Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  O happy you, my Father, to whom it has been graciously granted that by a most cruel death, for Christ’s sake, you will happily fulfill the course of your most holy life and fruitful labors. But woe to me, your poor and wretched daughter, who, in the time of this my solitude and the extreme anguish of my soul, shall be deprived of such a father, so loved by me in Christ. I confess that I am consumed by a great desire to be able to die, either with you or before you, which I would purchase by any amount of the most terrible torments.

  She told him she could never allow herself any joy in this miserable and unhappy world. But when you have fought the battle and obtained the crown, I know I shall receive abundant grace from Heaven by your means. Farewell, my revered Father, and on earth and in Heaven always have me in remembrance before God. She signed it, Your very sad and afflicted daughter, Katherine.

  She did not expect to receive a reply, but Father Forrest responded quickly, saying that her words had infinitely comforted him. He ended: Pray for me, that I may fight the battle to which I am called. In justification of your cause, I am content to suffer all things. Enclosed was his rosary. That broke her, and she laid her head in her arms and howled. Her women came running, but she would not be comforted, and it was a long time before the tears ceased flowing.

  In the days that followed, she dragged herself around in a stupor of grief. That a good man should have to suffer such torments on her account was unendurable. Her relief was overwhelming, therefore, when another letter arrived from Father Forrest. The King had been graciously pleased to commute his sentence to life imprisonment.

  On her knees, Katherine thanked God fervently and asked for His blessing on Henry, who had perhaps realized that enough blood had been shed to prove his point. And she rendered thanks again when she heard that the good father was in touch with Father Abell, who was again in the Tower for speaking out on her behalf. She prayed that these brave, devout men might be strengthened by their faith and soon freed.

  But then came perhaps the worst news of that terrible summer. Sir Thomas More had been tried for treason and beheaded. He had mounted the scaffold on Tower Hill and died bravely, declaring that he was the King’s good servant, but God’s first. The whole world is horrified, Chapuys wrote. Everyone is saying that the King has gone too far this time.

  The shock and grief were more than Katherine’s wasted frame could withstand. She lay on her bed, her chest tight and painful, her heart thudding alarmingly, trying to get her breath. She wept, and wept again, feeling as if she had shed enough tears to fill a lake these past weeks. She mourned More profoundly. He had been one of the best men she’d ever known, brilliant, principled, and full of integrity. The world would never see his like again. She cried for his family, that close-knit circle that had revolved around him. If she herself was devastated by his death, how must they be feeling?

  When Anne Boleyn faced God’s judgment, she would have much to answer for.


  Thomas Cromwell, Chapuys wrote that autumn, was bragging that he had promised to make the King rich. Katherine knew that much of the fortune left to Henry by his father had been spent on palaces and pleasures and the pursuit of glory in war, and guessed that by now he must be in need of money to replenish his treasury. Chapuys learned that Cromwell had compiled a report detailing the financial state of the Church in England: It seems that, not content with forcing the clergy to withdraw their allegiance to Rome, and fining them for it, the King is planning to divest the monasteries of their wealth and treasures. Already his commissioners have commenced their visitations of some of the smaller religious houses. I do not like this at all.

  Neither do I, thought Katherine. It was as if the whole fabric of civilization in England was being dismantled, and she trembled for the future of religion in this kingdom. Pray God the King did not lay sacrilegious hands on the property of the monasteries, much of which had been given as pious bequests and donations by people laying up treasure in Heaven. It was not Henry’s to take—it was God’s!

  October came in with winds and lowering skies, as if the heavens were showing their displeasure at what was happening in this fair but troubled land. The leaves lay in russet heaps strewn over the grass, and Katherine, looking out of her window and stifling the cough that had grown more persistent, felt the autumn chill in her bones and wondered if she would live to see another spring.

