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Jan 18, 2012

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox
Random House, January 31, 2012
Hardcover 432 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating: 4.5 stars

The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister, offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right.

When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

We know of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand through their legacy of Christopher Columbus and the Inquisition. Yet, they also brought forth the legacy of their predecessors, and two of them are daughters Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. Juana of Castile is the tragic figure we recognize as the mad woman scorned and betrayed, and her sister Katherine of Aragon is the pious yet strong willed first wife of Henry VIII whom he famously cast aside for Anne Boleyn. The men created the events around their lives, and helped shape their legends. But exactly who these women were five hundred years ago is the subject of Julia Fox's newest non-fiction work, Sister Queens.

When reading about historical figures in the biographical context, I am used to the terms would-be, could-be, may have.. but I did not find an abundance of those phrases here - a refreshing change of pace that is unlike Alison Weir's writing. (Refreshingly absent is Weir's over-used eye-rolling phrase "we'll never know"). Leaving no stone unturned, Julia Fox seemingly examines and discusses all the details that she unearthed from her research from the Spanish Archives and the chronicles of the times, as apparently there are many letters and accounts which still survive. Katherine of Aragon's plight of being a widow is discussed thoroughly as she awaits the approval of her marriage to the future Henry VIII, while Juana's supposed madness is slowly wrapping its web around her reality as she finds herself in extreme isolation which began with her husband's ways and continued with her own father and ultimately her own son, Charles the Holy Roman Emperor.

Getting to the heart of the characters of the two sisters is a complex feat, but is accomplished as realistically as possible through the author's eyes. The leadership traits of their mother, Queen Isabella, are easily seen in both Juana and Katherine, and one wonders how far they would have gone if it were not for the chains of male prejudice holding them back. The author clearly wants this realization to come to light as she shows time and again how the men in their lives continued to wreak certain havoc with no regard for the thoughts of Katherine or Juana. And their father Ferdinand really seems like the type of man one would love to hate.

There is more evidence available for Katherine's life, as she was not as secluded and pushed aside as much as Juana was. Juana's husband began the rumors of her madness, and sadly enough her father King Ferdinand perpetuated these rumors which led to Juana's imprisonment. When Juana was given a rare chance to come out of her seclusion for the sake of Castile, she dissembled and lost the opportunity. Thus, Juana's story is one of rumor and innuendo, with no one on her side to plead her case, and when certain red flags were waved, they were ignored. Essentially shut up, Juana was easily forgotten. Bred to be a Queen, she had the foresight to be a great one, yet she chose to not display her mother's traits to those who mattered. She was reduced to tantrums at times, which provided enough fodder for those who liked to denounce her abilities. Juana's disappointing trait (downfall?) was her stalwart defense of her family. In contrast, Katherine was busy being the Queen of England, and epitomizing it in every sense of the phrase due to her extreme faith in the fact that Queen of England was what God had wanted for her. This faith, and the upbringing of Katherine, propelled Katherine into a woman to be reckoned with, someone who would even oppose her King of a husband in order to protect her soul and her constant belief in what was God's will.

Readers interested in the details of Katherine and Juana could not be disappointed with this telling of facts. It is well researched, well written and brings forth the hearts and souls of the sisters where we once only felt shadows. The author explains the traits we know these woman had and helps to flesh them out using many details and events of their lives. To get to the pathos of these women, we are obliged to touch on the details from the politics of England, Spain, to France and the Netherlands and onwards even to Burgundy, and throw in the many pregnancies and the many advisers and everyone in between and there is a complete a picture of these two sisters and their family dynamics. Katherine's great-nephew Philip marries Katherine's daughter, Mary, in what should have been a triumphant final stamp of Spain on England, yet we know that it is this same Philip who unsuccessfully wages war on England. Sister Queens is an exhaustive and detailed work surrounding these sisters, as I look forward to the next Julia Fox work with more anticipation than I would one by Alison Weir.