Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  Katherine stood tense, listening, on the other side of the door. She heard the Duke reading out a list of the members of her household who were to leave. Such trusted, familiar names…And after years of good service, to be cast off as if they had done something wrong. She could hear a woman sobbing, and felt like crying herself.

  “You are commanded in the King’s name to refer to your mistress in future as the Princess Dowager,” Suffolk was telling them.

  “My lord, hear us out.” It was her chaplain, Father Abell, who spoke. “We have all sworn our oaths of service to Queen Katherine, and cannot perjure ourselves by calling her anything else.”

  “I was told that you were a troublemaker,” Suffolk growled. “Take him and this other priest—aye, and anyone else who causes mischief—and keep them in custody in the porter’s lodge.”

  There was a scuffle, then the outer door banged shut.

  “I’ll write to the King tonight and ask what I should do with them,” Katherine heard Suffolk say. Then, in a louder voice, “Now, those of you remaining must swear a new oath of loyalty to the Princess Dowager.”

  There was a chorus of protests as the Duke blustered and threatened and then yelled that he would report their disobedience to the King that very night. In the end, some capitulated and took the oath. Katherine heard them with a heavy heart, although she was grateful not to be deprived of all her servants. They had made their objections known and given in out of consideration for her.

  But then the most dearly loved voices spoke out: Eliza’s, and the Otwell sisters, and those of her other female attendants. No, they would not swear such an oath!

  “Then you are dismissed,” Suffolk said, and Katherine sank to the floor, her hand pressed to her mouth to stifle her outburst of protest and her sobs.

  There was a muted shuffling of footsteps, and then silence. Katherine stayed on the floor, her back pressed against the door, sunk in misery. All whom she had left were the Vargas twins, who, as Spaniards, could not be made to swear the oath. Blanche was dutiful enough, although she was fifty now and creaking in the joints, but Isabel, although a witty companion, was indolent and next to useless. How she would miss Eliza—Eliza, with her resourceful links to Chapuys! But it would not only be on account of that. She would miss Eliza’s merry soul, her kindness, and her strength. And Margery Otwell, who had been so supportive these past months. And the rest, dear, good companions whom she had cherished…

  She was aware of a footfall behind the door and then Suffolk spoke.

  “Madam, please come out!”

  She would not answer. Instead, she remained on the floor, leaning against the heavy oak door, clutching her rosary.

  “Madam, it will go the worse for you if you persist in this folly! Listen to reason, I pray you.”

  “Your Grace, the Duke speaks sense!” That was Lord Mountjoy.

  “What you are doing is against all reason,” Suffolk chimed in.

  “I will not come out, and I will not go to Somersham unless you bind me with ropes and violently force me to it!” Katherine said at length. “And I will not be served by any sworn to me as the Princess Dowager.”

  “Madam, your necessary women will be replaced with those who are more obedient to the King’s Grace.”

  “I will not accept any others!” she cried. “Failing proper attendants, I will sleep in my clothes and keep this door locked!”

  Again there was muttering outside the door. “By her willfulness she may feign herself sick and keep to her bed,” she heard Suffolk say, “or refuse to put on her clothes, or otherwise conduct herself in some other foolish way. By God, she is the most obstinate woman!”

  “But she must be adequately served,” Mountjoy murmured.

  “Very well,” Suffolk called. “Two of your women may remain. Who are they to be?”

  Katherine breathed deeply in relief. “Thank you, my lord! I will have Elizabeth Darrell and Margery Otwell.”

  “Very well,” the Duke said. “But they are not to address you as Queen. And you must come out.”

  “No,” Katherine said.

  She heard Suffolk sigh.

  “Is the only remedy to convey her by force to Somersham?” Mountjoy asked. “I must admit I find the prospect distasteful.”

