Katharine of Aragon: Life Story

Chapter 16 : Decline

During July 1533 Katharine was ordered to move again, this time to Buckden Palace in Cambridgeshire. It was while she was there that she would have heard of the birth of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. Although Henry was, of course, disappointed at the birth of another daughter he did immediately recognise Elizabeth as his heir and Mary lost her title of Princess. This was a blow to both mother and daughter, and was compounded when Mary was forced to join the household of her new half-sister.

Katharine, hearing of this, wrote to her daughter urging her to obey her father in all things so far as her conscience permitted and warning her not to be drawn into argument about the annulment. She sent her two Latin prayer books and urged her to find comfort in music. Emphasising her own position she signed the letter ‘Katharine the Queen’.

Katharine’s household was reduced further, and her servants were interrogated about their methods of addressing her. Lord Mountjoy who had served her for many years, was supposed to ensure the conformity with the rules. Distressed by the pull of loyalties he tried unsuccessfully to resign his office.

In December 1533, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Katharine’s former brother-in-law, came to Buckden with the news that she was to move to the Castle at Somersham, a notoriously unhealthy place deep in the Fens. Further, she was only to be served by people who referred to her as Princess Dowager. Once again Katharine dug her heels in. She absolutely refused to move to Somersham on the basis that to do so would be tantamount to suicide, nor would she accept any servant who did not address her correctly.

Suffolk was between a rock and a hard place. He was disobeying the King if he permitted any servants to remain who referred to Katharine as Queen, but she refused to have anything to do with those who would not. Eventually her doctor, her apothecary and her confessor who were all Spanish, and two women were left. Katharine, always with a flair for the dramatic, locked herself into her room to prevent being carried away to Somersham by force.

On 23rd March 1534, Clement finally ruled on the matter of the matrimony between Henry and Katharine, declaring it to have been lawful. Once again it was too little and too late. Charles had neither the time money nor inclination to enforce the sentence militarily: he would not even use trade sanctions to encourage Henry to conform.

Whether by coincidence or planning, on the same day that the sentence was delivered, the English Parliament passed the first Act of Succession, confirming the validity of Henry and Anne’s marriage and naming Elizabeth as his successor. The use of the title Queen for Katharine was now prohibited by law. After the 1st May 1534 anyone questioning the validity of Henry and Anne’s marriage was to be deemed guilty of high treason.

Having been defeated on the matter of sending Katharine to Somersham, Henry now chose to send her to Kimbolton Castle. Presumably this was not so notoriously unhealthy and Katharine cooperated. Two bishops were sent to her to inform her that if she failed to swear to the Act of Succession all the penalties of the law would be brought against her. There is no record of whether she was actually specifically asked to take the oath.

Further delegations and exhortations from Henry’s Councillors including Sir Edmund Bedingfield, who was appointed as Katharine’s guardian and gaoler at Kimbolton, were equally fruitless but she was not pursued with the full rigour of the law. Her supporters, Thomas More and John Fisher, were not so fortunate, both eventually being executed for upholding Papal Supremacy.

In September 1534 Clement died and was replaced by Paul III. Initially it seemed that Paul might look more favourably on Henry’s case but yet again European politics intervened. The Emperor Charles won an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Cagliarli off the coast of Africa in the greatest victory over Suleiman the Magnificent’s forces that Christendom had yet achieved. Whilst this may have appeared to benefit Katharine, Charles was far too busy to contemplate sending an army to England.

Katharine was miserable and alone. In spring 1535 she learned that her daughter Mary was in declining health. Having been forbidden to write directly to the King, she wrote to Chapuys asking him to plead with Henry to allow Mary to be with her to be nursed with her own hands. Katharine promised on pain of her own death that, if Mary were with her, she would not encourage her daughter to try to escape from England. Nevertheless, Henry rejected the plea, although he relented so far as to permit Mary to move to a house sufficiently close for the two women to share a doctor.

Katharine of Aragon

Katharine of Aragon

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