I’ve read a fair amount of Alison Weir’s history books – she tends to write about women, mostly in the medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan period and these are all things which interest me, history-wise. I read a couple of her first forays into fiction, Innocent Traitor which was about Lady Jane Grey, and a novel covering the early years of a future queen, The Lady Elizabeth and I enjoyed them both (even though, let’s be honest, I knew how they would end…). I particularly liked the fact that I can read Weir’s non-fiction works on the same period and/or characters. That seems to be like a window on to what has inspired her as an author – always a fascinating prospect.
Of course with the story of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife and the one who, arguably, caused many of the future problems for the Tudors, is well-known so it is interesting to see what can be done with it. And, to be fair, I think Alison Weir has crafted a fairly compelling story around the accepted facts. Probably because, as a historian she can explore more than just the obvious parts of the tale – I was especially struck by the way that she used extracts from actual letters written by Katherine and others. In fact it took me a little while to realise that real correspondence was being quoted as it was slotted into the action so well.
Because the events of this story are a matter of historical record – and I’d assume that, like me, those who read historical fiction are also interested in the history itself – I’m not really going to talk about them. But what I was really struck by was how difficult life was for women. They are property, to be married off for political reasons and, if their husband dies, they will be passed on to the next candidate or sent back to parents who will probably be looking to the nearest nunnery. The need for kings to father the next generation, to continue the line, is so paramount that they will marry young girls to old men and even consider marrying relations so near that they have to get Papal permission to break biblical law. This, of course, is a well-worn trope but in this book we also get to consider the importance of Queenship – Katherine is an anointed queen and is the daughter of both a king and, more importantly, a queen regnant: she feels, I think, that to be a queen is (to quote the Blues Brothers rather incongruously) a mission from God. The tragedy is that she cannot accept that a King, even the husband she loves so much, has the right to deflect her from that mission. This is, essentially, the story of two rights. It seems to me that both sides probably sincerely believed in their own position and feared that they would probably suffer eternally if they gave way to the other.