Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  “Do not underestimate Cromwell,” Chapuys warned. “He is no Thomas More. With him it is more expediency than principle, and he grows more powerful by the day in the King’s service.”

  “I had not realized,” Katherine said, toying with her napkin. “My husband has not mentioned him to me.”

  “That does not surprise me, Highness. His Grace does not like to show his hand. He prefers to keep you in ignorance of what is going on. And Cromwell is a discreet presence at court. People discount him as just another councillor. But I know him. We are neighbors in the City of London, and cordial as such. Cromwell confides in me—to a degree. He accounts me a friend, I do believe. That may be useful.”

  “You like this man?” Katherine was surprised.

  “Well enough, Highness, although there is plenty that divides us. There is an amiability about him that conceals much. He appears guarded, but when you talk to him, that reserve gives way to joviality and banter, and he becomes very animated. He is a congenial host, full of graciousness and good cheer, and keeps a generous table. He was loyal to the Cardinal, even after his fall, and now he draws those of Wolsey’s former affinity to him like a magnet. Yet he has a mind that can be cold and calculating, and when it comes to politics, he becomes detached from human feelings. People are beginning to realize that he has influence, and seek his favor. I have no doubt that he is making himself indispensable to the King, and I wanted you to be on your guard. Your Highness is not eating.” Chapuys offered Katherine some more pheasant, but she shook her head.

  “Norfolk and Suffolk hate Cromwell,” he went on. “They call him a foul churl, but only because he is eclipsing them in the King’s counsels. Of course the Boleyns have taken him up, the Lady calls him her man, and I do not doubt that he is working hand in glove with Dr. Cranmer on her behalf.”

  “This is most disturbing,” Katherine said, thinking of just how many forces were combining to defeat her and deprive Mary of her rights. And this unscrupulous radical, Thomas Cromwell, was revealing himself as the most formidable, and sinister, of those forces.

  “It is, Highness. Frightening, even. Only this week Cromwell told me himself that there was no need for the King to wait for the Pope to consent to a divorce. He said that every Englishman is master in his own house, and why should His Grace not be so in England? Ought a foreign prelate to share his power with him? He said that His Grace was but half a king, and his people were but half his subjects.”

  “I fear he will have said as much to my husband,” Katherine said, laying down the crushed napkin and trembling for the future of her daughter and her adoptive land.

  “I rather fear that too,” Chapuys replied, his dark eyes troubled.

  —

  Parliament was sitting. Every day, Katherine waited in trepidation for news. When, on a crisp bright day early in February, Chapuys asked for permission to walk with her as she was taking the air in her privy garden, she saw by his expression that he brought bad tidings.

  “Highness, is there somewhere private we can talk?” he asked, his tone urgent.

  “It is too cold to sit here,” she said. “Let us go to my privy chamber.” As she led the way along the path toward her lodgings, she heard a slight rustling behind the nearby hedge, and glimpsed an almost imperceptible movement through the dense wall. She stopped and put a finger to her lips.

  “Who goes there?” she called.

  No one answered. She had the impression that someone was standing behind the hedge, holding their breath.

  “I know you are there!” she cried. “Show yourself at once.”

  Chapuys inclined his head toward the hedge, mouthing that he would go and investigate. Katherine nodded, and he set off for the next garden. In seconds he was back.

  “No one was there, Highness.”

  “I do not think I was mistaken.”

  “I heard it too,” Chapuys said.

  “No one should be behind there,” she told him. “These are my private gardens.”

  She walked on, deeply disturbed. “I remember how the Cardinal’s spies used to watch me,” she said, “but they did so openly, on various pretexts. I think I have been shadowed today—or am I being fanciful?”

  “Not at all, Highness.” Chapuys frowned. “It is said that Cromwell’s spies are everywhere, and it would not surprise me if he was having you watched. The King fears your communicating with the Emperor. I too feel that I am being kept under observation.”

