Sister Queens: the Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox

Jun 23, 2012

I was so excited to see this book!  Sister Queens is a carefully researched, dual biography of two of Isabella and Ferdinand’s daughters - Katherine became a queen by marrying the heir to the English throne, later crowned Henry VIII, after the death of her 1st husband, Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur.  Juana became Queen of Spain by inheriting that crown from her mother, Isabella.  What correspondence lay hidden in archives in Spain and England?  What might these two Sister Queens have shared?   What comforts did they give each other as their lives began to go “off script”?

Isabella and Ferdinand planned that their dynasty would envelope Europe, surrounding the enemy France with monarchies bound by family loyalties and bloodlines.  Portugal, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, England…they had a daughter for every heir, plus a son to rule Spain.

Even before her death, Isabella knew these grand plans were dissolving.  Death claimed too many of the children.  But Katherine and Juana survived their mother, only to watch their fortunes shift from thrones to prisons. 

Writing a dual biography, uniting the better known story of Katherine of Aragon with the much less known, but in many ways much more tragic story of Juana was a wonderful idea, and  Fox’s insight and honesty as a researcher is great reading.  The only negative here is that sometimes the details are truly mind boggling.  The description of all the pageants performed to welcome and entertain Katherine upon her arrival in England - right down to the costumes! --was a test for me (I skipped over them, mostly), but a student of Tudor theater could hardly hope for better.  The detailed descriptions of clothing, London, pageants, and so forth, tended to distract from the story of two sisters and are heavily weighted to England and Katherine.  We have none of that detail for Juana in Flanders or Spain.  And regretfully, it seems the two sisters communicated with their parents, not with one another…or at least, no correspondence seems to have survived.  So, we are really left with Two Queens, one by marriage and one in her own right.  Both died as prisoners.

If this subject interests you, I would highly recommend a fictionalized, autobiographical account of Juana’s life by C. W. Gortner, The Last Queen, one of our bookclub’s favorite reads!  But for the actual story, Fox’s work is a very fine political history.  The dynastic dreams of their Catholic Majesties were realized 300 years later by Queen Victoria’s offspring.

Reviewed by Library Staff