Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “You are being unreasonable, madam,” Henry objected. “The Emperor has the Pope in his power. You are loved in this country, and you have your choice of prelates and lawyers. You cannot say that this is no impartial court. Now, let us begin!” He tapped his foot impatiently.

  “Katherine, Queen of England, come again into the court!” called the crier.

  Gathering her wits and her courage, Katherine decided that the only course left to her was to appeal to Henry’s chivalry and his better instincts—and whatever vestiges of his love remained. She would tell the world how it had stood between them. She would stand up for her rights and make sure that that wan look was banished from Mary’s face forever.

  She made no reply to the crier, but rose and walked across the crowded courtroom to where Henry sat on his throne. As she fell to her knees at his feet, raising her hands in supplication, indrawn breaths and gasps could be heard in the court.

  “Sir,” Katherine said, loud and clear, “I beseech you, for all the loves that have been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right. Take pity and compassion on me, for I am but a woman and a stranger born out of your dominions. I have here no true friend and no indifferent counsel. I flee to you as the head of justice within this realm.”

  She paused, disconcerted by the fact that Henry was staring straight ahead, clearly uncomfortable, his lips pursed, that threatening flush mounting in his cheeks.

  “Alas, sir, how have I offended you?” she asked. “Or what occasion have you for displeasure, that you intend to put me from you? I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble, and obedient wife, ever conformable to your will and pleasure. I have been pleased and contented with all things in which you took delight. I have never grudged you anything, or shown a spark of discontent. I loved all those whom you loved for your sake, whether I had cause or not, and whether they were my friends or enemies.”

  Not a flicker of recognition. This was truly terrible. But, having started, she must go on. “These twenty years and more I have been your true wife, and by me you have had many children, though it has pleased God to call them out of this world, which was not my fault.” She faltered, but whatever it cost her, this had to be said. “And when you had me at the first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid, untouched by any man; and whether it is true or not, I put it to your conscience.”

  She looked directly at Henry’s face as she spoke, willing him to remember that first night of sweet loving, but apart from a small twitch of his mouth, he seemed immovable. It was plain to her that he was not going to make any answer. All the same, she must finish what she had to say.

  “If there is any just cause under the law that you can allege against me, to put me from you, I am content to depart, to my shame and dishonor. But if there is none, I must beseech you, let me remain in my royal estate and receive justice at your princely hands. Many learned men have said that the marriage between you and me is good and lawful. But it is a wonder to hear what accusations are invented against me, who never intended aught but honesty! And now I must submit to the judgment of this new court, in which you may do me much wrong. But you must understand that your subjects cannot be indifferent counselors, for they dare not, for your displeasure, disobey your will. Therefore, most humbly do I beg of you, for the love of God, to spare me the extremity of this court. And if you will not, I commit my cause to God.”

  Still Henry would not look at her. He said not a word. She rose to her feet, curtsied low to him, then found that she was trembling so much that her legs would not carry her. Hurriedly she beckoned to Griffin Richards, her receiver-general, and leaned gratefully on his arm.

  “Take me out of this place,” she whispered, and he escorted her through the silent, watching hall to the great doors. She heard Henry command the crier to call her back.

  “Pay no heed,” she said to Griffin Richards. “It is no indifferent court to me, therefore I will not stay.”

  When she emerged outside the Black Friars’ monastery she was greeted by crowds of Londoners, most of them women, who shouted their encouragement. She nodded weakly and smiled. “Remember me in your prayers, good people,” she cried, her voice barely steady. Then she mounted the stairs to the gallery and returned to a well-nigh deserted Bridewell Palace.


  That evening, as she was trying to calm her tumultuous thoughts, Bishop Fisher came to see her, his face grave.

  “Madam, you think you have no impartial counsel, but I assure you that is not the case. I would not have advised making that appeal to the King, and it might have gone better for you if you had acknowledged the court and then given evidence, though I understand your concerns.”

