We all hope for a friend who will stick with us to the very end. Catherine of Aragon did not have much luck in her life, but she was lucky enough to have a friend who was loyal through the best and worst of times. Maria de Salinas Willoughby proved to be a selfless and true confidant to the unlucky queen, and a better friend than most of us could ever hope to have or be.
Maria de Salinas was sent from Spain as a lady in waiting Princess Catherine, after she had been widowed. This was a second wave of Spanish attendants sent to England as a pledge of good faith after the death of Prince Arthur, Catherine’s husband of a few months. Plans were under way to marry Catherine to Prince Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, and this was the Catholic Monarchs showing their support of this plan. Not much is known about Maria’s family in Spain. There is a strong possibility there was Jewish ancestry in Maria’s family, and that is one reason why it may have been hushed up. Garcia Carraffa’s “Enciclopedia Heraldica y Genealogica Hispano-Americana” states that Juan Garcia de Salinas married Maria Perez de Santa Maria. The Santa Maria family used to be the ha-Levi family, but changed their name in 1391 when they converted from Judaism to Christianity in honor of their relationship with the Virgin Mary. “The Complete Peerage” (Vol. XII/2, page 671) states Maria was the daughter of one of the de Salinas brother’s, Juan or Martin. This would make her either the daughter of a converso family or the niece of a converso.
The plans to marry Catherine to Henry fell apart after the death of Isabella of Spain. This divided the United kingdoms of Spain as her daughter Juana was her heiress not her husband, Ferdinand. Catherine’s position was far less desirable and Henry VII cast about for a more advantageous match for his heir. Catherine was now used as a pawn between her father and future father-in-law over her station and dowry. The princess lived in poverty and uncertainty. Maria stayed and served Catherine loyalty through the seven year purgatory. For her service, Maria was rewarded with a position at court once Catherine married the newly crowned Henry VIII and became queen. Despite the false friendships and treachery at court, Catherine could always trust Maria to have her best interest at heart. Often, Maria advised Catherine against the wishes of her father, Ferdinand, who expected Catherine to put Spain first instead of England.
In 1516, Maria married William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Ersby, but remained at court to wait on the queen as her lady in waiting. Both women lost children in childbed and consoled each other through what must be the worst sorrow. Maria became a widow in 1526, and then was embroiled in a legal dispute over her inheritance with her brother-in-law. Her friend, the queen, could not help her because she was involved in troubles of her own. By this time, Henry’s affection for Catherine had wavered and he was actively trying to have their marriage annulled. Maria could have forsaken her friend and appealed to the king to rule in her favor against her brother-in-law, but she never did. She remained steadfast to Catherine and her cause.
She watched her friend lose the love of her husband, her position, her fortune and even access to her own daughter in the face of Henry’s wrath. Catherine was exiled to Kimbolton, away from court her friends and not allowed to see anyone. Catherine’s daughter, Mary, had been proclaimed a bastard and now her rival’s daughter, Elizabeth, was the heir to the throne. She had fallen very low indeed. There were persistent rumors of Catherine’s illness as well as attempts to poison her from her enemies at court. Maria must have been extremely worried for her close friend. They had not seen each other for a long time as Catherine was cut off by royal edict, and to go against such a command could be considered treason, which was punishable by death.
By Christmas 1535, Catherine’s health was failing. Rumors came to court that she was on her deathbed. Maria went to Henry and begged him to allow her to see her friend before she died. Henry refused. Catherine’s punishment was to die alone. Not if Maria could help it. In the cold new year of 1546, Maria saddled up her horse and rode for Kimbleton in the snow. This was a nearly 60 mile journey from London and Maria was not a young woman by the standards of the day. At one point, Maria was thrown from her horse, but she did not let that bother her. She just remounted and kept going and arrived at Kimbolton on January 6, 1536. Catherine’s keeper, Sir Edward Bedingfield, had orders from the king that no one was to see Catherine. Maria lied and said she had “lost” the paperwork allowing her to see Catherine, and argued he could not be so ungallant as to refuse a lady shelter in the dead of winter. Whether Bedingfield really bought this ruse or now is not known, but he did let Maria into the manor house. Once inside, Maria made straight for Catherine’s room and slammed and locked the door behind her. Bedingfield was beside himself, but since Maria was a peer of the realm as well as a lady all he could really do is wring his hands at the door. A day later, with her only true friend holding her, Catherine took her last breath. Maria took charge of the funeral and ensured it was fit for a queen, and made sure her daughter, Catherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk and second wife of Charles Brandon, was there as a mourner. Maria herself died not long after in May 1539. Legend has it she was interred in Peterborough Cathedral next to the queen she served so well in life.
Maria was a loyal and true friend. Her insistence on being with Catherine at her last hour was unbelievably brave as she could have been killed on the journey or faced Henry’s wrath afterwards. It is thought her son-in-law, Charles Brandon, who was Henry’s close friend, probably spared her some of his wrath. However, she could not have known that. She was willing to face death on the road or on the headsman’s block for the queen. In the end, Maria does get a victory over Henry. The Tudor line ended and passed into the Stuarts. One of Maria’s descendants was Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. Maria’s descendants will sit on the English throne not Henry’s. I hope she and Catherine are somewhere smiling over that.
Sources available on request