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Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife by Patrick Williams

Posted By Claire on January 23, 2014

KatharineAmberley Publishing kindly sent me this book in the autumn and I finally had the chance to read it over Christmas. I was really looking forward to it as Katharine has been sorely neglected by historians in the past. A woman who was married to Henry VIII from 1509 to 1533 and who stood her ground over their marriage, and Henry’s plans for an annulment, deserves her life to be explored in-depth.

I’ve been struggling with writing a review for this book, though, and have come to the conclusion that the only way of reviewing it is to look at it from two different perspectives: the researcher/student and the general reader/Tudor history lover. What you think of this book will depend on your reason for purchasing it and reading it.

Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife is huge. The hardback runs to 459 pages, plus index, and pages 390 to 458 are chapter notes/references. You can tell just by leafing through it that it is written by an expert, an authority on the subject, so the reader is in very good hands. Patrick Williams is Emeritus Professor of Spanish History at the University of Portsmouth and has made extensive use of the Spanish records. I cannot knock the contents, the book is incredibly detailed and enlightening, and I particularly enjoyed the sections on Ferdinand and Isabella, and Williams’ research on whether Katharine’s marriage to Arthur Tudor was consummated. However, it is incredibly heavy going and I found myself skipping over entire sections and wanting to jump ahead to get to Katharine and her life, as opposed to what was going on in Europe and the political side of things.

As a text book for researchers, students, teachers, or anyone needing to know everything that was going on in Europe before Katharine was born and during her life, the book is invaluable. It gives you everything you need to know. I went through it marking pages for future reference, adding post-it notes etc. so that I can use it for my research. I know I will be regularly dipping into it and making use of the notes and bibliography, but I’m not sure that a casual reader who just wants to know about Katharine’s life will enjoy it. The way it is laid out is like a text book, in that it is not a flowing book but has lots of subtitles within chapters separating chunks which don’t really follow on. It does not read like a biography or story, more of an academic text book, which suits researchers/students, but does not suit a more general reader. It is easy to get bogged down in the immense detail.

Katharine of Aragon is very very different to Giles Tremlett’s book on Katharine, which I feel is accessible to all kinds of readers and which also examines the Spanish sources, or Julia Fox’s highly readable book on Katharine and her sister Juana. The old Garrett Mattingly one is also very good. I can’t say which book will suit you best.

I feel I have no right to be critical when I don’t have Williams’ expertise or education, and the book will be invaluable to many people, it’s just not a ‘mainstream’ history book and I would not want people to be disappointed after buying it. Its subtitle “The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife” makes it sound like it will give the information in a flowing story style, it doesn’t. At the end of the book I was definitely more knowledgeable about the state of Europe at the time, the wranglings over Henry’s Great Matter, the dispensation and issue of consummation etc. but I was left feeling that I still didn’t know the real Katharine.

If you are interested in this book, my advice would be:

  • If you have a Kindle then download the free sample first to see if the style suits you.
  • Use the “click to look inside” feature on Amazon to browse the contents and writing style.
  • Look at it in a bookshop.

Book Details

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 May 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1848683251
ISBN-13: 978-1848683259
Available as a Kindle book on – click here – or as a Kindle book or hardback at Amazon UK – click here.


One Response to “Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife by Patrick Williams”

  1. Lisa H says:

    Claire, you struck exactly the right note in this review. There are many things a reader needs to know about a book, but one of the major things is “Is this type of book I want to read?”

    Many readers will find this book hugely worthwhile, but it’s good to know up front whether this is a “keep on my research shelf” or a “curl up in bed with a cuppa” book.

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