The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon/Chapter 20


Illness of Queen Catherine—Her physician's report of her health—Her last letter to the Emperor—She sends for Chapuys—Interview between Chapuys and Henry—Chapuys at Kimbolton—Death of Catherine—Examination of the body—Suspicion of poison—Chapuys's opinion—Reception of the news at the Court—Message of Anne Boleyn to the Princess Mary—Advice of Chapuys—Unpopularity of Anne—Court rumours.

While the Pope was held back by the Cardinals, and the Great Powers were watching each other, afraid to move, the knot was about to be cut, so far as it affected the fortunes of Catherine of Aragon, in a manner not unnatural and, by Cromwell and many others, not unforeseen. The agitation and anxieties of the protracted conflict had shattered her health. Severe attacks of illness had more than once caused fear for her life, and a few months previously her recovery had been thought unlikely, if not impossible. Cromwell had spoken of her death to Chapuys as a contingency which would be useful to the peace of Europe, and which he thought would not be wholly unwelcome to her nephew. Politicians in the sixteenth century were not scrupulous, and Chapuys may perhaps have honestly thought that such language suggested a darker purpose. But Cromwell had always been Catherine's friend within the limits permitted by his duty to the King and the Reformation. The words which Chapuys attributed to him were capable of an innocent interpretation; and it is in the highest degree unlikely that he, of all men, was contemplating a crime of which the danger would far outweigh the advantage, and which would probably anticipate for a few weeks or months only a natural end, or that, if he had seriously entertained such an intention, he would have made a confidant of the Spanish Ambassador. Catherine had been wrought during the autumn months into a state of the highest excitement. Her letters to the Pope had been the outpourings of a heart driven near to breaking; and if Chapuys gave her Charles's last message, if she was told that it was the Emperor's pleasure that she and her daughter must submit, should extremities be threatened against them, she must have felt a bitter conviction that the remedy which she had prayed for would never be applied, and that the struggle would end in an arrangement in which she would herself be sacrificed.

The life at Kimbolton was like the life at an ordinary well-appointed English country-house. The establishment was moderate, but the castle was in good condition and well-furnished; everything was provided which was required for personal comfort; the Queen had her own servants, her confessor, her physician, and two or three ladies-in-waiting; if she had not more state about her it was by her own choice, for, as has been seen, she had made her recognition as queen the condition of her accepting a more adequate establishment. Bodily hardships she had none to suffer, but she had a chronic disorder of long standing, which had been aggravated by the high-strung expectations of the last half-dozen years. Sir John Wallop, the English ambassador at Paris, had been always "her good servant;" Lady Wallop was her creatura and was passionately attached to her. From the Wallops the Nuncio at the French Court heard in the middle of December that she could not live more than six months. They had learnt the "secret" of her illness from her own physician, and their evident grief convinced him that they were speaking the truth. Francis also was aware of her condition; the end was known to be near, and it was thought in Court circles that when she was gone "the King would leave his present queen and return to the obedience of the Church."[1]

The disorder from which Catherine was suffering had been mentioned by Cromwell to Chapuys. The Ambassador asked to be allowed to visit her. Cromwell said that he might send a servant at once to Kimbolton, to ascertain her condition, and that he would ask the King's permission for himself to follow. The alarming symptoms passed off for the moment; she rallied from the attack, and on the 13th of December she was able to write to Ortiz, to tell him of the comfort and encouragement which she had received from his letters, and from the near prospect of the Pope's action. In that alone lay the remedy for the sufferings of herself and her daughter and "all the good." The Devil, she said, was but half-tied, and slackness would let him loose. She could not and dared not speak more clearly; Ortiz was a wise man, and would understand.[2]

On the same day she wrote her last letter to the Emperor. The handwriting, once bold and powerful, had grown feeble and tremulous, and the imperfectly legible lines convey only that she expected something to be done at the approaching parliament which would be a world's scandal and her own and her daughter's destruction.[3]

