Fascinating take on a real-life game of thrones
DIVORCED, beheaded, died/divorced, beheaded, survived, goes the familiar aidemémoire to help schoolchildren remember the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII. It is not wholly accurate because Henry had his marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves annulled, and Anne survived longer than Henry’s final wife, Katherine Parr. It does, however, highlight the continuing fascination with Henry and the six very different women he married. Alison Weir, historian and award-winning author, has set herself the task of writing a novel about each of Henry’s Queens, starting with the tragic figure of Katherine of Aragon.
Katherine is often portrayed as a sad, embittered older woman, who refused to accept the reality of how far Henry Tudor would go to have a son and heir. In Weir’s hands she is transformed into a pretty young princess and, as the daughter of the powerful King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, highly desirable for a political marriage. She speaks little English when she arrives in England, where the food, customs and even the dresses are so different from her homeland. She marries Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to Henry VII, but Arthur is a sickly young man and dies not long after they are wed. There has long been speculation as to whether Katherine and Arthur consummated their marriage, and Weir gives her own opinion in a sensitively written bedroom scene.
Katherine was an habitual letter writer, detailing not only the facts of her life in England but her feelings too. Weir has drawn upon these letters to breathe life into Katherine as a young woman, living in limbo after the death of Prince Arthur. She is optimistic, even though a disagreement over her dowry between her father and father-in-law means she and her retinue live a hand-to-mouth existence. Her clothes are shabby and food is scarce and she is forced to sell personal items to keep up appearances. Nonetheless, Katherine is very aware of her position as a princess of Spain and Weir portrays her as intelligent, loyal, and occasionally a little naive. While waiting for her future to be decided, Katherine becomes a pawn in the royal marriage game. She finds herself in and out of favour at the English court, and even considered as a wife to the recently widowed Henry VII. For seven years Katherine had to box clever, obeying her father while not offending her English hosts, and Weir presents her as a thoughtful and wise young woman. She even served as her father’s ambassador in England, which gave her a little more prestige at court than as the almost forgotten widow of Prince Arthur. Katherine was probably the first female ambassador in Europe and performed her duties with aplomb. Weir manages to untangle the complex web of 16th-century politics, shown through Katherine’s duties as ambassador, and her astute reading of the games being played. This adds greatly to the heft of the character, demonstrating what a competent woman she was becoming.
Katherine married Henry VIII in 1509, when she was 23-years-old and he is almost 18. It seems like a love match, Henry showering her with presents, poems and songs. However, Weir foreshadows Henry’s later behaviour, hinting at the storms that are to come. Once Katherine marries Henry, the details of her life are more familiar than those of her early years in England. She endures six pregnancies with only a healthy daughter, Mary, to show for her efforts. From being so trusted by Henry that he makes her regent while he is in France on a military campaign, she is pushed to the side-lines as Henry becomes infatuated with Anne Boleyn, one of her attending ladies.
Weir’s research is extensive and it adds greatly to the sense of period and place. At times the it does slow down the narrative, but it is a fascinating look at a much maligned woman.