  Katherine nodded, grateful for his honesty. “What happened after I left?” she asked. “Pray sit down and tell me.”

  “The King spoke,” Fisher related, easing his aging bones into the proffered chair. “He said you had always been as true, as obedient, and as conformable a wife as he could desire. He said he had been fortunate to be blessed with such a queen, and took God to witness that no fault in your Grace had moved him. He spoke of how your sons had died soon after they were born, and called it a punishment of God. He is adamant that his concern is chiefly for the succession. He insisted he had not brought these proceedings for any carnal desire or dislike of your person.”

  That was a lie, Katherine thought. It is all lies. He is mad to marry Anne Boleyn. That is why he is turning the world upside down and I am suffering and Mary’s future is hanging in the balance.

  “He ended,” the bishop concluded, “by saying that he would be well content if your marriage was found to stand within God’s laws.”

  “There is little chance of that in this court.”

  Fisher sighed, his angular, ascetic face creased with sadness. “I regret to say that I agree with your Grace. This afternoon the King produced a parchment on which was set forth the case he had to answer, and he said that every bishop in England had set his hand and seal to it. Well, I denied it!” He could not hide his outrage. “I told him I had never signed or sealed such a document. But there it was, my seal, and my signature, forged, and Archbishop Warham had the temerity to affirm that both were mine. The King said it did not matter, as I was but one man. Believe me, madam, they will stop at nothing to have their way.”

  “I know it,” Katherine said, sinking into despondency.

  Fisher rose. “They have me to contend with!” he snorted, his eyes alive with zeal. And he blessed her and signed her forehead with the cross—and then, to her surprise, he patted her shoulder.


  The court sat again on many successive days. Katherine maintained her resolve not to attend, and Bishop Fisher kept her up to date with developments. It seemed that most of the time was taken up with counsel for either side arguing about whether her first marriage had been consummated.

  One evening Fisher stayed for supper in her chamber. “The King’s lawyers are saying that your marriage was invalid from the beginning because you had carnal knowledge of Prince Arthur,” he told her as soon as the servitors had withdrawn.

  “That is not true!” Katherine protested, then remembered her manners and passed the dish of salad. “How many times do I have to say it?”

  “Madam, I told them it was very doubtful,” Fisher said, helping himself to just two leaves of lettuce. “Warham is little help—he might as well be representing the King—and he is very argumentative! That young priest Ridley who’s assisting me thinks it disgusting that your private life is coming under scrutiny in open court.”

  “Amen to that,” Katherine said fervently, “although, given the nature of the case, I have no choice but to endure it. At least I do not have to listen to it.”

  “What irritates me most,” Fisher said, “is the King’s righteous conviction that if he takes another wife, Heaven will vouchsafe him a son. I felt bound to ask him, ‘Who has promised you a prince?’ ”

/>   “No doubt Mistress Anne has.”

  “Then it remains to be seen whether Heaven complies!” And the bishop’s ascetic face creased into what, for him, passed for a grin.


  One morning in late June, Katherine was surprised to receive a visit from Henry, who appeared agitated and peevish. But he was courteous enough, and commented approvingly on her black damask gown with its cloth-of-silver sleeves.

  “I am glad to see you so royally attired, Kate, as I want you to accompany me to the Black Friars. The legates are no nearer a conclusion than when they first sat, and we both want this case resolved.” He held out his hand. “Will you come?”

  “If I must,” she said, allowing him to lead her away.

  Again they sat in their chairs of estate, while Henry addressed the cardinals. “The Queen and I are weary of waiting for a verdict,” he told them. “We beseech you to reach a final end. For my part, I am so troubled in spirits that I cannot attend to anything for the profit of my realm and my people.”

  Katherine said nothing, but at a nod from her, Fisher stood up and declared that she would abide by her appeal to Rome. Henry glared at her but held his peace until they had reached the privacy of her apartments.

