Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  One May morning he came himself, with a party of soldiers, to escort Katherine and her household to Kimbolton. He was courteous but formal, bowing and doffing his hat, a lugubrious-looking man with a gray beard and black brows. But he would not address her as Queen, and therefore she was not prepared to talk to him. They walked in silence to the waiting litter.

  Their party traveled westward into Huntingdonshire, and in the evening, after about twenty miles, they came, weary and hungry, to the castle. It looked like a large manor house, but it was strongly fortified and surrounded by a double moat. Katherine’s litter jolted on the cobbles as they clattered through the archway under the gatehouse, which proved to be the only means of access. She realized that she had exchanged one prison for another, and as the great doors clanged shut behind her, she had the sensation of being swallowed up, which brought on another attack of palpitations.

  Grooms brought torches to light up the courtyard, and as Katherine made to descend from her litter, Sir Edmund dismounted from his horse and came over to assist her. She accepted his hand and stood up shakily, suddenly overcome with breathlessness. Another man stepped forward and bowed.

  “Welcome to Kimbolton, madam.” She assumed he was Sir Edward Chamberlayne, an owl-faced man with a hooked nose and kindly eyes. “I trust you are not too wearied after your journey. Come, let us show you to your lodging.”

  Holding a lantern aloft, he and Sir Edmund escorted her through the courtyard and into the castle, with Lord Mountjoy laboring behind and her household following.

  It was soon clear that this was not another Buckden, and that Henry had provided well for her, showing consideration for once, which was perhaps another sign that Anne’s influence was waning. Gradually her beating heart slowed down to normal.

  “The castle is owned by Sir Charles Wingfield, who has placed it at the King’s disposal,” Sir Edward said as they entered a great hall with a high timber roof. “His father was a wealthy man and high in favor with the King, who granted him the castle some dozen years ago. As you can see, he spent lavishly on it, building fair new lodgings and a new gallery.”

  Katherine could see. Costly tapestries hung in the hall, the floor was tiled, and the solid oak trestles were of good craftsmanship.

  Sir Edward lifted one of the hangings and led Katherine through an arched doorway in the center of the wall behind the dais.

  “This is the south wing,” he told her.

  They passed into a withdrawing room, also adorned with fine hangings, and then into the gallery of which Sir Edward had spoken. It was an impressive room with three large windows, a battened and painted ceiling, rush matting on the floor, and portraits on the walls. One was of Henry as a young king, and it gave Katherine’s heart a jolt to see it. This was the way she remembered him, before Anne Boleyn had got him in her talons—handsome, vigorous, ardent, and full of hope for the future. She could have wept for the loss of the young man he had been, even as she rejoiced in the fact that she would see his beloved image whenever she passed this way.

  At the end of the gallery Sir Edward opened a door.

  “This will be your bedchamber, madam. There is a closet beyond, and a door from it leads to the chapel gallery. Sir Edmund and I hope that you and Lord Mountjoy and your ladies will join us for meals in the dining room beyond the great hall.”

  Katherine entered the room. It was not large but that did not matter, for it was warm and dry, and a good fire was burning merrily on the hearth. Linenfold oak panels lined the walls, and the mullioned windows had greenish-glazed diamond panes and were hung with bright curtains on rings. A large tester bed with green hangings occupied most of the space and had been made up with clean bleached sheets and a fur counterpane. There was a carved chest at its foot, pegs on the wall for hanging clothes, as well as two high-backed chairs on either side of the fireplace, a prayer desk, a turned stool, and a small table. New rush matting covered the floor, and a small piece of Turkey carpet lay beside the bed. Beyond, through the door to the closet, Katherine could see a closestool and another chest on which were set a copper basin and ewer.

  It was more than she could ever have expected, and she was so relieved that she could have cried.

  “It is charming,” she said. “I thank you both, Sir Edward and Sir Edmund, for making me so welcome. Tell me, where are my servants to sleep?”

