Katherine of Aragón: The True Queen by Alison Weir


  “And now I lack a spiritual director,” she complained when he had gone.

  “The Queen your mother has directed that you be confessed by my private chaplain,” Doña Elvira said. “You know Father Duarte; he is a good man, and most holy in his living.” Katherine did know him; he was a rotund, grizzly tonsured cleric with an avuncular manner. He would do very well.

  —

  During the months of court mourning Katherine stayed mainly at Croydon, impatient to hear if her betrothal to Henry would be permitted. Gossip had it that the King of France offered a French princess for Prince Henry. It was unthinkable that she should be jilted for a marriage with France, Spain’s great enemy. Despite her hope that she would one day see her homeland again, she had come to regard marriage to the Prince as her true calling.

  She made only a few visits to court, and when she did go there, it was almost as a private person, because a pall of grief still hung over the royal palaces and the usual entertainments had been curtailed. In the summer, Queen Elizabeth confided to her that she was expecting her seventh child, which must have been conceived soon after Arthur’s death.

  “I said to the King, on that dreadful night they brought us the news, ‘God is where He was, and we are still young enough,’ ” the Queen said, her eyes misty. “I pray that He will send us another prince.”

  Katherine hoped it would be so, though she was concerned to see that her kindly mother-in-law was not in the best of health, no doubt because of her grief at losing Arthur. But then Elizabeth departed on a long progress through the kingdom, and Katherine had to return to Croydon. It was only at Christmas, when the King ordered that the usual festivities go ahead, that she was struck—and alarmed—by the change in the Queen, who looked drained and ill, and seemed to have little energy for anything.

  Katherine wondered if she should voice her fears to the King when he summoned her to his study one day. He too looked drawn, and grief had etched harsh lines on his brow, but he was very much in command of himself.

  “Sit down, Katherine,” he said, leaning back in his chair and facing her across a desk laden with documents and ledgers. There was no sign of his monkey today.

  Katherine sat, smoothing her black velvet skirts.

  “I wanted to talk to you about your marriage to Prince Henry,” the King said. “There are those who are against it. The fiercest is William Warham, the Bishop of London. He insists that if a man takes his brother’s wife in marriage, it is an unclean thing and unlawful. There has been a lot of heated debate.” He grimaced. “But fear not! Whatever you may have heard in regard to your betrothal, I am assured by many learned divines that the Pope will almost certainly grant a dispensation, since your marriage to Arthur was, shall we say, no true marriage. And even if it had been, the Pope still has the power to dispense with such an impediment. There are precedents. I will confound the critics!”

  Katherine listened to this with mounting concern, so her relief was profound.

  “I am so grateful to your Grace,” she said, the words heartfelt. The King gave her a long look and nodded.

  “My son will be a lucky man,” he observed.

  “Sir,” she ventured, “is the Queen’s Grace in health?”

  King Henry frowned. “She is tired, but the doctors say that all will be well. Do not worry.” He rose to indicate that the conversation was at an end, extending his hand to be kissed. She knelt and pressed her lips to it, wondering why, if all that ailed the Queen was tiredness, he looked so heavyhearted.

  —

  Queen Elizabeth was dead. Katherine wept bitterly when Doña Elvira broke the news on a dark February morning.

  “She died in the night. The child came too early,” the duenna said, peering at a letter bearing the royal seal, then handing it to Katherine. Through her tears Katherine read what the King had written. His entirely beloved wife had planned to be confined at Richmond, but the baby came when they were visiting the Tower. “She was recovering from her travail, but then, all of a sudden, she lost a lot of blood, and we sent for the physician, who had gone home. He came as fast as he could, but he could not save her. She died on her thirty-seventh birthday.”

  To die like that! It was horrifying, and it brought home to Katherine the reality of what every woman risked merely by conceiving a child—and that she herself, when the time came, would be no exception. That was a chilling thought. How the Queen must have suffered. To have come through her ordeal only to die days later—when she was getting well. How did such things happen?

