Saturday, September 17, 2016

Another Stillborn Birth for Catherine

On September 17, 1513, Catherine of Aragon again suffered the trials of childbirth, this time while she was regent of England as Henry VIII went to war in France. This child was either stillborn or died shortly after birth but is believed to have been a boy. This excerpt from Faithful Traitor is my version of the events of that month.

September 1513

(An excerpt from Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole)

Margaret kept her back straight and stiff as she knelt before the altar that was set up in her room for private worship. Months at court left her buzzing with anxiety and unable to let down her guard even long enough for prayer. The ease that she should have felt with Henry’s leaving was replaced by concern for her sons and other people she cherished who had gone to war. She fervently prayed for each of them by name, and was disturbed by the ache in her knees when she finally rose.

As a girl, she had been able to leap from the altar unaffected by the cold stones that left her elders rising more slowly. With chagrin she realized that her younger self would put her in that category of elders with her grown children marrying and following their king to glory in France.

“I suppose I am old,” she whispered to the sculpted Jesus who had already listened to her silent prayers. The statue had been a gift from her cousin Elizabeth upon Margaret’s marriage. Many times had her eyes taken in the fine details of craftsmanship that made her savior seem so lifelike that at times she expected him to give vocal response to her heavenly requests. His sky colored eyes gazed solemnly into hers but revealed nothing of his divine wisdom.

Returning to the demands of her day, Margaret turned from the unchanging stare with a swish of skirts and strode toward Catherine’s rooms. She had not far to go and was thankful, for the narrow corridor was much cooler than her private room with its cheerful fire chasing away the autumn chill that invaded through each crevice of the palace. She pulled her mantle closed to trap the cozy warmth of her rooms close to her body, not releasing her grasp until she had gained entry to Catherine’s comfortable quarters.

Margaret Pole
Countess of Salisbury
The queen did not have her fire roaring as Margaret had. Younger and burdened by the weight of her coming child, Catherine did not feel the cold as her friend did. In fact, she had discarded her mantle and was wearing a dress more suited to summer while her ladies took places closer to the small fire. Her face lit up when she noticed Margaret’s arrival.

“I have wonderful news,” Catherine said in a low voice meant only for Margaret. “Henry will be pleased with tidings from Scotland as our Lord Howard of Surrey is leading his troops toward an encampment near Flodden Edge. The Scots believe that we cannot bring the battle to them with our troops in France, but they are confidently marching toward their own defeat.”

Margaret did her best to appear impressed by the news that Thomas Howard felt himself ready for battle. Well advanced in age, Surrey looked to recapture a bit of his family’s former glory, but Margaret was sure the Scots had good reason for their optimism.

Catherine did not notice Margaret’s doubt and continued, “He is hopeful that King James himself will be there.”

“Will that not inspire his troops to fight that much more fervently?” Margaret asked and then winced that she had allowed the question to escape.

Catherine, however, merely shrugged. “It will not matter. James is ineffective and will fail.”

“Henry’s faith in you was well placed, your grace. I would not have foreseen your aptitude for war.”

With a confident smile that made Margaret wonder where the queen’s shy blushes had gone, Catherine stated, “Henry will have every reason to be pleased with me upon his return.”

Margaret nodded. A prince in the cradle and the Scots put back in their place. This would please the king a great deal if events went according to his queen’s plan. Margaret prayed that they would. Surely, God would bless Catherine this time.

As if her thoughts had prompted the action, Margaret watched Catherine’s eyes widen in fear and her hand reach under the bulge of her belly. Without giving her a chance to speak, Margaret ordered the most senior of Catherine’s ladies to clear the room and send for the midwife.
The hours of agony had once again paid Catherine poor reward. The child, who was born an almost cruelly perfect baby boy, had struggled to take breath only briefly. One could almost convince themselves that he was sleeping, so finely formed were his outward features that his death was a mystery.

Rather than collapsing into tears, Catherine’s face appeared to be carved from stone when she was given the news that strident efforts had not saved her son’s life. She was no longer a girl and had grown used to pain and disappointment, but she was also now the regent ruler of England and would not show weakness, regardless of how fractured her soul felt.

After a brief rest taken as women silently tidied the rooms that should have been filled with a newborn’s cries and happy celebrating, Catherine requested writing tools to inform Henry of the birth and death of his son.

Catherine of Aragon
First wife of Henry VIII
Queen of England
Catherine was still abed several days later when a messenger wearing the evidence of long travel arrived and requested an audience with the queen. He was ushered into Margaret’s presence instead with Bishop John Fisher, Catherine’s most trusted advisor, at her side.

“Your grace,” the young man said hesitantly, as if uncertain who he addressed or how to properly address her. “I’ve come with a message for the queen.”

“You will have heard then that she has recently born a child and cannot receive visitors at this time.” Margaret knew that she sounded harsh but also knew that a woman must in order to obtain authority and respect from men. “Queen Catherine sends me as her proxy, and anything you have to say to her you may tell me.”

With a glance at Fisher, the man assented. “I bear her majesty victorious news from Northumberland, my lady. Surrey has taken the day and the King of Scotland lies dead upon the field near Flodden.”

Margaret controlled her features to hide her emotions upon hearing that James IV, the husband of Margaret Tudor, was dead. His son, now James V, had not yet reached two years of age. What would Henry think of the ascendancy of his nephew?

The messenger was continuing with details of the battle, men captured, and others lost, while Margaret considered what this battle would mean to her family and the game of royal dynasties with Henry’s sister in control of the infant King of Scots. Excusing herself as soon as she was able, Margaret rushed to share the news with Catherine.

An unpleasant smile formed on Catherine’s face as Margaret relayed the news. “I will have the head of the Scots’ king as a gift for my husband to uplift him as he also prepares for battle.”

Margaret was caught with her mouth agape. Of all of the things she had thought her friend might say, this was an order she had not anticipated. “Catherine?”

A cruel gleam that Margaret had seen in others but never in Catherine lit the younger woman’s eyes. “See it done, Lady Salisbury. The king will be pleased to have the head of that arrogant Scot presented to him before he destroys the French.”

Seeing other faces in the chamber no less shocked than her own, Margaret mumbled assent and bowed from the room.

She was thankful when Fisher pointed out the logistic difficulties of transporting King James’ head to Henry in a desirable condition and suggested a gift of his bloody doublet in its stead. As gruesome as the business was, Margaret thanked God that Catherine did not have to report a double failure to her mercurial husband.

“Do you believe that Henry will order his sister to return to London?” Margaret asked Catherine as they shared a simple meal in Catherine’s rooms a few days later.

“It is the course that I plan to recommend to him,” Catherine said as she shoved a healthy portion of fluffy white bread into her mouth. Margaret was saddened that a thicker waistline was all Catherine had to show for her many pregnancies. “He will wish to groom her son for kingship, I have no doubt.”

“It will serve him well to have an ally in Scotland, rather than a rival,” Margaret agreed. Best to befriend the boy while he was young and develop a sustainable relationship with the Scots.

“Of course, he will be more than an ally, since he will also be Henry’s heir.”

Catherine seemed to be frequently taking Margaret by surprise. She considered those who Henry might name as his heir besides the young King of Scots. There was Edward Stafford, but of course he would prefer a son of his own sister. “Only until he has a son of his own,” she said as her mind flitted through the Tudor family tree for acceptable substitutes.

“That is in God’s hands,” Catherine stated harshly, closing the subject of her own childbearing.

“As are we all,” Margaret agreed, submissively bowing her head before this hardened version of her faithful friend.

Continue Reading Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole

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