Their traveling companion was the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, whom had sought permission from the king to visit the dying Katharine. Making a point of giving Chapuys a big, friendly hug in front of Anne, Henry magnanimously granted it. Will understood why. Had he refused, Chapuys might have claimed there was something suspicious about Katharine’s death. Henry made a point of noting once Katharine was dead, the point of contention between England and her nephew would be over. Chapuys, whose attachment to Katharine wasn’t merely a shared nationality, was obviously offended, but he had forced a smile and nodded.
Kimbolton was over sixty miles from London. It would take at least two days to make the journey. The inn they stopped at on in the first night had only one room available, which was appropriated by Chapuys. Emma and Will slept on a pallet in the main taproom with other travelers, one of whom snored. The others kept throwing things at him to catch snatches of sleep before he started up again. It made Emma giggle, and kept Will from getting irritable. Sometimes, he thought a selkie’s magic must include infectious good spirits.
Will lay with his hands cupped over the small mound of his wife’s abdomen. His child. He still could not believe it. He and Emma hadn’t told anyone yet. There had never seemed to be a good time, but Will supposed nature would reveal it for them soon enough. For the time being, Will felt safer keeping the babe a secret, as though he could somehow protect the child by hiding it from the world.
When they arrived at Kimbolton, they found Katharine’s steward, Sir Edmund Bedingfield, in a state of agitation. Yesterday, her dearest friend, Maria Willoughby had arrived at the house. Bedingfield had been given strict orders by the king not to allow anyone to see Katharine without written permission, but Maria was the mother-in-law of the Duke of Suffolk and couldn’t be unceremoniously turned away at the door. She claimed to have the license to visit, which would arrive tomorrow. In the meantime, she begged, could she come inside and warm herself by the fire? She’d suffered a fall from her horse on the journey. Bedingfield readily agreed, and went to write the king to let him know Maria had arrived. When he returned to the hall, Maria was gone, having darted inside Katharine’s rooms, where Bedingfield was forbidden to go. He pleaded with Will to send her out.
“Your pardon, sir,” Will replied. “I have not that authority. I am here but to witness.”
Bedingfield muttered behind them as they followed Chapuys into Katharine’s chambers. Her outer rooms were deserted and Will realized with a cold chill down his spine her ladies had already been dismissed. No need to keep servants for a woman who would never rise from her bed again.
Katharine’s bedchamber was dark, lit only by candle light, and the orange glare cast from the huge fire that kept the room miserably hot. The air was thick with incense smoke and Will saw Emma give a surreptitious rub at her sensitive nose. On the opposite side of the room, a small herd of priests stood, mumbling in constant prayer, their faces sheened with sweat.
Maria Willoughby sat on the bed beside her mistress, a familiarity only death and deep friendship could have made acceptable. She gently dabbed at Katharine’s face and neck with a cool cloth she rinsed in a bowl beside her.
Will did not need to approach the bed any closer to agree the assessment of her condition was correct. Black circles swooped under Katharine’s sunken eyes and her skin was a terrible ashen gray that sagged from her dramatic weight loss. She hadn’t been able to keep food down in a long while now. The once plump and pretty princess had become stout in middle age, but she was now a wasted figure, so much changed in such a short time that Chapuys had to choke back a gasp when he saw her.
Katharine was dozing when Chapuys took the chair beside her bed. When he spoke, she opened her eyes and her smile was so sweet, it made the hearts of all witnesses ache. “Eustace!” she said. Only approaching death could have made the Katharine so informal.
“Your majesty,” Chapuys replied. Henry had required that Chapuys was not to meet alone with Katharine, and that all conversations were to be conducted in English, before permitting this visit. Chapuys would have agreed to far more, and he kept his word now.
“The king is grieved to hear of your illness,” he lied. “He has sent me to order you to improve, posthaste.”
Katharine smiled. “I shall endeavor to obey his majesty’s command.”
“Let this news cheer your heart,” Chapuys continued, a smile stretching his face that didn’t reach his eyes. “The king has decided to move you to better lodgings nearer your daughter. It may be he will allow you to see her soon, but you must get better in order to do that.”
Katharine’s hand crept across the bed and grasped his. “ ‘Tis kind of you to say so,” she murmured.
Chapuys had to look away for a moment, blinking hard.
“I wish to write to him,” Katharine said, her voice like the sigh of wind through winter-bare trees. There was no need to specify to which “him” she referred. “Will you take down my words?”
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Gold paint gleamed in the firelight as Chapuys pulled out the long, slim drawer in the back to remove a quill. He shut the box back up and used its slanting surface to write. Maria Willoughby held the inkwell for him as he dipped the quill.
Katharine’s voice was soft and several times, she had to stop and rest for a moment before continuing. But, but the words were dictated in a steady stream, without hesitation, making Will think she must have composed this letter in her mind long before now.
"For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.”
She took a deep breath and whispered, “Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. Katharine the Queen.”