  “I too,” Suffolk grunted. “My mother-in-law will never speak to me again, although that would be a blessing, I promise you! But I can’t just manhandle her out of the house. I must ask what the King’s express pleasure is in regard to it. I hope to God I hear back by the twenty-first, otherwise there won’t be time before Christmas to remove her.” He lowered his voice, but Katherine could make out his words. “My lord,” he murmured, “I have found things here far from the King’s expectations.”

  “How does your lordship mean?”

  “His Grace imagines that the Princess Dowager is in high health and fighting spirits, and ready to make war on him. But I was shocked to see how she has deteriorated in health. She has lost weight and looks ill. Believe me, I do not relish harrying a sick woman to move to a ruinous house. If the King knew, I am sure he would choose some other lodging.”

  If the Lady Anne would let him! Katherine thought grimly, struggling to her feet and moving into her bedchamber. She did not want to hear more. She was disturbed by Suffolk’s concerns about her health, for she had not realized that she looked so ill. It was true, she had lost weight, but that was the consequence of so much fasting, and the monotonous diet she was served. Lately, she had increasingly felt that vague sense of malaise, but had put it down to the cumulative effects of the damp, cold conditions at Buckden.

  She peered at herself in her glass. A pale, haggard face stared back. Faded, sunken…old. Her looks had gone, but that was to be expected at forty-eight. She did look drawn, but who would not, in her circumstances?

  The voices had ceased now. She was all alone at the top of the tower, with no one to attend her. She had not eaten, but that did not matter, for she was not hungry. She tried to pray, but was too disturbed in her mind, and fearful of what the morrow might bring. There were no rushlights to light the candles, so her rooms were in darkness, and they were freezing. Lacking her maids, she could not unlace her gown and undress for bed, but no matter, it was too cold to disrobe. Removing her hood, her shoes, and the pendant she always wore—the cross with the three pearls that Henry had given her long ago—she climbed fully dressed into bed and huddled down under the covers.

  —

  She was woken the next morning by Suffolk banging on the door. She ignored him and sat at her mirror, trying to tidy her hair and arrange her hood. It was so cold that she hunted out a thick shawl and wrapped it around herself.

  Lord Mountjoy was at the door now, calling out that he had brought her some food with which to break her fast. She was light-headed with hunger but dared not open the door, lest she be seized and taken by force to Somersham.

  “Take it away!” she cried. He pleaded with her, but she stuck to her resolve.

  Shivering, she went to her window to look down on the frost-covered world beyond, and then she saw a strange thing. There were men—local farmworkers and laborers, by the look of the homespun clothing in which they were bundled—and they were gathering silently beyond the wall that encircled the palace, ranging themselves at intervals along the perimeter. They had in their gloved hands scythes, pitchforks, and other farm implements, and they were holding them at the ready, as if they were weapons. They did nothing, but stood there, watching and waiting.

  Katherine stared at them for a long time. What did they want? Why had they come? Then she saw one of her dismissed servants among the watchers, and enlightenment dawned. Those of her people who had been dismissed must have told the local folk what was going on in the tower. And so they had come, these good, true men, to make their silent protest and protect their beloved queen. The sight cheered her immensely.

  —

  Later that day she was overjoyed to hear Eliza’s voice at her door.


  “Madam, I have brought you food. The carpenter is with me. He will knock out one of the lower panels of the door so that I can pass it in.” Thanks be to God, Katherine breathed. She was near to fainting through lack of sustenance.

  “Is Margery still here?” she called.

  “Yes, she is to stay too, madam.”

  “I am so pleased. I asked for you both. The Duke would only let me keep two of you. I hope that Margery is not upset about Elizabeth having to leave.”

  “She understands, madam. Do not worry.”

  A few bangs with a hammer and the panel was on the floor. Above the din, Eliza called, “Look out of your window, your Grace! The commons hereabouts are come to support you. The Duke is most uneasy about it. He will do nothing more until he receives instructions from the King.”

  Katherine went back to the window. There were more men gathered below now, all of them just standing and watching. But there was an air of menace about them. She was not surprised that Suffolk was afraid.

