Catherine of Aragón: Giles Tremlett
“If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of history”. So said Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief architect of reform and Catherine’s implacable enemy. Coming from him, this was praise indeed.
You might ask if there is room in the literary market for yet another biography of the blighted life of Henry VIII’s first queen. Giles Tremlett follows a long list, including Antonia Fraser, David Starkey, Garrett Mattingly, Phillipa Gregory and Jean Plaidy. But not all are of equal merit, nor do they all benefit from the painstaking research carried out by Tremlett in various Spanish and British archives.
So often Catherine’s is that first marriage contracted by Henry that holds the least interest. It lasted over 20 years (more than his other 5 wives put together), it was generally a very happy time in both their lives, and Catherine often took on the role of a true stateswoman as the time and needs required (note her leading of the English army in the defeat of the Scots at Flodden). If this period of their lives had been the only notable element of Henry VIII’s reign, it would have turned out to be an unremarkable period of Tudor history.
Historians have tended to ‘hurry through’ this early period of Henry’s life, to arrive quickly at the juicier bits, where heads begin to roll, and wives are discarded like dirty shirts. But if we are to begin to understand the rest of English history, in the post-Tudor period, we really must understand what happened in those 20 years and, especially, what happened in the last 6 years of Catherine’s life.
18 months ago, we had the benefit of attending a Spanish language performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII at the Globe Theatre in London. It was staged by a feisty Spanish cast, who seemed intent on setting the record straight. Catherine was portrayed as a strong, indomitable character, who was not prepared to give in to Henry’s demands, no matter what the price (she fully expected martyrdom). Henry, on the other hand, was depicted as a weak, pleading character who was completely outwitted by his wife. And in her final speech where she screamed to the heavens for justice, in utter defiance of Henry’s demands, she left the stage with the crowds in the audience baying for revenge. She was the true hero of the play.
So too with Tremlett. From the very start of his biography, we see him peering at the world through Catherine’s eyes. His support of Catherine’s cause is little short of hero-worship. But I suspect that much of it is based on his undisguised admiration for her sheer steadfastness and strength of character.