The familiar travails of Henry VIII’s beleaguered first wife.
The author of 14 biographies and 5 previous novels about the Tudors, Weir (The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas, 2016, etc.) brings considerable expertise to her fictional retelling of the life of Katherine of Aragon. Sent to England at the age of 16 to marry Arthur, the sickly eldest son of Henry VII, Katherine was a widow after 4 months—and, she claimed, a virgin. Henry VII did not know what to do with his Spanish daughter-in-law: after his wife died, he thought of marrying her. But she was repulsed: “I will be torn in pieces first,” she said. Much more appealing was Arthur’s brother Henry, who even as a boy of 10 had “undeniable charm.” Weir makes much of Katherine’s enduring sexual attraction for Henry, which lasted throughout their 25-year marriage despite Henry’s philandering and unspeakable cruelty to her after he took up with Anne Boleyn. Although the novel is well-populated with assorted members of Katherine’s and Henry’s court, the queen herself is the central focus. Weir portrays her sympathetically as both credulous and steely: she believed unwaveringly that Henry would return to her, even after he spurned the pope and established himself as head of the Church of England; even after he married Anne and bestowed upon her Katherine’s jewels; even after he beheaded formerly trusted supporters. “Nature wronged her in not making her a man,” Thomas Cromwell remarked about Katherine. “But for her sex, she would have surpassed all the heroes of history.” She adamantly refused to swear loyalty to Anne, maintaining until her death that she was the one true queen of England. Although figures closest to Katherine are fleshed out, others (Wolsey; “the great black spider Cromwell”; and even the spiteful Anne) remain shadowy.
A vividly detailed rendering of a well-known tragedy.