Finding herself a little better, she desired Chapuys to speak to Cromwell about change of air for her, and to ask for a supply of money to pay the servants' wages. Money was a gratuitous difficulty: she had refused to take anything which was addressed to her as princess dowager, and the allowance was in arrears. She had some confidence in Cromwell, and Charles, too, believed, in spite of Chapuys's stories, that Cromwell meant well to Catherine, and wished to help her. He wrote himself to Cromwell to say that his loyal service would not be forgotten.[4]

Chapuys heard no more from Kimbolton for a fortnight, and was hoping that the attack had gone off like those which had preceded it; on the 29th, however, there came a letter to him from the Spanish physician, saying that she was again very ill, and wished to see him. Chapuys went to Cromwell immediately. Cromwell assured him that no objection would be raised, but that, before he set out, the King desired to speak with him. He hurried to Greenwich, where the Court was staying, and found Henry more than usually gracious, but apparently absorbed in politics. He walked up and down the room with his arm around the Ambassador's neck, complained that Charles had not written to him, and that he did not know what to look for at his hands. The French, he said, were making advances to him, and had become so pressing, since the death of the Duke of Milan, that he would be forced to listen to them, unless he could be satisfied of the Emperor's intentions. He was not to be deluded into a position where he would lose the friendship of both of them. Francis was burning for war. For himself he meant honourably, and would be perfectly open with Chapuys: he was an Englishman, he did not say one thing when he meant another. Why had not the Emperor let him know distinctly whether he would treat with him or not?

Chapuys hinted a fear that he had been playing with the Emperor only to extort better terms from' France. A war for Milan there might possibly be, but the Emperor after his African successes was stronger than he had ever been, and had nothing to fear.

All that might be very well, Henry said, but if he was to throw his sword into the scale the case might be different. Hitherto, however, he had rejected the French overtures, and did not mean to join France in an Italian campaign if the Emperor did not force him. As to the threats against himself, English commerce would of course suffer severely if the trade was stopped with the Low Countries, but he could make shift elsewhere; he did not conceal his suspicions that the Emperor meant him ill, or his opinion that he had been treated unfairly in the past.[5]

Chapuys enquired what he wished the Emperor to do. To abstain, the King replied, from encouraging the Princess and her mother in rebellion, and to require the revocation of the sentence which had been given on the divorce. The Emperor could not do that, Chapuys rejoined, even if he wished to do it. The King said he knew the Pope had called on the Emperor to execute the sentence; he did not believe, however, that Madame, as he called Catherine, had long to live, and, when she was gone, the Emperor would have no further excuse for interfering in English affairs. Chapuys replied that the Queen's death would make no difference. The sentence had been a necessity. The King ended the conversation by telling him that he might go to see her, if he liked; but she was in extremis, and he would hardly find her alive. At the Princess's request, Chapuys asked if she also might go to her mother. At first Henry refused, but said, after a moment, he would think about it, and added, as Chapuys afterwards recollected, a few words of kindness to Catherine herself.

Unfeeling and brutal, the world exclaims. More feeling may have been shown, perhaps, than Chapuys cared to note. But kings whose thrones are menaced with invasion and rebellion have not much leisure for personal emotions. Affection for Catherine Henry had none, however, and a pretence of it would have been affectation. She had harassed him for seven years; she had urged the Pope to take his crown from him; she had done her worst to stir his subjects into insurrection, and bring a Spanish fleet and army into English waters and upon English soil. Respect her courage he did, but love for her, if in such a marriage love had ever existed, must have long disappeared, and he did not make a show of a regret which it was impossible for him to feel. He perhaps considered that he had done more than enough in resisting the advice of his Council to take stronger measures.

After despatching the letter describing the interview at Greenwich, the Ambassador started with his suite for Kimbolton, and with a gentleman of Cromwell's household in attendance. Immediately on his arrival Catherine sent for him to her bedside, and desired that this gentleman should be present also, to hear what passed between them. She thanked Chapuys for coming. She said, if God was to take her, it would be a consolation to her to die in his arms and not like a wild animal. She said she had been taken seriously ill at the end of November with pain in the stomach and nausea; a second and worse attack of the same kind had followed on Christmas Day; she could eat nothing, and believed that she was sinking. Chapuys encouraged her—expressed his hopes for her recovery—said that he was commissioned to tell her that she might choose a residence for herself at any one of the royal manors, that the King would give her money, and was sorry to hear of her illness. He himself entreated her to keep up her spirits, as on her recovery and life the peace of Christendom depended. The visit excited her, she was soon exhausted, and they then left her to rest. After an interval she sent for the Ambassador again, and talked for two hours with him alone. She had brightened up; the next morning she was better; he remained four days at Kimbolton, which were spent in private conversation. She was the same Catherine which she had always been—courageous, resolute, and inflexible to the end. She spoke incessantly of the Emperor, and of her own and her daughter's situation. She struck perpetually on the old note: the delay of the "remedy" which was causing infinite evil, and destroying the souls and bodies of all honest and worthy people.

