Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir

  “He is a frustrated man. He cannot have what he wants, so he lashes out at anyone who opposes him.”

  Katherine sighed. “I can understand his frustrations. I, of all people, know how much he desires a son. And I was as frustrated as he was at the long, long delay in obtaining a Papal sentence. Tell me, my dear friend, do you think he will ever come back into the fold?”

  “Not while the Lady holds sway.” Chapuys grimaced.

  “There is one more thing, one vital thing, that I must ask of you,” Katherine said, trying to rise in her bed.

  “Say it, Highness, and it will be done.”

  “Look after Mary for me, dear friend. You have always had her interests at heart and been a true champion of her rights.”

  Chapuys’s face softened. “And will continue to do so, Highness, I vow it. I hold the Princess in the highest esteem, and I will endeavor to my utmost power to keep her safe, for your sake and her own. You may rest assured on that.”

  Relief flooded her, and profound gratitude. This kind, good, true man had taken up her burden of love and care, had lifted it from her weary shoulders and made it possible for her to depart this life at peace with herself. She knew that she would never see her daughter’s cherished face again, but she had done the very best she could for her, and could take comfort in that.

  “I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said to Chapuys.

  He smiled at her. “You did not need to ask.”

  They had been chatting for two hours when there was a knock on the door and Eliza came in to say that Katherine had a visitor. Behind Eliza, Katherine could hear raised voices along the gallery, one of them a woman’s, strident and insistent. No—it could not be!

  But it was. Seconds later Maria Willoughby whirled into the room.

  “Thank God!” she exclaimed. “I never expected to see your Highness alive.”

  Katherine could not believe her eyes. God had been bountiful enough in sending Chapuys to her, but to have two of the people she loved best in the world visit her here in this lonely place, and on the same day, was the most manifold blessing.

  Maria embraced her, leaning back and shaking her head. She looked not a day older than when Katherine had seen her last, three years ago, but Katherine knew that she herself was a shadow of the woman she had been then, and she could see in Maria’s face that she was shocked at the change.

  “Oh, my dear friend!” Katherine breathed. “Did the King allow you to come too, as he has Messire Chapuys?”

  “No, Highness. Reports that you were ill reached me at Grimsthorpe, and I knew I must come. I made all the haste I could, but it’s fifty miles, and in this weather it’s a hard ride. The inns along the way are atrocious. It’s been four days and I’m freezing.” She strode over to the fire and held out her hands. “When they opened the doors in the gatehouse, I insisted on coming in, but those two wretches who call themselves custodians tried to shut them in my face. So I thrust my foot in the way and told them I had with me plenty of letters that were sufficient to exonerate them from any blame, which I would show them in the morning.”

  “And do you have such letters?” Katherine asked.

  Maria smiled. “Of course not. I think they’re looking for me. Lock the door!”


  Miraculously, Sir Edward and Sir Edmund did not come banging on the door, demanding to see Lady Willoughby. Even they must have realized that the time for plotting was long past.

  Maria was not interested in what Sir Edward and Sir Edmund thought. She was tutting at the state of the hearth.

  “Don’t tell me someone’s been cooking in here,” she said, sniffing at the ever-present smell of stale meat fat.

  “My maids cook for me,” Katherine explained. “I dare not eat anything else, for fear of poison.”

  “I will make you something,” said Maria.

  “You can cook?” It seemed incredible that the proud daughter of a Castilian grandee should stoop so low.

  “No!” Maria grimaced. “But I can learn!”

  The stew she prepared, having sent Katherine’s maids racing down to the kitchens for the necessary ingredients, was surprisingly good. Maria gave Chapuys some, and spooned it into Katherine’s mouth herself.

  “I am not hungry,” Katherine told her. “I have no appetite these days. But I will eat a little because you have been so kind as to make it for me.”

  “That’s what I want to hear!” Maria said brightly. “Good food will make you better.”

  Katherine doubted it, but she went along with the pretense.

  “Where will you sleep?” she asked Maria. “You can share my bed, if you wish?”

  “If Messire Chapuys will take the chair,” Maria agreed.

  “Of course,” Chapuys said, “but now that Lady Willoughby is here, my presence is no longer necessary and I should leave, for I can be of more service to your Highness elsewhere.”

  “Do not go just yet,” Katherine pleaded. “It is so pleasant to have your company, and it will be a health to me.”

  “I will stay a little longer, then,” he smiled.


  Chapuys was ready to leave. He had come to take his farewell.

  Katherine put on a brave smile.

  “It is good to see your Highness looking more cheerful,” he said.

  “That is thanks to you and Maria,” she said.

  “I am leaving two of my people to entertain you, and to keep me informed of your health,” Chapuys told her. One of them, Katherine guessed, was the young man who had been passing on the letters she had entrusted to Eliza, for she had just seen Eliza’s face light up.

  “So now it is goodbye,” Katherine said, extending her hand to be kissed. She wanted to weep and beg Chapuys to stay, but she was resolved not to embarrass him or make him feel guilty about leaving.