  Her health was declining, she knew it. She was becoming increasingly breathless and troubled by the palpitations and giddy spells. Some days she felt so weak she could only lie in bed, barely able to hold a book. She had little appetite and was skeletally thin—she, who had once fretted about being overweight and unattractive to Henry. What would he think of her now?

  What concerned her more was her own future—or rather, the likely lack of it. For she could see the very image of Death in her face and her wasted body, and she was in torment worrying about how Mary would fare when she herself had gone from this world. Who would protect her child then, and look out for her as she, her mother, had?

  She was plunged into further emotional turmoil when she learned from Chapuys that the Emperor had at last crushed the Turks. The King and the Lady were so astounded at the news, they looked like dogs falling out of a window. And no wonder, because Charles was now free to invade England on his aunt’s behalf, were he so inclined. It was what Henry feared most, Chapuys wrote. And the time was ripe for it!

  At Kimbolton, as elsewhere, the bad weather had ruined the harvest, and the people, who faced a lean and hungry winter, were blaming the King, for they saw it as a sign from God that He was displeased with Henry for marrying Anne. Chapuys reported that there was mounting unrest, and that many were still muttering their disapproval of the executions of More, Fisher, and the Carthusians.

  Their terrible ends were preying on Katherine’s mind too, along with her fears for what Henry might do to the Church in England. She felt driven to write to Pope Paul, begging him to find a remedy. Most holy and blessed Father, she began:

  I entreat you to bear this realm especially in mind, to remember the King, my lord and husband, and my daughter. Your Holiness knows, and all Christendom knows, what things are done here, what great offense is given to God, what scandal to the world, what reproach is thrown upon Your Holiness. If a remedy is not applied shortly, there will be no end to ruined souls and martyred saints. The good will be firm and suffer. The lukewarm will fail, and the greater part will stray away like sheep without a shepherd. I write frankly to Your Holiness, as one who can feel with me and my daughter for the martyrdom of these good men, John Fisher, Thomas More, and the unfortunate brethren of the Charterhouse. I have a mournful pleasure in expecting that we shall follow them in their torments. We await a remedy from God and from Your Holiness. It must come speedily or the time will be past.

  She knew that in writing such a letter, she was putting herself in grave danger, for if it were intercepted, it could be used as evidence that she had tried to incite the Pope to excommunicate the King, or call for a crusade against him—and that, in anyone’s book, was treason.


  Chapuys’s next letter, which arrived in November, sent new shivers of alarm through Katherine.

  The Lady is again enceinte, and has bewailed in the King’s presence how much afraid she is at the thought that their child might one day be excluded from the throne by supporters of the Princess; and she has extracted a promise from him to have the Princess put to death, rather than that should happen. She has let it be known that if the King does not make an end of his daughter, she herself will. She said that if she had a son, as she hopes shortly to do, she knew what would become of her.

  Katherine read on with mounting horror. The King had told his Privy Council that he would no longer tolerate the trouble and fear and suspicion that she and Mary had caused him. He had demanded that the next Parliament pass an Act of Attainder against them or he would not wait any longer to seek a remedy himself! When he saw the dismay on the
faces of his councillors, Chapuys wrote, he told them it was nothing to cry or make wry faces about. If he was to lose his crown for it, he would do what he had set out to do. But it was the Lady whom Chapuys feared more, for she was the person who managed and ordered and governed everything, and whom the King dared not oppose, especially in her present condition.

  Katherine had to sit down. She was shaking, and only slightly comforted to read that the Emperor thought that these threats had been made merely to frighten her and Mary; but if they really were in danger, then he urged them to yield and do what the King wanted. Yield? After all this time? Katherine knew she could never imperil her immortal soul by doing so, and she was sure that Mary would not either.

  Mary was in low spirits, Chapuys had continued, but when he suggested to the King that she be permitted the company of friends who could cheer her, Henry had exploded, shouting that he would ensure that soon she would not want any company, that she would be an example to show that no one ought to disobey his laws, and that he meant to fulfill what had been foretold of him, that at the beginning of his reign he would be gentle as a lamb, and at the end worse than a lion.

