Mixing historical fact with daring fiction, The Constant Princes by Philippa Gregory tells the story of Katherine of Aragon who–to fulfill her destiny–will tell the greatest lie ever told to a King with a mixture of heartbreak, intrigue, and the turnings of the Tudor Court. It’s a time when England is defining itself and Katherine’s story is a prequel to the greatest religious schism the world has ever known.
There are two things that I loved about this book; the first was its historical aspect, the second was the personal one. As the first of Henry’s six wives, Katherine was–in many senses–the luckiest. She claimed that her marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur was never consummated and thus–as a virgin–she could marry Henry. Whether or not this was true is a matter of historical debate and may never be known for certain, but it led to her marriage to Henry which lasted approximately twenty years before he decided to have it annulled for two reasons. The first was that he believed that Katherine had lied about being a virgin. The second was that their only child Mary–known historically as Bloody Mary–was the only Tudor heir to the thrown and it was unheard of for a woman to rule at the time. Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage and that–in conjunction with his dalliances with Anne Boleyn–caused him to break from the Roman Catholic Church and declare the Protestant Church with him as its head. The religious turmoil unleashed as a result extended beyond his time and only came to a tentative rest when–ironically–his daughter, Elizabeth I sat on the throne of England.
The personal aspects of historical fiction are also hard to ignore. In books such as The Constant Princess historical figures are brought to life. After reading this book, I didn’t look upon Katherine of being this vague woman who had the God given grace to escape Henry’s wrath, but as a young girl with hopes and dreams who–through devastating losses–grew into a strong hearted young woman that guided a nation under a young and inexperienced King. While I know that many of the aspects of the story could’ve been played up–we have no real idea what her relationship with Arthur was truly like–I felt sorry for her in her struggles, emphasized when she miscarried a daughter and when her days old son died. I was impressed by her wit, intellect, and courage and felt that she did a better job of managing England than Henry ever did.
The only criticism I have about the book–and it is minor–is the perspective. The book alternates between a general third person, a third person focusing on Katherine, a first person diaristic account from her, and a third person account by Henry’s father in the first half of the novel. These sections are broken up by brief spaces and only occasionally titled by dates and even more rarely by chapter heads. This makes it a little confusing as the narrative jumps around and you’re forced to change gears. However, once Henry’s father dies this is smoothed out as Katherine is the only narrator, whether in first of third person.
I have always loved the what-ifs of history and this book is no exception. What if Arthur hadn’t died? What if he and Katherine had ascended the throne together? Would they have had a son that continued the Tudor line? Would a break with the Roman Catholic Church have ever happened? Would the Roman Catholic Church still be the only Church? Alas, we will never know. All we can know for certain is what history tells us and what I concluded from reading this book is that Katherine of Aragon was a strong willed woman and the luckiest of Henry’s many wives.