Friday, March 4, 2011

Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII

Author: Giles Tremlett
Publication Date: 2010
Cost: The list price is officially $28.00, but it's available on Amazon for $18.48. It is not currently available as either a paperback or a Kindle edition.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the library when I was going through the newest biographies.

The Backstory:

Poor Catherine. The tragedy of Catherine's story is often played up in movies, television dramas, novels, and biographies. Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first wife, and after nearly 20 years of marriage Henry mercilessly cast her aside for the company of another woman. Catherine refused to submit to Henry's wishes under such scandalous circumstances. She was sent to successively more and more distant houses, her daughter Mary was separated from her, and she was kept nearly under lock and key at the time of her death in 1536. Despite bullying by many of Henry's chief advisers, she steadfastly held on to the identity Henry had previously bestowed upon her--queen of England and Henry's only legitimate wife.

Catherine was the youngest child of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile--joint monarchs of what is most of Spain today. She was born in 1485 famously while her parents were on campaign against the Moors. Her childhood in Spain was a nomadic one, her family wandering between various forts and castles. By the time Catherine was three years old, she was betrothed to Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII of England. Both Catherine's parents and Henry VII had something to gain from this alliance--their common enemy was France, and the union of England and Spain would lock France between two potentially hostile nations, curbing France's ambitions in English and Spanish territories. There was no formal time set for Catherine's delivery to England, but preparations were underway when she was between 14 and 15 years old. After a safe delivery to England in 1501, she was married to Arthur on November 14. Henry VII was pleased with his new daughter-in-law, and Arthur and Catherine were sent to Ludlow Castle in Wales, the traditional governing seat of the Prince of Wales.

Tragedy struck on April 2, 1502; Arthur died. What would become of Catherine? In order to retain the portion of her dowry already delivered, Henry VII was determined to keep her in England as a prospective bride for his second son and new heir, Henry. However, Catherine's position and future prospects remained in limbo for the rest of Henry VII's life. For seven years, Catherine relied upon either her own plate and jewelry or what sporadically granted funds Henry VII gave her to pay for her household. On June 11, 1509, the new young king, Henry, rescued Catherine, the damsel in distress, and married her quietly. Catherine's future finally seemed secure.

Nearly 20 years later, enter Anne Boleyn. Whether she was interested in replacing Catherine by Henry's side from the beginning or gradually worked up to that goal is a mystery, but what is clear is that Henry wanted Anne and devised a way to make her his. Henry was a very bright man, and when he applied himself, he could reason out even the most challenging of his studies. Always interested in the Bible, Henry believed he could use his extensive knowledge of scripture to his advantage. Didn't the Bible expressly state that a man should not marry his brother's wife? Isn't that exactly what Henry had done when marrying Catherine? Henry envisioned a quick assessment and decision in his favor on this seemingly indisputable point.

He couldn't have imagined anything farther from the truth.

Catherine knew who she was. She never forgot it. And she made sure Henry didn't, either. Catherine was the daughter of the most powerful pair of Spanish monarchs in the entire history of the fragmented nation. She was also the aunt of (arguably) the most powerful ruler on the Continent, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Catherine had turned a blind eye to Henry's various dalliances with ladies of the court--her mother had filled a similar role. However, it was entirely another thing to be cast aside for the daughter of a minor English noble family simply because Henry was infatuated with her. From Catherine's point of view, it didn't matter what Henry wanted--she was his wife, whether he was happy about that or not. On the other hand, from Henry's perspective, what Henry wanted was all that mattered. Henry wanted Anne, and he may not have been aware of the lengths he had to go to get her, but he certainly went the distance.

Catherine refused to be intimidated. Her marriage was put on trial in England, and, save one initial appearance, she refused to submit to the court's authority. The central question was whether she had been Arthur's wife in the fullest sense of the term. Catherine asserted, over and over, that Arthur had left her a virgin. Henry did the best he could to provide evidence to the contrary. Tired of waiting for the Catholic Church to decide, Henry took successful steps to place himself as head of the English church and banished Catherine to several houses gradually more and more distant from London. Catherine refused to give in, and Henry was hesitant to exact vengeance on her through more than the reduction of her household and her being constantly watched.

