Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  At Shrovetide, Arthur bade her accompany him to bed once more. After a restless night, when he tossed and turned, sweating despite the February chill, they lay there waiting for dawn to break, not touching, as usual, but talking about the possibility of a visit to court in the summer.

  “It has to be the summer,” Katherine said. “I could not face that journey again in the winter.” Arthur did not answer, and when she turned to look at him, she saw that he was clutching his chest and gasping for air.

  “The pain, the pain!” he groaned. Then he was racked with a horrible paroxysm of coughing, and when he lay back, spent, his hand still pressed to his chest, there were spots of bright blood on the pillow.

  Katherine stared at it for a few heartbreaking moments, then leapt out of bed, pulling on her nightgown and calling for Dr. Alcaraz and Sir Richard Pole. When they came, she sat in the antechamber, where Margaret Pole joined her, holding her hand and looking concerned as Katherine recounted, in her halting English, what had happened. Doña Elvira arrived, froze at the sight of someone else comforting her princess, then thawed when they explained what had happened. Even her stern eyes filled with tears. She took Katherine’s other hand and squeezed it.

  They waited, none of them saying much. Father Alessandro came to them and said prayers for Arthur.

  Presently Dr. Alcaraz emerged, his face grave. “Highness, you must be brave. It is as I have suspected for a while. The Prince is very ill. In my humble opinion, he is in the final stages of consumption.”

  “Oh, merciful God,” Katherine whispered, crossing herself, shocked, but not entirely surprised. “Poor, poor Arthur. He is so young…” Her eyes brimmed.

  “God calls to Himself those whom He loves best,” Father Alessandro murmured, laying a hand on her shoulder.

  Grief had evidently banished all differences, for Doña Elvira and Margaret Pole were crying in each other’s arms. At the chaplain’s behest, they all knelt and prayed that Arthur’s sufferings might be mitigated, or brief. And as the implications of Dr. Alcaraz’s diagnosis began to sink in, Katherine found that her sorrow was more for Arthur’s family than for herself.

  “This will come as a dreadful shock to King Henry and the Queen,” she said, and then the tears did fall as she thought of what this news would do to them. “All their hopes were in Arthur!

  “How long?” she asked the doctor.

  “Not long,” he told her. “I am so sorry for your Highnesses.”

  “Does he know?”

  “I have prepared him.”

  “I must go to him,” Katherine said.


  Arthur looked as bleached as the pillow when she returned to the bedchamber. He was no longer gasping for air, although his breathing was labored. He turned to her, and she was reminded once more of Juan, for his skin had that translucency that was so beautiful, yet so deadly. But Juan had sickened and died suddenly, and nothing in Katherine’s sixteen years had equipped her to deal with someone who had just been told that death was facing them.

  Yet Arthur made it clear at once that the subject was not to be mentioned.

  “Do not worry, Katherine,” he said, attempting a smile, “I am feeling somewhat restored now. Would you kindly ask Willoughby and Gruffydd to attend me? I think I shall get up and go to the council.”

  “Would it not be better to rest?” she asked.

  “There will be plenty of time for rest,” he said, the fierce expression on his face warning her to say no more.

  “I will summon your gentlemen.” She tried not to notice that he was blinking back tears.

  She hastened through the antechamber and began descending the stairs. As she neared the bottom she heard voices below, which made her pause. One belonged to Maurice St. John, Arthur’s groom. “He is ill because he lay with the Lady Katherine,” he was saying.

  “Aye, but can you blame him? If she were my wife, I’d bed her every night.” That was Anthony Willoughby. Katherine grew hot. It was shaming to hear herself discussed in such terms.

  “From what I hear, it’s a good thing the lad took his pleasure when he could,” Gruffydd ap Rhys said mournfully. “I cannot believe it. All that promise…I never had a better master.”

  Katherine tiptoed back up the stairs and sent a page to summon the men. Then she went to her chamber, threw herself on the bed, and sobbed her heart out.