  “Lodgings have been prepared for them on the north side of the Castle Court, where Sir Edmund and I have our apartments, madam. I will have some supper sent up to you, and your servants will be given food in the kitchens.” Sir Edward turned to Sir Edmund. “We must summon the grooms to have the Princess Dowager’s baggage brought up here.”

  Katherine bridled. “Sir Edward, I am grateful to you for your kindness, but there is one thing that you and Sir Edmund must understand, which is that I will not be addressed, or referred to, by any title other than Queen.”

  The two men stared at her.

  “We are forbidden to use that title, madam,” Sir Edmund said. “If we do we will incur the anger of the King.”

  “Parliament has deprived your Grace of that title,” Sir Edward said. “It is illegal to use it.”

  “I care not a fig for what Parliament has done. The Pope declared my marriage lawful, and I am the true queen. I will not speak to anyone who calls me Princess Dowager. And if you persist, I will stay in my rooms.”

  The knights looked at each other.

  “Then so be it,” said Sir Edward. “We will be very sorry to be deprived of your company and conversation, but you will understand that we have our orders.”


  At first she was glad just to luxuriate in a warm, dry bed and be free of the smell of damp and mold. Her rooms felt like a haven, and through her open window she could watch the flowering of the spring and smell the scented air. The food delivered to her door was good, and it was varied and fresh. She did not lack for company, for her days were spent with her maids, sewing, reading, and taking turns on Eliza’s lute; and for spiritual comfort she had the regular visits of her confessor. Her doctors were pleased to see an improvement in her health. Here, she thought, she could get better.

  But after a time she began to feel too confined, and to wish that she could leave her rooms and enjoy the spaciousness of this lovely house and its gardens. She hardly ever saw her custodians, and her servants had told her that Sir Edward and Sir Edmund kept mostly to their apartments across the courtyard, but she did not wish to risk meeting them in the gallery, the great hall, or the chapel. The less unpleasantness there was, the better, for she feared that her unpredictable heart could not take much more of it.


  Katherine had been at Kimbolton for three weeks when Bishop Tunstall of Durham came to require her, once more, to take the new oath.

  “No, Bishop, I will not,” she declared. “I do not acknowledge the Lady Anne as Queen or the King as head of the Church in England. I am the true queen, and the Pope is the true successor of Christ!”

  “Madam, you must not call yourself the King’s wife, because he has remarried and had a fair child, with more likely to follow, by God’s grace.”

  Katherine was adamant. “I will never quit the title of Queen, but retain it till death. I am the King’s wife, not his subject, and therefore not liable to his Acts of Parliament.”

  “You will go to prison if you persist in your obstinacy,” Tunstall warned. “These are dangerous times, and for some of us these changes are hard to accept. For myself, I would not advocate civil disobedience.”

  Katherine’s anger flared. “Hold your peace, Bishop!” she cried. “These are the wiles of the devil! I am Queen, and Queen I will die! By right, the King can have no other wife. Let this be your answer.”

  Tunstall frowned. “Madam, you might be sent to the scaffold if you do not take the oath.”

  “And who will be the hangman?” Katherine countered. “If you have permission to execute this penalty on me, I am ready. I ask only that I be
allowed to die in sight of the people.”

  “Forgive me, madam,” Tunstall begged, wringing his hands. “I did not mean to frighten you. I have no such instructions. The penalty for refusing to swear the oath is imprisonment, not death, and you could be said to be suffering that already. But I do fear for you, and I thought to frighten you into submission for your own sake. The King is in an angry mood, and Queen Anne is jealous. Who knows what they might do?”

  “I fear God more than I fear them. I cannot do other than what my conscience dictates.”

  “I wish that it was otherwise for you, madam. But ask yourself, is it all worth it? If you swore the oath, the King would be ready to grant you your heart’s desire. You could live in palaces, have the company of your daughter and your friends, enjoy freedom once more—and you will have His Grace’s brotherly love.”

