She was born in Madrid, amongst hushed duennas and modest women. Her parents expelled the Jews from Spain. Her mother was the patroness of Christopher Columbus. Her father was the 'cunning fox' so admired by Machiavelli. Her sister was mad, refusing to abandon the rotten, cholera-ridden body of her dead husband. She grew up against the scarlet agonies of the Inquisition. She came to England when she was barely sixteen, the bride-to-be for a King.
The next year, in 1502, she lost her husband to the 'sweate'. She watched him, soothed him, pressed a damp handkerchief to his temples to absorb the thick, stinking sweat. She prayed.
This portrait was painted at about this time. A widowed cherub, with gaze lowered and focused on worries she was too young to name. Thoughtful, she eyed an unfair fate that mocked her and gamboled at her feet.
Her weeds are black and plum; her chains are simple weaves, and scallops – emblems of the pilgrims of St. James – bite the square shoreline of her bodice.
For seven years, she waited. She wandered the palace, ignored by her distant parents, a shadow to her father-in-law. He and his advisors were too busy grooming the golden lion who was growing into adulthood in their midst. They had plans for him; they imagined a marriage with a princess whose veins would tangle Europe like vines, drenching countries in their royal sap. A sad princess, already used, was not good enough.
In 1509, it was time for another son to be crowned. And this Spanish princess – despite, or possibly because of, palace politics – was the chosen bride. On June 11, Katherine of Aragon was wedded to Henry VIII. Witnesses noted her thick hair, a river of melted bronze shot with gold, pouring down her back. Her plump oval face, pink and white, agreed happily with the English vision of healthy womanhood: innocent, yet of good child-bearing stock.
She was the first, and she had him at his best. He was fit, virile, slim, athletic. He still had his shy ways: his childhood was a sheltered one and he trod carefully on the words of his tutors as if each syllable was an eggshell. He was optimistic and careless. He was a handsome boy. And she was in love.
But he grew up. Power drove her heel into his neck and taught him the ways of cruelty, impatience and greed. She stood in the way of…so many things. But she would not move: her core of resolve was an alloy of steel buried in the meek earth. Quietly, she kept Anne Boleyn listening at the keyhole. She was the silent figurehead around whom the people rallied: against the king, his new religion and his filthy mistress. The Vatican was in awe – she was exotic, she was fearsome: she was honest.
But honesty does not breed kings. Her babies died, one after the other, except for one daughter. And this child, in time, would suffer too.
And when Katherine lay dying, she was alone once more, even denied communication with her daughter. Did she think of her years as a young widow, a living ghost in dusty velvet? Maybe all she remembered was her final letter to her husband – the words hanging before her eyes like curtains – that ended with a vow of shattering devotion:
"Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things."