- Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
By Linda Porter | Posted 13th February 2012,
I have always found Katherine of Aragon easy to admire but hard to like. Perhaps others have felt the same. Though she figures largely in David Starkey’s Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2004), the standard life of her was Garrett Mattingly’s fine book, now more than 60 years old. Within the last 12 months this gap has been filled by Giles Tremlett, writing exclusively about Katherine (the title of his book uses the more modern spelling, which is also closer to the Spanish original, Catalina), and Julia Fox, who tackles Henry VIII’s first wife and her sister, the less well-known Juana of Castile. Both books vividly illustrate the price paid by these women for the dynastic ambitions of their parents and the ruthlessness of 16th-century European politics.
The sisters were the daughters of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who jointly styled themselves the Catholic Monarchs. Neither Katherine nor Juana, however, seemed destined to follow their mother as queens in their own right. They were well-educated but prepared for marriage outside Spain. In a continent of shifting alliances they were diplomatic fodder. When they became wives their first duty would be to supply male heirs. Personal happiness was secondary.
Nevertheless the sisters grew up in a strong family unit, often following their redoubtable mother as she and her husband campaigned to drive the Moors out of southern Spain and to unite the country after centuries of warfare. Isabella had come by her own throne through single-minded determination and her marriage with Ferdinand demonstrated a shrewd grasp of realpolitik. Katherine, the youngest of the couple’s five children, knew from early childhood that her future lay in England. Yet, though Katherine expected to become a queen one day, it was a match less impressive than that planned for Juana, who was promised to the Habsburg archduke Philip of Burgundy, son of Maximilian, who subsequently became Holy Roman Emperor.
As was so often the case death changed the prospects of both sisters. The loss of a brother and an elder sister left Juana, queen of Castile when her mother died in 1502, an emotional woman, at the mercy of a bullying, self-indulgent husband and a manipulative father. Her fragility was used as an excuse for keeping her away from the reins of power. Her son Charles did not treat her much better and she spent much of her life confined in the castle of Tordesillas.
Katherine’s story is more familiar and both Tremlett and Fox evoke her well. The death of her young bridegroom, Prince Arthur, after just a few months of marriage, left her isolated in England. Her parents had provided a meagre dowry and Ferdinand stalled for years in its payment. Her long-awaited marriage to Henry VIII transformed her into a dignified and popular queen. It was her failure to produce a male heir (something that Juana managed without difficulty) that eventually led to the protracted divorce proceedings that would change the course of English history. During the six years between 1527 and 1533 Katherine demonstrated that she was very much her mother’s daughter. With hindsight we know that her long fight to remain Henry’s consort was in vain and the manner of that loss would have a profound effect on her only child, Mary, later to become England’s first queen regnant.
Tremlett, the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent, has dipped into Spanish source materials to broaden his view. This provides new insights and enhances our knowledge of the European dimension of Katherine’s travails. But I wish that his plentiful footnotes had been printed in the book and not confined to the Internet. Surely no one sits in front of a computer while reading a book? As a journalist he knows how to tell a good story, albeit in short episodes rather than a sustained narrative. Nor has his credibility been seriously damaged by one reviewer who described Katherine of Aragon as ‘a woman with a 21st-century mind’. This is nonsense and Tremlett makes no such claims himself.
Julia Fox is to be congratulated on bringing Juana of Castile to the attention of a wider audience and revealing her as a complex woman, whose reaction to vicissitude was in marked contrast to that of her younger sister. The lives of these two women and their impact on European history are important topics, though Fox’s exuberant writing style may not be to everybody’s taste and her brief assessment of Mary Tudor, Katherine’s daughter, surprisingly fails to reflect recent scholarship. I am sure, however, that many people will enjoy her work and Tremlett’s, too, discovering in the process that 16th-century history is about more than Henry VIII.
Linda Porter is author of Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Macmillan, 2011).
- Of the People by the People: A New History of Democracy
Author: Roger Osborne Publisher: Bodley Head Reviewed by: Edward Vallance Price (RRP): £20
Edward Vallance is impressed with a concise rundown of democracy from Athens to the Arab Spring
With his 2006 book Civilization Roger Osborne established a reputation as an author who could deliver a very big subject in a relatively short book. He repeats the trick in this new history of democracy, a narrative which begins in ancient Athens and ends with a nod to the ‘Arab Spring’ of last year.
Within a mere 300 pages of text, Osborne not only manages to cover the more familiar moments in the history of democracy – the republics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Putney debates, the American and French revolutions – but also less well-known episodes such as the emergence of democratic government in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the 16th century.
