Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  To her astonishment, he came to her bed that night. At the sight of him walking through the door, candle in hand and a damask robe over his nightgown, her heart leapt with joy. It had been so long, so very long…

  “Kate,” he said, “I’m a plain man. Maybe I was a little unkind earlier. I was thinking, people are dying out there—hundreds of them—and we should not be at odds with each other.”

  “No, we should not,” Katherine agreed, wanting to open her arms to him as she used to do, yet unsure as to whether she should. What did he expect from her? Was this just for form’s sake? Or had he remembered the many loves they had shared, and realized that he wanted her after all?

  He came to the bed, set down the candle, took off his robe, and climbed in beside her. Then he lay down on his back, staring up at the canopy, and reached for her hand.

  “Kate,” he said, “there is a woman in Kent, a nun, who is reputed to have the gift of prophecy; she claims to have had holy visions.”

  “Elizabeth Barton,” Katherine said, hoping that this conversation was not the only purpose of Henry’s visit.

  “You know of her?”

  “I do. She asked if I would see her, and of course I said no.” The woman had prophesied that if Henry put away his lawful wife, he would no longer be King and would die a villain’s death. Katherine had known she could not risk any taint of association with such dangerous ideas.

  “Very wise, Kate, very wise. She’s a lunatic, and what she preaches is treason; yet people are credulous, and if she persists, we will have to deal with her.”

  “I pray she sees the error of her ways,” Katherine said. “She sounds a simple, misguided soul.”

  Silence descended. They lay there for a while not moving, then Henry bade her good night and turned away. As he began to snore gently, tears dripped onto Katherine’s pillow. It had been for form’s sake, after all. Nothing had really changed. She wished he had not given her cause to hope that it had.


  “There are forty thousand cases of the sweat in London,” Henry said, his face ashen.

  Katherine crossed herself. “Those poor souls,” she murmured. “I pray God that Mary will be all right!”

  “Fear not, there are no cases of the sweat at Hunsdon or within several miles, thanks be to God,” Henry said fervently. They were at dinner, just the two of them, for he did not like too many people coming near him, but suddenly the door opened and there was Mistress Anne. There was none of her usual hauteur in evidence; her face appeared unusually white and drawn.

  “Forgive my intrusion, your Graces, but I must tell you that my maid has died of the sweat.”

  “By God, it’s reached us here!” Henry cried, jumping up and nearly upsetting the table. “We must leave at once. Where is safe? Let me think. Hunsdon—I have it! Yes, we’ll go to Hunsdon and be with Mary. Kate, have your women make ready to leave within the hour.”

  “I will help,” Anne said.

  “No,” Henry told her, quite adamant. “You are going home to Hever, right now, and you will stay there until it is clear that you are not infected with this plague. I pray to God you are not!”

  Katherine heard the agony in his voice, but she also noticed that he made no move toward Anne; rather, he seemed to be shrinking from her. It seemed that his fear of the sweat was greater than his love for his mistress.

  “God keep you!” he said as Anne glowered.

  “May He watch over your Grace too,” she answered, departing, ignoring Katherine.

  “I had to send her away,” Henry said brokenly when she was gone, as if apologizing to Katherine for depriving her of her maid. “I have no son to succeed me, and I dare not risk catching the sweat. Come, Kate, we must make haste to Hertfordshire!”


  At Hunsdon, for much of the time, Henry shut himself up in a tower with his physicians, no doubt fretting about Mistress Anne. Each day, his household diminished, as more and more of his attendants were sent away. The fewer people he had about him, the less chance there was of his being infected with the sweat.

  He was playing skittles in the hall with Katherine and Mary on the day a letter arrived from Wolsey. His eyes narrowed as he read it, the dangerous flush infusing his fair skin. Mary was regarding him with apprehension, and Katherine, having seen the Cardinal’s seal, hurriedly sent her away to fetch her needlework. She watched with relief as the door closed behind her—and just in time.

