Catherine of Aragon by Amy Licence

“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”: Henry VIII’s six wives must be among the most famous groups of women in history, a collection of brides bundled together by historians, teachers and TV producers despite them having very little in common beyond their having married the same man. Biographies have often tended towards this all-encompassing approach, focusing more on the monarch than the individual women, and it’s been refreshing in recent years to see the queens given starring roles in their own stories.

Amy Licence’s ‘Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Biography’ seeks to give Catherine an identity far more complex than that of No. 1 Divorcee, dismissed in the first word of that famous rhyme. Instead, her Catherine is “a humanist queen, a figure of erudition”, “a warrior, a crusader, a scholar and a patron”, “the figurehead of worship, a role model of piety, an archetype of beauty, the symbol of an Anglo-Spanish union” – eulogistic descriptions that highlight the tragedy of Catherine’s legacy: “she is remembered today for the one thing she did not do: bear a son that survived to adulthood”. It’s this inadequate stereotyping of a complex, dynamic woman that Licence seeks to overturn.

Like so many before her, Licence starts her story not with a focus on Catherine herself – but instead of concentrating on Catherine’s relationship with Henry, Licence turns her attention to a very different monarch: Catherine’s mother, Isabella of Castile. To readers used to the somewhat frumpy, domestic image of Catherine, the dowdy first wife eclipsed by Anne Boleyn’s glamour and determination, this makes for fascinating reading. Licence explores the many parallels between the crusading warrior queen and her youngest daughter, and how Catherine could not help but be “aware of her mother’s struggle to gain the throne, of her unlikely rise to power and the precedence of men and vulnerabilities of women, of the problems caused by weak rulers and rival factions, the necessity for swift action and strength and the constant threat from one’s enemies.” Despite Licence’s clear admiration for both women, she never shies away from depicting their flaws – Isabella’s treatment of the Jews, Catherine’s arguably placing her own pride ahead of her daughter Mary’s welfare when being pressured into agreeing to a divorce – and instead produces a nuanced portrait of Catherine as a “daughter of Spain.”

Throughout the book, Licence aims to free Catherine from the domesticised figure she has become, placing her not merely in the confinement chamber mourning a succession of miscarriages and stillbirths, but in the wider context of the early modern world. She explores the cultural, political and social elements of Catherine’s worlds, with details about Erasmus, Luther, Columbus and Da Vinci rendering this a fascinating study of Catherine as a woman who interacted with intellectual figures, explorers and artists, not just an unwanted appendage Henry chose to discard. This too forms part of Isabella’s legacy – as regent during Flodden, as mourning mother, as intellectual patron and pious role model, Catherine is portrayed as ever faithful to “her vision of being the Isabella of England.”

Catherine’s story could never be anything less than moving, and Licence’s prose does an excellent job of conveying how conflicted and yet principled the queen must have been. It’s a weighty tome, at over 500 pages, but immensely readable and with a storyteller’s vividness throughout. It will be intriguing to see how Licence takes on “Beheaded” in her next book and how the second queen emerges from history’s stereotypes; the figure of Catherine and Licence’s narrative here have certainly set the standard high.

By Naomi Kelsey

About the Author

Amy Licence is a journalist, author, historian and teacher, currently living in Canterbury, Kent, UK. Her particular interest lies in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, in gender relations, queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion, superstition, magic, fertility and childbirth. Other interests include the Bloomsbury Group and Modernism, specifically the Post-Impressionists and Cubism. Amy’s favourite authors are Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf, Plath, Zola, T.S.Eliot, Nabokov and Dostoevsky. She is also an admirer of Mozart and Picasso, the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Visit Amy Licence’s official website.

 

 

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