Book review: Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett

When Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in 1509, she was an auburn-haired beauty in her twenties, daughter of the joint rulers of Spain.

Friday, 17th December 2010, 6:00 am

But underneath that alluring charm was a will of iron; the true heir of her conquistador parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, this intense, obsessive and very royal princess would prove to be the king’s most formidable opponent.

Indeed, reformation, revolution and Tudor history would all have been different without Henry’s Spanish Queen.

Giles Tremlett’s brilliant biography gives us a new and invigorating perspective on the dramatic events of Catherine’s life. For the first time we view her turbulent world through her native Spain and her own family rather than the prejudiced prism of her Tudor in-laws.

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Instead of the all-too-familiar portrait of an unwanted and dowdy queen shuffled unceremoniously to one side to make way for Henry’s charismatic amour, Tremlett paints a picture of an intelligent and brave woman with a rock-like obstinacy.

This is the Catherine who showed a steely command when she donned a helmet, took charge of the English troops and orchestrated the defeat of the Scots at Flodden Field in Henry’s absence in 1513.

And this is also the dignified and determined queen who remained resolute in her battle to defy her husband’s demands for a divorce after a marriage that lasted 22 years, twice as long as those of Henry’s five other wives put together.

Of course, Catherine was never meant to be Henry’s wife. She left her homeland at the age of 15 to fulfil a long-planned marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur, but six months after their wedding the sickly young prince and heir died.

After seven years of virtual imprisonment, a period in which she suffered constant illnesses, anorexia and a tendency to self-harm, she was finally allowed to marry Henry, six years her junior.

And against all odds, the marriage that began in political and religious controversy was for many years a loving and passionate union until Catherine failed to produce a son and an ambitious home-grown flirt called Anne Boleyn famously took the king’s fancy.

Whether the marriage to Arthur was ever consummated became the root of ‘The Great Matter’, used by Henry to try to wriggle out of his own union with Catherine. The newly pious king claimed he could not in all conscience remain in an unlawful marriage.

Catherine lied about her virginity, asserted Henry...certainly not, declared his queen, adding that she would rather die than say otherwise.

She lost the battle to stay married but it was a hollow victory for the king - six months after Catherine died, Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Henry never again captured the true marital happiness he had enjoyed with the woman labelled by Shakespeare as ‘the Queen of all Earthly Queens’.

Tremlett’s accessible biography gives new and welcome insight into Henry’s fascinating Spanish queen and destroys the myth that she was just a passive victim caught in a tumultuous river of history.

Formidable and faithful to the end, she made her own choices, fought her own battles and left an indelible mark on English history.

(Faber, hardback, £20)