The book is a brilliant example of authorial brevity, the writing neither hurried nor baldly functional: see here Osborne’s wonderful description of the French revolution’s turn from democracy to terror as being like “a sow eating its own farrow”.
Yet while there is much to admire in this book, telling such a complex story in one smallish volume does bring with it some problems.
In his introduction to the volume, Osborne makes it clear that he is not offering an essay in the history of political thought. The book is not an exploration of democracy as a concept but an investigation of how democratic governments emerged from “practical experience and continual human interaction”.
This approach certainly has its benefits, not least that, in focusing on the actual experience of democratic government rather than ideas about democracy, Osborne is able to remind us that we are not on some irreversible trajectory towards a liberal, democratic utopia.
Democracies have come and gone throughout history. Indeed, as Osborne points out, in moving towards modern mass democracies based around the exercise of the vote, we have lost many of the participatory elements (service to the community, the parish, the borough) that were a feature of premodern ‘democracy’. However, in places Osborne’s practical approach leads to a rather unnecessary antipathy to political theory.
It is certainly doing a disservice to western political thought to associate conceptions of the ideal society primarily with 20th-century fascism or communism as Osborne does here. More to the point, political concepts also surely shape “practical experience”. To develop a representative form of government, you must have some idea of what ‘representation’ amounts to.
The difficulties with this approach are evident when Osborne unwittingly inserts his own ‘conception’ of what democracy is into the text, as when he states that “the basic rights of the citizen” are an “essential element of democracy”. Yet, as he demonstrates very effectively in the book, ‘rights’ have been understood in very different ways across historical periods.
Finally, for a book that is interested in the actual operation of democratic government rather than in ideal types, Osborne shows relatively little interest in those left out of the democratic process. For example, he does not comment on the fact that the citizens of democratic Graubünden were perfectly happy to exercise undemocratic lordly authority over other parts of the surrounding region.
Glaringly, women, largely excluded from ‘democracy’ for much of western history, are mainly dealt with in a single paragraph on the female suffrage movement.
However, these criticisms do not detract from Osborne’s impressive achievement here. To retell the history of democracy so vividly and yet so concisely is no mean feat. His work serves as an important reminder that the price of democratic freedom is eternal vigilance.
Edward Vallance is author of A Radical History of Britain (Abacus, 2010)
- The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper
Synopsis written by Faber and Faber (publishing house) website:
Elizabeth I came to the throne at a time of insecurity and unrest. Rivals threatened her reign; England was a Protestant island, isolated in a sea of Catholic countries. Spain plotted an invasion, but Elizabeth’s Secretary, Francis Walsingham, was prepared to do whatever it took to protect her.
He ran a network of agents in England and Europe who provided him with information about invasions or assassination plots. He recruited likely young men and ‘turned’ others. He encouraged Elizabeth to make war against the Catholic Irish rebels, with extreme brutality and oversaw the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.
The Queen’s Agent is a story of secret agents, cryptic codes and ingenious plots, set in a turbulent period of England’s history. It is also the story of a man devoted to his queen, sacrificing his every waking hour to save the threatened English state.
- Edward II by Seymour Phillips
Nicholas Vincent considers the unhappy reign of a murdered king
He was by reputation lazy, unkinglike, and sexually infatuated with young men. It’s little wonder then that King Edward II has long been a contender for the hotly contested title ‘England’s Worst Ruler’.
His reign was punctuated by rebellions, beheadings, famine and one of the greatest defeats in English military history, by the Scots at Bannockburn. It ended in his deposition in 1326 and almost certainly his murder (the following year) as the first king of England to be permanently removed from the throne since the ill-fated Harold after Hastings.
No wonder that until 1908 the English Board of Education recommended that school history lessons leave the story of Edward II to “be passed over in discreet silence”.
Most previous studies of the reign have concentrated upon one or other of the king’s aristocratic contemporaries: Piers Gaveston, Thomas of Lancaster, or Aymer de Valence. Seymour Phillips offers instead a gripping yet well-balanced account; a true biography, with Edward’s perplexing personality as its focus.
Despite the vast accumulation of detail, there is both balance and artistry here. Sceptical of the more lurid stories of the king’s homosexuality, of the red hot poker as indeed of the supposed survival of Edward into Italian retirement, Phillips is never blind to the failings of a man unable to master the first rule of successful kingship, to keep both his friendships and his enmities within bounds.
The final years of tyranny, abetted by his most terrible of favourites, Hugh Despenser, witnessed revenge and rapacity on a scale to rival even the Borgias.