Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  Katherine stood in her privy chamber, clutching the table for support, as she stared at the paper in her hand in horror. It was signed by the whole Privy Council. She could not quite believe what she was reading. Mute and distressed, she passed it to Margaret Pole.

  “This is ridiculous!” the countess declared briskly, after a cursory perusal of the opening sentences. “The King resents you for refusing to heed his doubts about your marriage? He is irritated by the way in which you seem able to rise above your misery and appear cheerful? He is persuaded by your behavior that you do not love him?” She shook her head. “Madam, words fail me! Let’s make no bones about it, it is His Grace who has put you in this misery, and if anyone has cause to doubt that they are loved, it is you!”

  “That is bad enough,” Katherine said dully, “but read on. They are threatening me.”

  Margaret read. “This is nonsense! What plot to kill the King and the Cardinal? And they think you had some part in it! ‘If it could be proved the Queen had any hand, she must not expect to be spared.’ They have taken leave of their senses.”

  “I love him, God help me,” Katherine said. “I would do nothing to harm him.”

  “Well, they know that. I know it. Everyone knows it.”

  Katherine took back the letter and read it again, much as it pained her to do so. “It seems I have not shown as much love for the King as I ought; and now that he is very pensive, whatever that means, I am accused of manifesting great signs of joy, setting people to dancing and other pleasures, out of spite to the King. Heavens, if I were to go about wailing and weeping, and not put a brave face on things, that would be wrong too! I can do nothing right. They censure me for showing myself too much to the people and working on their affection by being civil and graciously bowing my head. What, am I to appear rude to them? I cannot win, whatever I do. And now the King has concluded that I hate him.” The tears began to fall. “It is this last bit that hurts. They write that as they in their consciences think his life is in danger, they have advised him to separate himself from me, both at bed and board, and to take the Princess from me. And they warn that I would be a fool to resist the King’s will.”

  Margaret rose, knelt down by the chair and hugged Katherine. “Dear madam, I cannot see you looking so devastated. Listen to me. It is all a pretext to discredit you in Cardinal Campeggio’s eyes, so that he will look with favor on the King. It is cruel and it is all lies, but your fame goes before you, and most people know you for the sweet, kind lady you are. They love you for it, whereas the Boleyn strumpet is hated and reviled—hence the need to show you in an unfavorable light.”

  Katherine leaned her head on Margaret’s shoulder. “What would I do without you, my dear friend? You make that horrible letter sound like a silly rant.”

  “Which is all it is!” Margaret cried. “Madam, you should hear what the people are saying in the streets—when the legate goes abroad in London, they yell that the King only wants another wife for his own pleasure, and if there are lone voices that speak out against them, they are hot to defend you. Truly, you are loved.”

  “Nevertheless, I must be careful,” Katherine said. “This is a warning.” And it comes direct from him. Who is doing the hating here?

  She took care not to leave the palace unless she had to. She adopted a grave demeanor and dressed in sober colors, so as not to draw attention to herself. The time she had spent in making merry with her ladies she now spent on her knees, so that they were stiff from kneeling. And still that was not enough. The council made her sign an oath not to write anything but what the King commanded her. And in case she broke it, there were the Cardinal’s spies, always watching her. She suspected that even some of her women were in Wolsey’s pay, or had been bribed to report everything she did and said. Lucy Talbot had come to her in tears and said she must leave court, now, with no reason given. When pressed, she would only say that she could no longer injure a kind mistress.

  They were trying to get rid of her, by fair means or foul. If they could find any slight pretext for proceeding against her as a bad wife, she knew they would not hesitate to seize it.


  It was in the third week of October that the two cardinal legates, Wolsey and Campeggio, came to the Queen’s apartments. Katherine had donned her regal robes, her velvets and furs and jewels, and one of her costliest gable hoods, but when she came to look at her reflection in the mirror, she lamented her haggard appearance. She was nearly forty-three, and could not expect to look like a fresh young maiden, but she looked ten years older. It was what all this grief and strain had done to her.

