Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  But there had to be more to it than that, she thought. Not a year before, Anne had been the mistress and Henry the adoring servant. Probably he was discovering that Anne was not fit to be Queen. What had been alluring in a mistress did not always become a wife. It was satisfying to know that he had compared Anne with her and found Anne wanting. He might well have gone to other women for what he could not enjoy with Anne while she was pregnant, but the fact that he could even contemplate doing so led Katherine to hope that his feelings for the Lady were no longer as intense as they had been.


  When the church bells started pealing one morning in early September, Katherine stopped what she was doing, catching her breath at the realization that they might be ringing out in rejoicing for the birth of a son to Henry and Anne. If so, she did not think she could bear it. So when Lord Mountjoy came and announced in clipped tones that a princess had been born, she did not know whether to exult or weep.

  Chapuys wrote that Henry and Anne had shown great disappointment at the child’s sex. They hold it a great reproach to all the doctors and astrologers who had predicted that it would be a boy. I can only conclude that God has entirely abandoned this king.

  Katherine was horrified to learn that Gertrude Blount had been appointed one of the godmothers—and she suspected that Gertrude’s father, Lord Mountjoy, was too, although he would never have let it show. Lady Exeter wanted nothing to do with it, Chapuys related. She had refused to attend the Lady’s coronation, but was commanded in this case, and she and her husband were warned by the King that they must not trip for fear of losing their heads. Henry had Gertrude in a corner, for her very public role at the ceremony would lead people to think she had abandoned Katherine. But Katherine could not believe it. It is an honor born of malice, she thought.

  The little bastard’s christening was cold and disagreeable, Chapuys continued. There were no fireworks, or any bonfires lit in the City of London.

  Little bastard or not, the child, who had been given the name Elizabeth after Henry’s mother, was still being vaunted as his true-begotten heir, while the rights of Mary were apparently being ignored. And yet Mary had the prior claim to the succession. Katherine felt desperate. What could she do? She was helpless, immured here at Buckden. She could only cling on to her much-tested faith in Henry’s innate goodness and his love for Mary, and pray that his sinful passion for Anne would die.

  Chapuys mentioned, almost in passing, that the Duke of Suffolk had remarried. Katherine found that shocking, given that the poor French Queen had been in her grave less than three months, but as she read on her eyes widened. Suffolk’s new wife was Maria’s daughter, her own godchild, Katherine Willoughby. Katherine did a rapid calculation: the girl was just fourteen, whereas Suffolk must be all of fifty! And he had not waited to observe a decent period of mourning. Of course, he had coveted Katherine Willoughby’s estates and riches, she being a great heiress. But—wait a minute—had not the girl been betrothed to his son some years ago? She was sure she remembered Maria telling her that. In which case he had wronged not only his late wife’s memory but also his own flesh and blood. And—she almost smiled to herself—with his stolen bride he had gotten a mother-in-law who loathed him! She could imagine how relations stood between those two: Maria, the great friend of the Queen, and Suffolk, the willing tool of the King. It seemed there was some natural justice in this world after all.


  Eliza had told Katherine that the guards were now not averse to sharing a bit of gossip, but one day she came back from her errands crying her eyes out, and it took some persuading before Katherine could get her to repeat what they had told her.

  “They said that the next Parliament would decide if your Grace and the Princess were to suffer martyrdom,” she sobbed.

  Trembling uncontrollably, Katherine sent for Lord Mountjoy and asked him if it was true.

  His heavy-lidded, watchful eyes filled with the compassion he dared not admit to. “The soldiers have preempted me, madam. I was about to inform you that I have received instructions from the council to warn you of the danger.”

  She felt sick to her stomach at hearing that, but outraged too.

  “It is nothing but a malicious ploy to frighten me into submission!” she declared, sounding a lot braver than she felt. Lord Mountjoy said nothing, but his eyes were eloquent. She thought he was trying to tell her that it was just that, a ploy to frighten her.

  But what if it were true?

  “I am ready to face martyrdom,” she informed Chapuys, “and I know the Princess is just as staunch in her convictions.” The thought of Mary, her innocent, sweet-natured child, facing martyrdom was nevertheless unbearable, but she held to her resolve. “I hope that God will accept it as an act of merit, as we shall suffer for the sake of the truth. Rest assured, I do not fear it.”

  For all her brave words, she became horribly afraid when Chapuys wrote that he thought it ominous that her guardians had been instructed to break her resistance by relaying such threats. The King has no legal grounds for proceeding against you, but the Princess is without doubt his subject, which is why I fear for her. Reeling at that, Katherine could only conclude with Chapuys that the English government had gone mad. It was a relief to know that he had written to the Emperor, imploring him yet again to press the Pope to delay no further in pronouncing sentence. The matter was now urgent, he had stressed, for the recent arrest for treason of the Nun of Kent showed that Henry meant to deal harshly with those who opposed him. Katherine prayed that, when it came to her and Mary, his fear of reprisals from Charles would stay his hand.

