It was the hiss and crackle of the evening camp fires that I remember most vividly, when I think of my childhood. The sounds of the soldiers singing together and the boy choristers of the royal chapel chanting as the bishop carried the host in procession through the camp, the soldiers bowing low in reverence. The horizon turning to fiery red and then to blue in the gathering dusk. The sparks flying up from the fires into the night sky as the first of the stars came out.
And most of all, I remember my mother, warming herself at the fire along with her soldiers, praising them for their courage, scolding them when they drank too freely of the coarse wines of the south, smiling and nodding when they cheered for her. I remember her, her face alight with happiness, her thick curling red-brown hair coming free from under her headdress, her skin aglow, contentment in her eyes.
I can almost hear her clear, strong voice as she gathered her commanders and gave them their orders for the following day.
“How many more men are we going to need?” she would ask, her expression serious, her tone urgent. “The guns,” she would say. “How are the guns? What defenses do they have? What of their supplies? How long can they hold out against us?”
My valiant mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, was already famed as a warrior queen when I was very young. But what I remember far better than her renown—for what is that to a young child?—is how she often took me aside, as the camp fires were snapping and hissing, and told me my favorite story.
It was the story of how, during the long series of battles against the heathen Moors, she had continued to put on her heavy armor and lead her army, exhorting the men to attack bravely for the cause of Christ, even when she knew she was carrying me in her belly.
“I carried you for nearly nine long months, Catalina,” she would say. “All through that hot spring season and the baking hot summer, with the scorching sun drying up every drop of moisture from the barren plains of Andalus, and the mules dying from thirst, and our enemies growing ever stronger. I carried you when my belly swelled larger and larger and I had to have my armorer make me new cuirasses to fit over my swollen shape.
“We had been fighting against the enemies of Christendom for four strenuous, exhausting years, your father and I, and our fight was nowhere near its end. Its outcome was uncertain, though we never lost hope.
“With all the strain and hardship I knew I might lose you, Catalina, as I had lost many of the babes I carried. Only your brother and your three sisters lived, out of all the times I hoped for a child, and I was very much afraid that you would never live to take your first breath.”
Even though I had heard the story again and again, I always listened keenly for every word, watching the expressions of worry and sadness and courageous hope cross my mother’s everchanging face. I could not wait for the last part of the story. The best.
“When raw weather came in the fall,” she said, “and the rains came, and strong winds began to blow across the plains, I received a message from the Archbishop of Toledo. Come to my castle at Alcala de Henares, he wrote. It is a strong fortress. You will be safe there behind its old stone walls. Rest there until your child is born.
“So I did,” she went on, tenderly cupping my cheeks in her hands as she spoke, and smiling. “I traveled north to Alcala, and rested there as winter began. And in the Advent season, you were born. Oh, Catalina, that was a wild night! With the winds keening around the castle walls, and the fires burning low, and the air so very cold. All the midwives prayed for me—and for you. But at last I heard you cry, and cough, and then I heard someone say ‘A girl.’ And then I began to cry, I was so very weary, and my pains had been so great.”
Telling this part of the story always brought tears to her green eyes, with their hint of blue. And seeing her tears, I always cried with her.
But that was not the end of her tale. There was always one last part.
“When your father heard you were a girl, and not the son he wanted, he blamed me. He took his revenge. Oh yes, he took his revenge! Her name was Francesca, and she had breasts like ripe melons and the face of an angel. She was only nineteen.”
She lowered her voice. “I wanted to scratch that angel’s face with my nails, Catalina, until she screamed for mercy. But I couldn’t. He protected her. So I nursed you, and prayed that you would live. And you did! Long before you were weaned, your father had found another girl. And so it has gone ever since.”
I have said it was my favorite story, this tale of my birth. But I must add that I took no pleasure in hearing of my mother’s sadness, and seeing her sorrow etched on her face. She had paid a heavy price for my birth, in weariness and pain. At times I wished, for her sake, that I had been born a boy. But more often I wished for the chance to meet the angel-faced Francesca, and shout at her, and call on the royal guardsmen to seize her and throw her into my mother’s dungeons where she would starve, alone and in darkness.
But of course I never did meet her, and if I had, I would have tried to follow Our Lord’s teaching and forgive her. Whether my mother ever forgave her, I cannot say.
