Katharine of Aragon: Life Story

Chapter 7 : A Year of Conflict

One of the political areas in which the King and Queen were as one, was in their desire to regain the English territories in France. As the dismemberment of France, or at least the regaining of the kingdom of Navarre, which the French had encroached upon, was also Spanish policy, the two countries could ally against Louis XII.

It is probable that Katharine and Henry genuinely believed that Spanish and English interests were the same, but that was a naive position. Ferdinand cared little about Henry’s claim to be King of France and was very much more interested in his own Italian and Navarrese ambitions. Ferdinand was no seeker after military glory for its own sake – he had achieved that with the conquest of Granada. What he wanted was territorial domination in Italy and Navarre, and he would use war or peace, truth or lies, loyalty or betrayal, to achieve it.

Whatever Katharine and Henry’s jingoistic ambitions, the King’s Councillors, many of whom had served his more cautious father, wished to dissuade him from war, and in the event it was not until 1512 that Henry first sent an army abroad. Under the leadership of Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, Henry’s maternal cousin, a force of 6,000 landed in Spain with the object of joining Ferdinand’s army and the combined force invading Aquitaine. Ferdinand used their presence to mount a surprise attack on Navarre. Henry’s men were poorly provisioned, badly trained and, unable to carry out their mission of invading Aquitaine, took to looting and molesting the local Spaniards. Eventually, running out of supplies and close to starvation, they were obliged to return home.

Ferdinand declared that the whole fiasco had been the fault of Dorset and his men although some of Henry’s Councillors, unsurprisingly, believed that Ferdinand had deliberately used the arrival of English troops to cover his own actions.

Henry and Katharine chose to accept Ferdinand’s explanation, but from this point forward Katharine seems to have understood that her father’s and her husband’s interests were not always consistent. In her mind there was no contest between the two and she would always put Henry’s interests first. Nevertheless, Henry was determined on war with France on his own account and the Queen was in absolute agreement with his ambitions.

As Henry began to prepare for war in earnest, Katharine became deeply involved in the planning stages. Queen Isabella had acted as quartermaster for her army in the reconquest of Granada and Katharine showed a similar interest in the details of military planning. She and Henry had a shared interest in the navy – whilst the largest ship afloat in Europe was the ‘Michael’, owned by Henry VIII’s brother-in-law, James IV of Scotland, Henry had commissioned new ships including the ‘Peter Pomegranate’ – named to reflect Katharine’s personal badge of the pomegranate. According to the Venetian reports, Katharine was trying to persuade Henry to build four galleasses – a type of warship.

The English began to attack French shipping in early 1513, but the campaign was a disaster, resulting in the death of Sir Thomas Knyvet, one of Henry and Katharine’s favourite courtiers, and also Lord Edward Howard, son of the Earl of Surrey and a friend of the royal couple.

By the summer of 1513, England and France were at war. Henry was determined to lead his troops himself and set sail from Dover in June. Before he left he appointed Katharine as Queen Governor or Regent of England. She was to have full regal powers with the exception of the appointment of bishops. Most importantly, she had authority to raise an army and to distribute money from the Treasury. Henry declared his faith in his wife by lauding her ‘honour, excellence, prudence, forethought and faithfulness’.

Although a large portion of Henry’s nobles had accompanied him to France, Katharine did retain the services of a Council, including Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey had been Henry’s uncle by marriage, married to Anne of York, and was considered one of the most able military commanders in England. He had many years of experience in both negotiating with Scotland and containing the persistent low-level warfare that troubled the Anglo-Scots border.

Surrey’s experience in the North was vital as the action that Scotland would take in the event of an Anglo-French war was uncertain. England and Scotland had been bound by the Treaty of Perpetual Peace which had been signed at the turn of the century, and fulfilled with the marriage of Henry’s sister, Margaret, to the King of Scots. But Scotland had also had an alliance with France for a much longer period and the two agreements now conflicted. King James, although he tried to mediate between the parties, was forced to choose. Eventually, he felt unable to deny the Auld Alliance with France.

