126 of 129 people found the following review helpful
on 25 November 2010
I was sceptical that there was anything new to say about the long suffering Catherine of Aragon. However, I found the work gripping from the first page. Tremlett's writing style is such that, even though one knows the course of events and the outcome, one is still enthralled by the narrative. Catherine, so often portrayed as the opposite of Anne Boleyn, being staid and dull, is characterized here as plucky, self-controlled, honourable and conscientious. This volume clearly shows how, whilst facing insurmountable obstacles, Catherine maintained her dignity as best she could -- no doubt one reason why the English people of the time so loved her. This work comes with a high recommendation from me. A must read for anyone studying or interested in the Tudor period since its accessible style easily makes it a good bedtime read as well as educational and informative.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 18 May 2011
Catherine of Aragon was Spanish. The fact seems blindingly obvious but that facet of her character is frequently overlooked in more general biographies of the Tudors. Giles Tremlett's strength is that the clarity and quality of his writing is backed up by many years of living and working in Spain, and he uses this to bring Catherine's childhood and youth vividly to life. He explains the complexities of Ferdinand and Isabella's court and the dynastic marriages of their children, so that by the time the teenage Catherine sets sail for England and her first royal marriage we can already recognise the seeds of the stubbornness that was to be both her downfall and her legacy to history.
The early years of her marriage to Henry VIII show that the wife he eventually cast aside was his equal, at least, in intelligence and political acumen. She served as Spanish Ambassador to the English court whilst still in her early twenties, won over the English people and successfully waged war on Scotland whilst appointed regent in Henry's absence (he was off trying to conquer France). A woman of great piety and discipline, with an iron will and the ability to inspire great loyalty in those close to her, she conducted herself with dignity through the terrible sufferings Henry inflicted on her in his desperation to declare their marriage invalid and take a new bride. The account of these events makes a fascinating contrast to the one narrated by Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall."
At the end of her life, Catherine asked her confessor an impossible question - had she been right to insist on the validity of her marriage, to keep her honour, when so many people had died for her sake, and Catholic rule in England had been dealt a blow from which it never recovered? History does not record his answer, but this is a riveting account and I raced through its pages in three days.
124 of 130 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2010
It's been over 40 years since Catherine of Aragon was devoted an entire biography to herself, so Giles Tremlett's book is long overdue. There seems to be a new book about Anne Boleyn every six months, but Catherine's story is no less entertaining, and given the fact that she was married to Henry VIII for twenty-four years, compared to Anne's three-and-a-half, arguably more so. Tremlett's biography is well researched and immensely readable and breathes new life into the mighty Catherine of Aragon. Her willingness to stand up and fight Henry's desire to be rid of her has always been something to be admired, and though, sadly, we know the ending, it is hard not to cheer her on as she takes her stand against the mighty Tudor monarch. Thoroughly entertaining read and an absolute must for Tudor fanatics.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
It has not really ever been fashionable to linger over Catherine of Aragon for too long. Instead we all know the exciting and tragic story of Henry's love and lust for Anne Boleyn, the wily and charming usurper of the Queen who came to a sticky end, from every other conceivable point of view via plays, novels, and history books. And the image that we usually have of Catherine is of a pious and stubborn woman who could not accept defeat to a younger, more beautiful woman. But Catherine was a much more complex and interesting character than that, and she deserves to have her story told - as Giles Tremlett has now done in fascinating detail in a new biography, which is amazingly the first dedicated biography of this woman for over 40 years.
Before coming to live in England as the fiancé of the heir to the throne, Arthur, Prince of Wales, she lived in the beautiful, magical Moorish heaven of the Alhambra palace in Granada. This was a far cry from cold damp austere Ludlow Castle, where she ended up with Arthur before his death after the briefest of marriages, lasting just five months.
Catherine was a pawn in a diplomatic game, both before and after her marriage to Arthur. His father, the ambitious Henry VII who was eager to cement his newly created Tudor dynasty by alliances with strong rulers in Europe such as her Spanish parents, even considered marrying her himself after the death of his wife Queen Elizabeth of York. But after years of waiting for her fate to be decided, it was to Arthur's younger brother Henry that she was betrothed. And this was a love story, make no mistake about that, with Henry dedicating tournaments to his young, beautiful bride, and openly showing his great affection for her in public. Tremlett reveals touching details of their early marriage, (even though Henry had mistresses within a year of their marriage - the done thing at the time for a Tudor King).