  Katherine felt faint on reading that. She cried out aloud, and there came the running of hasty feet and willing arms helping her to her bed.

  “I must go to her!” she cried. “I must protect her! He cannot do this to his own child!”

  Her maids tried to soothe her, but she would not be soothed. “I cannot rest until I know that she is safe. I must pray for her.” She struggled up.

  “Rest, madam! Please!”

  “Your Grace should lie here awhile.”

  “No! If ever there was a time to pray, it is now!” She slid off the bed and swayed a little, but staggered dizzily toward the prie-dieu, sinking down gratefully to her knees. “Oh, sweet Jesus, save my child!” she begged, clenching her hands together. “Watch over her and protect her!”

  Suddenly, she felt a sharp, stabbing pain in her chest. As she clutched herself, gasping for breath, her maids came running, lifting her up and laying her on the bed. The doctors were sent for, and by the time they arrived the pain had mercifully lessened, but it was still there, still gnawing, and her heart was leaping erratically.

  Dr. de la Saa ordered her maids to disrobe her and put on her night rail. Then he examined her, probing her on the chest and back and asking her to cough. For a moment his face looked grave, but then he saw her staring questioningly at him and put on his usual urbane smile. She was not deceived. The way she was feeling, she would never rise from her bed. Time, she feared, was running out for her. And then what would become of Mary?

  But within a few days Katherine was miraculously better, and her household rallied around her to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. The maids wanted to make her something special to eat, but still she could not face food.

  “What I could fancy is a little broth,” she said, to please them.

  “I’ll make it for your Grace,” said Margery, and busied herself at the hearth while Eliza strummed the lute and they all sang songs to cheer Katherine. The broth, when it came, was not very appetizing—Margery had overdone the herbs, Katherine thought—but she ate a few spoonfuls to please her. That afternoon, she had a bad attack of breathlessness and stomach cramps, but they passed, and in the evening she was able to sit by the fire and do some embroidery. But she continued to fret about Mary, terrified that Anne Boleyn would persuade Henry to carry out his threats.

  Katherine was still holding her own a week later, when Christmas came. Sir Edward and Sir Edmund sent a servant with a flagon of wine, but she refused to drink it, fearing it might be poisoned, so they had ale from the kitchen. Eliza’s parents had sent a goose in honor of the season, and they roasted that on the spit and trilled the old carols and wished each other a merry Yuletide. Katherine lay back in her chair, smiling at them, but her thoughts were far away with Mary, praying that God would keep her in His gracious protection, and wondering how she was passing this holy season. She thought too of Henry. If only she could see them both, her adored husband and her beloved child, just once more, in this life. It was all she asked for now.

  The next day, the feast of St. Stephen, Katherine was up and sitting in her chair, swathed in shawls, when suddenly she found that she could not breathe. Panicking, she tried desperately to draw in air, as her maids came running and began thumping her on the back. Her chest felt as if it would burst, her vision blurring. She was going to die, here, now, and with no chance of making her peace with God. Then, miraculously, she felt her lungs expand, but still it felt as if there was a viselike band suffocating her. Coughing and in pain, she was forced to take to her bed again. Dr. de la Saa and Dr. Guersye were called, but they could do little to relieve her. The ravening wolf in her chest gave her no peace, and she could take little rest. If this went on, she knew, she would die. Surprisingly, she felt no fear, only bitter regret that soon she might no longer be here to love and protect Mary.

  As the days dragged by, the pain grew worse. Eliza sponged her brow and tried to divert her by reading aloud; Margery made her herbal cordials, bitter but warming, to soothe a throat raw from coughing; and Blanche wrapped hot bricks in flannel for her feet and kept the fire stoked up to keep her warm. Isabel—well, Isabel contrived to look busy, but she did attempt to cheer Katherine with some jests.

