by Briar Rose
A historical "What if...?"
“No, Maria, I tell you, this is the last. I will have no more.” The queen turned wearily and looked out the window. “If God willed it, you know I would gladly die, if only I could give Henry a son.”
Maria de Salinas looked up from her embroidery in silent sympathy. How often had they had this same conversation, Maria and Katherine, and how often had the long months of worrying and praying ended in disappointment? Tiny Prince Henry, dead within two months of his birth. Miscarriages and stillbirths. One baby, strong and healthy, very much alive, but, alas, a girl, not the son Henry needed. Maria pursed her lips in frustration as she watched her beloved friend agonize over another pregnancy. 'This one will be different,' she thought fiercely. 'God forgive me.'
And now that another birth was near, the queen had settled into a familiar routine of soaring hope and black despair as she waited to see if the pain and worry were worth it all.
A knock sounded at the door and Maria rose to answer it. A young page stood on the threshold and delivered his message.
“The king desires a word with his wife, the queen. If she will come to him…”
The words died away on the lad’s lips as he noticed the sparkling black eyes and haughtily raised eyebrow of the queen’s lady-in-waiting.
“You will please to tell the king,” Maria said, her Spanish accent in no way diminishing the coldness of her tone, “that my lady is indisposed and that if he wishes to speak with her, he must come to her.”
The page gaped for a moment as the delicacy of his own situation came home to him. He well knew the fiery temper of his king and knew how frequently it had surfaced in the last few weeks, and over the merest trivialities. He knew equally well, though, the implacable word of Lady Maria. He would have to tread carefully, indeed, to avoid being caught in the crossfire as these two iron wills clashed.
The lady’s hauteur disappeared into annoyance.
“Go, go,” she cried, clapping her hands in the boy’s face.
When the page had left on his terrifying mission, Maria resumed her seat by the fire and picked up her embroidery. The other ladies-in-waiting followed her example and settled to their own work.
“Maria,” Katherine chided gently, “you should not have done that.”
“Well, of all the ridiculous things, my lady. You so far gone in your pregnancy and he expecting you to dash all over the palace at his beck and call.” Maria stabbed her needle into her embroidery to emphasize the point.
“You know how irritable he is lately. It will not do to deliberately anger him.” Katherine rubbed a hand over her swollen middle. “Besides, walking might make this little one come sooner.”
“Soon enough, my lady,” Maria said, chiding gently. “He must get stronger so that he may face down his father when he meets him.”
“Yes, if anyone can face down Henry, it will have to be his own son. Only a son of his own blood will be strong enough to do it.”
“I think, perhaps, you have bearded the lion in his den a few times,” Maria said with a twinkling eye.
“Oh, no,” Katherine replied, smiling. “I have merely learned to work my way around him. He has never been denied anything he truly wanted, you know. Even the wife his father tried to forbid him.”
Maria knew well the story of Henry and Katherine’s courtship. After a marriage of less than three years, Katherine had been widowed by Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, and immediately betrothed to Henry. Henry’s father cooled to the idea of the union, though, and sought to extricate Henry from the agreement. For seven years, Katherine’s position in England had remained painfully indefinite. This difficult time did have one redeeming result, though: a deep respect and friendship grew up and flourished between the widow and young Prince Henry. Just when Katherine’s financial situation was becoming untenable and she knew she would have to return home to Spain, King Henry VII had died, leaving the throne to his son, Henry VIII. One of Henry’s first acts after the death of his father was to marry the woman he loved, Katherine of Aragon.
Now, though, Maria shook her head in disapproval.
“I fear what will happen when he is truly thwarted, my lady, for it will happen one day.”
“Yes, we see how he is when he is denied a son over and over.” Katherine’s eyes uncharacteristically misted over with unshed tears. “And yet, he never blames me, Maria. Never.”
Maria was chagrined that her comment had brought back the sorrowful creases on her queen’s face.
“Well, well,” Maria said cheerfully, rising to fuss over her lady’s comfort, “soon he will have a fine healthy son and there will be no more temper tantrums from the king.”
Katherine shot a startled glance at Maria, then laughed, blinking away the tears.
“Maria,” she scolded but gently, “you must not speak so of your sovereign.”
“Oh, la,” Maria said, plumping a pillow to put under her lady’s feet. “You know I would say as much to his face.”
“Yes, and I fear for you sometimes, Maria.” Katherine impulsively grabbed her friend’s hand and held it to her cheek. “For what would I do without you, my friend, if ever he sent you from me.”
Maria knelt beside her queen, her lady, her friend.
“He will never part us,” she whispered fiercely. “I will not allow it,” she said with black-eyed fervor.