  “Appealing to Rome will just prolong the whole damned business,” he snarled. “What are you thinking of, Kate? Why do you have to be so difficult?”

  “Why do you have to question a perfectly good marriage?” she flung back.

  “Not that again!” Henry almost shouted, and stormed out in a temper.


  “The King has clearly gone to great lengths to seek out witnesses to your wedding night with Prince Arthur,” Fisher told Katherine when next he came to see her. “Nineteen of them gave evidence today. I will not repeat their testimony, as it would be deeply embarrassing to your Grace and all right-thinking people; and anyway, none of it was conclusive, and much was hearsay. The sight of elderly lords queuing up to attest that they were potent at Prince Arthur’s age was most distasteful, and I think the legates were of that opinion too. Of course, several of these witnesses were of the Boleyn faction. One was Mistress Anne’s brother, who wasn’t even born at the time of your first marriage, and I fear that others were bribed. You will be glad to hear that young Ridley made it clear that your Grace had often said that your first marriage had not been consummated. I, of course, upheld that.”

  “You have ever been a staunch friend to me, my good Bishop,” Katherine said. “Tell me truly, do you think we stand a chance of winning this case?”

  “I think our insistence that the marriage was lawful carries a lot of weight with many. Even Cardinal Campeggio seems to approve.”

  “Then why does he not pronounce sentence? It is all taking so long.”

  “He must hear all the evidence—such as it is. I think the delays are trying the King’s patience to the limit too. I was told that he summoned Wolsey to Bridewell Palace and castigated him for over four hours. Many heard the shouting, and I was waiting at Blackfriars Stairs for my barge when the Cardinal emerged, making for his. He looked sick, and the Bishop of Carlisle, who was also at the jetty, tried to make pleasantries, and observed that it was a hot day. The Cardinal agreed, and said that if the bishop had been as well chafed as he had been, he would say it was very hot. I never thought to feel sorry for him, but I believe he is doing his utmost best for the King against impossible odds.”

  “He is in a difficult position,” Katherine conceded.

  Fisher stood up. “Well, madam, I must take my leave and prepare my papers for tomorrow. I pray you, try not to worry. We are doing better than I had hoped.”

  Katherine summoned her ladies and they all got out their embroidery frames and settled down to work, chatting as they did so. She was relieved to have a quiet evening with simple diversions, and to be afforded some space in which to think of more pleasant things than the weighty proceedings that were blighting her life.

  Less than an hour later an usher came to say that Wolsey and Campeggio were waiting upon the Queen in the antechamber. Katherine rose, bidding her ladies to attend her, and went out to greet her visitors.

  “Welcome, my lords. You see my employment.” She pulled off a skein of white silk that was hanging around her neck. “In this way I pass the time with my maids.”

  “Madam, may we speak to you in private?” Wolsey asked. He looked old and ill, and unaccustomedly flustered.

  “My lord, if you have anything to say, speak it openly before these ladies, for I fear nothing that you can say or allege against me, and would prefer that all the world should both see and hear it.”

  “Madam,” Wolsey said, with evident reluctance, “we have come on the King’s command to know what you are disposed to do in this matter between the King and yourself, and to offer our opinions and our counsel.”

  Katherine turned to Campeggio. “Will any Englishman counsel or befriend me against the King’s pleasure?” she asked, wishing that Fisher were there to speak for her. “Alas, my lords, I am a poor woman, lacking sufficient wit and understanding to answer such wise men as you in so weighty a matter.” She paused, seeing Wolsey visibly sag, as if on the verge of collapse, and took pity on him. “Come, we will go into my privy chamber,” she said, and took him by the hand, leading the way, Campeggio and her women following.

