Discussion Questions – “Katherine of Aragon: the True Queen” by Alison Weir

  • Throughout the book, Alison Weir shows how Katherine was raised to confirm to contemporary cultural and religious norms, and how this influenced her thinking and her actions. What impression did this make on you, and did it aid your understanding of her dilemmas and conflicts? Did this take on her story allow you to empathise more closely with Katherine’s choices?
Alison Weir
Alison Weir

I think that the standards and norms of 16th century England were very different to today. People believed very strongly in God and in the existence of heaven and hell and purgatory. They saw their lives on earth as a prelude to the afterlife. I think my background in history really helps me to understand the cultural and religious norms of the 16th century. I think that the understanding of the dilemmas and conflicts that Katherine faces in the novel depend on the contemporary culture and standards. You can’t understand Katherine’s motivations and feelings without understanding the context of the 16th century. I think that the emphasis on her religious devotions and the wellbeing of her soul were the central considerations for Katherine and understanding this made me understand more about what drove her to make the choices she did – she wasn’t being stubborn on purpose, she really believed she was saving her soul, and that of her husband.

  • There is a huge cast of supporting characters in the novel. Who in particular stood out for you and why? How does Alison Weir contrast the more demure Katherine with her outspoken friends Maria de Salinas and the French Queen, and what do these characters gain from each other?

I think, for me, the one that stood out most was the French Queen, Mary Duchess of Suffolk. I’ve seen her in The Tudors, and read about her in several novels and history books, but she always appears in the background, as a not very important character. I think that what this novel showed me was a different side to her – she actually did stand up to her brother in this one and openly supported both Katherine and Mary in their rights to the throne and the succession, although her motives behind this aren’t clear – was it because of love for Katherine, religious devotion, or a hatred of Anne Boleyn? Or even a combination of the three? I think that Katherine was brought up to obey her parents and then her husband, whereas Maria de Salinas has obviously had a more free reign, and she has less responsibilities – she is responsible only for herself, and Katherine at the beginning of the novel, but Katherine has the wellbeing of a husband, daughter, and a whole country full of people, and she has the expectations of her parents, particularly her father. I think Katherine tempers the fervour of Maria de Salinas in particular, but also the French Queen. She takes solace in religion and encourages the others to do the same.

  • Alison Weir tells the story entirely through Katherine’s eyes. What does this technique add to the richness of Katherine’s character and the power of the narrative overall? What advantages are there to using a single character’s point of view in this way? Are there any disadvantages?

There are very few historical novels that are told just from the view of one character. It adds the personal touch to every single event and conversation that happens – you get the feelings behind the persona, which can help you to understand what influenced that person to do the things they did. In this novel, from the point of view of Katherine of Aragon, it is easy to see that her main motivation is her religious convictions and her conscience. Everything she does in the divorce is because of her conscience, and her need to preserve her soul, and that of the king and her daughter. It makes it easier to connect with Katherine as a person as well as a queen. The advantages of writing in this way are that it is easier to connect with the character and it also creates tension because you only know what the character knows. However, this can also be a disadvantage because you are missing out on other points of view on the same series of events.

  • Arthur’s brief marriage to Katherine is one of uncomfortable silences and confused emotions, and historians have long argued over whether their marriage was in fact consummated. Do you agree with Alison Weir’s version of events? How do you feel Arthur and young Henry compare as princes and future kings?
Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte
Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte

I don’t see why Katherine would have lied about her marriage being consummated. She couldn’t have expected that a future husband wouldn’t realise that she wasn’t a virgin when she remarried (she was young at the time and would have expected to remarry). When her first marriage to Prince Arthur became a central part of the King’s Great Matter in the late 1520s, Katherine made a big deal about not being able to give up on her marriage because it was what her conscience was telling her. Surely her conscience wouldn’t have told her to stick to her marriage if her first one had been consummated. She also affirmed on her death bed the validity of her marriage, and proclaimed her first marriage was unconsummated in the confessional and on the sacrament, which were important rites and a great deal was put on anything said in these conditions. I think that Arthur would have been a very serious king, very different to his brother, because Arthur was raised to it from the cradle, while Henry was given a lot more freedom up until his brother’s death in 1502. I think that England wouldn’t have broken with Rome if Arthur had become king, because I don’t think that Arthur seemed to have the same selfish mentality as Henry.

