Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “I will ask permission, madam,” Dr. de la Saa said. He knew that she would never do it herself.

  Back came the answer: no.

  “They said that when your Grace is ready to be addressed by your proper title, then you may go where you please.” The good doctor looked outraged.

  It was petty and it was cruel. Lord Mountjoy thought so too.

  “I would readily tender my resignation again in protest, for I have come to detest my office,” he said. “But it would not be accepted, and I am loath to leave you at the mercy of those indifferent gaolers.” He inclined his head in the direction of the north wing. “I will not see you treated badly.”

  “My dear friend, I thank you for your kind service to me,” Katherine said, extending her hand—the hand of a queen. Mountjoy knelt, his bulky frame creaking, his breathing heavy, and kissed it fervently.

  “I will serve you till death, your Grace,” he vowed.


  It was all very strange, Katherine thought. According to Chapuys, the Lady was not to have a child after all. But she had been pregnant, hadn’t she? It would be no easy thing to fake over so long a period. When had the news been announced? In the spring? And apparently the baby was due in August. Her condition must have been unmistakable.

  Then the likely truth dawned. The child had been born dead, and a veil of secrecy drawn over it.

  It was easy to understand why. Henry needed the world to know that God smiled upon his union with Anne. The birth of a son would have been proof of that. But it was as clear as day to Katherine, as she knew it must be to everyone else, that a daughter and a dead baby—probably a son, or why the secrecy?—betokened God’s displeasure. The question was, when would Henry come to his senses?

  Katherine would not have wished a stillborn child on anyone, however wicked—she knew all too well how devastating a loss it was. But she could not help seeing it as a blessing, for it seemed to have turned Henry against Anne. Chapuys had also reported that Henry was in love with a beautiful lady of the court. The Lady wished to drive her away, he wrote, but the King has been very angry and said she had good reason to be content with what he had done for her, which he would not do now if he were to begin again. Chapuys warned that it was best not to attach too much importance to this quarrel, considering Henry’s changeable character and the craftiness of the Lady, who well knew how to manage him. Ah, Katherine thought, but it sounds as if he is growing tired of being managed.


  November brought her great sadness, for Lord Mountjoy had a sudden seizure, fell down, and died. She feared he had been overburdened with worry and cruelly torn loyalties on her account. He had been a true friend to her, to the best of his ability, and Katherine mourned him deeply.

  She wondered whom Henry might appoint in his stead, but presently a message came from the other side of the house to say that the Princess Dowager’s chamberlain would not be replaced. In her circumstances, she did not need one. That irked, but it was true. She could manage well enough without. Two rooms did not a palace make.

  Pope Clement had also died that autumn. She prayed for his soul, that it might be spared purgatory; he had been the cause of most of her troubles, but it would be uncharitable to remember that now. How different things would have been if he had dispensed judgment back in 1527! Henry was a good son of the Church then; he would have accepted Clement’s ruling, and all the terrible things that had happened since would have been avoided.

  The new Pope, Paul III, was a resolute man, Chapuys reported, and consumed with a crusading fervor. He was resolved not to countenance King Henry’s disobedience, and one of his first acts was to threaten to put into effect the sentence of excommunication drawn up by Clement. Henry had paid no heed, but Katherine knew that he really could not afford to ignore the threat. Let Pope Paul publish the bull of excommunication, and the Emperor might be provoked to make war on Henry of his own accord; and as an excommunicate ruler standing alone, Henry could not expect to receive aid from the other Christian princes of Europe. Remote from these great events in her room at Kimbolton, Katherine prayed that matters would never reach such a pass.


  In February, God sent her another heavy cross to bear. Mary was lying ill at Greenwich, where Elizabeth’s household was staying. Chapuys did not mince words: it was feared that the Princess would die.

  The King is alarmed, he wrote, but he refuses to heed the advice of his physicians, and my pleas, that she should go to your Highness, for whom she is pining. He told me he wishes to do the best for his daughter’s health, but he must be careful of his own honor and interests, which would be jeopardized if she were conveyed abroad, or if she escaped, as she might easily do if she were with your Highness, for he has some suspicion that the Emperor has designs to get her away.

  As if I would risk my child’s health by sending her on a sea voyage at such a time! Katherine fumed, remembering how ill she had been when she sailed to England from Spain.

  In a frenzy of agitation, trying to ignore the pains and the pounding in her chest, she wrote desperately to Cromwell himself, begging him to urge the King to let her nurse Mary at Kimbolton. A little comfort and mirth with me would be a half health to her. I will care for her with my own hands. For the love of God, let this be done!

  But Cromwell did not deign to reply.

  Katherine did not wait to see if his letter had been delayed. She called for Dr. de la Saa. When he arrived in her chamber, he asked immediately what was wrong. She asked if he would go to Greenwich to treat Mary. There was an awkward pause, in which she realized that this was something he was reluctant to do.

  “Why not?” she asked, seeing his frown.

  “Madam, I fear what I might discover, and that I might be powerless to stop it, or even be implicated.”

