Monday, 4 July 2011

Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett

Catherine of Aragon isn't at first glance the most glamorous of Henry VIII wives, that title would surely go to Anne Boleyn? But Catherine was his first wife and was married to Henry for over 20 years, longer that all his other five wives put together. There must be more to her story than just being known as the 'one who refused to give Henry a divorce in order to let Anne get a look-in'.

Born in Spain in 1485 to parents Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (Isabella was the one that funded Christopher Columbus expedition to reach the Indies) at a very early age Catherine was betrothed to Prince Arthur (Henry's older brother) who was heir to the English throne. So throughout most of her young life Catherine was aware that one day she would leave Spain forever in order to travel to England and become Queen. Catherine did eventually make it to England and marry Arthur only for Arthur to then die shortly into their marriage.

Arthur's father Henry VII was then faced with having to pay Catherine's dowry back which he refused to do leaving Catherine in limbo (and according to the sometimes melodramatic Catherine, poverty) in a strange country. Her fate changed suddenly on the death of Henry VII when the new king Henry VIII decided to marry her fulfilling her fate as Queen of England after all....

Well I knew my Tudor history well enough to know that the marriage does not end well after Anne Boleyn makes an appearance but everything before that I was a little hazy on. Catherine's Spanish life and that of her parents contained some of the most interesting parts of the book as the Spanish royal family at that time certainly had their fair share of dramas and Queen Isabella was certainly an interesting character.

Catherine's early marriage to Henry appears to have been a very happy one. Catherine rather than being a submissive Queen was more Henry's equal than his other wives. She was the Spanish ambassador in court and she was appointed Regent when Henry went to war in France. During this time she ordered the armies resulting in Scotland's catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Flodden. But all these achievements began to pale when faced with the fact that she would never provide a male heir. Unfortunately the seemingly endless infant deaths and miscarriages took its toll on the pair of them which is where it began to fall apart.

Catherine is not portrayed as a helpless victim however, she certainly knew how to use her spies and appeal to the right people when her marriage was in danger. Stubbon and resorceful the end she stood her ground refusing Henry a divorce despite the considerable pressure she was under.

Giles Tremlett brings the characters to life and for a non-fiction book it read very quickly. It filled a few history holes for me and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Spanish sections of the book. Tremlett does not come to any conclusion about whether Catherine's marriage to Arthur was consummated but he does present the evidence taken at the time which tented to be bias. Alas there are some things we will never know.

Unfortunately there is a lack of footnotes at the back of the book so I am unable to judge how well researched it was but it made for an entertaining read, which is quite hard to come by in the world of non-fiction.

Posted by Jess


  1. Good to see Catherine of Aragon getting her own book. She certainly led an interesting life. I think many people think she was just married to Henry for a few years, but theirs was quite a long marriage.

    Too bad about the lack of footnotes. Their lack does render the book a bit suspect, doesn't it.

  2. I feel Catherine is often overlooked way too eagerly because of one Anne Boleyn. However, a woman like her, who has stood her ground for so long and suffered for it, definitely seems more than interesting.

    And let's be honest - it sure as hell wasn't easy being married to Henry VIII. :))

  3. This looks like a great book. I used to read a lot of Jean Plaidy books which delved into the history of the English monarchy with flourish. This seems similar.

  4. Just wanted to let you know I'm following you now from the Literary Blog Directory. My blog is if you want to check it out.

  5. I'm a mega Henry VIII nerd and love reading about him and his wives. This sounds really interesting, and a good interpretation of her character too.

  6. New follower here...I'm really looking forward to reading this book after your review! I know so little about her since Anne Boleyn always seems to steal the spotlight!!

  7. C.B.James - as far as I can tell the author is a well known historian and had written books on spanish history but yeah when you compare it to someone like Antonia Fraser that has footnotes on everypage it didnt strike me as great.

    Nikola - I have no idea why anyone would want to be married to him, far safer being his mistress it seems!

    Ann - it was an easy book to read so it does sound similar.

    bookwormfamily - thank you very much for the link, I will cetainly check it out.

    mummazappa - did you ever watch the Tudors? they rather diced with history but it was good fun. I'm rewatching the first season so its quite interesting now after reading this.

    Megan - Anne is interesting lets face it and as I live near the old Boylen family home I did have a interest but Catherine I think is more interesting now in her own way. oh and welcme :)