“Women, especially princesses… were like soldiers, expendable.”
The sad victim of King Henry VIII’s “great matter,” Katharine of Aragon begins her marriage under the auspices of Rome’s affection. Her earlier marriage to Arthur, Henry’s deceased older brother, is ruled invalid, clearing the way for Henry to embark on a great political adventure, his every wish granted by a grateful country.
Raised at the side of her mother, Isabella of Spain, she of the great and troubling history of the Spanish Inquisition, Katharine of Aragon is bred to royalty, her betrothal to Arthur of England longstanding. Nearly as pious as her mother, Katharine eschews the religious life, desirous of marriage and family.
Patiently, Katharine awaits her turn as her sisters are sent away for favorable matches. The relationship with Arthur is short-lived and, in this novel, unquestionably chaste. Not to be outdone when a weary Henry VII finally expires, Henry VIII has long coveted the throne and his brother’s princess, only attainable after Arthur’s death. In this matter, Henry begins to exercise the iron will that will define his reign, resisting Henry VII’s importuning to cancel the wedding to Katharine before his father’s death.
Lofts spends considerable chapters addressing Katharine’s early years, the forces of childhood that form her solid, loyal personality. Not a beauty, Katharine has the necessary queenly attributes, her faith in God’s will implicit in every phase of her life. Helplessly in love with Henry, Katharine glories in the early days of her marriage in spite of the disappointment of lost pregnancies and dead babies with only one, Mary, to show for all her endeavors.
Indeed, Katharine’s lack of an heir ultimately leads to Henry’s great displeasure. He has not faulted her as a life partner, only in failing this one critical task. At this point, even Henry’s infidelities are subdued, the king never flaunting his indiscretions before his wife, cognizant of her tender feelings. The passage of time and his increasing disappointment leaves Henry vulnerable to the charms of Anne Boleyn.
What occurs is earth-shattering in the political and religious culture of the 16th century. Balanced between the Holy Roman Emperor and Louis in France, Henry is perched on a precipice: Rome will not submit to his will, Katharine will not consent to the nullification of their marriage vows, and the clever Anne Boleyn promises what Katharine cannot: another chance to alter the fate of his dynasty.
Complete with the memorable characters of the era - Cardinal Woolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranwell - religious rebellion in Germany and Rome’s truculence in Henry’s great matter, the break with Rome is a fait accompli. Katharine is set aside regardless of her lawful position and Rome reduced to insignificance as Henry breaks from the Church.
This is a large template but one the author navigates with clarity, weaving both Katharine and Henry’s complex emotions into an untenable situation. Henry, ever the king, determines his own fate, Katharine but the first casualty of his rampage against the restriction of his will. This is a compelling novel, one that is infused with the human foibles that lead man and wife into conflict on the stage of history.