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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Books - Catherine of Aragon - Henry's Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett

Star rating – 8/10

It has not really ever been fashionable to linger over Catherine of Aragon for too long. Instead we all know the exciting and tragic story of Henry’s love and lust for Anne Boleyn, the wily and charming usurper of the Queen who came to a sticky end, from every other conceivable point of view via plays, novels, and history books. And the image that we usually have of Catherine is of a pious and stubborn woman who could not accept defeat to a younger, more beautiful woman. But Catherine was a much more complex and interesting character than that, and she deserves to have her story told – as Giles Tremlett has now done in fascinating detail in a new biography, which is amazingly the first dedicated biography of this woman for over 40 years.

Before coming to live in England as the fiancé of the heir to the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, she lived in the beautiful, magical Moorish heaven of the Alhambra palace in Granada. This was a far cry from cold damp austere Ludlow Castle, where she ended up with Arthur before his death after the briefest of marriages, lasting just five months.

Catherine was a pawn in a diplomatic game, both before and after her marriage to Arthur. His father, the ambitious Henry VII who was eager to cement his newly created Tudor dynasty by alliances with strong rulers in Europe such as her Spanish parents, even considered marrying her himself after the death of his wife Queen Elizabeth of York. But after years of waiting for her fate to be decided, it was to Arthur’s younger brother Henry that she was betrothed. And this was a love story, make no mistake about that, with Henry dedicating tournaments to his young, beautiful bride, and openly showing his great affection for her in public. Tremlett reveals touching details of their early marriage, (even though Henry had mistresses within a year of their marriage – the done thing at the time for a Tudor King).

Catherine was clever, strong and brave like her mother Isabella of Castile, who was a ruler in her own right. She came from a strong tradition of women rulers, and ironically gave Henry a daughter who would herself become sovereign of England, at a time when it was not considered preferable at all to have a women in such a lofty position. She was also young and innocent when she married Henry. And very popular with ordinary people, to whom she took great pains to give copious alms and attention. This would stand her in great stead in the battles to come with her errant husband.

Tremlett really brings Catherine’s character, and predicament, to life in this fascinating book. The familiar story of how she suffered the tragedy of numerous failed pregnancies and was then only able to produce a daughter, Mary, is recounted from Catherine’s point of view. She tried to stay loyal to her husband, even when he openly cavorted with Anne Boleyn and wanted Catherine to renounce her position as queen by saying that she was not a virgin when she married Henry. Obviously this would have put both Catherine’s and Mary’s positions in great jeopardy, and Catherine stubbornly refused to do so.

She had a few loyal friends, but many enemies at court, as Henry threatened all in his wake, including the pope, to get what he wanted. But in the end nearly all around Henry perished. Catherine was denied access to her beloved daughter, but at least she was not executed by him like so many others. She remained true to herself, to her daughter and her principles to the end. This book is well worth reading to discover the other side of this well told tale, and to see Catherine in a more rounded and sympathetic light

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