Catherine of Aragon continues to fascinate readers 500 years after she became Henry VIII’s first queen. Her life was one of passion and determination, of suffering and hope, but ultimately it is a tragic love story, as circumstances conspired against her. Having lost her first husband, Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur, she endured years of ill health and penury, to make a dazzling second match in Henry VIII. There is no doubt that she was Henry’s true love, compatible with him in every respect and, for years, she presided over a majestic court as the personification of his ideal woman.
However, Catherine’s body failed her in an age when fertility was a prerequisite of political stability. When it became clear that she could no longer bear children, the king’s attention turned elsewhere, and his once chivalric devotion became resentment. Catherine’s final years were spent in lonely isolation but she never gave up her vision: she was devoted to her faith, her husband and to England, to the extent that she was prepared to be martyred for them. Banished and close to death, she wrote a final letter to her ‘most dear lord and husband’. ‘I pardon you everything… mine eyes desire you above all things.’ The fidelity of this remarkable woman never wavered.
Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife by Amy Licence is one of those incredible books that you can’t get away from. Days after you’ve finished it, your mind is still pondering the twists and turns in the incredible story that has unfolded before you. And yet, this is not a gripping novel, it’s a biography … a real-life story of one of England’s most famous queens, told in an expert, accessible fashion by one of today’s most prominent historians of women’s history.
The level of detail in this book is incredible, Amy Licence has looked into every corner of Catherine’s life-story. It paints a wonderful, vivid picture of the life of a Renaissance princess. From even before her earliest years, the author charts Catherine’s life in its entirety, giving us a complete picture of the world that surrounded the young princess from the moment she was born to the moment of her death.
Plans for Catherine’s marriage started early. As far back as the spring of 1489, Ferdinand and Isabella had received a delegation sent by Henry VII of England, seeking her as a bride for his son. That March the royal family were at the castle of Medina del Campo, a blockish red medieval fortress situated on a mound dominating the town, to hear the culmination of a year’s worth of offers and promises, conditions and stipulations, about the futures of two small children. Catherine was then three years old, a small sturdy princess with auburn hair … Her prospective husband was barely out of the cradle. Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, was the first-born child of a new dynasty, and nine months Catherine’s junior …
Not only does the author retell the events of the life of Catherine of Aragon, chronologically, but she also highlights the influences that affected her decisions and actions throughout that life. From her parents and the reconquest of Spain, through her marriage to Arthur and the lonely years following Arthur’s death, we see the events that influenced and shaped Catherine’s life as Queen of England and wife of Henry VIII.
Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife discusses the personalities and character of those who had a major effect on Catherine’s life, giving us an unprecedented, detailed view of those who surrounded her at various stages in her career as princess and queen. Catherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur is thoroughly examined, giving an insight into the relationship of this young couple, a relationship that would eventually change the course of English history. We see the good and bad of the men who were to decide Catherine’s fate, in her father, Ferdinand, and father-in-law, Henry VII, and learn of Catherine’s struggles to stay positive in the face of the two kings trying to get the best deal for themselves in Catherine’s marriage. And we see an intriguing biography of Henry VIII as he grows from being Catherine’s saviour and a magnificent Renaissance prince, to being her jailer and tormentor.
Amy Licence places Catherine’s life firmly within the Europe of the time, displaying a brilliant understanding of the Reformation, and its progress from central Europe to Henry’s court. Moreover, despite the eventual failure of the marriage, Amy Licence paints a glittering picture of the court of Henry and Catherine at its height, when this young, formidable couple were the superstars of Europe.
The most revealing part of the book is in the character of Catherine herself. The author has researched every aspect of Catherine’s life and personality, providing a portrait of a formidable woman navigating her way through a male-dominated world while trying to hold true to her deeply ingrained Catholic principles. And with this comes the realisation that it must have taken an inordinate amount of personal courage to face down Henry and his demands, and the overriding fear for her own personal safety.
Of course, the latter part of the book focuses on the divorce. I am no great fan of Catherine of Aragon and have often wondered at her stubbornness and why she was so unmovable in the face of Henry’s desperate need for an heir. Amy Licence explains Catherine’s viewpoint with absolute clarity; the reasons she stuck to her guns at the risk of her own safety and that of her daughter. The author’s theories and arguments are well though-out and incisive, giving an unprecedented insight into the mind of this amazing queen and evoking empathy in the least sympathetic of readers, I’m sure.
I have no doubt that Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife will be seen as the definitive biography of Catherine of Aragon. It is an impressive, essential complement to any Tudor library.
Amy Licence has been a teacher for over a decade. She has an MA in Medieval and Tudor Studies and has published several scholarly articles on the Tudors. She is an author and historian of women’s lives in the medieval and Tudor period.
©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.