Sister Queens by Julia Fox

Genre: Non Fiction
Time and place: 15th and 16th century Europe
First sentence:The snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada were clearly visible from the high, castellated red walls of the citadel as the slight figure of Boabdil, the last king of Granada, slipped out of its gates for the final time.
Verdict: Very interesting :)

They lived in a turbulent age. It was one of religious warfare, of heroism, of family honor, of vast wealth and grinding poverty, of suffering, of ambition, of romance, of beauty, of ideas, of Machiavellian intrigue.

The book narrates the intertwined biographies of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. They both left their native Spain pursuing politically advantageous marriages; later on each of them became queen in her own right. However, their lives have been anything but easy, and each of them was a broken woman when she died. What happened to the young, hopeful princesses of yore to bring them to such a state? This book has the answer.

General impression
I didn’t know all that much about Juana, but I find Katherine and Isabella‘s lives quite interesting in general, which is why I requested this book from NetGalley. I expected it to be a fiction book, perhaps a novel having as main characters the two queens, and I was a bit deflated upon noticing it was actually non-fiction. My disappointment did not last though, as the book turned out to be anything than dry. I ended up quite happy to have it this way, because at least in a non-fiction book I don’t have to spend time wondering which parts are true and which of them come straight from the author’s imagination.

I come from a country that formed in the 20th century (why yes, in this sense it’s younger than America :) ). Prior to that there were three principalities, each of them facing outward threats and with sometimes limited independence. We never had a ‘dynasty’ to rule for centuries, like Britain and Spain had, and still have. Which is perhaps why I find royal houses fascinating, and which is also why, while reading, I was utterly amazed to see how many documents (letter and the likes) are still extant from 500 years ago.

This is one of the things I have liked most about this book: the fact that the author tries hard not to impose on her own version of events, what she thinks might have happened. Instead, she offers the reader a glimpse at the writings of the people of the day; most often than not the accounts used are written by people that have witnessed the described events first hand. As for the two great mysteries of that time (Was Katherine’s marriage to Arthur actually consummated? Was the woman who entered history as Joanna the Mad really mad?), the author strives to explore both sides of each story, leaving the reader to form his/her own opinion after seeing the facts.

Politically, the Europe at the time felt very much like a chessboard: strategies being conceived all the time, alliances being formed and broken, wars being fought. The book does not dwell too much on that, yet it does something a bit more interesting: tries to acquaint us with the way people at the time thought, and what they found important. For example, I didn’t know religion was that important then — one of the ways Juana sometimes chooses to protest against her treatment is refusing to hear Mass, which scandalizes everyone who hears of it. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me — after all, these are the years when the Inquisition runs rampant — and yet it does.

Another thing I sort of knew but never stopped to consider was how unfortunate the royals of the time were, family-wise. Princesses were raised inoculated with the idea that their purpose in life is to marry as advantageously for their homeland as possible, and have a lot of children to ensure dynastic continuity. I found particularly touching the way that, whenever she sent one of her daughters abroad to be married, Isabella was aware that there is a high probability she will never see her estranged child again. If I remember correctly, Katherine and Juana have met one single time after Juana left Spain, and then for a few hours. Isabella never got to see Katherine at all after the wedding to Arthur, and neither did Ferdinand, Katherine’s father, although he lived over a decade more than Isabella did. Can you imagine not seeing your child or parent for decades?

Early in the beginning of the book the author paints a picture of Katherine and Juana’s parents: The Catholic Monarchs, who spent many years waging wars against the infidels. Isabella herself was tough as nails; I would have been disappointed to see her daughters turn out to be any different. The author seems to have read my thoughts, as the book points out time and again just how similar to their mother one of the other daughter was, and I liked that.

“Like her formidable mother, Katherine would not flinch from her duty. It is romantic nonsense to imagine her a patient Griselda, a saintly being quietly waiting for her husband to come to his senses while she stoically endured mental torment and anguish. It is also grossly to underestimate her. Katherine was brave, feisty, a ferocious and tenacious warrior for what she believed to be right.”

The part of the book dedicated to Juana is smaller than Katherine’s, which I am guessing is due to the fact that her daily life in Tordesillas was far less documented than Katherine’s. The fact that some of the accounts about her are contradictory — some claim she’s mad, some claim she’s sensible and sane — doesn’t particularly help form an opinion about her personality. I feel very sorry for her though — as the author puts it, “the crux of Juana’s predicament was that the two men who should have been her most devoted supporters were in fact her most deadly opponents. Both wanted what was by right hers“. Which is how she ended up confined within the Santa Clara convent in 1509, where she spent almost fifty years(!!) of her life, until her death in 1555. Poor thing, even if she was completely sane at first, it is a wonder she did not go completely bonkers by the end, especially considering that, although a queen, she had little to no control regarding what happened with her and around her. My mind draws a blank when I try to imagine what that must have felt.

What I liked most
The fact that it’s written almost like a fiction book :)
And let’s not forget the fact that as much as I could tell (which admittedly isn’t all that much) it was very well documented. A pleasure for me to read, on both counts.

What I did not like
I noticed that there’s usually a downside when it comes to well researched books: it is hard for an author to decide to keep stuff back, making at least parts of said books bogged down with too much detail. Luckily, for the most part this particular author has managed to avoid this temptation, however I must admit that there were times I could have done with less description of the ceremonies organized and of the clothing of people involved. Not that I hold it against the book — I bet there are people who will find those particular parts the most interesting ones — but those were the only parts I skimmed, while I devoured the rest.

Thoughts on the title
The full title (“Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives Of Katherine Of Aragon And Juana, Queen Of Castile“) is the very element that caught my attention and made me request this book. Enough said :)

Thoughts on the ending
After discussing Katherine and Juana’s deaths, the book goes on to give an idea about what happened in England and Spain in the next few decades. Its very ending mentioned the creation of the Spanish Armada, and its setting sail towards the British shore. Just like, decades before, some Spanish ships set sail towards England, carrying with them a young princess dreaming of a happy future. Quite a nice touch, and I loved it :)

Recommend it to?
Anyone curious about the lives of Catherine and/or Joanna. I found it a fast, captivating read, so if you’re interested in the topic I encourage you to pick it up. Oh, and it’s also shorter than it seems, I read it on a Kindle and it ended at about 80%, the rest being bibliographies and indexes and the likes.

Buy this from | Buy this from | Julia Fox’s website

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