  He knelt and grasped her hand in both of his, kissing it fervently. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. “You are the most virtuous woman I have ever known, and the highest hearted. But Highness, you are too quick to trust that others are like yourself, and too slow to do a little ill that much good might come of it.”

  She managed another smile. “Are you still nagging me to incite war? My faithful, trusty friend, will you never give up? I will not waver from what I have said.”

  Chapuys regarded her ruefully.

  “Was I right?” she asked him. “Was I right to make a stand against what I believed to be wrong? Even though many ills have come from it? I have been asking myself this a lot lately. I must be quiet in my conscience.”

  “Never doubt it, Highness,” Chapuys said. “The world would be a better place if there were more like you. And now, farewell. May God keep you and restore you to health. Rest assured that I will never forget my promise to look after the Princess.”

  “Farewell, dear friend! Thank you!” She watched him leave, knowing she would never see him again, and then the slow tears trickled down her cheeks.


  At least she now had Maria, who had made it her business to take charge of the four maids and assign them different tasks. Katherine suspected that Eliza was a little put out, having managed quite capably for so long, but the girl said nothing. Instead she willingly agreed to be responsible for looking after Katherine’s personal needs. Margery and Blanche were to do the cooking, and Margery was to continue making the herbal cordial, for Maria considered it beneficial to their mistress. Isabel, made to bestir herself, was to see that all things needful were obtained from the kitchens and elsewhere, and was to bully those lazy wretches in the north wing to rouse themselves if what she wanted was not forthcoming.

  Katherine could only lie there and watch and listen, for she barely had the strength to raise her arms now. The palpitations and breathlessness were worse than ever, and sometimes her heart raced so fast that she feared it would burst. She was always cold and trembling, no matter how warm the room. Her feet and hands were freezing.

  She was dying,
she knew it. No one could be this ill and recover. But she was calm and resigned. In some ways it would be a relief to be out of this world with all its sorrows. It was only the thought of Mary, growing up motherless and friendless, that brought her grief—and of Henry, for whom her love had never died. Of all the things she had loved on this earth, Mary would be the hardest to let go of.

  She must make her will now, before it was too late. She asked that pen and paper be brought, and summoned the Bishop of Llandaff to set it all down, and Maria and Eliza to be witnesses. Then she dictated her last wishes.

  “Write that I desire King Henry the Eighth, my good lord, to pay my debts and recompense my servants for the good services they have done for me. I ask to be buried in a convent of the Observant Friars, and that five hundred Masses be said for my soul, and that someone make a pilgrimage on my behalf to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.” She paused, thinking about what bequests to make. “To my daughter, the Princess Mary, I leave a collar of gold that I brought out of Spain and my furs.” What money she had left, and the rest of her belongings, she left to the faithful Francisco Felipez, her four maids, and her other servants.

  When the will was drawn up and she had used her remaining strength to sign it, Katherine had to rest. She felt utterly drained, and knew that Death was stealthily approaching. Maria ordered Margery to bring her some cordial, and they raised Katherine up so she could sip it. She could take very little and signed to them to lay her down to sleep.

  She woke when it was dusk, to hear Maria grumbling.

  “Where is that woman?”

  “She went into the garden to gather some herbs.” That was Blanche.

  There was a swish of skirts as Maria went to the window. “I can’t see her. She’s been gone since dinnertime.”

  “Maybe she’s with Bastien?” Eliza suggested. “She likes him.”

  “Bastien was with Philip in the kitchen when I went there a few minutes ago.”

  “Shall I go and look for her?” Blanche asked.

  “Yes, and take Isabel. Search the gardens. Check the kitchens.”

  “She has gone, my lady.” It was Isabel speaking.


  “I think she has left the castle. Her things are gone—her clothes and her traveling chest.”

  “What?” Maria, for once, seemed at a loss for words. “Show me!”

  Katherine heard the sound of footsteps receding, then returning, and urgent voices murmuring in the closet.

  “Madam,” Maria said. “Are you awake?”

  “Yes,” she said. “Has Margery left the castle?”

  “It seems that she has. Of all the ungrateful…and after you so generously provided for her in your will.”

  “Do not be angry with her,” Katherine said. “She has had her fair share of suffering. Do not ask me to elaborate, but I can assure you of it. This is no life for her, nursing a dying woman. It is no life for any of you.”

  “I never did like her,” Maria sniffed. “But to steal away without telling us, or bidding you farewell! You have been a good mistress to her. You deserve better!”

  “Leave it, Maria. There is no room in my heart for anger. I am sure she had a good reason.”

  Eliza spoke up. “She was meeting a man,” she said. “He came more than once, and they met at the Sun Inn. I saw them there.”

  “And you never told the Queen?” Maria was outraged. “Do you not realize that the conduct of her maids reflects on her? She is responsible for your moral welfare.”

  “Enough, Maria,” Katherine murmured. “I am too weary to listen to this. I would like to think that Margery has seized her chance of happiness. Please write to her sister for me and explain what has happened, and that I am ill. I can do no more.”

  Maria snorted her disapproval, but she left Katherine in peace, and Eliza to sit with her.

