Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen (Six Tudor Queens #1), by Alison Weir

Nine stars

As she embarks on a new series, Weir pulls on much of her past research to create strong novels based on the six queens of Henry VIII. The focus of this first novel is Katherine of Aragon, who was betrothed to England’s Prince Arthur at a young age. When she arrived in England, Katherine found herself unsure of the decision negotiated by her parents, though she understood she was a pawn to forge a necessary political alliance. Upon meeting her future husband, Katherine began to sense the awkwardness of the situation, for this was a man who did not show the raw attraction or curiosity she was told to expect. Her marriage to Prince Arthur became one of a friendship rather than an amorous connection, as Weir supports in numerous instances. Additionally, the controversial ‘non-consummation’ of their wedding is a historical gem Weir explores in the narrative, a key piece of information that plays a central role in the latter portion of the story. When Arthur became ill and did, Katherine renewed her role as pawn, though not in the same fashion. Her hand was potentially pledged to King Henry VII, the French dauphin, and Prince Henry (the heir to the English Throne) at various points, all to secure alliances, but also to keep options open for both Spain and England. Eventually, she married Prince (now King) Henry and their union seemed full of love, especially after receiving a papal dispensation to unite. Here began the next struggle in Katherine’s life, trying to give England an heir. A number of pregnancies ended in miscarriage or death days after birth, including a few sons. When one child survived, Katherine was overjoyed with Princess Mary, though the Queen realised that she still bore the yoke of producing a male heir. Could this issue be founded in God’s displeasure with their union? When Katherine eventually succumbed to menopause, she knew that she has failed Henry, though held firm that she has done all in her power. Henry refused to show his disappointment outwardly, though plotted with his closest advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, to bring an heir to the throne. Weir does mention an illegitimate heir, from Henry’s philandering, but no son around which England could unite. Thus began the delicate shift of dissolving his marriage with Katherine so that he could turn to the young Anne Boleyn, a former lady of Queen Katherine and the new love interest of the King. As the Queen refused to admit her marriage was anything but legal and the King failed to convince her to divorce, Henry turned to Rome for the pope to invalidate it. Katherine held firm to the earlier dispensation, hoping it would save her and ensure that she and Mary would never become black marks in the English history books. Katherine was eventually pushed out of her place as Queen, even as Rome refused to recognize Henry’s wedding to Boleyn, which caused the largest of schisms and led Henry to create the Church of England to justify his actions. Vilified by her husband while being supported by the English people, Katherine fought with all she had to keep her name clear and allow Mary her rightful place as heir to the throne. Even in her dwindling years, Katherine found many who spoke in favour of her marriage and against Henry’s conniving nature to blot out their marriage, a veritable act of treason to verbalise. A masterful novel that allows English history buffs to bask in Weir’s superior writing style that flows so effortlessly, Katherine of Aragon emerges not as a saintly woman, but one of passion who held firm to her personal and religious beliefs during a tumultuous time at the English Court.

While this is considered a piece of fiction, any reader who knows their history or has devoured much of Weir’s past work will realise that it is steeped in reality. As I read, I became aware that the ‘fiction’ moniker was placed there more to validate the detailed dialogue than a shuffling of facts to create a more dramatic story. Weir lays down a powerful narrative that flows effectively throughout Katherine’s life and shows that while she was isolated from her Spanish parents, she held firm to protect herself and her daughter from Henry’s self-centred approach to life. While long and highly detailed, Weir offers the reader an insightful look into the life of this first of Henry’s six wives, perhaps the strongest advocate of them all. Weir brings Katherine of Aragon to life in this opening novel and leaves readers itching for the next instalment, sure to be filled with as much drama, bridging from the narrative peppered throughout this book. There is surely crossover material to be explored more thoroughly within the second novel, though Weir is able to secure focus on events from Katherine’s perspective. This novel offers everything the reader could expect from perusing its title, with chapters full of anecdotes woven into powerful dialogue.

Kudos, Madam Weir for this exceptional piece of writing that piques the interest of readers from all walks of life. I look forward to the next book in the collection and how you tackle the Boleyn character.