I have just finished reading The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory, a novel about Katherine of Aragon. It's a riveting read, but the most profound effect it has on me was to make me aware of my vast ignorance about Katherine and her story. I've clearly spent too much time reading The Wall Street Journal and detective fiction in the past few years, and not enough time studying history!
Like most of you (I imagine), I knew Katherine was Henry the 8th's first wife, and was divorced by him, causing Henry to break with the Pope. But I guess that's about it....If pressed, I could probably have told you she was from Spain (it's the Aragon part, duh....)
Admitting this kind of ignorance publicly is a risky undertaking, but in case you haven't read the book and don't plan on it, here are some cool historical facts (verified elsewhere than the novel by me, since I wanted to be sure!):
1. Katherine was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand (of Castile and Aragon respectively).
2. Katherine's mother Isabella famously funded Christopher Columbus' exploration of the New World--but that's all I knew about her. My opinion of her has been formed largely by paintings such as this one
in which Columbus is petitioning the court and Isabella lounges in her throne swaddled in satin and lace. It turns out she was a powerful co-regent with Ferdinand--marrying him at 18 without the permission of her family, and putting a place a pre-nup that allowed her to maintain and consolidate her power. Their joint motto was: "Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando" ("They amount to the same, Isabella and Ferdinand.")
3. Isabella and Ferdinand unfortunately also started the Inquisition in Spain--Torquemada was Isabella's confessor.
4. Katherine met Henry the 8th when he was 10 years old! She was betrothed to Henry's older brother Arthur shortly after her birth and traveled to England for the marriage at the age of 16. She and Arthur (who was a couple of months younger than she) were only married a few months before he died, and she eventually married Henry when he was 17 and she was 23. I have this vision of Henry as the fat, dissolute-looking monarch he was in the paintings done towards the end of his life, but apparently he was a tall, slim, and handsome young prince.