  Campeggio came leaning heavily on a stick, his florid face strained and severe; Wolsey was his usual unctuous self, but his brow was furrowed and his manner tense—as well it might be! But he was Henry’s man, Katherine reminded herself; he had gotten himself into this position and did not deserve her sympathy. Campeggio too was looking as if he would rather be anywhere else. Well, they would find that she was not to be intimidated. She kept them standing, to remind them that she was the Queen.

  They began civilly enough.

  “Madam, we have been appointed as indifferent judges in the King’s case,” Campeggio told her. Seeing her expression, he went on, “His Holiness cannot refuse justice to anyone who demands it, but this Great Matter is full of difficulties, and he counsels you that, rather than face a trial, you should take some other course, one that would be satisfactory to God and your conscience, and would be to the glory and fame of your name.”

  “And what is that?” Katherine asked, intrigued, hoping that the Pope, in his wisdom, had thought of a solution that had occurred to no one else.

  “It would greatly please His Holiness if you would enter a convent,” Campeggio said.

  There was a moment’s silence.

  “No,” she replied, quietly but hard as iron.

  “But, madam, there is an honorable precedent. You will have heard of Queen Jeanne de Valois, the first wife of King Louis of France. She could not bear him children, so she agreed to a divorce and became a nun. She founded a holy order and is now popularly reputed a saint. Could any woman ask for more?”

  “I have no vocation,” Katherine said, “and I have my daughter to consider.”

  “Your Grace should think of your position,” Wolsey intervened. He was visibly perspiring, despite the autumnal chill.

  “His Majesty has studied this Great Matter with such diligence that I believe he knows more about it than the greatest theologian,” Campeggio said. “He told me in the plainest terms that he wants nothing but a declaration of whether your marriage is valid or not. But, madam, I truly believe that even if an angel were to descend from Heaven and tell him that it is lawful, he would not be able to persuade the King of it.”

  “My husband has been unduly influenced,” Katherine said, barely suppressing her anger.

  Campeggio gave her a smile of rare sweetness. “There are the strongest arguments in favor of your Grace entering a nunnery. Your piety is renowned. Your daughter’s rights would be preserved, and you could see her regularly. If you took this course, the Pope would issue a dispensation allowing the King to remarry, and the Emperor could not possibly object. His Majesty could then take another wife and have sons. You would still keep your honors and your worldly possessions. Most important of all, the peace of Europe and the spiritual authority of the Holy See would no longer be under threat.” He paused, looking distressed.

  “How can it be under threat?” Katherine asked. “Is not the Pope Christ’s representative on earth?”

  “Madam, the King warned me only today that if this divorce is not granted, the authority of the Holy See in this kingdom will be annihilated. Yes, I see you are shocked by that, as am I.”

  Yes, but it is bluster, Katherine thought. I know what Henry is like when he doesn’t get his way. She said nothing.

  “So you see,” Campeggio continued, “it is in your best interests to make a gra
ceful exit. This solution will be extremely pleasing to the King, who is prepared to be very generous. You stand to lose only the use of his person by entering religion; and some comfortable house can be found where you can still enjoy any worldly comforts you desire.”

  “No,” said Katherine again.

  Campeggio and Wolsey exchanged exasperated glances.

  “Madam,” Campeggio went on, “it pains me to say this, but His Grace will not return to you, however things fall out. But if you show yourself compliant, he will allow you whatever you demand—and he will settle the succession on your daughter, if he has no heirs by another marriage. You will lose nothing by it, as you have already lost the King as a husband.”

  Katherine stood up. “My lords, you speak of practical solutions, but you are forgetting the most important issue at stake, which is whether or not my marriage is valid, and whether Pope Julius’s dispensation is good or not. If the Pope finds it good—as surely he must—then my husband must return to me.”