Catherine was clever, strong and brave like her mother Isabella of Castile, who was a ruler in her own right. She came from a strong tradition of women rulers, and ironically gave Henry a daughter who would herself become sovereign of England, at a time when it was not considered preferable at all to have a women in such a lofty position. She was also young and innocent when she married Henry. And very popular with ordinary people, to whom she took great pains to give copious alms and attention. This would stand her in great stead in the battles to come with her errant husband.
Tremlett really brings Catherine's character, and predicament, to life in this fascinating book. The familiar story of how she suffered the tragedy of numerous failed pregnancies and was then only able to produce a daughter, Mary, is recounted from Catherine's point of view. She tried to stay loyal to her husband, even when he openly cavorted with Anne Boleyn and wanted Catherine to renounce her position as queen by saying that she was not a virgin when she married Henry. Obviously this would have put both Catherine's and Mary's positions in great jeopardy, and Catherine stubbornly refused to do so.
She had a few loyal friends, but many enemies at court, as Henry threatened all in his wake, including the pope, to get what he wanted. But in the end nearly all around Henry perished. Catherine was denied access to her beloved daughter, but at least she was not executed by him like so many others. She remained true to herself, to her daughter and her principles to the end. This book is well worth reading to discover the other side of this well told tale, and to see Catherine in a more rounded and sympathetic light.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 11 December 2010
I'm not a history buff, so was really impressed when this turned out to be such a well-paced and excellent read. Giles Tremlett manages to interweave historical context, where the consequences of actions are truly momentous, with the minutiae of daily life. The book shows the everyday Catherine who never stopped sewing shirts for Henry - even while he insisted she was no longer his wife and Queen - and who paid great attention to the welfare of her household. It also gives us the Queen who, in the absence of the King, swiftly ordered an army north to defeat James IV of Scotland at Flodden Field. As the story of Catherine's life progresses you begin to understand why she was so loved by the people of England and what huge courage, devotion and determination she showed in the face of overwhelming pressure from the King and his enforcers. I know enough history to know that this ends badly, but I found myself so caught up in the how and why that it was difficult to put down.
This is a fabulous book that breathes real life into detailed research.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Giles Tremlett has produced an absolutely excellent biography of Henry VIII's first queen and it is clear that his research, particularly from Spanish sources, has been meticulous, which is the cornerstone of good biography. The fact that his subject is an interesting person in her own right, not merely a catalyst for upheaval during her long campaign against Henry's wish to put her aside and remarry, makes the book all the more compelling.
Catherine, it quickly becomes clear is very much from the same mould as her strong willed, independent mother, and equally as capable of defending her interests and indeed her adopted country on the battlefield if necessary. During her regency when Henry was absent on a less than glorious military campaign, she resoundingly defeated James IV of Scotland on Flodden Field (did her extremely macho husband ever actually get over that particular episode, I wonder!?) She was also for a time, effectively, her Spanish father's ambassador in England. From her dynamic upbringing in Spain through her tragic first marriage and the wilderness years that followed, to her eventual coronation as Queen Consort to the loving husband that Henry was initially, her story reads like a novel.
However, failed or phantom pregnancies resulting in only one surviving daughter, robbed her of her youth, her looks and her currency as a valued wife. Her marriage, however, lasted in reasonable harmony, until Henry fell in love and lust with Anne Boleyn and wished to be free to remarry. He then found himself facing a true daughter of Isabella of Castile, with courage aplenty as she fought her corner long and hard. The whole premise of the "divorce" turned on the question of her virginity at the time of her marriage to Henry VIII. Had his consumptive older brother, Arthur, been a husband in the fullest sense or not? Historians can only speculate as there were only two people present in the royal bed on that fateful wedding night, both very young and virtual strangers to one another. Catherine swore she had remained a virgin, and given her profound religious faith, one feels inclined to believe her. Her stubborn refusal to give in and retire quietly to a comfortable nunnery, thus denying the legitimacy of Mary her daughter, lead to Henry's ultimate break with the pope and the inevitable religious turmoil that ensued. At one point near the end of her life, she actually questions whether or not she had been right to refuse. Her final years were a sad and miserable contrast to her beginnings as a golden child of Ferdinand and Isabella and Tremlett does not rush us to the end but gives her story the space it needs to be properly told.