Katherine gazed at her friend, no less worried than before, for she knew the terror of Henry’s temper when fully aroused. She had only seen it a few times, and never directed at her, but it had been enough to frighten her into avoiding that temper at almost any cost.
“Besides,” Maria went on with a smile, “he loves you too much to cross your wishes. Do you desire me by you, Henry will gladly have it so.”
Katherine smiled, comforted by this reminder. Henry did, indeed, love her, and had rarely crossed her in any but the most trivial matters. He would surely never interfere with any of her own ladies-in-waiting.
A sudden commotion outside the door caused an answering flurry among the ladies seated around the fire.
“The king!” cried Katherine. “Maria, help me to rise.”
“My lady,” Maria protested.
“Come, come,” she said, impatiently.
By the time Katherine was steady on her feet, Henry had entered and, in his brusque manner, set his own retinue and most of the ladies-in-waiting to flight.
Only Maria remained by her mistress, unobtrusively arranging for her comfort in whatever ways she was able.
Henry crossed the room in three long strides, grabbed Katherine’s hands and kissed them both.
At the age of seven and twenty, Henry was more vital and more handsome than he had been when they had wed thirteen years before. He was certainly the handsomest king in Europe, Katherine thought with pride. And he loved her. Despite the fact that she had not yet given him the heir he so longed for, he loved her.
Henry was not in a mood to play the eager lover, though, and despite his romantic gesture, he stood frowning at his wife. His tone still one of abrupt and blustering authority, Henry asked,
“Have you felt the babe move today?”
“Yes,” Katherine answered in her patient way. “Stop fretting so.”
Henry dropped her hands and paced to stand and look out of the window.
Maria helped Katherine to sit, and propped her swollen feet on a cushion.
“I wish we knew…” Henry said, his voice little more than a growl.
“Enrique, mi esposa,” Katherine cajoled. “In God’s time.”
Henry yet spoke quietly, but with fierce emotion. “It must be a son, Katherine, it must.”
The long silence which followed was broken only by the snap of the fire. Shadows deepened around the three silent figures as the gloomy November daylight gradually began to fade.
Finally, Katherine spoke, her voice hardly above a whisper.
“I am sorry, Henry.”
Henry turned swiftly from the window, took in the bowed head and small, white hands clasped tightly together, and immediately kneeled beside his wife’s chair, contrite.
“No, Katherine. ‘Tis I who am sorry. I should not vex you so, especially now.”
Henry gazed steadily into his wife’s face. He was disconcerted to see his wife so bereft of her usual quiet confidence. Was this the woman who had sent him the bloody coat of his enemy when she had commanded England in his absence? Was this the woman who had advised him so wisely in matters of politics and faith countless times throughout his reign? Was this the woman who had stood by him, a quiet pillar of strength, for thirteen years?
“Come, my dear, shall I play for you?” Henry, determined to see a smile on his wife’s face, glanced at Maria, who went to a side table and retrieved a lute.
“Henry,” Katherine said quietly, “what if…”
“Do not even speak it, my love.”
As Henry played a song, a Spanish ballad he knew was one of Katherine’s favorites, Maria watched the pair closely. These two whom she loved so well.
Maria had come from Spain when she was eleven years old as a maid of honor to Katherine, who was already married by proxy to Prince Arthur. Maria had been with Katherine through that lady’s first marriage, her desperate years of widowhood, her joyful marriage to Henry, and the many heartbreaks of pregnancies which failed to fulfill their bright promise of a healthy son.
Through the years, Maria had come to love her mistress as fiercely as she would any sister. And through Katherine, Maria had come to love Henry as a brother. Henry liked to tease her and flirt with her, but he knew that she would never betray her lady. 'Unlike that Bessie Blount,' Maria thought grimly.
Katherine had been deeply wounded, and her faith deeply offended, by Henry’s infidelities, including the latest one with her lady-in-waiting, Bessie. But in the face of Henry’s indifferent responses to her recriminations, she had had to learn to overlook such dalliances. Henry insisted, and rightly, that he was no more unfaithful than any other man, and it was simply the way of the world. Thankfully, there were no known children from his infidelities. Not yet, anyway. Still, Maria knew that it hurt her lady to think of Henry going to any other woman. Katherine, who was so well-ordered and unruffled in her other affairs, loved her husband with a fierce passion few guessed.
'And Henry loves her,' thought Maria. 'Pray God he always does.'
When Henry’s song finished, he stood and placed a kiss on Katherine’s cheek.
“You rest now, dove. I’ll look in on Mary and say goodnight to her from you.”
