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June 2, 2015

Just Read || The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

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A review of Philippa Gregory's 'A Constant Princess'

Elizabethan British history is one of my favourite escapist topics. For all my annoyance at the concept of royalty and my desperation that Emma doesn't turn out to love princesses, I enjoy reading about princesses, princes, queens, and kings all too much. Plus, my guilty pleasure is imagining their completely impractical yet exquisitely embroidered clothing.

Perhaps I enjoy historical fiction because, not only is it so unlike our own recent history, but the women are strong in ways women today can only imagine. Giving birth sans anaesthesia is just one example.

In 'The Constant Princess', Gregory has also managed to give so much depth to Queen Catherine - more depth than I've ever read about or seen about her before. I was a fan of the television show 'The Tudors' and Catherine is made out to be a failed queen, someone who was simply a means to an end for a spoiled and narcissistic man. She is not loved by Henry, nor by the court, which seems all too eager to allow their king to do as he pleases.

Gregory's book gives some heart and background to this popularised story, showing how it was that Catherine and Henry were forced together to give rise to one of the most infamous battles for the crown of the Queen of England.

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Queen Catherine was the feisty daughter of the Queen of Spain - a warrior queen who commanded on high with the belief that God had her back. Catherine's personality is a struggle for her - she is torn between her duty to God, her country, and her family and her own dreams and wishes. As a teenager she falls in love with her young husband, Arthur. The two make plans for a new England, modelled on the myth of King Arthur and Camelot where they would rule side by side. Their dreams are shattered when Arthur falls ill and dies not even a year into their marriage, and before she can become queen.

On his deathbed he makes Catherine promise a secret vow to marry his brother, Henry, so she can become Queen as she is meant to be. For years she is left in limbo as the king attempts to decide what to do with her, and we see her at her most vulnerable when she has no friends, no company, no money, and what looks to be no future, but where she also learns to live in adversity.

When King Henry the 7th dies, Catherine is shocked when Arthur's brother Henry proposes marriage to her on the basis of the lie that her marriage to his brother was not consummated. Gregory makes the relationship between the new King and Queen seem filled with love at first. We also see Catherine take England to victory against the Scots. Wikipedia says she dressed in full armour and was at the head of the army - but she was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a stillborn son. This may have gone a long way in losing Henry to her for good, and is something that isn't even mentioned in 'The Tudors'.

I'm not sure how much artistic licence Gregory took when writing this novel, but since we all know how Catherine's marriage to Henry ended, the story about Catherine and Arthur falling in love and consummating their marriage juxtaposed to what we know of historical accounts that Henry believed Catherine was not a virgin certainly explains why he was so quick to believe that their marriage was cursed when no son was born. Well, if we forget that Henry was quite the playboy of his day and that he always had his way...

Throughout the novel, we are reminded of the love that Catherine and Arthur shared. We are made to wonder if Catherine had followed the same path with Henry, had opened the lines of communication with him, had told him stories about Spain, whether Henry would actually have looked elsewhere. Had this fictional Catherine truly opened her heart to Henry, would he not have loved her more fully?

It is a sad story about a girl forced to be a woman and when given the chance to reclaim her youth at a young court with a young King rather forces herself to be the adult. Could this have been her downfall?

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The motifs of destiny and fate are also an important part of this novel. I always struggle with these concepts because they imply that one has no power over one's life. Catherine is adamant that it is her destiny to be queen of England - she was fated to be the Queen since she was promised to Arthur when they were babies. I know that times were very different back then, with women forming key points in political liaisons and not having much choice in anything, but there are many times that she could have changed her life by making a decision.

Many times she certainly did. She could never have given Arthur a look at who she truly was, which was one of the reasons he fell in love with her. She could have returned to Spain regardless of her parents' wishes in order to avoid the adversity she suffered awaiting a decision. She could have revealed her true self to Henry, possibly enticing him to truly love her. And I would argue that her choices went a long way in both making her Queen of England and in creating the downward spiral that she found herself in in later years. Had she not insisted on being the warrior queen she had always believed she would be, perhaps she would have given birth to a healthy son and Henry would not have turned away from her.

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As always, 'The Constant Princess' is rich and entertaining read for those who enjoy period pieces. Gregory's research and insight is enlightening and gives life and personality to a character that is largely neglected in the tellings of Elizabethan history in favour of Anne Boleyn and Henry's four other wives.

{Image credit: By Lucas Hornebolte [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Henry Nelson O'Neil (Historia n°767 - Novembre 2010 - page 49) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons}

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