  They had reached Katherine’s apartments. She dismissed her women and sat down by the fire. “Do come and warm yourself,” she bade Chapuys, indicating the other chair. “Now, tell me the news. Spare me nothing. I need to know what is happening.”

  Chapuys took a deep breath. “This morning, Highness, the King stood up in Parliament and demanded that the Church of England recognize and acknowledge him as its supreme head.”

  “Heaven protect us!” Katherine cried. “Surely Parliament resisted.”

  “It did not, madam. Even the clergy raised no protest. None dares defy the King. And I am told that every day leave of absence is granted to those Members of Parliament who support you. I find that ominous.”

  “You think that Parliament will comply and enact a law making the King head of the Church in England?”

  “I think it will.”

  “Then God help us all.”

  —

  A few days later Henry came to see Katherine. His gaze was steely, his manner imperious; she saw that he was in no mood to brook any opposition. Dismissing her ladies, he sat down and leaned forward, his beringed hands placed squarely on his knees.

  “No doubt the Imperial ambassador has informed you of the proceedings of Parliament, madam,” he said.

  “Indeed he has, sir,” Katherine answered, bracing herself for a fight. “And I have to say—”

  But Henry did not wait to hear what she had to say. “You should know,” he went on, “that Archbishop Warham has said that the clergy are ready to acknowledge me as Supreme Head of the Church of England, as far as the law of Christ allows.”

  “It does not allow!” Katherine flared, determined to make him see sense. “Who are you to usurp the authority of Christ’s vicar on earth? You may cow your English clergy, but you will never persuade the world at large of it. You will be called a heretic and a schismatic, and no prince will want to be your friend.”

  “Enough, madam!” Henry shouted. “I have not come to ask for your opinion! I came to tell you—so that there should be no misunderstanding—that the English Church no longer recognizes the authority of the Holy See, and that the Pope is from now on to be referred to as the Bishop of Rome.”

  “Henry, you cannot do this!” Katherine insisted, feeling the world she knew crumbling around her.

  “You will find that I can,” he said. “I will be King and Pope in my own realm, and I will look to my subjects’ spiritual welfare. There will be no corruption in my Church, as there is in Rome! And I will deal severely with any person who dares to defy me!” He glared at her, almost provoking her to do so.

  “Henry, my dear lord, what has happened to you?” Katherine asked. “Who has got at you, that you are driven to do something as evil and wicked as this?”

  “Credit me with some sense, Kate!” Henry snapped. “I am no one’s puppet. Don’t you realize that I am only returning the English Church to its sacred roots? The Popes in former times usurped authority here from my predecessors, and I and my people will no longer suffer it. I have a right to be emperor in my own kingdom, like King Arthur was, and henceforth I will recognize no superior but God. Do you understand me?”

  “I understand you all too well!” she retorted. “It appalls me that you are prepared to divide Christendom just as a means to marry the Lady Anne.”

  Henry stood up and came over to her in one bound. He bent down, so that his face was almost touching hers, his expression glacial. “Do not thwart me, madam, and do not impute to me dishonorable motives. I will not have you qu
estion my judgment!”

  He stood up. “I will leave you now, so that you can think on this and consider your position.”

  That I should live to see this day, she thought as the door closed behind Henry. The enormity of what he was doing was beyond comprehension. What would happen to them all, to every soul in England, to devout young Mary? And how could she bear to be cut off from the true Church? Deprived of its ministry and consolations, she would be damned—and the whole kingdom with her! It was a shattering prospect.

  —

  Chapuys arrived half an hour later.

  “I see by your Highness’s face that you have heard the news,” he said, his expression grave.

  “The King told me,” Katherine said, desperate to speak of her fears. “I cannot quite take it in. Surely people will speak out?”

  “So far there has been little resistance.”

  Katherine caught her breath. It was incomprehensible that Henry could carry this through unopposed.

