As a much younger reader, I adored historical fiction. Particularly historical fiction set in medieval Europe. As a historian, I have concerns about Alison Weir’s blurring the lines between history and fiction, historiography and creative license.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued by her latest foray into the world of Tudor England, a new series on The Six Tudor Queens. Weir is a bit late to the HBO-Tudors-fueled party, but her fan base and the perpetual interest in Henry’s wives will fuel sales.
Weir begins with Katherine’s girlhood and goes all the way to her deathbed. Weir’s Katherine is most interesting in the early years, perhaps because that is when life was going well for her and because this is the period that is least discussed. Henry’s wooing Katherine, Katherine pining for Henry, Henry and Katherine grieving stillborn or lost infants together are appealing. As the losses continue after Mary’s birth and the relationship begins to sour, the tale becomes all too familiar and, unfortunately, flat and dreary. Weir imagines Katherine first asking if God is punishing them because she was married to Henry’s brother, then asking it again, and then surprised and upset when Henry takes up the charge. Weir’s Katherine’s motives are simplistic–dynastic and religious. Katherine never has a political thought to her own advantage. Her only concern is for Henry and then the Church. She holds to those principles even when doing so threatens the life of her daughter. Weir does not even attempt to explain how Katherine made the shift from fighting for her daughter’s legitimacy to sacrificing her to preserve Henry or how she sacrifices Mary for the Church, but refuses to sanction her nephew, the Emperor, invading England because she would never act against Henry, but invading would potentially force Henry back into the Catholic fold.
The last chapters of this book were as torturous for me as they seemed to be for Katherine. I longed for her death and yet, when Weir finally let her breathe her last, the writing was so horribly trite that I was embarrassed for Weir and sorry for Katherine’s memory. Weir claims in her prologue that she wrote Katherine’s story maintaining sixteenth-century priorities, but her Katherine is far behind today’s historiography on queens from this era, which is revealing them to be much more complex than the pink-cheeked maiden, the blushing bride, the proud young mother, and the proud post-menopausal queen of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen.
Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for the advance ecopy.