I thought I’d read enough about the Tudors, but it seems that I was wrong. Despite having read about Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, several times before, I was still able to enjoy this new fictional account of her life – the first in a planned series called Six Tudor Queens in which Alison Weir will devote one novel to each of Henry’s six wives.
Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen is a straightforward retelling of Katherine’s story, beginning in 1501 with her arrival in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The young Katherine is nervous and homesick but as the daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella she is determined to accustom herself to her new country as quickly as possible and prove herself a worthy future queen of England. Her future is thrown into doubt, however, when Arthur dies just a few months into their marriage, leaving Katherine a widow.
In 1509 – after a long period of uncertainty – Katherine marries Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who has just succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII. At first, Katherine is full of optimism; she and Henry are in love and looking forward to the birth of their first child, which they hope will be one of many. Unfortunately, the reader knows what is coming: a series of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths (a daughter, Mary, would be the only child to survive), and the breakdown of Katherine’s marriage as Henry turns his attentions to Anne Boleyn. A story which began with so much hope and happiness ends in disappointment and heartbreak, but through it all Katherine stands by her conviction that she is Henry’s lawful wife and his one true queen.
As I said above, I have read other novels which tell Katherine’s story in fictional form, but this is certainly the most detailed and the most thorough. While most books tend to concentrate on Katherine’s later years and Henry’s mission to have their marriage annulled (which came to be described as ‘the King’s Great Matter), Alison Weir spends a lot of time on the period before they were married when Katherine, as Prince Arthur’s widow, was living at the court of Henry VII. I enjoyed reading about all the intrigue taking place within Katherine’s circle as her dowry of plate and jewels becomes the centre of a power struggle between strict Spanish duennas and manipulative ambassadors.
There were times, though, when I wondered whether this book really needed to be so long and so detailed. Alison Weir is a historian who writes non-fiction as well as fiction, but this is a novel rather than a factual biography and I think there were probably things which could easily have been left out to help the story flow better. Still, because Alison Weir does write so much non-fiction, I could trust that the background to this novel would have been fully researched and I had no problems regarding accuracy. However, there are a few controversies surrounding Katherine over which historians disagree, such as the question of whether her marriage to Arthur was ever consummated (Henry used this as the basis to his claim that his own marriage to Katherine was invalid). As Katherine is the heroine of the novel, we are asked to accept her own version of events (that is, that she and Arthur never consummated their marriage) and believe that she was telling the truth.
This is not an unbiased portrayal of Katherine, then; the whole novel is written from her own perspective, so we don’t hear anyone else’s side of the story. Because Katherine falls in love with Henry early on and continues to love him no matter what, she rarely attributes any blame to him – whatever he does is always the fault of someone else: usually Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell or Anne Boleyn. It’s understandable, I suppose, that Anne Boleyn is very much the villain of Katherine’s story, but Anne will be the central focus of the second book in the series so it will be interesting to have a chance to see things from her point of view.
I thought this was an enjoyable start to a new series and I’m now looking forward to reading about the other five queens!