* * *
My early memories of my father are quite different from those of my mother. I saw much less of him, and he rarely talked to me or even took much notice of me when I was very young. My brother Juan was his favorite. My splendid, handsome, athletic, chivalrous brother, who was the heir to Castile and Aragon and all my father’s lesser kingdoms combined. It was not until Juan died that my father, angry that his only son should be taken from him when he was barely nineteen, began to look at me and say a few words to me.
He sent for me early one morning when he was preparing to go hawking.
“Catalina,” he said in his abrupt way, taking in at a glance my compact, sturdy young body and the earnest look on my face—my habitual expression at that age—“Catalina, you are aware, I trust, of what will soon be expected of you. Not long from now the time will come when you must be sent to England.”
I had always known that I would one day leave my family and make the long journey to England, which I believed to be a distant cold island full of warlike people. There I would become the wife of Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales. I dreaded that day, knowing that it would mean leaving my mother. Sometimes I prayed that I would not have to leave. That something would happen to make it possible for me to stay home. But I knew very well where my duty lay. My father did not need to remind me.
“Yes, father. I am well aware of it.”
“Prince Arthur will soon be fourteen years old, and he expects to marry you then.”
“Yes, father. I know.”
Something in my tone of voice must have irritated him, for he turned to look at me then, and I thought I saw in his usually dull brown eyes a flicker of irritation.
I had often heard it said that my father was a fine-looking man, but I never thought him so. He had a hefty, strong body, a body that served him well to deflect the buffeting of blows in the tiltyard and to dodge weapons hurled at him from the high walls of fortresses by enemies. But his face was fleshy and jowly, his eyes set close together and his thick black hair fell untidily over his short forehead and wide cheeks. I remember feeling glad that I did not resemble him. I was especially thankful that I did not inherit his large nose or his full red lips. My sister Juana, the beauty of our family, did resemble him, so perhaps he was a fine-looking man after all.
“It would be a shame to have to send you away, perhaps to Azuaga, to await your departure for England,” he said curtly. “But I assure you that is what will happen if I hear the least hint of defiance or sulking from you.”
He knew that I dreaded Azuaga, a lonely castle in the barren hills far from our court at Granada to which only criminals and outcasts were sent. He knew how to alarm me.
“No, father,” I answered, my voice tremulous. “Of course not, father.” I looked down at the tiled floor. I waited a moment, then added, “I am eager to go to my new home, and to meet my husband.”
He turned back to his pier glass and put on his velvet cap with its trailing feathers.
“Indeed I have many questions about my new home,” I added, doing my best to keep any hint of defiance out of my tone.
“What is it really like there? Have you ever been to England? Is it as cold as they say? Is the court there as splendid as ours? Does it move from place to place as we do, and do the English have to fight against the enemies of Christ as we do?”
With a final glance at his image in the pier glass my father turned to me and held up one plump hand, the many rings on his fingers glittering.
“Remember, Catalina, that you are being sent to England for only one purpose: to have sons. Sons that will one day rule that realm—and be yoked by blood to our own lands of Aragon and Castile. That is all that matters: not the weather, or the splendor of the court—though they do say that the English king is very rich—or anything else. You will marry the prince and strive to obey and please him and bear his sons.”
And with that he shouted for his grooms and strode from the room, without another word to me.
I did my best not to anger my father over the next few months, as the preparations for my journey were made. There was a great deal to do, from the choosing of my many attendants and servants to the sewing of my wedding clothes to the packing of my possessions in heavy trunks. But while all this was under way, I continued to have questions, not only about England but about the prince I was pledged to marry.
I went to my almoner John Reveles, a tall, good-looking Englishman who had been sent to our court to join my household and to teach me the English tongue.
“Master Reveles, have you seen Prince Arthur?”
“Indeed I have, many times,” was his answer.
I hesitated. “Can you tell me what he is like? I have the letters he sends me, as you know. But they are so formal, so very polite and full of praise. They do not tell me anything about the prince, how he is different from all others.”
“You have his portrait as well as his letters, do you not?” he answered with a smile. “That should tell you much.”
A portrait had been sent to me two years earlier, of a young blond boy with a thin face and pale skin. A boy with frightened eyes, I thought, though I was not going to say that to the almoner.
“Can you not see a future king in that portrait?” Master Reveles asked.
I did not know how to answer him. At length he sighed and led me to a window embrasure where we both sat.
