Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  Katherine said nothing. She wished she could believe it. She hoped fervently that Henry had not been duped, because if the Boleyns had not tried to poison Fisher, then she herself and Mary were in no danger.

  “To prove it, I intend to make an example of that wretched cook,” Henry went on. “Poisoning is the most abominable form of murder. I abhor it, and I’m having Parliament pass a new law providing that poisoners are to be deemed guilty of treason and boiled to death.”

  Katherine shuddered. The thought of such torture sickened her. “Why not hang them like other felons?” she whispered.

  Henry’s voice was steely. “Because poisoning is an especially foul and secret way of murdering someone, and it requires a meet punishment, to deter others.”

  Such a terrible fate did not bear thinking about—and it would be the worst cruelty to inflict it on a man who had been the tool of others, while the real culprits got away with their wicked deeds.

  But Chapuys, with whom she spoke later, was of a different opinion.

  “The King is wise to deal so severely in this case,” he said, “and the cook was culpable, because presumably of his own free will he put the poison in the food. I do not imagine that the Lady Anne or her father were standing over the cooking pots. Nevertheless, the King’s vengeance cannot wholly absolve them from suspicion.”

  “I hope in Christ that they are innocent, and I pray that this poor cook is given strength to bear the ordeal in front of him,” Katherine said fervently, crossing herself. All the same, she could see that Chapuys was right, and that such a cruel punishment would act as a deterrent to any who might think of poisoning Mary.


  “It is not good news, Highness,” said Chapuys as he came upon Katherine in her privy garden one afternoon in March. “It has been announced in Parliament that the universities of Europe have pronounced on the King’s case. Only four out of sixteen have declared for you.”

  “They have been bribed!” she said, bitter.

  “I have no doubt of it. The majority have declared your marriage incestuous and against the law of God; they say it is therefore null and void, and that Pope Julius had no business in the first place to give a dispensation.”

  “I will never accept that,” Katherine declared.

  It seemed that the women of London agreed.

  “They are demonstrating in the streets,” Gertrude Blount reported the next day. “They cry out that the King has corrupted the learned doctors.”

  “The women of England have ever taken your Grace’s part,” Maud observed.

  “It’s a pity the men don’t heed them!” Maria sniffed. “But of course we are idiots without powers of reasoning!”

  Bishop Fisher sent a note to Katherine. He had heard, he said, that even the heretic Luther had declared that on no account could the King separate himself from his queen. Not, Katherine thought, that Henry would take any notice of a man he had called a sick and dilapidated sheep.

  There was a cool response again from his subjects when Henry’s own book about the Great Matter, A Glass of the Truth, was finally published that spring. “The people deride it,” Chapuys told Katherine. “Your Highness should hear what is being said in the taverns and—quite openly—in public. You should take heart from it. The people love you. They will tolerate no one else for Queen.”

  “I wonder the King does not punish them,” she said.

  “Did you not know? He is unwell and has taken to his bed. They say it is in consequence of his grief and anger at what his subjects are saying.”

  She was hurt that no one had told her. She must go to him. She must see for herself that he was not seriously ill. The habit of caring for him, of loving him, of fearing for him, was too deep-seated in her.

  “It’s just a fit of pique, I suspect,” Chapuys opined. “For effect!”

  “Nevertheless, I will send to ask after His Grace’s health, and if I may visit him,” Katherine said. “I will write a note.”

  As soon as it was finished, she sealed it and gave it to Maria. But when Maria opened the door, it was to find one of the Queen’s ushers crouching at the keyhole. The man leapt up, shamefaced, and made for the stairs, but too late. They had all seen him. Chapuys raced after him and hauled him back into the Queen’s presence.

  “What were you doing listening at my door?” Katherine asked him.

  The man stared at her sullenly.

  “Answer Her Highness!” Chapuys barked.

  “I wasn’t listening, your Grace,” the man said. “I had dropped a button and was looking for it.”

  “Did you find it?” Katherine asked.