  Katherine would dearly have liked to ask the duenna, but Doña Elvira was not one for confidences, especially those of an intimate nature. She was shaking her head sadly. “She had called the babe after you, Highness.”

  “Poor little thing,” Katherine mourned.

  As ever, Doña Elvira was thinking of the practicalities of etiquette. “The court will be back in mourning,” she said. “We must look out your black gown—or the blue one, if your Highness prefers.” Katherine had been surprised to learn that blue was the color of royal mourning in England.

  But although she put on her weeds, she did not go to court immediately, for word came that King Henry had shut himself away to mourn his wife’s death, and—hard on its heels—that of the infant she had borne. Poor man, he must be utterly bereft. There was no doubt that he had loved her dearly: it had been plain for all to see. Who could not have loved Elizabeth? And those poor motherless children, especially Margaret, who was soon to go north to marry the King of Scots, and little Mary, not quite seven years old. Katherine’s tender heart bled for them.

  She herself felt deep sadness. Queen Elizabeth had been a true and loving friend to her ever since she came to England. And this was not her only grief, for word had come from Spain that Maria’s beloved mother had died. Seeing her friend so stricken with sorrow, Katherine could empathize even more with the bereaved royal family. It was a terrible thing to lose a mother, especially when you were young. She prayed—how she prayed—that her own mother would be spared to her for many long years.

  The Queen’s death had come at a critical moment, for Don Hernán had just drawn up the contract for her marriage to Prince Henry, and the sovereigns were eager for it to be concluded. All the conditions had been agreed to, which was nothing short of miraculous, given that it had taken fourteen years to negotiate her marriage to Arthur. King Henry was to keep the first installment of Katherine’s dowry, and the second would be handed over when her marriage to Prince Henry was consummated. In the meantime, Queen Isabella had insisted, the King was to maintain Katherine out of his own pocket. That would give him the right to order her household, although her mother was adamant that Doña Elvira remain as duenna. Katherine had sighed when she heard that. Was she ever to know just a modicum of freedom? The duenna still treated her as if she were a child! It was so hard having to observe strict Spanish etiquette in a land where manners were much freer, but Doña Elvira did not seem to understand that.

  On her visits to court, Katherine had seen nothing of Prince Henry. While she was willing to do her duty, she sometimes doubted the wisdom of this marriage. Certainly, years would have to pass before she could be a proper wife. She had hoped to be a mother long ere then. Yet she had to admit that the prospect of becoming Queen of England was as attractive as it had ever been, and now she’d seen for herself how magnificently queens were treated in this kingdom. Above all, she’d envied the late queen the degree of freedom she enjoyed. At present, Katherine’s life was a cloistered round of prayers, needlework, practicing English, reading, and gossiping with her attendants. Doña Elvira had decreed that, as a widow, it was not fitting for her to dance in public or take part in court entertainments. But a betrothal to Prince Henry would hopefully put an end to all that, and Katherine was coming to depend on it as her escape from all the constraints that chafed her.

  After the Queen’s funeral she was summoned to Greenwich, another great Thames-side palace much favored by the King. Like Ric
hmond, it was surrounded by beautiful gardens, little versions of Paradise with railed flower beds in neat rows, gilded statues of royal heraldic beasts on green-and-white-striped poles, pretty fountains, and lush orchards.

  She was escorted through spacious courtyards to the massive red-brick tower that housed the royal apartments and shown into King Henry’s closet, an exquisite little room with vivid murals depicting the life of St. John. She sat when invited, as the King faced her across his ledger-laden desk. Swathed in deep blue velvet, he looked ravaged, his drawn face a death mask, but he managed a smile.

  “I asked you here, Katherine, to find out for myself if you are content to be betrothed to Prince Henry.”

  “So long as you are content, sire, and my parents, I am happy.” She spoke English passably well now and did not need a translator.

  The King leaned forward, coughing. She had heard such a cough before, and the sound of it chilled her.

