Katherine of Aragon | Alison Weir | 2016 (5 May) | Headline Review | 609p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1501, aged just sixteen, Princess Catalina of Spain arrives at Plymouth, on firm ground at last after days of storms at sea. With just a few servants and missing her parents, likely never to see them again, Catalina is determined to fulfil her destiny – to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII, and provide the new Tudor dynasty with a full nursery of sons. She doesn’t even retain her own name. From now on, she will be Katherine, Princess of Wales. History tells us that Katherine’s marriage was shortlived, Arthur dying just months later. His death was followed by years of limbo for Katherine, a negotiating tool between Henry VII and her Spanish parents. Yet, though her fortunes wavered through these dark years, Arthur’s young brother Henry fell in love with his lonely sister-in-law and, as soon as he could after becoming king, Henry VIII made Katherine his queen. A fairy tale ending to a dramatic story.
The marriage between Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII has always been overshadowed by Anne Boleyn but in this magnificent novel Alison Weir shows us that there is far more to the marriage than its end. These were the glory years of Henry’s court, dominated by an athletic, handsome, charismatic young king and his happy queen who loved to dance. The marriage was marred by tragedy – all those pregnancies which came to nothing but grief; one daughter, Mary, surviving. But Henry stayed in love, still writing songs for his beloved wife. Katherine never stopped loving Henry and it is that love which dominates this wonderful novel.
The novel, the first in an ambitious series to chronicle all of Henry’s marriages, queen by queen, is no romance. Historical authenticity is what matters here. Alison Weir, a well-known historian, gives us the detail of Tudor royal life. The palaces and their rooms are vividly described, the etiquette of court, the roles of the servants and nobles who kept it moving, and, increasingly, the men of power, such as Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Katherine’s position at the centre of the court is slowly marginalised as Anne Boleyn is sensed in the wings. This is a novel from Katherine’s perspective. As is so often the case, she is the last to know.
But before the novel gives us the King’s Great Matter, so fascinating and yet so clinically cold, we are shown Katherine’s earlier time of torment when she was so dependent on Henry VII for even the money to eat and dress herself. These years of Katherine’s life are so rarely looked at and yet they provide an intriguing glimpse into the character of Henry VII, a king so often overshadowed by Henry VIII, just as Katherine is so often overshadowed by Anne Boleyn. Because we’re used to seeing Katherine towards the end of her marriage to Henry, it’s easy to forget that this time was preceded by years of marriage, during which Henry established himself as King, Warrior, Renaissance Prince, and Katherine was there to support him.
Henry VIII has yet to become the monster that we’re so familiar with but, as we watch him change through the novel, it’s hard not to feel the utmost sympathy for Katherine who always believes that his love will return. But there are painful times ahead as Katherine ages and becomes ugly in the eyes of the fastidious Henry. There are some stark passages in the novel that really made me ache for Katherine, now so humiliated. The court case, the devotion between Katherine and her daughter Mary, the neglect that Mary endures because of her loyalty to her mother, this is all brought to life here and I could not have put this book down if I tried. But quite aside from Henry and Katherine we are given other strong personalities, especially Sir Thomas More – it is impossible to look away as their fates unravel.
Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor Queen demonstrates so brilliantly that there is still so much to say about these most famous queens. There was a time when I thought I was Tudored out, that I couldn’t possibly read yet another fictional account of these people, but I have been proven wrong time and time again and now by Alison Weir. I know the history of Katherine of Aragon very well and it’s so good to see her allowed her voice, which has so often been eclipsed by Anne Boleyn, in fiction and in reality. Speaking of Anne Boleyn, I cannot wait for the next novel in the series because I suspect that Anne’s voice will be unfamiliar, original, and every bit as engrossing as Katherine’s.
Katherine of Aragon, the Tudor Queen is not only very well written, compelling and meticulously researched, it is also a thing of beauty in its own right. This is a gorgeous hardback. I can’t wait to have the full series on my shelves. I can only repeat myself – this book is magnificent.