  His words had twisted the knife. She felt her heart lurch. Get thee behind me, Satan! “And when I come before God’s judgment seat and am accused of putting worldly considerations before the health of my soul and the weal of the Church, what shall I answer then? God knows, my lord, do you think I would stay here and suffer as I do, with my daughter exposed to all manner of evils, if there was any other way open to me?”

  Tunstall shook his head sadly. “No, I do not, madam. In the end, we all must do as our consciences dictate, and face the consequences. For some, I fear, they will be serious.” Katherine knew that he was thinking of Thomas More, his fellow humanist, with whom he had once been great friends. “This afternoon I will administer the oath to your Spanish servants,” he added.

  “They are not the King’s subjects,” she reminded him. “A few do not understand English properly.”

  “Nevertheless, if they are to continue to serve you, they must take it,” Tunstall said.

  That alarmed her, and while he was having his dinner with her custodians, she summoned her Spaniards.

  “Listen very carefully,” she said. “The bishop is going to ask you to take the oath. Do not refuse. You must ask to take it in Spanish, and say, ‘El Rey se ha heco cabeza de la Iglesia.’ ”

  They smiled at her, comprehending, and Bishop Tunstall, having expected a lot of opposition, was surprised to find them so cooperative, and went away satisfied.

  Katherine found herself laughing as she had not laughed these many years.

  Eliza and the other English maids stared at her, puzzled. They think I have gone mad, she thought. “I must tell you,” she said, smiling, “that instead of recognizing the King as head of the Church, my Spaniards have acknowledged only that he has made himself head of the Church!”


  Katherine had been worried about maintaining contact with Chapuys after moving to Kimbolton, but her fears were again unfounded. The town had a weekly market, and Sir Edward and Sir Edmund made no quibble about her servants going there for provisions. Thus word was gotten to Chapuys that Katherine could send and receive letters, and soon his man had taken a room at the Sun Inn, with Eliza acting as go-between, as before. Katherine suspected that there was some dalliance going on between her maid and the Spaniard, as Eliza was always so keen to go on her errands and would not hear of anyone else doing them.

  It was a comfort to Katherine to be back in touch with Chapuys, but things were as bad as ever. Now the Lady had said she would not cease till she’d gotten rid of her rival. As the old prophecies say that a Queen of England is to be burned, Chapuys wrote, she hopes it will be your Highness, to avoid the lot falling upon herself.

  Chapuys was still putting pressure on Katherine to sanction an Imperial invasion; even though the Emperor had his hands full with pushing back the Turks from his borders, the ambassador seemed convinced that his master was ready to fight on another front as well. But she was adamant that she would never do so. Your loyalty to the King is heroic, he told her.

  If I am too scrupulous, it is because I have great respect for the King my husband, she wrote back. I would consider myself damned if I took any course that led to war.

  In his next letter, Chapuys warned Katherine that Mary would soon be required to take the oath. The news plunged her into an agony of anxiety. This was to be Mary’s testing time. The Emperor had advised them both to take the oath rather than lose their lives, while protesting that they took it out of fear. But Katherine was resolved to stick to her principles, and hoped her daughter was too. Mary must be encouraged to stand up for what she believed to be right, and to face the consequences.

  Katherine wrestled with herself and came to a decision. She must defy Henry’s ban on communicating with Mary and trust Chapuys to get a letter to her. She wrote:


  I heard tidings today that the time has come for Almighty God to prove you. Be sure that He will not suffer you to perish if you take care not to offend Him. Obey the King your father in everything, save only that which imperils your soul. For I am sure that all will end well, and better than you can desire. I would to God, good daughter, that you knew with how loving a heart I write this letter to you. And now you shall begin, and by likelihood I shall follow. I set not a rush by this oath; for when they have done the uttermost they can, then I am sure all will be amended. I pray you, remember me to my good lady of Salisbury, and pray her to have a good heart, for we never come to the Kingdom of Heaven but by troubles. Daughter, take no pains to send to me. If I can, I will send to you.

  Your loving mother, Katherine the Queen

  God send that Mary would know how much feeling was encapsulated in those words.