Chapuys explained to her how the Emperor had been circumstanced, and how impossible it had been for him to do more than had been done. He comforted her, however, with dilating on the Pope's indignation at the execution of Fisher, and his determination to act in earnest at last. He told her how Francis, who had been the chief difficulty, was now becoming alienated from the King, and satisfied her that the delay had not been caused by forgetfulness of herself and the Princess. With these happier prospects held out to her she recovered her spirits and appeared to be recovering her health. At the end of the four days she was sleeping soundly, enjoying her food, laughing and exchanging Castilian jokes with a Spaniard whom Chapuys had brought with him. She was so much better, so happy, and so contented, that the Ambassador ceased to be alarmed about her. He thought it would be imprudent to abuse the King's permission by remaining longer unnecessarily. The physician made no objection to his going, and promised to let him know if there was again a change for the worse; but this person evidently no longer believed that there was any immediate danger, for his last words to Chapuys were to ask him to arrange for her removal from Kimbolton to some better air. Catherine, when the Ambassador took leave, charged him to write to the Emperor, to Granvelle, and to Secretary Covos, and entreat them, for God's sake, to make an end one way or the other, for the uncertainty was ruining the realm and would be her own and her daughter's destruction.

This was on the night of Tuesday, the 4th of January. Chapuys was to leave the next morning. Before departing he ascertained that she had again slept well, and he rode off without disturbing her. Through the Wednesday and Thursday she continued to improve, and on the Thursday afternoon she was cheerful, sate up, asked for a comb and dressed her hair. That midnight, however, she became suddenly restless, begged for the sacrament, and became impatient for morning when it could be administered. Her confessor. Father Ateca (who had come with her from Spain, held the see of Llandaff, and had been left undisturbed through all the changes of the late years), offered to anticipate the canonical hour, but she would not allow him. At dawn on Friday she communicated, prayed God to pardon the King for the wrongs which had been inflicted upon her, and received extreme unction; she gave a few directions for the disposition of her personal property, and then waited for the end. At two o'clock in the afternoon she passed peacefully away (Friday, Jan. 7, 1536).

A strange circumstance followed. The body was to be embalmed. There were in the house three persons who, according to Chapuys, had often performed such operations, neither of them, however, being surgeons by profession. These men, eight hours after the death, opened the stomach in the usual way, but without the presence either of the confessor or the physician. Chapuys says that these persons were acting by the King's command,[6] but there is nothing to indicate that the confessor and physician might not have been present at the operation had they thought it necessary. Chapuys had previously asked the physician if the Queen could have been poisoned. The physician said that he feared so, as she had not been well since she had taken some Welsh ale; if there had been poison, however, it must have been very subtle, as he had observed no symptom which indicated it; when the body was opened they would know.[7] The physician had thus looked forward to an examination, and had he really entertained suspicions he would certainly have made an effort to attend. If he was prohibited, or if the operation had been hurried through without his knowledge, it is not conceivable that, after he had left England and returned to his own country, he would not have made known a charge so serious to the world. This he never did. It is equally remarkable that on removing from Kimbolton he was allowed to attend upon the Princess Mary—a thing impossible to understand if he had any mystery of the kind to communicate to her, or if the Government had any fear of what he might say. When the operation was over, however, one of the men went to the Father Ateca and told him in confession, as if in fear of his life, that the body and intestines were natural and healthy, but that the heart was black. They had washed it, he said; they had divided it, but it remained black and was black throughout. On this evidence the physician concluded that the Queen, beyond doubt, had died of poison.[8]

