I thought twice about buying this, mainly because of the title, which implied an historical romance full of heaving bosoms and ripped bodices. Plus, did I really need another take on the overly familiar tale of Henry VIII, Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn? But I’ve heard a lot about Norah Lofts over the years and so did buy it, and to my relief it was a very pleasant surprise. Thoughtful and intelligent, it was grounded in the period mindset in such a way that I never felt myself sinking into a quagmire of historical exposition.
This book has Katharine at its heart. We first meet her as a child, living a nomadic and challenging existence on the dusty roads of Spain, as her formidable mother Isabella leads her troops in person with the ambition of reclaiming the peninsula for Christianity. Growing to womanhood among armies, generals and the clash of war, Katharine and her elder sister Juana absorb the powerful example of their devout, intelligent and capable mother – qualities that will be vital for their own marriages to European princes.
While Juana marries the handsome Philip of Flanders, Katharine’s fate is to be matched with the young Arthur, Prince of Wales. Gentle and delicate, the prince doesn’t quite fulfil what Katharine expects in a man, but she finds a warm welcome in England from his father King Henry and from the prince’s precocious, robust little brother Harry. And of course we all know what happens next: Arthur and Katharine’s wedding; the confusion over the consummation; and Katharine’s consequent status as a stranded political pawn, governed by international treaties more than the demands of her own heart. But by good fortune heart and politics can be joined, and she is wooed by the charming Harry, who is willing to challenge convention in order to have his heart’s desire.
Despite their affection for one another, and Katharine’s capabilities as a wife and regent, she fails in the new king Henry’s key criterion: producing a son. And so Henry once again sets out to challenge convention, this time in the most unthinkable of ways. Katharine finds herself at the heart of the greatest legal question of 16th-century Europe, whose resolution promises to have an effect that resonates far beyond her own happiness. For Katharine, it would be enough to resist quietly, so that she can be at peace with her soul – torn between her devotion to her faith and that to her husband – but not everyone agrees with her. Her fiery and indignant daughter Mary is all too conscious of her rights, and Katharine must exert all her diplomatic powers to prevent England returning to a state of bloody division. Having seen Katharine’s childhood, and the powerful women that surrounded her, it is easier to understand her insistence on Mary as an acceptable heir for Henry.
Katharine comes to life here in a way that I don’t feel she does in other, more modern treatments of the period. Most of the takes I’ve read on this story implicitly make Anne Boleyn the heroine, or at least the woman we want to prevail. We admire her determination and her gutsiness, and we know that from her liaison with Henry comes the golden age of Elizabeth, so she has something of that reflected glamour. Katharine is usually little more than an obstacle: a black clad, dignified but irrelevant old relic whose stubbornness complicates the plot. That’s why it was refreshing to me to see the queen take pride of place. By encompassing the whole sweep of her life, Lofts’s novel reminds us what an extraordinary childhood Katharine had: her mother Isabella, a fierce warrior-queen; her arrogant father Ferdinand and her emotionally fragile sister Joanna; and formative years divided between the hardships of army camps and the luxuries of the newly-conquered Alhambra.
So, the conclusion? This is a romance in the old-fashioned sense, of a sumptuously described novel that focuses on women’s experience rather than on battles and great dates. But it isn’t like the fevered, bed-bound Tudor romances that we’re used to now. Lofts’s novel was first published in 1969 and, ironically, feels so fresh and vibrant precisely because it presents the story in a different way from that which we’ve become used to in The Other Boleyn Girl or The Tudors.
I definitely enjoyed it. Lofts may not be quite as gritty or complex as the historical fiction that really excites me, but there’s a lot to be said for well-written, elegant novels like this. I see that she’s written a whole book about Katharine’s mother Isabella, as well as another novel about Anne Boleyn called The Concubine, which is presumably more sympathetic towards Anne and thus a more familiar angle on the story. I’d be interested to read it at some point, but I probably need a bit of breathing space before going back to the Tudors. I have The Lost Queen somewhere on my Kindle, so perhaps it’s time to dig that out and see how Lofts takes on the story of Christian of Denmark and his unfortunate wife Caroline Mathilde.