  “But the Prince is a boy. Would you not prefer a man in your bed?”

  Katherine was shocked to her core. No man had ever spoken of such intimate matters to her. She felt herself blushing furiously. “I do not think about it,” she stammered.

  “Be assured I do,” said Henry. “It is something to consider. Were a husband of mature years to be found, your father and mother agreeing, you would also be content?”

  “I am theirs to command,” she replied, worrying where this was leading. Pray God the French match had not been agreed to. She would never outlive the shame.

  The King was staring at her. His eyes flickered momentarily to her breasts, then back to her face, so fast she wondered if she had imagined it. But it made her feel distinctly uncomfortable.

  “You are a good girl,” Henry said, smiling bleakly, and coughed again. “Now, leave an old widower to his grief and go and enjoy the gardens. They are lovely at this time of year.”

  Katherine left, wondering what that had been about. Summoning the Vargas sisters to attend her, she wandered along a tree-lined alley that led to what looked like a church in the distance. And there, coming from the opposite direction, was Prince Henry, tutor in tow.

  She could not believe the difference in him. He looked older, of course, and his face was leaner, hinting at the man he would become; but he was so sad, all his joyful ebullience having fled. Yet he seemed delighted to see her, and she found herself thinking once more what a charming and attractive boy he was.

  “Lady Katherine,” he cried, bowing deeply. Katherine curtseyed.

  “Your Highness. I was so very sorry to hear of your loss.”

  Tears filled his blue eyes. “Thank you. I know not how to bear my grief for my dearest mother. Never did I receive such hateful news. I wait only for time to bring me insensibility.” A tear escaped down Henry’s cheek. He brushed it away, plainly making an effort to control himself.

  “Time is a great healer,” Katherine said, thinking this sounded feeble in the face of so much sorrow. “I lost my brother and my sister. I know something of what your Highness is suffering. I loved your mother too.” She held out her hand and he took it. Her response startled her. It was like a warmth flooding through her.

  “Sweet Princess, your kindness is balm to me,” Henry said, appearing not to have noticed. “Alas, I must learn to live with the pain of my loss. Those things that are decreed by Heaven must be accepted by mortal men. I have been at the Observant Friars’ convent, trying to resign myself to God’s will.” In later years Katherine would learn that God’s will and Henry Tudor’s were much the same thing in Henry’s mind, but there was now no doubting that his mother’s loss had been a deadly blow.

  “I have also lost a brother and two sisters,” he said. “I cannot bear to think of illness and death, especially not in relation to her—” He broke off and bent his head, trying—and almost failing—to master himself. “She was so beautiful, such a kind and loving mother. There could not have been a more perfect queen—faithful, dignified, pious, virtuous, and fruitful. She was all those things. Dear Katherine, I know you admired her too, although you had the misfortune not to know her for as long as I did.”

  “My heart grieves for your Highness. It is a great loss, for you, for the King, and for England.”

  “Thank you, my lady,” Henry said. “Now I must leave you. Master Giles here has come to fetch me for my French lesson.” He bowed and walked away, and Katherine and her two maids continued on to the convent. There, the gray-habited friars showed her into their chapel, pointing out the new stained-glass window that the King had donated. She knelt in the chapel for a while, ostensibly in prayer, trying to make sense of all the confusions of the day. The King’s strange demeanor, and that odd conversation they’d had. Her response to Prince Henry. Only now did she realize that on this, the first occasion they had met since a marriage between them was mooted, Henry had not said a thing about it.

  —

  Dr. de Puebla came banging on the door. It was Maria who admitted him.

  “I must see Doña Elvira at once!” Katherine heard him say, and then she heard Doña Elvira inviting him to speak in private. Her heart was pounding. This must be about her marriage. Why else would the doctor be so insistent? Something of moment must have happened. Katherine nodded at Maria to leave the door open so she would know when the duenna reappeared, and the two girls clasped hands in silent concern.

