King Henry VIII's first queen was anything but a 16th-century feminist. She firmly believed in two things: the tenets of the Catholic Church and the supremacy of men.
But then the king met a hot young thing and demanded a divorce. Catherine of Aragon had to choose between the wishes of two masters: her husband and her religion. She said no to the man wearing the crown, setting off a battle whose repercussions – including a rift in the church she loved so deeply – remain with us today.
Giles Tremlett, a reporter for a British newspaper who's based in Madrid, tells the Spanish queen's story in an immensely readable new biography called "Catherine of Aragon." In an interview this week, I asked him about the foreign queen who gained the affections of a nation by courageously standing up for herself and her beliefs.
Q: Why do we still care about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, his six wives, and his children who became monarchs themselves?
There's a very strong connection with the characters. Henry himself is such a massively larger-than-life figure, someone who did everything in multitudes, including wives.
We have a king who is influenced by women, who then goes on to be the father of the first two female monarchs in England, the first two queens regnant. You have a powerful current of female history: women who were power players.
It was also a hugely important era. This is when the split from Rome happens, which defines Britain on into the 20th century, and great things are happening all over the place. Columbus is heading off to the Americas thanks to Catherine's parents, and they've essentially founded a new country called Spain. In the rest of Europe, we have the humanist Renaissance happening. In that sense, it's a very exciting historical period.
Henry VIII is also one of first historical figures about whom we have such vast amounts of information. The same goes for his wives and fellow princes like the French kings.
Q: Why was this time so well documented?
It has to do with the amount of of diplomacy that was done in the written format. If you look at the national archives in Britain and see how many files there are on Henry VII and Henry VIII, it's exponential in growth. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that people were beginning to write in the vernacular, they were using their own languages. You didn't have to know Latin to be a letter writer.
Q: So much of he history of that period is based on secret and gossipy diplomatic documents sent back and forth. It reminds me of what Wikileaks has uncovered.
Indeed. You see what goes on behind the scenes: you go from broad brush to tiny little dots.
Q: What makes Catherine of Aragon stand out?
She's an immensely strong, stubborn and, in some ways, fundamentalist character who has very clear ideas about what is right and what is wrong, but also what her rights are as a woman in those circumstances, or as a queen, as a wife.
She will defend both her concept of her marriage and her concept of religion basically to the point of martyrdom. Not that she is martyred, but she's prepared to die for those two things. For either of those two things in fact. Not only that, she's prepared to take her daughter [the future Queen Mary] with her.
Q: Do you think history has been fair to her?
Not really. She's viewed very much as a passive victim, where Anne Boleyn [who wooed the king into his second marriage but later lost her head] is the active party. As a passive victim you become dull, brainless and lots of other things. It's almost like you were asking for it.
In fact, she's a very strong player all the way through. She makes her decisions and she knows she's making decisions that are important. She could have accepted Henry VIII's offer of a quiet retirement to a convent, but she wouldn't have it.
This is not someone who's just standing there letting stuff happen. It's someone who's making decisions, who's aware of the consequences, and even at the end being decent enough to doubt the wisdom of those decisions. There's a moment of doubt on her deathbed as to whether she's provoked heresy and bloodshed. That's a sign of a thinking woman.
Q: And an admirable one?
Yes, certainly, admirable in the sense that there's strength and integrity to her character which is almost fierce. It's quietly fierce, shall we say.
Randy Dotinga writes regularly for the Monitor's Books section.