  She prayed too for the Nun of Kent, that poor, misguided creature. She thanked God that she had consistently refused to grant the woman an audience, for had she done so, it would be easy for them to implicate her in the nun’s treason. No doubt Cromwell was now doing his efficient best to discover if she had ever written or sent a message to the nun. But she was perfectly at ease on that score.


  Lord Mountjoy stood before Katherine. He had aged in her service during these past, difficult years, and was a shadow of the handsome, assured young scholar he had once been.

  She realized that the latest threats against her and Mary had strained this good man’s loyalty too far.

  “Your Grace,” he said, his voice breaking, “I have come to tell you that I have asked to be relieved of my duties as chamberlain.” He hesitated as he saw her eyes fill with tears. “I can no longer be a party to the ill-treatment to which you are being subjected. I do not see it as my part to vex and disturb you, for the King’s Grace had me sworn to serve you to the best of my power. I would rather serve him in any cause, even a dangerous one, than meddle further in this.”

  “Oh, this is a very sad day, my lord,” Katherine said, touched beyond measure at such candid and loyal support. She had long suspected that Lord Mountjoy was deeply unhappy about carrying out the orders that came from the council, but she had never expected him to speak out openly against the King.

  “You have served me faithfully for so many years,” she said, just holding herself together. “I will be deeply sorry to see you go.”

  But as she prepared herself to lose yet another true friend, the King’s answer was returned. Henry would not permit Lord Mountjoy to resign.

  “I am so glad,” she told him, overwhelmed with relief, and grateful that Henry had unwittingly left her an ally.

  He looked at her a little shamefacedly. “From now on, I will do all in my power to make life easier for you,” he assured her.

  “That will be a great comfort to me, my lord,” she told him. “And if you have to be severe to me in the presence of others, I will understand.”


  News from Chapuys came fairly regularly now. No one seemed to suspect that Eliza’s forays into Buckden were for any purpose other than buying provisions. Katherine heard that the Nun of Kent had been made to do public penance, walking through the streets of London to Pau
l’s Cross, where a sermon was preached against her. The King wants Parliament to pass an Act of Attainder condemning her, Chapuys wrote. He does not want her tried in open court, for he fears demonstrations against himself. Even King Richard the Third was never so much hated by his people as this king, and there is little love for the Lady.

  In December, Katherine learned that Anne’s daughter had been given her own household at Hatfield. Mary had refused to recognize Elizabeth as their father’s heir and bravely insisted that she alone was the King’s true daughter, born in lawful matrimony. She had spoken up and declared that she would be slandering and dishonoring her mother, her father, the Holy Church, and the Pope if she falsely confessed herself a bastard.

  No one could make her a bastard, Katherine was certain. Her parents had married in good faith. Yet evidently that was what they were trying to do. And if Mary continued to defy the King, they would surely redouble their efforts. While she applauded Mary’s courageous stand, she feared it had been unwise.

  The King himself is not ill-natured, Chapuys observed. It is this Anne who has put him in this perverse and wicked temper, and alienates him from his former humanity.

  Anne was patently jealous—and she was aware that Mary was popular and that her own child was seen by many as a bastard. No doubt she feared—and rightly—that Mary would become a focus for those who opposed her marriage. And so she was taking her revenge. Katherine was appalled to hear that Mary had been deprived of the title of Princess; her palace of Beaulieu was given to George Boleyn; her jewels taken from her and given to Anne herself, who had said that the King’s bastard daughter could not be permitted to wear what was meant for his lawful heir. Then came the shocking news that Mary’s household had been disbanded and she herself sent to Hatfield to serve as a maid of honor to Elizabeth. Worse still, her beloved Lady Salisbury had been dismissed for refusing to surrender Mary’s jewels to Anne Boleyn, and in her place Lady Shelton, Anne Boleyn’s aunt, by all accounts was treating Mary harshly. Katherine knew that her daughter was afraid of being forced into a compromising situation that would besmirch her honor, and was therefore constantly on her guard.

  Katherine suffered agonies at the thought of what her poor child was enduring. It frightened her to hear that Mary’s health was deteriorating. Chapuys had written that Mary lived in fear of being poisoned, and Katherine’s fevered imagination took flight at that, for her daughter was surrounded by hostile Boleyn kinsfolk and adherents who were unkind and often insolent, and might not scruple to stoop to evil.


  That winter was bitter. Much of the Great Fen was flooded, and when the water froze, the inhabitants could be seen crossing it on skates made of animal bones. The winds that blew unhindered across the flat land whistled and roared through every crevice in doors and windows, and down chimneys, and the old tower seemed damper and colder than ever.

  Katherine knew that her health had suffered from living in such severe conditions. She had a vague, ill-defined feeling of creeping malaise, nothing she could describe specifically but debilitating all the same. Dr. de la Saa and Dr. Guersye prescribed endless cordials and herbal infusions, but none helped. Even her younger maids were complaining of chilblains and perpetually runny noses.

  They could not go on like this. The place was gradually killing them.

  Katherine sent a message to the council, asking if the King would permit her to move to a healthier house. But before they could respond a letter came posthaste from Chapuys.

