Queens Against the Flow

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Catherine of Aragon after the death of her first husband, Prince Arthur, in 1502 and before her marriage to Henry VIII in 1509; painting by Michiel Sittow, circa 1503–1505

“Some characters appear to triumph with history; some to be overwhelmed by it.” It was with these words that Garrett Mattingly, the American historian of early modern European diplomacy whose book on the defeat of the Spanish Armada brought him international fame, began his classic biography of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. Sometimes, he continued,

the boiling torrent of events throws up one foam-capped wave which seems to sweep everything before it…. But the integrity of granite, not less than the fury of rushing water, shapes the final course of the stream. This is the story of a life which shaped history by not moving with its flow.1

Mattingly’s words raise important questions both about the degree to which individuals influence the course of events and about historical inevitability. “When I think of the individual,” wrote Fernand Braudel, “I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand.”2 For Braudel, the underlying social and economic forces created by geography and climate were what really shaped the course of history, leaving individuals with scant room for maneuver. For this reason he and others associated with the Annales school of history tended to take a generally low view of biography as a historical genre. By contrast, in the world of Anglo-American historical scholarship, historians of the caliber of Mattingly remained happy to devote time and energy to the writing of biographies, and these in turn never fell out of favor with a reading public untroubled by the vagaries of historical fashion.

Mattingly himself seems to have harbored no doubts about the value of biography in demonstrating the impact of the individual on the course of history, and in Catherine of Aragon he found an ideal subject. Born in 1485, the last of the five children of the joint monarchs of a newly united Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Catherine’s fate was predestined from birth. Like all royal daughters she was to be a pawn in the high-stakes game of dynastic politics. At a time when Spain was revealing itself to the world as a formidable power, she immediately took her place on the international marriage market. When she was only three, two English ambassadors sent by Henry VII to look her over concluded an Anglo-Spanish treaty of alliance, under the terms of which she was to be married to Prince Arthur, his son and heir. Henceforth she was to be known as the Princess of Wales.

This matrimonial alliance held fast, unlike many in a Europe of rapidly shifting diplomatic alignments, primarily because Henry VII was anxious to…

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