  “No, your Grace.”

  “Go and look, Maria.” Maria went, and came back.

  “There is no button to be seen, madam,” she reported.

  “I must have lost it elsewhere,” the usher said.

  “Show us where it is missing,” Chapuys demanded. “Is it from your doublet or your sleeve?”

  The usher held out his arm. A button was missing from his shirt cuff. Katherine wondered if he had pulled it off while they were waiting for Maria. She did not believe his excuse, and neither, plainly, did Chapuys. But there was nothing to be done about it.

  “You may go,” she said, “and make sure you are not found loitering by my doors again.”

  The man went. They listened to his footsteps fading into the distance.

  “Check that he has gone,” Maria said. Chapuys went to the door. There was no one there.

  “One of Master Cromwell’s spies, I’ll wager,” he said. “I have reason to think that the court is full of them. I could even point out one or two known to me personally.”

  “I said nothing I would not say to the King’s face,” Katherine asserted.

  “All the same, Highness, please be careful. It’s an old saying, but in this place the walls really do have ears. And there are those who would twist your words to make them sound seditious.”

  “This cannot go on for much longer,” Katherine said. “I do believe that in the face of these public protests, the King will not dare to make this other marriage.”

  It was unsettling to find the others looking at her doubtfully. But before they could say anything, the King was announced.

  “I must go,” said Chapuys. “He must not find me here.”

  “Go out through the postern,” Katherine directed, and Maria led the ambassador through to the bedchamber, where a spiral interconnecting stair led down to the King’s lodgings and then to the privy garden below.

  Henry missed Chapuys by seconds. When he arrived, Katherine and Gertrude Blount were sitting there sewing smocks for the poor, as if they had been at it all afternoon.

  Henry did look ill. He had clearly just struggled out of his sickbed.

  “Kate, I have to tell you that Mary is seriously ill,” he said, his voice a mere croak.

  “No!” Katherine cried in alarm. “What is it?”

  “The physicians cannot say for certain, but she has kept no food down for eight days.”

  Immediately she thought of poison. “All this time, and they didn’t tell us?” She was furious.

  “They will answer for it, I promise you,” Henry vowed.

  “Let me go to her,” Katherine begged. “I must see her. I can nurse her back to health better than any doctor!” And I can protect her.

  Henry regarded her for a long moment. “You may go to Hunsdon and see her if you wish—and stop there.” For all Katherine’s distress, the emphasis in his tone alerted her. The implication of his words was ominous. Surely he wasn’t stooping so low as to take advantage of their daughter’s illness to his own purpose? But there was still that calculating gleam in his eye. She knew then. He was trying to provoke her into giving him grounds for a divorce by deserting him.

  Her maternal instincts demanded that she be with Mary, to look after her, keep her safe from her enemies and bring her through this sickness; her place was at her daughter’s side, and she was desperate t
o be on her way. But now she saw that she must stay, to protect her child in another way. All along, she had comforted herself with the knowledge that even if the Pope declared her marriage invalid, it had been made in good faith, and its issue would be deemed legitimate. Mary was Henry’s heir; no one could ever deny that or deprive her of her rights. But if Henry divorced her mother for deserting him, and married Anne Boleyn, their children would displace Mary in the line of succession.

  It was an agonizing decision.

  She met Henry’s gaze. “But my place is here with you, my lord. You are unwell too, and I would not leave you at such a time.”

  His eyes narrowed. He knew she had bested him.

  “I will send my physicians to Mary,” he muttered.

  “And I will write to Lady Salisbury and ask her to take the greatest care of her and get news to us regularly,” Katherine said. “I will also send some delicacies to tempt Mary, and pray for her speedy recovery.”

  The letter she wrote to Margaret Pole was a masterpiece of ambiguity. She urged, she counseled, she pleaded, that Mary be kept safe, begging that Margaret would read between the lines. For two days she worried and fretted and prayed, desperately beseeching and badgering God, the Virgin Mary, and the whole company of saints to restore her daughter to health.

