Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife

Catherine of Aragon:  An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife
by Amy Licence
Stroud:  Amberley Publishing, 2016
534 pages

Licence has made Catherine accessible in this thoroughly researched tome by making the Queen the center for the entire text rather than Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn at the time of the King’s “Great Matter.” Obviously, Catherine’s life-story is accompanied by the many figures who traverse her life as her fortunes rise and fall.

One of the best features of this work, is the extensive coverage of Catherine’s childhood and her time with Prince Arthur. Of course, the political maneuverings of Ferdinand and Isabella with Henry VII cannot be ignored, but it was refreshing to have a biography of Catherine without those personages dominating the text. Of the seven parts the book is divided into, this second section and the first and third, interested this reviewer the most.  Licence generated excellent detail of Catherine’s management of the war with Scotland and her summary of the shift in domestic and foreign policy was spot on. One concern covers the discussion of one of Catherine’s sisters. Juana’s general history is now viewed somewhat differently thus this reviewer suggests the dual biographical work, Sister Queens:  The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox, for a more extensive view of Juana.

Of course, the great mystery surrounding Catherine is whether or not she and Arthur consummated their marriage. Licence provides a plausible option, combining a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ in writing for the first time which many students of the era may have suspected but have not put to voice:  it could have been a first attempt by adolescents quite frankly unsure of what actually happened or what was expected to happen. That five hundred years later historians would still be debating this issue underlies its historic importance.

Licence’s chapter, “A Queen’s Identify 1521-1525” was refreshing. Usually biographies at this point in her life shift focus to Mary and Anne Boleyn (actually the diminished focus on Anne throughout the entire text is commendable) and their relationships with Henry.  Later in the next section, in its first chapter, the comparison between Catherine and Henry is thought-provoking especially the similarities shown in their childhoods being the second generation of monarchs who reached their thrones a bit dubiously with all the uncertainties that entails.

As for the “Great Matter,” can anyone imagine the reaction a pious, let alone a very devout Catholic of the early 1500s, felt when her husband, the man she held in great affection, who was also her king, denounced the Pope and declared himself the head of the Church.  Catherine’s genuine fear of Henry’s mortal soul has been well proven.  The King’s salvation was more important to her than her status as Queen. Of course, she would fight to prevent losing both at great peril to herself.  It is always difficult to read of the changes in Catherine’s household and dignity of status, let alone her safety and health, as her circumstances diminished, all because of Henry’s vindictive (and perhaps his wish to please Anne) frustration that he could not get his own way.

Part Six, “Things Fall Apart” demonstrates how Catherine truly held things together as she began her campaign, if you will, to secure her position and save her husband from what she felt were non-Christian influences.  Politicking at its finest. Henry did not possess the finesse that Catherine did (skills honed in the days when women were not to be outward leaders but took to, decidedly, more subtle methods) nor her courage.  Licence explains the many facets of the negotiations for the King’s Great Matter well without over dramatization nor dry as dust delivery (a tough balance for this long and complicated process).

Licence does clarify a point, which is not necessarily needed; that Henry VIII never divorced Catherine as the popular children’s ditty exclaims, as he professed their marriage invalid from the start. A man in a position capable of altering history based on what he convinced himself to be the truth, Henry implemented an astounding solution because, as it has been thoroughly researched, nowhere did he ever dispute Catherine’s challenge to him that he knew the truth … “when ye had me at the first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man.” She left the legal and moral obligation on him, “…whether it be true or no, I put it to your conscience.”

This reviewer does not appreciate a historic text relaying a subject’s feelings and thoughts unless they have been documented.  Licence avoids this on the whole, but does indulge herself in a bit of romanticizing of Catherine such as on page 94 when she was described as entering into her marriage “willingly, bravely, perhaps even excitedly and proudly, thinking of this as the culmination of her parents’ wishes, and of herself as their ambassador”. Or that her wedding pageants “are likely to have made a powerful impact on the intelligent ten-year-old Henry…” (page 98). How do we know that the ageing King Henry VII “paid little attention to the marble-lined courtyard or the heraldic beasts in the garden…” (page 185)?  A step further is, one hopes, the unwitting interpretation of historical events with attempts at glamorizing the narrative.  Diego de Fernandez was a trusted member of Catherine’s household. There is evidence of that but for Licence to take it a further step and say, “Perhaps he was something more” (page 177) is irresponsible. And proclaiming that Catherine, like her mother before her, “understood that when under attack, the first recourse was to dress in gold” (page 240) was just plain silly. Although it is understandable that modern biographers try to appeal to larger audiences, these types of projection are difficult to applaud.

Perhaps not to everyone’s taste (and to be honest at first it was irritating to be interrupted from the focus on Catherine for what could be described as filler) would be the descriptions of the time period, but this reviewer felt it ended up being one of the greatest strengths of the book.  Everything from the ethnic composition of London, the simultaneous events of Renaissance figures in different countries such as the arts, architecture and new religious thinking and foreign powers’ political intrigues.  The true flavor of the entire era in world history provided excellent context.

Technically, there were few errors in the book besides a dropped ‘a’ or ‘the’. For a book this extensive, that is impressive. The largest proof-reading mistake was on page 444 where an entire phrase was repeated a paragraph later.  Using primary sources is appreciated and Licence admirably made extensive use of the State Papers especially of Spain.  Learning the first official document bearing Catherine’s signature (page 66) was an added bonus.

Often biographers end up sympathetic to their subject (either from prejudice to start—why they wanted to approach that particular personage anyway— or years of ‘living with’ the topic sways them toward a positive view) and Licence is no exception. Her conclusions are not extraordinary although they unreservedly show Catherine in all her courageous, educated, proud, compassionate, pious, stubborn, dignified, political, royal-best.