Book Review: Sister Queens by Julia Fox

One woman as queen had several children. Her sister only gave birth to a living daughter. Both lived sad lives. Katherine of Aragon and her sister Joanna (Juana) found themselves at the mercy of others.

Julia Fox in Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile examines the lives of these two women. They were daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of Spain. As monarchs, they joined the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile to reign in Spain together. These powerful monarchs sought advantageous marriages for their daughters with the hope of gaining greater Spanish influence throughout Europe. Katherine and Joanna became pawns in the marriage game.

Joanna married Philip of Burgundy, ruler of what became the Netherlands. He would also become Holy Roman Emperor. No one thought Joanna would inherit her mother’s throne since she had an older brother and sister. Her marriage produced several children but could not be said to be a happy union. After the death of her brother, sister, and mother, Joanna found herself Queen of Castile. She and Philip traveled back to Spain with Philip planning on ruling Castile through his wife. Philip’s death left Joanna grief stricken and her father Ferdinand kept control of Castile. She went to live in a monastery where no one kept her informed of what was happening. The word went out that Joanna suffered from madness and could not be trusted to govern.

From then on, Joanna lived in seclusion until her death. She had little contact with the outside world and never ruled as Queen as should have been her right. Father, husband, and finally son kept hold on power never permitting Joanna to fulfill her role. Historians have debated for years as to her true mental state. Her family’s desire for power as well as the thought of a woman monarch left Joanna to live out a lonely existence.

Her better known sister, Katherine of Aragon, traveled to England to marry Prince Arthur, the son of Henry VII, to cement the Spanish-Anglo relationship. Arthur died soon after their marriage. For several years, Katherine waited to see if she would marry Prince Henry, younger brother of Arthur. After the death of Henry VII, Prince Henry who became Henry VIII married Katherine. She did not have any sons who survived infancy only a daughter who lived to be an adult. Her husband felt he had angered God by marrying his brother’s wife who could not bear sons and sought a divorce. Henry had also became enchanted by a lady in waiting, Anne Boleyn, and felt she could give him his desperately needed son. Katherine and the Church did not give in to Henry’s demands for a divorce. Henry broke with Rome, declared his marriage to Katherine invalid, and married Anne. Katherine, no longer welcome at court, spent her remaining days alone without her daughter for company until her death. Joanna and Katherine began their marriages with great hope of a bright future, but circumstances saw them at the end in lonely exile far away from their loved ones.

This book is a good summation of the lives of these two women. Daughters of famous parents, they had no real role except that of wife and mother to future monarchs. Those around them denied them their rights and both were at the end lonely and alone. I knew the story of Katherine, but her sister’s story is equally fraught with betrayal and deception. For a look at women in the fifteenth century and royal power, this is a good read for anyone interested in history and biography.

About the Author

Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.

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