Maria de Salinas is one of my favorite people of the Tudor era because few people of any time period have ever shown the unswerving and selfless friendship she was capable of. Maria was Katherina of Aragon’s loyal friend until the last moments of the queen’s life. When Katherina was at the point of death, abandoned by the husband she loved and isolated in a de facto prison, Maria braved the wrath of King Henry VIII and rushed to the queen’s side so that her friend would not pass away uncomforted.
Maria had long before proven her worth as a companion. She had stood by Katherina of Aragon during the princess’s widowhood for the several years of penury and doubt before Katherina’s marriage to Henry VIII. Once Katherina was the queen, Maria married William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, but remained at court as a lady in waiting. She had only been separated from her queen by royal command: when Henry cast Katherina from court and sent her to the Kimbolton manor house, the king forbade Maria to go with her. To ignore such an edict could be considered treasonous, and carry the penalty of death.
Nevertheless, when the Christmas of 1535 brought Maria news that her oldest and dearest friend was profoundly ill, she desperately petitioned the king to be allowed to go Katherina’s side. He absolutely refused to allow Maria to see Katherina. As far as Henry was concerned, his former wife and the mother of his oldest daughter could die alone as suitable punishment for thwarting his will. Maria could only hope and pray that her friend would recover and was being treated well. Maybe the illness wasn’t as dire as reported?
Maria’s hopes were dashed when she received word that Katherina was on death’s doorstep. Her friend was dying but to defy the king could be death for her as well. What could she do?
I’ll tell you what she could do – prove she had metaphorical testicles the size of church bells and the loyalty of a Hufflepuff.
Maria bit her thumb at the king and rode hell-for-leather for Katherina’s gilded cage at Kimbolton. Although Maria was in her mid-to-late 40s, and thus would have been considered an elderly woman in the Tudor era, she rode sixty miles through the dark of night in freezing weather on to reach her friend. At some point in her journey she was thrown from her horse, but having already demonstrated her spine was made of steel and thus unbreakable, Maria was undeterred by her tumble and rode onward.
The dauntless Lady Willoughby arrived at Kimbolton on 1 January 1536, cold, muddy, tired, and determined. As Katherina’s steward and jailer, Sir Edward Bedingfield, wrote to Thomas Cromwell to explain:
my lady Willoghby came to us upon New [Year’s Day], about six of the clock at night; with whom b[oth Mr.] Chamberlyn and I did meet, she being ill a[t ease by] reason of a fall from her horse with in a my[le]. . . . . . . and as she appeared to us in countenance . . . . . . . . . saying she thought never to have seen the Prin[cess again] by reason of such tidings as she had he[ard of her;] at which time we demanded a sigh[t of her licence] hither to repair for our discharge; w[hereunto she made] answer that it was ready to be sch[owed] . . . . . . . . would not otherwise presume”
Maria, as smart as she was dependable, had turned her riding accident to her advantage, using the the stains on her dress to convince Bedingfield, that she had ‘misplaced’ the papers giving her permission from the king to see Queen Katherina. She assured him that her servants would find the papers forthwith, and since she wouldn’t have dared to come without Henry VIII’s consent, could she go on inside to Katherina?
Her ploy worked. Bedingfield let her inside the house, and as he sheepishly explained to Cromwell, “since that time we never saw her, neither any letters of her licence hither to repair.”
Basically, once Maria had breached the manor, she went to Katherina’s room, locked the door, and then refused to come out again. There is no record of it, but I will bet you money that Maria also called Bedingfield names in Spanish, and advised him to kiss her Iberian butt. Bedingfield was unwilling to break down the door physically drag out a peeress (and was probably a little afraid she would tear out his heart and eat it in front of him), so could only wring his hands and moan. Maria couldn’t be winkled out of Katherina’s room with a big pin.
Therefore, Maria was there to hold Katherina in her arms when, “This 7th Jan., about 10 a.m., the Lady Dowager was annealed with the Holy ointment … and before 2 p.m. she died.”
Despite the king’s attempts to keep Katherina from any personal comfort, Maria’s courage and physical daring secured the bereft former princess of Spain some solace. It should be noted that Maria literally risked her life in multiple ways to reach her best friend in Katherina’s darkest hour. She could have easily gotten killed on the journey, and there was no guarantee Henry wouldn’t throw her in the Tower and then behead her for treason. The possibilities of death or imprisonment were trivial to Maria when compared to friendship.
Happily, Maria got away with her defiance, possibly because her daughter was married to Henry’s best friend, Charles Brandon, and they interceded for her.
Lady Willoughby lived another three years, dying in May of 1539. Legend has it that she was interred at Peterborough Cathedral with Katherine, staying by her queen’s side in death as she did in life.
Maria De Salinas also got cosmic revenge against Henry VIII for her friend’s betrayal and death. Maria’s daughter Catherine married a man named Robert Bertie after her first husband’s death, and her son from this relationship, Peregrine Bertie, 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, was an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, the deceased mother of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who will one day inherit the throne of England. Thus, it is Maria’s direct descendants, not Henry VIII’s, who will wear the crown.
It is a fitting legacy for a woman of such high courage and unshakable friendship.