  —

  On the last day of December, when she had been shut in her privy chamber for nigh on two weeks, Lord Mountjoy came to tell her that Suffolk had left for the court, and that the King had ordered that she was to remain at Buckden for the present. She sighed with relief, then looked again out of her window. The laborers, who had stayed on watch, changing shifts, all this time, were gone, and because of that she knew it was safe to open her door.

  She emerged into a presence chamber stripped of its chair and canopy of estate, and called for her household to attend her. But pitifully few came. Two years ago she’d had 250 maids of honor, but now she had just three—Eliza Darrell, Blanche and Isabel de Vargas—and her sole remaining chamberer, Margery Otwell. Even though Margery protested that she was rather old to be a maid of honor, Katherine resolved immediately to promote her to the same rank as the other three, as compensation for the dismissal of her sister. Besides these ladies there was her tailor, Mr. Wheeler; his wife, Dorothy; her two physicians; her apothecary, Master Juan; and her grooms and ushers, Philip, Anthony, and Bastien. She had also been left her laundress, her cook, the little maids who cleaned for her, her goldsmith, the faithful Francisco Felipez, and her Spanish confessor, the Bishop of Llandaff. Most of them were growing long in the tooth now, and her doctors certainly should have been enjoying a tranquil retirement. This was not the life they were destined for, yet they had all chosen to stay and share her privations. It humbled her.

  “They let me remain, madam, because they thought I would do less harm than anyone else,” the bishop told her. “But your English chaplains—Father Abell and Father Forrest—were made to leave.”

  She embraced them all, deeply grateful to have their friendly faces about her. And then she called for a good dinner—or what passed for one here—at which everyone, even the astonished laundress, was to be seated at her table.

  1534

  Katherine had feared that her defiance of Suffolk would lead to greater restrictions being placed on her household, but Eliza was able to come and go as before, which was how Katherine learned from Chapuys that—at last, at last—Pope Clement had convened the consistory court that would decide the King’s case.

  “Eliza, there is no time to be lost. Is there any way we can get a letter to the Emperor?” she asked.

  “I will do my best, madam,” the girl promised.

  Later that day she returned from the Lion Inn and reported seeing a ship’s master there, home between voyages to visit his family. He was soon to return to his vessel at Boston on the Lincolnshire coast, and would be visiting Bruges, where he said a ship could be found to convey a letter to Spain.

  “Oh, that is wonderful!” Katherine cried. “Thank you, dear girl!”

  She called for writing materials and wrote to her nephew. If anyone could influence this new Papal Court, he could. Beg His Holiness to act as he ought for God’s service and the tranquillity of Christendom, she urged. All other considerations, even the lives of myself and my daughter, ought to be put aside. There is no need to tell you of our sufferings. I could not endure so much did I not think these things suffered for God’s sake. As long as I live, I shall not fail to defend our rights.

  The weeks went by as January gave place to February, and when Katherine thought she might begin to look for a response, a letter came from Chapuys. She was disturbed to learn that he had again urged the Emperor to declare war on Henry, but Charles had informed him that, though he was bound to his aunt, this was a private matter, and public considerations had to be taken into account. In future, Katherine was to communicate with him through Chapuys, rather than directly, to avoid any accusations of her inciting war. It was well meant, but it confirmed what she had recently begun to suspect: that her nephew did not regard her sufferings as politically critical. And that came like a slap in the face.

  —

  That February, whether it was from the stress of worrying about what the Pope would say or the effects of the bitter winter, Katherine fell ill and had to take to her bed. She lay there feverish and shuddering, coughing incessantly, while her maids soothed her raging brow with damp cloths and Dr. de la Saa tested her urine and prescribed feverfew, although when he had gone Margery Otwell was adamant that a slice of toast soaked in vinegar and applied to the throat would be more effective, while Blanche said that her grandmother in Toledo swore by eating spiders coated in butter. Katherine was too poorly to care. Her feet and legs had swelled, and in the mornings her eyes were puffy. Dr. de la Saa said it was dropsy and shook his head, looking worried.