  One morning Henry, looking much better, joined her in the chapel and knelt beside her, adding his prayers to hers.

  Eventually she rose from her knees, ready to go to dinner.

  “I am still concerned about Mary’s health,” Henry said, rising too, his manner quite different from what it was two days before, which led her to hope that his mind had been temporarily disordered by his illness. Today there was a gentleness about him that she had not seen in years. “She should be with you, her mother,” he conceded. “I am recovered now, and her need is greater. I have arranged for her to be brought by litter to Richmond Palace, and for you to join her there.” It was the nearest he would come to admitting he had been wrong—and unkind.

  “Oh, thank God! And thank you, Henry!” Katherine breathed, relief flooding her. “I have been so scared that something terrible might befall her, and I not with her.”


  Katherine was ever afterward convinced that her arrival had been a turning point in Mary’s illness, and that the Princess had begun to mend from the moment they embraced. She was shocked at the change in her pretty girl, who had always been slight and slender but was now thin and pale. Had they tried to poison her?

  “We have done everything we could,” Margaret Pole assured her, her long face drawn and tired, for she’d had little sleep these past days and nights.

  “Why didn’t you inform me how poorly she was?” Katherine asked, trying not to sound too aggrieved and scarcely crediting that her friend had been so remiss.

  “Oh, but I did, madam. I wrote on the second day.”

  “I never received the letter,” Katherine said, suspecting it had been kept from her, and not daring to wonder why. “No matter, I am here now.”

  She sat with Mary, feeding her heartening broth and poached fish and almond milk with her own hands. She read to her, fables and stories and the romances that young girls loved and Vives had deplored; she watched over her while she slept; she bathed her face and hands and combed her hair. Gradually she saw her improve, until there came the joyous day when Mary was well enough to get out of bed and take a few wobbly steps.

  While Mary slept in the evenings, Katherine took much pleasure in chatting with Margaret by the fireside. She had greatly missed seeing Margaret daily, and it was good to be together again, just the two of them. But she was perturbed by what Margaret had to tell her.

  “At fifteen the Princess should not be suffering from so many ailments, madam. I know it’s a difficult age for girls, having brought up my Ursula, but Her Grace seems overprone to painful and irregular courses and dreadful headaches.”

  “She has had a lot to cope with,” Katherine said, suppressing her mounting anger that Mary had had to suffer like this. “The troubles between the King and me must cause her great anxiety. I have seen it with my own eyes.”

  “I agree, madam. She loves His Grace and yourself equally, but it is clear to me that her sympathies lie with you, although she never criticizes the King. She often says she longs to see and comfort you in your trouble. I know that she also worries about her future. She is grown very devout, and I believe she finds much solace in religion.”

  “She has always been a pious child,” Katherine observed. “I am glad she finds comfort in it at this time.”

  “So am I, madam. It is as if it represents the security she knew when she was little, before all this happened—a fixed mark in a changing world. It hasn’t surprised me when she has gotten into a passion and said she loathes heresy in any form. I cannot tell you how greatly these latest reforms are grieving her, for she will not discuss them.”

  Katherine could have wept. Poor Mary, to have her young years blighted like this.

  “My dear friend,” she said, “when the subject comes up, please assure her that I am as cheerful as may be, and that I have good friends to support me. Tell her to continue as she is, and trust in God that all will be well, as I do. And, as ever, see that she gets plenty of good food and fresh air, and keeps busy, so that she does not have time to dwell on her worries. I, for my part, will write to her regularly, and visit her whenever I can.”


  When Katherine returned to Greenwich in April, leaving a much-restored Mary in the safe hands of Margaret Pole, it was to hear welcome news. Parliament had risen without making any pronouncements on her marriage—for now. Immediately, she wrote to the Emperor, urging him to insist on the Pope giving sentence before Parliament reconvened in October.

