Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  She felt her knees buckle beneath her as she read Chapuys’s letter, and sank down on a stool. Evidently, the news had spread by other means as well, for they were ringing the church bells in Buckden.

  Unable quite to believe it, she summoned her household and told them the good tidings, then she left them rejoicing and hugging each other and went to the chapel to render profound and hearty thanks to God, who had vindicated her at last. Seven long years she had waited for this moment, and she could hardly believe it had come. She was the King’s true wife. No one could now deny it. Nor could they deny that Mary was his legitimate daughter and rightful heir. Her daughter’s anxieties could be laid to rest now. There would be no more wrangling, no more waiting, no more unpleasantness.

  The King, Chapuys had written, was ordered by the Pope to resume cohabitation at once with his lawful wife and Queen. He has been instructed to hold your Highness and maintain you with love and honor, as a loving husband, as his kingly honor requires him to do, and if he refuses, he will be excommunicated. He is also to pay the costs of the case. Already the people are celebrating in the streets…

  Indeed they were! Looking down from the tower, she could see a crowd gathering at the gates, cheering and calling for her. She waved, smiling, bowing her head in thanks. Soon, surely, she would be riding down the Great North Road to London and the court, and more people would come running to see her, and she would express her deepest gratitude for their steadfastness and loyalty.

  There would be no bitterness, no reproaches. She would return to Henry brimming with love, and with forgiveness in her heart, happy to be restored to her rightful place. She would not be vindictive to Anne, but would show herself generous. Anne would have to leave court, of course, taking her infant with her, and Mary would be reinstated as Henry’s true heir. No doubt Henry would find Elizabeth a husband in time. He had provided handsomely for his other bastard.

  Katherine sent for Lord Mountjoy and knew by his jubilant expression that he had heard the news.

  “You have learned of the Pope’s sentence, my lord?”

  “Yes, your Grace, I have. May I be the first to congratulate you?” He beamed at her. He too was pleased that this dreadful business was at an end.

  “Have you heard from the King?”

  “I have heard nothing as yet, madam.”

  “I am sure we will hear soon. I should be making ready to return to court.”

  Lord Mountjoy frowned. “I regret that I cannot allow your Grace to leave without the King’s sanction.”

  “Of course.” She smiled at him. “It will not be long to wait!”

  As Lord Mountjoy left her chamber, Katherine paused to wonder how Henry was feeling. She remembered him saying vehemently that he would not heed the Pope, whatever judgment he gave, but she knew that underneath the anger and the bravado, there lurked a true son of the Church who had been led astray, and she could not believe that he would ignore this ruling. It would jolt him into the realization of what he was doing, and how he had put his immortal soul in peril. No man liked to be proved wrong, especially kings, and Henry had been infatuated with Anne. Yet maybe the signs had been accurate, and he was tiring of her. Her pregnancy complicated matters, of course, but no one could argue with the Pope’s declaration. Katherine would go gently with Henry. She would give him time and win back his love by kindness.

  She had her maids pull her gowns out of the chest. They were all showing signs of wear.

  “I think the crimson velvet will pass,” she said. “Have it brushed and hung up to air. And there’s a biliment on my gold hood that needs stitching back on. I want to look my best for His Grace.”

  Her maids washed her hair in water and wood ash, and laundered her finest body linen. The summons would come soon, she was sure, and she wanted to be ready to leave immediately. Happily, she immersed herself in plans for recalling her dismissed servants, for inviting Maria back to court and recalling Margaret Pole to be Mary’s governess. Maybe Henry would look kindly on reinstating Thomas More as chancellor. Now that there was no Great Matter forcing people to take sides and causing bad feeling, the world could set itself to rights.

  There remained the question of the succession, but Mary was now of marriageable age. She could be wed to Reginald Pole, as Katherine had long desired; their union would surely find favor with the people, and the royal houses of York and Tudor would again be united. Their marriage would also lay to rest the specter of civil war that had haunted Henry for as long as Katherine could remember, for if Mary bore a son, that would solve the problem of the succession. Katherine could see the years stretching ahead, herself and Henry growing mellow with age together, surrounded by grandchildren, at peace with Christendom.