  Campeggio looked pained. “Madam, it is not easy to reason with the King. Evidently he is so blindly in love with a certain lady that he cannot see his way clearly, and he is determined upon this divorce.”

  “He has to have grounds for it first!” she snapped. “My lords, I can affirm to you, on my conscience, that I did not sleep with Prince Arthur more than six or seven nights, and that I remained as virginal as when I came from my mother’s womb. So how can my marriage to the King be invalid?”

  “His Majesty insists otherwise,” Wolsey said.

  “Does he call me a liar? He knows the truth, in his heart. And I intend to live and die in the estate of matrimony to which God called me. I assure you, I will always remain of that opinion and will never change it.”

  Campeggio spoke. “It would be better to yield to the King’s displeasure rather than risk the danger of a sentence given in court. Consider how great your grief and trouble would be if it went against you. Think of the scandal and enmities that would be bound to ensue.”

  Katherine’s anger flared. “I will not yield when I know I am in the right!” She turned to Wolsey. “And for this trouble, I have only you to thank, my Lord Cardinal of York! Because I have always marveled at your pride and vainglory, and hated your voluptuous life, and cared little for your presumption, you have maliciously kindled this fire—and mainly on account of the great grudge you bear to my nephew the Emperor, because he would not gratify your ambition by making you Pope by force!”

  “Madam,” Wolsey protested, visibly trembling, “I am not the beginner or the mover of the King’s doubts, and it is sore against my will that your marriage ever came into question. I give you my solemn promise that, as legate, I will be impartial. Believe me, I would obtain a happy solution with my own blood, if I could!”

  “I do not believe you,” Katherine said, and noticed Campeggio looking at her with sympathy and—she suspected—admiration. God knew she had need of both!

  “Believe it or not, I wish you nothing but good,” Wolsey said, looking at her almost pleadingly.

  “I think we must leave Her Grace to think this over,” Campeggio told him.

  “There is nothing for me to think about,” Katherine declared.

  “Then we must leave you for now.”

  “Will you hear my confession?” she asked.

  Wolsey looked stricken. Of course he knew what she would say, and that Campeggio would believe it.


  She knelt behind the grille. She could see Campeggio’s face in thoughtful profile beyond it.

  “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she began, then enumerated all her little transgressions, and the greater ones of envy and wrath and pride. Then she said, “I have not lied. I swear to you, upon the salvation of my soul, that I was never carnally known by Prince Arthur. And you may tell that to the world if you wish.”

  Campeggio made no comment. He absolved her, blessed her, and gave her a light penance of ten Ave Marias and a Paternoster.

  The next day he and Wolsey returned.

  “We are here at the King’s request,” he informed her. “He asks again if you will enter a nunnery, and we urge you—nay, we beg you—to comply, lest some dire punishment befall you.”

  “I will do nothing to my soul’s damnation or against God’s law,” Katherine declared. “I will abide by no sentence save that of the Pope himself. I do not recognize the authority of the legatine commission to try the case in England, since I believe it to be biased in my husband’s favor.”

  “Madam, the King’s wrath can be terrible,” Wolsey warned her, naked apprehension in his eyes.

  Katherine feared he might be right. The Henry she knew had always been a reasonable and just man, but this Great Matter was changing him. Yet there was a principle at stake. If she acquiesced, and the Pope was forced to undo what his predecessor had done, it could bring grave discredit on the Holy See. Many might be led astray into thinking that right and justice were not with him. So for the sake of herself, her daughter, the Holy See, and all Christendom, she was ready to stand firm. This was her time of trial, and she must be equal to it.

  “Neither the whole kingdom, nor any great punishment, even though I be torn limb from limb, can make me alter my opinion,” she insisted, her voice becoming impassioned. “And if, after death, I should return to life, I would prefer to die all over again rather than change my opinion.”


