Catherine of Aragon

The Spanish Queen
of Henry VIII

by Giles Tremlett

Walker, 448 pp., $28

The quick-fire chapters (50 in 369 pages), their spicy titles (such as “Bedroom Politics,” “Virginity,” “Disease,” “Carnal Copulation,” “That Whore”), the wallowing in the details of royal pageants and jousts and gold-laden banquets, not to mention the gory minutiae of the plague, sweating sickness, and royal wedding nights, all relentlessly rehearsed, might suggest that this new biography of one of the most tragic women in English history had been specially souped up for a latter-day Hollywood movie or TV series. But to think thus would be unfair: This is a serious, scholarly book written with accomplished verve.

Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of much-married Henry VIII of England, was the daughter of the formidable Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose own marriage had effectively created modern Spain. Like many royal offspring before and since, she was soon sacrificed on the altar of international diplomacy and sent to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, first son of Henry VII. Arthur died shortly after a royal wedding full of pomp and a carefully staged coupling: Arthur (it was later claimed) having boasted of success; Catherine later insisting that the marriage had not been consummated.

Stranded in England—and to save repayment of her dowry—the young widow was offered first to her widower father-in-law and then to his second son Henry, whom she eventually married in 1509. That was bad enough. Worse, despite repeated pregnancies, she produced only one daughter (Mary) and no son and heir; and her bullfrog husband was soon philandering. Eventually, the latter met the go-getting Anne Boleyn, who seemingly bewitched the eighth Henry as completely as another streetwise sophisticate bewitched the eighth Edward 400 years later. But Henry was not one to abdicate. Instead, he demanded that Rome declare his marriage to Catherine null and void on the ground that her marriage to Arthur had created an impediment of first-degree affinity between her and him, and that the papal dispensation which claimed to allow him to marry her had been ultra vires.

All this is well enough known and has been told many times, not least in the acclaimed life of Catherine by the American scholar Garrett Mattingly, published nearly 70 years ago. So one immediately asks whether Giles Tremlett has anything new and important to say. The answer should probably run as follows: He certainly puts much more flesh on Catherine’s earlier years, including her first ones in England, thanks not least to access to material in Spain which Mattingly, though himself deeply immersed in Spanish archives, did not know. Some of this, he rather frustratingly tells us, “is in the possession of the author” and sometimes it is not clear whether he is quoting transcripts in the English National Archives of documents in Spain or summaries in the published (so-called) Spanish Calendars; but the picture he presents is very vivid.

As for the rest, the verdict must be that the author has been prodigiously industrious and has gutted every possible source. He has a wonderful eye for detail and writes rigorous, punchy prose. But the story is essentially unchanged. There is one important difference between Tremlett and his predecessor, however. Mattingly was young and rather sentimental. His Catherine was a courageous heroine who bore her sufferings and remained loyal to her husband (as, of course, to her beloved daughter) with rare dignity. Tremlett is a hard-bitten professional journalist/scholar. His Catherine is a fiery perfectionist and usually labeled “stubborn.”

Inevitably there are things to argue about. For instance, whether her first marriage was consummated, Tremlett believes, “remains the essential mystery of Catherine’s life.” Even if one knew what an “essential mystery” was, one might hesitate to concur, not least for the following reason. If, as she said, Catherine came to Henry a virgin, there was indeed no impediment of affinity between them, but there was the impediment of what was rather curiously called “public honesty,” i.e., a kind of public “decency” between her and Henry by virtue of her albeit unconsummated marriage to his brother. This was a lesser impediment, but still required papal dispensation. Tremlett rightly seizes on the crucial fact that, by reason of his adultery with Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, exactly the same first-degree affinity existed between him and Anne as he alleged existed between him and Catherine; so if divine law forbade his marriage to Catherine, it forbade union with Anne as surely. But he misses the (minor) point about public honesty.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of Catherine’s life (apart from the time in 1513 when, like her mother, she was effectively in charge of an army which won a major battle, in her case against the Scots at Flodden) occurred in 1529 when she faced the court appointed by Pope Clement VII to pass judgment on the validity of her marriage to Henry. Two cardinals—one, Thomas Wolsey, also lord chancellor—presided. Perhaps one can go further than Tremlett does and say that, thanks not least to the astonishingly able defense provided by her chief supporter, John Fisher, the king’s case was demolished, whereupon Catherine audaciously (and successfully) appealed to Rome to revoke the whole matter to itself.

That was one of the decisive moments in English history. Tremlett believes that Cardinal Wolsey was then summarily stripped of the lord chancellorship and put on a trumped-up charge of lesser treason in punishment for his failure to secure the “divorce.” But typically, he spots the intriguing fact that no sooner had Wolsey been sacked than he received a ring from Henry which was a secret token of the king’s regard for him. So what was happening? Wolsey did not “fall.” The whole affair was play-acting. It and almost everything that Henry said and did in the next two years or so was intended to frighten Clement into handing back the case to England, where Henry could be more confident of getting the judgment he wanted.

The more one follows Tremlett and thinks about what happened in the next few years, the more perilous they can be seen to have been. If Henry was truly concerned (as he publicly professed to be) about securing the royal succession, the surest thing would have been to get Mary married to Reginald Pole, whose claim to the throne was unimpeachable, thanks to his descent from a younger brother of Edward IV. But instead, Henry saw Pole as a threat. So Pole fled to Italy knowing that, if he returned home, he would suffer the fate that eventually overtook his mother: death on the scaffold. He also knew that Henry was soon seeking to have him assassinated in some dark Italian back street. Conversely, if Henry’s marriage to Catherine was invalid, Mary was a bastard, and Pole’s claim even more evident.

Recently, new evidence has surfaced suggesting that Edward IV was illegitimate. It is likely that this was widely suspected at the time. If so, Edward’s daughter who married Henry Tudor (Henry VII), and apparently gave the very dubious Tudors some much-needed legitimacy, did no such thing. That was equally true if one accepted that that daughter and her sister had been bastardized by their father’s successor, Richard III. So in casting off Catherine and disinheriting Mary, Henry was bringing his country to the edge of an abyss. The situation became even more fraught when Anne Boleyn failed to produce the son that had been confidently predicted and instead gave birth to Elizabeth, perhaps the most unwanted child ever born to a king.

In the meantime, how dangerous Catherine had become. If Henry had been excommunicated—as many expected and hoped he would be—there could easily have been a rising against him, sanctioned by her. John Fisher was even calling upon the Holy Roman Emperor to send a task force to help to destroy him and put Mary on the throne.

In a moment of acute exasperation as she waited for Rome to give its final verdict on the legitimacy of her marriage, Catherine wrote to a dithering Clement VII that she did not know who was the more wicked, him or her husband. Surely that was a most remarkable thing for any woman to say to a pope. Stubborn? No, that is not the mot juste. Whatever that word is may elude one, but there is surely one clear fact: She (like Fisher) deserves to be honored by true feminists.

J.J. Scarisbrick, professor emeritus of history at the University of Warwick, is the author of Henry VIII.