Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen by Giles Tremlett

It all comes down to sex.    Whether or not Katherine of Aragon and Arthur, Prince of Wales consummated their marriage has provided academic and dramatic speculation for 500 years.    In English biographies of the Tudor dynasty the "bring me a cup of ale for I have been this night in the midst of Spain" bragging reported at the famous Great Matter Trial in Blackfrier's in 1529 has been coupled with Queen Katherine's insistence that she came to her second marriage a true maid and that Henry VIII knew it.    One of the marvelous revelations in Giles Tremlett's new biography of Katherine is that there was another trial in Spain at the Cathedral town of Zaragoza in June 1531.    The Spanish transcripts from this trial tell a different story of that wedding night.    They tell of Katherine's Spanish servants being shocked that Arthur was thin and frail and that he left the wedding bed before morning and that Katherine complained that he would never be able to consummate the wedding.  

This is just one episode that is relevatory in Gile's Tremlett's well-researched book.    Mr. Tremlett is not an historian.   A graduate of Oxford, he is the Guardian's Madrid correspondent.    Astoundingly his is the first stand-alone biography of Henry VIII's first queen since Garrett Mattingly in the 1940's.    Katherine's story has, of course, been reviewed since, but usually as part of a joint biography of Henry's six wives.    It is long past due for Katherine to take the center stage.   And Mr. Tremlett provides an easy to read biography that benefits from access to the Spanish National Archives.

He is not the first writer to use the Archives, they have been available for quite a long time.   However, it is only recently that the entirety of the Archives has been available to historians and biographers.   Dr. David Starkey used them in his Six Wives book earlier this decade and he uncovered some interesting material about Katherine's first pregnancy during which, following her miscarriage of a daughter in January 1510, doctors convinced her that she was still pregnant with a twin and that she even went through the taking her chamber ritual for this phantom pregnancy giving an eerie foreshadowing of the humiliation suffered by her daughter, Queen Mary I, decades later.

Mr. Tremlett's book is important to anyone interested in Tudor history as with the inclusion of previously unused material from the Spanish archives  this biography gives more insight into the life of Henry VIII's first queen.    Not only does the material provide a wonderfully fleshed out account of Katherine's childhood as the youngest daughter of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, it provides insight into Katherine's education, the example she had of a strong Queen Regnant in her mother which explains a lot about why she fervantly fought for her daughter's rights as heir to the English throne.   And, Katherine also witnessed an example of a marriage in which one party was the sibling of the deceased spouse in the Portuguese marriages of her eldest sister, Isabel, who married first Afonso of Portugal then Manuel and then when Isabel died her sister, Maria married Manuel.   It was a more complicated arrangement than Katherine herself would face when her first husband, Arthur died.

Where Mr. Tremlett's research is strongest for the student of Tudor history is where he finds material, usually in the Spanish archives, that gives a new take on well-worn events.   Such it is with the marital trial held in Spain, at Zaragoza in June 1531.   It is in this material that we find a markedly different take on the marriage of Arthur and Katherine.    Was he the robust lad boasting of sexual conquest or the weak, frail teenage boy related in the Zaragoza transcripts?   We can never know for certain, but it is wonderful to have this material brought forth by Mr. Tremlett so that we can add to the discussion of this, the most famous annulment in history.

Mr. Tremlett also provides great insight into Katherine's life as a young widow.   Remember that the only language that she and Arthur could communicate in was Latin.   So, imagine being a girl of 16 in a country in which only the few servants that remain with you speak Spanish and trying to maintain dignity while fighting for your dower rights.    It apparently took Katherine several years to become fluent in English and she spent a lot of time under the influence of several different people from her duena, Dona Elvira, who was trying to undermine Ferdinand of Aragon's rule once Isabel of Castile died, to her confessor, Fray Diego Fernandez who probably convinced her to start defying Henry VII's authority in 1507.

