Historical fiction is among my favorite genres. I was so looking forward to reading in historical fiction that I had a really hard time narrowing down the stack of books to just one. In the end, I selected The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.
Gregory is famous for her series of novels about the Tudor royals, especially The Other Boleyn Girl. I decided on The Constant Princess because the main character is Katherine of Aragon, and she is a historical figure I have always greatly admired, whereas I have regarded the other Tudors with mild disdain. I like the Plantagenet kings, especially Richard III after reading his biography by Paul Murray Kendall.
The Constant Princess begins with a scene from Katherine’s childhood on the battlefields of Spain. From the earliest moments, Katherine (born Catalina) is trained to be a ruling queen by her mother, Queen Isabella, and her father, King Ferdinand. When Catalina leaves her home and travels to England, she is confronted by a whole new world. She finds that the weather is extreme, the social norms strange, and the courtly manners uncouth. Born to be Queen of England, however, she must adapt herself to her new home. Catalina finds comfort in her husband, Prince Arthur, but their happiness is short-lived. They have been married only nine months when he dies.
The politics of England are harsh for Catalina following Arthur’s death. The only way to fulfill her ambitions of becoming Queen of England is to say her marriage to Arthur was not consummated and convince the Kings of England and Spain to betroth her to Prince Harry. This she does, though she first lives in poverty and insignificance at court. As queen, Katherine is every bit as adept as her mother, Isabella. She feels threatened by only one fact – her inability to produce a male heir. The novel concludes with the birth of Princess Mary, Katherine’s only surviving child, who will become Queen Mary I follow the death of Henry VIII.
As opposed to most depictions of Katherine of Aragon, Gregory does not write about her in contrast to Anne Boleyn. In fact, Anne Boleyn is mentioned only in the epilogue. I found it a refreshing take on the story. Given the turmoil Henry VIII created for Anne Boleyn’s sake, it is her story we remember most, yet Katherine was queen for 20 years, and very much beloved by the English people. More so, in fact, than Anne Boleyn ever was.
I began this novel a great fan of Katherine of Aragon, and though I still remain one, Gregory’s novel has sobered my opinion of her. While depicting Katherine as a strong woman and great queen, she reminds readers that to survive in a royal court takes courage, resilience, and more than a little scheming.
In novels like this, there is a chance that the story will not be engaging. After all, we know the ending of Katherine of Aragon’s story. What I loved about Gregory’s novel was the insight into Katherine’s actions and character. I’m curious now about how she depicts the Tudors. Despite my love of the Plantagenet kings, I know I’ll be reading more of Gregory’s novels in the future.
Book Information: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.
Touchstone, 2005. 393 pages.