Catherine of Aragon; Sister Queens
I have always found Katherine of Aragon easy to admire but hard to like. Perhaps others have felt the same. Though she figures largely in David Starkey’s Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2004), the standard life of her was Garrett Mattingly’s fine book, now more than 60 years old. Within the last 12 months this gap has been filled by Giles Tremlett, writing exclusively about Katherine (the title of his book uses the more modern spelling, which is also closer to the Spanish original, Catalina), and Julia Fox, who tackles Henry VIII’s first wife and her sister, the less well-known Juana of Castile. Both books vividly illustrate the price paid by these women for the dynastic ambitions of their parents and the ruthlessness of 16th-century European politics.
The sisters were the daughters of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who jointly styled themselves the Catholic Monarchs. Neither Katherine nor Juana, however, seemed destined to follow their mother as queens in their own right. They were well-educated but prepared for marriage outside Spain. In a continent of shifting alliances they were diplomatic fodder. When they became wives their first duty would be to supply male heirs. Personal happiness was secondary.
Nevertheless the sisters grew up in a strong family unit, often following their redoubtable mother as she and her husband campaigned to drive the Moors out of southern Spain and to unite the country after centuries of warfare. Isabella had come by her own throne through single-minded determination and her marriage with Ferdinand demonstrated a shrewd grasp of realpolitik. Katherine, the youngest of the couple’s five children, knew from early childhood that her future lay in England. Yet, though Katherine expected to become a queen one day, it was a match less impressive than that planned for Juana, who was promised to the Habsburg archduke Philip of Burgundy, son of Maximilian, who subsequently became Holy Roman Emperor.
As was so often the case death changed the prospects of both sisters. The loss of a brother and an elder sister left Juana, queen of Castile when her mother died in 1502, an emotional woman, at the mercy of a bullying, self-indulgent husband and a manipulative father. Her fragility was used as an excuse for keeping her away from the reins of power. Her son Charles did not treat her much better and she spent much of her life confined in the castle of Tordesillas.
Katherine’s story is more familiar and both Tremlett and Fox evoke her well. The death of her young bridegroom, Prince Arthur, after just a few months of marriage, left her isolated in England. Her parents had provided a meagre dowry and Ferdinand stalled for years in its payment. Her long-awaited marriage to Henry VIII transformed her into a dignified and popular queen. It was her failure to produce a male heir (something that Juana managed without difficulty) that eventually led to the protracted divorce proceedings that would change the course of English history. During the six years between 1527 and 1533 Katherine demonstrated that she was very much her mother’s daughter. With hindsight we know that her long fight to remain Henry’s consort was in vain and the manner of that loss would have a profound effect on her only child, Mary, later to become England’s first queen regnant.
Tremlett, the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent, has dipped into Spanish source materials to broaden his view. This provides new insights and enhances our knowledge of the European dimension of Katherine’s travails. But I wish that his plentiful footnotes had been printed in the book and not confined to the Internet. Surely no one sits in front of a computer while reading a book? As a journalist he knows how to tell a good story, albeit in short episodes rather than a sustained narrative. Nor has his credibility been seriously damaged by one reviewer who described Katherine of Aragon as ‘a woman with a 21st-century mind’. This is nonsense and Tremlett makes no such claims himself.
Julia Fox is to be congratulated on bringing Juana of Castile to the attention of a wider audience and revealing her as a complex woman, whose reaction to vicissitude was in marked contrast to that of her younger sister. The lives of these two women and their impact on European history are important topics, though Fox’s exuberant writing style may not be to everybody’s taste and her brief assessment of Mary Tudor, Katherine’s daughter, surprisingly fails to reflect recent scholarship. I am sure, however, that many people will enjoy her work and Tremlett’s, too, discovering in the process that 16th-century history is about more than Henry VIII.
Linda Porter is author of Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Macmillan, 2011).
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