Criticisms are minor. I wish the research for illustrations had been as thorough and extensive as the historical work; some shots of the glories of the Alhambra, her childhood home, would have been informative.
Pickiness aside, it's superb and I wonder if he is thinking of a companion book on Catherine's glamorous but short lived successor.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 January 2011
The real skill of Tremlett's admirable biography is the way he enables the character of Catherine to emerge into the light. There are so many versions of the story from Henry's perspective and Anne Boleyn's but even there one senses that Catherine had most of the best lines. Brought together here and set in sympathetic context are all those stories, and from this perspective the shadowy Catherine suddenly emerges as a fascinating (and not too saintly) person with skills as well as feelings. Here, for example, one sees her political skills as they developed through her dark years of abandonment post the death of Henry's older brother Arthur and as they came to fruition in her desparate battle to keep her throne and her husband. One also senses her talent for "spin" - which frustrated Henry intensely as the dispute between them wore on and Catherine won every round of the PR war.
Another admirable feature of the book is Tremlett's prose style which is hugely lively and readable without being overdone (no strained "amusing" modern analogies here). One feels that even with a less interesting story he could make you want to keep going - as it is, the entire read is hugely enjoyable.
I was also hugely impressed with the way he told the divorcce story, which I have read many times, but never failed to find tedious. In his hands however it was both comprehensible and gripping.
So why, you may wonder, am I not giving him 5 stars? Really because I felt he ducked out of his fences. He has turned up some interesting materials from Spain on the virginity issue - these were not deployed as forecefully as they might have been, and he failed really to give us his conclusion on this issue. Of course he fairly says that we can't know - but he must have a view, and I think should explain what it is and why! (I think he concludes from Henry's refusal to go on oath that Catherine was right - but it is not at all clear). And having raised the anorexia/bulimia point (which got a run in the Mail to publicise the book) he doesnt really go into it, express a view, or say whether he thinks it was a factor in her troubled childbearing experiences. Finally there is a really interesting issue out there about the extent to which the family tendency to extreme behaviours (observable in her grandmother, mother and sister) was to some extent manifest in the way she reacted to Henry's determination to set her aside. Now it may be that the kinds of discussion which would deal with these issues in more depth would make the book a less rip-roaring read, but they could have rated appendices?
So overall very good indeed, well worth reading - but I reckon he could have done even better!
37 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2011
I seem to be in a minority here. I was disappointed with this book.
May I say that I am no scholar; I am 58 years of age and a hobby historian at best but I have gained, over the last two decades, a reasonable knowledge of English history - mostly of the period starting with the beginning of the so called War of the Roses and ending with the death of Elizabeth in 1603. I have no in depth training or academic learning in history.
I have read umpteen books on the aforementioned period; naturally many, if not most, of these focused on the Tudors and Henry VIII's reign in particular. Some were awfully heavy going works aimed squarely at the academic, but with, so far at least, only one exception (Peter Gwyn's study of Cardinal Wolsey - and one day I shall get through this too) I have persevered and learned much; others have been easy reads, allowing the reader to trip along the pages and absorb knowledge effortlessly, aided by the relaxed style. I make no secret of the fact that my interest was triggered initially some 20 years ago by Alison Weir's Six Wives of Henry VIII and I have never looked back.
I found Giles Tremlett's style clumsy. Perhaps it was the journalistic technique - sometimes staccato, sometimes rambling and altogether too much scene setting, usually vague and imprecise, and especially prevalent at the commencement of new chapters. Such scene setting added nothing and left a disjointed feel to the narrative, always going into reverse to put the scene into context.