  • “His was to be a new golden age, an age of open-handedness, magnificence and glory”. How does Alison Weir depict this golden age of Henry and Katherine’s early marriage, bringing to life the boldness and glory of the bustling court? How does the tone and colour of the narrative here contrast with that of Katherine’s uncomfortable marriage and widowhood in Part One and, later, her exile from court?

I think that Henry VII and Henry VIII were two very different characters – they were raised very differently. Henry VII spent most of his early life in exile overseas, where Henry VIII was the spoilt second son, destined for a role in the church. It is our upbringing that shapes us into people. Henry VII was said to be mean and miserly in his later years, as it seems he is with Katherine during her widowhood. Henry VIII, on the other hand, was vibrant and full of life, and his accession to the throne marked a new age in the English court, with feasts, pageants and jousts being the centre of life at court. The tone changes when Katherine marries Henry and shows her fun and vibrant side to match Henry. During her widowhood and then exile she had to be frugal and her religious and devout side came more to the fore, as she tried to understand why God was punishing or testing her. The tone begins to change before Katherine’s exile, when she loses so many children to stillbirth of infant death. The epitome of this misery is in her exile far away from the court at Kimbolton Castle.

  • Katherine sees Queen Isabella as an ideal role model, whereas Henry seems determined to make his reign the opposite of his father’s. How do Katherine and Henry, both children of monarchs with great power and high expectations, react to their parents’ influence? Which other parent-child relationships did you find interesting and why?

I think Katherine was raised to be obedient, and her mother was a very unusual woman in that she was a queen in her own right, of Castile in Spain, and demonstrated to Katherine and her sisters, Isabella, Maria and Juana, that women could rule a country. On the other hand, Henry VIII was raised to take what he wanted, and he had lived through the destructive Wars of the Roses, and no doubt had it drummed into him by his father, Henry VII, that women couldn’t rule a country without civil war, as happened with the Empress Matilda. Perhaps if Katherine had the same upbringing as Henry had, she might have yielded to his request for her to enter a nunnery, as she would have understood the importance of a male heir. Katherine is very obedient to both her mother and her father, acting as her father’s ambassador in England in both an official and unofficial capacity. Henry, on the other hand, wants to distance himself from his father, knowing that he wasn’t popular. Henry had also been stifled by his father after the death of his brother, Arthur, and no doubt he wanted to break away from that influence. Both of Henry’s parents were dead by 1509, but Katherine’s father was still active in international affairs, and was the nominal ruler of Spain during his daughter, Juana’s, madness. No doubt Katherine wanted to unite her husband and father in alliance, being loyal to both men.

  • We see Henry VIII only through Katherine’s perspective, which is coloured by her all-encompassing love for him, but nonetheless allows us a deep insight into this complicated and dominating king. What is your impression of his character in the novel? How does it compare to your own assumptions about Henry VIII?
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

I think that Henry VIII was inherently selfish and very used to getting whatever he wanted. He was doted on by both his mother, Elizabeth of York, and his grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, who were both strong women. He was also given a lot of freedom as he wasn’t the heir to the throne until after his brother’s death in 1502. He was a vibrant boy with a passionate interest in sports, and became used to dominating a room. Katherine sees his vibrancy as a strength and uses it to influence him away from his ministers, making him believe that he is choosing his own direction and making his own way in the world. I also think that, in the early years of his reign, Henry was quite easily influenced, first by Katherine and then by Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell. The typical image of Henry VIII is the overweight and maniacal cartoon of his later years, but during his relationship with Katherine he was someone else entirely. It has been suggested that his fall from his horse in 1536 changed his personality, but I’m not sure I believe it. I think it more likely that he had some kind of personality disorder, perhaps bi-polar, as he could be fine with someone one minute and execute them the next – like Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Wolsey (who probably would have been executed had he lived).

