If you firmly believed that there was nothing left to write about those terrible Tudors, think again…
Historian Alison Weir has again donned her now familiar fiction hat to bring us the first of what promises to be a groundbreaking sequence of six novels about the six wives of Henry VIII.
Using her own vast historical knowledge and some fascinating new research, Weir’s opening foray into the life of Katherine of Aragon presents Henry’s first and most enduring marriage from a refreshingly new and utterly gripping perspective.
This is the Spanish-born princess and English queen as we have never before seen her… a woman of principle, powerful purpose and piety living through her own times, battling for survival in a stunningly authentic 16th century world and negotiating the perilous politics of Henry’s poisonous court.
Katherine’s voice comes to us on a uniquely intimate level… not just through the author’s informed imagination but through the queen’s own many personal letters which are surprisingly explicit about her hopes and feelings as well as her everyday life.
By using Katherine’s own words, Weir allows us to follow the well-trodden journey of the queen’s life as she saw it rather than through the prism of dry historical records or far-fetched fiction.
We meet the future queen as 16-year-old Catalina, Spanish Infanta and daughter of the powerful Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, as she sails to Plymouth under her new title Katherine, Princess of Wales, to begin married life with Prince Arthur, eldest son and heir of Henry VII, England’s first Tudor king.
Troubled by Henry’s exhortation that his new daughter-in-law should ‘forget Spain,’ Katherine is still determined to be a ‘good Englishwoman’ and provide her husband with the male heirs he will need to keep the Tudor dynasty alive.
But Arthur is already frail and sick and within months of their unconsummated marriage, he dies, leaving Katherine at the mercy of the tight-fisted, cold and uncompromising king who has pledged her a new marriage to his second son Prince Henry but prevaricates endlessly over setting a date.
Left virtually penniless and in limbo for seven years, it is only when King Henry dies that Katherine can finally fulfil her destiny as Henry VIII’s queen. Henry, strong, handsome, ambitious and six years younger than Katherine, is bowled over by his wife-to-be.
‘My heart is yours, and always has been,’ he tells his brother’s widow. ‘You are my true love. I want no other.’
And for over 20 years, their marriage is a success with Katherine proving a dedicated wife and capable consort but as pregnancy and after pregnancy fails and Katherine becomes worn down by misery, Henry’s already unreliable gaze starts to look to a wife who could give him a son…For Weir, Katherine was the last truly medieval queen and very far removed from the
feminist view of her as ‘an anachronism in an age of revolutionary change.’ She was, says Weir, a woman of high principle, moral courage and integrity who deserves to be celebrated as ‘one of the greatest and most loved queens of England.’
The past is indeed a foreign country to us now and Weir could pay no greater tribute to this remarkable queen than to present her not as a saint or an obedient drudge but as flesh-and-blood 16th century woman of royal blood… flawed and fallible but innately loyal, honest, faithful and loving.
Reading this beautiful, affecting rendering of her life, one cannot help but weep for the tragic Katherine who was very much a victim of her times, her miscarriages and her royal role.
Even Thomas Cromwell, that arch statesman and schemer, said of Henry’s first wife, ‘Nature wronged her in not making her a man. But for her sex, she would have surpassed all the heroes of history.’
At long last, Alison Weir has given us a seductively credible and intelligent portrait of an accomplished queen and an extraordinarily intriguing woman, too often sidelined by history and too often eclipsed by the dramas of Anne Boleyn.
(Headline, hardback, £18.99)