“She prefers you, anyway,” Katherine said, smiling. “The way you spoil her, Henry. It’s shameful. You make her nurses’ job that much harder.”
Henry grinned at his wife’s teasing.
“Well, what else do we pay them for?”
Henry handed the lute back to Maria and said with a good-natured grin, “So, Maria, when are we going to find you a husband?”
This was a familiar line of teasing, and Maria responded with her usual arched eyebrow and toss of her head.
“When I see one who is handsome enough to tempt me.”
Henry laughed and turned to go. Before he opened the door, his wife’s soft voice stopped him.
“Thank you, my lord. For the song.”
The king gave a courtly bow.
“De nada, querida.”
The queen was settling into bed when she realized that the discomfort she had been feeling all evening was developing into true labor pains.
Only one maid yet remained in the bedchamber, slowly extinguishing the candles.
“Call Lady Maria,” the queen commanded, still firmly in possession of her usual calm. She had been brought to bed in childbirth many times and was unlikely to panic, especially now, when her pains had only begun.
Maria returned with the maid, her wrapper tied firmly at her small waist and a candle held aloft in one hand.
“My lady?” Maria said softly.
The queen was slowly pacing in front of the fire.
“Ah, Maria, there you are.” She smiled, a small, tight smile, to try and convince her friend not to worry over her. But she held out her hand in a mute appeal and Maria, hastily setting aside her candle, hurried to take that hand and squeeze it encouragingly. The circumstances were so familiar that they hardly needed words to communicate.
Keeping a firm grip on Katherine’s hand, Maria turned to the maid. A young one, she noticed with a frown.
“Go and fetch the midwife,” she said.
“Yes, my lady. And the king, my lady?”
“No!” Maria blurted out too hastily. Katherine glanced at her in surprise, but Maria smiled at her. “No use having him prowling about outside the door, you know.”
“Yes,” Katherine said, a frown of pain deepening on her face. “Call him…when I have a son…to give him.” She stopped speaking then to concentrate on the wave of pain radiating from her swollen middle.
Maria turned to the maid again.
“Only the midwife. Do you hear? Rouse no one else and speak no word of this to anyone you might meet. We will surprise the king in the morning.” Maria’s conspiratorial smile was answered with one from the maid.
“Yes, my lady,” she said, before bobbing a curtsey and running to her errand.
'I only pray she does not betray too much eagerness, for she is bound to meet someone still about,' Maria thought. 'All is lost if the queen’s condition becomes known.'
“Maria, why do you frown?” Katherine was breathing easier again and had turned to look at her friend.
Maria forced herself to smile reassuringly.
“Only my usual worries for your safety.”
“My own safety is in the hands of God and, besides, is of little consequence. Only the child matters.”
“Not so, my lady, for England and its king - to say nothing of me – we all would break our hearts over you. But we will not talk so. I will not allow it!” Maria declared.
Katherine made no response, indeed she could not, for her pain was sharpening again.
When she had recovered a little, she said,
“They are coming quickly this time. It will not be long.”
Maria looked up as the midwife came bustling into the chamber with the maid behind her.
“Well, well, your majesty, how goes it?” The midwife was a short, rounded, motherly woman with twinkling gray eyes, which peeked out from a crowd of heavy wrinkles. She had attended the queen in her first few births, but, at Henry’s insistence, had been replaced by midwives, and even physicians, of his choosing. For this birth, though, Katherine had begged that Dame Judith be allowed to attend her. Henry had finally given way with much grumbling, still unconvinced of Dame Judith’s skills, but willing to honor Katherine’s whim if only to keep her from becoming upset in her delicate state. Maria had thanked the Holy Mother and had taken it as a sign of her blessing.
Dame Judith soon had the maid scurrying about, plugging up keyholes and any place where outside air could enter the room. She herself built up the fire and began lighting candles.
“Mistress,” the maid finally said to the midwife, “shall I call more women to help? There is too much for you and I to do.”
Katherine had stopped her pacing for another contraction and Maria stood, patiently holding her hand and mopping her brow. When she heard the maid’s query, though, she shot an anxious look at the midwife. It was quite customary for a woman to be accompanied during childbirth by every female within a day’s ride, but, this once, it had to be different. It had to be.
“No, no,” said Dame Judith in her calm way, “her majesty don’t need a lot of gawkers about. Now, pull the stool over in front of the fire.”
The maid, bewildered by this break with birthroom custom, nevertheless did as she was bid and questioned no more. Maria closed her eyes to silently thank the midwife.
Suddenly, Katherine sagged against her.
“Time,” she whispered. “Now.”