  “The Cardinal’s gone mad!” Henry bellowed. “By God, how dare he preach to me? He fears that this sickness is a manifestation of God’s wrath, so in all conscience he begs me to abandon all thoughts of a divorce. Has he forgotten that I have a conscience too? Where has he been this past year and more? Have I been wasting my breath?” Henry began pacing up and down the floor, incandescent with rage. “I’ll have him in the Tower for this! They can string him up and cut him down and make collops of him. This, mark you all, is the man who sang Mistress Anne’s praises to the Pope, the man who vowed to make her my queen. No, Kate, do not look at me like that. It’s only a matter of time now, and you may as well get used to it. I will have her, by God! And I swear I would give a thousand Wolseys for just one Anne Boleyn. None other than God shall take her from me!”

  Katherine rose, made the briefest of curtseys, and left the hall. She would hear no more. It was intolerable, having to sit there and listen to Henry voicing his determination to replace her. It was not only Wolsey who had gone mad! Again she felt that unwilling pity for the Cardinal, quickly quelled because, cornered by Henry in a rage, he was likely to prove even more dangerous, to save his own skin.

  She fetched her writing chest—given to her by Henry, and therefore, like so many things, a reminder of much happier times. It bore his coat of arms and was adorned with the painted figures of Christ, St. George, and others from myth and legend, among them Venus, who represented love and fertility. Katherine did not, could not, stop to think on that now. Haste was imperative, for Cardinal Campeggio was probably well on his way from Rome, and time was short. She must file an official protest against the case being heard in England, for she knew she would never be accorded an impartial hearing.


  Anne had the sweat.

  Henry was in tears. In such feverish agitation that Katherine thought he had it too, he’d come to her room during the night and woken her. He thought she should know. Anne’s father was also infected.

  Katherine knew a guilty moment of huge relief when she heard the news. God Himself was settling the Great Matter! Then, at once, she reproached herself for entertaining the hope that her rival might die. That was grossly uncharitable. Forgive me! she prayed silently. She could guess what Maria might say.

  “Where is Dr. Chambers?” Henry kept asking. No one could find him. Then a groom in the stables said he had taken his horse and ridden to an afflicted household, to tend the sick.

  “Send for Butts!” Henry commanded, frantic now. “Make haste!” Everyone scattered.

  Dr. Butts, Chambers’s subordinate, came quickly. He was a cultivated, learned man with an urbane manner and a kindly face, and his soothing presence calmed the King.

  “Remember, sire, that many have this sickness and recover,” Dr. Butts assured him. “I will go immediately to Hever.”

  “Wait!” Henry called for writing materials and scribbled a note. “Take this to Mistress Anne.” Dr. Butts bowed and was gone.

  Katherine, feeling that she had become invisible, was about to return to her bedchamber, but Henry came after her.

  “Kate, I do not want to be alone tonight,” he said plaintively.

  She did not want him, not when his thoughts were with Anne, but he was her husband, so she could not refuse him. And it was good to be needed; despite herself, she was touched it was to her that he had turned when he wanted comfort. Tonight she could see in this big, powerful man—who in so many ways now seemed alien to her—the young boy, untouched by life, he had once been.

  When they
lay in bed together, she did not hesitate to wind her arms around him and draw him to her. And he came to her, not as a lover, but as a lost soul. He was so near to her, yet so far, and she ached for him—and for them both.


  They waited a week for news. Every day, Henry was on his knees in chapel, bargaining with God, offering all manner of things if He would only spare Anne.

  Katherine, kneeling beside him, could not but be aware of his anguish. It was compounded by tidings that one of his favored gentlemen, Anne’s brother-in-law, William Carey, had succumbed to the sweat; and when they came to tell Henry that his good friend, Sir William Compton, had also died of it, he was plunged into an abyss of grief—and a fresh martyrdom of anxiety for Anne.

