Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.
As the holly groweth green
And never changeth hue,
So I am, and ever hath been,
Unto my lady true.
"Bonny blue eyes, fit for an English Princess," her father, Ferdinand of Aragon, will exalt jubilantly to the English ambassadors. "Hair as red as a Tudor rose."
"She is but five, yet sweet-tempered by nature, endowed with graces enow, both maidenly and royal," her mother, Isabella of Castile, says.
Her sisters, Joanna and Maria will be the Queens of Spain and Portugal someday. Now it is Catalina's turn to be sought as bride for the future King of England.
"Sapphires to match your eyes, pearls to match those pretty teeth," her duenna, Dona Elvira, says, tweaking her nose playfully. "Ah, my Infanta, how grand you shall be!"
"Princess of Wales, if you please, Dona Elvira," the five-year-old says as primly and unconcernedly as if she had expected nothing else. "And now, I must attend to my sewing and not waste time dreaming of things that are so very, very far off." The needle flashes in her chubby fingers. One neat, patient stitch after another in her sampler. Perfect. As perfect as she is.
The letters from England, from her betrothed, Prince Arthur, come with the regularity of clockwork. Latin on gilt-edged pages, in a calligrapher's hand. Formal phrases - when his tutor is peering over his shoulder, dictating what is appropriate for the Prince of Wales to write to the Infanta -, interspersed with sweet nothings that make her smile and remind her that there is a friend waiting for her on English shores.
Most dear and beloved Catalina
Most beloved and dear Arthur
He sends her a wooden nightingale he has carved himself, with eyes of blue glass. She wears it at her girdle. She smiles a secret smile when her ladies undress her and ask about the new ornament at her girdle.
She stitches him a cushion, crewelwork on linen, love woven into the thread. The Spanish pomegranate entwined with the English rose. He kneels on it to pray. He smiles a secret smile when his chaplain asks about his new prayer cushion.
Wales is everything that Madrid was not. Sleet and shade to the sunshine. Night to day. Death to life.
At sixteen, she is Princess of Wales, the Rose of England, the most beautiful bride in all Christendom. She drips diamonds and ermine and her smiles are as bright as the Spanish sun. Heartsore, heartsick.
When prayers and letters from home do not suffice, she takes up thread and needle. Woollen yarn embroidered on linen - it comes out with the fine, intricate delicacy of a jewelled miniature. A masterpiece in thread.
Arthur takes up a finished square, while she and Maria de Salinas work on another portion. "A story?" he teases, rubbing the figures of the three brothers and the sister she has stitched. "What, preparing the tapestries for our children's nurseries already, before we have conceived them yet?"
"A Catalan fairy tale," she replies. "The Water of Life."
He draws his stool closer to her. "Tell me."
And so she tells him about the peasant brothers and their sister who laboured under the sun till they earned their crystal palace, surrounded by orchards and orangeries and then, were of course, beset by trial and tribulation till they found their happily-ever-after. It had always made her glad, these dark and morbid fables, hardly fit for children's ears, some of them, that she was born a princess. Born to the palaces and the privileges, she stood no need of earning her happily-ever-afters. Life was obliged to hand it to her.
He smiles and begins to tell her about the tales he was told about, when a child - St George defeating the dragon, his namesake, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. She is only half-listening, though the stories are charming and fancy-catching. She is thinking that one day, she will tell their children these same stories, sing them to bed by these same songs - Catalan and Welsh, Spanish and English.
Be she princess or peasant, a woman stands only as high as her husband's fortune. A widow, be she of the Royal House of Trastámara, or a tavern slut, is nothing.
She is twenty-two-years old, ostensibly the betrothed of the new Prince of Wales, sixteen-year-old Henry, dead Arthur's live brother. She is a widow, a widow for six years, dowerless, motherless, living on the grudging charity of a miser king. Her household of ladies, her companions in laughter and idleness, who would dance with her and embroider with her, have dwindled down to two - loyal and loving, poorly-housed and short of funds.
Piece by piece she has sold off her gold plate and jewels, her silks and velvets, for bread and wine. There is no money for fine thread now, no money to pay the seamstresses who were once engaged to flaunt their skills to make the gowns of the most beautiful princess in the world.
She was as beautiful as a poem. Now she is all prose and prunes and prisms. "These gowns will have to be darned," Maria de Salinas tells her practically, "We can't buy new ones and unless Your Grace wishes to arrive at court stark naked..."
She understands. "From tapestry with silk thread to darning my old dresses," she says dryly. "How far I have come down in this world, Maria!"
Every morning, throughout England, Masses are said for the health of Queen Catherine and her unborn child. Pray God, that after four disappointments, it is a live child this time, a bonny, strong Tudor boy to reign after King Henry.
She has been Queen six years and has failed in her fundamental duty - to bear a heir. Henry is young yet, and does not take it much to heart but she does. Her hourglass is running out of sand - this year she is thirty. She is no longer young.
Her ladies are all with her, except for Bessie Blount, the golden-haired, blue-eyed beauty of the court who has struck her husband's fancy. They are out riding - or so she has been told. Perhaps he is riding her. She will ignore it, as a good wife, a good queen must. She will be gracious and dignified and utterly indifferent - if he chooses to pick his whores from her ladies-in-waiting, that is no concern of hers. He is the king, he is a man. It is his right.
The queen is on her throne, her ladies on their stools. They are working on dresses for her baby. She, herself, is smocking a frock with Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, a honeycomb stitch that the good lady assures her is very French and very fashionable. She ought to know - she has two daughters at the French court, Mary and Anne.
