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 buttress the still-contested claims of his family to the English throne by linking it to a distinguished royal bloodline, and because Spain and England shared a common enemy in France. As a result, Catherine was shipped off to England in 1501 at the age of fifteen, and married to the Prince of Wales, of the same age as herself. Within five months of his marriage Prince Arthur was dead, and Catherine, who had taken up residence with her husband in Ludlow Castle on the Welsh Marches, found herself a widow in a strange and unfamiliar land.

For seven years Henry VII and Ferdinand of Aragon bickered over her future, until Arthur’s younger brother Henry, the new Prince of Wales, acceded to the throne as Henry VIII in the spring of 1509, and decided to take his former sister-in-law as his wife. Catherine had at last fulfilled her appointed destiny by becoming queen of England, and embarked on a new life that began spectacularly well as the beautiful and universally admired wife of a vigorous and handsome young king, but would culminate in the humiliation of divorce, the loss of her royal title, and her replacement as Henry’s queen by the upstart Anne Boleyn.

Catherine’s story, so well told by Mattingly, has now been retold for a new generation by Giles Tremlett, a long-time resident of Spain, and The Guardian’s correspondent in Madrid. Mattingly coupled the techniques of the historian with the skills of a novelist, and anyone who follows in his steps faces a daunting challenge. Tremlett rises to it splendidly. Like Mattingly, he writes with the fluency of the novelist, and, like Mattingly too, he has based his account on the original sources, both printed and unprinted, although intending readers of the London edition of his book should be warned that for the footnotes and the full bibliography they will have to turn to the website of the publishers, Faber and Faber. His account is more episodic than that of Mattingly, as it shifts in a succession of short chapters from one location to another, but this device keeps the narrative moving, and makes it highly readable.


It has to be said that Tremlett, for all his diligence, cannot add much new information to an already well-told tale. He is less concerned than Mattingly with the intricacies of diplomacy, although he sets the European scene well when it impinges on his story; and, in line with current historical fashion,3 he devotes more space than Mattingly to colorful descriptions of court festivities, pageantry, and costume, although Mattingly too was adept at evoking great spectacles of state. More importantly, his intimate knowledge of Catherine’s native country allows him to place her convincingly in her Spanish setting, as the intelligent and well-educated daughter of one of the most impressive of European queens regnant, Isabella of Castile.

She emerges from Tremlett’s account, as from Mattingly’s, as a true daughter of her mother, capable in the management of business and affairs of state, as when, in 1513, Henry went campaigning in France and appointed her in his absence as queen governor of the realm. Faced with a Scottish invasion she rose splendidly to the occasion, herself moving northward with a body of troops, and dispatching men, money, and munitions that enabled the royal army to crush the Scots at Flodden Field. As the news traveled across Europe, admiring contemporaries recalled the victories won by her mother over the Moors of Spain.

Highly popular in the country that she had now made her own, and enjoying the respect, and possibly the love, of her husband, Catherine was riding high. Yet within a few short years the triumph turned to ashes. What had gone wrong? The answer lay in biology—in Catherine’s inability to provide Henry with a living male heir. A son, born prematurely, died shortly after birth, and thereafter she succeeded only in providing Henry with a daughter, the future Queen Mary I, born in 1516. With the future of the dynasty so uncertain, Henry began to contemplate the possibility of divorce and remarriage, and so began the drama of the king’s divorce and England’s break with Rome.

Tremlett gives a poignant account of the humiliations and sufferings that progressively took their toll on Catherine’s health, and that found expression, he suggests, in the eating disorders by which she was afflicted. But he also describes the vigor and tenacity with which she fought back. At every turn she thwarted the moves of the king and Cardinal Wolsey to make her go quietly, turning for support to her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, as the king made increasingly desperate efforts to convince the pope of the invalidity of his marriage, which had required a papal dispensation of the canonical impediment to union because of first-degree affinity between husband and wife. Henry had persuaded himself that Catherine’s failure to give him a male heir reflected a divine judgment on his infringement of the text in Leviticus 18:16, “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife.” Catherine countered by insisting that her marriage with Prince Arthur had never been consummated, and that she was still a virgin when her marriage to Henry occurred.

The evidence of what actually happened on the night of her first wedding was, and remains, ambiguous. Tremlett, however, whose first chapter, entitled “Bed,” attempts to elucidate the events, or nonevents, of that night with the help of a neglected Spanish manuscript containing formal statements provided by Spaniards who had accompanied Catherine to England, tells us that “she had no qualms about lying when she thought it necessary.” But lies, if she was indeed telling lies, were in the end of no help. In 1532 the king, having failed to win the concurrence of the papacy, moved to establish himself as the head of an independent English church. Early in 1533 he secretly married the pregnant Anne Boleyn, who gave birth in September, ironically to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth.