  Her jaw fell. Was this what Chapuys really feared? But even as she thought it, her mind rejected that notion. It was impossible! Henry loved Mary; he might bluster and threaten, but he would never harm her, she would stake her soul on it. But there was that other, whom Wolsey had once called the night crow, who would not scruple…

  “All the more reason for you to go!” she said sharply to Dr. de la Saa.

  He went unwillingly, and was away a week. The time seemed endless, and for most of it Katherine was on her knees imploring God to preserve Mary’s life. It was an utter relief when the doctor returned with good news.

  “The Princess’s health is improving, but I am concerned because her illness is so prolonged.”

  The room was suddenly swallowed up in blackness, and when Katherine came around she was lying on the floor, her doctors and maids peering at her in concern.

  “You fainted, madam,” Dr. Guersye told her. “Just lie still and when you are a little recovered we will lift you on the bed.”

  “I am all right,” she said, struggling as they all helped her to sit up, and remembering the news about Mary. “I am more worried about my daughter. Dr. de la Saa, you said you were concerned about her illness being prolonged.”

  “Madam, calm yourself!” the doctor said.

  “You must return to her! Make her better!”

  Dr. de la Saa hesitated. “My place is with you here, madam, until you are yourself again. The Princess is in the care of her own physicians.”

  “I have Dr. Guersye to look after me. I am commanding you to go back to Greenwich!”

  “Madam, I am not welcome there!”

  That aroused her suspicions all over again.

  “Is my daughter’s life in danger?” she asked, her voice sharp.

  Dr. de la Saa’s face sagged. “I wish I could reassure you about that, madam.”

  He and Dr. Guersye bade her rest, but how could she rest in the circumstances? She lay down on her bed to please them, but when they had all left her to sleep, she got up and, though she still felt dizzy, wrote a letter to Chapuys.

  I beg you to speak to the King, and desire him from me to be so charitable as to send his
daughter and mine here to me, because if I care for her with my own hands, and by the advice of my own physicians, and God still pleases to take her from this world, my heart will be at peace. Say to His Highness that there is no need for anyone to nurse her but myself, and that I will put her in my own bed in my own chamber, and watch with her when needful. I have recourse to you, knowing that there is no one else in this kingdom who will dare to say to the King my lord what I am asking you to say.

  She did not care that Henry would realize she had defied his ban on communicating with Chapuys. The only thing that mattered now was that Mary should be safe.

  When Eliza came to check on her mistress, the letter was signed and sealed.

  “Invent an errand!” Katherine told the young woman.

  “There is no need, madam,” Eliza said, smiling. “The innkeeper has promised us a chicken!”


  She was desperate for an answer, counting the days until she could expect to receive one. She was praying that Henry would show compassion to Mary, and to her, yet full of fears of how he would react when he realized she had been communicating with Chapuys against his express orders. Depending on his mood, he might use her disobedience as a justification for punishing her further. She could only count on his being as anxious about Mary as she was.

  She waited and suffered for a whole week, and was frantic by the time Chapuys finally wrote that as soon as he’d received her letter, he had gone straight to the King and made no bones about the appeal coming direct from Katherine. She drew in her breath at that. But Henry had made no comment, which gave her to believe that his concern for Mary overrode all other considerations, as she had hoped. All the same, he was adamant that she and Mary be kept apart, but he consented to Mary being moved to a house near Kimbolton, and to allow Katherine’s physicians to attend her—on condition that Katherine did not attempt to see her.

  It was not what she wanted, but at least Henry had been willing to compromise, and Katherine was profoundly grateful.

  She was in chapel giving thanks for having found some common meeting ground with Henry, and hoping it would lead to a new rapport between them, when news came from Chapuys that Mary had had a relapse and was thought to be in danger of dying. In anguish, Katherine again wrote to the ambassador, urging him to beg Henry to let her see their daughter, but the King was as immovable as a rock. Chapuys reported that he still entertained the ridiculous notion that Katherine might yet take Mary’s part. He said that you are a proud stubborn woman of very high courage, and thinks that if you took it into your head to take your daughter’s part, you could easily take the field, muster a great array, and wage against him a war as fierce as any your mother, Queen Isabella, ever waged in Spain.

  How could Henry put such considerations before their daughter’s well-being? she asked herself bitterly. How little he knows me, she thought. I would never, never sanction anything that would harm him; I love him too much. He was so suspicious these days, and it was Anne, working her evil wiles, who had made him overly so—and Anne, no doubt abetted by Cromwell, who had made him see malice where no malice was intended.

  Still there came no word that Mary had been brought from Greenwich to Huntingdonshire, and Katherine, with a faltering, juddering heart, supposed that it must be because her daughter was too ill to be moved. Her joy was therefore boundless when she learned that Mary was recovering, even if she would not be coming within a few miles of Kimbolton.


  Katherine’s realm had shrunk to just two rooms, and with only her servants for company she sometimes felt entirely isolated from the world outside. With Mary’s health so improved, she could rest at last, sitting in her chair by the open window, with her maids beside her and the warm air easing her chest. But soon the summer was tainted with stories of such horror that she was filled again with fear.

  Three priors of the Carthusian Order and a monk of Syon Abbey had been executed as traitors for denying the royal supremacy and protesting their allegiance to the Pope.