  Chapuys was shaking his head. “It seems that most of the nobility support the King, and the clergy have no choice. The Lady is making such demonstrations of joy as if she had actually gained Paradise, and her father said to Bishop Fisher that he could prove by the authority of Scripture that when God left this world, He left no successor or vicar. I have no doubt, Highness, that he and his daughter are the principal cause of the King breaking with Rome.”

  “They have much to answer for,” Katherine said. “And, it must be said, so does His Holiness. If he had given judgment promptly, instead of allowing this matter to drag on and on, he would have saved us from this iniquity.”

  Chapuys was firm. “I have to agree with your Highness. His timidity and dissimulation have prejudiced your interests and the authority of his office.”

  “What I fear is that the King will now proceed to have our marriage dissolved unlawfully,” she said.

  “I am sure that Cromwell is working on it, but I have taken steps to protect you, as much as I can,” Chapuys assured her. “I spoke to the Earl of Shrewsbury, who has your crown in safekeeping, and he has promised that he will not allow it to be placed on any other head than yours.”

  “I am grateful to you, and to him, but I do not see how he could defy the King’s command to relinquish it. It would be a brave man who did that.”

  “He seems quite resolved. We shall live in hope. And you have another ally in Bishop Fisher, who has openly said that it is against God’s law for the King to be head of the Church of England.”

  “Thank God for men like Fisher!” Katherine said. “He was ever a good friend to me.”

  —

  She was so agitated that she could not bear to sit still. Wrapping herself in her cloak and pulling on her gloves, she made her way out of the palace and walked along the broad pavement fronting the river, trying to calm down. To her left the iron-gray waters of the Thames flowed unheedingly past, carrying with it the odd ferry or barge, and to her right the red-brick buttresses of the palace soared skyward. There were few people about, for it was very cold, although the guards were on watch at the palace doorway, and they had lowered their pikes in salute as their queen passed.

  It all looked comfortingly familiar, the Greenwich that Katherine had always known, but the world had changed, and it was as if the ground was crumbling beneath her feet. The old certainties were gone, and the beliefs she held sacrosanct were being wickedly undermined. She could not come to terms with it. That Henry, her beloved Henry, the man she had married, could have created this schism was unbelievable, and she trembled for his immortal soul. What if he were eternally damned and they could never meet in Heaven?

  Having walked as far as she could and gotten chilled through, she retraced her steps back to the palace. Coming in her direction was a well-built man, soberly dressed, but in good cloth, with his bonnet pulled down over his ears. With him was a clerk, and she heard the man say, “Take this letter to Master Sadler; and this is for the relief of the poor people of London. See that it reaches the Lord Mayor by nightfall.”

  “Yes, Master Cromwell,” the clerk said, taking the purse. “I’m sure the poor will bless you for your bounty.”

  He hastened to a waiting boat, and Cromwell walked toward Katherine. He bowed, but she would not give him her hand to kiss. They faced each other, two antagonists who had much to say—at least on her part—but did not know where to begin. And Katherine knew it was up to her to initiate a conversation.

  “I have been hearing a lot about you, Master Cromwell. I was told that you were loyal to the Cardinal, even after his fall,” she said.

  The shrewd little eyes looked wistful. “He was a kind master, madam, and good to me.”

  “He had his faults, but he would never have sanctioned what is going on now,” she said, her anger flaring. “It is a pity you did not esteem him enough to follow his example.”

  “I am the King’s servant now,” Cromwell said, his expression bland. “The world has moved on since Wolsey died. It is advisable to move with it.”

  Katherine could not stop herself. “Advisable for whom? For self-seekers, who look for preferment by giving the King what he thinks he wants? I tell you, Master Cromwell, some of us do not do what is merely advisable—we do what is right!”

  Cromwell regarded her wearily. “They warned me that your Grace was intractable, and I see that they spoke truth. My advice to you would be to move with the times and accept that change is necessary.”

  “These changes are but a means to an end, to get rid of me and make the Lady Anne Queen,” Katherine retorted. “They do not take account of principles, or my daughter’s rights!”