  The pain and the palpitations were bad. Katherine felt light-headed and disorientated. She wished she could sleep again and escape this torment. She lay there, trying to think of something pleasant. In her mind, she wandered through the gardens at Greenwich, where once, long ago, Henry had given her a rose as they planned their wedding. How he had loved her then! She had given him her whole heart—and it was still his. She wanted him to know that while there was still time.

  He had forbidden her to communicate with him, but she could not die without expressing her love—and her forgiveness.

  “Eliza,” she said, “will you write a letter for me?”

  “Of course, madam. Who is it to?”

  “It is to the King. Write it down as I say it.” She took a labored breath and strove to order her thoughts. “My lord and dear husband, I commend me to you. The hour of my death draws on fast, and my case is such that the tender love I owe you forces me to remind you of the health and safety of your soul, which you ought to prefer before any consideration of the world or the flesh, and for which you have cast me into many miseries and yourself into many cares. For my part, I do pardon you all; yes, I do wish and dearly pray God that He will also pardon you. For the rest, I commend to you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them their marriage portions, which do not amount to much, there being but three of them. For my other servants I solicit a year’s pay more than they are due.”

  She paused, struggling again for breath. The effort she had made to dictate the letter had been too much for her. She forced herself to finish. “End it thus, Eliza: ‘Lastly, I vow that my eyes desire you above all things.’ ”

  Eliza looked up. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “Shall I help you to sign it, madam?”

  “Yes.” Eliza fetched another pillow, which raised Katherine up slightly, and helped her to grasp the pen. Katherine traced the words across the page, slowly, painfully. Katherine the Queen, she wrote, the letters straggly and awry. Those three words symbolized all that she had stood and fought for during the last bitter years. They were her final defiance.


  On the seventh morning of January. Katherine awoke in the depths of the night. She had slept fitfully. The pain had worsened; she could hardly breathe. She knew that the time had come for her to make her peace with God.

  Maria was sitting beside her.

  “What time is it?” Katherine asked.

  “An hour after midnight, Highness,” Maria whispered.

  “Is that all? I had hoped that day was approaching, so that I could hear Mass and receive the sacred sacrament. But it is too early for Mass. I must wait until an hour before dawn.”

  “No matter, I will fetch your confessor,” Maria said. She sped off on slippered feet through the silent house and returned with the Bishop of Llandaff, who was in his night robe.

  “Madam, I will say Mass if you wish it,” he said.

  “No, Father, I cannot ask you to go against the Church’s ruling. I will lie here and say my prayers, and I will look for you at dawn.” She trusted she would still be alive then. She willed herself to be.

  When the sky lightened, the bishop returned and celebrated Mass. Katherine was now very weak, but she received the sacred sacrament with great fervor and devotion, feeling uplifted beyond earthly concerns, and confident that the joy it gave her was a foretaste of the glories to come. In Paradise there would be no giving or taking in marriage, no divorce and no shedding of blood. Her mother and father were waiting there for her, and Juan, and those good men who had suffered for her sake, and all those cherished tiny babes she had lost. Soon she would be with them. It would not be long now.

  But in the little time she had left her thoughts were with Mary—and Henry.

  “I pray that God will pardon the King my husband the wrong he has done me, and that divine wisdom will lead him to the true road,” she said aloud. “I pray that He comforts my child when I am gone.”

  They were gathering around her bed now, and she saw that even Sir Edward and Sir Edmund had come to witness her receiving extreme
unction. Everyone was on their knees. She felt the bishop anointing her with holy oil on her eyes, ears, nose, lips, and hands.

  “Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight, by hearing, by smell, by taste, or by touch,” she heard him say. “By the sacred mysteries of man’s redemption may Almighty God remit to you all penalties of the present life and of the life to come; may He open to you the gates of Paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.”

  It was done, the last rite. She was free to go. Miraculously, the pain had gone, and she was able to sleep.

  When she awoke, her household were still gathered around her. It was yet day. She felt as if she were far away, lifted to another plane. If this was death, it would be easy to drift away.

  Gradually she felt a change come over her, a gentle fading away, not frightening, but serenely comforting. But even now she was mindful of setting a good example. She had been taught from her childhood that it was important for a Christian to make a good death.

  “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” she whispered, and then she had the sensation of falling down into a dark tunnel that seemed to go on and on, and at the far end she saw little children holding out their arms to her, and there were winged angels beckoning her to a glorious light, and it was more beautiful than anything she had ever seen; and she knew that the light was love, and that it was peace.

  In telling the story of Katherine of Aragon, I have kept closely to the historical record. I have taken some dramatic license in fleshing out minor characters, and I apologize to the shade of the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, for inventing a few letters and putting others’ words into his mouth. But in recounting the tale from Katherine’s point of view, I have had to take into account what she knew about events and how—especially in the years of her exile—she would have found out what was going on in the world, and in those years Chapuys was her chief link. However, many of the letters quoted in the text are genuine, even if I have slightly modernized the language. The same is true of a substantial amount of the dialogue.

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