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Book Report: Constant Princess

Book 6 in Philippa Gregory’s series is The Constant Princess, about Katherine of Aragorn, first wife of King Henry VIII, and takes place between Autumn of 1501 and Autumn of 1513 (barring a prologue and epilogue set years before and after each). Born Catalina, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Katherine is told from her birth that she is to be queen of England. The time and effort it takes for that to come about gives us the title of the book.

The Story

The journey is not easy. Katherine comes to England to marry King Henry VII’s eldest prince, Arthur, heir and beloved son. The marriage is rocky to start, with neither spouse enjoying the other, but an illness forces them to revisit their relationship and they fall in love. For several months, they spend each night with each other, sharing grandiose visions of what they shall do with England once they are monarchs. Those visions are cut short by Arthur’s death in 1502, after only five months of marriage.

On his deathbed, Arthur asks Katherine to promise to claim they did not consummate their marriage, allowing her to marry his younger brother Henry and rise to the throne for their grand designs. The marriage is promised early, but then Katherine spends years in exile, not allowed to be part of the English court, unable to go home. It takes the death of Henry VII to finally bring about the marriage and her installment as queen.

The Next Generation

With this book, the series has moved past the last of the Wars of the Roses queens and into the next generation of characters. Not only do we see the death of Henry VII, the last monarch of those wars, but we get to see the end of Margaret of Beaufort, the Red Queen.

Margaret Beaufort, as portrayed in this book series, struck so many of my character peeves that I looked forward to every slap in the face or minor setback she received from the characters since halfway through Red Queen. The mentality that any action she does, no matter how heinous, is okay because she’s God’s chosen, is so insulting and juvenile.  I enjoyed the snubs that Elizabeth of York gave in The White Princess, and I enjoyed watching Margaret’s decline and death in The Constant Princess. The decision Katherine makes to cut Margaret funeral plans to a more modest size is just the sort of deserved insult that Margaret would find infuriating, and as a reader I find completely deserving.

As the next generation of English nobles rise, we see that they’re going to be different from the generations we read through the Wars of the Roses with. These leaders are men who have not faced the constant warfare of the Wars, whose position is largely secured. As a result, they are arrogant and rude. Henry is a boy in a man’s position, enjoying life, while Katherine rules the country in his name. He views war as an adventure to advance his position; she views it as a way to advance their country and Christendom.

Knowing what I do about what’s coming next for England, I can see how it’s going to come about.

A Spanish View

Katherine’s Spanish origins come into play significantly during the story, not just in differences in leadership and ideology, but as a way of critiquing English (and in some ways Catholic) life of the period. Spain of Katherine’s time was a battleground for Christian versus Muslim rulers, so Katherine is much aware of Islamic learning –  mathematics, medicine, science –  and artwork. All of which, particularly the learning, is missing from English culture.

‘There is not a University in England that studies medicine,’ Katherine said bitterly. ‘There is not one that teaches languages. There is not one that teaches astronomy, or mathematics, geometry, geography, cosmography or even the study of animals, or plants. The universities of England are about as much use as a monetary full of monks coloring in the margins of sacred texts.’

The comments come into play as Katherine experiences worry over not conceiving a child, and finds no one able to provide even a mote of support. The problem is not confined to England; Katherine mentions how her mother would destroy Moorish universities and evict Islamic scholars under the direction of the Pope. Her spiritual desire to follow papal orders wars with her human desire to understand what, if anything, is wrong with her. The one learned doctor she meets – covertly – is an Islamic doctor who happened to be travelling through London. Even there, the arrogance and conceit of Katherine towards him is embarrassing to read.

As a history major, knowing what I do about the coming dominance of Europe over the rest of the world, it’s hard to understand this sort of reasoning. Willful ignorance makes no sense to me, yet here’s an entire civilization that revels in it. I shake my head at the wonder of it all.

Third vs. First

This book has a new style for the series, that jumps between First and Third person.

The majority of the book is done Third Person, and jumps to other characters who aren’t Katherine more often than previous books did. This allows the reader to experience the story that’s happening beyond Katherine’s eyes, almost a necessity since Katherine spends so much of the book in virtual exile.  

The sections done in First Person follow Katherine’s inner monologue, or describe events that are best seen from her perspective. Some of these are instances where she’s remembering home in Spain and what she misses about it. Others are moments dealing with extreme emotions and worries she can’t let the court see.

The changes can happen multiple times per chapter, giving us the events that Katherine is dealing with, and her internal monologue as she thinks and responds. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this particular mechanism used, but I’ve never tried it myself. Maybe I’ll give it a shot.

Conclusion

The Constant Princess is a book that leads itself to a lot of ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ questions aimed at the characters and the world they live in. I’d rate it pretty good; it’s not great, but the critique of English life from a foreign view point and the death of Margaret Beaufort both raise my appreciation for the book. We’re not yet halfway through the series as a whole, and the book stands as a transition from the Wars of the Roses to the Tudor era.  I expect to see a lot more of Katherine of Aragorn over the next few books.