King Henry VIII – a larger than life historical figure in every sense of the word – usually dominates biographies of his six wives. When Henry VIII is at the centre of events, the focus is usually on England with Europe and the wider world including successive Popes, Kings of France and rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor serving as a backdrop to the people and politics of the English court. This approach makes sense for Henry VIII’s 3rd, 5th and 6th wives, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr as they never left England and owed their rise entirely to the King’s interest.
The lives of Henry VIII’s other 3 wives, however, were shaped directly by events in the rest of Europe as well as England. Anne Boleyn spent part of her childhood in France and the acknowledgement of King Francois I was crucial to her legitimacy as Henry VIII’s queen. Anne of Cleves was a German princess, raised amidst the conflict between the German states sparked by the Protestant Reformation.
Of all of Henry VIII’s wives, his first queen, Katharine of Aragon, made the greatest impact beyond England’s borders. As the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, her two successive English marriages were part of a broader Anglo-Spanish alliance. Henry VIII’s attempts to secure an annulment would become an multi-year international incident, encompassing France, the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) and the Papacy. In Katharine of Aragon, Patrick Williams, Emeritus Professor of Spanish History at the University of Portsmouth and author of Philip II and The Great Favourite: The Duke of Lerma and the Court and Government of Philip III of Spain, 1598-1621 makes full use of Spanish archival material to present Henry VIII’s first wife in her full European context.
Williams’s biography of Katharine of Aragon is very much a life and times, discussing the political and religious events across Europe that affected Katharine in addition to Katharine herself. He covers corruption within the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation and the shortage of male heirs in many of Europe’s royal houses in the early sixteenth century. Of all of Henry VIII’s six wives, Katharine is the one who has been the subject of the greatest number of popular histories that place her in a European context. Julia Fox compared her life to that of her sister Queen Juana “la Loca” of Castile in Sister Queens , Catherine Fletcher examined the negotiations with the papacy regarding the annulment of Katharine’s marriage in The Divorce of Henry VIII and Giles Tremlett wrote of Katharine as The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII.
Williams’s book stands out from these other works because it focuses on three main events in Katharine’s life: the negotiation of her marriages, Henry VIII’s short lived alliance with Katharine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII’s quest for an annulment, which led to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England. Henry VIII is not always at the centre of events and does not marry Katharine until page 173 of 400 in the book. Instead, Katharine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella and her nephew Charles V emerge as the key figures who helped to shape her destiny.
While Williams provides a fresh perspective on the key events of Katharine’s life, he rarely engages with recent historical debates concerning the other figures of the period. As far as Williams is concerned, Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, Henry VII was one of England’s greatest kings and Katharine’s sister Juana la Loca was showing signs of mental illness from childhood. A more nuanced portrayal of these people would have enhanced the book. The idea that Juana was too insane to rule suited the political ambitions of her father Ferdinand of Aragon, husband Philip the Handsome and son Charles V. Their attitudes toward her mental health cannot be accepted at face value. The focus on international events also means that little time is devoted to Katharine’s network of support in England. Only two of her female friendships, with Henry VIII’s sister Mary and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, are discussed in any detail.
Katharine of Aragon was married to Henry VIII longer than his subsequent five wives put together and arguably knew him better than any other person in his life. This magisterial biography illuminates her full historical significance in both England and the rest of sixteenth century Europe. Katharine lived in a time of tremendous social, political and religious change and was always at centre of events as a princess and queen.
Next Week: Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins