Thursday, November 01, 2012

Book 26: Sister Queens

I admit, while I've read a few books about Henry VIII, his wives and the Tudors in general, my favorite has always been Anne Boleyn.  Even though Katherine was married to Henry longer than the other five wives combined, she just seemed boring to me - too religious, too pious, too self-righteous.  I also knew very little about Juana since she is only mentioned in passing if those books even bring her up.  I had attempted to read a fictional account of her life recently but it was so boring that I stopped midway through.  However, it made me more interested in the reality of Juana's life, and the idea of examining these two sisters side by side appealed to me.  It helps that I read a book called Victoria's Daughters last year, which talked about Queen Victoria's five daughters, their lives and influence on European politics.  In that way, Victoria and Isabella have at least one thing in common - both seemed to have had a ton of children and grandchildren through whom they ended up having relatives in dynasties throughout Europe (Juana and her six children were actually a key part of that in Isabella's case).
While Juana outlived Katherine by several years, there is also much less documentation on Juana and her life, so the book is primarily focused on Katherine.  Given that the two women only saw each other once after they each sailed to their respective future husbands and countries, this book isn't about their relationship - instead it shows the different challenges these women faced, and how their personalities and upbringing affected their reactions and the outcomes.  I definitely gained a new found respect for Katherine after reading this.  In a book with her as the subject matter, she no longer seems like the overly pious, boring woman that occasionally seems to come across in other Tudor histories compared to whom Anne Boleyn appears exciting and sparkling.  Fox shows that Katherine learned the political game early, and that she did in fact have a temper.  Of course, she had her flaws - she kept grudges, and once her opinion was formed regarding a person, it rarely changed.  She sometimes misjudged people.  While she saw herself as the English queen and her number one loyalty was with her husband, she also still felt ties to Spain which sometimes would affect how she wanted foreign policy to proceed.
Juana, on the other hand, seems much more naive than Katherine despite her status as the older sister.  All sources seem to agree that Juana and Philip, her husband, had an intense physical connection at the beginning, but Philip was a philanderer, so their bliss wouldn't last.  Unlike Katherine, who quickly learned to turn a blind eye her husband's infidelities (Anne was far from the first), Juana let her temper get the better of her.  Fox argues that Juana wasn't actually mad, but that certain behaviors of hers were cast as the behavior of a madwoman so the men in her life could justify pushing her to the side (or locking her up, more accurately) and ruling in her name.  Personally, I think it is a convincing argument.  Juana was supposed to be third in the line of succession for Spain but due to various deaths, she became the queen of Castile (Isabella was the ruler of Castile, and Ferdinand, who outlived his famous wife, the ruler of Aragon).  While I don't think Juana was mad, she was also not at all prepared for this status: while Isabella ensured that her daughters were well-educated, they were still mostly groomed to be consorts, not the rulers themselves.  While Katherine ended up picking up enough of the political game while waiting to marry Henry after Arthur's death to be formidable, Juana doesn't seem to have ever quite gotten it.  She didn't understand the complexities of certain situations, trusted the wrong people, and then, unable to get her way, she would throw tantrums, which would then be used as a sign of her madness.  It also doesn't help that neither of these women married men that were looking for an equal partnership, as Ferdinand and Isabella's relationship had been (in fact, given that Isabella brought more territory into the alliance/marriage, she could arguably be seen as the senior partner).  While Henry VIII would turn to his wife for advice in the beginning of their marriage, once others, such as Woolsey, had proven their worth, he became less interested in her as a political partner.  Philip never seems to have had any desire for a partnership with Juana, and early on, her household was dictated by him, leaving her more or less surrounded with strangers in a foreign land.
While Juana's failures were a combination of a sexist society and her own lack of political cunning on most occasions, Katherine's downfall was due to her inability to bear a heir.  Ironically, this was one thing Juana was very successful at.  If Katherine had born Henry the heir he so wanted and desired, Anne Boleyn would have probably been yet another on a list of conquests but since Anne could entice him with the idea that she could bear him the son he wanted, he parted with the church.  Katherine fought tooth and nail to maintain her status as Henry's wife, and the book lists three reasons for this: she truly believed that their marriage was just and right, she didn't want to jeopardize her daughter's future, and she felt like the attack on her marriage was an attack on the church since it questioned a dispensation already granted by a previous pope.  The ironic and tragic piece here is that in Katherine's desire to defend her faith, and seeing her marriage and her faith as interlinked, she actually probably ended up hurting her church much more than if she had simply agreed with Henry and let the annulment be granted.  If Henry had received the annulment he wanted, he probably never would have declared himself head of the church and split with the pope, despite Anne's own more protestant leanings.  Maybe he would have let Anne influence him, but I doubt it would have been nearly as drastic as what happened just so Henry could get his way.
One reason I am so willing to believe the idea that Juana wasn't mad and instead was simply not prepared to be a ruler and easily manipulated is because it reminds me of another queen that would appear on the scene in that same century: Mary, Queen of Scots.  While the situations aren't exactly the same, and no one ever doubted Mary's sanity, only her judgement, there is a bit a of a parallel. Neither woman was at all prepared for the turns that her life would take, both being groomed for the roles of consort rather than ruler, and both ended up making bad judgement calls (at least when Juana had the opportunity to make decisions), eventually leading to their imprisonment.  Both, however, fulfilled their duties in providing heirs, and Mary's son would become the king of Scotland and England, while Juana's son also followed her to her throne (both of these sons were also rather ambivalent about their mothers and showed no desire to see their mothers released from their prisons).
I highly recommend this book.  It made me see Katherine of Aragon in a new light, and it also revealed some of Juana's story, which is of course difficult given that she spent over half her life imprisoned, and either didn't write or wasn't allowed access to writing material.  Katherine, on the other hand, is incredibly well documented, and I quite enjoyed reading about her as compared to her sister, and in relation to her family background rather than in comparison to Henry's other wives.  I think occasionally the author tried to tie the sisters together more than she needed to.  Especially towards the end there were a few comments along the lines of "it's not clear if this sister knew of her sister's situation" or "she may have thought of her sister" but other than that slightly forced attempt to incorporate the sisters into each other's lives, I thought the book was great.

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