  • As a Princess of Spain, Katherine is accustomed to having power rather than seeking it. Does she ever become ambitious? How does she learn how to use her power over Henry? How does it affect her when she finds this waning? When she asserts herself as the true queen, is she seeking to save her husband, her throne, or her soul?

I think that Katherine is ambitious for the throne, although there is much more to it than that. After the death of Prince Arthur she is determined to marry Prince Henry, convinced that it is her destiny to be Queen of England. She may have believed it, but I think that there was also an element of ambition there, because who wouldn’t want to be Queen of England? I think Katherine learns to use her power over Henry in order to facilitate the Anglo-Spanish alliance. She learns from her own experience and through trial and error. It allows her to assert her own authority and try to influence the king in policy. She is shocked to find her power waning, as the relationship between her own parents never really did, although both of them were monarchs in their own right, unlike Katherine. I think Katherine is trying to save her husband, throne and her soul, though I do think to her mind her soul is the top of her list, followed by her husband and then her throne. I think her religion and conscience were the most important things to her, followed by her marriage and then her throne. Her conscience tells her that her marriage is just and valid, and so giving up her husband and her throne would imperil her soul. Everything is connected. If she gave up one, all would be endangered.

  • Loss is a major theme in the novel. Katherine grieves for the deaths of her mother, brother and children among many others. How does this underlying sorrow affect the development of her character, and how does it test her faith? How does her response to loss contrast with other characters’ reactions?

I think that because Katherine had loss so early on in her life it became a part of who she was. She lost her brother, Juan, and then her sister, Isabella, before she even left Spain for England. Then she lost Arthur just 6 months after marrying him. Soon after that she also lost her mother, which possibly hit her the hardest, as she had always been particularly close to Isabella, and hadn’t seen her since she left Spain in 1501. I don’t think Katherine really mourned for Arthur like she did for her mother. She didn’t really know Arthur and, if their marriage was never consummated, she didn’t have that connection to him either. On the contrary, Isabella was a focal point of Katherine’s life and her religious convictions stemmed from her mother. I think in particular the deaths of her children affected her because it wasn’t just a personal loss to her and Henry but a dynastic loss as well. I also think Katherine really wanted to be a mother, as demonstrated by her care and devotion towards Princess Mary when she was born in 1516.I think Katherine deals with loss in a much quieter way than others do. When Maud Parr died, Katherine dealt with it stoically where Maud’s daughter, Anne, was very loud about her grief. Maria de Salinas seems to have locked herself away in her grief when her husband died.

  • Katherine finds herself influenced by diverse powerful and intriguing people – including Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. These historical figures have been written about many times, but how does Alison Weir choose to portray them? How does Katherine’s relationship with each man move the story forward, and who do you think has the most impact on her life?
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

Weir chooses to portray Cardinal Wolsey as the one who pulled Henry and Katherine apart. It was Katherine who lost her power and influence when Wolsey rose to prominence. I think Katherine also resented the fact that Wolsey was usurping the power of Henry and running the country in his stead. Wolsey was a victim of the divorce as much as Katherine was, and Katherine even seems to have felt sorry for him in the end. Thomas More doesn’t seem to have played a very large role in this novel. He seems to mainly be in the background, encouraging Katherine in her stance against the divorce and eventually dying for his beliefs. Thomas Cromwell I think is the one who had the most impact on Katherine, and Henry’s, lives. Cromwell encouraged Henry to take a hugely radical step in separating the English church from Rome and encouraging Henry in his marriage to Anne Boleyn, unlike Wolsey. Cromwell was the real architect of the Break with Rome and Wolsey and More were just two of the victims. However, I do think that in reality Thomas More had more influence on Katherine and her life than is portrayed in this novel, as why would he die for something that he didn’t believe passionately about?