On January 7, 1536, Catherine died. She knew mortality was creeping upon her and called for a confessor and extreme unction a day in advance. An autopsy after her death revealed a blackened heart with an additional mass attached to it--a secondary melanotic sarcoma was probably the cause, although poison was assumed at the time. She was buried at Peterborough Abbey the same month. Although Henry and Anne received the news of Catherine's death joyfully, by the late spring, Anne was accused of adultery and executed only 19 weeks later.

Henry VIII may be famous for his six wives, but Catherine of Aragon lasted the longest by leaps and bounds. The collective duration of Henry's subsequent five marriages barely make up half of his time married to Catherine. Even Thomas Cromwell, the shady confidante and later chancellor, respected her resolve. Perhaps this is what kept her from the executions suffered by two of Henry's later wives and countless others besides? One will never know, but what is true is that Catherine may have been Henry's most worthy, and most formidable, opponent.

What About the Book?

Giles Tremlett has composed a very modern, and very readable, biography of Catherine of Aragon. The story is compelling, which even the best biographies rarely are, and he truly attempts to capture the many significant events of Catherine's life from her perspective. Tremlett begins each chapter with an episode--a date and a place--and he uses this to engage the reader, which is a very effective technique. However, this biography is "history lite"--Tremlett goes into minimal detail about Catherine and her life, and this is reflected by the very sparse chapter notes at the end of the book. He also insinuates that his exploration of the Spanish archives on this topic revealed far more than it apparently did.

Tremlett does deliver a biography of Catherine that gives an overview of her life. He includes a fairly descriptive examination of Catherine's life in Spain before she left to marry Arthur. The characters of Catherine's parents become more defined under his lens. He also spends a good deal of time discussing Catherine's life in England after Arthur's death, and this period of her life is often glossed over as an intermission between Catherine's two marriages. The third main focus of the biography is Henry's decision to seek an annulment and marry Anne Boleyn, and this is the best example of his telling the story from Catherine's distinct point of view. Although it is tempting to place Catherine in the larger, imagination-exciting story of Anne Boleyn, Tremlett avoids this temptation completely, which is very admirable.

The main issue is that Tremlett is not a historian. Tremlett may know a good story when he sees one--and Catherine's IS a good story--but he is not the well-versed researcher, and this shows through. His dates and events at the heading of each chapter are meant to grab the reader, and they do, but the chapters are short and lack in-depth analysis. He also examined the Spanish archives for information about Catherine, and although he claims this was particularly enlightening, an examination of the biography reveals something different--this research naturally features prominently at the beginning of the biography, but, when it comes to exploring the extend of Catherine's relationship with Arthur, he has to admit that the depositions acquired from Catherine's Spanish retinue have been lost.

Tremlett's ideas also lack development. He avoids passing judgement on Catherine's relationship with Arthur, and only poses the often suggested theory that Catherine was willing to lie when she had to, so it is possible that she did consummate her first marriage. However, he touches upon, and then entirely misses, two important points. First, it was nearly completely irrelevant whether or not Catherine consummated her relationship with Arthur--there were papal dispensations legitimizing her marriage to Henry and Henry fabricated the whole argument because he was going to find a way to end his marriage to Catherine no matter what the case. Second, because Henry created this argument to release him from Catherine, it wasn't as nearly as important as historians assume that he didn't have a male heir by Catherine. What mattered was Anne--a male heir would be great, and perhaps became increasingly more significant over time, but it wasn't the main purpose. Tremlett touches upon these premises, and had they formed the basis of a thesis for his book, this would have been a much stronger biography.

Rating: A 7, but a solid 7.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it if you can. At this point, the hardcover really isn't worth the cost. The paperback may be depending upon the price when it comes out. Although this is an interesting read, this book is not going to become a reference book--you'll have to rely upon Mattingly's biography of Catherine or Starkey's work for that.


Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandes c. 1497.

Arthur Tudor, a later copy of the only known contemporary portrait c. 1500-1501.

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout

1 comment:

from Alicia M B Ballard's Studio said...

Talking about "finding a way out"