  Katherine made herself pray for Anne to be restored to health, even though some inner demon was telling her that she ought to be praying for her death. Without Anne, Henry’s doubts of conscience would miraculously disappear, she was certain. But she could not find it in herself to ask God for such a favor; it would be wrong, evil—and so she did what she knew to be the right thing.

  At last—Katherine could hear Henry holding his breath and feel his apprehension—there was a letter from Dr. Butts. Henry gave a shout, almost leaping for joy.

  “Anne is past the danger!” he exulted. “She is making a perfect recovery.”

  “I am glad for her,” Katherine said, trying not to wonder why God had seen fit to spare a woman who was becoming the scandal of Christendom.

  Henry was in no doubt about that. “It is a sign that God approves of my future queen,” he declared.


  Katherine was grateful for the respite afforded her by Anne’s long convalescence, and it was a relief to hear, when the sweat had died down and her rival returned to court, that she was no longer to be required to suffer her constant presence, for Henry was having an apartment off the tiltyard made ready for Anne. He could not have his future queen waiting on his present one.

  When Anne arrived at Greenwich, she was prouder and more insufferable than ever because she believed that God was smiling upon her. And there was Wolsey, hastening to greet the favorite, obsequiously bowing and presenting a costly gift, with Henry looking on, beaming.

  But it seemed that an apartment at court was not sufficient for Mistress Anne’s vanity. Soon afterward, Katherine learned that her rival was to have an establishment of her own, at Durham House, where she herself had lived during those dreary years after Arthur’s death. Henry had charged Thomas Boleyn with refurbishing the property to a standard fit for a royal bride-to-be, and an army of servants and ladies-in-waiting was to be installed there, so that Mistress Anne could keep as much state as if she were Queen already.

  “I’ll warrant that this is because she hates having to bow the knee to you,” Margaret Pole said, tart. “She cannot bear the fact that you rank high above her, so she must needs queen it over her own court.”

  “At least I do not have to watch her doing it,” Katherine observed.

  Henry was now dividing his time between Greenwich and Durham House. Although he would plainly have preferred to be with Anne, he could not be seen living with her, and was taking care to keep Katherine at his side for appearances’ sake. Outwardly all was cordial between them, and when Mary was with her parents, no one would have guessed there was anything amiss. Henry was his old genial self, in high good spirits in anticipation of the arrival of Cardinal Campeggio.

  “You rejoice prematurely,” Katherine could not resist telling him. “Do not think that this Pope will overturn the decision of his predecessor.”

  “My case is righteous!” Henry retorted. “God and my conscience are perfectly agreed on that point.”

  “And what of my conscience?” she countered. These days, they often squabbled like this in private.

  “You are a good woman, Kate, but you are misguided. And you don’t listen!”

  He was working on another book, in which he was setting forth his arguments against their marriage. He was up late most nights scribbling away, despite the headaches that had begun to plague him again.

  “I will give it to you to read when it is finished,” he told Katherine. “It may help you to understand better, although I suspect you are being obstinate rather than stupid.”

  “I have heard your arguments many times, so I have no need to read them again. It is you who are being obstinate!” And so it carried on. Katherine prayed that the legate would come soon. This state of affairs could not continue.


  Cardinal Campeggio was here!

  At last, at last, Katherine thought. There would be an end to this intolerable waiting.

  Henry had been all for offering Campeggio a state welcome to London, but the Italian cardinal refused it and arrived discreetly by barge. Then, Katherine heard, he took straight to his bed. It was understood that he had gout, and that the long journey had been a martyrdom for him. Certainly he had taken an unconscionable age to get to England.

  “Maybe he was told to delay!” Maria opined. “Or maybe he was chosen because he would be like a little snail, shuffling across those foreign lands.”

  “I cannot believe that,” Katherine said. “His Holiness would not think of doing such a thing.”

