Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castille
© 2011 Julia Fox
Virtually any reader of Tudor fiction is familiar with the sad story of Queen Catherine, the lawful wife of Henry VIII who was not merely abandoned, but cruelly cut off from her own daughter Mary, after she refused to partake in the murder of her marriage to Henry. Less known is the equally sad story of Catherine’s family, and particularly her sister Juana — who was likewise placed under house imprisonment and defamed as a lunatic. Sister Queens is a joint biography of Katherine and Juana which aims to plumb their full characters, however, not just the one aspect (“tragic wife”/ “tragic mad widow”) that plucks the heartstrings of readers the most. At times it wears a little heavy with all the details of court life — dresses, draperies, that sort of thing — but for those who know little about Queen Katherine and her family, Sister Queens is most accessible, and is a book which offers a look at the most influential family in late medieval Europe.
Ferdinand and Isabella are known to American schoolchildren as the patrons of Christopher Columbus’s foolhardy but accomplished voyage across the Atlantic, but in Europe they were the Most Catholic Monarchs, the pair who united Spain and reclaimed it for Christendom against the armies of the caliphs. (And, tragically, by expelling Jewish subjects.) Their marriage was fruitful, producing five children: Isabella, Juan, Juana, Catalina, and Maria. Royal marriages were then the stuff of diplomatic alliances, and all four of the daughters would be married abroad. Tragedy would visit the family again and and again, claiming Isabella, Juan, and several children — a theme that continued throughout Juana and Catherine’s lives.
Most readers are aware of the general trajectory of Catherine’s doomed marriage to the swine-king Henry, of the series of tragic child-deaths and miscarriages that convinced him that their marriage was cursed. Catherine was not merely the King’s consort, however, hanging about in the royal chambers and waiting for babies. Catherine’s diplomatic role didn’t end in marrying into the English dynasty. She served as Spain’s primary ambassador, attempting to keep English preferences aligned against France Her influence would wane sharply, however, after Henry began wondering if perhaps he shouldn’t have married his brother’s widow after all. Even there, Catherine proves herself a wily adversary, sending secret messages, defending herself in trial, and twisting even the Holy Roman Emperor’s elbow for aide. It helped that Emperor Charles was her nephew, the son of Juana. Fox is somewhat less successful with Queen Juana, though not for lacking of trying; there’s just so little evidence to go on about her life once she became a captive resident of Tordesillas. Fox argues that Juana’s histrionics were a form of manipulation — aimed first at her husband Phillip, and then at her captors — in the hopes of effecting her own will. Her captivity was less a matter of illness than control, for after her mother’s death Juana was the legitimate heir of the Castilian throne — and through her name, her father and husband sought to rule Fox argues that the people who lived with Juana, namely her daughter Catalina, and those who visited her or exchanged letters with her never remarked on any instability. Only those who tried to control her — Phillip and Ferdinand, and their agents — encountered the desperate Juana, who would lash out in tantrums against them.
Unfortunately, there’s so little information about the imprisoned Juana that I don’t know if this book does too much for her. Having already developed an appreciation for Queen Catherine’s character through other biographies and novels, I enjoyed Sister Queens most as look into the joined Spanish-Hapsburg dynasty that would create that pivotal character of the reformation, Charles V. (For more information, read Will Durant’s The Reformation. Charles V holds a commanding position throughout.)