure you, I am your true, loyal wife, and I would never do anything to hurt you.”

  “You are no such thing!” Henry retorted, and walked out.


  She became aware that she was being watched even more closely. It was the King’s own servants who were now infiltrating her household, as well as Wolsey’s. She realized that she would have to tread very carefully, especially if Henry believed her capable of inciting war. She must take care not to give him the slightest ground for suspicion.

  She was desperate to see Mendoza, but of course he dared not visit her. When they came face-to-face at a reception for some Italian envoys and he bowed to her, his eyes were flitting about warily. The room was full of people, milling about and chattering. Henry
was some way off, surrounded by avid courtiers. His laugh boomed out several times.

  “Madam, a word,” Mendoza murmured. “My master has expressed his indignation at the King’s proceedings, which he finds strange. He does not believe it possible that His Grace would go this far. He has instructed me, for the honor of God, to put an end to this scandalous affair. And I am to give you this. Please move away now.” As Katherine passed, he pressed a folded paper into her hand. No one seemed to notice.

  Later, alone in her privy chamber, she read what her nephew Charles had written: You may well imagine the pain this intelligence caused me, and how much I felt for you. I have immediately set about taking the necessary steps for a remedy, and you may be certain that nothing shall be omitted on my part to help you.

  At last, she thought, at last—there is someone who is ready and able to help me. I have found my champion.


  It was no longer the King’s Secret Matter but the King’s Great Matter. That was what people—appalled, approving, or simply inquisitive—were calling it. And it did seem that most were appalled. Whenever Katherine appeared in public, crowds gathered, crying, “Victory over your enemies!” The common people could not believe that their king would be so wicked as to put away their beloved queen, his true wife. The women, in particular, spoke out loudly for Katherine, making clear their conviction that Henry sought to be rid of her purely for his own pleasure.

  “Why,” one ruddy-cheeked fish-seller cried out, “if the King can put away his old wife, then every lusty fellow’ll want to do the same, and then where would we women be?”

  Katherine had to smile at that. She felt cheered by the warmth and love of the people. If the matter were to be decided by women, there was no doubt that Henry would lose the battle. But alas, the voices of women, even queens, counted for very little.

  At court it was a different story. It was understandable that most people were for the King.

  Mary Tudor, the French Queen, came looking for Katherine and found her in the royal library, trying to make sense of a thick volume of canon law. Without a word she enfolded Katherine in her arms, plainly emotional.

  “I had to come,” she said. “There is talk everywhere of what is going on here. People speak of little else. I am horrified at what my brother is doing, and I have told him so.” She looked as fearsome as Henry did when his anger was aroused, and Katherine could imagine how the scene between brother and sister had played out.

  “Don’t provoke him too far,” Katherine pleaded, closing the book. “He may banish you from court, and I could not stand to lose you, my dear friend.”

  “I’ve said my piece,” the French Queen told her. “I told him he’d make himself look the biggest fool in Christendom, creating all this rumpus, when the Pope will surely find for you. He didn’t like that, though he hasn’t sent me away yet!”

  “Say no more,” Katherine warned, looking around nervously at the stacks of shelves as if she expected Wolsey’s spies to be somehow concealed there. “Henry has grown very suspicious of late. He accused me of inciting war with Spain, when I had only asked the Emperor to plead my case at Rome.”

  “He told me that,” the French Queen said. “He thinks you are capable of it too. It won’t do any harm to let him fret about it. Serve him right!”

  “I dare not. He could accuse me of treason.”

  “My dear Kate, if—as he maintains—you are not his wife, then you are not his subject, and cannot be guilty of treason. He can’t have it both ways!”


  Wolsey was on the way to France. Henry said he had gone there to make arrangements for the marriage of the Princess Mary with the Duc d’Orléans, but Katherine suspected there was more to it than that. The Cardinal might well be trying to enlist King Francis’s support for the King’s cause.

  Just as she was pondering on this, John Fisher, the venerable Bishop of Rochester, came to see her. She knew and liked him for his wisdom and holiness, but today his craggy face was stern. She was dismayed to see him looking so severe.

  “Madam, a word of advice from an old man.”

  “Pray be seated, my lord,” she said, indicating the chair at the opposite side of the fireplace. “Some wine please, Maria.”

  Maria sped away.

  “I saw the Cardinal in Rochester,” Fisher told her, creaking painfully into his seat. “We discussed the Great Matter at length, and he complained that you were being unduly suspicious of the King’s intentions and casting more doubts than the case merited. He told me that you have advertised the matter by your manner and behavior, and by sending secret messages. Madam, if this is true, then you yourself are to blame for all the unwelcome notoriety this case has generated, and for the King’s righteous displeasure. I assured the Cardinal that I would expostulate with you for your willfulness and disobedience.”