  They were as joyful as bridegrooms going to their marriages, Chapuys reported. They were forced to wear their habits, and dragged by horses through the streets of London, then strung up on the gallows and left to hang until they had half choked. Then they were cut down and revived with vinegar, so that they might suffer the full horrors of their punishment. He did not need to spell out what those horrors were, for Katherine was well aware that the dread penalty for treason was castration, disemboweling, and decapitation. Afterward, the bodies of traitors were cut into quarters, which were publicly exhibited on the gatehouse of London Bridge or in other places, as a warning to others.

  The Carthusians had died bravely. The people were horrified to see such unprecedented and brutal atrocities, Chapuys recounted. They muttered in whispers and blamed the Lady.

  In June ten more Carthusian brothers accused of treason were chained, standing upright, to posts and left to die of starvation. Truly, these were evil times, when a king might with impunity put to death holy men dedicated to God. If Henry could do that, what, goaded by Anne, might he not do to those he had loved? The answer came all too soon.

  The Lady is triumphant, Chapuys wrote.

  She hosted a great banquet for the King at her mansion at Hanworth, where she laid on several brave mummeries. Her chief purpose was to allure him with her dalliance and pastime to put Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More to death. Two days later the bishop was tried at Westminster Hall and condemned to death. When the King learned that the Pope had made the bishop a cardinal and was sending his red hat to England, he raged, “Afore Heaven, he shall wear it on his shoulders then, for by the time it arrives he shall not have a head to place it on!”

  Katherine wept for that virtuous and loyal man, who was full of goodness and had been a staunch friend to her, and prayed with all her might that he would be given the strength to face his ordeal. She wept too for Henry, for what he had become. He never used to be so cruel and ruthless.

  The next letter Eliza brought back from the Sun Inn contained terrible tidings. Bishop Fisher was dead. Henry had commuted his sentence to beheading after public outrage at the prospect of such a holy man facing a traitor’s death, and the bishop had died bravely on Tower Hill. His head, that learned and wise head, had been set up on a pole on London Bridge. Strangely, it was showing no signs of decay, which people were saying was a sure sign of sanctity.

  That was not all. Three more Carthusian monks had died traitors’ deaths at Tyburn.

  Katherine felt as if she could not take any more. The knowledge of these dreadful events had made her ill again, and convinced her that she and Mary were in more danger than ever. For they had refused to take the oath, just like the Carthusians and Fisher.

  Then one morning she heard distant hooves on the road to Kimbolton, followed by stamping footsteps and clinking spurs on the stairs to her rooms. Her maids gathered around her, and Katherine could sense them shaking, as she was, with terror. It was a deputation of the council, headed by the Duke of Norfolk.

  She was sure they had come to arrest her and take her to the Tower and certain death. They did not hang, draw, and quarter women for treason, they burned them at the stake, and Katherine’s flesh shrank from what now seemed the very real prospect of the flames licking at her feet and then flaring up to consume her. She could not imagine such agony. How long would it last? She had heard of heretics taking three-quarters of an hour to die.

  The councillors told her they had come to search her rooms. They implied that they expected to find something compromising or incriminating, so they would have cause to arrest her. She prayed that they would not discover Chapuys’s letters, cleverly hidden by Eliza behind a loose piece of paneling. She held her breath and prayed as she had never prayed before, while the search was taking place.

  The councillors found nothing, much to their anger. His face suffused with rage, Norfolk shouted at her, “We know you are in communication with the Emperor and his ambassador!
Rest assured, your intrigues will not go undiscovered, and then there will be a reckoning!”

  Katherine stood there trembling, her chest tight with shooting pains, her heart racing.

  Norfolk thrust his face into hers. “If God took you and your daughter to Himself, this whole dispute would be ended, and no one would doubt or oppose the King’s marriage or dispute the succession!”

  She quailed before the malice in his eyes.

  “Have you come to harry a sick woman, my lords?” she challenged them. “Shame on you! I have committed no treason. I wish only good to the King.”

  “You should know that your former confessor, Father Forrest, is in prison in hard durance and has been sentenced to be burned.”

  Katherine’s hand flew to her mouth. “What has he done?” she cried in anguish.

  “He has openly opposed the King’s supremacy, and spoken out against it. We thought we would warn you, madam, of what happens to those who incur the King’s displeasure.”

  Katherine saw the malicious gleam in Norfolk’s eyes as he left her almost collapsing in grief at this appalling news. That night she could not sleep. She called for the Bishop of Llandaff, in desperate need of spiritual guidance.

  “I can feel no ease or comfort till I have written to Father Forrest,” she told him.

  “Then write, my daughter; it will bring comfort to you both. And remember that it is a great privilege to be called to combat for the love of Christ and the truth of the Catholic faith.”

  It was the most difficult letter she had ever written. How did you console someone who was about to meet the most horrific death? Exhorting Father Forrest to bear up under the few short pains of the torments prepared for him hardly addressed the dreadful reality; and it sounded so glib to assure him that he would receive an eternal reward. But then, suddenly, God gave her the words, and her pen flew across the page.

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