In the following year, by the Act of Succession, Parliament declared the king’s marriage to Catherine null and void. Their daughter, the princess Mary, was pronounced a bastard, and Catherine, no longer entitled to style herself queen and fearing for her life at a time when the lives of one after another of those who resisted the king’s will ended on the executioner’s block, was imprisoned in a fortified manor house at Kimbolton, in Huntingdonshire. Described by her physician as being in a state of “limitless consternation,” she died, still unaccepting of her fate, in January 1536.

The picture that emerges from Tremlett’s account, as from Mattingly’s, is of a tenacious, proud, and devout woman, who used every available weapon in a desperate effort to uphold her royal dignity and her daughter’s rights to the succession. Tremlett tells us that as she approached death her conscience was troubled as to whether her obstinacy in choosing to fight her husband rather than retire to a nunnery had been responsible for the death of good men and the separation of England from the Church of Rome. “The honest answer,” he writes, “was that it had.” But would the outcome have been very different if she had not put up such a fight?


Mattingly, in suggesting that hers is the story of “a life which shaped history by not moving with its flow,” clearly believes that the flow was moving inexorably toward the creation of a Protestant England, and that although Catherine’s granite-like resistance held back the torrent for a moment and so shaped its final course, it could not forever stop the waters in their track.

Did Henry, then, stand for the future, and Catherine for the past? It is tempting to write, or rewrite, history in terms of the actions of the prominent and the powerful. I vividly remember entering a convent church in central Spain in the 1950s and being accosted by a nun who, on discovering that I was English, launched into a passionate denunciation of Henry VIII and then wanted to know how anyone could be the adherent of a church founded by such a monster of depravity. She at least had no doubts as to the reason why England became a land of heretics. The past, however, is never quite so simple, and the history of continental Europe in those years—the Europe of Erasmus, of Luther and Calvin—is that of a continent convulsed by a religious and intellectual upheaval from which even an insular England could hardly have been expected to remain immune.


Prado, Madrid/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

Sir Anthonis van Dashorst: Queen Mary I, 1554

If the life of Catherine of Aragon raises the question of the extent to which the actions of a single individual can change the course of events, that of her daughter Mary throws it into even sharper relief. When Henry VIII died in 1547 he left, in addition to his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, a young son, Edward, by his third wife, Jane Seymour. Henry had established royal supremacy over the Church of England, dissolved the monasteries, and sold off church lands on a massive scale, but doctrinally he remained a conservative at heart. When his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, urged him “zealously to proceed in the reformation of the church,” he is said to have bridled at her intervention, which was doubly unwelcome as coming from a woman: “A good hearing it is, when women become such clerks; and a thing much to my comfort, to come in mine old days to be taught of my wife.” For a moment it seemed that Katherine might share the unhappy fate of her predecessors, but recognizing the “great imperfection and weakness” of women, she made a groveling submission and the king relented and restored her to favor.4

Henry’s orthodoxy came as a bitter disappointment to those who had hoped to see him “zealously to proceed in the reformation of the church” by moving it in a more Protestant direction, and it was they who seized the initiative during the short reign of Edward VI. By the time of Edward’s early death in 1553 the mass had been abolished, and numerous “popish” remnants had been swept away. But the speed and character of the reforms left the country divided. The reforming faction, in a bid to ensure their survival, persuaded the dying Edward to set aside the order of succession fixed by Henry at the end of his life. As a result, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen, and Mary and her half-sister Elizabeth were dismissed as bastards. Mary, however, as the daughter of Henry VIII, was widely seen as the legitimate successor to the crown, and a coup launched by her supporters triumphantly placed her on the throne.

The reign of Mary I, from 1553 to 1558, was for long seen as an unhappy caesura in England’s national story. On one side stood Henry VIII and Edward VI, who between them liberated the country from the shackles of Romish religion, and on the other stood Elizabeth I, whose long and glorious reign enabled it to realize its destiny as a great Protestant nation bound for global supremacy. The five years of rule by “Bloody Mary,” by contrast, were years of dark reaction, when an obstinate and fanatical queen reimposed the papal yoke, and ordered nearly three hundred Protestants to be burned at the stake for holding fast to their heretical beliefs. This was the story vividly recounted in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a vastly influential work that did much to shape England’s national consciousness.

