Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife

Sarah Gristwood on an account that aims to shed fresh light on the life of Henry VIII's first wife

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Reviewed by: Sarah Gristwood
Author: Patrick Williams
Publisher: Amberley
Price (RRP): £25

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Every dog has its day and every Tudor queen has her biography. Or, rather, biographies: Giles Tremlett’s recent Catherine of Aragon and Julia Fox’s Sister Queens, a joint biography of Katharine and Juana, have now been joined by Patrick Williams’s weighty work – less, in fact, a biography of Katharine and more a forensic analysis of some of the disputed issues of her career.

Forty years’ familiarity with the Spanish archives gives Williams the courage to march in where most biographers have feared to tread – notably into the bedroom where Katharine and her first husband, Prince Arthur, Henry VII’s short-lived eldest son, did or did not consummate their brief marriage. He offers a newly detailed interpretation of opinion at the Spanish court to suggest that Arthur’s frail health was indeed an impediment. He also demonstrates, however, that Katharine’s virginity may, in the end, have been no more important than the infinitely less familiar concept of ‘public honesty’ when it came to her remarriage to Arthur’s younger brother, the future Henry VIII. Williams embarks on an extensive exploration of the legal byways by which that much-debated marriage was first made possible and then finally overthrown.

Beyond this, the reader is offered a valuable and comprehensive analysis of the European political situation through these decades and its implications for Katharine’s marriage. Dynastic alliances were, of course, more about politics than personality. But the traitor thought does creep in that, where Henry VIII was concerned, passionately felt desires might sometimes outweigh cold practicality.

This book’s strength is also its weakness. Amid the clash of armies and the chatter of diplomacy, Katharine the woman gets largely lost along the way: she is hailed as a doughty and resourceful campaigner, but there is little detail on her life as queen, her love for Henry, her agonising last years. By the same token, the book’s layout – with subtitles such as ‘Political Structures: A Primogeniture’ – is at odds with the emotive pitch of its subtitle. But does Williams have something new to add to our knowledge of Katherine’s story? Undoubtedly.

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Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters (HarperPress, 2012)