Posted by: John Looker | 27 March, 2010


Here’s a poem about a figure from English history: Catherine of Aragon, first wife of England’s Henry VIII. It was prompted by another visit to Hever Castle where Anne Boleyn grew up, a rereading of The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser and the exhibition on Henry VIII at the British Library early in 2009.



Let us imagine her in early years,
running with a quick step and a quicker mind

out from the morning shadows
and into the astonishing sun.

When just a girl she saw Granada freed at last from the Moors,
heard Columbus plead for his ships
and grew, in that golden court,
rich in her attainments, modest in thought.

Grace and refinement from this ancient line
then sailed for a younger, and coarser, throne.

Now, nearly a lifetime later, the cold
damp mists of her adopted realm enfold
and overwhelm her. Queen and consort, mother,
wife: her closest circle conceals another,
keen to usurp her. It’s now, at the height
of her accomplishments, here in the heart
of her own household, exactly

here, where the duty owed her
and her gracious nature
should both command loyal support, precisely
here she encounters
betrayal :

the dissembling smile, the duplicitous act,
the ambition, connivance,
the hushed conversations in closed rooms
which cease
when she enters.

At first she’s unaware, ignores the signs
or disbelieves them. Doubt then undermines
her poise. At night she wakes. Miasmas creeping
from the Thames invade the room and soon, leaping
where the candle’s illumination falters,
new phantoms roam. And yet, when daylight filters
through the leaded glass, her mind is clear.

She dresses with care, instructs her staff,
reviews the coming day;
her mind’s resolved;
she will stand up, she will reach out

to husband and king,
to counsellors, ambassadors,
to higher and wider authorities:
to Pope and Emperor
and to her Maker.

This is the start of a long hard passage,
lonely and uncertain.

Does she recall the last of the Moorish princes
withdrawing his people from Al-Andalus in defeat?
Or Christóbal Colón embarking with resolute faith
of reaching directly the spices and silks of the East?
Others see only the grit and the regal control,
the passion to take the redoubt, the will to resist.

Her days will diminish in lesser houses,
far from London, remote from the court.

We may imagine her, when it is warm,
walking among the parterres
with a firm step, her eye
tracing the logic of a knot garden, her ear
alert for the rhythm of hooves, the arrival
of stalwart friends, sustained
let us surmise

by a discreet
and devoted household.

© John Stevens 2010


  1. There is much to be admired about this poem, but I am immediately taken with the word “unwooing”….a brilliant coinage to summarize the situation and a most apt expression for the sad waning of–shall we say–interest, if not affection. A wonderful, insightful portrait, John. Thank you.


  2. My wife and I have been on holiday for 2 weeks with virtually no internet, so I’ve only just found your kind remarks. As you can see, no-one has commented on this poem before although it is one of the most read and revisited.
    I remember reading somewhere that Henry VIII described his incursions into Scotland as a “rough wooing” of the Scots – which implanted the word in my mind when I came to give a title to this poem.


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