Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – Catherine of Aragorn: Henry’s Spanish Queen, Giles Tremlett Read 5/11/15

Henry VIII’s love life has fascinated people for generations and I am sure it will continue to be discussed well into the future. We all know about the six wives, the executions, the Flanders mare etc but for some reason the life of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragorn is ignored until Anne Boleyn arrives on the scene and Henry tries to divorce her. What Tremlett does is give a voice to the women who lasted longer as Henry’s wife than the other 5 put together.

Tremlett starts with Catherine’s early life growing up as a Spanish Infanta in the glorious palace of the Alhambra. He provides the reader with a detail back story that helps them to make sense of Catherine’s motives later in life. By understanding the culture of religious learning that Catherine grew up with, we understand why she was so unwilling to compromise on religious matters later in life to the extent that she was willing to become a martyr. He gives depth of character to a woman so often played as two dimensional and for once casts her as the leading lady.

The biography then goes on to cover how Catherine came to England and her marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur. So often forgotten in the discussion of Henry VIII’s wives is the fact that after Arthur died Catherine was utterly powerless and alone in a country where she hardly spoke the language. Tremlett does a fabulous job of portraying the precariousness of her position at the hands of her father Ferdinand and the miserly Henry VII. In the end it was Henry VII’s unwillingness to repay Catherine’s handsome dowry that saw her marry Henry VIII but Catherine suffered a retched existence (by the standards of a princess) as she waited for her fate to be decided.

We only get to the wedding of Henry and Catherine just before halfway through the book. How refreshing to have a biography of a women follow the journey of her life not her husband’s! Tremlett goes on to detail the many happy years the couple spent together, something else that history seems to have forgotten. Henry frequently jousted with the letter K for Catherine embroidered on his doublet. They indulged in lavish pageants where each played courtly lovers and Catherine even acted a Regent for Henry when he was way fighting in France. These details, this well rounded picture completely changes the perspective I take on ‘the King’s Great Matter’.

Before I always felt Catherine was the woman scorned in the love triangle between Henry, Catherine and Anne. She seemed bitter and spiteful at being replaced by a younger model. Having read Tremlett’s account of events I see now that the courage of her convictions suggest the genuine concern Catherine had for her own and Henry’s souls. She had suffered infidelity on Henry’s part before, she was willing to forgive him but she would not compromise her beliefs. She was so much more than a jealous wife and I am indebted to Tremlett for his work in proving otherwise.

Rating: 5/5

Would recommend to: anyone who things they know everything about Henry VIII’s split from Rome.

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Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor Read 11/9/15

For some reason when I think of the first Queen of England I always think of Elizabeth I, even though her sister Mary ruled for 5 years before her. Perhaps this is a testament to the impression that Elizabeth I had on British history. Perhaps it is just because she has become almost a myth. I don’t know. What I do know is that I hadn’t heard of any of the other women that make up Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves.

The book explores the curious position that England found itself in when in 1553 all nine candidates to succeed Edward VI were female. Through English history the laws of succession were blurry and bloodstained but there had always been men to fight for the throne. Now for the first time there was no option but for a women to rule. This was a society that saw women as inferior. How could a women rule over her people if she was inferior to half of them? Castor explores how this dilemma had been raging long before the start of the Tudor dynasty.

She-Wolves follows the stories of 4 women who paved the way for Lady Jane Grey, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou each had to battle against the disadvantage of their sex and fight for their position in the world. Most have suffered the prejudices of their time and were resigned to history as ‘she-wolves’ ungodly creatures that went against the natural order (thank you Shakespeare).

Castor does a great job of bringing such far off history to life. She acknowledges that the sources she is using are often biased, often exclude the women involved entirely and she has to piece together the story from where they are conspicuous in their absence. This book is a hideous reminder of the fact our society is built on over a thousand years of women not being recorded in their own stories. Castor doesn’t go into the sexism too deeply, frankly she doesn’t need to it speaks for itself. What she does do is paint an honest picture of the women warts and all. They aren’t portrayed as heavenly martyrs fighting against the injustice of their world. They make mistakes, are headstrong and as a result are easier to empathise with.On the surface I have nothing in common with a 12th century queen but Castor tells the story in such a way that I can understand the motivations behind these women’s actions.

I love the structure of this book plus the frequent family trees. By book ending the stories of the earlier queens with that of the Tudor succession it was easier to see the precedent that Mary and Elizabeth had to fight against. In relation to the 16th century queens, it made me realise the impact the Renaissance had in allowing a women to rule of her own accord. Henry VIII was paranoid that his lack of a male heir would result in civil war but I don’t think he counted on the change of attitude that came with humanist thinking. Through education Mary and Elizabeth were able to prove their worth, if they couldn’t be men, they could be the best of women. Through contrast with the events of the past Castor highlights what an incredible achievement it was that England ever had a Queen Regnant.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anyone interest in feminist history.    

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