  “I thank you for your kindness, madam,” he said, sinking heavily into the chair she indicated. “It has been a somewhat trying day.” He mopped his brow. “It is the King’s wish that you surrender this whole matter into his hands. He fears that if the case goes against you, some judicial condemnation might follow, and then shame and slander might accrue to you. His Grace wishes to avoid all occasion for that. He asks you, as his wife, to remit your cause to him.”

  “But he is trying to prove that I am not his wife,” Katherine protested. “He cannot have it both ways. As for this judicial condemnation with which you threaten me, there is no crime with which anyone can charge me.”

  “Perhaps I should have said censure, rather than condemnation. If the case goes against you, and you persist in maintaining an adulterous marriage, we, the legates, and perhaps even His Holiness, may feel that some admonishment is in order…”

  “God knows, and you know,” Katherine snapped, “that my marriage is not adulterous! I am the King’s true wife, and I will remain so until my dying day!”

  There was a pause as the cardinals looked at each other in despair.

  “Madam, we will report your answer to the King,” Wolsey said, rising creakily to his feet, and with that they took their leave.


  It was now the third week of a hot, sultry July. Katherine longed to leave London and go into the country, where the air was fresher and there was no stink from the river or the overcrowded streets—and no threat of plague. It seemed that the court hearings would never end. But now, hours before she expected him, here was the faithful Bishop Fisher, his gaunt features transformed.

  “A victory, madam, a victory!”

  “The court has declared for me?” Katherine cried, hardly able to believe it.

  “No, madam—but your plea has been answered: the case has been revoked to Rome. His Holiness himself will pass judgment.”

  It was not quite what she had hoped for—but it augured well for her, and for Mary, and her heart filled with thankfulness.

  “Tell me what happened,” she said.

  “There were strong signs that Cardinal Campeggio was about to pass sentence, and the King came into the court with the Duke of Suffolk, hoping to hear it. But Campeggio stood up and said he would give no hasty judgment until he had discussed the proceedings with the Pope, for the truth was hard to determine. And then he adjourned the court, saying he was referring the case back to Rome. Well, madam, I wish you had been there. The King got up and walked out with a face like thunder, and then uproar broke out in the court. The Duke of Suffolk swore by the Mass that the old saying was true, that it was never merry in
England while we had cardinals among us. And Wolsey reminded Suffolk that if he, a simple cardinal, had not been there to rescue him when he married the King’s sister, he would have had no head on his shoulders and no tongue to spite him.”

  “Wolsey must be in a bad way,” Katherine said. “This is a grave defeat for him, and he stands to forfeit the King’s pleasure because of it.” Again she felt a twinge of pity for her old enemy.

  “He looked like a man stunned,” Fisher told her. “While all this rumpus was going on, the legates just sat there looking at one other, utterly astonished.”

  “Campeggio has nothing to fear, for he can go back to Rome,” Katherine said, “but Wolsey must stay and bear the brunt of the King’s anger.”

  “There is no doubt that the King has taken this disappointment very displeasantly, and no wonder. The Papal Court will not sit until October, and its proceedings progress slowly, so it might now be a matter of months, if not years, before the Pope reaches a decision. Do not look alarmed, madam, for His Holiness is now friends with the Emperor, and judgment will probably be given in your favor.”

  There was a sudden commotion outside, raised voices, and then the door was flung open and there stood Henry.

  “Out, Bishop!” he barked at Fisher, who frowned, made his bow, and left. Henry slammed the door behind him.

  “This is your doing,” he said to Katherine. “You made those appeals to Rome, and now judgment is further delayed! Do you think my royal dignity will admit of my being summoned to appear at the Papal Court? By God, my nobles and subjects would never allow it! I tell you, madam, that if I go to Rome, it will be at the head of a great army, and not as a supplicant for justice!”

  “At least it would be impartial justice!” Katherine retorted.

  “What, with the Pope hand in glove with the Emperor, and Charles and Francis about to sign a peace treaty? Do you realize that will leave me isolated? What impartial justice will there be for me?”

  “The Pope will do what is right, Henry.”

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