Especially in the first hundred or so pages there seemed to me to be a lot of padding and very little detail. Perhaps this was because so little detail exists but if this is so then say so and move on. Too many pages of repetitive, wooly narrative without detail almost caused me to abandon this after about 150 pages. Perseverance is rewarded with a distinct acceleration of pace and a good deal more detail - probably from about the time that Anne Boleyn emerges as a real threat. Even then I was unconvinced by so much of it. Great play was made of the Spanish "brief" but it seemed ultimately to have little or no bearing on events and I was unclear if this so called brief was a new discovery made by Tremlett. I do not recall reading of it before or certainly not any emphasis being placed on any such document.
I disliked the way key events were often passed over with barely a mention. Eustace Chapuys just suddenly appears, with almost no detail about his coming, his importance to our knowledge of Tudor history (albeit naturally inclined to bias it must be said) and with very little emphasis about his huge significance in the last years of Katherine's life - not to mention Mary's. Sir Thomas More resigns as Lord Chancellor, with no explanation of why - though this does come several pages later; another journalist trick.
Other reviews here make a play of Tremlett's pro-Katherine stance. But this did not come through to me. This was no apologist this. Perhaps I was expecting a page by page defence of Katherine and thus was disappointed by what I felt was a half hearted justification of her stand against the divorce and all the consequences that came with it. Katherine's strength and determination and her ability to stand against the injustice of her situation were portrayed negatively as stubbornness and intransigence. Her integrity was often questioned and the key question about her virginity was certainly left in serious doubt. Katherine had lied about a pregnancy - why could she not lie about the consummation, or otherwise, of her marriage to Arthur? I was left thinking that Tremlett had more reason to think that this marriage was consummated than not. This might not have been what he intended, but it was how I was left. And, by the way, in case any reader who has done me the courtesy of reading my review this far assumes that I am the apologist for Katherine that Tremlett appears not to be, then you're wrong. I find it very hard to accept that a fifteen year old boy would not consummate his marriage - even a sickly one and even in 1501.
For me the final indignity was to suggest that the entire Reformation might have been avoided but for Katherine's actions or lack of them. We might yet have been a Catholic nation had Katherine had the foresight to enter a nunnery when this was asked of her. But even then, she had a second chance. Could she not have forced her nephew's hand and asked him to invade England and make war against Henry? Would this not have stopped the move to Protestantism?
It is difficult to blame Henry for a Reformation that would almost certainly have happened anyway, let alone Katherine! To suggest that blame for our Protestant state can be placed at Katherine's door, even by proposition if not conclusion, strikes me as the possibly the wackiest interpretation of English history ever.
I believe that Julia Fox's biography of Katherine is to be released soon and I look forward to this. Her study of Jane Boleyn was lovely to read, even if the gloss she attempted to paint over Lady Rochford had some serious difficulty in sticking.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Although I have read several books about Catherine of Aragon's life, this one felt fresh and introduced me to new and interesting points about her. Often depicted as a saint and a victim Catherine is depicted here as a very strong and human woman. She was forced to fight tooth and nail for her rights and was justly popular with the people. It is an extremely readable book which gives you the feeling that you are really getting to know the central character.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 13 January 2011
I wasn't sure what to expect when I ordered this book, but have become absolutely enthralled with it. The writing is easy to get into, and this "history" of Catherine of Aragon reads more like an historical novel. I am less than fond of "dry and dusty" biographies, but Catherine of Aragon draws the reader in like a combination of a good mystery and romance! I find myself reading it at odd moments day and night because I can't put it down! Of how many biographies can you claim that?!! Giles Tremlett, the author, is an educated man and, as a British journalist based in Madrid, very familiar with his subject! This biography is filling in some of the "holes" in my own education: Spanish history, for one--and bringing English history alive! This is the story of Henry and Catherine as I had never read it in history texts! It makes me want to "study" more--either by reading Mr. Tremlett's other book on Spain, or by branching out into books about other kings and queens of English history. Either way, this American living in France rates this fabulous book with 5 stars. And, I'm "putting my money where my mouth is"--buying copies for my history-buff children! That's the best recommendation of all!