Henry's allies were rather more powerful than Louis’: most importantly the Pope, who was offended by Louis’ threats to call a General Council of the Church at Pisa; the Emperor Maximilian and, at least on paper, Ferdinand, although it was not long before Ferdinand once again showed his true colours by making a truce with France. Henry was incandescent with rage, but pressed on.

Back home, Katharine was busy with her duties as Regent, although this did not prevent her taking an interest in Henry’s health and writing frequently to Thomas Wolsey, who was managing the logistical arrangements, asking him to ensure that Henry did not catch a cold. There exist quantities of administrative papers – patents, grants, writs et cetera – signed by “Katharine, Queen of England”.

It was soon a more urgent matter to be dealt with. As anticipated, James IV made the decision to invade in support of the French. Katharine had been proactive in beginning to raise troops in July when it was first reported that James IV was gathering an army. Although in her letters Katharine refers to her preparations for war in suitably modest feminine style by saying she is “horribly busy preparing banners” in fact she was taking rather more vigorous actions, despatching the Mary Rose at the channel and ordering food military supplies and armour to be shipped north as well as reinforcements for the Army that Surrey was raising in the northern counties. The Queen herself sent out orders for further troops to gather in the Midlands and sent out letters to the southern counties to begin preparations. Scots living in England were to be banished.

Meanwhile Henry had had some success in his campaign – including capturing the Duke of Longueville, who was sent to Katharine as a hostage. She felt the Duke’s presence to be rather an encumbrance as she intended to travel north with her army so she sent him to the Tower of London (the palace part, rather than the prison) to keep him out of the way.

In early September the Queen rode north to confront the enemy. She was accompanied by a herald and pursuivant (a junior herald used for sending messages, particularly for declaring war.) She also had six trumpeters, a necessary accoutrement for an army. The banners of England and Spain, as well as of St George and the Virgin fluttered in the air as she made her way through the countryside.

It is not hard to imagine Katharine remembering the campaigns of her childhood as the Spanish royal family followed the army in its conquest of Granada. As a woman she would not, of course, be in the ranks of the troops, but she did order armoured headgear, presumably with the view of being at least in the vicinity of any battle. Some sources say that Katharine addressed the troops directly, urging them to be ready to defend their territory and reminding them that the courage of the English ‘excelled that of all other nations’.

Before Katharine had got further north than Buckingham, in what was perhaps rather an anti-climax for her, news came that Surrey had won an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Flodden. James IV had been killed and Scotland was now at England’s mercy.

Katharine was overjoyed by the news and delighted to receive evidence of James’s death in the dispatch to her of his bloodstained coat – that is the cloth tabard showing his arms he had worn over his armour. She sent a triumphant letter to Henry glorying in the destruction of the enemy.

This battle hath been to Your Grace and all your realm the greatest honour that could be and more than you should win all the Crown of France (it may be that Henry did not appreciate that sentence!) Your Grace shall see how I can keep my promise, sending you for your banners a King’s coat.’

She added that she would have liked to have sent James’s body but ‘our Englishman’s hearts would not suffer it.’ This latter sentence has always been taken to mean that Katharine was rather blood-thirsty but the English were too soft-hearted to send the King’s body abroad. Her triumphalism cannot be denied, but it could be interpreted to mean that Surrey and the others wish to keep the trophy themselves.

Katharine, not surprisingly, urged Henry to give thanks to God for the victory and set out herself for Walsingham to show her gratitude at the shrine.

Once the first flush of victory was over, Katharine found it in her heart to pity her sister-in-law, the widowed Margaret, Queen of Scots, and sent her messages of consolation. The northern realm was devastated by the loss at Flodden but the English had neither the money nor the manpower to stage a full-scale conquest. A truce was agreed and Katharine was involved in the administration of paying the wages to the army and returning the artillery to the Tower and other locations.

In France, Henry had captured the towns of Therouanne and Tournai and defeated the French at the Battle of the Spurs. He had had the glory (and also the expense) of the Emperor himself fighting under him. Once again though, in the larger picture, Henry had been played for a fool. The towns he had captured were of little or no value to England but were extremely useful to the Emperor, forming a buffer zone between France and his own territories of Flanders.

Henry returned in October 1513 and had a joyful reunion with Katharine, who may have had a miscarriage during his absence.

Katharine of Aragon

Katharine of Aragon

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