  But gradually Katherine began to recover. Early in March she was well enough to leave her bed and sit in her chair, but she was thinner than ever and her once-golden hair had turned completely gray. What would Henry think of me now? she wondered. And Mary? Perhaps it was as well the dear child could not see her looking so old and ill.

  A letter came from Chapuys. Eliza, that resourceful girl, had kept him informed of her mistress’s progress, and he had been most concerned. I rejoice to hear that your Highness is better, he had written. I was worried that means were being employed to hasten your death. I feared that they were trying to give you artificial dropsy. It is a relief to me to know that you are recovering.

  Had there been an attempt on her life? Much perturbed, she consulted both Dr. de la Saa and Dr. Guersye, but neither of them took the possibility seriously.

  “I have seen these evil humors many times,” Dr. Guersye said. “Had your Grace been living in a better place, you would have recovered sooner.”

  Katherine’s convalescence received a setback when news came that the Lady was expecting another child. She wishes to bring the Princess Mary over to her side, Chapuys wrote.

  When the Lady visited the little bastard, she urged the Princess to visit her and honor her as Queen, saying it would be a means of reconciliation with the King, and that she herself would intercede with him for her. The Princess replied that she knew no queen in England except her mother, but if Madam Boleyn would do her that favor with her father, she would be much obliged. The Lady repeated her offer, but to no effect, and in the end she made all manner of threats to the Princess Mary, but could not move her. She was very indignant.

  Katherine was glad to hear that Mary was standing up for what was right, but fearful lest there should be consequences. Worrying about her daughter kept her awake at night and hindered her recovery. Then, to her dismay, she heard from Chapuys that Mary had refused to accompany Elizabeth’s household when it moved to the More and was manhandled into a litter. This is my fault, the ambassador confessed.

  In order to prevent her father and his lady from thinking she was worn down and conquered by ill-treatment, I had advised her to speak out boldly, but not to do anything so extreme that it led to her being taken by force, for fear of irritating her father. Now the King is very angry with her, and the Princess is in great distress. Three times she has written to me from the More, to know what to do. I have warned her not to behave as
she did, and enjoined her to obey her father in all matters save that issue that touches her conscience.

  It was sound advice, Katherine knew. Yet for all her fears for her daughter, something inside her thrilled to Mary’s defiant stand.

  —

  Soon afterward, Lord Mountjoy sought her out.

  “I bring important news that will affect you, madam,” he informed her. “Parliament has deprived you of the lands settled on you as Queen, and returned to you those that you once held as Prince Arthur’s widow. The Queen’s lands have been assigned to Queen Anne.”

  “Not all the estates in the kingdom can make her Queen in truth,” Katherine said.

  “Your Grace must not say so,” Mountjoy reproved her, with a smile that belied his words. “I am also commanded to tell you that Parliament has passed an act confirming the judgments of His Grace of Canterbury that your marriage is invalid and that the matrimony between the King and Queen Anne is good and lawful.” He swallowed. “And that your daughter, the Lady Mary, is declared illegitimate in law. Madam, pray allow me to finish! This act also settles the succession on the issue of the King and Queen Anne, and it requires all the King’s subjects, if so commanded, to swear an oath acknowledging Queen Anne as the King’s lawful wife, and the Princess Elizabeth as his legitimate heir—and recognizing His Grace as Supreme Head of the Church in England under Christ.”

  “I will never swear to any of it!” Katherine vowed.

  “Anyone refusing to swear will be accounted guilty of misprision of treason and sent to prison,” Lord Mountjoy warned her.

  “I might remind you, my lord, that I am already a prisoner, but if the King wishes to send me to the Tower, I am ready to go!” she countered. “I will never say that my marriage is not lawful and that my daughter is a bastard. And she is the Princess Mary, not the Lady Mary!”

  —

  The Pope had finally spoken: her marriage was lawful and valid.

 
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