Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is the first in a series of novels about the wives of Henry VIII. We meet Katherine in 1501 when she is still Catalina. She’s on a ship just off the coast of England, on her way to marry Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, and unite England and Spain.
She made herself dwell on Prince Arthur. All her life she had thought of him as her husband, yet they had not been married by proxy until two years ago, and then again last year, just to make sure the alliance was watertight. Now King Henry was planning a state reception and wedding of such magnificence as had never been seen in England, even though her parents had urged that he outlay only moderate expense, for they did not want their daughter to be the cause of any loss to her adoptive realm. But the King had insisted, and Katherine guessed why. He had pursued this marriage to seal his sovereignty, for he was king by right of conquest only, and needed the reflected glory of mighty Spain to legitimise his title.
When Katherine lands there are issues over cultural differences regarding when and where Katherine should be seen by male members of the English court. King Henry insults her to her maid, Doña Elvira, but Katherine sides with the King and puts a stop to Doña Elvira’s resistance. It’s the beginning of a story which will highlight the power of the king and the male courtiers and the futility of being a woman.
Prince Henry enters the tale the morning after Katherine arrives in England and sees Prince Arthur for the first time. He comes, with the Duke of Buckingham, to escort her to Lambeth Palace.
Where Arthur was pale and thin, his brother was stocky and blooming with health; even kneeling he exuded vitality and self-assurance. There was no doubting that this was a prince.
She asked them to rise, noticing that Prince Henry’s gown was a splendid scarlet furred with ermine, and that he was grinning broadly at her, the bold imp!
He was a handsome boy with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realise how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!
As we know, Katherine and Arthur’s marriage is short-lived and apparently unconsummated. Soon, Katherine is embroiled in a waiting game while political manoeuvres that decide whether or not she marries Henry are played out.
Katherine’s story is one of politics in which, as a woman who suffers multiple miscarriages, still births and infant deaths, she is practically powerless. Weir portrays her as an intelligent woman, deeply in love with Henry and understanding of the role she is expected to play. In some ways she’s very modern, wanting an education for her daughter, Mary, and challenging primogeniture. (It’s interesting to note that this law wasn’t overturned in the UK until 2011.) In others, she’s very much the dutiful wife, servant of the King and strictly ruled by the Catholic church. It is only when Henry begins to part ways with the church that Katherine challenges him, showing that she is his wife and ‘true queen’ in the eyes of God.
Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is a box-set of a novel. There’s a huge cast of characters, drama aplenty, and a span of thirty-five years. Weir wears her research lightly, using it to paint detail in settings and characters while knowing which events to focus on in a given year. If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Sunday night dramas this is your bookish equivalent.
Alison Weir appears at Jersey Opera House at 4pm, Saturday 1st of October, 2016. Tickets are available here.