Chapuys was silent as he removed a stick of sealing wax from the segmented drawer in the front of the desk. He used the candle on the bedside table to melt it and fat drops of wax pattered onto the paper, bright teardrops of blood red. A small signet was in the drawer on the right and Chapuys used it to press Katharine’s seal into the wax. Will took the box from him and returned it to the table as Chapuys slipped the letter into his doublet pocket. “I will see . . . I will see to it he gets it, personally.”
“I thank you.” A light, wavering sigh escaped her. “Eustace . . . Eustace, I thought God would open my husband’s eyes. And now, there is no more time.”
“You can recover, your majesty. You—”
Katharine shook her head and his words broke off as she sought his hand.
“No more of that now,” Katharine said. “Verily, I regret it not, for I shall soon be in paradise. But I cannot help but wonder, as I prepare to stand before my Creator . . . is it upon my head, what has happened with the Church? The break with Rome, the heresy arisen in its wake, the good men who have suffered for their faith . . . Is it—in the end—as much my doing as his?”
“God sends heresy to confound the wicked,” Chapuys declared. “It makes the faith of the righteous that much more beautiful in the eyes of God.”
But Katharine winced, so Chapuys hastily amended his words. “The heresy is not deeply entrenched within the land. It will soon dissipate in the light of the truth.”
Katharine closed her eyes and nodded, but Emma could sense even from here Katharine wasn’t soothed. Emma glanced up at Will and gave a tiny shake of her head. He, too, had to wonder. Had Katharine given in, the winds of change would not have swept away a thousand years of tradition. The suppression of the monasteries, the dismantled shrines, their plunder and lands divided up amongst the king and his favored courtiers, the economic repercussions of which were only now being discovered. More and Fisher . . . Elizabeth Barton . . . All of those who had bowed their head before the executioner rather than accept the king’s supremacy over the church.
Katharine drifted back into sleep. Chapuys went over to the table beneath the window and moved the candle closer as he took out a sheet of paper and began to scribble a letter, likely to the emperor. The political game in Europe was about to change once more, and everyone would want their side to be informed first.
Emma could wait no longer to offer the comfort of her kind. She knelt by Katharine’s bed and took her hand. Katharine sighed, and it was a sigh of relief, as though a great, crushing burden had been lifted off her. She opened her eyes and smiled so sweetly, it shattered a small place in Will’s heart.
“Who is this child?” Katharine asked.
“Emma Somers, your majesty,” Emma replied.
“Will, is this your wife? What a lovely creature!”
Before Will could answer, Katharine drifted off into a light sleep. Will murmured to Emma they should go and let her sleep when Katharine opened her eyes. Bleary with exhaustion, they glittered behind her half-closed lids.
“What are you?” she whispered.
Will didn’t think anyone had heard, but the words sent a blast of cold fear through him. He glanced around quickly, but no one was looking in their direction.
“A friend,” Emma said, and Katharine smiled as she drifted off into slumber.
That evening, Katharine dictated her will, which was short and quickly accomplished. The daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, once Queen of England, had little worldly property left of which to dispose.
Some of it was left to her servants, the rest to her daughter, Mary, and a portion to the church to pay for the customary masses to be said for her soul. She left her gowns to be made into church vestments. She asked for burial in the chapel of the Observant Franciscans in London. She did not know it was one of the monasteries Henry had already closed, and none of those present had the heart to tell her.
The visit of Maria and Chapuys seemed to do Katharine some good, for she rallied for a couple of days, managing to keep down a bit of food, even sitting up and brushing her own hair at one point. Chapuys had stayed as long as he could, and had to return to London. He said his goodbyes with the hope she might recover, but knowing he would likely never see Katharine again.
Katharine told Emma stories of her girlhood in Spain, and laughed with Maria over some of their shared memories from the golden days when she was England’s new queen. But just as quickly as the revival had come, it faded away, and by the night of Epiphany, it was clear this was the end. So bad was she, the priest wanted to give her extreme unction before dawn, for which he could seek a dispensation later, but Katharine refused. When the sun’s rays broke over the horizon, a mass service was said and Katharine was given last rites.
It had been pre-arranged Katharine should swear at that moment she had never carnally known Prince Arthur, but in the emotion of the moment, the priest forgot to ask, and Katharine did not offer the statement.
Will would always wonder why. Perhaps, in the final moments of her life, it did not seem as important, or maybe, after all of this strife, Henry had been telling the truth after all, and Katharine did not want to stand before her God with a lie on her lips.
Soon after, Katharine fell into a light sleep that deepened as the morning wore on. Her breath grew labored and Emma gasped along with her until Will pried her hand from Katharine’s. “She can feel no pain now,” he murmured into his wife’s ear. “You do not need to bear it for her.”
In the early afternoon, Katharine took one last, short gasp and then it sighed out of her slowly. The watchers all held their breath as well, waiting to see if her chest would rise again, but she was still.
Katharine of Aragon was dead.