I love Alison Weir’s work, both her non-fiction and historical fiction (I believe her background as a historian has given her a strong foundation as a historical fiction writer) so I nearly squealed with excitement when I saw her new book, The Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, which is to be the first in a six-part series portraying a fictionalised account of the wives of Henry VIII, though this being Weir, to refer to her work as ‘fictionalised’ feels like it’s demeaning the quality of her research.
Katherine of Aragon is often reduced to a stereotype of the weeping, discarded wife (and in all fairness, she had a right to weep over being discarded in such a humiliating fashion) but Weir brings her to life with nuances and layers that I don’t believe any writer, fiction or non-fiction, has done before. Her life is charted from her teenage years, unsure of herself and her place in a new country, her fumbling relationship with Arthur that eventually settles into a friendship – and no more. Weir definitely falls in the ‘marriage was never consummated’ camp of this particular historical debate.
She brings to life a young Henry VIII and illustrates the handsome, charming man that Katherine connected with so much more deeply than she did his brother, and portrays him quite sympathetically for several years, his love for Katherine, his anguish over their lack of ability to bear a male child – if this wasn’t a story that we’re all familiar with, Henry comes across as a fleshed-out and sympathetic hero that we hope will see the error of his ways in discounting Katherine’s love and loyalty.
But this is a story we’re all familiar with, and of course, enter Anne Boleyn. I’m fascinated to see how this series plays out, because so many of the wives’ lives overlap with one another’s. How will Weir tell the same events of the last third of the novel from Boleyn’s perspective? We root for Katherine as she hears Anne has miscarried; will we be crying for Anne when we read the same events from her perspective?
The Katherine of Weir of this novel is very much a woman of her time, clinging to her faith in a way that seems wasteful and willfully ignorant – and yet Weir makes it clear that we need to study her in her own time, not ours, and she provides a clear context for Katherine’s actions and behaviour.
Interestingly, one of her most loyal ladies-in-waiting in none other than Jane Seymour. I don’t know if this was true, or how much of it Weir embellished, perhaps to refer back to in a later novel. Will Jane be secretly pleased that she usurped the woman who usurped Katherine, and for the same reasons? As I said, there’s so much potential in this series to explore the overlapping lives of the six major characters, and I am eagerly waiting to see what she does with Anne Boleyn’s story. And Jane Seymours, and Anne of Cleves’s, and Katherine Howard’s, and Katherine Parr’s…