A reader who has not predetermined to believe the worst of Henry VIII. will probably conclude differently. The world did not believe Catherine to have been murdered, for among the many slanders which the embittered Catholics then and afterwards heaped upon Henry, they did not charge him with this. Chapuys, however, believed, or affected to believe, that by some one or other murdered she had been. It was a terrible business, he wrote. The Princess would die of grief, or else the Concubine would kill her. Even if the Queen and Princess had taken the Emperor's advice and submitted, the Concubine, he thought, under colour of the reconciliation which would have followed, would have made away with them the more fearlessly, because there would then be less suspicion. He had not been afraid of the King. The danger was from the Concubine, who had sworn to take their lives and would never have rested till it was done. The King and his Mistress, however, had taken a shorter road. They were afraid of the issue of the brief of execution. With Catherine dead the process at Rome would drop, the chief party to the suit being gone. Further action would have to be taken by the Pope on his own account, and no longer upon hers, and the Pope would probably hesitate; while, as soon as the mother was out of the way, there would be less difficulty in working upon the daughter, whom, being a subject, they would be able to constrain.[9]

It was true that the threatened Papal brief, being a part and consequence of the original suit, would have to be dropped or recalled, Henry could not be punished for not taking back his wife when the wife was dead. To that extent her end was convenient, and thus a motive may be suggested for making away with her. It was convenient also, as was frankly avowed, in removing the principal obstacle to the reconciliation of Henry and the Emperor; but, surely, on the condition that the death was natural. Had Charles allowed Chapuys to persuade him that his aunt had been murdered, reconciliation would have been made impossible for ever, and Henry would have received the just reward of an abominable crime. Chapuys's object from the beginning had been to drive the Emperor into war with England, and if motive may be conjectured for the murder of Catherine, motive also can be found for Chapuys's accusations, which no other evidence, direct or indirect, exists to support.

If there had been foul play there would have been an affectation of sorrow. There was none at all. When the news arrived Anne Boleyn and her friends showed unmixed pleasure. The King (Chapuys is again the only witness and he was reporting from hearsay) thanked God there was now no fear of war; when the French knew that there was no longer any quarrel between him and the Emperor, he could do as he pleased with them. Chapuys says these were his first words on receiving the tidings that Catherine was gone—words not unnatural if the death was innocent, but scarcely credible if she had been removed by assassination.

The effect was of general relief at the passing away of a great danger. It was thought that the Pope would now drop the proceedings against the King, and Cromwell said that perhaps before long they would have a Legate among them. Even Chapuys, on consideration, reflected that he might have spoken too confidently about the manner of Catherine's end. Her death, he imagined, had been brought about partly by poison and partly by despondency. Had he reflected further he might have asked himself how poison could have been administered at all, as the Queen took nothing which had not been prepared by her own servants, who would all have died for her.

Undoubtedly, however, the King breathed more freely when she was gone. There was no longer a woman who claimed to be his wife, and whose presence in the kingdom was a reflection on the legitimacy of his second daughter. On the Sunday following, the small Elizabeth was carried to church with special ceremony. In the evening there was a dance in the hall of the palace, and the King appeared in the middle of it with the child in his arms. All allowance must be made for the bitterness with which Chapuys described the scene. He was fresh from Catherine's bedside. He had witnessed her sufferings; he had listened to the story of her wrongs from her own lips. He had talked hopefully with her of the future, and had encouraged her to expect a grand and immediate redress; and now she was dead, worn out with sorrow, if with nothing worse, an object at least to make the dullest heart pity her, while of pity there was no sign. What was to be done? He himself had no doubt at all. The enemy was off his guard and now was the moment to strike.

