BLURB: “A Spanish Princess. Raised to be modest, obedient, and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection. Katherine of Aragon, the first of Henry’s Queens. Her story.”
REVIEW: This is the first in what will eventually be a full series of six novels, all penned by Alison Weir and each novel focusing on one of Henry VIII’s six wives. As a huge fan of Weir I have been eagerly anticipating the beginning of this series, and was even lucky enough to attend the book launch for this first novel at Foyles bookshop in central London, where I had my copy signed by Weir herself. Weir is clearly fond of Katherine as a historical figure, and even named her daughter after her, and this allows her to portray Katherine with the empathy that she deserves as a woman of rare bravery, dignity and faith even in the most terrifying of situations. As an avid admirer of Anne Boleyn – I recently wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed in religious texts during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – many people might expect me to dislike Katherine, or at the very least feel indifferent towards her.
Yet, I have always admired Katherine for the qualities I have just mentioned and for many more, and I enjoyed this book all the more because Weir allowed these qualities of Katherine’s to shine through. Katherine was not a weak and feeble woman who stepped meekly aside when Henry grew tired of her; she was an intelligent, passionate woman who fought fiercely for the rights of herself and her daughter Mary even once she was no longer the King’s wife, and all the while was gracious and warm to those around her, keeping true to her deep Christian faith.
The novel begins with the final part of Katherine’s – then known as Catalina – journey, and her arrival in England to wed the young Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne. But as we all know, Arthur was not destined to become King; frail and unhealthy, Arthur died shortly after the marriage and Katherine was left adrift in England for many years before her marriage to the then young, handsome and athletic Henry VIII.
Although there has been much debate surrounding whether or not Arthur and Katherine’s marriage was consummated, as was claimed by Henry during the divorce proceedings, Weir puts forward the idea, based on new and carefully evaluated evidence, that it was not so as Arthur was feared too unwell to perform – something I have always felt was highly likely.The rest of Katherine’s story, however, is much better known; years of failed pregnancies, the horror of the divorce and her replacement by Anne Boleyn, her separation from her daughter and years spent being moved from pillar to post until her death in 1536.
Yet what is spoken of somewhat less, and what Weir makes a great deal of in this novel, is the love between Katherine and Henry. We all know that Katherine was devoted to her husband, but what finds us less often in both historical fact and fiction is that Henry truly did love his first Queen; the need to secure the succession and the passionate love he developed for Anne eventually forced them to grow apart, but all evidence seems to suggest that for much of their marriage Katherine and Henry were happy. It is heartwarming to read something that shows this side of the relationship, though it makes it all the more heartbreaking to read of Katherine’s fall from grace, and the pain and ill health she was then to suffer. Weir truly makes the reader feel as if they know Katherine personally, and we grow very attached to her – an impressive feat to accomplish when writing about a real historical figure.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am so excited to continue to read what promises to be a fantastic and brilliantly researched series.