  But a fortnight passed and no summons came. Gradually the bitter truth dawned: nothing had changed as far as Henry was concerned. He was entirely Anne’s creature, and Cromwell’s, so much so that he remained determined to defy the Holy See.

  This was the most crushing disappointment that Katherine had had to bear. It was cruel, cruel, to have won her case only to have it made plain to her that it made no difference. All along she had never doubted that Henry would abide by the Pope’s judgment, but now she saw how far he had separated himself from Rome.

  She wept—how she wept! Abandoning the proper distance imposed by rank, she sobbed in Eliza’s arms, crying out against the unjustness of it all. And when she thought of Mary and how this would affect her, she cried and raged all the more.

  She dragged herself out of her misery and wrote to Chapuys: I imagined that when the Papal sentence was delivered, the King would return to the right path. But I now realize that it is absolutely necessary to apply stronger remedies to this evil. What they are to be, I cannot say, but a means must be found to bring the King to his senses. After the letter had been sent, she realized that anyone reading it might be forgiven for thinking she was sanctioning war, but what she really hoped was that the Emperor and the Pope would content themselves with threats that Henry could not ignore. What he did not know was that she had no real expectation of Charles doing anything more for her.

  But Chapuys replied that the Emperor would not fail to do what was necessary for the execution of the Pope’s sentence. That heartened her, until she read on: What is necessary, your Highness, is armed force, but His Imperial Majesty will not take that course unless you yourself specifically ask it. He means to compel the Pope to excommunicate the King, in the hope that it will bring him to his senses. That sounded like a sensible, if drastic, course, and Katherine hoped against hope that Henry would take heed and soon be restored to the fold.

  She hoped too that Charles would act soon, because it seemed that Henry was now determined to punish any who opposed him.

  No one dares speak out against him, Chapuys informed her. Cromwell is rigorously enforcing the oath, and most are taking it without demur. But Bishop Fisher had refused to do so. I am told that he received terrible letters from the King about it. Now he has been deprived of his office, attainted for treason, and imprisoned in the Tower, in great danger of his life, even though he has written to His Majesty protesting his loyalty.

  Katherine’s heart pounded in fits and starts as she read this, and she had to sit down. That good, upright man, who had been such a friend to her and was respected by all. How could Henry treat him so badly? And how, being advanced in years, would he fare in the Tower? Who would dare send him food and warm clothing?

  But even more terrible news followed. She could not believe that Henry had also sent his good friend, Sir Thomas More, to the Tower. He loved More! He had always admired and revered him, and hung on his every word. But More had refused the oath. It did not matter that he had declared himself the King’s loyal subject and denied having ever been against Henry marrying Anne Boleyn. Even the royal commissioners had wanted to discharge him, Chapuys reported. But the Lady, by her importunate clamor, sorely exasperated the King against him. Many are shocked by his arr
est. I am convinced that the harassment to which he and Bishop Fisher have been subjected is entirely due to their having espoused your Highness’s cause.

  No doubt Cromwell had done much of the harassing, Katherine thought. She was crushed to learn that after his appointment to a succession of ever higher offices, he had now been made principal secretary to the King, which meant he could wield even greater influence over Henry. And Henry, as Katherine knew, was suggestible. With such a man at the helm of affairs, there was no knowing what might happen. Between them, Anne and Cromwell had gained the King’s heart and mind, and under the pretense of serving his will were using him for their own evil, heretical ends. And Henry was too besotted to see it!