  Arthur rallied a little. He went about his daily rounds as usual and was well enough to wash the feet of fifteen poor men—one for every year of his age—on Maundy Thursday, but after that it was clear to everyone that time was running out for him. At the end of March, so weak that he was forced to take to his bed, he called for pen and parchment, and his lawyer, and announced that he was making his will.

  By then Katherine herself was unwell, confined to bed in her chamber below, suffering a purgatory of chills, pains in her joints, and all-encompassing fatigue. Soon her head was swimming, her body shuddering, and she could hardly stand. Between them Doña Elvira and Maria helped her to bed. She stayed there, too ill to rise, too weak even to lift her hand above the counterpane. Margaret Pole sent up choice delicacies to tempt her appetite, but she could not eat, and could take only sips of wine from a goblet held to her lips. Most of the time she slept fitfully. When she woke, it was to ask after Arthur, only to be told that he was comfortable. She felt terrible about not being with him, but Dr. Alcaraz, supported by her other Spanish physicians, Dr. de la Saa and Dr. Guersye, had warned that if he caught her malady, it would finish him. They told her, though, that Arthur was in good spirits and talking of getting up again. She hoped it was true.

  One afternoon, to allow Doña Elvira to rest, Margaret Pole came to sit with Katherine, filling the room with her serene, reassuring presence. It was clear that she bore no rancor toward her, or toward Doña Elvira, with whom she was now quite companionable, both of them united in concern for their princess. Margaret stitched while Katherine dozed, plumped the pillows when she awoke, and stoked up the fire when it threatened to die on them.

  “You are so kind to me,” Katherine said.

  “Nonsense, madam! It’s my pleasure to look after you. Would you like something to eat?”

  “I couldn’t face anything, but thank you. You are a true friend.”

  Katherine felt ill and homesick, and miserable about not being with Arthur when he might die at any moment. She kept crying when she thought of his short life being cut short, and how cruelly Margaret Pole had suffered because of her but was ready to comfort her nonetheless.

  She could not help herself. She had to say something.

  “Lady Pole, forgive me, but I must say how deeply sorry I am about your brother of Warwick.”

  Margaret lowered her eyes, but not before Katherine had glimpsed the pain that name had evoked. “That is kind of you, madam,” she said. “My poor brother was too trusting, too gullible by far. He was a simple soul; he could not have told a goose from a capon. Alas, he was led astray by that fool Warbeck luring him into his mad plot.”

  “I fear there was more to it than that.” Katherine swallowed.

  “More? How so?”

  “Both of them were lured into treason—I am convinced of it. My father said that I would never go to England while any lived who could challenge the crown. Some weeks later we heard that your brother and Warbeck had been executed. Then my father summoned me and told me that his ambassador had assured him that not a doubtful drop of royal blood remained in England, and therefore it was safe for me to depart. I drew my own conclusions from that. I was—I still am—horrified to think that I was the cause of two men’s deaths.”

  Margaret was shaking her head. “Not you, madam, never you. It was nothing to do with you, and I will not speak ill of the King your father, or King Henry. No doubt they did what they thought they had to do. I did wonder at the time if all was as it seemed. It was such a silly plot: as if those two young fools could have hoped to take the Tower a
nd the throne!”

  “I can never make it up to you,” Katherine said, “and God is punishing me. My marriage was made in blood, and so it will end soon in tragedy.”

  “Do not say such things!” Margaret reproved. “God is our loving father, and everything happens by His providence. He knows you are innocent of this deed.”

  “I wish I could believe it,” Katherine sighed.

  “Pray to Him; ask Him to reassure you. If I do not hold this against you, He certainly does not.”

  “Thank you, my dear friend,” Katherine sobbed. “Thank you! You cannot know how relieved I am to hear you say that.”


  Later that evening Maria came in with a ewer of wine and a goblet.

  “Please try to drink something, Highness.” She placed both by the bed and poured the wine, then held the goblet to Katherine’s lips.

  “There is a strange woman up on Mortimer’s Tower,” she said. “I called up to her as I passed from the ewery, but I don’t think she heard me. She was just standing there.”