  When Eliza had departed with the letter, Katherine sank to the floor, keening, her fist in her mouth. Had a mother ever been placed in such an impossible position? For what she had effectively done, in counseling Mary to do the right thing according to her conscience, was encourage her child to court martyrdom.


  Mary refused the oath. She had said that she was not prepared to renounce her title of princess. Katherine was so sick with worry about what Henry—or rather, Anne—might do to her daughter that she became ill. Suffering from those wretched palpitations, dizzy spells, and an irritating cough, she took to her bed.

  Her doctors seemed worried. When they conferred with each other, it was outside her room, not at her bedside, where they did their best to reassure her that she would be better soon. The way she felt, that did not seem likely. She was so weak, so racked by anxiety.

  “Madam, you must calm yourself,” her confessor admonished her. “The Princess is in God’s hands, and you must get well.”

  Eliza encouraged her to eat, though she had little appetite. It was a good thing that her people were allowed out to the market, she reflected, because of late there had been a marked deterioration in the standard of the food that came from the kitchens. Whether it was due to negligence or spite, she could not say. Sir Edward and Sir Edmund came to her lodging rarely, and only then to stiffly impart necessary information. She did not answer, of course, because they would not address her as Queen, but Sir Edward had popped his head around the door as she lay ill and wished her well. Even he looked concerned at the sight of her.

  She called for her looking glass and was shocked at what she beheld. She was a specter of her former self, white-faced, white-haired, the skin of her cheeks sagging.

  “Take it away,” she said.

  She forced herself to eat, for she must get better. She had to live, for Mary’s sake.

  Gathering her strength, she wrote to Chapuys, Please come…


  “Madam! Madam! Look!” Eliza and Blanche were at the window; Eliza was nearly jumping up and down with excitement. “There are men in the Spanish ambassador’s livery outside the walls, waving to us.” They waved back.

  Katherine struggled to sit up in bed. Was he here? Was Chapuys really here?

  “Help me up,” she said, but when they assisted her to her feet, she felt so faint that they had to lay her down again. After making her comfortable they hastened back to the window.
  He was coming, as she had known he would, defying the King and that great black spider Cromwell, who sat at the center of affairs, luring the unwary into his web. This very day Chapuys would be here, and she could unburden all her troubles and confide in him about the things she dared not commit to paper, and he would take steps to ensure Mary’s safety. Meanwhile, her maids were still waving and calling down to his men, and local people were hurrying out to embrace them with as much astonishment and joy as if the Messiah had descended to earth.

  But Chapuys did not come, and by and by the crowd dispersed and his men went away. That night Katherine felt so low and ill that she feared she might die.

  In his next letter Chapuys explained what had gone wrong. He had tried to see her. Alarmed by her urgent message and reports of her poor health, he had asked several times for permission to visit, but the King and Cromwell always refused. His Majesty said he feared that I would strengthen you in what he calls your obstinacy, or that we might intrigue to spirit your Highness and the Princess out of the realm. But I kept asking, saying that I wished only to offer you what comfort I could, and in the end His Grace said I might go, on condition that I undertook not to discuss politics.

  He had set off at once, but when he was but five miles from Kimbolton a royal messenger had caught up with him and ordered him to return to court immediately. You may imagine how angry that made me, he wrote. I told Master Cromwell I should have judged it more honorable if the King had informed me of his intention before I left London. All he said was that I would not be permitted to visit your Highness in the future.

  Katherine laid down the letter, trying not to weep. He was coming to see her, that dear, good man; he had almost been here. If only the messenger had missed him! What a comfort the sight of him would have been to her.


  In late July the weather was glorious, warm and sunny with a light breeze that gently billowed out the curtains. It did the soul good, she thought, and realized that she was feeling a little better. Soon she was able to get out of bed and sit in her chair, and after a week her doctors suggested that it be moved into a sheltered place in the garden below her window, so she could enjoy the healthy air that would hasten her recovery.

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