  • “What she wanted did not matter. When her parents commanded, she must obey.” Katherine is sent to England as a bargaining chip, left powerless at Arthur’s death, and increasingly loses control over her own life as Henry fights for a divorce. Yet she retains great strength of character and is praised for her learning and intelligence. Do you see her as a passive or active character? In what ways does she manage to live on her own terms? How does she choose which battles to fight, and do you feel she ever wins?

I think Katherine was a very active character, although in stories and on television she is often portrayed as being quite passive. She has to have been active in opposing Henry VIII’s plans for a divorce. Anne of Cleves, on the other hand, merely accepted the annulment of her marriage and retired with a pension and several properties, which probably would have been Katherine’s lot had she given in to Henry. Her strength inspires others in their actions against the divorce, like Thomas More and Bishop Fisher. I don’t think that they would have been half as zealous in Katherine’s cause, if she herself hadn’t been so convinced of the rightness of it. She manages to survive on her own after Arthur’s death with very little money and no way of paying her servants, yet still her servants stayed on to serve her. She obviously inspired a lot of loyalty and it’s difficult for a passive person to achieve that. She chooses not to fight when Henry takes mistresses and only fights when it threatens the unity of England, her own conscience and soul, and the sanctity of marriage. She wins a moral victory, as Katherine is most often seen as the saint and Anne Boleyn (her rival for the king’s affections) the sinner. She won more at the beginning of her marriage when she retained Henry’s love and affection and she was the one of kept England and Spain in alliance for so long.

  • Henry’s councillors push Katherine to accede gracefully to his demand for a divorce, offering her a comfortable life with her daughter and friends in return. How does the strength of her principles and her devout faith make this impossible for her to accept? Do you think she made the right decision, and was it worth the price?

Katherine truly believed that she was Henry VIII’s only true wife. Nowadays marrying your sister-in-law is really weird and actually forbidden, but in the 16th century it was almost normal and the Pope dispensed for in-law marriages all the time. The strength of her principles shocked me. If she had given in to the king’s plea to retire to a nunnery, Katherine would have had a comfortable life, and her daughter’s rights to the throne couldn’t have been questioned as the marriage was made in good faith, and the church declared that the children of any marriage made in good faith were legitimate. She truly believed in what her conscience was telling her. I think it was the right decision for Katherine at the time to make, but I’m not sure that it was worth the price – her stubbornness led directly to the Break with Rome. However, I think that Katherine believed that she would be jeopardising the sanctity of the church by giving in to Henry’s demands, as divorce was technically disallowed by the Catholic Church.

  • The novel is the first in Alison Weir’s new series about the six queens of Henry VIII, and many of their storylines will overlap. What did you think of the introduction and characterisation of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour here, through Katherine’s eyes? Which queen’s story are you most interested in reading and why?
Alison Weir 'Katherine of Aragon the True Queen'
Alison Weir’s “Katherine of Aragon: the True Queen”, the first in a series of ‘Six Tudor Queens’ (2016)

I think that Anne Boleyn is often seen as one of two opposites – either the vengeful sexualised Anne, or the saintly religious Anne. From Katherine’s point of view, the former applies. However, I think that Anne Boleyn’s story from her point of view will be very different. It seems as though Anne didn’t really love Henry and merely wanted the position and wealth that marriage to the king entailed. It will be interesting to see Anne’s point of view on this issue, as it has also divided historians for generations. Jane Seymour we didn’t see much of, but we do see her devotion to Katherine, and her duty to her father, in leaving Katherine’s household and joining Anne’s. It will be interesting to see the difference between serving Katherine of Aragon and serving Anne Boleyn. I really want to read Anne Boleyn’s story, and I also want to see Alison Weir’s take on Anne of Cleves. Anne of Cleves was a very different queen than any of Henry VIII’s other wives, and her relationship with him intrigues me.

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