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The Times Literary Supplement 4 March 2011

Wife and Widow

Sasha Garwood

BIOGRAPHY - Giles Tremlett - CATHERINE OF ARAGON Henry's Spanish Queen 458pp. Faber. 20. 9780571235117US: Walker and Company. $28. 978 0 8027 7916 8

- Linda Porter - KATHERINE THE QUEEN The remarkable life of Katherine Parr 465pp. Macmillan. 20. 978 023071039 9US: St Martin's Press. $27.99. 978 0 312 38438 8

Because there were so many of them, Henry VIII's wives have more frequently been considered as archetypes or counterpoints to one another than as complex individuals. Giles Tremlett and Linda Porter's full-length studies of Henry VIII's first and last queens reclaim two ambitious and determined women hitherto relegated to the uxorial sidelines of Tudor history.

Catherine of Aragon's importance in Henry VIII's "Great Matter" in the 1530s and 40s has generally overshadowed her life to either side, despite her impressive dynastic heritage and the importance of her powerful European connections to international diplomacy. Tremlett, the Madrid correspondent of the Guardian, and twenty years resident in Spain, uses his extensive knowledge of Spanish history and culture to discuss socio-political context as knowledgeably as he does Catherine's formative influences and the development of the determined, intense character that caused Henry so much trouble. The published edition contains no footnotes, but they are available from the Faber website, and make clear both the range and the depth of Tremlett's research. His use of Spanish archives alongside English ones affords unprecedented insight into Catherine's youth and upbringing, as well as her state of mind during the dowager years, when English-focused history tends. to leave her by the wayside. The same Spanish documentation also provides an atmospheric wealth of anecdote and incident, particularly from the peripatetic, devout, luxurious court of Ferdinand and Isabella, making for a richly detailed and engrossing study.

The Catherine that emerges is a formidable but largely sympathetic personality. Her religious devotion and the stubbornness it engendered are well known, but Tremlett brings out the degree to which they represented a carefully instilled aspect of a rigorous education for royalty and rule. Catherine's powerful, determined resistance to Henry VIII's plans comes over as poignantly human, her blind insistence on her rights the product not simply of arrogance, jealousy or religious conservatism but of an understandable attachment to the only identity she had ever known. Tremlett is particularly acute in his exploration of Catherine's use of her body as a way to communicate; her recurring illnesses and irregular eating patterns are presented as means of expressing the alienation and pressure that duty, position and her own values forbade her to voice. Alongside such compelling insights, however, are touches of humour and irony: Catherine's soon-to-be mother-in-law Elizabeth of York instructing the famously teetotal Isabella that her daughter accustom herself to drinking the strong wine common in England, for example, or the latter's response to the public belching commented on by a French ambassador.

Porter's biography, on the other hand, while fluent and engaging, offers a sketchier portrayal of its equally passionate and intelligent subject. More of a general history of Katherine Parr's life and times than an in-depth study or psychological portrait, it leaves its subject frustratingly opaque, alluding to areas of debate but never properly dissecting or resolving therm. Porter is commendably keen to resist caricature (Henry VIII as insensitive tyrant; Katherine as nursemaid to her ageing husband), but she never quite manages to replace such images with a three-dimensional, explicable human being. The lack of evidence is hardly Porter's fault but the frequency with which Catherine "seems" to have felt or thought something, or the airy ease with which her perspective on an expansively described political issue is dismissed. along with a paucity of footnotes, can feel frustratingly limiting.

Katherine's life is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and Porter tells it with relish. The book is as fast-moving and plot-driven as a novel, and its dramatic highlights - Wriothesley and Gardiner's attempts to undermine Katherine's position on religious grounds, or the ongoing mystery of what really happened between Thomas Seymour and the young Elizabeth I are nicely paced and suitably tense, providing opportunity for a more coherent image of Katherine's personality and. considerable intellect in action. Alongside these, however, are a number of digressions into general historical events, dramatic, but not strictly relevant to Katherine. Her earlier husbands remain shadowy figures, and the extent of her consciousness of the roles she was playing at any given time - obedient wife, devout lady, religious reformer, impassioned lover - is rarely clear. Her relations with those about her, and her actual feelings or motivations even for crucial events like her marriage to Thomas Seymour, remain matters for speculation.

Both biographies offer valuable insights into the complexities and cost of aristocratic femininity in early modem England. Despite the opportunities afforded by status, and positions at the apex of the households and patronage systems that came with royalty, there is a constant reminder of the limitations of autonomy and resistance for two intelligent and determined women in a cultural environment where power was always ultimately a masculine possession. While for both religious conviction offered strength, solace and individual validation, it was also a source of dangerous vulnerability. In a world where for all practical purposes the king's word became God's, these women, however elevated, were still defined by the masculine world they lived in, even as they have been by the "divorced/survived" caricatures these authors seek to dispel.

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