The Last Days of Katherine of Aragon (Guest Post)

Guest Post by Sarah Clement

In 1531 Henry VIII formally separated from his wife of over twenty years, Katherine of Aragon. For some time, he had been bringing pressure upon her to accept a divorce or take holy orders so that he may marry someone else. In this case, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s refusal to do so and her insistence that they were man and wife even after their marriage had been annulled and Henry had married Anne Boleyn would cause her no end of problems. The annulment centred on Katherine’s first marriage to Henry’s brother, Arthur which Katherine claimed had not been consummated. Unfortunately for her, Henry needed the opposite to be true and so it was somewhat inconvenient that the only person who had been privy to these events insisted that it was not. Upon the annulment, Katherine was stripped of the title Queen of England and would henceforth be referred to as the Dowager Princess of Wales. Her daughter by Henry, Princess Mary was now Lady Mary, and their households reduced to reflect this. Katherine had been assured from the earliest days of the process that if she accepted the King’s judgement then she would be well cared and provided for, her refusal to do so saw the exact opposite. The longer she remained defiant the worse her treatment became, being moved between uncomfortable residences until she found herself in 1534 at Kimbolton Castle.

The state of Kimbolton when Katherine arrived is something of a debate. Some report that the castle was decaying and its poor state contributed to her ailing health. Others note that it was in fair condition, though no fit home for one who was used to the grand halls of Hampton Court or Greenwich. There were far worse places she could have been lodged; Henry often threatened her with them and ostensibly Kimbolton was chosen to benefit Katherine’s health. Previously she had resided at Buckdon but had complained about the detriment the nearby fenland was having on her health. Thus, she came to Kimbolton, a smaller castle but it was at least a little further from the marshes. Under the care of Sir Edmund Bedingfield and Sir Edward Chamberlain, gentlemen loyal to Henry, Katherine’s household was further reduced and she was forbidden visitors unless they had the express written permission of the king. These additional sanctions were no doubt in response to Katherine’s continued insistence of the validity of her marriage to Henry even after an Act of Parliament had made it treasonable to do so.

 

Over a year later, in December 1535 Katherine’s already poor health declined rapidly. After a succession of illnesses, she was forced to her bed shortly after her fiftieth birthday. On the 29th December the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, received two separate letters from Katherine’s physician and apothecary. Both intimated that the ambassador should come at once as Katherine was not expected to see out the winter. Chapuys could do no such thing without permission from the king, and so he dispatched his own messages requesting that very thing. Thomas Cromwell seemed willing, but first Chapuys must attend the king personally to discuss the matter. Chapuys after all had been denied permission in the past and still attempted to visit. On one occasion he had set forth with a company of Spanish gentlemen, ignoring the commands from Henry to return, turning back only when Katherine herself sent word that he should obey the King. When Chapuys met Henry he found him in a cheery mood but was unable to secure permission to visit. The ambassador was already leaving when Henry recalled him quickly, having just that moment received news himself that Katherine was thought close to death. With new evidence to hand, Henry allowed Chapuys a visit but refused to extend it to allow the Lady Mary to accompany him.

Elsewhere Maria de Salinas, Baroness Willoughby, also received the news that Katherine was failing. Maria had served as one of Katherine’s closest ladies since 1501 and had only left when the King ordered it in 1532 shortly before the marriage was annulled. Maria asked for permission to visit her royal mistress and friend, but as when she had asked previously, the answer was no. Maria left for Kimbolton anyway. The journey was one of over sixty miles, it was the height of winter and Maria was nearing fifty herself, but that did not stop her.

 

Chapuys arrived in the New Year on the 2nd January and was admitted to Katherine immediately. It was the first time he had seen her in some years, and indeed the first visitor she had received beyond the friars who took her households’ confessions. In case her illness was feigned their meeting was done in the presence of witnesses including Bedingfield and Chamberlain who hadn’t seen Katherine (at her command) since her arrival at Kimbolton over a year ago. Despite the gathered crowd, the ambassador’s presence comforted Katherine greatly and she told him how happy she was to not die alone. They conversed in Katherine’s native Spanish, talking for some hours, although Chapuys feared the strain such effort would have on her. Chapuys gave her cause to smile when he told her of the better household Henry would grant her upon her recovery and cheered her with the news that the king was greatly concerned by her illness. In fact the opposite was true, and Henry had already referred to the good Katherine’s death would do for Anglo-Spanish relations, but the lie brought her a smile and so Chapuys was probably justified. Katherine broke off their meeting so that she may rest for some time, but the ambassador returned that evening for more conversation, as he did at the same time in the days to come.

Three days later Maria de Salinas arrived at the castle and managed to get through the front door, playing upon her dishevelled condition to her advantage. To Bedingfield and Chamberlain, she claimed to have taken a fall from her horse during which she lost the papers granting her permission to visit Katherine. Once she had been admitted into the castle, she made for Katherine’s chambers and forced her way in, refusing to leave. She would remain with Katherine until the end.

In the company of her friends, Katherine seemed to recover slightly. On the 6th she managed to rouse herself to tie her own hair and dress. She did not take the improvement for granted, however, and set about making her final wishes known. As a foreigner living under the King’s charity she could not make a direct will, instead, she could only make requests of Henry and hope he honoured them. Given how reduced her household was, and how few possessions she had her will, such as it was, was a relatively simple affair. She asked that her servants be provided for, her three ladies to receive their marriage portions, and she left some personal effects to her daughter. With Katherine seeming to rally and appearing much improved within herself, Chapuys took his leave of her that evening.

That night Katherine woke in the early hours nauseous and in pain. She deteriorated quickly and it became apparent that the end was imminent. Her confessor was summoned and suggested that she receive mass, but Katherine, pious to the end, refused to do so until dawn, as per canon law. At first light, she received the sacrament and shortly afterwards made her confession and received Extreme Unction in the presence of Bedingfield and Chamberlain. The priest and Chapuys had agreed that at her confession Katherine would affirm that her first marriage was not consummated, but during the event the priest either forgot or did not press and neither did Katherine mention it. She managed to dictate a letter to her nephew, King Charles of Spain, and then a last letter to Henry who she addressed as, “my most dear lord, king and husband”, maintaining her Queenship to the end. She prayed aloud for as long as she was able, before at two o’clock, she committed her soul to God and passed away in the arms of her friend, Maria de Salinas.

About the Author

Shwmae! I’m Sarah. I pursued my interest in History to university where I specialised in Anne Boleyn, the role of mistresses and the hagiography of women. With a masters degree under my belt, I returned to my natural habitat to write about women in history. I can now be found somewhere in South Wales running a business, attempting to parent and when I can manage it, plonked in front of a games console to unwind.]

You can find more of my work at www.thehistoricalnovel.com

 

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