“The prince is very unlike his father King Henry,” he began. “The king is forceful, while the prince is—thoughtful. The king scowls and bellows, while Arthur—plays chess, and reads.”
“What does he read?”
“Tales of chivalry, I believe. Unless I am mistaken, he also writes them.”
“But that pleases me very much!” I cried. “I have always loved the old romances, ever since my mother first read them to me. What else does he like to do?”
“He has been trained in the joust, he has some fine Barbary horses in his stables, he dances a little—”
“But is he daring, and strong, yet kind, like my brother Juan was?” I wanted to know.
The almoner took his time in replying. In the end he said, “He is amusing.”
“Amusing! Do you mean that he is like a fool? Like one of my mother’s dwarves, that dresses up in ridiculous gowns and turns somersaults?”
“Not like that. The prince is witty. He likes puns, and word-play.”
I was stunned into silence.
“Your mother would like him. Your father—” He made an equivocal gesture, and frowned. His meaning was clear.
“But then, the prince is young yet,” Master Reveles went on, putting his hands on his knees and getting up from where we sat. “He will grow into manhood, and become kingly.”
He looked at me. “Until then, I hope you will keep what I have confided to you locked away in your heart.”
There was another visitor to our court who had seen my future husband. A Siennese, Maestre Antonio. He had been summoned to England by the English king, my future father-in-law, to paint the walls of a chapel. When I asked him about the prince he seemed reluctant to answer me—and not only because his grasp of our Castilian tongue was limited.
“Ah, Infanta Catalina,” he answered with a shrug, “what can I say? The fair young prince—”
“Is—” He looked uncomfortable, unable to say what he thought, and apologetic for thinking it.
“Have you seen him riding in the tiltyard?”
“Riding to the hunt?”
“Would you say he is amusing, that his company is lively?”
The Siennese shook his head slowly while keeping his eyes on my face.
“There must be something you can remember about him!”
“When I saw him,” he said softly after a long pause, “they were carrying him in a litter. There were three physicians with him, in long black gowns.”
I took this in, but did not know what to make of it.
“Perhaps he was injured in the tiltyard,” I managed to say. “My sister’s husband was thrown from his horse while competing in the lists. It is often the bravest and most daring of jousters who suffer injury.”
But Maestre Antonio merely shrugged again, and told me nothing more.
* * *
In the end most of my questions about Prince Arthur and England went unanswered. I realized I would just have to wait and find the answers for myself once I arrived.
At last all the preparations for my journey were complete. My officials and servants were assembled, their possessions packed, our supplies loaded onto carts, the archers and knights of my escort armed and alerted, awaiting the order to move northward.
All that remained was for me to say my goodbyes to those I was leaving behind.
To my surprise my duenna, Doña Elvira Manuel, came to me with a message.
Doña Elvira, who had known me and looked after me since I was a baby, was a plump woman with quick brown hands that were never still and bright searching eyes. She was restless that afternoon, and her strong voice held a slight quaver.
“Your mother asks for you, Infanta Catalina,” she said.
“What is it? Is she not ready to leave?”
Much to my comfort, my mother was to accompany my traveling party to La Coruña, where our ships were waiting to cross the sea to England. We were to have several more weeks to be together. Her serving women had been busying themselves making ready for her departure for many days.
“I do not know, mistress. All I know is that she is asking for you.”
I got up from where I had been sitting and went toward the doorway.
“If you please, mistress,” Doña Elvira said, “I know it will delight her to see you—wearing your wedding gown.”
I was puzzled. No one but my dresser, Maria de Caceres, and Doña Elvira, and my dressmaker and seamstresses had seen me in the full-skirted gown of heavy white silk, its many yards of softly shimmering tissue belling out from bodice and sleeves as well as from my waist.
“But everyone knows it is bad fortune to wear a wedding dress before the wedding day! No one must see it but the seamstress and fitters!”
“I have seen it,” Doña Elvira reminded me mildly.
“You do not count. You are my shadow.”
She was quiet a moment. When she spoke again her voice was soft.
“I believe you must do this, Infanta Catalina.”
“Why? What is wrong?”
Instead of answering she summoned Maria de Caceres, who stood, eyes downcast, waiting for me to speak. I could tell that both women knew something, or sensed something, and that I needed to heed their unspoken urging.
“Very well, bring me my wedding dress. But be quick! All the carts are loaded and we are ready to leave!”