  Cromwell remained unruffled. “There are wider issues at stake, madam. The King’s Great Matter has served to bring them into focus. It has exposed all that is wrong and corrupt in England—and in the Church itself. Are you not aware that there is bitter resentment in this kingdom against the Papacy, that ordinary people are angry at having to pay tithes to a church that is obscenely wealthy, that they see the corruption in it and are sickened, and that they want to read the Word of God for themselves?” As he spoke he had become passionate, and Katherine could now see the animation to which Chapuys had referred. “Madam, I assure you, I too do what is right, and not merely because it is advisable!”

  “I fear for you, and I fear for England,” Katherine said, shocked and shivering, and not just from the cold, “because you cannot see that you are in grave error and are casting yourself into the abyss. I will pray for you!”

  Unable to bear Cromwell’s company for another moment, and very near to tears, she walked away, into the palace, past the guards whose faces remained impassive. She did not look back.

  —

  Gertrude Blount was out of breath. “I have run all the way here,” she said to Katherine, sinking into her curtsey. “I had to tell you immediately. People are saying there has been an attempt on Bishop Fisher’s life!”

  “No!” Katherine and Maria exclaimed, crossing themselves in unison.

  “What happened?” Katherine asked.

  “His cook is said to have poisoned the soup. There were at his table his family and household, and the poor whom he fed out of charity. Seventeen people are said to be gravely ill, and two have died.”

  “What of the good bishop?”

  “He escaped, praised be God. He ate only a little soup and suffered only stomach pains, although I hear they were grievous. The cook has been arrested.”

  “Why would he want to murder his master?” Katherine wondered.

  “Maybe he was bribed to do so,” Maria suggested.

  Gertrude nodded. “That is what people are saying. They whisper that he was acting on the instructions of my lord of Wiltshire, who is said to have given him the poison and bribed him to put it in the food.”

  “That’s believable!” Maria snorted. “I’ll wager that woman was privy to it all.”

  “We do not know that,” Katherine said quickly. “This is all pure
speculation.”

  But Chapuys, arriving soon afterward to inform Katherine of what she already knew, was of the opinion that the rumors were well founded.

  “The bishop is outspoken in your Highness’s cause, and the King is becoming increasingly irritated by it, while the Lady and her faction are furious. It is entirely credible that they plotted to silence the bishop.”

  “And where does the King stand in this?” Katherine faltered. She could not in her wildest dreams imagine Henry resorting to murder. He had surely not sunk that low.

  “The King refuses to credit the rumors, but expresses outrage at the crime. I do not think he is involved. But, Highness, be on your guard. Those who perpetrated this deed will not hesitate to strike again by such underhand means. I beg of you, be watchful. If a bishop’s cook can be bribed, so can a queen’s—and your Highness stands more solidly in their way than Bishop Fisher.”

  “I will be vigilant, I promise you,” Katherine vowed, her heart lurching at the thought of the danger she might be in.

  “I myself will taste your food,” Maria declared stoutly. “We can’t be sure that your official assayer isn’t open to bribes.”

  “You are a dear, brave friend,” Katherine said, deeply touched, reaching over and squeezing Maria’s hand. Then a terrible thought struck her. “But what of Mary? How safe is she?”

  Maria and Gertrude looked shocked. “They would never dare!” Maria declared.

  “Harm the King’s own daughter?” Gertrude cried. “No, your Grace need not fear. No one would even contemplate it.”

  But the world was turning on its head already. Was anything certain? Katherine asked herself, even as she agreed with her ladies. And there were those to whom Mary represented a threat: heiress to the throne, of unquestionable legitimacy, and the enemy of the Lady Anne.

  —

  Henry came. This time he was in a better mood, although he appeared deeply troubled.

  “You have no doubt heard the gossip about Fisher’s cook,” he said. “I came to tell you there is nothing in these wild accusations.”

 
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