Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile
by Julia Fox
Ballatine Books, Kindle Edition
What an excellent topic premise: the lives of sisters, Juana and Katherine, daughters of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. These two women were intelligent and worldly. They also knew that their purpose in life was to marry into foreign royal families and promote ties between their home and their adopted countries. I do not want to imply that Fox fell completely short by over-promising and under-delivering as any student of this era understands there is woefully little material available on Juana. Yet, one cannot help notice there is a dearth in the coverage of Juana. Although understandable, the lack of materials made for very slim coverage of Juana’s life. The author seemed to get caught up in the modern-day interest in Tudor scandals going into great detail about Katherine and her husband’s life and not generating any new insights (along with a great deal of quoting from the work of David Starkey) creating the impression that Juana’s story was rather tacked on throughout the writing.
Fox tried to compare many areas of the women’s lives but really should not have beyond their upbringings. As daughters under Isabella’s influence, there is no dispute but the historical record cannot even offer full proof as to which of her daughters accompanied Isabella and which did not on her various travels let alone what were each of the girls’ education and religious instruction like. Added to the constant movement by the Spanish royal family and the location of each child based on their station and age, Juana and Katherine would not have spent much time together as children due to their age differences. If they were together, there is no record to say so. Thus, Fox’s continual stress of their family ties and their feelings (all speculated as there was little evidence of their communications), was too much hearsay to make such statements. These women hardly new each other and as for their strong familial ties— Ms. Fox needed to provide more proof of that for this reviewer.
Although it is not the usual practice for this reviewer, this particular work has invoked a response that is mostly questions. How did both women endure such callus treatment at the hands of fathers, husbands, nephews and for Juana, sons, and not change their attachment to their family? Did they venture into their marriages and move to foreign countries with their eyes open? Once the reality hit did they deal with the strains in the only way they could: By proclaiming familial affection for their parents, their siblings and their extended families? Did they create such altered realities of their homeland and what their true purposes were? Did Isabella and Ferdinand soften the blow of their futures by plying the girls with the beliefs that they would make huge impacts on the policies of their new countries? Did the girls latch on to this as a way of dealing with such upheaval to justify their roles and their sacrifices? Fox makes it difficult to peel away at the historical fact to support many of the suppositions.
Being at the mercy of the misogynistic males who ruled at that time, who was most to blame. Was it Henry VIII? Was he the one who forged the policy to discredit Katherine and have her forever remembered as a bitter woman, scorned by her husband? Was it his advisers and Court wanting to please him, wanting to further the Protestant agenda, wanting to rid the country of the foreign influence of Spain?
Was it Ferdinand who, after a series of deaths among his progeny, wanted to gain control of both Aragorn and Castile so badly he incarcerated his daughter for a total of 46 years in Tordesillas under the guise of her insanity?
Was Juana mentally ill? Was she suffering from postpartum depression, hormonal issues, chemical imbalances, or emotional immaturity? Was she a love-sick school girl? Was she a victim of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ (Fox leads us to believe that Juana held great affection for her husband, father and later son because they were ‘family’ despite their manipulation and mistreatment of her) or, was she confined, placed under house arrest basically, as the easiest way to meet the political needs of her father and husband? Was Juana labeled insane because she would not make confession or hear mass; or because she indulged in hunger strikes and physical altercations? Not allowing her husband’s body to be buried has been used for centuries as evidence of her mental instability. Fox explains this behavior away by saying it is for the place of burial Juana is holding out for not that she does not want Philip the Handsome buried. Correspondingly, Fox does not explain away the fact that Juana was insane because she would not hear mass.
Which brings us to the quest for a conclusion. Being at the mercy of the men in their lives, could Katherine and Juana maintain such affection and loyalty with many of these being distant relationships conducted by letter or through other people? In our modern world of people having 500+ friends through social media of whom they truly believe are their friends, perhaps one can understand the rationalization that the family ties really did bind and Katherine and Juana felt that their family members really were thinking of their interests. Because, once the women were married off (both for political ambition and both proved expedient) there was such minimal contact between the two. Could they respond the same exact way? It was here in the text that Fox had to stretch the transitions between the two subjects of the book to very shaky lengths. This led to the text becoming repetitive and rather awkward. In fact, a few times, this reviewer wondered if a given passage had already been read.
It is difficult when the author repeats herself let alone when saying things that did not happen or events of which she does not have proof that they actually happened. An example that comes to mind is the Fox’s assertion that Katherine rejoiced when her nephew Charles becoming Holy Roman Emperor. The authors evidence was because an ambassador said that Katherine probably was pleased. That is not proof. It is troubling when historians make ‘fact’ out of someone else’s assumptions. Fox needed either to quote a letter or a direct comment made by Katherine for this reviewer to accept that she rejoiced over Charles’ election. It should be remembered that Henry, her husband was after the title too. Yes, she could have been happy that Charles won the office over Francis of France—but that is not the implication the author was making. Therefore, continual repeat of information and the suppositions of what the historical figures were thinking and feeling—are huge negatives for this historian.
With this review’s main criticism being the lack of support for assumptions and comments, the footnoting for the citations that were available was frustrating. For scholarly work, it is preferred to have the passage cited immediately on the page as opposed to the full collection at the end.
A suggested audience for this book could be high school level. Perhaps there are students in a Spanish language class that would like to read it for a class project. But it could be too heavy going for most not familiar with the topic. Paradoxically, those familiar with the topic could easily become bored due to the unsubstantiated conjecture.