My mother was waiting for me in the Alhambra, in the cool green garden of the Court of Myrtles, sitting on a marble bench in the shade of a tall palm. Fountains plashed nearby, their waters sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. From the city spread out below us, in the distance, came the first sound of the call to prayer—for Granada was home to many Moors and despite my parents’ warmaking, not all of them had yet become converts to the Christian faith.
“Ah! Catalina! My angel!”
Seeing me dressed in my wedding gown so overwhelmed my dear mother that tears came into her eyes, and she held out her arms to me.
We embraced—awkwardly, for the gown’s wide sleeves were an obstacle—and it was a moment or two before either of us could speak.
“You are so beautiful, little bride,” she said, her voice tender. “How I wish I could be with you on your wedding day.”
“Why not come with me then, not just to La Coruña but all the way to England?”
She shook her head slowly, sadness in her eyes. I saw then how pale she was, her face lined and drawn. I remembered that she was old, at least fifty years old, though no one at court ever mentioned her age in her presence. She could still ride, and walk briskly enough through the palace gardens. But she coughed ceaselessly during the winter, and her once vivid red-brown hair had long since gone gray.
“If only I could. I have waited as long as I dared to make this hard decision. Dr. Carriazo tells me I must rest, I am not strong enough for the rigors of traveling. I am often unwell,” she went on, “I am overcome at times by dizziness. If I ride in a swaying litter I feel ill.”
Church bells rang, we heard them as we sat side by side in the midst of the lush green garden. Suddenly I realized that I would have to say goodbye, not only to mother, but to the Alhambra, the lovely enclave of palaces I had come to know so well, with their brilliantly colored tiles and intricately carved ceilings, their mosaics and marble columns. This place where we had spent the past few years, the closest thing I had ever known to a home. Where would I ever find such loveliness again? How could I bear to leave it?
“I did not want to trouble you by telling you this earlier,” mother was saying. “I hoped my weakness would pass. Instead I am growing weaker. Losing Juan was hard, so very hard. Then I lost my Isabella—”
She could not go on. My oldest sister, mother’s namesake Isabella, had died three years earlier. Though she was much older than I was, nearly fifteen years older, I too mourned her passing and often pondered her fate.
Isabella had been sent away to Portugal to marry Prince Alfonso, who was the heir to his father’s throne. But the prince had died very soon after the wedding, and Isabella’s grief went on for years. I remembered her as a mournful, veiled recluse, living at our court but shut away from the world like a nun, growing thinner and more melancholy year after year. In her widowhood she had languished, until our father ordered her to marry again. Her new husband was Prince Alfonso’s cousin Manuel.
Yet once again fate turned against her—or, as the archbishop preferred to say, she was punished for her sins, though what those sins may have been I had no idea, for she was a grave and thoughtful woman, not at all inclined to vice or folly. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Within days she was dead of the terrible sickness that so often afflicts mothers as soon as their babies are born, and her little boy died too.
It was no wonder mother was ill. She carried a heavy burden in her heart, especially since my other two sisters, Juana and Maria, had gone away, Juana to her husband’s court in Burgundy and Maria to Portugal. I was the only one of her children left—and now I too was about to depart. It might well be, I thought with a pang, that we would never see each other again.
I did my best to recover my composure.
“The physician is right,” I told mother. “You need to rest, not to be jounced along on dusty roads. It is best that you stay here. I will miss your company, and think of you every hour.”
“We will pray for one another,” she promised, giving me one last kiss and managing to smile. “I know you will be brave, Catalina, and make me proud.”
“I will make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Compostela for you, and pray to the saint to make you well again.”
* * *
It was not long before I discovered that there was another reason, besides her illness, that had made mother decide not to travel with me.
We had hardly begun our journey when a very angry, red-faced Doña Elvira brought me news.
“That woman!” she sputtered. “He’s made that woman head of your traveling household!”
I was in no mood to be confronted with yet another trouble. I missed my mother terribly and Doña Elvira could be tiresome when in one of her moods. Still, in as calm a voice as I could manage, I said, “What woman?”
Instead of answering me directly, Doña Elvira cocked her head in the direction of a cluster of carts. I heard shouting, and saw that the entire traveling party had come to a halt.
“Tell the Count de Cabra to come to me,” I said to Doña Elvira. The count was in command of my escort, seventy knights and archers.
