Madness and myth in the English court
Historian Julia Fox’s absorbing new dual biography of Katherine of Aragon and her sister Juana, Queen of Castile, gives fans of Showtime’s “The Tudors” an engrossing, star-crossed family history of Henry VIII’s first wife. Epic in scale, Fox’s Sister Queens shows how Katherine and Juana were groomed by their parents, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, for royal marriages and political intrigue.
Using ample primary sources, such as letters Katherine wrote to her father from England, Fox goes behind the scenes to reveal the sisters’ heartbreak and stoicism as they lived out the royal fates allotted to them. Katherine was originally sent from Spain to marry Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother, but when Arthur died suddenly after a few weeks of marriage, Katherine’s position in the English court—and Spain’s alliance with England—was thrown into question. Seven years of holding firm to her marginalized position finally won her betrothal to Henry VIII—but how much of a victory was it?
Juana’s life story is even more dramatic. Married to Duke Philip of Burgundy—“Philip the Handsome”—Juana became a duchess, with the promise of one day becoming the Holy Roman Empress. An initially passionate attachment to her husband lapsed into bitterness and estrangement due in part to his many affairs, but also due to her violent response to them (she physically attacked one of his mistresses). Known to history as “Juana the Mad,” she may have suffered from mental illness exacerbated by the political machinations of her husband, her father and, later, her son. After Philip’s untimely death, when she refused to be parted from his coffin, the legend of her madness was firmly established. By confining her to convents, both Ferdinand and her son Charles were able to usurp Juana’s political power after her ascension to the Spanish throne following her mother’s death.
Fox examines the myths surrounding Juana and Katherine in light of the historical record, and her biography of the sisters provides a balanced scholarly assessment of such legends as Juana’s attachment to Philip’s corpse. Sister Queens balances history and drama in telling a fascinating story about larger-than-life characters in a dramatic political climate.