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'Katherine of Aragon' offers a lusciously sympathetic portrait of a spurned royal

Alison Weir starts off her six-volume fictional series about the wives of King Henry VIII with a nuanced portrayal of Katharine of Aragon and those who surrounded her.

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    Katherine of Aragon:
    The True Queen
    By Alison Weir
    Ballantine Books
    624 pp.
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The six wives of England's King Henry VIII, despite having been studied exhaustively for five hundred years, are a deeply mysterious gallery. That Anne Boleyn would risk her own fortunes and the fortunes of her family by making an impossible guarantee about the gender of her unborn child; that a timid creature like Jane Seymour could ever draw the attention of a dynamo like Henry; that Anne of Cleves should so instantly repel a man as doggedly concupiscent as Henry; that Catherine Howard should be romantically reckless in the teeth of an aging royal husband who'd already proven he wouldn't scruple at having a displeasing wife executed; that a disinterested intellectual such as Katherine Parr should have attracted the ailing Henry's affection ... there are stubborn mysteries attached to each one of them.

All but the first. Henry's first wife, the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon, the subject of Alison Weir's opulent new novel Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, was in almost every way a completely predictable example of of 16th-century international marriage diplomacy. Henry's father, King Henry VII, had conducted elaborate negotiations with Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain's rich and powerful monarchs, with the goal of arranging a marriage between their daughter Katherine and Henry's son and heir, Prince Arthur.

Katherine was shipped from Spain and duly married Arthur in 1501, and when Arthur died a few months later, Katherine was rusticated for seven long years while King Henry furtively re­thought the matrimonial calculus, coveting Katherine's dowry and, after the death of his wife, briefly contemplating marrying Katherine himself. Eventually, in 1509, she married the king's second son and now his heir, a tall, handsome young man named Henry. “She was ready to give her passionate, loving heart unreservedly to this glorious young man,” Weir has her enthuse to herself, “her king, her knight errant, her lover.” At the time, she was 23 and Henry was 18; the match was still an eminently attractive one for England and Spain; not an eyebrow raises about any of it.

The complications – seismic and world­ changing – all come later, naturally, and they've made Katherine's story irresistible to later chroniclers, and Weir, who's writings include both biographies and novels, here gives her readers a lusciously sympathetic 600 page fictional vision of Katherine's life. And she quickly dispenses with the one mystery that actually does attend to Katherine: did she consummate her marriage to Arthur? Weir writes a delicately human scene about it and quietly maintains that Katherine was a virgin when she married Henry.

They proceeded to have sons, all of whom were stillborn or died soon after birth, and Weir's book, unlike virtually every other fictional treatment of these events, warmly dramatizes a real relationship between these two young married people so unthinkably afflicted by tragedy. “Henry was her only comfort,” she writes. “Hiding his own sorrow, he stayed with her during the darkest days of her grief, holding her through every storm of weeping and trying to divert her with music and pastimes.”

In fact Weir's novel is, refreshingly, entirely free of cardboard­ cutout monsters; Henry VII is greedy but awkwardly compassionate; Cardinal Wolsey is pompous (“too complacent, too smoothly spoken, and singularly lacking in the humility desirable in a prince of the Church”) but earnest, even Anne Boleyn is more headstrong than malevolent (“I would not like to cross her,” Katherine presciently thinks before they become enemies), and best of all Henry himself is a smart, caring man caught between his affection for Katherine and his need for a legitimate male heir.

In fact, Weir is uniformly excellent at conveying the chaotic emotional give­ and­ take of the relationship that began to dissolve in 1527, when Henry painfully but firmly informed Katherine that he was going to put her aside in favor of a new wife. “Never, now that she feared she might lose him, had he been so attractive to her,” Weir has her think, “at 36, he was in the vigor of his age. And he was hers – and no man would put them asunder, she vowed it to herself in that moment.”

They were, infamously, put asunder – although Katherine bravely fought the process, demanding that her case be heard by a Papal legate and going into seclusion fiercely protective of both her own royal status and that of her daughter Mary. She lived in drafty, underfunded country manors far from Court until her death in 1536, and it is downright impressive how gripping Weir makes even these bleak final years, when Katherine's world shrank to a handful of rooms and her life dwindled to a string of reports bearing the latest rumors of Henry and Anne Boleyn and a string of letters she sent to her various friends and supporters (including Henry's sister Mary), letters she defiantly signed “Katherine the Queen.”

It's a story shot through with an ugly mixture of venality and hypocrisy, a dark passage through which Katherine carried herself with a nobility she clearly intended to speak well to posterity. Alison Weir's novel captures that nobility better than any biography ever has, and maybe in the end that nobility is a kind of mystery too.

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