Looking flustered, Doña Elvira made me the briefest of bows and went in search of the commander. Before long he came riding toward us, proud and erect on his splendid mount, his crimson velvet doublet and feathered cap dusty from the road. He had been a valiant fighter in the wars against the Moors, his reputation for bravery was unmatched, so mother always said. But he was an old man. At that moment, a very impatient old man.
The shouting and commotion was growing louder.
The count rode up, dismounted with the agility of a much younger man, and threw up his hands in a gesture of exasperation.
“Infanta Catalina, she is insisting on having her own escort! She says the king your father has appointed her to be head of your traveling household, and that she has his permission to do anything she likes.”
“Who says this?”
“The Lady Aldonza Ruiz de Iborre y Alemany!”
At once I understood why my mother, ill and weak as she was, had chosen not to travel with me. She did not want to contend with the Lady Aldonza, my father’s mistress and the most imperious woman at our court.
“Bring her to me at once.”
“But Infanta, she will not come.”
“Then she must be forced. Bring her at once!”
“Yes, Infanta.” He squared his shoulders, bowed to me, and prepared to do his duty—though I could see how crestfallen he was.
When at last Doña Aldonza, carried in her gold-trimmed litter, emerged from its curtains and stood before me, her dissatisfaction was plain to see. She stood, tall and proud, as aloof in her ripe beauty as she was imperious, looking down at me. Her slight bow and small, forced smile did nothing to soften the severity of her expression. She lifted one eyebrow critically as she waited for me to speak to her.
I took my time, as I had seen my mother do when faced with an overbearing nobleman or, more rarely, noblewoman.
“Doña Aldonza,” I said presently, “let it be understood that Doña Elvira Manuel is head of my traveling household, and will remain so.”
Doña Aldonza drew herself up to her full height.
“That is not your father’s wish.”
“Then let him convey his wish directly to me. Until he does, Doña Elvira will retain her post.”
Doña Aldonza made a huffing sound. A sound of contempt.
“You will obey my wishes in this, or you will be placed under guard, and sent back to Granada.”
For a moment I thought she would defy me. I saw a flash of pure malice in her black eyes. Instead, she drew from a pocket of her gown a folded document, which she proceeded to unfold. She handed it to me. I saw that it bore the royal seal.
“What is this?”
She did not answer, she merely continued to hold the document out. Incensed by her rudeness, but curious nonetheless, I took it from her. I unfolded it further and began to read.
“Be it known that my beloved daughter Maria Juana Ruiz de Iborre y Alemany, who is also the daughter of Doña Aldonza Ruiz de Iborre y Alemany, is appointed principal maid of honor to the Infanta Catalina. She is to accompany the Infanta Catalina to England, to serve her there. It is my wish that a man of due rank and fortune be found in England who will become her husband. The Infanta Catalina will provide a suitable dowry.”
The document was signed with my father’s familiar signature, and beneath it his secretary had written his titles and the date—which was the day of my departure, May the twenty-first, in the Year of Our Lord 1501.
Try as I might, I could not hide my astonishment. I knew that Doña Aldonza was my father’s mistress, and had been for many years. It was whispered that she had borne his children, though at our Catholic court no one was permitted to say such things aloud, and I knew nothing of these whispered children, and had certainly never seen any of them.
Before I could react or speak, Doña Aldonza was walking rapidly toward her litter. With a flourish she pulled open the curtains and drew out a girl. A girl who looked to be about my own age.
She was dark, slim, with a supple, seductive body and masses of deep brown curling hair that flowed from under her cap. She had her mother’s height, and as Doña Aldonza took her by the hand and led her toward me I could see that she had more than a little of her mother’s acid manner as well.
I am a king’s daughter too, her dull brown eyes seemed to be saying. I am your equal, whatever you may think.
She is indeed my father’s daughter, I thought to myself. She has his eyes, set close together. His broad, fleshy cheeks. Even his full red lips. And she has her mother’s beauty and sensuality. No, I cannot doubt that she carries the blood of the royal house of Trastamara. But she is no infanta.
I looked from Maria Juana to Doña Aldonza and back again. I had seen a gleam of triumph in Doña Aldonza’s eyes, and the slight smile that crossed her lips. She thinks she has won, I said to myself. Aloud I said, “I will honor my father’s wishes. The Infanta of Spain can do no less.”
Copyright © 2013 by Carolly Erickson