Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
Random House, January 31, 2012
Hardcover 432 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:
We know of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand through their legacy of Christopher Columbus and the Inquisition. Yet, they also brought forth the legacy of their predecessors, and two of them are daughters Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. Juana of Castile is the tragic figure we recognize as the mad woman scorned and betrayed, and her sister Katherine of Aragon is the pious yet strong willed first wife of Henry VIII whom he famously cast aside for Anne Boleyn. The men created the events around their lives, and helped shape their legends. But exactly who these women were five hundred years ago is the subject of Julia Fox’s newest non-fiction work, Sister Queens.
When reading about historical figures in the biographical context, I am used to the terms would-be, could-be, may have.. but I did not find an abundance of those phrases here – a refreshing change of pace that is unlike Alison Weir’s writing. (Refreshingly absent is Weir’s over-used eye-rolling phrase “we’ll never know”). Leaving no stone unturned, Julia Fox seemingly examines and discusses all the details that she unearthed from her research from the Spanish Archives and the chronicles of the times, as apparently there are many letters and accounts which still survive. Katherine of Aragon’s plight of being a widow is discussed thoroughly as she awaits the approval of her marriage to the future Henry VIII, while Juana’s supposed madness is slowly wrapping its web around her reality as she finds herself in extreme isolation which began with her husband’s ways and continued with her own father and ultimately her own son, Charles the Holy Roman Emperor.
Getting to the heart of the characters of the two sisters is a complex feat, but is accomplished as realistically as possible through the author’s eyes. The leadership traits of their mother, Queen Isabella, are easily seen in both Juana and Katherine, and one wonders how far they would have gone if it were not for the chains of male prejudice holding them back. The author clearly wants this realization to come to light as she shows time and again how the men in their lives continued to wreak certain havoc with no regard for the thoughts of Katherine or Juana. And their father Ferdinand really seems like the type of man one would love to hate.
There is more evidence available for Katherine’s life, as she was not as secluded and pushed aside as much as Juana was. Juana’s husband began the rumors of her madness, and sadly enough her father King Ferdinand perpetuated these rumors which led to Juana’s imprisonment. When Juana was given a rare chance to come out of her seclusion for the sake of Castile, she dissembled and lost the opportunity. Thus, Juana’s story is one of rumor and innuendo, with no one on her side to plead her case, and when certain red flags were waved, they were ignored. Essentially shut up, Juana was easily forgotten. Bred to be a Queen, she had the foresight to be a great one, yet she chose to not display her mother’s traits to those who mattered. She was reduced to tantrums at times, which provided enough fodder for those who liked to denounce her abilities. Juana’s disappointing trait (downfall?) was her stalwart defense of her family. In contrast, Katherine was busy being the Queen of England, and epitomizing it in every sense of the phrase due to her extreme faith in the fact that Queen of England was what God had wanted for her. This faith, and the upbringing of Katherine, propelled Katherine into a woman to be reckoned with, someone who would even oppose her King of a husband in order to protect her soul and her constant belief in what was God’s will.
Readers interested in the details of Katherine and Juana could not be disappointed with this telling of facts. It is well researched, well written and brings forth the hearts and souls of the sisters where we once only felt shadows. The author explains the traits we know these woman had and helps to flesh them out using many details and events of their lives. To get to the pathos of these women, we are obliged to touch on the details from the politics of England, Spain, to France and the Netherlands and onwards even to Burgundy, and throw in the many pregnancies and the many advisers and everyone in between and there is a complete a picture of these two sisters and their family dynamics. Katherine’s great-nephew Philip marries Katherine’s daughter, Mary, in what should have been a triumphant final stamp of Spain on England, yet we know that it is this same Philip who unsuccessfully wages war on England. Sister Queens is an exhaustive and detailed work surrounding these sisters, as I look forward to the next Julia Fox work with more anticipation than I would one by Alison Weir.