  “Let me summon the King’s physicians,” Dr. de la Saa urged. Katherine realized, from the edge in his voice, that he was anxious lest he be accused of negligence or worse. But why would anyone bother? Anne wanted her dead. Then it dawned on her. He thought she had been poisoned. Bringing in the King’s doctors would relieve him of all responsibility.

  “No,” she said. “I have wholly committed myself to the pleasure of God.”

  She thought his fears unfounded. This illness was but a progression of the symptoms she had been suffering for some time. She tried patiently to bear the pain, but it would not leave her. It was as if she was being devoured from within. She could not rest, and she could not stop trembling. She was breathless all the time.

  On the last day of the old year she received a brief note from Chapuys, warning her to have her chamber well locked from night till early morning, and carefully examined that none were hidden there, for he believed there was a danger that someone would play some macabre trick on her, either an injury to her person or an accusation of adultery or to find proof that she was plotting an insurrection.

  “Adultery! As if I could even think of it, in my state,” she said weakly to Eliza, who was regarding the note with horror. She wondered what had prompted Chapuys to send it. He must have heard something that alarmed him, or maybe he was just being overcautious. She hoped it was the latter.


  On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, the first day of the Year of Our Lord 1536, Katherine lay half dozing, thinking that at court they would now have exchanged gifts and be preparing for the traditional feast. She had no wherewithal to buy gifts this year, or even the strength to think about it.

  The door opened. Blanche stood there, her face alive with excitement.

  “Your Grace, you have a visitor!”

  Katherine turned her head as a man swathed in a black cloak entered the bedchamber. It was Chapuys!

  “Oh, dear God! How wonderful!” she gasped, and was overtaken by a fit of coughing.

  Chapuys waited until it had subsided, then knelt by the bed and kissed her hand. “Your Highness, I had to come.” He was looking up at her with eyes full of pity, and no wonder, for she must be a sorry sight, lying wasted in her bed and unable even to sit up. She could not express how overjoyed she was to see him.

  “Now I can die in your arms, not abandoned like one of the beasts,” she said as her maids came forward to take Chapuys’s cloak and bring him some ale, warmed with a hot poker. Katherine would have liked to talk to him there and then, but he had ridden a long way, and because she was a queen and knew that certain courtesies should be observed, she said, ??
?You will be weary from your journey. We will speak later. I myself shall be glad of sleep. I have not slept two hours these past six days; perhaps I shall sleep now.”

  Chapuys bowed. “I will return later,” he said, his face filled with compassion.


  After supper he sat with her, taking a chair by the fire and putting on fresh logs himself. Eliza and Blanche, observing the proprieties, asked if they should stay, but Katherine sent them away.

  “If I need you, Messire Chapuys will call for you.”

  When the door had shut, she turned to him. “I cannot believe that the King let you come.”

  “I told him I had heard that your Highness was very ill, and asked if I might visit you. He said I might go to you when I liked.”

  Katherine suspected rather more than that had been said, but she held her peace. She wondered if Chapuys thought she was dying and had persuaded Henry of it.

  “I also asked for permission for the Princess to visit you,” he said, “but this the King refused.” That was a blow.

  “Look at me,” she said. “Do I look as if I am in any state to plot treason and invasions?”

  “No, Highness,” Chapuys replied, regarding her sadly. “But with God’s grace you will be better soon.”

  “You have been a true and trusty friend to me,” she told him. “You have been tireless in my cause, and have gone a long way beyond the call of duty. I cannot express how grateful I am. Without you, I think I should have felt entirely abandoned.”

  “I have been honored to serve your Highness, and to uphold the rightness of your cause. What is happening in this kingdom is wicked. The Lady has her foot in the stirrup and none dare gainsay her, even the King. If she bears a son, I dare not think what might ensue.”

  “My husband seems to be a changed man,” she said sadly. “Yet I am sure that it is the Lady who has done this to him.”

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