The hour was early and the season summer. In the brightness of the morning air, and with the silence of the city streets all around, I set out.
In this Year of Mercy, I was on pilgrimage. The place in question is visited by many, but merely as a curiosity. I was going there for a different reason: to pray at the grave of a woman who bore witness to Holy Marriage and, above all, to its indissolubility.
On I walked, the night rains having passed and washed the streets until they glistened and glowed like the New Jerusalem lowered from the heights above. No cars were seen; no buses stirred; at the street crossing the lights signaled to no earthly presence. Instead, they were a reminder that the twenty-first century exists, and this city remained within that realm. But I was taking part in something older than this century, reaching back to the time of the Apostles. Perhaps back further still, to the real beginning in Eden, when our first parents headed out into the darkness on a journey, one that continues to this day, and which, someday, shall have a final homecoming.
Deserted streets gave way to a train station. Soon, I watched from on board the train as the countryside appeared as the sun rose higher over seemingly endless fields all emerald in its bright rays. Then, at last, I glimpsed it: a spire shot heavenward, and with that my destination came into view.
Down a drab underpass, past soulless multi-storey car parks, and through non-descript streets, I made my way from the rail station. None of this mattered for my eyes were on the spire before me, a sentinel calling me on. Eventually, I stood in front of a cathedral. Passing through its huge doors, I left the morning sun behind and entered the half-light within; and, as I did so, I traveled back 500 years.
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In September 1501, aged 15 years, Katherine of Aragon set sail from Spain to marry a prince. The sea voyage proved a difficult one; her retinue were ill on account of the swaying seas. They were to dock at Southampton; instead, due to storms they were forced to land at Plymouth. There is something strangely prophetic in that journey—a difficult one that ended in a different port to that expected. She came to marry Arthur, to build a Catholic dynasty linking England and Spain. With his untimely death, it was, finally, as wife of Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, her destiny was to lie. Thereafter, she was to play her allotted role in a domestic drama, one that soon became a national one, and would end in the sundering of Christendom.
By December 1535, she lay dying. Banished from the Royal Court, she was at Kimbolton Castle with a few faithful attendants. As the end drew near, the king continued to refuse her pleas that she might see their daughter, Mary. Suffering was all this queen was to know, and, indeed, had known for many years; those final few years were to prove bitter fare indeed for Katherine. She had watched a younger woman, Anne Boleyn, bewitch her husband and then covet Katherine’s royal title. Nevertheless, not for a moment did Katherine countenance divorce, nor would she have any part in the theological games Henry played in his attempt to salve a guilty conscience. Throughout it all, she saw his predicament not as a constitutional one but as a moral one.
This was no ordinary woman. It is sometimes forgotten that Katherine was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Like her mother, she was Catholic first, a monarch second, understanding her life and vocation in that order. Her faith was to be no pragmatic political piety; under her royal robes she wore the garb of the Third Order of St. Francis. Each day her religious devotions took many hours; a rosary was never far from her hands. Even in the forlorn days of exile from Henry’s court, she prayed earnestly for her husband. Now, her final act was to write to him.
My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles.
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.
Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Queene.
Katherine knew it was the end, but had a final wish: to hear Mass and receive Holy Communion one last time. In the night, her chaplain had offered to say Mass before the permitted canonical hour; gently she admonished him, and clung on. At 4 AM, her wish was granted when, as the priest robed, the candles were lit. On 7 January 1536, in the still dark morn, with the Mass now concluded, and as the light faded from the extinguished candles, an earthly sojourn ended.
On hearing the news that his wife was dead, Henry was initially silent, thoughtful even, but, quickly, his mood changed. Thereafter, throughout the day, dressed in a garish yellow, he proceeded to display a marked jollity to all present at court. When the news reached Anne Boleyn, she rejoiced—her only regret was that the child, Mary, had not accompanied her mother.
There are many monuments and tombs in Peterborough Cathedral. The grave I sought proved a simple one compared to the others. There is little to mark it out save for a name. I knelt beside it, with rosary in hand.
This once Catholic cathedral that holds her remains is Anglican now. How often prayers are said for the souls of the dead I do not know; but, they were offered that day. From the corner of my eye, I noted curious looks. Similar to those, no doubt, that this good woman had had to endure because she would not relinquish the man whom she had married, or repudiate the vows she had exchanged on their wedding day. Royal or not, she was first a wife, then a mother, but above all a Catholic, and when asked to call a truth a lie, even by an earthly king, she could not do so.
As the train sped back to the city, unexpectedly, there were dark clouds on the horizon; they fitted my mood. I had not expected to witness Henry’s disdain for his wife, but it was there in stone. On Katherine’s death, he denied her a State funeral at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Instead, he buried her hurriedly in a cathedral near to where she died. The grave was barely marked for centuries. The few identifiers present today are of recent addition. Even now, it looks as if her grave is intended to be hidden from view, its positioning a denial of who she was, what she had been, and, one day, what she will become. To that end, to the right of the cathedral’s high altar, where no Mass has been offered for centuries, she awaits the return of her true King.
The London streets were bathed in the final glow of evening sunshine when I arrived back. There is a sense of comfort in returning to the familiar, in finally closing the door upon the world and, if only for a while, finding shelter from the tumult of this earthly realm. As I did so, I looked at the face of the queen upon the card I had brought back. Now, more than ever, it was clear why this woman, more importantly this wife, had been the goal of my journey. Gently, I placed her image upon a nearby ledge. And, with that, my pilgrimage concluded, I retired to bed, to sleep, to dream of a Garden all wet with morning dew, and, in its midst, a queen, arrayed in gold, praying for her husband.