Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen–Alison Weir


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.

Finished 5/10/16


Thomas Cromwell–Tracy Borman (Audible)

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of which aired in the US this year, has made Thomas Cromwell an object of popular interest again.  In fact, Borman’s website reports that the paperback version of the work was released the day after episode one of BBC’s Wolf Hall aired and the book shot to #4 on the NYT Bestseller List.  Hitting this audience seems to have been Borman’s goal.

A brilliant rags to riches story, with all of the emotional power of a medieval morality tale as the executioner takes three blows to sever Cromwell’s head from his body, Cromwell should fascinate American audiences.  Born the son of a tradesman (of many trades in his attempt to make a living), Cromwell left home to serve many masters on the continent and proved himself an apt student of politics and business.  Loyal to his masters and brutal to his enemies, Cromwell served both Wolsey and Henry VIII and oversaw the executions of many, including Anne Boleyn and Thomas More.  Borman’s Cromwell is, above all, rational.  He is also loyal and takes care for the poor, particularly widows.

Borman’s biography does not make new claims.  In fact, at times, Borman repeats old saws that bear greater scrutiny, such as Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.  Borman includes an epilogue that discusses the subsequent historical interpretations of Cromwell, which fell heavily along religious lines.

One of the difficulties of an audio book is that any critical apparatus is not visible (or, usually, read).  Borman is an PhD and former professor of history and has written other works (and has forthcoming works) on the Tudor period.  She seems to have been early on the alt-ac track, having worked for historic preservation organizations.  Although at times repetitive, Borman retells Cromwell’s story coherently and with significant reference to primary sources, even if she does not always put those sources and/or their authors in context.

Finished 8/1/15