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Katharine of Aragon, Spanish Infanta (Infanta was the name given to the younger daughters of the Spanish Royal Family) was born to Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Affianced from an early age to Arthur, the oldest son of King Henry VII of England and so she was sent, while in her teens to Britain, where she was later married to Arthur. Arthur, however, was frail and the marriage was never consummated, although it was happy, before Arthur died, just a few months after the marriage. Katharine was then kept in England while King Henry VII and her father haggled over the payment of Katharine's dowry. In that time, her household was in virtual poverty, ignored by both the Spaniards and the English Royal Family, and, to all intents and purposes, she was imprisoned. Her only way out of her predicament was to marry Prince Henry, the heir to the throne. Yet, for whatever reason, there seemed to be a conspiracy against her to avoid this. How can she turn her situation around?
The story of Katharine of Aragon is no secret. Everyone knows that she was the first wife of Henry VIII of England, who, although maybe not at first, treated her appallingly. Yet to many, she is just a face and a name. Jean Plaidy has attempted to bring her to life and, although her story is classed as fiction, it has been praised by historians for being historically accurate. Quite how much is fictional is hard to judge without being an expert - presumably the main framework of the book is true, but what the Infanta says and does in between is based on the author's imagination. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly powerful read, which really does bring Katharine, and her struggles, to life, along with, to a lesser extent, that of her older sister, Juana, married to Philip of Spain.
Katharine truly becomes a real character here, rather than just a name, one with which the reader can identify. During the course of the book, she ranges from her teens up to early twenties, so she is young and fun-loving. Her marriage to Arthur was happy, although brief, but at that point, she was still too young to understand what could become of her. It is during her time as a virgin widow that she really grows as a person, and the way that she is treated by the English Royal Family is truly shocking - although not physically abused, she is bullied and treated as a second class citizen. Jean Plaidy has done a fantastic job of developing her character; so much so that, by the end of the book, it is immediately tempting to move on to the next book in the series (The Shadow of the Pomegranate), which describes her marriage to Henry. Even though we all know what happened to her marriage, it is still intriguing to know a little more about the real person behind the Queen.
What stands out most of all in the book is the easy way with which Jean Plaidy describes the political machinations of the time. Again, I am not sure exactly how accurate it all is, but am sure that most of it is based on fact. The wrangles between the Spanish and the English are particularly fascinating - particularly when bearing in mind the amount of time it took to get from one country to another at that point in time. However, it is perhaps the attention that is paid to Juana, Katharine's sister, that was most enjoyable. Juana, Isabella of Castile's heir, marries the beautiful Philip of Burgundy, known as Philip the Handsome, but suffers terribly at his hands, because of his philandering. Her behaviour, referred to as 'mad' by many, was distinctly odd, but is very clearly the result of severe depression or possibly some other form of mental illness. This has really piqued my interest and I hope to find out more about her.
Despite the fact that is at least based on a true story and Katharine spent much of her time during the book barely able to leave the house in which she lived, the story never becomes boring. This is because Jean Plaidy picks up on other stories to intersperse with that of Katharine's - such as that of her sister. This does fit in perfectly with the book though; the emphasis on Juana is primarily there because she visits England at one point, following a storm at sea, and sees her sister. Katharine's maids of honour also have a part to place in sub-plots - one of them, despairing of ever being able to find a husband because of their position, finds herself a Spanish banker and marries him. Other members of Katharine's household prove to be less than trustworthy. It all comes together to make a gripping read - and the young Henry VII (then the Prince) also has an occasional mention.
The book is very competently written. Plaidy manages to make the book flow well throughout; despite the subject matter, it is never pretentious or literary - it is just a simple story of someone's life told in language that anyone old enough to read well can follow. There are a lot of names to take in, which is occasionally confusing - especially the Spanish ones - but it doesn't take long to get to grips with them, because Plaidy always makes it very easy to follow. Historical fiction such as this is quite common nowadays, with authors such as Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory proving to be particulary well-known, but Plaidy is the one that I always turn to where possible, simply because of the consistent quality of her work. The fact that it was written back in the 1960s is of no concern.
Anyone who is interested in this period of history should read this book; however, it is just as relevant to those who aren't particularly interested. Plaidy turns Katharine of Aragon into a real flesh and blood woman, who, although not quite on the bread-line, suffers in a way that would be understandable to most women. Whether viewed as a story or historical fact, there is much to please the reader, and it is certainly a great starting point to delving further into the annals of history. Highly recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £5.80. Published by Arrow Books (a reprint), it has 400 pages. ISBN-10: 0099493144