  Katherine frowned, smarting with the unjustness of these accusations. Now she knew for certain that Wolsey was behind all this trouble. His malice was plain.

  “My Lord Bishop, none of this is true,” she said, trying to mask her anger. “I have done nothing to advertise this Great Matter—rather, I shrink from its being aired in public and having the whole world gossip over my private affairs. The King prevented me from sending a message asking the Emperor to aid me in Rome, for I have no counsel there. His Majesty accused me of inciting war, which was so far from my intentions as to be ridiculous. It is that which is at the root of these complaints. I would do nothing to harm my husband. I love and honor him.”

  “I rejoice to hear you say it, madam,” Fisher said, as if he still felt that she had done something wrong. “I—” He broke off as Maria returned with two goblets, then took three sips from his and set it down. His expression softened. “Be wary. Put not a foot out of step. And I will be watchful too.” He waited until Maria left, then continued in a low voice. “In the meantime I see no reason to censure you. You know you have my support.”


  Late in July, Henry gave the order for the court to ride to Beaulieu, his palace in Essex. On the morning they were to leave, Katherine was delayed because she had torn the hem of her kirtle. As she stood waiting by the window, while the Otwell sisters stitched it, she saw Henry mounting his horse by the mews below, where his retinue had gathered.

  “Hurry now!” she urged, knowing he would be impatient to be on his way. Then Anne Boleyn entered the room, her sallow face flushed, and asked Katherine if she might leave court to visit her family in Kent.

  “This is rather sudden—and short notice,” Katherine reproved her.

  “I know, madam, and I am sorry, but it is important that I go.”

  “Is anything wrong?” Katherine asked, for Anne seemed agitated.

  “No, madam.”

  Obviously she was not to be drawn out, and Katherine gave her permission to go. Then she hurried downstairs to join the King and thought no more of it.

  Beaulieu, the “beautiful place” that Henry had bought from Thomas Boleyn a few years back and renamed, was now a sumptuous palace, ranged around a main courtyard, where a sculpted fountain spouted water from the mouths of cherubs. Henry and Katherine spent a month there, keeping great state and open house, while Henry hunted and played tennis and Katherine lovingly made two gowns to send to Mary, who was with her household at Hunsdon, and growing fast, Margaret reported. With no more said about his Great Matter, Katherine began to hope she and Henry would be fully reconciled.


  At the beginning of August, Anne Boleyn returned to her duties, more expensively dressed than ever.

  “That girl gets above herself!” Maria muttered over her embroidery, jabbing in the needle as if jabbing it into Mistress Anne’s flat chest.

  “I have never taken to her,” Gertrude Blount said, “although I have to admit that the French gown really becomes her.”

  “She seems more French than English in many ways,” Katherine observed. “Of course, she spent many years at the French

  “And learned more than French manners there, I’ll be bound!” Maria retorted.

  “You are lacking in charity, my friend,” Katherine reproved her, remembering how Anne had been disappointed in love. “She has always served me well and been an ornament to my court. I can find no fault in her.”

  “But she’s not one of us,” Maria complained. “She always holds herself aloof, as if she thinks she’s better than the rest of us. Little Lady High-and-Mighty, I call her!”

  “The men flock around her,” said Gertrude Blount.

  “That is all they do,” Katherine declared. “Mistress Boleyn guards her virtue jealously. Remember how she kept Thomas Wyatt at arm’s length.”

  “He’s married. There’s no advantage to her in that.”

  “Gertrude, don’t be unkind. Just because a young woman is spirited and stylish, it doesn’t mean she is light in behavior. She will make a good marriage, you’ll see.”

  There was revelry planned for the evening, and after supper Henry and Katherine seated themselves in their chairs of estate as the court musicians began playing in the gallery. At once Henry rose and bowed to Katherine, offering her his hand. She smiled and joined him for the opening dance, their courtiers following them onto the floor of the hall.

  At forty-one, Katherine felt rather old and stout to be twirling about beside slender young beauties, so after two dances she returned to her seat to watch, while Henry partnered his sister, the French Queen. But when the musicians struck up a fourth tune, to that lady’s evident disgust, he walked over to where Anne Boleyn was standing and bowed, then held out his hand. She placed hers in his, and Katherine caught the flash of an emerald ring in the candlelight.

  She watched Henry dancing with Anne, aware of a slight ripple of murmuring around the room. She caught people glancing her way. She saw Henry look hungrily into Anne’s face as they met in the dance. And in that moment she knew.


  When Henry went hunting the next morning, Anne was absent. She had not even asked leave. When he returned late in the afternoon, Katherine looked out and saw Anne, dismounting in her crimson riding habit.

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