As a child I was fascinated by the story of Anne Boleyn, and her tragic end. Now that I’m older my sympathies have transferred to her rival, Katherine of Aragon, whose integrity and faith were exemplary. It seems that Alison Weir, who has subtitled her novel ‘The True Queen’ shares my sympathy.
Weir is one of the best-selling historians in the UK (the top-selling female historian according to her twitter bio), and my book shelves are groaning under the weight of her works on the Tudors, so you can imagine my excitement on learning that she was writing a series of historical novels about Henry VIII’s wives.
I suspect Katherine’s story is well-known, but I’ll revisit it for those to whom it may not be familiar. The youngest daughter of the Most Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, she traveled to England to form a marriage of alliance with Prince Arthur Tudor, who died within months of their wedding. Katherine led an uncertain and impoverished existence for the rest of Henry VII’s reign, as he and her father wrangled over her dowry, and whether she would marry the new heir, the future Henry VIII.
On attaining the throne, Henry claimed his bride, and Katherine was Queen over the early, golden years of Henry’s reign. Later, with the succession doubtful, and Henry enamoured of Anne Boleyn, Katherine found the legality of her marriage under question, and her future once again in the hands of rival monarchs striving to maintain their power. Katherine would assert to her dying day that her marriage was legal, and that she was the true queen.
As Katherine’s story tends to be overshadowed by that of the fascinating Anne Boleyn, or of the men who fought the religious battles that her case provoked, it is a real pleasure to read something that allows her to speak for herself. That said, I found the early chapters heavy on exposition, and backstory; they read like they had been written by a historian. It wasn’t until Katherine became Queen that I began to engage with her. Weir’s handling of the effect of the continued losses of her children on Katherine takes us beneath the Court formality to the woman within, and, as we mourn the losses, we empathise with the desperate search for answers to why this is happening to her. The staunch faith shown in these testing moments does much to prepare us for Katherine’s defiant tenacity when Henry seeks to divorce her. The reader is limited to Katherine’s point of view, so the tension mounts once she is sent away from Court, and gradually isolated from her friends. We experience the same desperation to learn what will become of her. This is remarkably effective, given the majority of readers will know how the story ends.
Weir has provoked such partisan sympathy in me, that I’m not sure how I’ll take to Anne Boleyn, whose story will be published next year. Both she and Jane Seymour appeared in this novel (the latter only briefly), and are viewed from Katherine’s perspective. As their stories overlap it will be interesting to revisit their scenes with fresh eyes.
The hardback copy of this novel is weighty, which may seem off-putting to some, but rest assured that it is very readable. I think that these novels will prove a wonderful introduction for those who don’t much like reading history, while offering a fresh perspective to those of us who can’t get enough of the Tudors.