  Maria stabbed her needle into her tapestry frame. They were working on a set of hangings depicting the heroic deeds of Antiochus the Savior, King of Syria, which helped to fill the long, dragging hours. “Highness, you are too trusting for your own good! Think about it. There is the Pope, still frightened of the Emperor, but also frightened to offend the King. Who could blame him if he played for time, hoping the King will tire of Mistress Anne?”

  It dawned on Katherine that Maria might be right.

  For some days she heard nothing. Almost cloistered in her apartments at Bridewell Palace on the banks of the Thames, she was isolated from what was happening beyond her doors. Then one morning Maria came in, fuming.

  “That woman is back!” she said, clenching her fists. “She has been installed in a fine lodging here.”

  “What woman?” piped up little Anne Parr, Maud’s daughter, who had recently joined Katherine’s household as a maid of honor.

  “Mistress Anne Boleyn!” Maria barked as Maud shook her head furiously, signaling Maria to shut up.

  Anne’s return could only mean one thing, Katherine realized—that Henry was anticipating a speedy and successful outcome to his case.


  Even if Clement failed her, Katherine knew she had one powerful champion. When Margaret Pole brought her a package from Mendoza—“And don’t ask me how I managed to evade the Cardinal’s spies!” the countess said, smiling—Katherine knew it was something of great importance, for the ambassador rarely attempted to communicate with her these days. And it was.

  At first Katherine thought it was a copy of Pope Julius’s dispensation, but then she read the Emperor’s letter, which explained that it was actually a copy of a second dispensation issued at the request of Queen Isabella. The original had permitted Katherine to marry Henry even though her first marriage had perhaps been consummated, but in this version the word “perhaps” was missing.

  Katherine looked up at Margaret. “I have much for which to thank my mother. She was concerned to avoid all doubt. Now it is clear that even if Arthur and I had lived as man and wife, my marriage to the King would be good and valid.”

  Immediately, she took the document to Henry, whom she found walking in a gallery, deep in discussion with Wolsey.

  “I thought you should see this, my lord,” she said. Henry read the document and frowned, then passed it to Wolsey without comment.

  The Cardinal studied it. “Madam, it seems strange that no one in England has ever heard of the existence of this dispensation,” he said, “and I’m afraid that leads me to conclude that it must be a forgery.”

  “Are you accusing the Emperor of being a liar?” Katherine demanded of him.

  “Of course not, but there
may be those in his service who are not so scrupulous.”

  Her blood was up. “I hope you are not suggesting that Mendoza is one!”

  “I did not say that, madam.”

  “You should have informed me of the existence of this dispensation before,” Henry reproved her.

  “I did not have it, or know of it. It arrived only today, and I brought it straight to you. The Emperor writes that the dispensation was found when a search was made among the papers of Dr. de Puebla, and that this is a true copy.”

  “It may be so,” Henry grunted, “but it is only a copy, and cannot be submitted in evidence. We need to see the original.”

  “His Grace is right,” interjected Wolsey, “and as your Grace looks for the continuance of his love, you will send to Spain for it, as the lack of it might ruin your case, and endanger your child’s inheritance.”

  Katherine’s cheeks burned with indignation. How dare this upstart butcher’s son speak to her so insolently! She would have liked to give him a piece of her mind, but Henry was glowering at her, and she feared to provoke his anger.

  “Very well,” she said, “I will send my chaplain.”

  She chose one of her English chaplains, the young cleric Thomas Abell, whom she had recently taken into her service as master of languages and music. He had helped her to improve her English, which she now spoke as well as her native tongue but still pronounced awkwardly, and he was in charge of her musicians. Already he had become indispensable to her, and she knew she could rely on his loyalty.

  Father Abell left for Madrid that very day, with a letter requesting the Emperor to send the dispensation to England. Katherine dared not entrust him with any message of warning; instead, as she bade him an anxious farewell, she was praying inwardly that Charles would have the wisdom to read between the lines and refuse her request, for she was sure that once the dispensation was in England, genuine or not, it would conveniently disappear.

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