I thoroughly enjoyed this revisioning of the early years of Catalina of Spain who would later be known as Catherine of Aragon, the long-suffering first wife of King Henry VIII. An often silent and very religious presence in many fictive accounts, a woman who stood by Henry for over twenty-seven years before her marriage to him was ended in tumultuous circumstances, resulting in not just the rendering of her only living child to Henry, Mary, a bastard, but the over-turning of the Catholic faith in England, Catherine as a person remains an unknown quantity. She also tends to hover in the margins when it comes to Henry’s reign and his other wives and the fate that befell them, especially Anne Boleyn, the women who took Catherine’s throne and husband and whose daughter went on to become the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth 1st.
Well, Gregory sets about to change that, presenting readers with a delightful account of Catherine’s unconventional childhood, as the much-loved younger daughter of Isabelle and Philip of Spain. Possessed of bellicose parents whose ambitions were to conquer and claim lands and people, Catalina’s girlhood was spent in military encampments, always on the move until, finally, her parents settled. Though they tried to destroy the Moors and suborn them to their faith, they end up adopting many of the habits of those they try to oppress. Catalina carries an appreciation for the skills, hygiene, knowledge and artistry of the Moors and Islam her entire life.
Revelling in her privilege as a princess – the Infanta – Catalina is also raised to understand she is destined to be the Princess of Wales and eventually Queen of England and it is to Arthur, eldest son of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of England that she is betrothed. But this is no love match for, like many young noble women, Catalina is but a pawn in a long political game.
For those of you who don’t know the history of Catherine and Arthur and Henry – please read no further. For those of you who do, the book remains true to events, but offers readers of the period something more.
Arthur tragically dies after only a brief few months of marriage, and Catherine eventually becomes the wife of his younger brother, Henry. What Gregory does, is present the relationship between Catherine and Arthur in an interesting light – very different to other accounts both historical and fictive (though, as I inferred above, in many ways this period of Catherine’s life (let alone the figure of Arthur) is barely addressed by other writers except as a footnote).
After Arthur dies, Catherine loses her position at court and, in many ways, her identity as well and in a ruthless way determines to have both restored. From this point on in the novel, it could have been subtitled: “I Wanna Marry Harry”, so single of purpose was the young Infanta.
The story of Catherine’s patience, of the way she deals with hostile forces at court (mainly Henry’s grandmother and later, father) and how she eventually triumphs is wonderfully done.
Segueing from third person to first person point of view, we get that omniscient narration of events as well as personal and sometimes heart-breaking accounts. There were points at which the first-person parts grew repetitive and a bit tedious, but more often they offered insights into the emotional and psychological energy and passion of this remarkable woman.
Henry is also presented in a different light – as the selfish, bombastic and indulged king historians have long known he was. Playing to his strengths and indulging his weaknesses (of which there are so many), pandering to her husband to get her own way, Catherine is presented as a strategist par excellence but one with a heart and a conflicted soul.
Capable, shrewd, loving and forgiving, one of the most affecting things about the novel is those of us familiar with her story know how it will end. Gregory does well to finish the book as she does and leave readers with a sense of satisfaction rather than desperation for the woman at its centre. You cannot help but love Catherine and loathe the forces that dealt her such a cruel blow and the people that ensured where and when it would land.
A fabulous read for lovers of history and a great story about a woman of substance.