Books, Art, & Visual Culture


Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen by Alison Weir


Reading novels based in the medieval and renaissance landscape of England is my guilty pleasure. It’s my version of reading a fluffy piece of “chick lit” (horrible term) or watching the Kardashians (I have to assume this is a good analogy as I’ve never actually watched them myself). My husband teases me by calling them “bodice rippers” and I suppose a lot of historical fiction does include a fair few sex scenes. It makes sense if you think about the point of these books, which is to try to flesh out a real, living, breathing person from a hazy web of dry facts and mythology built up over hundreds of years. The author tries to weave together a plausible personality from these threads and give us someone that we can relate to, someone who engages our empathy. How these people interact with those around them is vital to this hypothesis. When dealing with the setting of a royal court of the 1500s, the most important issue is the succession of the monarchy. The preference is having a direct descendant to inherit power. And we all know how babies are made, right?

This very personal subject is never more relevant than in Alison Weir’s Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen. In this novel, she explores the relationship between Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Katherine had previously been married to Henry’s older brother, who died young and she always claimed that they had been too young and he too ill, for them to have consummated the union. Henry was more than happy to accept this claim… until it inconvenienced him to do so.

Alison Weir’s Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen is set in the archaic glamour of the Tudor court. It is a vanished world, one that is difficult to imagine with any accuracy, with our modern minds programmed with images of Showtime’s The Tudors and the like. But Katherine and Henry’s story is more relatable than you might think. At first glance, the politics of kings and queens and the inheritance of a kingdom seem far removed from anything that might touch our lives, but at its heart, this is the story of a marriage breaking down. The best thing, in my opinion, is that Alison Weir is an accomplished and respected historian. She has written countless (OK, that’s an exaggeration, you actually can count them if you like) non-fiction history books covering this era and has only relatively recently included fiction in her output. What this means though, is that when you read one of her novels, whatever facts can be known about the subject are used in the book. The speculation, the “making up” of things only occurs in the areas that we can’t know about: behind closed doors and inside characters’ heads. So if you’re also a reader of historic non-fiction, you won’t get distracted by thoughts such as “he didn’t really do that” or “what did they do with Margaret Tudor?” Weir gets behind the closed doors and gives us a plausible and sympathetic portrait of two people with a great deal of external pressure on their relationship, and how they each deal with the situation.

I enjoyed this take on a familiar story and look forward to Queen #2!