Anne Boleyn sent a message to Mary that she was ready, on her submission, to be her friend and a second mother to her. Mary replied that she would obey her father in everything, saving her honour and conscience, but that it was useless to ask her to abjure the Pope. She was told that the King himself would use his authority and command her to submit. She consulted Chapuys on the answer which she was to give should such a command be sent. He advised her to be resolute but cautious. She must ask to be left in peace to pray for her mother's soul; she must say that she was a poor orphan, without experience or knowledge; the King must allow her time to consider. He himself despatched a courier to the Regent of the Netherlands with plans for her escape out of England. The Pope, he said, must issue his Bull without a day's delay, and in it, for the sake of Catherine's honour, it must be stated that she died queen. Instant preparations must be made for the execution of the sentence. Meanwhile he recommended the Emperor to send some great person to remonstrate against the Princess's treatment and to speak out boldly and severely. The late Queen, he wrote, used to say that the King and his advisers were like sheep to those who appeared like wolves, and lions to those who were afraid of them. Mildness at such a moment would be the ruin of Christendom. If the Emperor hesitated longer, those who showed no sorrow at the mother's death would take courage to make an end with the daughter. There would be no need of poison. Grief and hard usage would be enough.[10]

The King with some hesitation had consented to Chapuys's request that Catherine's physician should be allowed to attend the Princess. The presence of this man would necessarily be a protection, and either Anne's influence was less supreme than the Ambassador had feared or her sinister designs were a malicious invention. It is unlikely, however, that warnings so persistently repeated and so long continued should have been wholly without foundation, and, if the inner secrets of the Court could be laid open, it might be found that the Princess had been the subject of many an altercation between Anne and the King. Even Chapuys always acknowledged that it was from her, and not from Henry, that the danger was to be feared. He had spoken warmly of Mary, had shown affection for her when her behaviour threatened his own safety. He admired the force of character which she was showing, and had silenced peremptorily the Ministers who recommended severity. But if he was her father, he was also King of England. If he was to go through with his policy towards the Church, the undisguised antagonism of a child whom three quarters of his subjects looked on as his legitimate successor, was embarrassing and even perilous. Had Anne Boleyn produced the Prince so much talked of all would then have been easy. He would not then be preferring a younger daughter to an elder. Both would yield to a brother with whom all England would be satisfied, and Mary would cease to have claims which the Emperor would feel bound to advocate. The whole nation were longing for a prince; but the male heir, for which the King had plunged into such a sea of troubles, was still withheld. He had interpreted the deaths of the sons whom Catherine had borne him into a judgment of Heaven upon his first marriage; the same disappointment might appear to a superstitious fancy to be equally a condemnation of the second. Anne Boleyn's conduct during the last two years had not recommended her either to the country or perhaps to her husband. Setting aside the graver charges afterwards brought against her, it is evident that she had thrown herself fiercely into the political struggles of the time. To the Catholic she was a diablesse, a tigress, the author of all the mischief which was befalling them and the realm. By the prudent and the moderate she was almost equally disliked; the nation generally, and even Reformers like Cromwell and Cranmer, were Imperialist; Anne Boleyn was passionately French. Personally she had made herself disliked by her haughty and arrogant manners. She had been received as Queen, after her marriage was announced, with coldness, if not with hostility. Had she been gracious and modest she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her. But she had been carried away by the vanity of her elevation; she had insulted the great English nobles; she had spoken to the Duke of Norfolk "as if he was a dog;" she had threatened to take off Cromwell's head. Such manners and such language could not have made Henry's difficulties less, or been pleasing to a sovereign whose authority depended on the goodwill of his people. He had fallen in love with an unworthy woman, as men will do, even the wisest; yet in his first affection he had not been blind to her faults, and, even before his marriage, had been heard to say that, if it was to be done again, he would not have committed himself so far. He had persisted, perhaps, as much from pride, and because he would not submit to the dictation of the Emperor, as from any real attachment. Qualities that he could respect she had none. Catherine was gone; from that connection he was at last free, even in the eyes of the Roman Curia; but whether he was or was not married lawfully to Anne, was a doubtful point in the mind of many a loyal Englishman; and, to the best of his own friends, to the Emperor, and to all Europe, his separation from a woman whom the Catholic world called his concubine, and a marriage with some other lady which would be open to no suspicion and might result in the much desired prince, would have been welcomed as a peace-offering. She had done nothing to reconcile the nation to her. She had left nothing undone to exasperate it. She was believed, justly or unjustly, to have endeavoured to destroy the Princess Mary. She was credited by remorseful compassion with having been the cause of her mother's death. The isolation and danger of England was all laid to her account. She was again enceinte. If a prince was born, all faults would be forgotten; but she had miscarried once since the birth of Elizabeth, and a second misfortune might be dangerous. She had failed in her attempts to conciliate Mary, who, but for an accident, would have made good her escape out of England. When the preparations were almost complete the Princess had been again removed to another house, from which it was found impossible to carry her away. But Chapuys mentions that, glad as Anne appeared at the Queen's death, she was less at ease than she pretended. Lord and Lady Exeter had brought him a Court rumour of words said to have been uttered by the King, that "he had been drawn into the marriage by witchcraft; God had shown his displeasure by denying him male children by her, and therefore he might take another wife."