  The Lady has urged that your Grace be moved to Somersham Castle, another residence surrounded by deep water and marshes. The King, who dares not contradict her, has agreed to shut up your Grace in this island and to accuse you of being as insane as Queen Juana is reputed to be. I protested in the strongest terms that Somersham is the most unhealthy and pestilential house in England, and thanks to my intervention the King has changed his mind, although he was not best pleased that I had interfered. Still, he is in fear of the Emperor.

  Sure enough, Lord Mountjoy was soon telling Katherine that the King had offered to move her to Fotheringhay Castle, which she herself had once owned in the days when she was the unchallenged Queen. But Chapuys had been deceived. In those distant, early years she had lavished money on it, yet hardly visited enough to justify the outlay, which was wasted anyway, for long afterward both she and Henry were informed that the refurbishments had not saved the ancient fabric of the buildings from advancing decay. Heaven only knew what condition Fotheringhay was in now—it was probably in a more pitiful state than Somersham.

  The worst thing was that Henry knew it.

  Katherine turned to Lord Mountjoy. “I have no mind to go to Fotheringhay, although I very much wish to leave this place.”

  “I will write to the King,” the chamberlain said.


  Katherine hoped she would hear no more of the matter. Christmas was almost upon them, and while she was steeling herself to endure another Yuletide without Mary, the household at Buckden was doing its best to put on a brave face in honor of the season and make meager preparations for some good cheer, although inevitably it looked as if fish would be on the menu as usual. Then suddenly the Duke of Suffolk arrived, at the head of a detachment of the King’s guards.

  Suffolk was no longer the handsome and debonair gallant who had clandestinely married the King’s sister. The man who bowed before Katherine was running to fat, and his spade-shaped beard was streaked with gray. Even so, the likeness to Henry still struck her, though God forbid that her husband would ever look as decrepit as the Duke. How must Maria feel, seeing her daughter tied to this miserable specimen of manhood?

  Huddled in his furs, Suffolk edged closer to the fire beside which Katherine was sitting. She was glad that he was experiencing for himself the biting cold and the unhealthy miasma of this place; hopefully he would report back to his friend the King.

  He stood before her, the big fellow, looking unaccustomedly awkward. Katherine wondered why he had come.

  “How is my goddaughter?” she asked, since he seemed to be in no hurry to inform her of the purpose of his visit.

  Suffolk frowned. “I did not come to exchange pleasantries, madam,” he blustered. “It’s about other matters.” He paused, shifting his weight from foot to foot. She guessed that he did not relish what he had come to say, and was wishing himself back with his young bride, in the warmth and splendor of a court preparing for Christmas.

  “Madam,” he said, his voice gruff, “I had hoped on the way here to meet with an accident that would have prevented me from carrying out my orders, for I am commanded to dismiss all but the most necessary of your servants. Those who remain are to undertake not to address you as Queen, but as Princess Dowager.”

  “You must do as you are commanded, but you know, for I have told you myself, that I will never acknowledge that title,” Katherine said sternly.

  “You had best beware how far you provoke the King, madam. You see these letters…” Suffolk produced from inside his doublet a sheaf of papers and handed them to her. They were copies of her letters to the Pope.

  “May I remind your Grace of how you have sought means to bring grief to the King and his realm? Well, I am here to ensure that henceforth you shall not be suffered to do that.”

  Katherine retorted heatedly, “And may I remind you, my lord, that it was my plea to His Holiness that saved the King from excommunication! My husband knows that I wish him no harm, and that I render obedience to him in all ways save those that touch my conscience. He knows too that when it comes to the legality of our marriage, I would rather be torn in pieces than admit I am not his wife!”

  “I see you are as obdurate as ever,” Suffolk sighed, “and that being so, I am commanded to escort you to Somersham without delay.”

  “No,” Katherine said. “I am not going. I would be putting myself and my servants at peril if I did. This house is unhealthy enough, but Somersham is worse. The King knows as much and that I do not want
to remove there.”

  “The King is adamant.”

  “I have told you, it is out of the question.” She could feel her temper rising again.

  “Madam, if you don’t go of your own accord, I will have to make you. Those are His Grace’s orders.”

  “I have said no! Did you not hear me, my lord?”

  “I have my orders, madam!”

  This was not to be borne! She would not go. She would stay here, and let them dare try to force her. She was so furious she was shaking. Without a word, she stood up and in a few quick steps had made the safety of her privy chamber, slamming the door behind her and dropping the thick oak bar into its metal cradle.

  “If you wish to take me with you, you will have to break the door down!” she cried, her heart pounding.

  The Duke banged on the door. “Madam, come out!” he called. “It is useless to defy the King’s orders. Do not make things worse for yourself.”

  “It will be the worse for me if I go to Somersham. It will kill me!”

  “The King may construe your disobedience as treason.”

  “And I may construe his orders as inhumane! Does he want my death on his conscience?”

  They argued for at least ten minutes, until the Duke fell silent. After a space, Katherine heard men’s muted voices in the outer chamber. She bent her ear to the keyhole.

  “I dare not break down the door or seize her by force,” Suffolk was saying. “She is the Emperor’s aunt, and there might be repercussions. Let us proceed to the dismissal of her servants. My Lord Mountjoy, will you summon them here?”

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