  “I’ve told the servants before that the roof of that tower is out of bounds,” Margaret fumed. “It’s unsafe up there. I’ll go and summon her down.”

  She was soon back. “There’s no one there,” she said.

  Katherine felt a twinge of fear. She could not look at Margaret, in case Margaret knew what she was thinking.


  On the second day of April, Katherine woke to find Margaret Pole sitting beside her bed, telling the beads on her rosary.

  “How is your Highness?” she inquired.

  “I won’t know until I try to sit up,” Katherine told her.

  “Then lie there for a while,” Margaret advised. Katherine noticed that she looked drawn.

  “You are tired, my friend,” she said.

  “I am well, your Highness, but I have been up all night and now come to perform a sad duty.” She laid her hand on Katherine’s. “I am deeply sorry to tell you that Prince Arthur died this morning, between six and seven o’clock.”

  Katherine had been expecting it, but still the news came as a shock. He died and she had not been there. She wondered what she should feel for the loss of this boy who had been her husband yet had always seemed a stranger.

  “God rest his soul,” she said at last, crossing herself and trying not to cry. “Was it—was it peaceful?”

  “Mercifully, yes. He died in his sleep, with Richard and me watching over him. It was an easy passage. If only the Fates had granted him a longer stay in this world.”

  If only. The great marriage alliance, sealed in the interests of peace, had in the end lasted less than five months. Four little months in which she had been neither wife nor lover. She wished she could have loved Arthur more, or that it hurt, rather than worried her, that he had not loved her. She thought of those closest to Arthur who would be affected most deeply by his death, and her heart bled for them.

  “The King should be informed,” she said.

  “A messenger is already on his way.” Pray God he would break the news kindly. And yet such news would always be a brutal blow, however gently broken.

  As Katherine lay there, feeling weak and waiting for Margaret Pole to summon Doña Elvira to attend her, she wondered what would happen to her now. At just sixteen, she was a widow, and a virgin. There was no reason for her to stay in England. The new heir to the throne was Prince Henry, a child, even if he seemed old for his years. Maybe she could go home to Spain. At this moment she wanted nothing more than to be with the mother she had not seen in months, to be in a warm climate, away from this cold, damp, gray land, and to know what the future held for her. It cheered her to think that within weeks she might be back in Spain, with England a sad memory that would fade as the years passed.


  She missed the funeral. Although her body was slowly mending, she was still too weak even to go down to the great hall, where Arthur’s body lay in state. Sir Richard Pole had made all the arrangements. Katherine had no energy to do anything but lie abed, as the cortege battled its way through gales and mud to Worcester Abbey, where the Prince was to be buried. Afterward, Margaret Pole told her how the mourners had wept and made great lamentation as the coffin was lowered into the new vault at the side of the altar. The hope of England had gone, and the dreams of a dynasty were dust. It was fitting that people should weep. He had been so young, so full of promise.

  Katherine felt no pang when she learned that Arthur had left all his robes and household stuff to his sister Margaret. She herself had merited no mention in his will. It was no surprise to her. He had not loved her, nor she him. They had done their best with each other, as she supposed many married couples did, but it availed them little. There had never been any spark of passion between them.


  The coming of May blossoms brought with it a summons from the Queen. Katherine was touched that Elizabeth, grief-stricken as she must be, had thought of her.

  “Her Grace fears that you are in an unhealthy place because of all this sickness,” said Doña Elvira, looking up from the Queen’s letter. “She wants you moved as soon as possible, and is sending an escort to take you to London.”

  Katherine heard the news with relief. She had come to hate Ludlow and its grim associations with death and illness. She was better now and chafing at being confined in her black-draped rooms, wearing mourning weeds and a nunlike veil over a wimple with an irritating chin barb, as became a widow. When the litter sent by the Queen arrived, Katherine was dismayed to find it covered with black velvet and black cloth, and fringed with black valances and black ribbon. She stood regarding this doleful equipage dubiously, then turned to Margaret Pole and embraced her warmly, as Sir Richard bowed.

