Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sister Queens, by Julia Fox

If you live in the United States you might vaguely remember Ferdinand and Isabella as the monarchs who hired Christopher Columbus before he ''discovered'' the New World. However Ferdinand and Isabella had a much greater influence on European politics beyond sending an Italian who didn't know what the heck he was doing to murder some natives. Ferdinand and Isabella completed the centuries-long project of the reconquista and united the states of Castile and Aragon into modern Spain. And the marriages of their children would affect dynastic politics for generations to come. This book focuses on two of their children, Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, often known as Juana the Mad.

Katherine of Aragon was familiar to me because she was the first of Henry VIII of England's six wives. Katherine's depiction varies from source to source, especially depending on the religion of the writer, but she has understandably received considerable coverage in English history and literature. So a lot of the material in this book was a refresher for me. I think Fox did a very good job of portraying Katherine as a whole and complex person rather than a cardboard cut-out.

The biggest thing I learned from this book was about Katherine's older sister, Juana of Castile. Juana was the third of Ferdinand and Isabella's children and was never expected to inherit. However once their brother Juan and older sister Isabella died, Juana was left to inherit the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon after already being married to Philip, Archduke of Burgundy, of the influential Hapsburg family. When Isabella died before Ferdinand in 1504, this meant that potentially whoever could control Juana very likely would control Castile as well. This launched a fight between Ferdinand, Philip, and on Philip's death in 1506, his son Charles who would become Emperor Charles V. Eventually Ferdinand and Charles would both imprison Juana under claims of her insanity and Juana would spend the majority of her life imprisoned.

The story that is mostly used to justify the claims of Juana's insanity was a story relating to her husband's body, which Fox manages to explain really well within the context of dynastic and religious politics of the sixteenth century. Juana sought to have her husband buried in the Alhambra located in Granada, the final conquest of her parents in 1492, and importantly where Isabella herself had been buried. By burying her husband with her mother, the former Queen of Castile, Juana sought to cement her position as queen in her own right. However both her father Ferdinand and later her son Charles were able to turn the royal progress of her husband's body into the actions of a madwoman to legitimize  their own usurpation of her power.

The ultimate irony of course is that despite being held prisoner for most of her life, Juana eventually influenced all of Europe through her children. The Hapsburgs married into the royal families of Europe and the Austrian branch of the family would rule as Holy Roman Emperors and later Emperors of Austria-Hungary until 1918. And Fox argues that since Juana's actions always seemed to be for the good of her dynasty, she would perhaps be satisfied with the final outcome.

Overall I thought this book was a really good reexamination of at least Juana, who I really only knew the one story about her alleged craziness that's been perpetuated for centuries. Katherine it feels very familiar but on a much deeper level than some of the more general Tudor histories that I've read or listened to. I did appreciate Fox going into the details of Katherine's struggles with Henry VII, definitely one of the more avaricious Kings of England. I think this is well worth the time to check out and give you better understanding of the dynastic politics of the sixteenth century.

- Kalpar

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