Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: Sister Queens--Katherine and Juana

I found a bargain book at Barnes & Noble on the 4th of July: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox. According to the publisher:

The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister (sic) [she was her sister-in-law, married to Anne's brother George], offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right.

When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

This book was published around the same time as Giles Tremlett's Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen, which I reviewed here. Both authors used the Spanish background of Katherine of Aragon to place her life as Henry VIII's queen and wife in context, and the addition of her sister's life and career as Queen of Castile adds greater depth to the story of princesses and queens, as well as princes and kings in the sixteenth century.

One theme that emerges is the impact of death in royal dynastic plans. All the marriages Ferdinand and Isabella--and Henry VII--so carefully planned and arranged to consolidate and maintain power came to naught because of "untimely" deaths. Fox highlights the devastating blows of Juan, the Prince of Asturias and Arthur, the Prince of Wales in Spain and England to the Catholic Monarch's plans and Henry VII's hopes--and then the effects on Katherine and Juana's lives.

While covering the familiar ground of the breakdown of Henry VIII's and Katherine's marriage, Fox clearly emphasizes Katherine's steadfast faithfulness to her marriage and to her love for Henry. Fox notes that Katherine's influence on Henry, so strong early in their marriage, declined as Thomas Wolsey's influence increased. Like Tremlett, Fox also stresses Katherine's concern for the Catholic faith in England as she saw Henry not only attacking the Church hierarchy to get his way on the matter of their marriage but also allowing Lutheran ideas about the Christian faith to gain a foothold in England. As a daughter of the Catholic Majesties of Spain and the wife of the Defender of the Faith, these assaults on the True Faith and then the martyrdoms of the Carthusians, Bishop John Fisher, and Thomas More, troubled Katherine greatly.

Juxtaposed to Katherine's troubles, Juana's situation is much worse throughout the book as she is misused by her husband, her father, and her son--and even her grandson; denied her rights to reign as the Queen of Castile (Spain's Cortes did not have the same concerns with a female ruler that Henry VIII had--nor any Salic law like France had) by all three, and imprisoned, neglected, abused, and consistently lied to by the latter two. Ferdinand of Aragon was a true Machiavellian; Charles V has sunk lower than before in my estimation after reading about his treatment of his mother, and Philip II learned how to treat the Princess of Eboli from the example of his grandmother's captivity. Fox examines Juana's mental state throughout the book--she did use rather drastic methods to try to achieve what she wanted: fasting, neglecting her health, refusing to sleep or staying in bed all day, refusing to attend Mass or go to confession. The latter two refusals concerned the family greatly especially as she grew older (it's not clear whether Fox means that Juana refused to attend daily Mass or Sunday Mass); yet the family consistently ignored the physical and mental abuse meted out to her by her attendants.

After both sisters have died--and Juana lived a long time in her captivity--Fox turns to the hoped-for triumph of the alliance between England and Spain when Philip II, Juana's great-grandson and Katherine's great nephew, married Mary I, Juana's great niece and Katherine's daughter. But that marriage was not fated to be fruitful. Although Mary manages to restart Catholicism in England, her too brief reign without a male heir to succeed her meant that Elizabeth came to the throne--and the rest, as they say, is history.

There were a few quibbles as I read the book--at one point Fox seems to imply that to be Catholic is to be narrow-minded, when referring to Isabella of Castile's library, saying it was more eclectic than to be expected from a "Catholic Monarch"--forgetting that Catholic/catholic means universal and that Christian humanism was a wide-ranging search for truth and knowledge. It was also surprising that Fox does not mention the second Henry, the son Katherine bore in 1514, who lived long enough to be named the Duke of Cornwall during her examination of Henry's citation of Leviticus to support his qualms of conscience about the validity of their marriage.

Fox does not impute emotions to the personages in this book as much as she did in her previous book about Jane Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law (whom the publishers mis-identify in their blurb above--thus my "sic"), which was too filled with would haves, could haves and might haves. She has much more content and many more resources from correspondence and reports for these subjects including letters, official records, and ambassador's reports, so she does not have to be so inventive. Fox does have a good eye and depicts major set pieces like Katherine and Arthur's wedding or Katherine and Henry's coronation with great detail to help the reader imagine them. I would recommend Sister Queens for anyone wanting to know more about not only the familiar story of Katherine of Aragon's marriage to Henry VIII, but also interested in the diplomatic tangle of royalty in the sixteenth century, as the houses of Asturias, Tudor, Valois, and Burgundy struggled for power--with death always around the corner.

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