  Henry was still, even now, keeping up the charade that he and Katherine were happily married, notwithstanding the fact that the Lady Anne was very much in evidence. Early in May the King and Queen dined together in public, with courtiers standing around them in the presence chamber. Chapuys was there too, watching the proceedings, and within earshot. Henry conversed amiably with Katherine, keeping to the pleasantries; she responded in kind, although it took some effort because she was worried about Mary, having that morning received word from Margaret Pole that the Princess was again a little poorly. The news had resurrected her fears that Mary was being poisoned, and it seemed all wrong to be donning cloth of silver and eating rich food off gold plate when she should be winging her way to her daughter.

  She was in no mood therefore to look lightly on Anne Boleyn arriving late, making her curtsey and seating herself—when everyone else was standing—on a chair that had been set at the side of the chamber. The woman thought she could do as she pleased—and Henry allowed it. He was even smiling and nodding in Anne’s direction—and Anne did not scruple to dart a smirk of triumph at the Queen.

  Katherine gathered her courage and turned to Henry. Her voice was low, but audible to all, as she intended.

  “Sir, will you not dismiss that shameless creature?”

  Henry flushed. “No, madam, I will not.” There was a silence, as if the court was collectively holding its breath. Only the Lady Anne smiled in obvious and triumphant amusement. Henry looked furious, then visibly made an effort to master his rage. “May I help you to some syllabub?” he muttered, as if nothing had happened.

  The next day Katherine felt the force of his wrath. She had spent a sleepless night worrying about Mary, and knew she must go to her, for her own peace of mind.

  Henry received her coldly when she sought him out. His lips were pursed tight, his gaze icy.

  “Sir, might I have leave to visit Mary?” Katherine asked. “She is still unwell.”

  “Go if you wish and stop there!” he snapped. This time there was no mistaking his meaning.

  “Sir, I would not leave you for my daughter or for anyone else in the world,” Katherine declared, desperate, crushingly disappointed, and almost in tears. “Perchanc
e Mary could be brought to court?”

  “No,” said Henry. “She is better where she is. She is in good hands. Now, if there’s nothing else, I have state affairs to attend to.” Katherine knew herself dismissed.


  The very next day she was perturbed to be waited upon by a deputation of lords and bishops from the Privy Council.

  “The King has sent us, madam,” Edward Lee, who was Archbishop of York in place of Wolsey, explained, as they knelt before her. “The Bishop of Rome has sent a nuncio to tell His Grace that his case can only be tried in Rome and nowhere else. Naturally, the King will never consent to such a thing, even if the Pope were to excommunicate him. He therefore wishes you to be sensible and withdraw your appeal to Rome, and bow to the judgment of the universities.”

  Katherine stood up. “I am his lawful wife, and will so remain till the court of Rome has given judgment.” She fixed her steady gaze on the men before her. Did they not fear for their souls?

  The Archbishop swallowed audibly. “Might I remind your Grace that the King is now Head of the Church of England and does not recognize the authority of Rome?”

  “The Pope is the only true Vicar of Christ, and he alone has power to judge spiritual matters, of which marriage is one!” Katherine insisted. “I love, and have loved, my lord the King as much as any woman can love a man, but I would not have borne his company as his wife for one moment against the voice of my conscience. I came to him as a virgin, I am his true wife, and whatever proofs others may allege to the contrary, I, who know better than anyone else, tell you are lies and forgeries. Go to Rome and argue with others than a lone woman!”

  “But, madam—” the Duke of Suffolk began.

  Katherine cut him short. “God grant my husband a quiet conscience, but I mean to abide by no decision save that of Rome. And tell the King that I am ready to obey him in everything save for the obedience I owe to two higher powers—God and my conscience.”


  Once more Henry relented and allowed Mary to spend a few days with Katherine at Windsor after the court moved there in June. She had been hugely relieved to find her daughter so much better, yet there was now a sad, tormented look in Mary’s eyes, as if she bore the cares of the universe on her shoulders. It was as well that Henry had taken Anne Boleyn off to Hampton Court for the hunting.

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