  For weeks Henry had been conspicuous by his absence from Katherine’s apartments, but now, suddenly, here he was, and in no very good mood.

  “I will be brief, madam,” he said. “I came to say that it would be better for you if you went of your own volition to a convent, otherwise you will be compelled to do so.”

  Katherine forced herself to reply with the calm dignity of a queen. “It is against my soul, my conscience, and my honor. I am your wife, and I have done you no wrong. No judge will be found unjust enough to condemn me! Force me into a nunnery if you will, but you cannot make me say the vows that will free you from our marriage.”

  Henry threw her a furious look, then stamped out without another word.

  Hard on his heels came Campeggio.

  “Believe me, it is in your Grace’s interests to enter a nunnery as soon as possible, so that you can avoid the embarrassments that might arise if the case goes to trial. You do realize that the—ahem—intimate details of your married life will be exposed to public scrutiny.”

  “I am prepared for that,” she said, keeping her voice as calm as possible. Inside, she was shrinking from the prospect, but it was another thing that had to be faced. She knew they were trying to make things as difficult as possible for her.

  Then Mendoza smuggled a message to her. There was a rumor in Rome that certain persons in England were plotting to poison the Queen if she persisted in her obstinacy. That chilled her to the very marrow, but still she stood firm.

  She got Maria to take her answer. “The Queen is ready to incur that danger rather than be a bad wife and prejudice her daughter.” No one was going to rob Mary of her birthright.


  Katherine knew that the citizens of London were growing increasingly hostile to the divorce and were not afraid to voice angry objections. The Great Matter was now notorious, and it was impossible to go abroad in the City, even on the rare occasions when she now ventured forth, and not sense the public mood.

  Henry was clearly aware of it too. Katherine’s ladies were abuzz with speculation because he had invited all his lords, councillors, judges, the Lord Mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, masters of the city guilds, and many others to Bridewell Palace. One lowering November afternoon all these dignitaries assembled in the presence chamber to hear their King address them.

  Katherine watched with Maud Parr from behind a lattice in the gallery facing the royal dais. She saw the august gathering kneel as one as Henry entered and mounted his throne. He had put on his richest clothes and his most appealing manner, and that air of majes
ty he wore so easily.

  “My trusty and well-beloved subjects,” he said, his voice ringing out, “you know well that I have reigned for nearly twenty years, during which time I have so ordered, thanks be to God, that no enemy has oppressed you. But in the midst of my glory, the thought of my last hour often occurs to me, and I fear that if I should die without an heir, England should again be plunged into the horrors of civil war. These thoughts are continually pricking my conscience. This is my only motive, as God is my witness, which has made me lay this Great Matter before the Pope.” He placed his hand on his heart, raking the room with his piercing gaze. “And touching the Queen, if it be adjudged that she is my lawful wife, nothing will be more pleasant or acceptable to me, for I assure you that she is a lady without comparison. If I were to marry again, I would choose her above all women.”

  Katherine felt Maud stiffen beside her. Henry was a fool if he thought that people would be taken in by that.

  “But,” he was saying, “if it is determined that our marriage is against God’s law, then I shall be sorrowful parting from so good a lady and so loving a companion, and lament that I have so long lived in adultery, and have no heirs of my body to inherit this realm. For although she and I have a daughter to our great comfort and joy, I have been told by many learned men that she is not legitimate because the Queen and I have lived together in open adultery. And when I remember that I must die, then I think that all my deeds are as nothing if I leave you in trouble. For if I leave no true heir, just think what shall befall you and your children. Mischiefs and manslaughters will be the least of it! Think you, my lords, that these words touch not my body and soul? These are the sores that vex my mind; these are the pangs that trouble my conscience. And if any oppose my just cause, there is never a head so dignified but that I will make it fly off!”

  When the King had gone, and a hubbub of chatter broke out, Katherine and Maud left.

  “He should never have raised the matter in public!” Katherine said as they hurried back to her lodgings.

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