  Katherine was horrified to read in Chapuys’s next letter that the Nun of Kent and five of her supporters, among them two priests, had been executed before a great crowd at Tyburn. They were drawn on hurdles to the gallows, and there the nun was hanged until dead, then beheaded. The men suffered hanging, drawing, and quartering. It was the first blood spilled as a result of the Great Matter, and Katherine, fighting down terror, feared that it would not be the last. It was a measure of Henry’s anger with the Pope that he was prepared to go this far in order to deter opposition. But that he could put priests to death like common felons was not only horrible—it was sacrilege!

  The world had definitely gone mad. Katherine trembled to think how much further Henry would go. Would she be next?


  Mary was ill. After four months of misery and ill-treatment in Elizabeth’s household, her health had broken down. Katherine read Chapuys’s letter aloud to Eliza, needing to share her anxiety.

  “ ‘I have pleaded with the council and with Master Cromwell to let the Princess come to your Highness,’ the ambassador writes, ‘and I have promised that I myself will stand surety for the good conduct of you both, but the King does not trust me. He fears that if you and your daughter are allowed to be together, you will plot against him and summon the forces of the Emperor to your aid. I sought Cromwell’s help, but he will only promise to ask the King to send his physician to the Princess, but I do not think he will keep his word, or that the King would make much account of it. Cromwell’s words are fair, but I fear he really desires the Princess’s death. He told me that her present predicament was her own fault, and that if it pleased God…He left the sentence unfinished. This worries me, and I feel I must alert your Highness to the danger, for I have heard the Lady say she will not be satisfied until you and your daughter have been done to death by poison or otherwise. Therefore I beg you to exercise constant vigilance to ensure that your food is prepared only by those servants you trust.’ ”

  Coming on top of the news of what had befallen Fisher, More, and the Nun of Kent, this warning struck terror, physically, into Katherine’s heart. As Eliza knelt before her, taking her hands in hers and trying to offer some comfort, Katherine had to pause until the palpitations stilled and she’d gotten her breath back. Then she took stock, steeling herself to face the truth.

  Henry had not scrupled to send her to Buckden, which he knew to be unhealthy, and he had tried to make her go to Somersham, a house in even worse condition. She might be forgiven for concluding that he wanted her dead, save for the fact that he was in thrall to Anne Boleyn, and it was clear that she would stop at nothing, and that she was in a strong position to have her way. The child she was carrying might be a boy, but until she had a son, she was insecure on her throne. If Henry’s love for her had diminished, there was always a chance that he would heed the Pope’s sentence and return to her. Katherine knew she was still popular, and that the rift between the King and the Emperor over the Great Matter had had a bad impact on England’s trade with the Low Countries. No wonder the people wanted her back! And no wonder they hated Anne.

  There could be little doubt that Anne saw her and Mary as deadly threats to her security. Neither you yourself, nor the Princess, will be safe for a moment while the Lady still has power; she is desperate to get rid of you, Chapuys warned in his next letter.

  Katherine would not criticize Henry to her maids, but she was desperate to unburden herself over Anne. Gone were the days when she had preserved the proper distance between mistress and servants, and Eliza had already heard something about the threat hanging over her. Eliza, Blanche, Isabel, and Margery were Katherine’s friends; they were near at hand, and they were willing to listen and help her if they could.

  “The Lady Anne ruthlessly hounded Wolsey to his ruin,” she reminded them as she sat by the fire one evening, her maids kneeling by the hearth. “Messire Chapuys believes her to be capable of using poison to get rid of me and my daughter. He tells me she plots day and night against the Princess. The King is planning to visit France, and she has said openly that while he is there she will do away with Mary, either by hunger or otherwise.”

  Eliza’s hand flew to her mouth as the other three gasped.

  “It is true,” Katherine said, feeling the fluttering in her chest she had come to dread. “And when her brother warned her that it would anger the King, she said she did not care, even if she were burned alive for it. You see how ruthless she is.”

  The ladies did their best to comfort her. From now on, they said, they would oversee the preparation of her food themselves. But they could not give such assurance about what Mary ate, which continued to give Katherine nightmares. When Eliza, Blanche, and Margery—Isabel had managed to absent herself, as usual—descended on the kitchen and insisted on supervising the cooking of their mistress’s meals, there were protests and complaints from the cook and his staff. In the end, Eliza had the steward rig up a hook for a cooking pot over the fire in Katherine’s room and a spit on the hearth.