Most persons familiar with Katherine's story know that she came to England in 1501 to marry Prince Arthur who died in 1502.   Katherine was proposed as a bride for the future Henry VIII, but there were many obstacles including the famous dispensation required for her to marry her husband's brother.  Then she lost the protection of her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth when she died as result of childbirth in 1503.   Katherine's own mother, Isabel died in 1504 making Katherine no longer the daughter of the joint rulers of Aragon and Castile, and thereby a lesser commodity on the marriage market.    Yet, after eight years of widowhood, the new King promptly marries her, shares his coronation with her and they embark on a few years of happiness.

Tremlett finds evidence that Katherine suffered from an eating disorder, there are primary sources that refer to her obsession with fasting and to episodes of vomiting.   Later in life she would adopt wearing a hair shirt under her courtly clothing.    He posits that this may have led to Katherine's childbearing problems.     The pregnancies that are documented included the stillbirth of 1510, during which a swelling probably caused by infection led to pseudopregnancy symptoms.   The birth of Prince Henry in 1511 who lived for seven weeks.   A pregnancy in that ending in late 1513 after the French war and the victory of Flodden which Katherine was actively traveling to assist with material support and may have caused the child to be stillborn or only survive a few short days.  Another stillbirth or shortlived child in 1514, Princess Mary in 1516 and a last sad pregnancy in 1518.   Katherine had frequent pregnancies over nine years.  

Tremlett also provides some interesting material surrounding the timing of the annulment attempt by Henry VIII.    He finds evidence that  Henry was seeking a possible annulment as early as 1524/1525.   He cites that the timing of this was due to Henry's frustrations in the political arena with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Katherine nephew.   Henry had many disappointments in his foreign entanglements, first from his father -in-law, Ferdinand making peace with Louis XII following Henry's victories in 1513, then by Charles breaking plans for a joint invasion of France in the mid-1520's.   Tremlett argues that this is what turned Henry to first consider annulling his marriage, to Katherine, which puts the usual romantic view that it only happened after he met and fell in love with Anne Boleyn into a different light.   For if you accept Tremlett's view, the elevation of Henry VIII"s bastard son to the peerage in 1525 comes as much more dishonorable to Katherine.

The Great Matter has been a subject in many, many books.   Tremlett gives a good background to the various arguments for and against the annulment.    One of the events he points out is that Henry VIII gave Katherine of Aragon permission to appeal her case to Rome.    That is correct.   During the famous opening of the Blackfrier's trial, it is well known that Katherine delivered a famous speech imploring her case on her knees in front of Henry's throne.   (see Shakespeare, see most television versions of the scene)  However, at the end of the speech she asked Henry for permission to write directly to the Pope to defend her honor and conscience.   And Henry gave her that permission.    Tremlett then goes on to discuss at length the foreign examinations of the annulment proposals, from seeking the opinions of the universities to the trial at Zaragoza, apparently not the only foreign trial of the Great Matter.

Tremlett ends with reviewing the years that Katherine spent in exile from 1531 to her death in 1536.  He discusses the precautions taken against poison which became a real threat when an attempt was made using poison on John Fisher's life.   He discusses the ways that Katherine's friends, such as Eustace Chapuys, appointed Imperial Ambassador to England in 1529, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter tried to aid the exiled queen.    He also mentions how, Katherine's nephew, while willing to use his aunt's situation for political advantage was never serious about waging war on Henry.   Not only did Katherine forbid it, Charles had his own issues on the continent that did not lead to Charles wishing to provide a  martial intervention.

Overall, Mr. Tremlett has provided a much needed updated biography of this remarkable woman.   He provides chapter notes online for anyone who wishes to review his sources.   He has a good writing style, although he does begin each chapter with one or two paragraphs which are "dramatic" in nature he does not stick to that style but provides a clear and concise analysis of primary source material.

As a note:  The Thespian is used to writing Katherine of Aragon's name with a K as that is how Katherine was spelt in England in the 16th century.  Mr. Tremlett uses a C which follows the Spanish version of her name, Catalina.    The Thespian does not want this to lead to any confusion.

The book was published in the United Kingdom in 2010 by Faber and Faber Limited.

1 comment:

  1. Great review...I now wish I had this book in my hot little hands!