Music is playing, the younger maids are giggling, the elder ladies gossiping, wondering what the child will be christened. Henry is an ill-luck name, they say - her two dead sons were named Henry and they died before they were three months old. Arthur - no, that would never do, the king was always mightily jealous of his elder brother. They are discussing only names for a prince - no one, it seems, wants a princess for what use is a princess but as a pawn in the marriage game for her father and brothers?
Son or daughter, Catherine will cherish her child. If it is a daughter, she will be named Mary, for the Virgin, the Queen of Heaven. And if there are no brothers to follow little Mary - then, perhaps, one day she will be Queen of England, a Virgin Queen. God willing.
Twelve-year-old Mary, Princess of Wales, is already an accomplished scholar in Latin and Greek. Most suitable and proper for a girl who will be Queen Regnant one day. But no woman can call herself truly accomplished until she is skilled in the art of needlework.
Catherine teaches Mary the seed-stitch. "Blackwork comes out like an etching or a woodcut when it's done properly," she explains, demonstrating how the black silk thread is drawn through the white linen, to make a geometric pattern of square-petaled flowers. "It looks best on cuffs - I've embroidered on many of your father's shirts this way."
She sees Mary only once every few months. Every moment is precious, every sight, every sound. The way the light falls over her daughter's smooth, red-gold hair. The way she has of cocking her head to the side, like a little bird, when she's thinking. Her sweet, uncomplicated smiles. Her prettily-accented, quaintly Anglicized Spanish. Catherine doesn't just watch. She drinks it in.
"Very beautiful," Catherine compliments her. She waits for a smile to light up her little girl's face but Mary looks up with troubled eyes. Isabella of Castile's beautiful, fearless eyes on a frightened little girl's face. "Yes, Mary, you have a question?"
"Father..." Mary hesitates at first, but then her words come out in a rush. "They say he is much taken with Mistress Anne Boleyn-"
"His whore," Catherine says quietly. "If His Majesty sees fit to take a mistress, who are we to gainsay him?"
"No! They say that he will raise her up to take your place and oh, Mother, I am afraid!"
Catherine curses court gossip and the way it has of flying. Such things should never reach her daughter's ears. "Nonsense," she says curtly. "Mistress Boleyn is quite an enchantress-" witch- "and she has ambition enough to spare but, no." She shakes her head and chuckles. The very idea is abominable and abominably amusing. "Her sister, Lady Carey, was your father's mistress for a time too. She bore him two children. Bessie Blount gave him a boy and the child was made the Duke of Richmond, but that affect either of us a jot? No."
Gently, Catherine takes her hands. "These things happen, dearest, and you must learn to bear them with fortitude. Mistresses, bastards - they happen. Anne Boleyn will have her time in the sun, carry your royal father's child perhaps, be married off and sent away. She will be forgotten but I will still be Queen of England and you will still be the Princess of Wales. That is the order of the world." She leans back on her chair, staring her daughter down, silently daring her to contradict her. "Enough of this business," she says merrily. "Your father's cuffs will not wait and neither should we."
"You still sew father's shirts?" Mary says. "After all these years?"
"Yes, certainly," Catherine says, matter-of-factly. "After all, who better than his lawful and loving wife to make his shirts for him?"
Lets his whores bewitch him with their light charms and their capering tricks. I am his wife. I am the Queen.
Back to a hovel again, after all these years. Back to being simply the Dowager Princess of Wales, a widow without a home, living on charity. After all these years.
But it isn't the same. She had youth and beauty then. Hope. Friends. It is worse this time, for then she was a virgin with a dowry in Spanish gold, ripe to bear sons - a woman's greatest asset. Now, she is a barren woman, with no sons to champion her cause. Who will take her?
She maintains a household at Kimbleton Palace, by the king's grace. A household - she who had been mistress of the most beautiful palaces in Christendom, who'd been raised in the fairytale castles of Castile. She has been reduced to a household, attended by a few sulky maids-of-honor who would much rather be at the royal court, attending the king's black-eyed whore who calls herself Queen Anne.
What goes around comes around, Catherine thinks virtuously. After all, Mistress Boleyn, God has not seen fit to bestow a son upon you.
The thought cheers her up immensely and she calls for her maids to bring her needle and thread. The sweetest of her maids, pale, virtuous Jane Seymour is the quickest to obey. She was raised in the Old Faith, God bless her soul. She is docile and dutiful and unquestioning, everything that a good woman should be - everything that Anne Boleyn, that schemer, that seductress is not. Catherine loves her as she loves Mary, the daughter she has been separated from.
"You are very merry today," Jane remarks.
"Why so?" Catherine asks. They will work on the Assissi stitch today, for Jane is a beautiful embroiderer and it is a pleasure to stitch with her. The background is filled with embroidery stitches and the main motif left void. The Assissi stitch reminds one so very much of life - all the little details attended to most carefully, and the chiefest purposes left void.
"You only stitch when you are merry," Jane observes. Hesitantly, "And you have not stitched for every so long, always you have been praying..."
Catherine touches Jane's pale blond hair gently. "Now that is where you are wrong, Mistress Seymour. My sewing is a part of me, it has been since I was a child doing my cross-stitch on my samplers."
Jane smiles as though she knows a secert. "Then you have always been merry, My Lady." She quotes from the Bible, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones."
"Why, are not my old bones dry?" Catherine asks, in surprise. "Was I not set aside for-"
But Jane shakes her head firmly. "She will find that she is not meet for the mantle of royalty, My Lady, and soon too-" Catherine nods. The Seymours are known faces at court, and perhaps Jane has news. "And then His Majesty must see fit to-" She lowers her eyelashes. Smiles a secret smile.
"Pray God it be so," Catherine murmurs quietly. And then sits down to sew. Hope stitched into the delicate silk threads.
A/N: The rhyme at the beginning is said to have been composed by Catherine herself. The Water of Life actually is a Catalan fairytale.