Recent years, however, have seen a number of important attempts to reassess the character and significance of Mary’s reign. Much of this process of reassessment has been prompted by a growing appreciation of the complexities of religious thought and practice in sixteenth-century England and a questioning of the degree to which Protestantism really took hold in the country, at least before the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. In two major works Eamon Duffy in particular has sought to show that Mary’s reign was not the sterile reign of popular imagination, and that the religion she attempted to restore was far from being Roman Catholicism in its most reactionary form.5

There are other reasons, too, for the revival of interest in Mary Tudor, both as a person and a queen. So much attention has been paid to Elizabeth and her reign that it is not surprising that a new generation of historians should have revisited the reign of her immediate predecessor, which by comparison remained underresearched. More importantly, Mary was England’s first queen regnant, if one sets aside the de facto queenship of Matilda for a few months in 1141. The growing concern with women’s history over the past few decades has naturally aroused interest in the impact of female rule on the character of government and kingship in a masculine world. Mary Tudor has been a particular beneficiary of this interest, and the two books here under review take their place in a growing list of recent biographies, all of them works that show the art of biography to be flourishing in contemporary Britain.6

In Mary Tudor Anna Whitelock, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Mary’s household, has turned her hand to popular biography, and her book has enjoyed deserved success as a highly readable and well-researched account of Mary, both as a woman and a queen. She illustrates vividly the tension between these two aspects of her life, especially during the years of her marriage to Philip of Spain when she was at once queen regnant and the dutiful, loving, and ultimately tragic wife of a royal husband who was not allowed by parliamentary statute to exercise the powers traditionally exercised by a king of England. The conclusion of her book is in line with that of other recent accounts of the reign: “Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.”

A comparable conclusion is reached in the even more recent Mary I by John Edwards, who asserts that her “achievement as England’s first recognized sovereign queen has been effectively usurped by her half-sister,” and that “Mary’s historical clothes have been stolen by Elizabeth.” Both authors draw a broadly similar picture of the queen and her reign, but Edwards’s biography, while making for denser reading than Whitelock’s, which tends toward the episodic, gains from being written by a historian who has published extensively on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain. Drawing on his close knowledge of the Spanish and international background, and of the spiritual cross-currents of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Edwards is able to situate Mary more authoritatively than Whitelock in European as well as English history. This Continental dimension to the story of a reign that cannot be fully understood if treated purely as an episode in English national history makes Edwards’s book the most comprehensive and convincing account to date.

Both authors emphasize the importance of Mary’s Spanish heritage, and depict a woman well-educated, like her mother, Catherine of Aragon, who had inherited in full measure the tenacity and extreme devoutness of her own mother, Isabella of Castile; and Isabella’s marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon while heiress presumptive to the crown of Castile would offer useful precedents for the arrangements surrounding Mary’s marriage to Isabella’s great-grandson, Philip of Spain. These arrangements raised delicate and complicated issues for both parties. Philip, the heir to the Spanish throne, was still only a prince, and, as such, would find himself in the intolerable position of being subordinate to his wife, the queen of England. This was rectified at the wedding ceremony, held in Winchester Cathedral in July 1554, when letters patent from his father, the emperor, created him king of Naples, one of Charles V’s many dominions. Philip and Mary were thus jointly proclaimed “King and Queen of England, Naples, Jerusalem, Ireland and France….” But as king of England, what powers would Philip possess? Just as there were no precedents for a queen regnant in England, so also there were none for a king consort.

Mary’s councillors, worried about the potential consequences of a foreigner on the English throne, insisted on a series of strict conditions before the marriage could go ahead. By the terms of the marriage treaty Philip’s powers were severely restricted. Mary, for instance, retained absolute control over all public appointments. If the marriage produced a child, he or she would inherit England and the Netherlands, while it was envisaged that in Spain itself Philip’s son by his first marriage, Don Carlos, would in due course inherit the crown. If Mary died before Philip, neither he nor Don Carlos would have any claim to the English throne.

Philip made it clear in a secret document that he had no intention of binding himself and his heirs in this way, but he was prepared for the time being to play along with the arrangements, although deeply resentful that the English resolutely refused to allow him a coronation. On the other hand, when the new coinage depicted Philip in a position of superiority on Mary’s right, it was the turn of the English to feel aggrieved. Cosovereignty was never going to be easy, but Philip played a weak hand with some skill, and Mary, infatuated with her husband, was in general willing to accommodate herself to his wishes.

During the year he spent in England, from July 1554 to August 1555, before going back to Brussels, he influenced the Council’s policy decisions, introduced important administrative changes, and intervened in major appointments. He was also determined to involve England in the Habsburg conflict with France, and—after succeeding his father as king of Spain in 1556—was back in England for a few months in 1557 to secure its military support for war on the continent. Like his father before him he saw England as essential to the Habsburg geopolitical system, and within months of Mary’s death in 1558 he was making overtures for a marriage to his former sister-in-law Elizabeth, her successor on the English throne.