Maria and Dame Judith gently led the woman to the birthing stool, a large, high-backed chair with a hole cut out of the seat. As they progressed toward the hearth, Maria anxiously sought the face of the midwife on the other side of Katherine’s sweat-soaked body. The older woman gave an almost imperceptible nod, and immediately turned to bark orders at the maid.
Suddenly, Katherine opened her eyes wide and panted out frantically, “My rosary, Maria, quick!”
Maria murmured quietly in Spanish, seeking to soothe her lady. “Yes, yes, I will get it, querida. Here, now, you sit and I will get it.”
When Katherine was seated, the midwife immediately squatted in front of her and Maria hurried to bring the rosary.
With the rosary clutched in one hand and Maria’s hand clutched in the other, Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, labored to bring forth the next king of her adopted country.
After half an hour, the midwife said, still in her voice of quiet confidence, that she could see the head crowning. Then, a moment later, she ordered Katherine to cease pushing and wait out one contraction.
Katherine’s head lolled back against the chair. Maria gently wiped her friend’s pallid face and pushed back the damp hair which had fallen out of its usually neat braid. She continued to murmur Spanish endearments and other nonsense to distract her lady from the pain and herself from the worry.
Katherine’s lips moved but Maria could hear no sound. Leaning closer she could finally make out the words, slurred by exhaustion,
“Maria, are you praying?”
“Aye, my friend, of course,” Maria assured her.
“When I die, tell Henry that I gladly give my life for him to have a son.”
“Shh. No, my lady,” Maria cried. “No, you will live. And the boy.”
Katherine smiled faintly.
“Dear, Maria, always so sure that what you want is what God wants.”
“All right, push when you’re ready, your majesty.” The midwife’s steady voice brought Katherine’s head up again as a contraction came on.
Katherine gave an agonized cry and, with a rush of fluids, the babe was in the midwife’s arms.
The maid craned her neck from behind the chair, as eager as the rest of the kingdom to know the child’s sex, but the midwife had already wrapped the lower half of the babe in a cloth.
Katherine could not even lift her head to look, but she implored in a whisper,
“Is it…alive? Is it a…?”
Maria looked steadily into the midwife’s face.
One look at the old woman’s grim face, and the maid clapped her hands over her face in silent grief.
Immediately, the midwife stood and, wrapping the babe tightly, handed the bundle to Maria. Maria, mouth grim with determination, hurried the bundle to a dark corner.
“What is it?” Katherine asked, panic rising in her voice. “Why does the babe not cry?”
“The baby is fine, your majesty,” the midwife said soothingly, hunkering down in front of the stool again. “Lady Maria will have it squalling in no time. Some babes is just quiet, you know, but this one’ll be making plenty o’ noise, don’t you worry yourself.” Dame Judith went on talking quietly, soothing the mother, while she delivered the afterbirth and made what rudimentary repairs she could.
The maid had turned and was watching Lady Maria curiously. The corner was dark, all of the candlelight being concentrated on the laboring mother, so it was difficult to see just what the lady was doing. She was standing facing the wall and seemed to fumble for a moment with a chain around her neck. Then the tapestry in front of her moved slightly, as though a breeze came from the other side, and the lady leaned forward.
The midwife’s sharp voice made the maid whirl around.
“Are ye deaf, girl? I said to fetch the queen a new night gown.”
Then Lady Maria was beside the mother, beaming her pride and joy.
“A boy, my queen. A healthy boy.”
Katherine reached shaking arms to take her child to her heart. Tears streamed down her face as she thought, 'A son for Henry. A king for England. A protector for Mary. He will defend our faith from dissenters and infidels. He will rule England like his father before him, as a just and fearless king. Thank you, Blessed Virgin.'
Maria stood with one hand on her queen’s shoulder, certain now, that all would be right. She looked into the midwife’s face and that good lady slowly grinned and nodded.
The maid, young and inexperienced as she was, looked in bewildered happiness from the baby to the queen’s radiant face. From the midwife’s grim expression, the girl had been certain the baby was stillborn, but she was more than thankful to have been proven wrong. Indeed, no one could deny that this tiny babe, who was now showing how healthy his lungs really were, was very much alive. In fact, she saw with a smile, the babe already sported a thatch of reddish hair, so like his papa. And in the joy and celebration after the birth, the maid forgot that she had ever had doubts.
Somewhere in the heavily misted shadow of the palace walls, a young, sandy-haired prostitute silently closed a small door in the outer curtain wall and leaned heavily against it. She wiped an errant tear from her cheek, inhaled a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, patted her new fat purse, and disappeared forever into the streets of London.