Book Review: Catherine of Aragon, An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife by Amy Licence

By Andy McMillin

Many English queens in the last twenty years have been placed at the foreground of historical studies in an array of original biographies. One such queen is Catherine of Aragon. Originally published in 2016, Amy Licence brings a new narrative to Catherine and the importance of her role first as Princess of Wales, but then as queen consort to Henry VIII in Catherine of Aragon, An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife. The biography, though aimed at a more general audience, is nonetheless very useful for queenship scholars who desire a different approach to the complex world of Tudor queenship.

Within queenship studies, there are many themes which are at the forefront of scholarship, with gender being one of the primary focal points. The focus of this work about Catherine being a wife is a fundamental part of queenship which highlights the consideration of gendered roles. Licence argues and clearly states that Catherine, according to contemporary narratives, was the wife that Henry VIII divorced, diminished, and humbled, and is branded by history as the queen who failed to give Henry a male heir. However, she was much more. She was a Renaissance queen. A queen who, according to the author, had humanist ideals, was a figure of wisdom, and had an education that emphasised learning, and exploring the world. Licence even suggests that she might have been more educated than Henry. In short, Catherine, with her wealth of expertise and complex reign, is a queen worth including in any queenship study.

To consider License’s work following the core aspects of queenship studies, the book covers some of the most fundamental aspects. Motherhood was one of the most important roles of a queen and is highlighted in the chapter titled Maternity. Catherine as a wife and queen consort is covered in two separate chapters. The author covers not only Catherine’s relationship with Arthur, but also with Henry in the chapters Man and Wife, 1501, and in Wife and Queen, 1509 respectively. Facets of Catherine’s political agency are demonstrated in its entirety in European Queen, 1517-1524.

Eighteenth century copy of a lost portrait of Catherine of Aragon.

Regarding the importance of a queen’s image, and agency, the book focuses on the relationships Catherine had with many individuals, demonstrating her networks within Henry’s court and her own agency. It also highlights the impact once this circle was taken away. Furthermore, the work also highlights the importance of her parents in her life and identity as a queen. A chapter is devoted to how Henry and Catherine’s marriage tried to emulate the marriage of her parents, King Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, demonstrating how legacy can be important within queenship.

As a scholar focusing on the financial aspects of queenship, including queen’s lands, dower and jointure, the work featured sources that are difficult to locate. The ease of reading and clear discussion of various aspects of Catherine career as queen made this possible. However, there is not a huge variety of newly discovered information regarding Catherine. This work would be beneficial to scholars or students needing a starting place to begin their research, as the majority of the primary evidence surveyed comes from the State Letters and Papers of Henry VIII and State Papers, Spain and Venice. Therefore, the book itself acts as a good guide and starting point to discover more information.

This fresh approach to Catherine is a success as a popular history book on queenship. It is very well laid out and clear in its presentation of material. . The work is written in a way that many can understand the material and appreciate the queen under study. Overall, it contains a very comprehensive bibliography and is not so heavy in references that it would turn away a reader who wanted an accessible and comprehensive examination of Catherine’s life.

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