Overview: Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen
The wives of Henry VIII intrigue me because their story is a mix of salacious scandal, religious upheaval, politics of monarchy, and familial betrayal. It’s the kind of history that has something that appeals to everyone. In high school I found an old book about Katherine of Aragon in my school’s library and picked it up thinking it would probably be boring, but was astounded as I gobbled up the story of the teenaged Spanish princess crossing an ocean to marry into the English royal family, only to have her young husband keel over and die only months into their marriage. This experience ignited my interest in Henry and his wives and through the years I’ve read fictional and nonfictional accounts of their story. Alison Weir has written nonfiction novels about the Tudors for years, so the prospect of a series of fictional accounts of Henry’s wives written by Weir sounded like absolute perfection.
Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen begins with Katherine’s trip across turbulent seas to an English fiancé she has never met. Years of uncertainty surrounding the young couple’s betrothal make it hard for Katherine to believe she’s finally on her way to becoming Prince Arthur’s bride. Her cautious joy falters when she meets the sickly prince, and fades when, despite his assurance that he’ll be better soon, her new husband’s health continues to deteriorate. Arthur can’t even consummate their marriage due to his poor health and soon dies, leaving Katherine in limbo in the English court.
Henry VII, Katherine’s father-in-law, lives up to his reputation as a miser, keeping Katherine in near poverty while trying to weasel away her dowry. Katherine and the new heir, Henry, are presumed to be betrothed but their situation is never formally confirmed. Years pass and Katherine deals with members of her household who seem to have competing motives and agendas, leaving her with few trusted friends. After years of suffering and feeling like she’s wasting away into spinsterhood, Henry VIII finally succeeds his father and declares his love for Katherine. The young couple weds and lives in marital bliss.
Of course, we know this bliss doesn’t last as Katherine’s pregnancies all end in miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, and finally, a daughter named Mary. The royal couple’s hope for an heir gradually fades until Henry’s realization that Katherine can no longer bear children pushes his already-wandering eye even further away. Henry’s determination to continue the Tudor line will change the lives of both his wife and his mistress, as well as all of England and Christianity.
Having read both fictional and nonfictional accounts of Katherine of Aragon’s life, I was interested to see how Weir would meld the two. The early chapters disappointed me because it read more like a dry nonfictional account than anything else. Weir stated that she pulled dialogue directly from letters between the historical figures in the book, and it seemed like she depended too much on these primary sources for the first section of the book. I thought about giving up but kept reading, and the divide between fiction and nonfiction became more blurred as Katherine’s story progressed.
You really feel for Katherine, who wanted nothing more than to please her loved ones, raise children, and rule over a new Camelot. Her pure intentions are met with disappointment time and time again in an era that only valued women as decorative arm pieces and brood mares. It makes you wonder what might have happened if Henry had been willing to name their daughter Mary as his heir. I mean, in the end, she sits the throne for a few years anyway. Maybe Mary’s reign wouldn’t have been quite as bloody if she hadn’t had her life threatened and her relationship with her father ruined by her stepmother Anne Boleyn.
If you like to read tawdry historical romance, this veers too much towards the nonfiction for you. If you’re looking for a fictionalized account of the Tudors that sticks to historical fact as much as possible, this is perfect for you. I can’t wait for the next book to tell us Anne Boleyn’s side of the story.
Rating: 4 out of 5 pomegranates