Fas­ci­nat­ing take on a real-life game of thrones

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Alison Weir Head­line Re­view, £18.99 Re­viewed by Shirley White­side

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.

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