  “I shall miss you, dear Lady Pole, and you, Sir Richard. You have been true friends to me, and I hope that one day we shall meet again,” she said. Margaret hugged her.

  “We will miss you too, dear Princess. I will write to you. God keep you. Have a safe journey.”

  The ever-ready tears were in Katherine’s eyes as she climbed into the litter and settled back in its gloomy depths. Soon Ludlow was left far behind and she was traveling back across England, an England awakening to the promise of spring. When Doña Elvira’s face was turned away, she peered through the curtains to see lush green fields, woodlands, copses, and small villages with timbered houses clustered around stone churches. People ran to see her, and called down blessings on the tragic princess who had been widowed so young. And so she came to Richmond.


  Katherine gazed out of the window on the gardens of Croydon Palace. When she had first arrived in Richmond, Queen Elizabeth, her face ravaged with grief, offered her a choice of houses to reside in while she awaited the decision on her future. Here, in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s red-brick palace, she was comfortable enough, but she longed to go home. Her parents had written to say that they could not endure that a daughter whom they loved should be so far away from them in her trouble, and Queen Elizabeth assured her the King would do all for the best, but no plans had yet been made.

  “Why can we not go home to Spain?” Francesca de Cáceres had asked only that morning. Of all Katherine’s maids, she was the one who missed their homeland the most.

  “In truth, I do not know,” she told the girl.

  What is to happen to me? she kept asking herself.

  Doña Elvira swept into the room, interrupting her thoughts, and Katherine could tell from her face that she had something important to impart.

  “Their Majesties have sent a new ambassador, Highness. His name is Don Hernán Duque de Estrada and he is a knight of the Order of Santiago; you may remember him, as he served in your brother’s household. He comes with instructions to preserve the alliance with England, and to ask for the immediate return of your Highness and all your dowry.”

  Katherine’s face lit up and she caught her breath to speak.

  “But heed me!” Her duenna held up a
hand. “They are only throwing out a cheap fish to bait a larger one! Dr. de Puebla has instructions too, so Don Hernán tells me; if possible he is to secure your betrothal to Prince Henry.”

  “But he is a child!”

  “He is nearly eleven, and at fourteen will be ready for marriage, by the look of him.”

  Katherine could not help thinking of young Henry’s vitality and forwardness. Somehow she did not think there would be any question that he would be potent at fourteen. He was bursting with health, and there was something very engaging and—yes—attractive about him. But—

  “I am more than five years older,” she protested. “I would then be nearly twenty.”

  “It matters not,” dismissed the duenna. “The alliance must be preserved. The sovereigns and King Henry are both anxious for that. But there is a delicate matter I am to discuss with you. King Henry still hopes that you will bear Prince Arthur a child.”

  “You know that is not the case.”

  “I do, but I must know what you wish me to say. You see, Highness, if your marriage to Prince Arthur was consummated, a union with his brother would be incestuous. But King Ferdinand is certain that the Pope will provide a dispensation if it can be shown that there was no consummation. Your mother has asked Don Hernán to get at the truth.” Doña Elvira’s stern face betrayed a hint of a smile. “Of course, decorum prevents him from asking your Highness outright, so he has been making discreet inquiries of your ladies—and even of your laundresses. And then that fool, Father Alessandro, told him that the marriage had been consummated. So, with your Highness’s permission, I will write to Queen Isabella and inform her that you remain a virgin.”

  “Very well,” Katherine said, her heart sinking. So she was not to go home after all. She must hide her longing for the hot sunshine on her face, the taste of oranges, and the embrace of her beloved mother. What she wanted did not matter. When her parents commanded, she must obey.

  Soon afterward, Father Alessandro was summoned home to Spain, under a cloud. Doña Elvira explained, in an offended tone, that his insistence that Katherine was no virgin had not gone down well in Madrid. Katherine’s farewell was cool, because she knew he had incurred her parents’ displeasure, but she was sorry to see him go, for he had been her tutor for years before he became her chaplain and she was fond of him.

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