Lord and Lady Exeter were not trustworthy authorities—on this occasion even Chapuys did not believe them—but stories of the kind were in the wind. It was notorious that everything was not well between the King and Lady Anne. A curious light is thrown on the state of Anne's mind by a letter which she wrote to her aunt, Mrs. Shelton, after Mary's rejection of her advances. Mrs. Shelton left it lying open on a table, Mary found it, copied it, and replaced it, and the transcript, in Mary's handwriting, is now at Vienna.

"Mrs. Shelton,—My pleasure is that you seek to go no further to move the Lady Mary towards the King's grace, other than as he himself directed in his own words to her. What I have done myself has been more for charity than because the King or I care what course she takes, or whether she will change or not change her purpose. When I shall have a son, as soon I look to have, I know what then will come to her. Remembering the word of God, that we should do good to our enemies, I have wished to give her notice before the time, because by my daily experience I know the wisdom of the King to be such that he will not value her repentance or the cessation of her madness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no longer power to choose. She would acknowledge her errors and evil conscience by the law of God and the King if blind affection had not so sealed her eyes that she will not see but what she pleases.

"Mrs. Shelton, I beseech you, trouble not yourself to turn her from any of her wilful ways, for to me she can do neither good nor ill. Do your own duty towards her, following the King's commandment, as I am assured that you do and will do, and you shall find me your good lady, whatever comes.

"Your good Mistress,
"Anne R."
  1. The Bishop of Faenza to M. Ambrogio, Dec. 13, 1535.—Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. ix. p. 326.
  2. Queen Catherine to Dr. Ortiz, Dec. 13, 1535.—Ibid. vol. ix. p. 325.
  3. Queen Catherine to Charles V., Dec. 13, 1535.—MS. Vienna.
  4. The Emperor to Thomas Cromwell, Dec. 13, 1535.—Spanish Calendar, vol. ix. p. 588.
  5. "Et que vostre Ma luy avoit usé de la plus grande ingratitude que l'on scauroit dire, solicitant à l'appetit d'une femme tant de choses contre luy, que luy avoit faict innumerables maux et fascheries, et de telle importance, que vostre Ma par menasses et force avoit faict donner la sentence contre luy, comme le mesme Pape l'avoit confessé." Chapuys à l'Empereur, Dee. 30, 1535.—MS. Vienna; Spanish Calendar, vol. v. p. 595.
  6. Chapuys to Charles V., Jan. 21, 1536.—MS. Vienna; Spanish Calendar, vol. v. part 2, p. 18.
  7. "Je demanday par plusieurs fois au médecin s'il y avoit quelqne Soubçon de venin. Il me dict qu'il s'en doubtoit, car depuys qu'elle avoit beu d'une cervise de Galles elle n'avoit fait bien; et qu'il failloit que ne fust poison terminé et artificeux, car il ne veoit les signes de simple et pur venin." Chapuys à l'Empereur, Jan. 9, 1536.—MS. Vienna; Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. x. p. 22.
  8. Chapuys to Charles V., Jan. and Jan. 21, 1536.—MS. Vienna; Spanish Calendar, vol. v. part 2, pp. 2–10.
  9. Chapuys to Charles V., Jan. 21, 1536.—MS. Vienna; Calendar, Foreign and Domestic, vol. x. p. 47.
  10. Chapuys to Charles V., Jan. 21 and Jan. 29.—Spanish Calendar, vol. v. part 2, pp. 10–26.