  Katherine did not have long to wait. Soon she saw the ambassador slinking off, sketching a hasty bow when he saw her watching him, and avoiding her gaze. Then Doña Elvira came bursting into Katherine’s chamber, outrage personified.

  “Words fail me, Highness,” she railed. “That King is a devil. His queen is not cold in her grave, yet he must needs go lusting after another. He needs to remarry and get more heirs, or so he told Dr. de Puebla. And what does that villain of a doctor suggest? I am amazed that the Almighty has not struck him dead!”

  “What has he suggested?” Katherine interrupted.

  “Dr. de Puebla, traitor that he is, has suggested that the King marry you. And he but a weak man and sickly!”

  Katherine was appalled. King Henry was an old man—if not in years, then certainly in every other respect. And he was not a well man; his cough had reminded her of Arthur’s. The very idea of marrying him, of bedding with him, was utterly distasteful, especially after she had seen Prince Henry and understood for the first time something of the attraction between a man and a woman.

  “No,” she said, abandoning the obedience drummed into her over a lifetime. “I will be torn in pieces first, whatever my parents say.”

  “Be assured I will support your Highness,” Doña Elvira declared, like a general amassing his forces for battle. “I will write to Queen Isabella.”

  —

  Katherine did not know how she endured the three weeks of waiting for her mother to reply—three weeks in which she managed to avoid seeing the King and refused to have anything to do with Dr. de Puebla. By the time she received the letter, she was in an agony of trepidation. But as she read it, she exhaled with relief.

  “Doña Elvira!” she called.

  The duenna came running; she knew the letter had come.

  “I will not be marrying the King!” Katherine informed her. “The Queen my mother is furious. She says it would be an evil thing, one never before seen, and that the mere mention of it offends her ears.”

  “I knew Her Majesty would never countenance it!”

  “There is more. You will be gratified to hear that she has severely censured Dr. de Puebla for his meddling.”

  “Ha! Serves him right,” Doña Elvira exulted.

  “My mother says that King Henry is known to be ailing, and that the best I could hope for is a short marriage followed by a long widowhood, with no influence. She is sure that marrying Prince Henry would assure me of a far more stable and glorious future. So if the King pursues the matter, I am to speak of it as a thing not to be endured. In the meantime my mother is proposing another bride for him.”
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  She wondered what King Henry would say when he received this snub, but her fear that he might react angrily was unfounded. In no time Don Hernán came to say that His Grace had no wish to offend Spain, and was ready to conclude the treaty of betrothal between the Princess and his son.

  “But, Highness,” the ambassador added, “the King of England is still haggling over the dowry, so we have agreed that the remaining hundred thousand crowns will be made up of sixty-five thousand crowns in gold, and thirty-five thousand in the plate and jewelry in your possession.” The plate and jewelry were still safely packed in chests in a locked attic at Croydon.

  “You will be married to Prince Henry two years hence, when he reaches his fourteenth birthday,” Don Hernán continued. “In the meantime, the sovereigns and King Henry will approach the Pope for a dispensation that resolves all the canonical difficulties. His Grace will sign the treaty this week.”

  Her future was almost settled. If the Pope granted the desired dispensation, she would be the Princess of Wales, and in God’s good time, Queen of England.

  —

  Katherine walked gracefully into the chapel, barely able to contain her joy. This June day was glorious not only on account of the dazzling sunshine, but because it was her betrothal day. After weeks of prevaricating, Pope Julius had finally issued a dispensation permitting her and Henry to marry, even if she had perhaps been Arthur’s wife in every sense.

  It felt good to be out of mourning weeds, and free of the constricting Spanish fashions and the cumbersome farthingale. Katherine wore a gown in the English style in virginal white silk, her hair flowing loose in token of her purity. The gown had hanging sleeves, heavy skirts that flared out from the waist, and a long train that was looped up at the back to show the rich damask kirtle beneath. The neckline was low and square, edged with tiny pearls, and around her neck she wore the heavy collar of Ks and pomegranates that she had brought from Spain.

 
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