Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon – The True Queen, by Alison Weir, is the first in a series of specially commissioned books each of which will tell the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view. This first installment is a mighty six hundred pages long. Whilst being written using easily readable and accessible language it still took some time to work through. It is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, but literary licence has been taken to add emotion. This queen may have been badly used but this was the lot for noble women at the time. I struggled to warm to her, especially later in her life.
The book opens with the arrival in Plymouth of the fifteen year old Infanta Catalina, a princess of Spain. Instructed by her future father-in-law, King Henry VII, to forget Spain, she receives a rapturous welcome from the people of England, eager to catch a glimpse of their future queen. She is introduced to a sickly Arthur, Prince of Wales and her betrothed. They marry and move to Ludlow Castle where he dies.
Events in Europe at this time conspire to put Katherine’s future in jeapordy. Marriages between the children of the nobility were political and financial in nature. Daughters were required to heed the wishes of their fathers and then husbands. Katherine had been raised to comply and, despite occasional glimpses of temper, did so willingly. A devout Catholic (her parents founded the notorious Spanish Inquisition) she regarded this compliance as ordained by God.
The facts of this period of Tudor history are well known. The author focuses on evoking the life of a lady in the English Court. Through the years of waiting Katherine writes many letters begging her relatives abroad for assistance. This was all that was in her power to do and she does it continually throughout her life. When action was taken that favoured her it was because it also favoured those who acted. I wondered at the risks she sometimes took to write the letters when it seemed obvious she was rarely more than a pawn.
Henry VII dies and Katherine marries his remaining son, becoming Queen beside Henry VIII. Their marriage was happy except for the continual deaths of their newly born children. During these years the story describes the royal couple’s clothing, accommodation, food, entertainments, and their movement between grand houses. They had a vast army of servents and followers, spending lavishly and favouring their own.
Katherine was a useful and beloved queen until she reached menopause without producing a male heir. Henry had taken mistresses over the years and had at least one son whom he recognised and promoted, much to his wife’s chagrin. When it became clear that she could no longer give him a son he conspired to set her aside. He was most put out when she would not do as he asked and enter a nunnery, his strong sense of entitlement coming to the fore.
The ascendancy of Anne Boleyn, as seen through Katherine’s eyes, is of interest but I found the description of these later years overlong. Katherine was effectively a prisoner, retreating into piety and much weeping. It was hard to retain interest when little happened to her other than suffering for her intransegence. She did not seem able to understand her situation despite having lived half a century in the midst of the corruption and favouritism of the royal court.
What the author has succeeded in doing is to make me want to read the next instalment, to see how this same history will look through Anne Boleyn’s eyes. There is also mention of Jane Seymour, the Parr and Howard families. There is much to come.
Life in the sixteenth century was obviously very different to today, particularly for women, although the machinations of the wealthy demonstrates that there are also many parallels. There is only occasional mention of those outside of the nobility or church. Perhaps, as now, they were of little interest to the powerful except as war fodder or tax generators.
In some ways this telling of a well known story felt simplified despite the detail. It lacked the nuances of, say, Wolf Hall. However, the idea of looking at the same period of history through six pairs of similarly ranked female eyes is intriguing. I hope to have the opportunity to read the remaining books from the series in due course.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.