  “Henceforth we are going to cook your meals ourselves, madam!” she announced.

  It was a kind and noble gesture, but none of them could cook, although they had been brought up to supervise kitchens, as gentlewomen should. The food was invariably either raw or burned, and some of it was inedible. Moreover, a permanent smell of cooking pervaded the bedchamber. Katherine bore it all patiently, and gratefully. It was better by far to suffer these inconveniences than to risk being poisoned. She clung to the faint hope that Mary had such vigilant attendants.


  When the Archbishop of York arrived to administer the oath to Katherine and her household, she steeled herself to remain resolute. Although she and Mary were in a dangerous situation, she could not put her immortal soul at risk by forswearing herself.

  She faced the Archbishop, holding herself as a queen should.

  “I refuse the oath,” she said, her voice steady. “If I am not the King’s wife, as he maintains, I am not his subject and cannot be required to take it.”

  She held her breath, expecting the Archbishop to say that she must go to the Tower, like Fisher and More. But he did not.

  “Very well. Summon your servants,” he ordered.

  They came, hostile and mutinous, prepared to defy him.

  “No,” they said, one after the other. “I will not swear!” Most of the Spaniards, who had been in England over thirty years, suddenly appeared not to understand English.

  “I have taken an oath of allegiance to my mistress, Queen Katherine,” Francisco Felipez said boldly. “She still lives, and during her life I know of no other queen in this kingdom.”

  “Let the King banish us,” said Bastien Hennyocke, “but let him not order us to be perjurers.”

  “I cannot make foreigners take the oath,” the Archbishop admitted, exasperated, “but those of you who are English and will not swear are dismissed.”

  Katherine’s maids and servants looked at each other, then they nodded and, one by one, took the oath.

  “We had agreed beforehand that if we had no choice, we would do it with inward reservations,” Eliza explained. “An oath made under duress is no oath at all. Besides, madam, we could not leave you all alone to fend for yourself.”

  “Bless you all, my
true friends,” Katherine said, thanking God for their staunchness.


  Katherine thought she was again being punished for her obstinacy when, at the end of April, an order came from the King, commanding her to remove to Kimbolton Castle, in the shire of Huntingdon, which was farther from London than any of the houses in which she had been immured since leaving court. It was not a place she knew, but she’d heard nothing bad about it, and Lord Mountjoy had said it enjoyed a much better climate, being away from the Fens, and that he was very pleased about that, as his health, which was not good, had suffered as hers had. The poor man, he was a martyr to rheumatism. So all she could feel was relief.

  “At last we shall sleep in dry beds!” she said. “In truth, I cannot wait to leave this place.”

  Lord Mountjoy, who was getting rather stout and breathless these days, informed her that two officers of the crown, Sir Edmund Bedingfield and Sir Edward Chamberlayne, had been appointed her custodians at Kimbolton. She sensed that he had concerns about that, since his increasing infirmity of body was making it difficult for him to serve and protect her as well as he wished, and yet she knew he did not want her to be exposed to unkind treatment, for he had told her firmly that he would be staying on as her chamberlain to look after her.

  Katherine had heard of Bedingfield’s bravery in Henry’s French wars but could not remember meeting him. Chamberlayne she knew slightly, for he had been at court in the early years of Henry’s reign, before becoming a Member of Parliament.

  “I trust that my household will be allowed to accompany me,” she said. “There are not many, just twenty persons.”

  “They may go with you to Kimbolton, but they will only be permitted to remain with Sir Edmund Bedingfield’s approval. From what I’ve heard, he’s a fair man.”

  Bedingfield replied promptly to Katherine’s request. The Princess Dowager might bring her servants with her. However, he could not commit himself to exempting all her servants from the oath required by the new act.

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