He made the overtures reluctantly, in the hope of preventing England from breaking loose once again from Rome. It may have come as a relief that they were not successful. The precedents set by his marriage to Mary were discouraging, at the personal as well as the political level. The shared Spanish heritage was not sufficient to bridge the gap created by age and temperament, and, oddly enough, that heritage does not seem at first to have included an ability on Mary’s part to speak the language. At their initial encounter, two days before the wedding, Philip spoke in Spanish and Mary in French. The reason may well be that, although she must have heard Spanish spoken around her in her early years, she was separated from her mother at the age of nine when she was sent to the Welsh Marches with a household of her own, and never saw her again after 1531, when Henry finally abandoned Catherine and ordered mother and daughter to be kept permanently apart.

They did, however, maintain a clandestine correspondence, in which, as Whitelock says, Catherine communicated to her daughter a sense of “shared martyrdom.” That sense of martyrdom may well have helped carry Mary through the mental and physical sufferings of the terrible years of deprivation and humiliation, and put iron into her soul as she awaited an always uncertain fate. Not surprisingly, when she finally ascended the throne of an England that seemed in danger of toppling into civil war over matters of religion and the disputed succession, she saw the hand of providence at work. Against all the odds, the legitimacy of her birth and her royal rights had at last been vindicated. In the circumstances it was natural that she should see herself as the humble instrument of God chosen for the execution of His grand design, the restoration of England to obedience to Rome.

That process of restoration, too easily dismissed as “reaction,” is treated with particular sensitivity by Edwards. He describes Mary’s own religion as combining the “Catholic humanism” instilled in her by her Renaissance education and fostered by Katherine Parr, who had once served in her household and took both Mary and Elizabeth under her wing on becoming queen, with a number of the spiritual values and religious practices currently under discussion at the Council of Trent. It was only with the council’s conclusion in 1563 that doctrine finally hardened into dogma and the dividing lines between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism came to be firmly drawn.

Until then, religious beliefs possessed a fluidity that frequently enabled them to bridge the sectarian divide. Mary’s own spirituality had an affinity with that of her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, a member of the reforming wing of the Roman church, who, as papal legate, would mastermind the attempt to reform the English church in line with these reformist ideals.

As is well known, the providential mission on which Mary had set her heart and that gave meaning to her life ended in failure. Her half-sister Elizabeth would steer the country back toward a moderate Protestant settlement, and in the process would give it the stability it so sorely needed. The reasons for the failure were many. The first, and most important, was the shortness of Mary’s reign and her failure, following phantom pregnancies, to give birth to a child. Pole’s reforms, although efficiently managed, had no time to take root. Meanwhile, the burnings of growing numbers of Protestant martyrs, urged on by Philip’s adviser, the Dominican friar Bartolomé Carranza, and enjoying Mary’s sometimes public support, alienated moderate opinion and were to prove fatally counterproductive. They also did much to foster anti-Spanish sentiment. Although Philip himself, while resenting his subordinate status, behaved circumspectly, the presence of so many Spaniards at court and the political involvement with Spain, which drew England into the Spanish Habsburg system of Continental alliances with disastrous results, built up antipathy to Spain in a country that half a century earlier had welcomed a Spanish-born princess with open arms.

It is natural to speculate about what would have happened if Mary’s life had been as long as that of Elizabeth, and if she had given birth to an heir. Are we to see her, as Mattingly saw Catherine of Aragon, as undoubtedly shaping the course of history by her granite-like integrity, but ultimately incapable of stopping its flow? All her recent biographers have tended to emphasize the positive aspects of her reign, and in so doing have revised in important ways the negative portrait that has traditionally predominated. In particular they have shown Mary to be, like her mother and her grandmother, a highly capable woman who, as England’s first queen regnant, successfully defied the stereotype that deemed women both incapable of government and unfitted for it. In this respect, at least, she gave a new direction to the course of English history. Her success in the handling of government affairs smoothed the path for Elizabeth, who, by remaining a Virgin Queen, also managed to turn to political advantage a major source of Mary’s misfortunes—the tension between kingship and femininity.

Yet in matters religious, which were at the heart of Mary’s life, it is hard to see the course of history running smooth. The effect of the repressive policies of her regime was to reinforce the determination of a small but committed Protestant minority to maintain its opposition to the pope and all his works. In this it enjoyed growing popular sympathy in a country that was beginning to redefine itself as a nation by identifying Spain as its natural enemy, and in which a political elite that had benefited enormously from the disposal of church property was fearful of being stripped of its gains. In the wake of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, Europe was in turmoil. It is not difficult to imagine a Marian England descending, like its Continental neighbors, into civil and religious war. The outcome of such a war on English soil is unpredictable.

Mattingly’s “flow” of history is a slippery concept. Personality and contingency have a way of intervening with unintended and unexpected consequences. This at least is what happened when Catherine of Aragon refused to go quietly, and when her daughter responded to the call of providence by marrying Philip of Spain and bringing England back into the Roman fold.