A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, The Aragon Years
By Judith Arnopp
Publication Date: 25th February 2021
Publisher: Independently Published
Page Length: 343 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
‘A king must have sons: strong, healthy sons to rule after him.’
On the unexpected death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales his brother, Henry, becomes heir to the throne of England. The intensive education that follows offers Henry a model for future excellence; a model that he is doomed to fail.
On his accession, he chooses his brother’s widow, Caterina of Aragon, to be his queen. Together they plan to reinstate the glory of days of old and fill the royal nursery with boys.
But when their first-born son dies at just a few months old, and subsequent babies are born dead or perish in the womb, the king’s golden dreams are tarnished
Christendom mocks the virile prince. Caterina’s fertile years are ending yet all he has is one useless living daughter, and a baseborn son.
He needs a solution but stubborn to the end, Caterina refuses to step aside.
As their relationship founders his eye is caught by a woman newly arrived from the French court. Her name is Anne Boleyn.
A Matter of Conscience: The Aragon Years offers a unique first-person account of the ‘monster’ we love to hate and reveals a man on the edge; an amiable man made dangerous by his own impossible expectation.
“In the midst stood prince Henry, then nine years old, and having already something of royalty in his demeanour…”
So begins A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, The Aragon Years, and the quote sets the scene perfectly.
The year is 1502, and we meet Henry and his younger sister, Mary. They have evaded their nurse, feeling naughty. Two children who are close, who play games, and who enjoy being children. Until tragedy strikes…
When Henry’s older brother, Arthur, dies unexpectedly, the prince, who has been considered by his father merely as a safety net, becomes heir. We learn through his eyes how his father, Henry VII, the first Tudor king, deems him unworthy. Whatever Henry tries, he cannot gain his father’s approval. It is Henry VII who instils in the boy the task of his life: beget a male heir!
Prince Henry would gladly wed his brother’s widow, Catalina (Katharine of Aragon), but for years, she remains out of reach due to his father’s political games.
As we follow Henry in his besotted state, we see him grow into his teenage years. He becomes fitter and competitive. Unlike his serious father, Henry thrives on physical activity. He hates his lessons and would rather be outdoors, enjoying himself. This is a trait we observe in him throughout the novel, and I found it realistic.
Finally, following his father’s death in 1509, Henry marries Catalina, followed by their coronation. The early days prove blissful. Henry and Catalina – now referred to by him as ‘Kate’ as befits her role as Queen of England – enjoy each other’s company. Her mind and body appeal to him, despite the odd sharpness in her views. But he indulges her.
Soon, she falls pregnant, and with that, fate takes its course…
Henry’s insecurities grow at the same time as his ego, and he surrounds himself with young nobles who praise his every move. He is easily bored – a young man in his prime. So a large, pregnant wife does not make for the perfect bed mate. It marks the beginning of several affairs over the years that Kate is forced to endure. His reaction to Kate’s ‘nagging’ is wonderfully described.
But as children are either still born or dying young, Henry’s patience is wearing thin. And although he dotes on Mary, the daughter Kate gives him, she is still a girl. He becomes obsessed with his father’s decree: to beget a male heir who lives to become king. To secure the Tudor line. We follow Henry deeper into his obsession, and we feel his disappointment, his growing fear of failure.
I found the narrative particularly interesting following Kate’s win against the Scots at Flodden, following which she is hailed as the victor. All the while Henry languishes in France, trying to unseat the French king to claim the throne. Not permitted by his council to lead an army himself, much to his frustration, he is jealous of Kate’s success. This is when his petty jealousy emerges.
Between his failing political campaigns, Kate’s miscarriages, and the grossly expensive spectacle that was later called The Field of the Cloth of Gold – a lavish gathering between him and King Francis I of France in 1520 to sign a peace treaty – we see an even darker side of Henry emerging. He has turned more selfish. His hatred of Francis is palatable in every syllable. When he leaves to return to England, his head full of humiliation, Henry becomes volatile, short-tempered. I thought that scene in particular was remarkably well written.
“What has become of that fresh girl who first stirred my desire?
I see no resemblance to her in the lined, barren bitch beside me.”
Eventually, as is well known, Henry realises that his marriage to Kate must be annulled if he were to have a male heir. Knowing that he is able to sire a son – proof is his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroi, by his mistress, Bessie Blount – he knows he must remarry to fulfil his father’s order.
And so, Henry develops from being a sweet, if somewhat spoilt, young prince, to handsome champion and charming husband, to the self-absorbed man we now recognise him as. His highly inflated opinion of his own importance, above and beyond all other kings and even emperors and soon popes, is a result of a cold father who showed him no love, only duty, and who impresses on him the one thing that keeps evading him. It is also the result of fawning courtiers, and of having capable administrators, most notably Thomas Wolsey, who deal with the vast administrative side of kingship on his behalf, leaving him to enjoy his pastimes. And lasty, of his growing passion for Anne Boleyn, who refuses for years to become his mistress, and whose influence he is reluctant to rein in. Her opinion matters greatly in his decision of how to proceed.
In A Matter of Conscience, these points all lead Henry down a dark path, as he turns from endearing charmer to cruel husband to absolute monarch.
Ms Arnopp skilfully details the years from 1502 to 1530. Early on she shows his daring, the cheekiness of a young prince, the doting brother to Mary, the young teenager with a crush on his brother’s pretty Spanish wife. Certain in his mother’s love, he craves his father’s approval, yet never gains it. Throughout his life, deep down, anxieties remain, and he suffers. And to alleviate the pain he feels, he makes others suffer in turn. Ms Arnopp brings out these insecurities and makes us experience Henry’s innermost fears.
The author has clearly studied the period well. She brings to life the expectation that rested with all Tudor monarchs, aware of their precarious situation – the continuation of the royal bloodline. The changes Henry VIII brings to court, the fêtes, the dancing, the merry-making, are shown in a clear difference to how his father had ruled. I loved the way Henry was fed up when faced with daily administration, the way he relied on Wolsey to do everything for him. And how much, in contrast, he enjoyed jousting and hunting, his competitive nature pushing him to extremes at times. He had to be the first, the strongest, the best.
I found myself quickly drawn into Henry’s world, both amused and appalled by his behaviour and attitude. But those were dangerous times, at the start of a new dynasty, and Henry had one job: to continue that line. And to achieve that goal, he had to be ruthless.
A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, The Aragon Years is a highly immersive read. You are pulled into the world of the Tudors, a world of luxury and gaiety, of poetry and song, but also of over-indulgence, high expectation, and danger. Ms Arnopp has captured that world perfectly.
A highly recommended read!
Review by Cathie Dunn
The Coffee Pot Book Club.